Sunday, December 19, 2010

I Can Take On the Whole Empire Myself

 A strong campaign begins with the ultimate bonding experience: a struggle to survive a catastrophe. Whether that includes an Imperial boarding crew blasting everyone on board your Corellian Corvette or the ambassadors you’re meeting to negotiate with trying to assassinate you with poisonous gas and a hundred battle droids, after blowing up your ship, all the players should be wide-eyed and aware their characters are in serious danger of dying.
It should not be easy to escape the fallout from the Kaboom! The PCs should be chased and harried for several full sessions with little reprieve. When it is all over, the PCs should have a greater awareness of the power and evil of the enemies they will battle over the course of the campaign. The experience should be so strong, none of the PCs will be able to walk away from the future call to action against this enemy. Han couldn’t leave the Battle of Yavin behind because of his experiences with Luke and the droids against the Empire.
In my House of Wookiees Campaign, the PCs are rebel recruits sent to a rebel training facility on a small liberal arts college campus. It all begins in an observatory, while the rebels are watching a holopresentation about the history of the Alliance to Restore the Republic. The Empire shows up and bombs the campus, making the giant telescope crash, crushing most of the recruits and causing the planetarium to be consumed in fire. The survivors (PCs) need to battle jumptroopers and climb a rickety burning catwalk to reach the planetarium’s roof. Even then, TIE fighters streak overhead. More jumptroopers show up, and the PCs must get the roof antennae working so they can call for help. The PCs are picked up by a student in a hotrod airspeeder and taken to a maintenance bunker where the surviving students weep over their losses. Some students guide the rebels to a satellite compound to contact a nearby rebel ship. More TIE fighters show up, trying to destroy the dishes. The PCs need to keep the facility intact long enough to retrieve the information about how to get themselves and the students charged to their care off planet safely. During the course of the escape, the PCs witness atrocities as stormtroopers blow away unarmed students. The experience is designed to be so intense that when the rebels step on board their command ship with the survivors, they are 100 percent committed to any mission against the Empire.
In my module Naboo Food Fight, things start out light. The PCs are visiting Uncle Rimk, a Gungan who runs a gumbo stand at the Theed Food Festival. They learn that the Queen of Naboo just enacted a law forbidding nonhuman species from public properties, including the food festival. Before the heroes even reach gate security, they are caught in a riot between security and nonhumans demanding entrance to the festival. Among the rioters is Chuchilla the Wookiee Monster, a wampa-sized creature who cannot resist the smell of fresh cookies. The PCs need to choose sides, rioters or security. They also witness security’s lethal tactics for handling the nonhumans. Once inside the festival, they learn Uncle Rimk has been locked in a sweatbox of a building to do the cooking, because the law forbids him from being on the public property. A human underling runs the uncle’s stand and skims a sizeable chunk of the credits. The security guards are also in on the scam. When Uncle Rimk asks the PCs for help, the PCs have witnessed enough brutality and injustice to make them want to help the uncle and strike against the corrupt officials.
The Dawn of Defiance Campaign has a weak Kaboom moment that does not sweep the characters into a series of adventures they are helpless to resist. It starts with the PCs stranded on a crumbling space station. Local snitches prosper by turning in nonhumans. A human woman runs up to the PCs, begging for help. She has been shot. Stormtroopers order the PCs to step away from the woman. I don’t think it would be unwise to step away from the lady. The PCs have their own problems. They have no reason to get involved. Even if the PCs help, the Empire is not a personified bane to the PCs’ existence. Even in the station’s climatic encounter, the Empire is reduced to the role of security guards. The true menace that should cause the PCs to be hungry to fight is lacking. By the time the PCs reach Alderaan, and Bail Organa asks them to do a mission for him, the PCs have not experienced enough firsthand Imperial atrocities to be instigated against them. Unless the PCs made the characters hungry to fight the Empire during character creation, they are more likely to say, “The credits aren’t that good concerning the risk. We’ll go run spice for a Hutt.” The campaign crumbles into dust.
On the WOTC forums, several motivated GMs have worked to rework the Dawn of Defiance Campaign. Nefandus did lots of revisions to create personal motivations for the PCs to want to help the girl attacked on the space station.
It’s been two days since the Freebird transport was impounded and its captain hauled off by stormtroopers, apparently for smuggling something. Before disembarking, the captain informed you that the charter company would send a replacement pilot to resume the next leg of your journey within a couple days. He was apologetic, explained that this was all obviously a simple bureaucratic error, and the franchise would pay for your lodgings at the station until such time as you could resume your ticket.

Captain: "Just turn your ticket and ID over to the station purser, and he’ll take care of it."

Not wishing to leave such a conspicuous trace, you lost yourself in the crowd in the hangar bay and entered the station.

A young woman named Maya, escorted by a twitchy labour droid with a lopsided gait, followed you. She asked why you didn’t want to stay in the hotel, and after listening to long silence and a few excuses, she squints her eyes.

“Look, I think I understand your predicament, and maybe I can help. Hotel or not – you are going to need a place to stay for a couple of days, off the books. Yes? Do me a favour, and I’ll do one for you. I’ve got to clean a bunch of parts, and maybe you can help.”
You’ve spent a long day polishing droid parts and various odd jobs for Maya, working at a storage area for Mechanical Allies Droid repair shop. Operated by a Twi’Lek named San, it’s one of the very few businesses on Blue Deck run by a non-Human on the station that hasn’t been shut down by the Empire for some minor infraction, and in several cases, where the owners have been carted off by stormtroopers for suspicion of treason.

