Wednesday, January 26, 2011

An Old Star Wars Campaign

Since Star Wars is kind of the theme of the week (and since I scanned in my cover picture) I thought I would share some bits of the best SW campaign I ever ran.  WARNING: This is a LONG post. It's a DM rambling about an old campaign. You have been warned,

Now this was at a time when our "regular" game happened on alternating Saturdays and was almost always D&D 3rd edition. Some of us also got together on Thursday nights to play something else and while Saturday was usually a long open-ended campaign Thursdays tended to be shorter runs in different games and were mainly non-fantasy genres - Twilight 2000, Traveller, Mechwarrior, Gamma World - usually something with guns and tech rather than swords and spells. We would run through an adventure or two and switch or the DM would burn out or cancel too many times in a row and someone else would jump in with a fill-in game and pretty soon the fill-in was the new campaign.

I had picked up the Revised Core Rulebook and was busy buying up the various supplements (and there were some good ones even for that edition). I knew Star Wars would fit into our group well but I didn't want to sign on for a full, open-ended campaign as it was a new system and in my experience the second run through with a particular system is a lot more enjoyable than the first. I thought about leaving it open ended but going with an episodic approach, but the hanging thread of an unfinished open game is unsatisfying, and having tried to run a 6-month Shadowrun campaign in an episodic format I knew that being able to end at predetermined points on our Thursday night game was unlikely. I decided that the "limited campaign" or "movie" approach was worth a try. My interpretation of this was that I would set up  a framework that would allow missions of roughly a movie's length to be started and finished with a set of characters. Then we could go on and play something else for a while and down the road come back to the same framework and do another "movie" with most of the same cast - basically another mission - and then switch out again. It seemed like a good idea and it worked out really well. If we still had the weeknight game I would probably still be running these things once or twice a year.

The framework to this interruptible campaign was that the PC's were part of the Rebellion Special Mission Forces. The timeframe was right after the Rebels blew up the Death Star. While a resounding victory it also resulted in a massive escalation of the Empire's effort to hunt them down. The team's mission was to strike out at the Empire to keep them off-balance and on the defensive while the rest of the Rebellion looked for a new home and set up new bases. The best things about this approach are that a) Everyone starts on the same side b) Everyone understands that they are together for a reason and can make cohesive characters and c) there's no floundering around at the start of a session as they try to figure out what to do next.  Since they were not neophytes I started them at 6th level and told them they would level up at the end of the mission - I wasn't going to get caught up in tracking experience points in this kind of campaign.

Having decided on the format I started thinking about what I wanted to do and in a burst of creativity over a period of about 3 days wrote out a solid outline of an adventure and then filled in most of the details. I had six "Acts" with several scenes each that would make a complete arc, included personal, vehicular and space combat, gave each character a chance to shine, and included a way to bring in a full Jedi character during the Rebellion Era - because I wanted to run Rebellion and one player really wanted to run a Jedi. It was one of the more complete-upon-arrival inspirations I have ever had and it worked out pretty well. here's an outline:

  • Act I - The strike team enters the Kandoor system and on their way in to the target planet picks up weak signals coming from the asteroid belt. Investigating they find a derelict clone-wars era ship. Moving to investigate they are attacked by some decrepit droid fighters that have also been floating in the asteroid belt. Eliminating the threat they board the derelict cruiser and discover a human frozen in carbonite and being cared for by an astromech droid and a couple of power droids. The battle has upset the delicate balance (read elaborate jury-rigging in these old power systems as only a tech droid with 40 years and nothing else to do can do) so speed is important. They unfreeze the human then move him and the trio of droids back to their ship before anything bad happens. It turns out, he's a Jedi and he's been frozen since the early part of the Clone Wars.

    This was fun as we tried out the space combat system right off the bat. I needed a way to shoehorn a  Jedi into the game so I figured leftover relic ship was the best way to do it. I also got to work in some droid comedy relief . We had some good skill usage in this part too from techie stuff (What are all these power cables for?) to medic-type action (I need vital signs!). By the end I finally had all of the players on one ship headed for one planet to carry out their mission.

  • Act II - This was a stealthy orbital recon job to figure out what the Empire was doing on the planet. The short DM's Notes version is that they were mining a rare element here for use in the new Death Star's superlaser, and they were strip-mining the planet to get it.  Activity here was orbital recon, some skill use, then landing near one of the bare patches on the surface to take a closer look where they ended up meeting the natives.
This was the transitional part of  the beginning where the team starts to learn a lot of details and determines the actual problem. There was a touch of Star Trek as they used sensors and then landed to "take tricorder readings" but it went well and then led into a nice diplomatic scene with the natives who were technologically regressed Duros (mostly because I like Duros, not for any deeper reason). They also get their first glimpse of the colossal vehicles being used to strip-mine the planet.

