Friday, October 16, 2009

The Pitch

I have probably been unduly influenced by reading too many screenwriting books, but I have a bit of a habit before I start a new game. I like to write up a pitch for it[1]. It's short, usually only 500-1000 words, with the idea that it can just go into an email. The idea is to sum up the tone and premise of the game and give the players enough to start chewing on character concepts, but there's a bit more to it. The act of writing it down in this fashion also helps me focus on the idea and see if I'm actually excited about it. There have been plenty of times when I've had an interesting seed, but in the act of writing it down I discover that I don't have anywhere I want to take it, and I'd much rather find that out before I start the game.

This comes up because I've been wanting to run a gritty fantasy game. I've been influenced in this thought by Richard Morgan's The Steel Remains, but also by a kind of nostalgia. My old Rolemaster games were pretty much pure urban grit, and I've been itching to get back to that. The other night I was finally struck by a solid premise that got around some of my concerns of the genre (specifically, I like giving characters a shared backstory, but that's usually much nicer than fantasy noir demands) but created an open enough framework for some straight-up sword and dagger goodness.[2]

The pitch is as follows:

When the hordes came out of the east, the Empire was unprepared. It had gone unchallenged for too long, and while its armies were vast, they were poorly led. What would have once been little more than a border skirmish turned into a full-fledged invasion that threatened the imperial capitol itself. The empire proved robust, and the shock powered its counter-attack, leading to a year-long stalemate on the eastern front. The warlord of of the horde sought to break the impasse with a daring move, leaving a fraction of his forces as a distraction in the east and leading the rest on a march across the deadlands.

There's no reason for the empire to have expected that. The lands of the north are called the deadlands for a reason - the things that wander it are old, and little is known of them except that they kill. The idea of leading an army across it was inspired madness - even if they succeeded in reaching the pass, the citadels that guarded it would hold them long enough for the things in the north to descend upon the invader. But if they could succeed, and strike through Tramontana pass, they would have a clear run at the exposed belly of the Empire.

The northernmost citadel was the Dragon's Head, also called the Shield of the North. It was manned with five thousand of the empires finest troops, veterans of numerous deadland incursions. Hard, hard men. The khan pulled the walls down around their ears within a week and pressed down the pass to the second fortress.

Waiting at the southern end of the pass was the Dragon's Tail, also known as the Ass of the North. It was populated by every soldier who had pissed someone off enough for the worst assignment in the Empire, as well as a handful of mercenaries, explorers and traders. When the horde arrived, the commander filled the southern gate with fire powder and withdrew with his bodyguard, making it clear that retreat was not an option. All in all, there were almost seven thousand people within the walls of the Dragon's Tail when the horde came. In a week, there were half that number. In another week, perhaps a thousand remained. By the end of the third week, when the things from the north fell upon the horde's rear flank and reinforcements were still a week out, a few hundred defenders remained. The things had reached the gate when the forces of the empire finally arrived to hold the fort, and there they found only a hundred defenders, tattered and bloody.

A proud and victorious (if somewhat by default) empire paraded these heroes back to the imperial capitol. There were 91 of them in all, but with the commander, his bodyguard, and the general of the reinforcing army it made a perfect 100, a number the sages and bards seized upon and called for celebration of the Golden Century, the hundred who had saved the empire. A hundred golden medals were hammered out, granted to these heroes along with other recognitions - including an audience with the emperor himself. They were the heroes of the empire, feasted and celebrated in every corner of the land.

That was then.

Seven years have past since the Dragon's Siege and the members of the Golden Century have found that heroism tarnishes faster than gold. Some leveraged their fame into position, at court or away. Others used the opportunity to pursue other goals, dreams of education or exploration. Still others have faded away, disappearing down the back alleys and wine shops of the empire. They are all history now, an unwelcome reminder of a time best forgotten.

Still, they know their own. Karl Mitterand was one of them, and his death has drawn out his compatriots for his funeral. Karl had been a soldier, and a drunk, and since the Dragon's Siege, he'd steadily become more one than the other. The ceremony is in two days, and apparently Karl sold his medal for drinking money. It's embarrassing, but there's no way in hell he's going into the ground without it.

Some questions for Chargen:
What were you before the battle?
What have you done since?
What have you done with your medal? (And what's your number?)

Now, I have some more ideas about the setting in my head. For example, I think the empire has a wild range of cultures within its boundaries, and I'm pretty sure the Heroes of Dragon pass were awarded lands, but they mostly got cheated out of them since they're under the oversight of either the reinforcing general or the citadel's commander (if he's a dick - he might not be) and thanks to some bureaucratic wrangling, he basically owns them. He's done pretty well by this whole hero gig, a point to hold in contrast to the actual heroes.

I could go on, almost indefinitely, but I am intentionally reigning that in[3]. I'll answer any questions players have, but this is a loose sketch that has just enough framework for the characters to fit in, and to allow the players to bring in details that appeal to them. That said, you'll notice the pitch makes it clear where the action will start - looking for Karl's medal. I'm all for open-endedness, but it's essential to have some direction to start with.

By accident, this also suggests a fairly practical model for scheduling purposes. I have a core of folks I intend to offer seats at the table, but there are many more people out there than there are chairs. The Golden Century is a great model for allowing guest characters, even recurring ones, by filling in some of the remaining numbers. Serendipity.

Anyway, with that out of the way, I need to see about scheduling and picking a system, both of which will require some work, but I'm good with that.

1 - I also tend to name the campaigns. This one is looking like "Golden Century"
2 - Curiously, I still haven't picked a system for this yet. Rolemaster would be perfect, but for the bookkeeping element. Burning Wheel has some merit, but the minigame is too transparent for what I'm looking for. So I'll chew on that for a bit.
3 - This is crazy hard for me, since I know what questions I want answered, and how I'd answer them, but I must be patient.


