The White Wolf Transylvanian Chronicles campaign opens badly. The PCs are told by their Sires to come to Budapest where they get told that they must build a castle in Transylvania, a country that none of them have visited before.
Several things wrong right there, firstly the Sires summon their Childer. Why not open the game with the characters accompanying their Sires to this meeting or something less magisterial? The "come here, do that" approach is used frequently throughout the campaign and after a while it simply becomes annoying because there is no attempt to develop a relationship. The Sires fill the much-ridiculed Patron position doling out task after task. There are hints that there is some wider political context or conspiracy in which the Sires are involved but since there is no real attempt to reveal the meaning or consequences of their plotting there is little feeling of engagement with a larger political world.
Why start the game in Hungary? Surely it would be better to move the beginning of the campaign to Transylvania itself? In fact the country the campaign is named after takes an awfully long time to shuffle into view. The opening scenes take place in Hungary and the castle location is near enough on the border with Russia. Transylvania itself is reduced to a series of unpleasant way points between scenario locations. How much better it would have been to have the initial meeting in a Transylvanian keep or army camp allowing both a sense of dislocation and introduction. Instead it seems that Budapest has been chosen for its picturesque Gothic qualities and a poor precedent is laid down.
The tasks that the Sires dole out throughout the campaign are often stupid and implausible, if you wanted a castle built in a foreign country would you send a bunch of inexperienced foreigners or use locals? At the very least you would want to make some local connections to smooth matters out. On the evidence of the campaign that I saw the Elder Vampires expect this group to go and build a castle with no knowledge of the country, its resources, its people, languages, culture or indeed any idea of how they are meant to get to the site of the castle to be. It feels more like a Carry On film and after having made the Elders remote from the characters it makes them looks foolish in the eyes of the players.
Generally you would not expect the first few sessions of any campaign to be "on fire" but it is dangerous not to set down some solid foundations for the game ahead. The majority of the early Transylvanian Chronicles I remember simply as being confusing and frustrating. The shifting scene fails to generate any sense of place and the lack of consistent and friendly NPCs generates a siege mentality. Transylvania and its people are beyond the walls and we are inside desperately trying to complete some enigmatic task for a powerful but utterly opaque clique.
If the campaign was a normal game then probably after the completion of the castle the players could have explained their frustrations to the GM and a good GM would have modified the game to allow more of the background of Central Europe to seep in. This being a "canon" published adventure though there was nothing to do but knuckle down and try to grind through the scenarios as quickly as possible.
Like most White Wolf scenarios though Transylvanian Chronicles is not about offering opportunities or situations to players and GMs. There is an unnecessarily linear Plot that must be Consumed.
The situation is essentially simple at the start of the campaign, the Prince of Hungary wants a castle built to help keep northern Transylvania "open" and under Hungarian influence. As part of some deal with the PCs Sires he asks them to do it. The Sires sub-contract the task to their Childer. That is the situation. All it needs are some antagonists that do not want the castle built, some neutrals that need to be won over or cowed to ensure supplies and Bob's your uncle the PCs can start exploring Transylvania.
It should be that simple but it isn't. Right from the start there are Things That Must Happen so Other Things Can Happen Later.
On the journey a group of bandits attack the characters' wagon train and either steal or destroy the supply of gold the group have been given. No matter what precautions are taken or how swiftly and vigorously the characters respond the bandits descend from the trees and burn the wagons to the ground.
After the attack no action can restore the gold even if it has not been stolen. The group cannot track the bandits or (as happened in our game) recast the damaged gold. Even if the group come up with imaginative schemes for making good the money these will fail to raise the necessary amount. Again to quote our game the PCs imposed tolls on the countryside around them, acted as guards for travellers and mercenaries and even enslaved the local population to provide a free labour force. None of it mattered, before the castle is built you will have borrowed money from…
Canon character Myca Vickos (the name's spelling varies, I have at least three variants in my notebooks), who lends the money in exchange for a boon. The boon turns out to be the utterly banal transport of Goratrix the Tremere heretic from one part of Transylvania to the Tremere heartland in central Translyvania.
The sequence is incredibly dull and we ended up entertaining ourselves by sawing pieces of the impaled vampire off and putting them in a coffin for easy transportation. Apart from that I cannot remember anything at all about the sessions where we humped that coffin around, it was all incredibly tedious. But we had to do it because…
The group meets the Antediluvian Tremere! Which turns out to be the biggest anti-climax in the campaign so far (there are more than a few ahead). Tremere is a corpulent, bloated, legless corpse who flies around the place provoking laughter and cat-calls of "Plagiarism! Dune!" in all he meets.