  • Act III - Attack! Imperial Scouts on speeder bikes whoosh in and start shooting up the characters and the natives. The PC's shoot back with supporting fire from their YT-2400 and make short work of the patrol but they expect more to show up anytime now. The natives offer to lead them to a more secluded spot where the imperials wont find them and they can meet the local chief and the "wise one" who looks like them.
We open with some personal combat, then move to some survival skills to hide the ship, then some diplomacy when meeting the chief. The first big dramatic reveal occurs when the wise one turns out to be the Jedi character's old Padawan sidekick. FLASHBACK....

....the Jedi and his padawan were investigating reports of a hostle force-user in the Kandoor mining station. In hot pursuit of a strange dark-side force user they are lured into a freezing facility and the Jedi is quick-frozen. Fearing that he may not be up to the task the Padawan orders the droids to take his frozen master back to the ship, launch, then lay low in the asteroid belt and await his signal before returning...

The Padawan mentions that he did hunt down the dark jedi and kill him but the ship never returned and the largely automated facility was hit by droid fighters. In the confusion of the war no one else ever came looking for him so he ended up living with the natives and meditating on the force. He also chose one of them to be his own padawan but he went off track, took the dark jedi's holocron (locked away for safekeeping)  and turned to the dark side. he is now a menace to the native population but seems to have some kind of arrangement with the Imperials. The former Padawan has given up the ways of violence and is now a pacifist so he will not take direct action against him.

  • Act IV - The PC's begin forming a native alliance to take out the mining vehicles, but are menaced by the native darksider. They pursue him and find a small ancient structure evidently of Sith origin. Cornered, the native darksider attacks them in direct combat and proves to be every bit as tough of a combatant as they had feared. In the end however, they do win and more tribes rally to their cause. To really prove their power to the tribes, they intercept an imperial interrogation team, kill them, and steal their AT-AT. The natives are now fully on board with throwing the Imperials off of the planet. 
This was an especially fun section as there was all kinds of diplomacy, coercion, bluffing, and smack talk. The fight with the darksider was tense but worked out in the end.. The AT-AT theft was totally player-driven as they felt they still needed to do something to impress these guys and they went with it all the way.

  •  Act V - After most of the PC's stealthily infiltrate and sabotage some important systems, the captured AT-AT and the PC's ship lead an attack on the main Imperial refining station and HQ. The commando team also releases several thousand prisoners being held at the base and the Imperial garrison is soon overwhelmed by an angry vengeful native horde (thoughtfully supplied with blasters liberated from the Imperial armory). Moff Lestrade and his bodyguard escape and flee to one of the massive mining vehicles to regroup. 
In this scene we got to combine the Trojan Horse, a commando mission, a paratroop drop, a jailbreak, and a hostile uprising all at the same time. There was  a fair amount of planning but there was some time pressure as an Imperial inspection was scheduled in just a few days. this resulted in a chunk of th garrison being sent out to a large landing area away from the base itself and this splitting of forces made a big difference. The players had a blast with their stealth mission - picking locks, hacking computers, setting explosive charges while the pilot organized his elite native guard on board the AT-AT and overdrove the thing to get through the gate in time, leading to the visual of a galloping AT-AT hustling towards the base. In the end the players felt good about what they had done, and the natives had effectively won, but the business was not yet finished.

  • Act VI - leaving the scene of their victory the PC's once again kicked the AT-AT into overdrive and galloped after the mining vehicle. Once on board the massive structure the party splits up to try and halt the thing and find their enemy. The pilot leads his elite team to the control room, the soldier faces off with the Moff's bodyguard, and on top of the vehicle, hundreds of feet in the air,  the Jedi shouts in triumph as he sights the Moff emerging from a turbolift. His jaw drops though as he hears the snap-hiss of a saber ignition behind him and his old padawan says "I'm afraid I can't let you do that" - the Padawan (now master) who has been acting as an adviser this whole time and who the Jedi believed at face value, is the real darksider. The native darksider was his apprentice but there was no split. The padawan fought the old original darksider years before in the temple and slew him by drawing on the dark side himself. Then in that dark place he turned and embraced it, growing in power for all of these years. When the Imperials arrived he made a deal with them and was introduced to a darksider even more powerful than himself - one who is returning to the planet right now.

