Monday, 26 March 2012

SamuraiVille Episode 0: Pathways

In March 2012 we ran through pathways for our first Smallville game - set in the Japanese Warring States period. This series of articles was originally posted in a thread on For this first (rather long) post, indented text is lifted straight from the original post, and regular text is me adding notes and context.

The Smallville RPG is built to emulate the sort of melodrama you see on teenage drama shows. Despite the name, though, most people seem to adapt it to their own settings; I don't think I've heard of anyone actually using it to run a game set in Smallville, although I'm sure they're out there!

The mechanics focus on interpersonal drama and conflict between the "Leads", or PCs. The advice on designing scenarios is all geared towards creating tension and conflict between the leads so they can fight, regret their actions, make up, and come back fighting against a common foe. Or tear their friendship apart with acrimonious accusations.

The important thing to keep in mind is that Smallville pits characters against characters, not players against players. For great play, everyone needs to understand that setbacks and losing arguments to others isn't the same as losing the game or doing poorly - rather, it's fuel for you to be able to roleplay the angst, tragedy and drama that your character's experiencing.

26 March 2012
It was a bit of a mind-melt making sure everyone did the bits they were meant to, and one player was constantly reorganising her Abilities... In the end I think we sorted it out, although there seems to have been a little more focus on Assets than Relationships. We stopped after the Life-Changing Event, and will fill in the remaining steps as the first few sessions progress.
Smallville's character creation is based around two things - a "Pathways" chart that gives you a range of options for diferent stages of your life, and a relationship map where you develop connections to PCs, NPCs, and Locations. As you go through your Pathway choices, you get to "step up" various values. Anything you have a connection to starts with a rating of d4. Each extra step-up allows you to increase the die by one type (d6, d8, d10, d12).

Pathways has about a dozen steps, divided into two sections. Stopping after The Life-Changing Event  gives you the equivalent of "Season 1" characters on a TV show. If you complete the rest of the steps, they become about as developed as characters from Season 3 or 4. We basically played catch-up by doing one extra stage at the end of each session.
The characters are:
  • Okitsu, a fox spirit who currently has the rice-god Inari as a D6 Extra. She doesn't appear to be heavily connected to worldly affairs, although she sees herself as a divine agent sent to punish or reward mortals. Her ability to possess people may lead to complications, especially as she is by default riding around in a Shrine Maiden who isn't even listed as an Extra - in other words, at the moment she's a total nobody unless the fox spirit is possessing her.
  • Yuriko, a somewhat elderly female ninja who has just been promoted to a senior position within her clan. As a cover, she runs a tea-house in town. Apparently some of the drinks they serve weaken the barrier with the spirit world, allowing patrons to glimpse the supernatural. She has very Japanese Values, and a number of ninja tricks which are mainly based on gear. Thanks to an amulet she has the ability to shape-shift, and can pass herself off as someone much younger.
  • Taro, a blacksmith who takes great pride in his work. Although he followed a similar life-path to Yuriko, they ended up being quite different. Also, apparently Taro's master is: Yuriko's brother; is in love with Okitsu's shrine-maiden form; and is of the same weapon school as Yuriko's clan leader. In a way, Taro's master is more connected than he is. This should be OK, since he's also Taro's most important relationship; other than that, Taro applies himself to his work.
I have a week to mull things over and develop some wedges. I think it's going to be interesting, especially as two of the characters have alternate forms which people may end up having completely separate relationships with! I'll have to confirm some particulars about the fox spirit's form; I think she can manifest as a fox, or a human form with a tail, but prefers to possess the wholly human body of her god's shrine maiden. I'm not sure if the poor girl will actually become a character in her own right. It's a bit of a complex situation for a first game! 
None of the Leads have particularly strong relationships or committed statements to each other. I think the first couple of sessions will need to concentrate on challenging the assumptions (or non-assumptions) they have about each other to push for growth and redefinition.

27 March 2012
... it's been tricky so far trying to find story leads to gnaw on, since the Leads are mostly noncommittal towards each other. I'm trying to find ways for the Features to cause situations between the Leads that will cause them to Challenge and re-form their relationships. Taro's master (who really needs a name) is an obvious start, because he's linked to all of the Leads. 
I wasn't really sure what to do about the Shrine Maiden thing. The concept turned up late in the piece, and there wasn't an opportunity to cast her as an Extra or anything. I sort of figured that if people encountered her alone, they could start a pick-up Relationship with her and go from there; she could evolve into a Feature as people interact with her. I think otherwise she is a fairly willing servant of Inari who doesn't mind being host for a Fox Spirit, and I have a feeling that Okitsu will be "riding" her around most of the time. I'm also not sure to what extent the other Leads know of her actual form and identity, and will need to address that before we start play.