Of course side-shaking laughter isn't what such a powerful creature is meant to inspire in humble creatures so the GM uses the Unspeakable Powers of the NPC to utterly humiliate the PCs and with that the whole exciting episode is over. Note for ever of course…
As it turns out that in Cicero's library he has a book that contains the exact resting place of Tzimesce, another Antediluvian. If only he read a bit more of his collection! He never knew he had it until a handy NPC tells him the title and gives him the clues to solve the puzzle of the book. Which Cicero promptly does - he may not read but when give a step by step guide to "Solving the puzzle" by god he's capable!
Of course having discovered the final resting place of the Clan founder the last thing our hero wants to do is reveal it to the dissident Tzimesce who are determined to diablerise their founder. After all doing such a thing would inevitably worsen the civil war that is destabilising Transylvania and giving the Inquisition an excuse to ravage the kingdom and destroy many vampires and their allies. No doing such a thing would be stupid so having made up his mind he confronts the renegades determined to die rather than reveal the secret…
Not to worry though because when he turns up to the meeting and gives a speech about the dangers inherent in such knowledge the NPCs inform him that they have telepathy and therefore know where the Founder is. Not only that but their telepathy has allowed them to communicate that information to their comrades on the other side of Transylvania and there is nothing the PCs can do to stop them. But would they like to join the revolution anyway?
The last example was the most blatant example of GM fixing I have seen in RPG apart from the childish "You're all dead! No saving throw!". It was really shocking as it managed to combine designer fiat with special NPC only powers that have never been heard of before and are never used subsequently. Sweet. Of course having seen which way the wind is blowing…
The PCs join the revolt and ride to join in the diablerie of Tzimesce, or possibly to try and stop it. Although I remember us arguing what exactly we going to do when we got there I don't remember any of us suggesting that NPCs with amazing Potence and Celerity would pin us the cavern walls while their friends drank the founder dry. This seems a surprise in hindsight. Of course then came the usual humiliate the PCs scene where the PCs get to have a sip of the diablerists' blood having been denied the centre spot.
Again the surprising thing is how blatant this "present but spectator" thing is policed. Being literally forced to watch but do nothing else might work in some circumstances but here it is just one more example of having to do something (namely imbibe elder blood) but having to do it in a strictly enforced way. The whole session could simply have been read to the players since their characters cannot materially fail or succeed in any way. It is fascinating and grotesquely awful.
The "sealed deck" type of CCG game is where all players start with a single basic pack of the game they are playing. They do not know what kind of cards they are going to have until they break the shrink wrap on their box and see what they are going to be playing with.
Some people have been pointing out the similarity between my own concept of the non-collectible card game and this kind of play. The key factor is that essentially in both the player cannot guarantee what type of game they are going to play. In normal CCGs the player decides the type of game they wish to play and then procure cards that suit that style of play. In sealed deck the player needs great initiative and maturity in strategy. They have to be aware of several different playing styles and then adapt their gameplay to the modes suggested by the available cards. They also need the flexibility to recognise what kind of play their opponent is making as the game develops and respond to it as best they can.
There are several problems with sealed deck however. Firstly there is very baldly the cost, few people can afford the price of a new starter deck every time they want to play the game. Secondly not all games are suitable for this kind of play. In Saint Sebastian #4 I talked about Shadowfist, a game that is patently unsuitable for sealed deck because its starter pack distributions are identical. In other games like Rage the problem lies at the other end of the scale, the starter pack distributions are so wild that satisfying games rarely result.
Therefore consider non-collectible games to be attempts reproduce the "sealed deck" feel of limited resources and emphasis on tactical play and broad strategy. The benefits it provides it addition to creating the "right" gameplay is that it seeks to minimise cost and also the possession of large numbers of essentially unused cards. The last factor is particularly attractive to me as I seem to acquired large numbers of worthless cards that cannot be usefully turned into top notch decks. Anyway to the deck builders, your fun is your own but I prefer to play games.
The voluntary theme on the subject of starting and recruiting gaming groups seems remarkably apt as recently two players have dropped out of my regular group. One of these disappearances was very sudden and linked to personal issues outside the game. The other was more well-planned and more difficult as it temporary in nature, unlikely to be more than three weeks long with luck.
The departures caused the remaining members to have a quick group chat about what we should do. This itself was a good sign as it shows that a group meltdown is not imminent. Sometimes a single departure can be enough to fracture a group into its component cliques. Loss of a particularly active member can also be disastrous unless the remaining members are willing to pick up the baton. None of these issues are likely to affect us. In fact the real issue is whether we should try and replace the missing members. If we recruit even another player and both the absentees return then the room where we game will no longer be large enough to hold us all.
Another disincentive is that if we recruit early and the absentee changes his mind then will he be discouraged from returning? After discussing it we decided to do nothing hasty and discuss the matter again in a few weeks. In the meantime the GMs will have to try and perform the soap opera writer's trick of keeping a character off-scene without writing them out of the show altogether.