Still All Hallow’s Eve here. I’m not a timing expert with seasonal posts all ready to spew in a carefully orchestrated agenda of spewiness.
What was coincidental was Andy asking about how I’d approach starting in on Fantasy Townies while I was thinking that Gaki Mura’s worldbuilding similarity would be more productive, seeing as I’ve already done work on GM.
Gaki. Like ghosts. Like ghouls. Like vampires. *points fingers in Happy Days style gesture*
If nothing else, if you are interested in campaign documentation or RPG worldbuilding or L5R worldbuilding, at least skip down to the end where the Welcome section is and read our campaign introduction document/manifesto.
Gaki Mura had two campaign hooks. The Gaki hook. And, the Mura hook.
First hook was to play L5R with a permanent, PC-known portal to another spirit realm to emphasize the supernatural elements of Rokugan and the cosmology as I’m far more interested in Asian supernatural than I am in samurai or politics or blackmail.
Second hook was player worldbuilding. L5R has the ability to handle lots of stuff, far more than what is usually considered when thinking magical samurai in fantasy pseudo-Japan or looking at the CCG/LCG. For instance, you can, craze as it sounds, even play something besides a samurai. I’m sure there are a few mechanics, even, that could be dug up if you looked hard enough [*cough* every single book with mechanics *hack* *hack*]. What led me to the idea of the players helping build the base town was, I’m sure, my getting tired of campaigns that dealt overly much with day to day minutia of things other players didn’t give a crap about.
Each session of Gaki Mura was a month in world time. Each session had a projects phase, so that, you too, could be a fantasy project manager, as all gamers are screaming to be.
I’m going to get off track and talk about the campaign more than about how I prepared for the campaign, but one thing that made this campaign somewhat different was that I wasn’t the only one involved with vision as to what the campaign was about. I think that was a good thing. I spend a lot of time in my own head.
One of the first things I did in preparation was research gaki. L5R books/supplements from various editions, L5R wiki, D&D gaki, internet miscellaneous. As the amount of info, especially monster descriptions and stats, was limited, I was looking for how to provide variety both mechanically and thematically with what was the primary villain.
I became interested in the variety of gaki and the potential for giving different sorts of (mostly combat) challenges. Important to understanding gaki was getting physical descriptions that distinguished them. As a GM, I’m much more into how monsters look than I ever have been as a player. Internet research of images is something I actually do quite often, even for things like mountain valleys, though I’ve yet to have players get excited by my images (I did get a reaction when I noted that an image of Haifa Wehbe was my representation of a girl next door NPC, but excitement wasn’t it).
On the other hand, gaki, gaki, and more gaki would bore everybody, so the campaign pretty quickly introduced a completely different element.
A neither Gaki nor Mura element. Players created Unicorn PCs that had a concurrent storyline of trying to return to Rokugan as quickly as possible and the portal to Gaki-do from the other side being the fastest way to get home. What had both good and bad points was that players seemed to enjoy more the travel odyssey of the Unicorn versus squabbling in Gaki Mura.
The Unicorn story had its own spiritual elements, where I drew on some other sources, including … think you can guess?
I’m not sure any of my players picked up on it, though one of them might have and I forgot.
One of the inspirations for Unicorn activity was Barsoom.
I had a Spanish NPC. And, it worked. Some of the craziness that had little to do with Gaki Mura itself actually worked.
But, then, after the portal to Gaki-do closed, not a lot did work. Even before, players got confused wandering around in the woods due to multiple spirit creatures. It was logical to me and created more variety if spirits from realms other than Gaki-do found themselves in the hood. It took a long time for the players to figure out what was going on with the animal spirits.
The oldest saved file I have in my Gaki Mura general folder on this laptop is Project Plan – Medium Temple. It’s actually just a template no different from my Project Plan file. Point being that once the idea of players doing projects to worldbuild was decided, creating a minimal-effort tool was put together.
When I picture campaign worlds, I visualize characters (which are probably going to be NPCs even if I visualize what PCs would look like if I were creating the PCs) and what their environs look like. I think not of villains at first or challenges, normally, but what PCs are doing. As “doing” to me means there are other people [no, I don’t *just* think of people doing people], this naturally leads to starting in on NPCs.
