Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Sertorius: Campaign Developments and Power Levels

One of our goals when developing the Sertorius setting and system was for the game to work for a wide range of adventure styles. We didn’t want the game focused on a narrow purpose, because our own adventures tend to crawl over the map, ranging from political intrigue to dungeon crawls. In the coming weeks, I will explore how Sertorius works for a variety of campaign styles and include discussion of mechanics and setting information. But right now I want to focus mostly on political adventures since the nature of Sertori creates opportunities and pitfalls that don’t always exist in other games.

Because the characters have access to magic, something as simple as casting a spell can lead to unexpected changes in direction. They also afford the players opportunity to impact the setting. It isn’t far-fetched for players who choose their spells wisely to end up taking over a city or dethroning a king, for example.
Sertori (spell casters) are powerful in Gamandria. As they gain experience and grow a following, their power only increases. With the right spells, characters can drastically shift the setting and campaign focus  if they put their mind to it. Our initial response to this was to dampen spell effects and place greater limits on their effectiveness. But over time we realized the more you do that, the more you risk losing the spark that makes magic so special. So we focused more on adapting to developments arising from spell use.
While playtesting Sertorius, we noticed the game works best when the GM remains adaptable to campaign developments. And I think the word developments is crucial here. It ties in with how I’ve always run games like Crime Network: as characters make choices, this potentially shifts the direction of the campaign. With Sertorius, adhering to that play philosophy has been what makes our own games successful. We found that the less you worry about campaign arcs and the more you focus on campaign developments, the more you’ll enjoy Sertorius.
What’s the difference? A campaign arc would be having a beginning and final destination in mind when you establish your campaign. Not necessary a railroad, but just a sense of where things will go. Development is more about taking things on a case by case basis, not worrying where they are going in the end, instead placing your focus on where the campaign is, what just happened and how that may have changed things. The GM may have anticipated the players would arrive in Talyr and answer King Tauq’s request to help him solve a great mystery in the city.  Instead the characters use Captivation to lead King Tauq to a place where his guards can’t protect him, then kill him by casting Avalanche of Flame, Splintering of Yaum and Bolt of Fury then take over Talyr. Yes that disrupts the GM’s initial premise, and on first glance appears to stop the campaign in its tracks, but it is also genuinely interesting and logically leads to a number of new developments.  A GM might be tempted to resist the perfectly legitimate use of Captivation, because he wants to protect Tauq and his plot, but there is no need.  By killing King Tauq the party made your job as GM easier, because you have a whole premise for a campaign right there. That can lead to months and months of exciting sessions.
The important thing is to remember there are always greater threats out there. The party that takes Tauq’s crown and establishes a new rule, now contends with the challenges of running a city as others seek to undermine their position or thwart their authority. And the presence of other groups of Sertori in the setting, who may also be eager to govern Talyr, complicates things further.

This applies to other adventure structures as well. The key is Sertori have the potential to “break the scenery” to smash through physical, social and political barriers in ways other people in the setting cannot. So the GM either needs to account for this in his designs, or as we press for here, adapt and not resist legitimately won victories or developments.
In one of our playtests, the characters went back in time to change the present. It required access to a rare power in the game, but once obtained, the GM had to adjust accordingly. In that particular case it led to an even more interesting campaign.
Next week: Followers in Sertorius

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