Gaming in the Round: Lessons from the Dark City

A few years ago, I decided I wanted to try a different kind of role-playing game campaign: a medieval urban fantasy that combined traditional story telling with the sort of open-ended, sandbox-like openness of games like Grand Theft Auto.

The setting would be Obsidian Bay, the homegrown metropolis that my friends and I had spent the last seven years building and using as the base of operations for our Blackrazor Guild campaign. The city had expanded haphazardly to fit the needs of our campaign: new non-player characters arose when some new niche needed filling, or at the service of some ongoing story. Even so, while the city was home to most of the player characters, the lion’s share of adventures happened elsewhere, outside the city limits.

With this new campaign I wanted almost all of the action to take place within Obsidian Bay’s walls.  Players would take on the role of new arrivals to the city, seeing it with new eyes, knowing almost nothing of its history … and not knowing each other. There would be no convenient.

Carving a Round Table

One of the cardinal rules of gaming is “never split up the party.” There are two big (and often very good) reasons for this rule. In dungeons, splitting the party makes them less effective, and makes it easier for their enemies to pick them off.  In cities or role-playing intensive situations, the problem is more logistical than tactical: when the party splits up, one or two people can dominate the table, leaving everyone else bored out of their skulls.

Both have happened to me many times, both as a player and as a game master, and yet, with this campaign it was my primary goal was to split up the party as frequently as possible. In fact, when Dark City began, there was no party. There were a half-dozen strangers entering through four different gates, each with their own hopes, dreams and destinations.

Establishing the Rules

The key to dealing with the chaos was to structure it. I set up a system where each player would get 10-15 minutes of focused time to do their own thing, be it negotiating their way past the city gates, finding an inn, or seeking out a shop. As each player’s time was up, I’d pause the action and then move on to the next player. The pace was lightening quick, and depending on the number of players in attendance, everyone could get at least one, and possible two, actions in each hour.

Although I tried to move things along as quickly as possible, this plan still wouldn’t have worked if I didn’t have buy-in from my players. Everyone at the table understood what I was trying to do, and was enthusiastic about trying it. Moreover, once they had a chance to actually do it, they were even more excited. Unlike the normal group behavior of our traditional campaign, this campaign really allowed individuals to shine.

Moreover, it was enjoyable to watch. As we quickly moved around the table, a half-dozen stories were spawned, some funny, some challenging, all fun. In the first session alone we had an elven wizard trying to talk his way past a xenophobic city guardsman at the North Gate, a half-orc monk who was nearly killed by would-be thieves, and a halfling on the run from a neighboring city’s thieves guild struggling to find acceptance in a new adventuring guild … and in the process start a new messenger business.

As things progressed we saw the self-same half-orc monk rise to folk hero status, the elf negotiate away his living arm in exchange for a grafted, magical replacement and a small horde of magical items, and saw two of the group’s less savory members establish their own strongarm guild … and then have the self-same guild destroyed by a powerful rival.

It made for compelling role-playing.

As the campaign progressed, something like a traditional party began to congeal. The player characters slowly found each other, and by the third session they were undertaking their first traditional adventure, a foray in to the city’s sewers. But more often than not what happened was that like found like, and factions formed with in the group. So you’d have one good-intentioned group trying to help the poor of the Mudsitters District while the party’s aristocrat pursued his goal of joining practical joke society known as the Cartographers, while the group’s two toughs formed their own mercenary group.

The campaign eventually fell into a grove where we’d run two-three session “adventure” story arcs, followed by one or two open-ended, round-table style sessions.  This combination allowed players the opportunity to sell their newly-acquired treasures, research new spells, order customized swords and do all the things that adventurers normally do in a city. The difference was rather than just saying “ok, you buy your +1 sword”, we could role-play out all of those encounters and transactions. That gave rise to such memorable situations as Salazar trying to buy heavy armor etched with skulls and the elven wizard Corash bartering away his left hand for a construct replacement, a spell book, and two magical figurines

Map of Wondrous Power

A key aspect of what made what made the campaign work was an accidental innovation. For years we’d talked about creating a comprehensive map of the city, and for years I looked at Campaign Cartographer 2’s City Designer and shook my head in frustration. Fortunately, one of the guys in our campaign does an excellent job of hand-drawing maps, and took it upon himself to create a large Obsidian Bay map from my sketches.

