This is a guest post from Antalon, the GM for a Mythras Monster Island campaign I am playing in.
Note from me as a player: The campaign has truly been loads of fun. Everything just clicks – in addition to having a great cast of main characters and really super people playing them – the antagonists that we try to survive interacting with are also worthy and the sandbox lives and reacts – everything has consequences. Much kudos is due to @Antalon for being a world class GM and keeping all this together.
I would heartily recommend the passions made and run in the style that @Antalon writes. it has given the play and characters so much…
Guest post from Antalon starts
In August 2020 I first brought together a new group to play test a scenario idea I had for Monster Island. As the year closes, I thought to share some experiences in running a weekly, near 18 month long Monster Island campaign. I’m very lucky to have got the ‘platinum’ standard of players – respectful to each other, engaging in the setting and invested in their characters and happy to kick back and have a laugh – we need it at the moment! I’ve posted the actual adventures to the Discord channel, if your scroll back, here: https://discord.gg/mzTEjXTVc2
For the uninitiated, Monster Island is a setting supplement and bestiary for ‘sandbox’ play that evokes the weird fantasy-science of Clark Ashton Smith, oozing a pulpy sword and sorcery theme, which also acts as a ‘demonstrator model’ of how to adjust Mythras to evoke a tone, culture and flavourful magic. It is rich, evocative and inspiring – and for me is King Kong meets the Golden Voyage of Sinbad.
The players and group
The group comprised two of my long-time gaming buddies from face to face groups when I played regularly in London pubs, and two people new to me that I knew slightly from discussion boards or had met via GenCon Mythras games. Ages ranged from mid-30s to over 50. Experience with Mythras and/ or predecessors is strong. The idea was for a short 5-6 session game. We’re still playing more or less weekly…
My learning: Setting a tone via passions works well, I set the following to be adopted when designing characters:
· A drive, representing a personal goal or ambition like ‘defeat the foes of my father’ or ‘become the world’s greatest thief’;
· A vice, such as a dependency, habit or social flaw such as vanity, greed or compulsive liar;
· A fear or superstition, for example of sorcery, spirits, or something mundane (snakes?).
I also believe that a great campaign is down to 30% GM and 70% players: everyone contributes to making the game great. The single biggest insight: players should not tell other players what their character should do. In this campaign, I noted that no one was hectoring, badgering or complaining at another player to “move there”, “hit him”, “don’t use that special, use this”. It makes game play relaxed and fun if everyone respects each other’s right to judge, decide and do whatever action they think best!
Structured adventures verses sandbox
Monster Island can be challenging for structure scenarios: only one ‘civilised’ settlement exists, and the interior of the island does not allow easy or safe travel, it is also comprised of quite ‘alien’ cultures. Careful thought is needed to adopt many traditional adventure tropes. Further, adventures can feel ‘claustrophobic’, with a small population in Port Grimsand, everyone is likely to know your businesses (I actually quite like this). This also means that player characters may quickly become noticeable, or notable, very early in their careers: if you make enemies in Grimsand, there are very few places to hide! What is essential is to develop the factions within Port Grimsand, and use these to anchor the adventure themes and the response to the player characters. Monster Island gives enough to kick off these factions, but each GM must build this and there are many RPG tools / advice out there to help. I used ideas from Night’s Black Agents to develop a hierarchy of antagonist response, and kept notes of each faction and its current attitude toward the player characters. I would do more, perhaps using Kevin Crawford’s ideas.
After much longer than I thought, the play test part was over: we wanted to carry on playing! This is where I leaned on the sandbox elements of Monster Island – along with continuing to build a sense of the factions. Monster Island is meant for sandbox and, with the right players and strong motivations for player characters, the setting really sings. All I have done since is tried to stay one step ahead of the players every week, and reflect on how the story that has unfolded from the player’s actions should colour the next session: there is no need for a wider meta-plot! Villains have evolved naturally, and following Mythras’ predecessors, no one is just ‘evil’, people simply have motives and varying tolerances for taking ruthless action!
