Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Greatest Hits #4 - The Power Rangers Model of Campaign Design

Still one of my favorites and something I try to keep in mind when coming up with a new campaign ...

Ha!, Bet you didn't see that coming! So what do I mean by this? First, let's look at Power Rangers.

Despite being a fan of Japanese giant rubber monsters I was not a huge Power Rangers guy when they first came out, mainly because it was kind of after my time. It was a pop-culture thing though so I was aware of it. Some years later though, after introducing the Apprentices to Godzilla and Robotech I noticed some form of PR was running on one of the cable channels and we started recording it. I watched it with them so I learned a lot about it - more than many might want to- and after coming across it again recently I started thinking that it's not a bad model for a campaign. So here are the important points:

1) Progression: Each season begins by introducing the characters, introduces the concept of the Power Rangers to the characters, then slowly escalates both their powers and the power of their enemies along the way to a final confrontation with the master villain that ends with a titanic battle that challenges them to the utmost, sometimes requiring great sacrifice to win.
This screams "LEVELLING!" to me. Having watched a few seasons of the show they start off inexperienced and need a lot of help from the mentor figure, but by the end they are confident and competent and taking on vastly more powerful foes than when they started. It wouldn't even have to be a strictly D&Dish form of levelling. In M&M it could be as simple as raising the power level at certain intervals.

2) Characters: Each season features 3-5 main characters including the young untried potential heroes and a master/mentor figure. During the season at least one new Ranger or non-ranger powered hero joins the team. There is typically one master villain with several lieutenants of varying power and competence and a whole lot of minions along with a few expendable villains of the week.
Hmmm, the main characters sound suspiciously like a typical party in most RPG's. The new character joins in and sometimes is someone they have known all along (NPC promoted to PC) or may want to work alone at first (the mysterious new PC) or may even be mistaken for a bad guy and end up fighting the other heroes in one of his first appearances in the finest comic book tradition.

3) Archetypes: The characters are individuals but the show doesn't lose sight of the focus - Action -  so they tend to be archetypes: the Jock, the Nerd, the Artist, the Surfer, the Daredevil, the Old Master, the Not-So-Old Master, and others.
I find this is an acceptable level of characterization in most games that fall in the "Action" end of the RPG spectrum - D&D, Shadowrun, Star Wars. At the very least it's a good starting point that can be modified or explored as the game progresses.

4) Environment: The heroes usually have a base area (often hidden and secret from the world) but lead otherwise normal lives in a typical society in a peaceful home town that is threatened by the enemy. There is not a lot of traveling, the story is usually centered around one region.
This really fits low-level D&D and Supers campaigns in my experience. Shadowrun can use it as well (Seattle) as can Gamma World and even Star Trek if you set it up that way.

5) Action - there are multiple levels of challenge in each episode. Sometimes they fight mooks and win easily then try to figure out what they were doing. Sometimes it's a single tough opponent that they cannot defeat as individuals. Sometimes several of those opponents team up to challenge them.  Sometimes it's a lieutenant trying to prove himself to the master villain. Sometimes the master will try to subvert one of the heroes in a more subtle attack but even then it usually leads to big fight at the end of the episode once the hero realizes what is going on. Regardless of the exact type of action, there is always conflict in each episode, often more than one scene's worth.
So this is like every version of D&D, many Pulp games, many Supers games and really most RPGs I have played. Drama, angst, and introspection have their place but this type of campaign is probably not best for them, at least not as the focus of the experience.

6) Closure - each season begins with a new group of heroes and a new villain in a new location. The show unfolds, the characters progress, and in the end there is a fight with a big bad which the Rangers win but give up their powers afterward or drop into the background. It has a beginning, a middle,and an end, telling a complete story.Someone coming in next season needs no knowledge of the previous season (or any previous season) to jump into the action. They may learn something about history along the way, but they don't need to know it to start.
This is something that makes it different than many campaigns - there is a definite end point. D&D 4E follows this model in this way but many earlier versions really did not - there was no end game. this type of campaign really depends on having one and it's one that is figured out in advance: you're going to fight Lord Zedd or Orcus or Lolth as they are the one behind all of the problems you've been facing.

7) Continuity - in spite of the closure mentioned above there is continuity. Often, one of the characters from the prior season will end up being part of the new team in the next season. One of the early season leaders ends up being the mentor for another team 10 years later! Plus, almost every season includes a crossover episode featuring the team from the previous season who join in and then together they handle some shared menace - either an unusual one-off threat or an alliance of bads from both seasons. One special episode featured the team leaders from the first 10 years of the show teaming up to defeat an old menace and even as an adult I thought that was cool and showed that the creators cared about what they were doing.
This softens the blow a bit from #6 - yes the campaign is over but your other games still happened! Throw in artifacts, news, NPC's, even guest appearances by PC's to connect THIS campaign to THAT campaign in some way and you are building a richer world than you might realize - it doesn't always have to be one long run with the same characters. Sometimes knowing that other groups are out there makes the story that much better and the world that much deeper.

