Generation Games ~ Pt.3

If we are to have heroes, we must have challenges for them to overcome.  In a Generation or Legacy game, the quest is handed down through the years, and so by extension are the challenges. Arranging this takes a fair bit of work both to ensure the ongoing survival of the challenge, whatever form it takes, and in keeping it both interesting and believable.

Story Style:

In the simplest sense, when you are plotting out a Legacy Game, you have two choices: recurring problem, or unrelated problems of a specific type. An example of this choice could be deciding between setting up a campaign based around thwarting the activities of a mysterious cult, and rooting out and destroying all copies of a blasphemous tome. In the first example, even though the cult will take on new members in new places  and hide under new names and guises, it will be the same threat coming back again and again working toward the same ends. This has specific setting and play rewards, and produces a specific atmosphere. In the second example, the purpose of the player group remains constant – destroy the book – but everything else changes. The book might be held by people of good intent or ill, the might have to search for it in book stores, negotiate for it from private collectors, liberate it from cultists, or obtain it from museums. This approach also has specific advantages and produces a certain atmosphere.  One also has the choice to mix the two, of course.

The Recurring Villain:

In the Fu Manchu novels by Sax Rohmer and in many clones of this somewhat less than politically correct character, the villain is phenomenally talented, and is often privy to the secrets of longevity (Fu Manchu) or outright resurrection (DC Comic’s Rā’s al Ghūl), and has at his command legions of slavish devotees. This gives us the simplest option for a Legacy villain: the same villain returns again and again throughout the settings of your campaign. In an occult game such as Call of Cthulhu, this has a certain weight and advantage, but it carries a price: you have to guarantee the escape of the villain after each encounter and the players have to accept the plausibility of that escape, or the players must accept the continued failure to ever get close to the villain until your final endgame. This means a lot of work lovingly crafting the villain and selling him as an adversary to the players and keeping their opinion of him high while also keeping the game from feeling like a chain of failures. It is the villain who needs to feel the frustration as his plots get foiled, not the players for the villain’s escape. Obviously, interactions with this type of villain must either not occur, or happen so rarely that they do not become frustrating. The key is when plotting your stories, they are not about the villain, but about his minions. The goal is not about stopping the villain, but about stopping the minions. You know about the villain. The players know about the minions. Over time, little by little, they will glean hints that some group or person is operating behind the scenes, and each revelation will put their accomplishments in foiling his plots into sharper perspective. As they learn more about this unimagined criminal mastermind, they can take pride again and again in stopping him, rather than feeling let down that he escaped justice once more. This has the added benefit of  not requiring any railroading or faked die rolls.

The Recurring Sinister Organization:

The recurring cult is an easier burden to take on, and any resurrections of the organization from the ashes of a previous iteration later on in the game, should the players be able to wipe it out in any particular period of play, are much easier to explain and justify,  even in a non-occult game. Wrestling with the many secretive arms of a cult can be just as compelling and difficult as facing an iconic Legacy Villain, but rarely does the continued existence of the cult bring on a sense of failure in the personal sense that the recurring immortal genius super-villain does. Many groups will likely not even form an attachment to or desire for the eradication of the cult any more than they would attempt the utter destruction of a deific entity or Great Old One. Stopping it for now is about as lofty a goal as will be assumed by any sensible group. This makes it easier to keep the focus of the game where it needs to be for continued enjoyment… unless you have a group of masochists.

Continuity, Connections, and Competence:

To preserve the sense of an ongoing struggle, everyone needs to track clues and progress from age to age. How much information from past settings has been preserved and passed on to present or  future settings? This includes the GM and the secrets and revelations the NPC villains have uncovered about the PCs. Think of the opening scenes in the original Terminator film…  Sarah Conner?  It is nice if the enemy is not omniscient and omnipresent. (Maybe not so nice for all the extraneous Sarah Conners of the world, but what are you going to do?)

Similarly, the opposition, be they a single super-villain with an army of thugs and dupes, or be they a cult, secret society, circle of self-important nepotists, or a family of privileged types like the heroes might be, must have goals which grow in definition and refinement as the years, decades, and generations pass. As the players and their troupe of characters slowly uncover more and more about the workings of evil, so too must the opposition. The characters’ greater knowledge and experience in handling threats needs to be dramatically and appropriately countered by a commensurate increase in understanding of what they must do, capability to do it, and options for action should plans fail, for the villainous wretch(es) the characters pursue.

Plans and Planning, and Making Enemies:

In the early stages, the characters will be as unknown to the villains as the villains are to the characters. Even after the first success by the investigators to foil whatever evil you have cooked up for the villains to perpetrate, it is unlikely the villains will give the characters much lasting thought. Plans will be made without considering the specific actions of the characters. This will continue until the villains have sufficient information, motivation, and reason to begin targeting the investigators as a matter of course. It is at that point when the villain or villains transition from being villains to being enemies. It is at that point that they are out to get the characters. Hopefully by that point, the characters will have already hit on the idea that the villains are bad people who will keep trying to immanentize the eschaton, steal the Mona Lisa, read the Necronomicon over the principal’s loudspeaker during home-room, brainwash wealthy young socialites, or start an after-school breeding program with the local Deep One colony at the local Day Care over and over again unless stopped.

From this point, the characters need to become less reactive in their dealings with the villains’ activities, and for their part, the villains need to do their best to prevent or permanently end the interference of the investigators. This is a very important moment in the development and pacing of the campaign and needs to be considered carefully, and introduced into the conscious awareness of the players just as carefully. Having the entire cast of characters assassinated in their sleep by fanatical cultists, while plausible and cheap, is not very interesting or dramatic. Hence… poor Sarah Conner, chain-smoking mother of 9, gets to perish in the night under suspicious circumstances, and the characters should have developed a network of ways to learn about them by then.

Off to the R’lyeh Races:

Once these initial plotting and style decisions have been made, you are good to go. Many other factors will flesh themselves out in play, and certain aspects will evolve more naturally into more complete and more deeply creative designs from these basic foundations.

If you haven’t tried this approach, the pay off of running a game in this style is immense. Try it, and please let me know how it goes. If you have tried it, please feel free to add your own suggestions below~

The Generation Games Series:

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