Sunday, 12 February 2017

Campaign Design Vampire Style 3: Initial Arc & Pyramid (Night's Black Agents)

We've talked about power and goals as well as things the Keeper needs to know before plotting the campaign. Now we're at the point where we can start talking about the first arc and the Conspyramid that the characters will spend their - probably short - lives trying to dismantle. What happens next?

Going back to core principles, we need the opening act to be true to the overall mood. Now we know what that mood is: a slightly downbeat, gritty style of play in which the characters will be engaged in lots of infiltration, hacking, possibly assassination, probably theft, high-speed chases and a relatively small amount of combat.

Munich's a good example of this kind of film, as is Forsythe's Day of the Jackal or The Boys from Brazil. In fact Boys may be a better example than most, since despite its sci-fi conceit the plot ultimately revolves around a series of assassinations, with the protagonist having to work out why all this killing's necessary.

The next question that's going to be on the Director's mind is, how detailed does the Conspyramid need to be at this stage? After all, designing the vampire conspiracy is a large part of the central conceit of the campaign. Surely the Director needs to know what the conspiracy has at its disposal?

Well, yes and no. The Director needs to know who or what is at the top of the pyramid, giving all the orders. The Director also needs to know, in detail, what the agents will initially be dealing with. In order for this to happen the Director needs to have a firm idea of what's at the entry-level Conspyramid point, whichever point that happens to be.

To give an example: if the Director intends that the agents will first encounter a power at the Provincial level (3 on the Pyramid scale) then the Director needs to fully flesh out that power. What the Director does not necessarily need to do is fully flesh out the levels below that power or above it.

It would be handy to have a basic idea what those powers are, of course. The Director doesn't want to be in the unenviable position of handwaving everything and then furiously writing backstory between sessions.

But there is a degree of player freedom in Nights that we don't see in, say, Bookhounds. The agents are encouraged to take responsibility for their own thrills, remember. Be bold and seize the initiative say the Bucharest Rules in the main book.  Pick the most awesome alternative say the Cartagena Rules in Double Tap. Keep moving forward. Hack the exposition. Do something unexpected. Repeated again and again, like a mantra, is the tag line thrills are everybody's business.

In improv this is the 'yes, and' principle. Not rule; in improv there are no rules. The point being that when an actor in a scene throws out a potential line of action - 'how could you sleep with my wife!' - the response should never be 'but I didn't do that!' It should always accept the premise and work with it. 'I couldn't help it, I was drunk,' or 'I've loved her for years, it was a moment of weakness,' or even 'she loves it when I put on the clown costume' are acceptable responses. No never is.

So in a given scene if the agents fall foul of, say, the cops in Dubai and one of the agents suspects vampire involvement, that's not a moment the Director wants to squash. Instead that's the time to get the Renfielded Police Special Unit involved. Which creates a new Node that you will have to work into the pyramid somehow, or adds a layer of complication to an existing Node that you will have to integrate into the ongoing plot.

For that reason while the Director ought to have a basic idea of the pyramid structure it's always handy to leave a few connections vague, or even blank. Then you can fit things into the plot as and when required.

Incidentally if your response as Director is 'but that seems implausible; surely I need to know everything before the game starts,' I pose this question: just how plausible is the Bourne series, really? There are fifteen novels so far, only three of which were written by Ludlum, and that's before you consider the films. If you were to try to untangle that unholy mess you'd go stark staring mad

If plausibility was a benchmark nobody'd write spy fiction ever again. This is one of the main differences between spy fiction and mystery fiction: where in a whodunit the readers always want there to be a good solution to the puzzle, and get bent out of shape if you fudge things with the detective's unaccountable intuition or mysterious twins that weren't mentioned until the final chapter, in spy fiction you can get away with the implausible so long as it looks good on paper.

Bond himself has stolen pirate gold from a Caribbean dictator and crime lord, and foiled a raid on Fort Knox orchestrated by every single American crime syndicate plus veterans of the Red Ball Express, in the novels. In the movies he's done everything from space travel to kinky sex in a submarine. Does any of this sound plausible to you?   

So to go back to last week, we have four agents looking for an insert point. The insert point is a Node on the Pyramid. I'm not going to go over old ground, as I've discussed Nodes before. For a brief recap, all you need to remember is:

[a] Node should be treated no differently from a Villain, for the purposes of campaign design. A Node should have power to affect the plot. A Node has things it wants, things it's in charge of, things it's prepared to kill for. A Node has personality, and it's up to the Director what that personality ought to be.

I'm going to opt for a Level 3 Node insertion point, and use Bankhaus Klingemann, of Bonn, as the Node in question. I'm going to use Paris as a backdrop and plan for most of the initial action taking place there. Conspiracy asset Albert Ahrens controls the Paris branch of the Bankhaus, and we'll say for the sake of this discussion that I've designed the Paris branch thoroughly, including potential Antagonist Reactions and set-pieces. I already know that I have a hacker, two infiltration experts and a Wire Rat in the team, so I've given thought as to the potential Thrilling Scenes involving hacking, infiltration and probable reaction to those actions, from the authorities as well as the Conspiracy.

I'll say that the main scenes take place at a development conference, patterned after the dotSecurity conference. One of the attendees is Eric Klingemann, Lisle's family rival. I already know that Lisle wants to ease Eric out of the family business, because Eric has blackmail material on her. I also know, thanks to the overarching meta-plot, that there's a rivalry between the Conspiracy that Lisle sold her soul to, the European Mutant Vampires, and their Chinese rivals.

So here's the basic bones:

Lisle hires the agents, through a cut-out, to infiltrate the conference and steal vital data from her brother's heavily encrypted and protected personal computer. She knows that her bosses wouldn't approve of her taking out Eric because that draws too much attention to Bankhaus Klingemann, but she needs Eric out of the way and that Need is stronger than her Need to keep the vampires happy. She intends to murder Eric and make it look like the agents did it. She also intends to make it look as if the agents are in league with the Chinese mutant vampires. That way her bosses will think this was all part of the meta-plot, not a private quarrel between siblings.

Albert has a kill team on standby to finish the agents off as soon as Eric's out of the way. The intent is to have the agents plus a couple of Chinese Renfields all get killed by Albert's people, to make it look like the agents were caught with their Chinese paymasters by Albert's heroic countermeasures. Thus Bankhaus Klingemann's dynamic duo get what they want and keep their own hands seemingly clean.

From this point there could be all kinds of future developments. The Chinese mutant vampires, suitably outraged, might go after the agents next, only to attempt to recruit them as soon as they realize the agents were just patsies. The agents may go after Albert, and find all kinds of peculiar things in his Lisle-a-like dungeon. Or the agents may end up in Bonn, trying to plumb the depths of the Bankhaus Klingemann Node. From there they may discover that Bankhaus Klingemann's been funding some peculiar research laboratories all over Europe, working on some mysterious plant hybrid.

From there ... but you get the idea.

Enough! Next week, something completely different.

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