I think this would be really appropriate for any level-based game but in particular it works for D&D and Supers campaigns. I also think it would work for Feng Shui, Mekton, Mechwarrior, and even Twilight 2000 with the right setup. I can see a Star Trek game working under this premise as they try to defend a particular sector from some new enemy (I might even say that DS9 follows this premise to an uncanny degree). That said, the more cinematic the game system the better as they tend to feature a more action-oriented play style and allow for rapid recovery between fights.

Now this is a heavily plotted campaign - it is the opposite of a sandbox or West Marches type game as it has both a scheduled end point (Session #X), possibly a calendar endpoint (December 31st 2011) , and a plot climax (the PC's face off against Iuz in the ruins of his capital as the armies of Nyrond surge into the city). This is (weirdly enough) almost required for some groups and anathema to others, so know your players! Telling a lot of D&D players that you're not going to track XP's is going to cause some eyes to bug while telling a Mechwarrior or T2K player he doesn't have to worry about tracking ammo between fights is likely to bring tears of joy.

Say you decided at the end of 2010 to run a new D&D campaign in Greyhawk and the concept is that you are fighting Iuz to free the Shield Lands from oppression. You let everyone know you're going to run it for one year, twice per month (so 24 sessions) and that you're not going to worry about XP - leveling will happen as certain tasks are completed or enemies defeated and it will pretty much be once per session so that at the end the group will be 20th level for the final confrontation. I would sketch out what the major opposition would be for each session, come up with some villain plots that are being carried out, then roll with it! Let the players go and see what happens. There are some hurdles here that the show does not have to deal with:

  • What if somebody dies? Well most games have a raise dead mechanic - use it. if not then the new character joins in as an experienced member of "that other team you've been hearing about" - you were dropping hints of another team right? or an envoy from a distant ally "The King of Nyrond has sent us his best knight to aid us in our struggle". Give him a nice entrance and move on.
  • What if the PC's lose a big fight? Well, they say you learn more from failure than success so let them level up anyway then give them a challenging Plan B to make things right. They couldn't stop the enemy agents from recovering the magic crystal? Let them raid the enemy fortress where the crystal-bearer has stopped for the night. Let them go after the anti-crystal hidden in ancient shrine at the top of the world
  • What if they lose the big fight? Then the badguy wins and you have the plot for your next campaign, possibly featuring a crippled survivor from the previous PC team as a mentor.

So my initial idea was that this show makes for an interesting framework for a limited campaign (something I've discussed before) and might help someone get the idea of how these non-traditional campaigns would work. I think it also shows that you do not have to give up many of the good points of those campaigns just by doing this. The biggest difference from my previous manifesto is that this style of game doesn't blow up the world - the heroes saved it, so it's going to be around for the next campaign. This let's you build those stories up over time The whole point is to have a complete campaign in  a finite number of session (or episodes, or issues) so that you can move on and do another one later.

In a Trek game,maybe it's the story of the Federation in the 23rd century as they struggle to hold off first an ambitious and ruthless new Klingon Warlord, then are challenged by a new Romulan faction then maybe even a mutant Gorn who rises to power among his people and sends the whole race off on a crusade against the non-reptilian races of the quadrant. Maybe the admiral who takes command of the starbase featured in the Gorn campaign was a PC captain during the Klingon campaign, or maybe one of the enemy captains from it is an ally in this new one.

 In a Mechwarrior game you could be loyal House Davion troops holding back an invasion by a ruthless Kurita noble bent on conquering your duty planet and in the end you face off against him and his personal bodyguard. Or maybe the other way around. Or maybe you're a merc unit made up of gladiators from Solaris 7 caught in the invasion. Or maybe it's a civil war. Maybe some of those come later. Then you all get caught in the clan invasion and get to deal with that, fighting alongside your old Kurita opponents.

In a Mekton campaign...you're a group of teenagers entrusted with incredible ninja powers and a set of powerful giant robots that you use to fight off an evil alien bent on conquering the Earth...

 One final note: "Plotted" does not have to mean "Railroad" - it means I have an outline of what the bad guys are going to do, leading to their ultimate victory. It's the players' job to change that. If your players decide to go on the offensive and attack an enemy outpost but you didn't have that written up it doesn't have to be a disaster. Get a feel for what they are thinking at the end of each session, try to spur some conversation between sessions, and adapt the outline to what they do. Some groups are fine being led though a fairly tightly plotted game, others will not and all you can do is hit the high points as "plot points" and let them take control in between. In that case, if you make the bad guy bad enough, or annoying enough, and powerful enough, then by the end of the campaign they will want to face off with him, and it's not railroading if the PC's go after him because they want to - it's a satisfying climax.

 I'm actually thinking about retooling my Atomic City Supers campaign to better fit this model, making the focus more on one long term enemy than the somewhat scattered plan I had before.  I'll let you all know how that turns out.

No comments: