Sunday, October 5, 2014

Introduction to some German Urban Fantasy Storybox set in the 90' (WitchCraft, a Campaign and how to feed a Brain)

So I'm finally back to DMing a game and we already have 3 sessions under our belt (session reports will follow the next few days). Although I miss playing D&D*, it was time to give another game some room at the table: C. J. Carella's WitchCraft. Here is an exclusive behind the scenes of my new campaign.

Preparation

In the beginning were the X-Files. The girlfriend had never seen any of it and i had never seen all of it and in order. So we started with season one (which is 20 years old now, by the way!) and loved it. It was the start for a healthy diet of TV-shows, movies and music that got me back in the mood for some Urban Fantasy. Here is what's what and why (a selection):

The X-Files: Gotta love that show. 20 years old and still some of the strongest TV you can get. The first 4 seasons are pure gold, in my book. You get a supernatural twist to almost every topic still in the news today (dangers of artificial intelligence, factory farming, genetic engineering, war, capitalism, media, you name it, they probably made an episode about it). That is scary because it means that nothing has really changed for the last 20 years (or we really believed it back then to be science fiction, to see now that they were right all along and I can't decide if that's even scarier). It's a strong theme and one of the reasons to put the campaign into the nineties. All those alien mythology shenanigans are just a bonus (and entertaining at that).

Also quite refreshing was the fact that they stayed true to the shows basic premise for as long as possible and that means, it's a "show about two FBI agents who investigate supernatural phenomena" and not a "show about two FBI agents who investigate supernatural phenomena and the stories of their past, their mothers past, their boyfriends erectile problems, social misadventures, blah blah, blah" like you see it in almost EVERY TV-show nowadays. I blame Buffy. Anyway. Doesn't happen here (that much).

Twin Peaks: There's no X-Files without Twin Peaks and we soon enough started (re-)watching it, too. It is a strange beast, to say the least. A small town with lots and lots of dirt behind closed doors, corny music, even more corny drama and some supernatural threat that stays in the background, humming like an angry wasp. Add some early nineties visuals, great humor, a lot of weird, all that with a great cast and you are in for a treat. And it was helmed by David Lynch, no less.

Great potential for a show and excellent execution, way ahead of it's time. Until they killed it by solving the mystery of Laura Palmer's death in the beginning of the second season. For the campaign I took the idea of a small town in the woods with lots of mystery and secrets in it. I'll also try to remember that strange unexplained events and an eerie atmosphere go a long way to make a memorable story.

American Horror Story: If you need an example how too much of a good thing might be a bad thing, American Horror Stories does the job. What you get is a serialized amalgamation of all horror tropes sorted by sub-genres (so far: haunted house in Season 1, a (religious) mental institution in the 60's in season 2 and a coven of witches in season 3, next up is a freak show ...). Mode of story-telling: if it could turn worse, it will turn worse. All the time. And it doesn't really work, as far as drama or effective story telling go. Lots of ideas to steal, though. And I love those opening sequences (link to youtube):



Cabin in the Woods: Great and fun story and an unusual view behind the curtains. Not alone that the movie's basic premise works great for one-shot horror adventures, it also reminded me that a strong mythology (like in the X-Files) is a must have for every attempt to create a serialized story (The Truth is out there!). Because, you know, it's where it all makes sense (even if it doesn't).

John dies at the End (movie and books): If H.P. Lovecraft had written his books in the 21st Century, something like this might have been the result (or, the other way around, if Pynchon had a love-child with Philip K. Dick and that had decided to channel H. P. Lovecraft ... you get my meaning). Strong basic theme, filled to the brim with great ideas (how to open a ghost door with a phantom hand, how you couldn't remember someone if he was annihilated out of time and space ... and how such an act will influence reality, even how to implement Quake 2 in your horror scenario ...). I can't recommend it high enough.

Arvo Pärt (music): A brilliant modern composer. Great inspirational themes. Check it out (link to youtube):


Ghosts I-IV (Nine Inch Nails): A model project in modern music publishing (public domain, creative commons, all that jazz) and a showcase what industrial music is capable of. Complex, creative and  at times quite haunting. Very inspiring. If you don't know it already, give it a shot (link to youtube):


Now I needed a game to emulate all those sources and inspirations into a campaign  ...

The System

I always had a weak spot for Vampire: the Masquerade, you know, the prototype of what one would call a "storyteller" role playing game today. We'd had some great times with the system, but in the end it had run it's course and we moved on. It wasn't until, I don't know, 2012 maybe, that I read somewhere about WitchCraft and that it's not only free but also that it's the game V:tM always had tried to be. Three sessions in I have to say: it doesn't disappoint.

WitchCraft is quite fast and flexible, so it allows for improvisation, while keeping the transgression between idea and system nice and smooth. The assumptions and underpinnings they set for the gaming world are (especially those about spirituality/the supernatural) in such a way that they work fine with almost everything you might throw at it (from Paranormal Activity, over Walking Dead, the X-Files or Planet Terror to Halloween and Cabin in the Woods, you name it). It's part of the Unisystem line of role playing games (famous for Conspiracy X, All Flesh Must Be Eaten and many others) and to my surprise, it totally works for an Urban Fantasy setting I had in mind (and for almost anything else, really).

