In this fifth installment of my thoughts and praxis upon running a Delta Green-campaign, I will continue describing some of the things, that run in the background. In the fourth post I covered structure, episodes and story arc, and here I will again work with the background.
The Purpose of the Structure
The basic purpose is to shape the skeleton on to which the missions, themes and narratives can be attached to shape a whole campaign. Once the structure is in place, material begins to pop up by itself filling out blank spaces. The structure becomes a tool with which a grand tale can be told.
For us it is the tale of people sacrificing their lives in order to keep other people safe for those who live by the sword dies by the sword. It is a tragic story as each character will either be killed or corrupted, and all they can hope is that they made a difference.
Take a show like Fringe or Babylon 5. In both of them we slowly learn about the cosmology, that govern the rules of the setting. Ultimately the core conflict of the show is tied into the cosmology, and the events become almost mythical as our protagonists take their roles in the ongoing struggle inherent in the cosmology. That is awesome.
In a show like X-files the cosmology is a lot messier. It changes and gets revised, but it is still important to the episodes and it is still the source of conflicts, and thusly episodes in the show.
There is also a grand something in Lovecrafts stories, and it is in part shared by other authors like Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith, and it is later attempted to be codified by disciples as Derleth, and later again modified in the various incarnations of the Cthulhu-games (Call, Trail, Call d20, Delta Green), and it is not uncommon to see a scenario-author or a GM modifying a part of the cosmology to suit his or her campaign. This cosmology often becomes the source of missions, monsters, and mythos. Yet the story of how the things are rarely enters the game. In TV-shows and the written stories there is an obvious difference between, what the characters know and what the audience knows. As audience we see things, that the characters do not and vice versa. As roleplaying often tacitly assumes, that character knowledge and player knowledge is identical – or that the players abstain from using their knowledge – the driving force behind it all ends up remaining anonymous. There is no end to the back stories and descriptions of elder beings and horrendous gods I have read about in campaigns, rulebooks and scenarios, that never truly becomes available for the players, at least not during the game.
The Cosmology is the driving force. It creates reason as to why the Cthulhu Mythos is a threat and must be stopped. It is the tool with which the GM creates new missions, as the Cosmology spawns new conflicts. However the rules of the universe often remains hidden and unseen. Only an outsider like the audience can gain insight into the whole of the cosmology, as the audience is privy to more knowledge, than the characters in the stories.
Letting Cosmology into Play
And yet, I want the cosmology, the mysterious back story to be part of the game. I can present the players with an NPC, who happens to have just the right speech for them, or I can create a long hand out telling the story to the players or some such. In shows the audience gets little tidbits along the way, usually the last five minutes of the show, and often in the shape of cut aways, so what is revealed is information outside the reach of the protagonists. That too is a viable option, I could present the players with a cut to a scene, where the antagonist reveals his thoughts to his minion (and Star Wars d6 did employ something like it back in the days)
However we are dealing with a Lovecraftian campaign, and a stable element of a Call of Cthulhu-campaign are the books. Ancient tomes filled with strange tales, and reading these are an important element of the stories, and having the characters learn spells from them, earning Cthulhu Mythos Skill Points and loosing Sanity Points are important elements in the Call of Cthulhu-Game, but the process of reading the book is not important. I want to do that, and I want to use the reading of the books as a way to introduce the Cosmology.
How To Read A Book In Roleplaying
For me the approach is not to plan too heavily ahead. I have a catalogue of ideas, but I never plan more than the present episode – and to keep me from planning further episodes ahead, I have granted the players the right to buy the next mission, so their choices shape the flow of the campaign.
As I do not plan ahead, I also keep the cosmology vague and fluid. It adapts and remain consistent with earlier information, but it does not guide the coming episodes of the campaign, and the cosmology is not tied to a specific story or campaign arc.
So when the players had their characters pick up The Pnakotic Manuscript at the end of one session, and prepared for their characters to study the text the next session. I mailed the players text with a collection of names and events, dates and places and small tidbits of stories, but never a complete narrative, just tidbits.
When we met, we played out the characters studying the text. Each player had the document, and the players took turns either through inner monologues or in dialogue with each other they reminisced or debated, what they have read, and they tied the pieces together. In this way they either studied the text alone or in a study group presenting their reading of the text and they kept building on each others improvisations. Meanwhile I took notes, and this became the true cosmology, that The Pnakotic Manuscript presented. Now I use the notes, when I create new missions and new conflicts.
And this is how, we roleplayed the characters studying the ancient texts, and how the characters learned the secrets of the ancients (gained Cthulhu Mythos-points and lost Sanity Points) – and yet it was based on the improvisations of the players, but now it is true in the campaign.
Next up is Threats, Sideplots, and Multiple Characters.