     So as the two Jedi duel on top of the giant mining vehicle, the soldier finishes off the bodyguard and runs up to the top deck in time to watch and see the climax as the battered PC Jedi force-pushes the wounded Sith off the top deck, plummeting to his death. The pilot gains control of the miner and aims it for the Imperial assembly area where a whole lot of stormtroopers are gathering.

     As the lumbering behemoth approaches, one heavily-escorted shuttle lands and a black armored figure walks down the ramp. Even at a distance the Jedi can feel the power coming off of this one - and then Vader notices him. a black glove points at the vehicle and a whole lot of stormtroopers open up on it.

     The pilot calls for the droids to bring in the ship while the Jedi and Soldier begin assembling grenade bundles and force-pushing them way out into the middle of the clustered troopers.The miner vehicle begins devastating the troops too slow to get out of its way as a flight of TIE fighters begins making strafing runs against the mighty miner.

    Finally the shadow of a YT-2400 covers the top deck and the party hurries aboard, heading for orbit and sending a comm call to the natives and prisoners still at the base to let them know the situation and give them time to melt back into the forest. Farewells are made over the air as the ship streaks for space, dodging fighters and at least one humongous star destroyer until they can hit hyperspace and head for home.
This was the climactic fight and it was possibly the greatest single battle I have ever run - the gathering troops, the everything-is-on-the-line pressure, the personal nemesis confrontation and one of my sweetest moments ever as a DM - the look of utter shock on the Jedi player's face when his former padawan turned on him - he was truly shocked and said both at the time and later that he couldn't believe I had gotten him like that. It was a tough fight and I'm glossing over a lot of details but it was great. The back-story came out between saber clashes just like a movie and no one else felt left out as these two fought it out - I even worked in the obligatory "join us" moment but he wouldn't go for it. Having Vader make a personal appearance let them know that this was important and wiping out a bunch of bad guys after liberating a bunch of good guys let them win twice - they did the Right Thing by saving and freeing the natives, then they got the satisfaction of beating the hell out of the enemy too.

Things that went right (or why I think they went right) - there's a perfect balance of preparation and improvisation but it varies with each group, each DM, and each game. For this short campaign, it felt like I hit it dead on. I had a big-picture outline of what the bad guys were doing, but left room for them to react. I had stats for the characters, the monsters, and the vehicles made up ahead of time so I didn't have to figure out mechanical details - I could concentrate on  what was happening in the game instead of how many hit points a rancor had. The players were focused and worked well together and were enthusiastic about the whole game. It just doesn't come together much more completely than it did this time.Each act ran about 1 session though I think III & IV both ran over so it took us about 8 weekly sessions to play out, being just long enough to have a substantial story but short enough that no one got bored or burned out.

Things that went wrong  - well, not much. Moff Lestrade was supposed to be a recurring villain, but the soldier shot him in the back while the Jedi was finishing off his old padawan - ah well. There were a few side plots & adventures that I had worked out that I didn't use but those just go into the encounter file for another time. I would say the biggest disappointment was that we only did one other episode with this team and we never finished it completely. (That was an adaptation of "Tatooine Manhunt" that had this same Jedi lightsabering a krayt dragon from the inside out) Ah well, no reason we couldn't do it again some time in the future.

I had 3 core players on this  - One ran the unfrozen Jedi Guardian, one a hard-bitten soldier who named his beloved light repeating blaster, and one veteran pilot who used his starting funds to install a bacta tank on his ship because you can never find one when you need one. A couple of others made guest appearances during the game but those 3 stuck with it and really made it something special. This campaign really showed me that as a DM you can't make a great game all by yourself - all you can do is set things up to enable a great game and then hope the players run with it. In this case they did and it was a blast. Side Note - the soldier player is still with me. he's running Kordan the Fighter in my 4E campaign. I try to hang on to good players as much as I can.

Anyway, that's my "Best Star Wars Campaign Ever" story - hopefully I can surpass it one day. We will see.


Jeremy said...

What did he call his light repeating blaster?

David Larkins said...

Great stuff! I love these sorts of campaign wrap-ups--it's really one of the best ways to see how others run their games, gain some insights, and steal ideas. ;)

Blacksteel said...

You know I can't remember what he named it - I'll have to ask.

Thanks SL - I do these partly to let others see and steal and partly to help me have an on-line reference to point to when it comes up in conversation. So many of my notes are on paper that I don't know if any decent percentage will ever make the jump.

David The Archmage said...

Sounds like you and your group had a fantastic time. Thanks for sharing!