I write up one or more NPC backgrounds and/or character sheets pretty quickly. For my Legend of the Burning Sands campaign, it was far more about backgrounds and relationships to other characters rather than stat sheets. With Gaki Mura, I fell into my usual trap of thinking up too many NPCs. All of the research shugenja naturally assigned to the posting started getting clans, families, names, looks, abilities/foci.
I had a thought for another blog post, but I don’t know if I’ll ever write it. Anyway, I often am more interested in my NPCs’ stories than PCs’ stories as I don’t know what the PCs’ stories are, while I obviously have complete control over the NPCs’ world when not around the PCs. A reason I have a tendency to proliferate NPCs is because they are interacting with each other (in my mind) and they need more and more things to interact with. I also probably give up too quickly on any given NPC when the PCs don’t immediately take interest. More dimensions to one idea rather than numerous ideas could be better, assuming the NPC isn’t just terrible. Given that my interests often differ from players’ (or other players’ when I’m one of the players), terrible-fitting NPCs don’t seem too difficult.
Getting back to this campaign some, we had a project tracker for townbuilding projects. The townbuilding was too much for me as I couldn’t keep up with creating new mechanics for every project when the player didn’t have clear mechanics in mind. Much of the townbuilding was reactive rather than being prepped ahead of time, and it showed. Yet, instead of scripting this sort of thing, this is where players need to take on more responsibility, including how it matters to the story that some mechanic got achieved.
I write sessions. By that, I mean I write intros to sessions that very well may contain scripted dialogue. I either start with scenes in mind or will break up my scripting into scenes. I usually have in mind how scenes will end with a success ending and a failure ending but may or may not write out notes about such possibilities. I usually get tired of scripting out entire sessions and leave vague notes about additional material.
Does this end up being overscripted? Actually, though I can run into problems with giving players agency, the writing, in and of itself, doesn’t feel like it railroads, as I often don’t use everything I write and my focus is more on setting the scene and what mechanics are specific to a scene than in determining how scenes will play out.
Maybe it’s not understanding how to motivate my players to claim agency, but it often feels like I underscript events and leave too many options to players who don’t know what they should be doing next. Since this hardly makes sense for what aren’t intended to be dungeon crawl campaigns, as more scripting would likely lead to more railroading, this is an area that leads to some/most of my greatest frustration with running campaigns – I want the players to make decisions to guide where the story should go next and, in the absence of player decision, I make decisions, and nobody ends up being happy.
Here is an example of session writing from Session 1 of Gaki Mura that covers only the first half or third of the session, as I tried to interlace project management with notable events during each “month”, yet has most of the actual session notes:
Make first skill roll for one project.
Though not windy, it remains cool in the higher elevations. The days are shorter than they should be and the light of Yakamo is diffused to a degree, almost as if he isn’t all that interested in shining down on your new home.
Yet, insects are prevalent, and you are well aware that not all of them are native to Ningen-do. During the day, they make less noise, or, perhaps, it’s the sound of construction that drowns them out. Workers are constantly moving lumber and other materials. Sawing and hammering is constant. Though the heimin try to remain quiet so as to not disturb the samurai, they still must converse continuously to make progress on construction.
Your council has not enjoyed having meetings in tents, so you are having yet another meeting outside. Two of the spirit realms experts just finished providing their latest report – no progress on closing the portal, tears do not seem to be getting worse but the occasional dangerous gaki has managed to get into Ningen-do through them.
Yoritomo Iru brusquely starts complaining about how “her” troops need better accomodations, that it might be tolerable for the ashigaru but not for bushi.
Roll PER/Investigation (Notice) and Fear (3). Highest roll of 20 or higher notices a 4 inch mosquito-like insect alight on her right shoulder. TN 30, get to react after it impales her neck. TN 35, roll Initiative ,after Fear, to see when the PC acts. The gaki swells to about 2’ long.
Assuming she is not saved from the first attack, her skin rapidly begins turning greener than her Mantis kimono, and she starts vomiting green blood before she collapses. The right spell or Medicine TN 40 might save her after she is infected.
Given an opportunity, the gaki will fly down the main “street”. A peasant woman, a servant by how she is dressed, with her hair coiffed high, stands frozen in its path. You assume she’s too frightened to move. Her name is Sakare, servant of Kitsu Hinan.
