Sunday, 29 January 2017

Campaign Design Vampire Style, Part One (Night's Black Agents)

When I first started this conversation many moons ago, I began with a discussion about campaign ideas for Bookhounds of London. From initial thoughts I went on to early chapters, the arc and the structure. Later when I became interested in Night's Black Agents I discussed Nodes, and in a separate piece went over what makes a good Villain.

Why tell you all this? Because it's time to tackle campaign creation for Night's Black Agents, and see what happens when you add vampires to the mix.

To begin with we go back to those two core principles: power, and goals. The antagonists need both to be effective.

Power is, for once, the lesser of those two points since the nature of the setting determines power: it has to be overwhelming, whatever it is. By the very nature of the premise the characters are on the run, trying to stay one step ahead of their enemies while trying to piece together their enemies' schemes. You don't do that unless your foes have access to overwhelming power. If your opposition are just a bunch of weaklings you don't run, you stand and fight. If your enemies can be countered by telling the authorities then you don't run, you tell the authorities. So establishing what kind of power we're dealing with isn't that important; we know how bad it is, and that's enough for now.

Goals are going to be determined by setting and by the nature of the opposition. The opposition are vampires, and the setting is espionage thriller.

'Espionage thriller' covers a lot of ground. The Bourne Identity is an espionage thriller, as is Three Days of the Condor and North By Northwest and Munich and Doctor No. But each delivers very different thrills, different narratives, which is why Night's Black Agents has several different styles of play: Burn, Dust, Mirror, Stakes. Intense psychological damage, gritty low-fi settings, betrayals piled on betrayals, high-stakes 'the world depends on you' stuff; you can cherry-pick to suit the kind of thriller you want to create.

The kind of vampire you pick will determine what happens next.

The default is the bloodsucker who sleeps in a coffin all day, emerges at night, dislikes garlic pizza, has a problem with mirrors, the whole bit. However the system offers several alternatives: Supernatural, Damned, Alien, and Mutant.

Supernaturals are the magical kind of vampire, dependent on folkloric tropes. Damned share some similarities with Supernaturals, but draw their inspiration from demonic activity. Aliens are the paraphysicals, replete with psychic powers or flitting between dimensions. Mutants are earthly entities created by some freak of biology or scientific development.

You may be familiar with the term opportunity cost: the price of passing up the next best choice. It applies in most games, but never more so than here.

Take the supernatural crew as described in the main book. One of the entities is the Strix, shape-changing monsters whose origin story goes back to the Romans. If you opt for an Alien vampire story in which, say, the first vampires appear after an Andromeda Strain incident that takes place in Russia during the 1960s, mixing in a supernatural trope like Strix muddies the waters. If you have Strix at all, you'd need some kind of changed origin story at the very least, but it would be simpler to do without it altogether.

Conversely if we go for, say, a Damned origin story then science and its narrative tropes are, at best, reduced in scope. You can still have secret laboratories studying the vampire issue, but they're never going to get anywhere because they're looking for a scientific solution to a spiritual problem. It's like using a magnet to hunt for rats.

So going back to the original problem: if we are to work out the Goals of the conspiracy our spies will fight against, we need to know what kind of opposition they'll be dealing with. From there we can work out the kind of narrative we'll be telling, and tailor the campaign accordingly.

For this example let's say we shoot for Mutants. What kind? 'Their markers are medical symptoms; their emphasis is infection.' OK, so what symptoms are we shooting for?

Well we have the whole wide world to choose from. I rather fancy the old story about the medical herb Silphium, which the Romans used as, among other things, a contraceptive. It became so popular that overuse made it extinct. I've also been binging on a fun Chinese TV show, A Candle In The Tomb, about tomb robbers in 1980s China. So, using those two seeds as a starting point:

Vampirism first arose in antiquity as a byproduct of use of a medicinal herb, which for the moment I'm going to call the McGuffin, because why not. I can come up with a better name for it later, but this is early days. One in a hundred imbibers had the genetic marker that, in combination with over-use of the herb, turned them into Mutant Vampires. The McGuffin became extinct in the pre-Christian era, and as a consequence no more true Vampires could be created; infection can create ferals and mindless killing machines, but not true Mutants.

I like the idea of using Hive Mind powers for these bloodsuckers; it feels more Mutant, somehow. So here we have a core batch of perhaps a few hundred ancient Mutants and a swarm of lesser creations and Renfields, who've spent the last few hundred years since the Reformation trying to find a scientific means of passing on true Mutant status.

Then in the 1980s reckless tomb robbers in China uncovered a handful of seeds and a batch of Jin-Gui, a Mutant strain that remained dormant for centuries. This Mutant strain is also Hive Mind, but a completely different batch from the European variety. Like its counterpart the Jin-Gui Mutant strain can't create true Mutants, but unlike the Europeans this batch has access to the herb. What it needs is peace and quiet to cultivate it, and it's had a rough time finding a good spot. Driven from China, then Singapore, the Jin-Gui bounced from pillar to post during the 1990s before coming to Europe with the Triads, only to find itself suddenly in competition with its long-lost European counterpart.

There's only so much McGuffin to go around, and both sides want it. The Europeans see it as the key to their genetic future; this Mutant strain has the technological background to reverse engineer a new batch, if it can only get hold of an original sample. Meanwhile the much smaller Jin-Gui strain has neither the technical background nor the numbers to really take advantage of what it has, but it has the herb.

So there's the Goal. The opportunity cost of going Mutant means ghosts and other supernatural tropes are off the menu, but on the other hand scientific horrors are very much on the menu. Already I can see several ways forward, probably involving agribusiness, dangerous human experimentation, Chinese spies, smuggled antiquities, and subverted human catspaws carrying out an inhuman agenda. That's more than enough to be getting on with.

Tune in next week when Power plus Goal equals initial Conspyramid structure!



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