I wanted to base something around the Master Blacksmith - now tentatively named Sensei Tetsu - since he's connected to each of the Leads. For a while I couldn't figure out how to get him to provoke the Leads into action. I have a second situation in the works involving plans for improved firearms and his sister's ninja clan, but for now I just want to get the Leads together and trying to deal with personal issues and the relationships between them. 
Tetsu's sister, Yuriko (a Lead) runs a local tea-house. One of the drinks they purvey is a type of "dream-wine" that has the side-effect of blurring the barriers to the spirit world for the imbiber. Tetsu has been established as "frequently visiting" the tea-house. After one such evening of pleasantly watching the gossamery things float by, he drinks a little too much and falls asleep with his spirit open, leading to possession by a mischievous spirit. 
I've yet to determine its exact nature, but he'll probably start behaving erratically back at the forge. This should cause concern for his student Taro and his sister Yuriko. If they deduce possession, they may seek the help of the local shrine maiden, thus allowing me to bring Okitsu into the situation. Perhaps the spirit might cause Tetsu to seek out Okitsu by himself, giving him a Reckless Distinction and causing him to lose his inhibitions regarding his secret desire for the shrine maiden! 
Anyway, that's what I have so far. I'd love to work in some tensions between PCs more directly, but as I mentioned earlier there isn't much to work with at the moment. 
Hopefully this situation will stir things up as everybody tries to do what they think is best for Tetsu. I'm making a list of potential sub-plots and things to throw in if the situations arise. I'm trying hard not to start sandboxing by giving the NPCs their own independent motivations and just letting things unfold; I'm learning to focus the story more definitely on the Leads, using the Features as tools to that end. My brain hurts a bit, but I've discovered that situational goodness will leak out of it given enough time!
31 March 2012

Just after we'd gone through Pathways together, +Paul realised that he would be able to make it to game nights after all, so I had to deal with adding his character to the relationship map once everyone else was already done...
The fourth player and I made his character on Saturday - a Zen Buddhist monk called Yushin. He introduced a Buddhist temple and shared a Waterfall Location, and introduced the Buddha and the local Daimyo as his Extras. Since his character's been away from the town for over a decade, he has some delightfully outdated and prejudiced Statements towards the other Leads! 
The distant temple at which he trained was raided and burned, so he has returned to his hometown. The local abbot has appointed him to guide the young Daimyo in spiritual matters. 
So as the book suggested, I drew up an Episode Map so I could take a look at the current frictions and see what I could mess with. Happily, my current possession plan seems like it will do nicely; the actual scenario should be fairly brief to resolve and is pretty much a simple A-plot situation, but that means we'll have more time to finalise some of the bookwork from last week, and for explaining and figuring out the system as we go. I want to also spend some time prompting the Leads to develop more concrete opinions of each other. 
Drawn up as relationship pairs, it currently goes something like this:
  • Yuriko: Taro is just this guy / Taro: I don't trust Yuriko.
  • Okitsu: I don't appreciate Yuriko's drinks making life difficult / Yuriko: Okitsu is annoying but necessary for rice.
  • Taro: I don't trust young women like Okitsu / Okitsu: Taro is promoting trade, so that's worthwhile.
  • Yushin: Yuriko is a disreputable woman / Yuriko: ???
  • Yushin: Taro is an uncontrollable wild-child / Taro: ??? 
Statements relating back to Yushin will be done tonight before we start play. Yushin doesn't have an opinion of Okitsu either, because we're not sure which version of her he knows. Technically everyone else's relationship is to Possessed Mariko the shrine maiden, but Mariko would probably have been too young when Yushin left home to have been possessed yet. His relationship might be to Possessed Mariko but only recently formed on his return to town, or he may have known Akiko (the fox-girl form) when he was just a boy. We need to see what Okitsu's player thinks. 
My possession scenario can prod various relationships in the following ways: 
  • Yuriko/Okitsu: Yuriko's drinks are causing trouble for everyone, and Okitsu may be their best hope to break the possession.
  • Yuriko/Taro: Taro gets a chance to help his master and prove he's more than "just some guy". Yuriko could demonstrate her love for family, and perhaps earn some trust from Taro.
  • Taro/Okitsu: If Okitsu helps his master, Taro may be more willing to trust her. Then again, as his master is in love with her current form, something may happen to reinforce his distrust.
  • Yushin/Yuriko: Apparently the daimyo is visiting the tea-house to partake of some illicit substance, and tonight Yushin has tailed him. He has a bad opinion of Yuriko to begin with, and it could go either way depending on how the episode pans out.
  • Yushin/Taro: Taro will have the opportunity to reinforce or challenge Yushin's childhood opinion of him, depending on if he acts rashly or sensibly. 
Next episode, once I have the rest of the blanks filled in, I'll probably try to concentrate some more on people's relationships with Yushin. However, we'll see how it goes tonight - for all I know, he may get plenty of spotlight time even without me doing much to Wedge him.
>>> Episode 1