The challenge, however, is to ensure that all players have spotlight time. I’m still working on this. And, I feel at risk of a degree of ‘sameness’, to the extent that the group stumbles from one disastrous situation and into the next, without a clear reason. I’ve found I need to try and anchor actions back to Passions: passions are the secret weapon of Mythras GMs! And, although no overall meta-plot is needed, what I have tried to do is consider what the story arc looks like given the player-character intentions. In this game, so far, actions have been driven by a very early exposure to a virulent and very nasty disease: this has been the core behind the overall game direction, finding a cure whilst delaying the onset of the disease. This core plot driver arrived entirely by chance – a nosy adventurer, a random table roll and a failed Endurance check. What I’ve learned is that detailed planning is for the next session, but having a ‘mental map’ of how the upcoming sessions could develop is enough to give – in retrospect – a sense of ‘story arc’. I feel that ‘story’ in RPGs is the thing we describe after we have played, it is retrospective and player-driven.
Monster Island makes a number of small tweaks to the core Mythras magic system. These are simple, so add flavour and not complexity. Otherwise it runs ‘out of the box’, with the core rules. As you may expect special effects make combat both rewarding and gamble – never enter a fair fight in Port Grimsand!
As GM, I’ve used two mechanics to push the pulp-tone of sword and sorcery, to create a Lankhmar-like port town and a primeval jungle, with hint of the Cthonic. First, the passion rules. Make these flexible, and use them as both regular skills as well as augments: but I have also imposed a check against a passion to make a player character act ‘passionately’. If players want a ‘disruptive’ passion, the least I can do is reward that by making the passion bite at a delicate time… Second, adjusting the frequency of Luck Point refreshes signals just how daring player characters should be – and how many risks players feel comfortable with. I don’t use group Luck Points, but refresh personal Luck Points in full every session – and our sessions are usually only 2 hours long. This means more risks are taken – more pulp action!
What’s really worked well
This campaign has gone really, really ‘right’. Nothing special from me, but the points above suggest:
· Align player character passions with the campaign setting – and use passions actively and fluidly to mirror how the player and GM feel about the relationships between characters
· Allow space for inter-player character interaction – let rivalry and friendship develop within the adventuring group, as this makes for rich story telling
· React and respond to the players – make their suggestions part of the setting, even if with a perverse twist…
· Keep the Island’s secrets, secret, but do give some clear, and tangible leads. Monster Island is very rich in ancient lore and mysterious locations. The trouble is, if players don’t know of them, they cannot drive the action. Getting the balance right matters (I’m working on that too)
· Keep the players off balance. Monster Island justifies you, as GM, to throw in pretty much anything (lost legion of Romans? Crashed Airships or Rocketships?). However weird, the jungle, in the end, will bury it…
What’s more difficult
Very little really, but as noted more typical adventure tropes can be tricky to use. I feel slightly exposed to repeating similar themes: how many enigmatic Lizardfolk shaman can one really meet before it gets tired?
I also find challenging that only a single, accessible settlement, is open to humanocetric characters. But, this is easily fixed. I just need to place Monster Island somewhere and enable more transit back and forth: the inner sea of Thennla is very tempting. And, Loz, if you’re listening, we need a map with grid co-ordinates and a player version of the hex map (think Isle of Dread…).
We’re nearly 18 months in. This campaign has plenty of legs still. The Monster Island setting is absolutely stuffed full of inspiration: every time I read it, I find something that triggers my imagination and keeps me hungry to run the setting. And, I’m grateful to my players for rewarding my efforts with such full and fun sessions in the twisted streets of Grimsand, and now the humid jungles of interior of Monster Island! Hoping for much more in 2022!
The thread for discussing this is in Design Mechanism forums
You will find the Monster Island supplement here and Bird in Hand – a magnificent scenario for Monster Island written by @Antalon here