After the PCs either deal with the gaki or it flees, a group of soldiers runs up and breathlessly exclaims, “Gaki, samas. Did you see it? Apelike, grey, and legless.”
Someone points. As you look up, you see the creature on top of the frame of [whatever building is part of a new project]. The creature retreats. PER/Investigation (Notice) TN 25 to notice an unidentified man in a kimono but without swords watching you. He ducks behind a tent.
What is highly important to me is (my) “feeling” the world. Verisimilitude. Not by describing in excruciating detail how things look, which leads to my getting questions about details of how certain things look and my having to either summon up my mind’s eye or make stuff up that I never thought about. But, through activity following a logical path. I think through what NPCs say, not just because I’m a fan of dialogue. I think through where events are happening. Background of events and what the movements are of NPCs prior to contact with the PCs. How NPCs think of each other.
Then, as PCs get involved in events, I think about how the world reacts. Whether it’s entire sessions’ plots or something smaller, the logic of cause and effect is in my mind. In other words, I’m thinking of one continuous narrative from prior to the campaign start through how PCs are creating narrative to glimpses into the future.
How much of this gets conveyed to players? Not as much as it should by how often my players seem bewildered as to what is going on.
I had NPC subplots, a variety of them, going on that didn’t really impact the two major hooks. What’s interesting to me in looking back at what files I have saved is that I don’t have nearly as in depth setting information as I have for other campaigns. The short periods of on stage play intermingled with townbuilding rolls may have meant I didn’t spend as much time working on the world.
Names matter to me. While I may read a book with the main character named Bink, when it comes to campaigns I’m running where I can mine real world names or translations, I’ll mine like a miner full of mineness. My L5R games are full of character names that are either picked from a list of actual names for their meaning or are translations of words into Japanese. With LBS, I use Arabic more, of course. Actually, used Arabic translations for most recent L5R campaign.
I bring up naming as a campaign prep topic because I actually spend a decent amount of time trying to decide on names, multiply that by the too many NPCs I create. Much like studying 16th century sailing ships for my Solomon Kane campaign didn’t pay off, I spend a lot of time on things the players don’t care about and not enough time on what they do. Now, admittedly, I spend time on things I care about, which goes to point out the disconnect in terms of what we enjoy about RPGs.
What sort of preparation would I do differently now for a Gaki Mura campaign?
Player responsibility. I would focus more on how the players are going to take away the need for me to do everything. This is easier when the campaign is intended to give players responsibility for worldbuilding, of course.
I would try to limit the NPCs … and probably fail. Ideas are easy and NPCs are easy ideas. Main thing I’ve thought about with Fantasy Townies is NPCs. Of course, an urban setting makes that make more sense, which is maybe why I should try to avoid running such settings – I need to spend far more thought on villains and less on an endless list of NPCs.
I might actually think about how to end the campaign. The campaign could have easily ended with the closing of the portal, but it continued on and the group was pretty lost as to how to proceed.
I might try to have clearer intelligent villains as many gaki weren’t intelligent foes.
I would try to make the town council aspect of Gaki Mura far more relevant. It rarely mattered, yet it had immense potential, for one thing creating play beyond just my writing up encounters and NPC hijinks.
Gaki Mura was not a failure. It just had a predictable collapsed campaign as I still don’t have a good grasp how to end campaigns. It was an experiment that gives insight into how to do similar style campaigns. As to how I prepare material for campaigns, it was kind of different in that I didn’t prep hardly anything in terms of townbuilding and didn’t do anywhere near as much background work as I’ve done on other campaigns.
Besides the townbuilding and town council features of the campaign, I could easily see trying to do another campaign where each session is a month at a time. I think that actually worked fine.
I did not write this document in its entirety by myself. Andy, Joel, Mike, and others helped flesh out the setting background info and the mechanics and made this a much cleaner document than it would have been if I was the only contributor.
Gaki Mura is a L5R campaign based around a group of samurai given the stewardship of a town, a town whose purpose is to guard against the armies of the hungry dead. The campaign centers around themes of exploration, construction, investigation, and combat against the remorseless gaki.
