I’ve been running a Rifts game for a while, and by way of making a little more out of my time spent, I figured I’d take some of the work I’ve done there and incorporate it into a series here.
I organize my games by Set Pieces (which apparently I used to call “islands of content”). The first set piece of the campaign was the concentration camp at Gdansk, Poland:
Gdansk Prison Camp
You find yourselves in the Stutthof prison camp near the Polish city of Gdansk. Unassailable iron fences line the camp, topped with expertly, viciously coiled razor wire . A constant pall of smoke hangs in the air from the pyre just outside the camp, which is lit most days to deal with the bodies of those who have succumbed. The stench is unbearable yet inescapable.
The prison housing is separated from the other camp areas by the same razor-tipped fences, and the housing is itself separated into areas by defect, with areas for men, women, children, and Jews separated from one another within the prison yards. A factory, in which you are sometimes called to work, sits nearby, as does a construction site.
German soldiers patrol day and night. They carry rifles and pistols as well as truncheons, with which they are horribly proficient.
Some of you are prisoners here. You have been beaten, defiled, and broken in a dozen ways since you entered. A man called Ruger – or sometimes simply Mal – oversees much of the worst of your treatment here. Ruger is a huge, hideous-looking man with a permanent scowl, seemingly always at risk of bursting out of his uniform and tearing someone to pieces. It is rumored among the prison population that he kills prisoners solely for pleasure. Each of you, prisoner and guard alike, has seen him beat at least one person to death.
Some of you are guards. For you, the stench of death and cooking human is a disgusting but necessary reality. It is rumored amongst the guards that some of the corpses which inevitably pile up in this place are being used by a man named Rudolf Spanner for experiments of some kind. All you know of Spanner is that he is a scientist, and a creepy one.
The setup runs somewhat into the purple, but it’s an over-the-top setup for a way-over-the-top world. Later in the same episode (ie play session) I had constructed this “set piece” (I’d no longer consider it a set piece, given there is no actual action in it):
Spanner is an ordinary-looking man with brown hair, greying now in places. He speaks with a soft South German accent.
5th level scientist
IQ 18 PS 12 PB 10 ME 20 PP 10 Spd 10 MA 10 PE 12
Alignment: Aberrant with Miscreant tendencies
Dark Secret: Secretly contracted to Guido von List to deliver corpses and prisoners for some sort of occult purpose. Even Spanner doesn’t know the truth about this mission.
This introduces a couple of things I’ve tried to carry throughout the campaign.
First, there’s that soft South German accent. This goes to the character’s spoken voice. If you put a little note about how the character sounds right in the character block, it’s a lot easier to pull the voice up on demand. At the very least, that allows the players to deal with NPCs more fluidly.
Second, there’s the Dark Secret. Any character you introduce to a game should have something else going on. Ideally they’d have three perpendicular things going on; that is, after all, what it means to be “three dimensional”. In Spanner’s case, he was a Nazi, but he was also doing work under the table that would probably get him fired or killed.
In the second episode, I refined the set piece formula. The blocks were detailed to the extent they needed to be, but I started moving away from the idea that the description blocks would be monologuish in nature.
Set Piece: Schlieben Geheimnisvoll
A massive ocean liner sits at the dock. Along her bow you see the words “Schlieben Geheimnisvoll”. Those of you who read German can translate this if you wish (End of Mystery)
Set Piece: The hold
You are dumped into a large, smooth-walled boiler room deep in the bowels of the ship. The room is already full of terrified, emaciated people. You recognize a few from the camps; others seem to have arrived here by other means.
The room is dominated by a massive boiler furnace into which people are shoveling coal (perception check: charred remains, soulfire, occult mechanism). The heat and smoke from the furnace multiplies the effect of the stench of bodies packed tightly together (horror check). Next to the boiler, you see a familiar visage: Bogdan Sitko scowls in your direction, one of his eyelids hanging loose. Near the bottom of the stairway, the Jewish sibling to whom Bogdan introduced you huddle in the corner. The brother is doing his best to keep his sister calm, as she is clearly on the verge of panic.
That first one in particular is much more akin to what I’m doing now, but both of them do the basic thing I require of a set piece, which is set up some basic question and locate a piece of action.
I also started playing around with stat blocks for characters at this point. My first attempt was extremely simple:
Spooky German Soldier
DescriptionThis man might be a normal looking Nazi soldier if the utter deadness of his eyes and the stuttered movement of his limbs did not make him seem utterly unnatural. HP 15
Later I decided the description could be inline with the text and I could do a little more elaboration of the abilities of each character, but it took a while to find something that was both compact enough to fit in a page and detailed enough to be useful.
In the third and final episode, I actually went backwards. Almost all of the setups in the last episode of the arc were full-blown monologues. I’m not sure what prompted that, but it’s interesting for at least one reason; the critical set piece, wherein the characters were asked to join up with the Bastardos, did not play at all the way it was written. This was my set piece writeup:
Set Piece: Confession
My friends, I must tell you a great shame. Please, sit.
While you have been working, while you have been here training with us, we have been trying to run our business as usual. But I am afraid that my resources are at an end. We cannot support ourselves any longer; indeed, I have made great sacrifices myself so that we could remain so long protected.
We cannot afford these weapons and equipment that we have been holding so dearly. They are expensive to use and maintain, and for many of the things we do they are not necessary. Instead, I have…these (he waves at a table of old-looking guns and equipment). They will provide you with the basic protections you require, but you must be wise in their use. You must be ready to retreat in the face of superior powers, and we will have to avoid the more ambitious contracts until such time as we can manage to restore our finances.
I ask you now to show yourselves men of character. Will you fight beside us? Will you sacrifice with us?
I thought that would be simple enough – the players would encounter Bast, they’d ask for his help escaping, they’d train into their new character classes (a custom thing we planned for this campaign), and he’d make his noble plea. I didn’t plan for player agency, which is always a mistake.
By the time they had a chance to meet Bast, the players had already planned their escape and were in the process of sabotaging the Coalition vehicle in which they’d been taken prisoner. They hid in the shadows and met the man on their own terms. The only part of my set piece which actually survived was Bast himself, along with a hastily-improvised Mountaineer ATV and a Ley Line Walker named Olly, who has, quite accidentally, become the punchline of half the sessions we’ve played.
So that’s where I started with this game. I read a lot after all that, and I’ve matured a fair bit in my setups since we began. I’ll have more to say about the changes I’ve made to the process someday soon.