Sunday, July 7, 2013

How I Run the Great Pendragon Campaign

It's been quite some time since my last Solo GPC update, but this hasn't been for lack of playing. In fact, it's been the playing that's been most responsible for my lack of updating - the inertia of the close of the campaign draws us inexorably forward, and we find ourselves playing at least a session a week, oftentimes more. As of Friday's session, we are now officially less than 10 years from the Big Finale. Once everything's wrapped up, I'll have more time for writing and regular updates will recommence (with memory aids provided by the recordings I've made of the sessions).

In the meantime, I thought I'd write a bit about how I structure a typical session. This will obviously be of greatest utility to those running The Great Pendragon Campaign, but hopefully it will be of general interest as well. I'll be using our last session (Year 556) as an example; for the sake of future updates, I'll endeavor to keep spoilers as mild as possible.

As I wrote way back in 2008 in an analysis of my first experience of using the GPC, the book is structured not so much as a conventional Adventure Path or similar but rather as a framework to direct your own group's adventures and provide context for the larger game world. Perhaps a better metaphor would be to think of your own campaign as a river and the GPC as the banks of the river: sometimes those banks widen and allow your river to meander, and other times they close in and channel your river through a stretch of rocky narrows.

So the first thing I make sure to do is to keep reading ahead in the GPC, usually 5-10 years in advance, so that I can anticipate when those narrows might be coming up (and, in earlier years especially, get an idea of which seemingly minor characters are going to become more prominent in the story). Some years dictate certain events as being mandatory to the campaign, and plans are made accordingly. Assuming that's not the case, I then re-read the game year, noting the major events described in that year and seeing if any might prove a natural fit with the interests or plans of the player group. (If not, they at least provide fodder for gossip and Intrigue rolls.)

This whole time, I'll also be maintaining a short list of scenarios I'd like to run in a given Period. Thanks to the miracle of PDFs, I have the whole back catalog of Pendragon scenarios to draw upon (to say nothing of fan-generated material!), and over the last three years I've been gradually familiarizing myself with them, so I keep an eye out for opportunities created either in-game or in the text of the GPC. For example, as we're in the thick of the Grail Quest period right now, my short list consists of some of the more overtly Christian-themed scenarios available.

This past session provides an excellent example of the whole process in action. A couple years previous, the Grail Feast had occurred, which meant that year was to be dominated by scripted events. But this year things were relatively wide open. I thought it would be a good chance to throw one of those Christian-themed scenarios at Des. An encounter in the previous year actually provided an excellent lead-in and I adapted the beginning of the scenario accordingly. (Just like with D&D modules, Pendragon scenarios should be trimmed, edited, or added to as appropriate to make them fit better into the ongoing campaign.) However, I didn't simply want to plop the scenario down and say, "You have to go this." (Not this time, at least - I have no compunctions about doing that if the scenario comes at the behest of the PC's feudal lord. That's part of playing a knight!) Looking over the scripted events for the year, I saw there was going to be fighting (unbeknownst to our intrepid PC or any of his allies) in the very region the planned scenario was to take place. Excellent! I love complicating a scenario with larger events like wars. I decided that I'd dangle the scenario hook, but I'd also put out the hook that Gawaine was recruiting an army, knowing that the army's stated mission would be of interest to the PC. I then sketched out a rough timeline so that I'd have an idea of when the war would be fought so that I could work that in with PC activity.

As it turned out, Des decided to go for the scenario hook. Her character arrived in the region just as the war was getting started. Her PC even spotted columns of smoke far off on the horizon as he entered the region, but chose to ignore them in favor of the current mission. So it was that when he returned from his quest, he ran smack into a city under siege and Gawaine's army (which had intended to march to a destination 100 miles away) unexpectedly nearby, responding to the emergency. Larger events intruding on smaller concerns.

And that's what makes the GPC so much fun. It's a guide for how to bring the world of Arthurian Britain alive by keeping the larger gears turning in the background. Sometimes the PCs get caught up in those gears, sometimes they get to witness the turning from afar. I've described the GPC as a semi-sandbox in the past because, for any given year, it enables the GM to present two or three or more potential plot hooks to the players. This isn't as much work as it sounds, either. At the end of the day, it's a matter of integrating PC actions and motivations with modular scenarios and programmed events. The trick, just as with any campaign, is organization and a willingness to improvise as opportunities present themselves.

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