Gaki Mura is not the first village to stand on its current location. According to Imperial records the village of Kurugu Haneshi Mura originally stood in this location many years ago. There is no information about its founding, at some point around the middle of the sixth century it appears on the Imperial tax rolls with no other notes. The taxes that it provides are small, exactly what one would expect of a smaller village far away from the main Imperial roads. The road to Kurugu Haneshi Mura was poorly kept once in accordance with the infrequency of its use. In general, to most outside observers Kurugu Haneshi Mura was a dusty village of very little importance that no samurai worth their salt would spend any time in if they could avoid it. It produced nothing but foodstuffs and forest products and imported only the bare essentials. No geographical features of any interest were known to be in the area and a lack of significant shrines meant that the village had very little spiritual significance. Kurugu Haneshi Mura was apparently a backwater assignment for disgraced or incompetent samurai where there was little they could damage.
At some point the fortunes of little Kurugu Haneshi Mura changed, though the actual chain of events that led to this is unknown. What is known is that during the winter several bedraggled peasants came shambling into another nearby village dehydrated and babbling about “horrible monstrosities” and “unimaginable creatures” in Kurugu Haneshi Mura. They told how the village was suddenly attacked in the night by dark figures “with faces like demons” and how they narrowly escaped by fleeing without any of their possessions. Normally peasants like this would be dismissed and punished but the vicious claw-like rending wounds on their body told a different story. One scruffy ronin named Isotu lent credibility to the peasant’s story.
This was enough for the local magistrate to launch an investigation and they set out that very day to find out the fate of Kurugu Haneshi Mura. They didn’t get far before they began to find the remains of those that had fled Kurugu Haneshi Mura, the bodies of peasants dotted the road leading from the doomed village. Their bodies were like grisly mile markers, many of them seemed to have been partially eaten, their bones poked through massive wounds where maggots writhed. This was clearly not the work of the spears and swords bandits, theses bodies had been savagely broken and mutilated. The magistrate began to suspect that this was the work of unnatural creatures from beyond the bounds of Ningen-do. The magistrates suspicions were confirmed when they encountered one of the creatures before they ever got to Kurugu Haneshi Mura. The vicious gaki the magistrate encountered killed all three of the magistrate’s ashigaru before it could be brought down. The magistrate turned back before going further knowing that their duty was to inform the proper authorities.
Within weeks the Imperial authorities responded to the carnage at Kurugu Haneshi Mura. A coalition of troops was quickly cobbled together, including Imperial Legionnaires, Emerald Magistrates and yoriki, local ronin, and miscellaneous clan samurai. They arrived to cleanse Kurugu Haneshi Mura. The battle turned desperate as the troops cut their way to the town’s center and the estate of the local daimyo. Terrible gaki seemed to hide in every house and hut in the village, some appeared as leering corpses, others as incorporeal ghosts draining the life from their victims. Even when the troops made progress through the village more gaki appeared behind the troops. A terrible realization dawned on the commander, this was no minor incursion of vengeful spirits, a portal had been opened to Gaki-do and these demons were still pouring into Ningen-do. In a desperate attempt to save his forces before they were surrounded the commander ordered that his troops pull back to the edge of town and bombard the village with fire. The commander himself charged into the fray to buy as much time as possible. The Imperial Legion Tai-i, Matsu Kawageru, was last seen surrounded by hungry gaki in the center of town.
The fire bombardment worked, in a sense, as the village turned into an inferno, a funeral pyre for the village. The next day the remainder of the force cut down the remaining gaki and located the source of their appearance. The portal seemed to have shrunk somewhat from its original appearance but it showed no signs of disappearing entirely, and the area was permeated with tears between Gaki-do and Ningen-do. Word was sent back to the Jade Champion about what had been found at Kurugu Haneshi Mura and the Imperial authorities began planning how to deal with this new threat.
Toturi I decided that the office of the Jade Champion was to be responsible for dealing with the ongoing threat and the decision was made to bring in as many experts on other spirit realms and found a new village on the site to support a garrison as long as it will take to close the portal. Rather than appoint a single clan or Imperial representative to oversee administration of the village the decision is made to govern the new village by a council (with a nod to the Phoenix). This allows the Jade Champion to avoid becoming enmeshed in interclan politics though it is not particularly pleasing to anyone. Several samurai are given responsibility to oversee different parts of the new town which is renamed Shizuka na Mura. This new council is given the task of providing all necessary support for the closing of the portal, building a new town to support the garrison, and ensuring that any more gaki that get through the portal before it’s closed are dealt with swiftly before they can cause more mayhem.
