Delving into Design: Echo of Dead Leaves (Part I)

Halloween is nearly here, and we all have varying degrees of affection for this holiday. In one week (barring any weirdnesses), I’ll be kicking off the Echo of Dead Leaves campaign for my guys as a means to both stress test the storyline and to run a horror game in celebration of the horrific holiday. For those of you just tuning in, this is the 1920s Plot Point Campaign/Sourcebook I’ve been working on for Realms of Cthulhu. Interestingly enough, the campaign itself begins on Halloween and there are timing issues within the work itself. This isn’t a manifesto about my terrific gaming group (which they are) or to get into the literary sensibilities of integrating theme into a work (which many might find dry), but an overview, a snapshot if you will, of some of the disparate elements that have gone into this work whilst I’m in the midst of it. My time may be better spent on getting the work completed first, granted, however, I’m wanting to get back to writing more stuff on the website, and I know I won’t be able to accurately describe the trees once I’m out of the forest. Presently, I can see the bark on each tree as I past it, smell the scent of ancient pines, and feel the foreboding darkness closing in about me as I navigate along the path before me with the flickering light of an outline to guide me. Stay near, I wouldn’t want you to get lost in these woods. I’ve heard some tales…

Let’s start at the beginning. Echo of Dead Leaves has been fermenting in my mind for a goodly while. I’ve been stewing it over for well over a year. I’ve had the major waypoints sketched out since early this year/late last year. Numerous events (conspired and unexpected) have kept me from getting much further that that. Details of real life and business life is grist for another mill, but not this one, so we’ll set that aside for the time. I said I’d start at the beginning, and the beginning was when Realms of Cthulhu was completed, printed, and the response was strong. I already had plans for this campaign, the name of which was inspired by something I’d seen on the walls of a restroom where I shoot pool–the game of kings–from time to time. The words were Dead Leaf Echo, which I vaguely recalled as a band. The name is evocative, certainly, but as I shot and had a beer or two, I held on to that. There was something there. When I undertake a project, I first have to give it a name, something to hold on dearly to, a buoy that I can cling to when I’m too far at sea. The project name has to have legs. I fiddled with this a bit and the words fell into proper order—Echo of Dead Leaves–that’s evocative and many images and ideas flooded into my mind, so I filed them away in the corners of my mind, and let them steep for a bit, knowing my subconcious would work on them even while I undertook other things (which I did, but not until later). I went to my computer–the one I’m still typing on–oh faithful, wheezing techbeast, and began jotting down ideas–many of them good, some not so good, and turned off the internal censor, the critic that turned up its nose at anything that wasn’t the golden prose of a slumbering god. I wrote. I took notes. I wrote some more. I then set it aside, flipped through various Mythos books, and began doing some research. The seeds took root, and something emerged from the soil.

With the title well in hand, and lots of zeros and ones storing ideas for me. I set the outline aside, and resumed working on some shorter pieces–some fantasy adventures and wrapping up Iron Dynasty (which became a full on monster in its own right, though that was not the plan at the time) because I needed to get the long promised oriental work out. Upon returning to my material, I read through the scattered files and asked myself one serious question: what was I on when I sketched this out?

Let me elaborate. It’s not that the ideas I had were bad. It’s just that they had such an inherent complexity that I felt the center could not hold. The interdependence upon causal relationships was so intrinsic that if any of the links broke (i.e. the characters did not take the bait or properly complete given tasks) that the rest of the story would collapse under its own weight (which is why it’s wise, nay essential, to have a degree of modularity to one’s structure). I set aside the initial shock and dismay and realized that this is nothing new. First ideas–mine anyway–often tend to have more complexity then necessary. In any given game group that I’ve encountered, what may be obvious to the writer/designer does not immediately translate to clarity to the players. In other words, stripping out the non-essentials is A-OK, a good group introduces variables with their choice of characters and each character’s (and players) foibles will wrinkle up even the most starched out, pristine storyline in ways one cannot imagine. (A recent example of this is when we played in a fine horror adventure run by John Goff and our characters managed to focus more on the intricacies of contract law than on the abject doom waiting to kill us all. It made sense for the characters, but was certainly not what he envisioned.) I took the complexity of the storylines and stripped it down to its essentials–those elements that make the story hang together and the structure is a lot stronger for it. I decoupled the plot points in an interesting way that means whether the characters win/lose or skip certain “key scenes” altogether there are ramifications to their actions/inactions. This reintroduces a level of complexity that is entirely dependent upon the dynamics of a given game group and the variability of their dice (which is mitigated somewhat by their bennies, but still not a guarantee). With this well in hand, I next turned my attentions to Mythos Tales.

Mythos Tales (which are side adventures that don’t directly/typically impact the causality of the main story line) present their own issues. Again, one wants player/character buy in. While not critical to the throughline of the story, they should not be dismissed out of turn. Good Mythos Tales should promote and reinforce the overarcing theme of the work while being fun and organic in nature (i.e. the players/characters need to naturally feel drawn towards them). I’ve handled this just fine in past works (such as RunePunk), but I wanted to, again, find a way to get the group more deeply involved in what’s going on and have it not come across in a cookie cutter fashion. The solution: this whole group of characters in the living, breathing city: the NPCs. This is where I am now. I’ve got a large, detailed cast of NPCs populating Charleston, each with their own goals, ambitions, and agendas. Conceptually, I’m working through having them be interchangeable to a degree in how they can be involved in particular Mythos Tales. Naturally, some are featured in certain adventures (and this is mentioned in their write-ups and the particular Tale), but it’s possible for them to come into play either through their past interactions with the investigators (i.e. that old Professor they spoke with about culture X, maybe he knows about culture Y), the investigators seeking them out or a place they frequent (certainly they’ll meet Miss Z at the Library or, hmmm, we heard that Mister A is an archeologist who teaches at the College of Charleston, let’s talk with him), or at the Keeper’s discretion to aid them (an ex-boxer might have a grudge against the dock workers and tags along with the heroes) or to plant the seeds for future Mythos Tales (Lady B spotted them in the cemetary and talks with them about some strange sounds she’s heard in the woods behind her house). If this doesn’t devolve into a miasma of nonsense, it should provide a happy balance of structure and flexibility without sacrificing usability. We’ll see how that goes…

Note: The Part I in parentheses implies there will be a Part II (at least). My goal is to give up some more details when I’ve sorted things out a bit more.

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