We  blew up that map, printed it, and hung it on the wall during our campaign sessions.  Then, as we created a new business, explored a new side alley, or found some new sect, we’d mark it on the map. All of this would happen spontaneously during play — someone would say they wanted to find an alchemist, and then we’d quickly brainstorm what the name of the shop was, who ran it, and where it was located. The entry then went into my notes … and onto the map.

The map ended up being a physical representation of our collaborative world building efforts, and it was immensely satisfying for everyone to see the names and locations slowly added to the map.

A Thousand Stories in the Dark City

There are a thousand stories in the dark city, and while the game master doesn’t need to know all of them, it needs to feel like he does. To that end, I spent two weekends creating an Excel spreadsheet that mapped out about four months worth of events in Obsidian Bay.

Days were represented by columns, and events appeared as rows beneath those columns. Events were grouped by kind, with rows for weather, crime, business happenings, religious and secular holidays, and politics. A final row included my notes of what happened on that particular day during actual play.

It sounds like a lot of work, but it’s not. The weather was randomly generated using the Greyhawk weather tables from the ’83 boxed set. The various events and happenings were one- or two-line notes simply stating what happened, like “Brewfest approaching; price of beer rises as shops conserve stores for festival” or “Iron Masks of Hextor active again in Wharf District” or “Excitement building for Green Griffon Inn’s first annual avian monster races.”

The idea was that a “Gather Information” check would reveal a half-dozen things that were going on in the city, of which only one or two would directly connect to the story at hand. Players could choose to follow-up on any of these stories, and I’d improvise the encounter, or they could stick to their own agendas. The goal was not to exhaustively detail what was happening in the city, but to create the sense that it was alive, that you could walk into any shop and find some minor drama unfolding.

This approach was inspired by Grand Theft Auto, which is perhaps one of the greatest bait-and-switches every played on video game players. The game’s claim to fame is that it is an immense sandbox, a world where players can do anything they want. To a certain extent, that’s true — they can choose to go on crime sprees, fight crime as a vigilante cop, rescue people in ambulances and hell, even drive a taxi. But while they’re doing all this, the main story is still out there, and it’s just as linear as any other video game. Hell, it’s even more linear, because there isn’t even an attempt at branching storylines based on player actions or morality — you go from point A to point B to point C, and if you don’t like it … well though, that’s the story.

But the key to Grand Theft Auto and its clones is that it doesn’t feel like you’re being railroaded through the main story because the illusion of freedom is intact. At any time, you can abandon the main story to go take part in any of the dozen adventures that the city offers you. And with the city going about its business around you — complete with citizens muttering to themselves about the latest concert, cop cars screaming by on their way to some crime, or storm fronts rolling into town — your diversions feel organic.

Story’s End

Was the Dark City and its round-robin, open-ended style of play successful? I think so. The city of Obsidian Bay certainly came alive in a way that it never had before, with characters that were truly of the city.  The campaign was probably the most collaborative thing we’ve done since the campaign’s 2nd edition heydays, when our first-generation characters were busy building they’re myriad empires within the city.

My only regret is that I didn’t have the time I needed to keep the campaign running. Dark City was a more time-intensive campaign than a traditional campaign, particularly those open-ended sessions when I needed to have mini-adventures/mini-plots for each character ready to go. That forced me to give up the campaign when my son Luke was born, and my available free time declined even further.

That said, the idea of gaming in the round is not dead. Our gaming group is gearing up for a new superhero campaign using the Mutants & Masterminds rules and set in Green Ronin’s Freedom City campaign setting. The campaign is going to consist of a number of one-shot solo adventures as well as some short team story arcs, and I’m planning to run the campaign using the Dark City model.

This time around I’ll be making extensive use of pre-generated source material in the form of Freedom City locations and NPCs. While I’m sure that I’ll be creating a fair amount of my own content, the ability to refer to a book to figure out where the popular theatres are or where the university is located will make the whole campaign much more manageable.

The fact that my players are excited about the campaign and using the “gaming in the round” provides the ultimate evidence of how successful the Dark City campaign was.

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