Maya warns you to stay wary of the civilians in black armbands – members of the COMPNOR snitches who watch for any sign of disloyalty and report it to Imperial troops in return for for payouts. With most of the former Separatists rounded up from the station, it seems they’ve widened their criteria lately, and often target homeless and non-humans.

So, you’ve been huddled in a steamy and decrepit warehouse that Maya has apparently been squatting in for a while. Broken droid parts are everywhere, and every dayshift, you stow your bedding foams under crates to hide them. You’ve been washing in the public washrooms – something not totally uncommon in a busy starport where flights are occasionally delayed.

This area seems to be safe enough for now – located well away from Blue Deck in the decrepit underbelly of the station, not much work has been done on it since the war, and it is falling apart.

“The rent is cheap!” Maya told you, but most importantly, she said, it’s off the books. You don’t need to check into a hotel, and you can lay low until your impounded transport is released to a new captain, to continue your journey.

Maya met you a few times for drinks at Gundark’s Cantina, a popular and noisy bar with a wide ranging clientele located on the posh Blue Deck Promenade. She was generous, – she sent you to buy the table drinks but gave you too many creds and wouldn't take change. It’s charity, but she always tries hard not to humiliate you. She just seems happy for the company, to hear more about you, but too often these have been dead end conversations, where you’ve all agreed to keep your secrets. While some of you have offered to exchange items of personal equipment, she’ll never take it. “No, these are dangerous times and I’ve got what I need. You keep that.”

After two days waiting, you find that the Freebird Franchise pilot doesn’t arrive. In three days, you find via the subspace news channel that Freebird has gone out of business due to unrelated reasons. You are stranded. On that same day, Maya shows up and is clearly distracted. She moves you out of your warehouse near Mechanical Allies, and through a maintenance hatch in the floor of a little-used service hallway. The hatch drops into a section of residential hallway in which the blast doors in both directions have malfunctioned, locking closed. She shows you into an actual apartment that she says belonged to a maintenance worker. It’s clean, recently lived in.

She says her boss found your bedding foam; and you should stay away from the warehouse, but meet her at Gundarks at 7.


It’s loud in here, with lots of lights and podracing videos playing, people milling and a Cantina band. Maya is late.

[here, I used another's idea and included an early encounter with the troublemakers from EpIV]
“Plo shook too loo” - a big alien says
He says he doesn’t like you!” - a handsome man translates
“I don’t like you either!”

Pweeum! Pweeum! - the fight is interupted by blasters.

You hear blasters firing at the door, the shots slamming into near the rear entranceway. One of them catches a woman in the back and sends her flying! It’s Maya!

"Help me!" She says, staggering through the crowd, which is quickly running for the front exit into the Promenade and huddling in the booths, diving under tables and behind chairs.
No way are the PCs going to just let the troopers blast the life out of Maya. Nefandus has successfully captured the kindness and generosity of the Rebellion and personified it in the young woman NPC.  I took this a step further when I ran the game, using the image of Dakota Fanning from Push as Maya. This turns Maya from a twenty-something into a preteen. She becomes your younger sister, someone you would not let get beaten and shot by stormtroopers. She is the defenseless young Rebellion being brutalized by the merciless Imperial machine.
This could hit or miss depending on how it’s handled. Remember, Star Wars allows for wipes and montages. Let the PCs have a few minutes chit-chat with Maya, then read the rest as a montage. Get to the Gundarks fight in less than twelve minutes.
However, I still don’t think there is enough Kaboom to guarantee the PCs will join Bail Organa’s Rebellion. The PCs need to witness the horrific face of the Empire firsthand. Perhaps they see stormtroopers doing target practice with nonhumans being turned in by the snitches. Maybe an Imperial officer is attracted to the mother in a refugee family and has the husband and kids killed and the woman turned into his sexual toy. It is through extreme atrocities that the players’ psyches will be irrevocably set to the action you desire for the campaign to follow.
I asked Nefandus for advice creating exciting effective campaign openings. He said:

My advice for campaign hooks... Off the top of my head.
1. Give the players a reason to be together - to be at the same place, to share a circumstance or predicament. Make that reason sustainable for at least several sessions, sufficient for other hooks to develop. Players should never wonder why their characters are travelling together.

2. Work with the players and their backgrounds to knit them to the hook. Provide parameters for player backgrounds.
3. If the plot is to be primarily GM generated (rather than sandbox style) make sure that there is no party conflict baked in that is so severe that there is no reason the party would travel together.
4. Start as close as possible to the first GAME choice - the first real decision with a consequence. Everything prior to that should be narration, including what they do as a group. The first group meetup isn't really going to be a choice, and chances are - not that exciting - so don't present it as a game choice (eg. "Do you talk to the sullen Jawa sitting on the bench?"). If they are going to meet up that way because the Jawa is a player character, then get on with it - just narrate it and move on.
5. Present the first game choice - the decision to get involved - as a no brainer. In DoD as written, it might be kind of stupid for the players to intervene in a random circumstance in which Imperials gun down a woman. But, if they were indebted to that woman, and if she provided them shelter, and if they had a grudge against the Imperials, then its a no-brainer. They will take the on ramp. Once they are involved in the plot, thinks pick up their own momentum - and that's the point of a hook.

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