Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Writing The Dreadnought RPG

Notice: This posting is about the creation of an RPG game for personal use based on the copyrighted works of Cherie Priest. I do not have permission from the author, and as such I am taking some polite efforts to protect her works. I will avoid revealing actual details of the story, including most character names and specific outcomes of events portrayed in the novel Dreadnought. Most of what I do reveal is the stuff you could learn about by reading the blurb on the back of the book. Instead, this post is mainly concerned with the work I put into creating a game scenario based on a novel. If you are interested in learning the full story, I suggest asking your local book store to order it, or purchase it from any number of retailers online. I loved it. You probably will too.

Months ago I finally got my hands on Boneshaker, by Cherie Priest. A steampunk action adventure set in an alternate history Seattle I loved the setting and world created in the story, from the cool drilling machine of the title to the great walled city of Seattle. It was a world crying out to be expanded upon and realized through the joy of collaborative story-telling that is roleplaying games. More importantly, it was perfect for my favourite system, FATE 3.0. It had magnificent airships, heroic figures, dastardly villains and terrifying zombies. Awesome!

But building a whole game world is a daunting affair, especially when you're playing in another persons sandbox. Stay around Seattle and tell stories there? Explore further afield? Retell the adventure from the novel? The last option was favorable, if only because it was less work. But Boneshaker follows the adventures of Briar Wilkes and her son, mostly separated, and usually each alone. That does not a good RPG make.

And then along came Dreadnought. Also part of the Clockwork Century series, Dreadnought plays out most of its action on board a train pulled by the massive war-engine of the title. The start of the book follows the singular travels of the novels lead hero, Mrs. Mercy Lynch, as she travels to visit her sick father on the far side of the American continent. However, on reaching the Dreadnought, she is placed in an environment where she can repeatedly interact with a number of recurring characters, many of whom are fleshed out and developed over the course of the adventure[1].

My brain started firing on all cylinders! This was perfect. I could take Mercy and some of her traveling companions and make them the Player Characters. Some additional backgrounds might be needed for one or two, but most were well realized in the novel itself and needed very little additional work. In no time at all, I decided who would be good as PCs and who would work as important NPCs.

I laid out party of four Player Characters using the most recent iteration of the FATE 3.0 rules from The Dresden Files RPG. I had fun with the Aspects, taking quotes from the novel for some, and wording others in as humorous as manner as I could manage. Some examples include "Knowledge of the law... and lawless", "Blue or grey, they all bleed red", "I can be a hometown sweetheart... when it suits me" and "Competent officers are never given enough information to work with."[2]

As the train itself was an important character in the novel, I gave the Dreadnought her own set of Aspects, including my two favorite, "An armored tank, bound to the rails" and "Huge mass, unstoppable momentum".

Once I had the train speced up, I realized that she truly was important to the story. More than just a location for the action to happen on, she was even changing, and developed just like the named character aboard her. With this in mind I decided that I should have her represented on the game table. I drew each of the carriages on acetate, cutting them into separate cars so that over the course of the the game they can be removed, as in the story itself. The train ended up being huge, almost four feet in length! There are also a few mysteries on board, so I drew them onto separate acetates that I cut to allow me to drop onto the train as they become revealed[3].

Then I wrote up a total of five "At the mention of X, you recall the following" notes. These represent world knowledge that the characters have that the players themselves don't have. In particular, it is knowledge that would not make sense to have in the character descriptions without revealing a plot twist or interesting development. I also wrote a separate note for a telegraph one character accidentally reads.

With all that done, I then just needed to plot the adventure. Having read the book once, I went back and went through the story from the point that Mercy boards the Dreadnought pulled train. I made a bullet-point list of everything that happens, from subtle character development to the action set-pieces. NPCs were noted, and the important ones given a handful of Aspects and important Skills.

Finally, I printed out a map of the American States with their names, as well as a smaller map showing which states were with the Union and the Confederates during the Civil War. The latter may never be important, just adding knowledge and flavor but I used the labeled map to plot the journey of the characters, Indiana Jones style!

All the preparation was complete. The train was placed in one small envelope, while all the extra bits I didn't want the players to see right away were placed in the other. These two envelopes were then placed, along with the bullet-pointed adventure, the character sheets and backgrounds, the maps and any other bits I thought I might need, into a larger cardboard envelope for secure transport to my local gaming store.

And then I introduced Dreadnought to my players.

[1] Not that the supporting characters in Boneshaker weren't fleshed out, but few of them formed a party with either of the main characters for long enough that it was easy to decide who should be a Player Character.
[2] Pop quiz for those readers who have read Dreadnought: Which Aspect belongs to which character from the novel?
[3] My one mistake so far. I made the train out of acetate. It doesn't need to be transparent, in fact, it's harder to see because it is. The items to be placed on top later are perfect on an acetate, but the train should have been on white card. I think I'll get some modeling paint and paint the backs of the train acetates before next week.

1 comment:

Brian said...

Hey, I recognise that! (The idea of the train laid out as a map). Awesome idea tho, too good not to reuse!