I believe it to be superior to the World of Darkness books and rules and even if I were to play again in the Vampire universe, I'd use WitchCraft/Unisystem as the engine of choice, as all of the concepts are easily enough ported and the system is less flawed. Another plus is that WitchCraft reminds me of Cybepunk 2.0.2.0. and I love that game ...

Anyway, WitchCraft is not perfect, as story-driven games so often tend to be. The advice for DMs is mostly bad (like telling a DM to fudge die results to help the "story" or how to railroad players, all that bullshit) and although it has some NPCs, stories and examples, it lacks stats for the most basic creatures (needed a dog, couldn't find one, etc.). There are a lot of ideas and concepts I might have to import to make the game tick just right (random encounters/contents I miss the most). So about that ...

The Storybox

The Barking Alien came up with the term some time ago. For me, it makes a lot of sense. When a game has a heavy focus on simulating the environment (like D&D does), a sandbox is one way to use such an engine. But in a more story-driven game system, the sandbox approach will fall somewhat flat, because the characters have a very different connection to the game world.

To give but one example, it is quite easy in WitchCraft to create a filthy rich cocaine addict with a small army of undead to protect himself from some angry Colombian drug traffickers he crossed a few years ago. And that's a starting character, just to be clear. Those characters are have very deep roots from the very beginning, which is something D&D characters might get with time, but won't have (need?) with Level 1.

So instead of shifting the world politics, powers and hidden treasure a campaign consists of when building a sandbox, you shift the social surroundings, dark powers and hidden secrets the characters might connect to** when building a storybox. That's not to say that there isn't a huge overlapping area in between, but the focus shifts somewhat.

This the story-pieces I got so far:

  • We are in the year 1999 (07/07/1999, to be precise) to see it ain't that different from today. It's easy to google, to get information and pictures and whatever was news that day. Even the weather of a specific day in a specific area, if you want to. TV-programs, trends, advertisements. Easy to access, easy to twist, close enough to memory to remember and connect. The looming Millennium. So much more. 1999 is a very good year to start a campaign.
  • We are in a small town (pop. of ca. 35.000) called Dirkterwalde in East Germany, somewhere between the Spreewald and the German/polish border. So we have organized crime from beyond the border, a Sorban minority, a very weak economy and the infrastructure that goes with it (to name but 4).
  • The town has a castle and a historic district, linking it to the Dark Ages. If something like this can be preserved, some local traditions and folklore will continue to have strong roots in the population, too.
  • This being Germany, the town will have some history with the Third Reich, of course. It is quite the popular trope, of course, to have the Nazis dabble with the supernatural (and fail) and it has great potential for some seriously dark horror. I have some ideas already ...
  • It's located in the former German Democratic Republic (that had lasted until 1989), so there's a lot of history, too. In this campaign the Stasi was relentless in hunting, dissecting and destroying the supernatural. Dirkterwalde became a safe haven for many during that time.
  • For the supernatural I got room for every and all ideas I want to realize in an Urban Fantasy setting. I got Grimms' Fairy Tales, elements from the World of Darkness (mostly closer to what they quote, to be fair) and Cthulhu, some Dark Fantasy (the players already had a glimpse into a dark future where a dragon and some Zombies had roamed a destroyed version of Dirkterwalde ...). Some classic witch coven with all the politics that go with it. And the town itself is a mystery, the reason for the magic obscuring it's location lost in the Middle Ages. Layers and layers of mystery and enough opportunity to stumble across some of them, even to be part of some of them.
  • There are lots of interesting locations and scenes to connect to, like a disco, some theaters, bars, restaurants, the castle, museums, a stadium, a local newspaper, some punks, incompetent cops and whatever else I can come up with to put some life into this little town. 

Somewhere in there are the stories of the characters, connecting, dissolving, triggering their personal interpretation of what is happening around them with as much freedom as I could give them ...

Still a lot of work ...

Those thoughts, links and ideas are, of course, just the campaigns bare bones. And there's still a lot to do. But since we've had already 3 sessions and people keep coming back, I'm confident when I say that whatever I wanted to get done six weeks ago when we started, will get done in the near future :) On my to-do list are the following items:

  • A map of Dirkterwalde and surroundings (80 % done, but not finished).
  • Session reports 1, 2 & 3 (I want them finished before our next game, which would be in two weeks).
  • Re-reading Violence The RPG for it's urban random generation tables (wanted to write a review, since it is a very interesting game (and still free, so go and check it out ...) and I need to loot some of it's mechanics for our next game ....
  • Find a way to build NPCs fast, easy and random.
  • Reread Cyperpunk 2.0.2.0. to search and exploit possible connections.
  • Hunting down hard copies of those Unisystem-books ...

That's it so far. Now I should stop writing about it and start doing it! That and more work for the Goblintribe Simulator and something else I need to get written soon ...

* Main reason for this blog to exist is to come to a point where my own Frankenclone matures up to a point where I would be able to launch a major campaign. It's problematic ...
** I wrote about this a few weeks ago. For those interested enough in following my train of thought into that direction, feel free to read the whole story here.

2 comments:

  1. Cool. There's nothing so fun as building a campaign from scratch!

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    Replies
    1. I agree :) It's been quite some fun so far (although I'm far behind in what I wanted to have prepared already ...). People seem to be hooked, so there's more to come and more time to get things done.

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