  1. I hate you.

    I also wonder how long it took one of the commander's bodyguards to get conflicted about glory he didn't earn, and service to a man like that, over the years.

    Yep. A whole lot of hate.

  2. What a great first-story MacGuffin Karl's medal is. That's terrific. The ancestry of The Steel Remains is clear to see in this, and that's just fine. I'd be curious to see more about this as it goes on.

    As you know if you read Gameplaywright, I do similar pitches and titles for my campaigns — right now is Northsea Saga, which is Lord of the Rings vs. Northlanders (via D&D). I tend to look at campaigns more like TV series, including some star-of-the-week techniques, which it seems like Golden Century could do well. You could do the medal of the "week" and tell 50 different tales of fallen heroes and aged soldiers, and you'd still have plenty of room for new and visiting players.

    It's just a wonderful campaign setup, is what it is.

  3. Sounds like fun, Rob.

    I notice no mention of 4e. I take it you've ruled it out. Curious as to why. Is the class/role system to restrictive for your premise? I.e., no chaos sorcerer members of the Golden Century.


  4. @eric Yeah, the bodyguards intrigue me. There is also the possibility that maybe one of them couldn't stomach the task and when back in to die alongside the defenders. Imagine his surprise when he didn't.

    @will Yah, I've been totally jammin on the Northsea stuff that you've put up. For the moment I;m keeping some flexibility on whether this will be more TV, movie or camic-book in general approach, since that way I can roll with scheduling. If it turns out that scheduling is a hassle, then the emphasis will be much more on the rotating cast. (and thanks!)

    @justin Curiously, I haven't actually ruled out 4e, though I have ruled out 4e as written. It's too heroic. BUT I have a gritty, skill based, gridless mod growing my head that is on the table. More than anything, I think it will depend on the color the players want - if they want D&D color (races, classes, and stuff) then I may yet go with an extreme 4e Mod.

    -Rob D.

  5. Is it actually going to be Rolemaster?

    I have fond memories of that game - and especially the critical charts - but the thought of going near the stats or sheet or anything like that alarms me.

  6. @deborah No, as much as I love the crit tables, the flipping through charts is just too much to deal with. But I have the feel of that sort of play in mind as I think about system.

    -Rob D.

  7. So I'm going to be fighting to get change back from my silver bit that I gave to my party member to go buy a bucket...?!

    ... *awesome*.

  8. @deborah What's funny is that some folks who weren't in that game might read that and think you were being sarcastic.

    -Rob D.

  9. Man, those last 91 survivors would have seen awful things. I'd almost want one of the chargen questions to be about what nightmares do they have from surviving the siege and seeing thousands die while they lived.

  10. Oh! Oh no - I'm very sorry; I didn't mean to come off that way at all. I *loved* that scene. It summed up for me how incredibly barebones grit that campaign was. Everything mattered; we had no epic anything to take for granted. We literally fought over the copper change from a silver bit. It was that noir and non-fuzzy. I *loved* it.

  11. Totally torn as to whether I want to play the kid who grew up too fast (with a knife in hand) or the commander who made the choice that killed thousands, but enabled 91 people to be heroes, and saved the empire.

    I had an odd little thoughtlet as I was reading the comments. Sure, you don't use Rolemaster, but there's this thought where I'm like "what if you DID bust out a crit table when someone used a particular special move power?"

    Kitbashing is way too much fun to contemplate sometimes.

  12. @judd I am slowly working up a list of questions like that which I probably won't ask everyone, but which I keep on hand to draw from when someone gets jammed up in creation. The dream one is totally going onto that list.

  13. @fred *whistles innocently and absolutely wasn't planning on keeping a few crit tables among the GM notes, just in case, nope nope*

  14. @deborah "Everything Mattered" is probably my favorite description of that game ever.

  15. Why not FATE?

    I could well imagine a damage meter that measured their reputation as actual heroes, a mechanical measure of how tarnished their reputations are.

    When your Hero Damage Meter is Taken Out, the survivor's guilt and hypocrisy of it all is just too much and you commit some form of suicide.

    Plus, cool FATE-related siege rules...because you know they are going to get caught in ANOTHER siege, right? Oh yeah...

  16. @judd FATE is absolutely on the table.

    I was thinking a bit about that in terms of a mechanical representation of your word and what it's worth, something that starts high but is easy to degrade and hard to restore. Where it makes an interesting contrast is that it's something of an -external- measure, since it's not about how much you value your word, but how much others do. I have a bias towards mechanizing external manifestations because those interface directly with play, but it's a fruitful, fuzzy space.

    -Rob D.

  17. Rob, are you saying you have a bias against modeling those things mechanically or a bias in favor of modeling those things mechanically?

  18. To clarify, When modeling such things, I prefer modeling them in terms of external elements rather than internal elements. Players can do internal struggle more effectively than the system, but externalizing it gives it teeth and meaning.

    As an example, the nWoD morality systems (warts and all) are all defined by actions, with intentions only having very small bearing. That is a lot more practical and usable than trying to map the character's internal landscape in any meaningful way.

    So, "external" is a bit fuzzy - it can just as easily mean "actions in the world" as it can "other people" but that's where I like to go.

    -Rob D.

  19. Why is it that I live so far away. Damnit!

    "Seven years have past since the Dragon's Siege and the members of the Golden Century have found that heroism tarnishes faster than gold."

    I love that statement. My train of thought literally went "Wait, Gold Doesn't Tarn- oooooh" The idea that even the best of them will tarnish before the gold is wonderful!

  20. I also see one of the 100 who has cut slivers out of his or her medallion, like they did from old coins to "Make change".


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