Sunday, July 25, 2010

Campaign Notes : The Making of a Time Lady

The Single Player Option

Right from the start I had decided to make the campaign a one-on-one series, for multiple reasons. As a GM, I already had some solid experience with this form of play, having used it extensively for entire campaigns as well as for occasional “solo adventures” in multiplayer campaigns. It also had the advantage of saving you all the trouble of organizing playing sessions for a group – you know, finding the right date for everybody and such – which can sometimes be quite difficult, especially with older gamers, who tend to have busier or more complicated real-life schedules than they had in their previous lives as students / fulltime gamers. If you are lucky enough to have a small circle of dedicated gaming friends (as is my case), these difficulties can always be overcome – but since I am already dealing with such “organizational challenges” for my episodic multiplayer Amber Diceless campaign and I wanted my DWAITAS campaign to advance at a fairly rapid pace, going for one-and-one play really seemed the best option.

The single-player format also suited the concept I had in mind perfectly – the “making of a Time Lady”; the heroine would be a post-Time War “lost child of Gallifrey”, whose odyssey through space ad time would also be a voyage of self-discovery. She would have the same kind of adventures as the Doctor – but with a very different perspective, since she would not have the Doctor’s centuries of experience and all-encompassing knowledge. On a more practical level, this approach also provides a quick solution to the old “everybody wants to play the Timelord ” problem.

A Bit of Subterfuge

I also wanted the character to discover her true heritage during the first episode of the game (actually a two-parter) - to start the campaign with a bang and create a sense of wonder right from the beginning. I also felt that the whole ‘self-discovery’ theme would work far better if it was introduced in play, as a call of fate rather than as a de facto motivation.

But in order to really surprise the player, I had to engineer things carefully, to avoid making the coming revelation a bit too predictable (which would have spoilt the whole thing). If you tell an experienced player something like : “Well, this is a one-on-one DW campaign, but I’d like you to play a completely ordinary character, with nothing special, really”, there are fairly good odds that she will be able to interpret the message as : “I am trying to trick you into believing that your character must be Jane Average and the only reason I could want to do this is that you will discover in play that she is, in fact, very special – and since this is a one-on-one DWAITAS campaign, well, there aren’t that many possibilities…”

What I needed here was a character concept which would make the character look like a proper human heroine for DWAITAS adventures right from character creation, in order to ensure real, genuine surprise when the whole Time Lord heritage theme would come into play. In other words, I needed the character-creation equivalent of an alibi.

Enter Lady Penelope

I told Sylvie to think about a character concept for a modern-day British heroine she would like to play – and she came up with Lady Penelope Ashworth, a rich (and slightly bored) dilettante aristocrat with some (very) basic training in adventuring skills – a sort of novice Emma Peel, if you will.

We discussed the character’s background and decided that she was the daughter of a famous Torchwood agent – Lord Percivale Ashworth, a John Steed-like character, now deceased – and that she had, during her adolescence, received some basic training as a future agent but had eventually decided not to follow in her father’s footsteps in order to lead the life of an idle rich heiress rather than having to cope with assignments, regulations, hierarchy and other dreadful aspects of life as a Torchwood operatives.

Nevertheless, as the daughter of one of their best agents, she was still within what we might call Torchwood’s network of friendlies – especially since her father’s best friend, Lawrence Stapleton, who had also acted as her unofficial tutor after her father’s death, had continued working for the Institute and was now semi-retired.

During the finishing stages of character creation, we also created a short bio of the late Lord Percivale (who was in fact Penelope’s adoptive father, as she – and Sylvie herself – would discover in the ‘pilot’ episode), since he was such an important figure in her personal background. We also decided that the Ashworth family had a long tradition of heroic service to the British empire since the days of Penelope’s great-grandfather, Lord Ulysses Ashworth, an Allan Quatermain-like extraordinary explorer who had also worked for Torchwood back in the Victorian days.

All this family history helped us establish a well fleshed-out background for the character (one I would later have to connect to the true story of Penelope’s origin); the Torchwood-related elements also served as the character’s obvious (but misleading) “Whoniverse connection” and created the impression that we were embarking on some sort of Largo Winch-meets-Torchwood-style game – which would have been a perfectly credible campaign concept in itself and gave me the “alibi” I was looking for.

Did it work ? Yup. I’ll never forget the look on Sylvie’s face (I was going to write “on Lady Penelope’s face”) when the Big Revelation came into play… This was one of those truly wonderful moments that remind us while we continue playing RPGs. And why the Doctor Who universe is such a wonderful dimension of human imagination.

Post Scriptum : Technicalities

So how did I handle all this special, secret stuff in game terms ? Well, as simply as possible. As mentioned in my RPGnet review, I cooked up a special “Time Lord heritage” trait (I simply took the Time Lord trait and halved all the numerical bonuses it gave – as well as its cost in character and Story points), which I kept in store for the great “moment of truth” when Lady Penelope would discover her true heritage. Since I guided Sylvie through the character creation process, I simply gave her 23 character points to work with (instead of the usual 24) and 10 Story points (instead of the usual 12), without telling her that her character had a secret, dormant special trait.

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