In this campaign you play one of the samurai appointed to the town council. Something has distinguished you as a excellent resource to have administer the new village. You are probably one of the survivors of the force that burned the original village down, so you would have experience fighting the horrors of Gaki-do.
In your position you have two primary duties, oversee the construction of the town and protect Rokugan from the dangers of Gaki-do. There are troops stationed at the new village to help defend against the gaki but they will need food and supplies to maintain the garrison for the long term, especially over the winter when it will not be possible to import food to the village. To ensure that no one samurai is overly burdened with the duties of managing the town the Jade Champion has decreed that each samurai shall be responsible for different aspects of the village.
These are the designated areas of responsibility, each character should select one and the other roles will be filled by NPCs:
● Minister of Finance –
● Minister of Exploration – Andrew H.
● Minister of Spiritual Affairs – Mike G.
● Jade Magistrate (Law) – Nate F./Tamori Mizuki
● Minister of Arts & Entertainment – Ben N.
● Minister of Education – Joel P.
● Commander of the Garrison – Yoritomo Iru
● Minister of Heimin and Hinin Affairs – Ian
Because the village is not under the control of any one clan, none of the clans are particularly motivated to provide resources to your samurai, after all, it is unlikely that any one clan would receive credit for the success of the village so why would any one clan put forward its resources. However, if a clan’s representative were to distinguish themselves, then certain allocations could be made. This campaign will use a variation of the Way of the Daimyo mechanics where your character’s Honor, Glory, and Status will enable you to garner Imperial and clan support in the form of resources (building materials and labor) or information (access to archives etc.).
Depending on what you choose to build in your section of town, various different events may occur, some good, some bad. In addition depending on what goals you pursue other story avenues may open up.
These are some possible objectives that your character might want to pursue in addition to their mandate from the Jade Champion. Some of them may also help advance your progress towards your primary task as well. There may be additional rewards based on your own progress along these lines.
Move up the Ladder
Being given this assignment by the Imperial authorities is an excellent stepping stone in the career of an up and coming samurai such as yourself. If you demonstrate aptitude for administration you could move on to a more prestigious position, maybe someplace not infested with Gaki. You’ll need to make sure that your section of town is prosperous and harmonious, generating tax revenue will be important, as well as bringing attention to your success.
Close the Portal
Closing off the realm of Gaki-do from your own is the most important task at hand, everything else relates to this. You’ll probably need information about this portal and other spirit realms in general, this is going to mean access to information and calling on the help of others experienced in matters like these.
Explore the World
Nearly everything that was known about this area was lost when the previous village burned down. Exploring and understanding what is in the area of the village will be important if this village is to have a functioning economy. In addition, the answer to closing the portal may be found in understanding the area around the new village or on the other side of the portal.
Character Build Rules:
● 120 XP (total), No ronin, no non-samurai
● Characters should be able to work well with others (whether they choose to or not)
● Characters start with Status at 2.5 and an additional 1.5 Glory (PCs are technically now part of the newly formed Jade Legion)
Western Crane Lands, East of Tsuruchi Lands
Mountain summit area through which a pass runs, the previous village was in a cleared area surrounded by forest, with water coming from a well or from a stream along the mountains.
Early Toturi I reign (1130’s).
Following Kitsu Okura’s fall from grace in 1132, Seppun Sento became Jade Champion.
Each session is roughly a month.
Town Construction Rules:
Each PC gets 5 Construction Points (CP) per session as a base.
Each session, 5 skill rolls can be made to earn CP, each project has 3 skill rolls associated with it. The TN of the roll is 15 for a small project, 20 for a medium project, 25 for a large project. Success earns 2 CP, each raise 1 CP.
Small project requires 5 CP. Medium project requires 20 CP. Large project requires 100 CP.
1 CP = 10 Koku
Experts/specialists can earn CP or produce deductions on projects (reduce costs).
Can spend Void once or use another effect, like a spell, once per session on two different rolls to assist construction.
Town sections have their own “Glory” Ranks, representing popularity, morale, and successfulness, and “Infamy” Ranks, representing disreputable activities, tragedy, or poor morale not due to indifference. Glory/Infamy Rank starts at 0.0 and is only measured in increments of .5 (e.g. 4.5, 7.0).