APAGear II Archives Volume 3, Number 8 September, 2001


How to Torture Your Friends While Maintaining Friendships

The Art of Running Campaigns in Heavy Gear

Josh Peters

I started refereeing role-playing games before I was actually ever running campaigns. I had a fetish-there is no better term to describe it- for designing systems from scratch, and inflicting them on the three other friends who made up our role-playing group. Sometimes something worked, and we'd play our bastardized versions of Robotech or god-knows-what for a few months, but generally they were flops. I was barely thirteen at the time, so give me some slack. Years later, the main GM of the group got a little tired of running our campaigns, and so I volunteered to try my hand at the one part of gaming I had always despised: being the GM. It's been nearly a decade of being the principal resident GM of my little group of hardy role-players, and I've been absent from the APAGear submission roster for about a year now. "Why not," I thought, "write an article about refereeing Heavy Gear?" Well, after some words of encouragement from Chris Schaller, and the successful completion of my summer math course...

Most articles about GMing start off by saying how the running of campaigns is an art and moreover, it is an art that can only be learned through experience. This is true. Unfortunately, this is also usually where all the concrete advice in such articles end. What I will be doing in this article (it may turn into a series of articles, watch out!) is explain what you need to do to actually sit down behind your GM screen and gain such experience. I'm going to explore three aspects of preparing and running a successful campaign that I have come to rely on as pillars on which to build my campaigns.

1. Story

I mean, duh, right? Of course you need a story. But you need more than a story. You need what they call in the comic book world 'story arcs.' You need a grand overall plot. Remember, as GM, you are essentially God in your campaign world, and -ahem- even at your gaming table on occasion. As the omniscient being in your world, you already know what the weather will be like in three months down the road when the PC's are foraging for food in the swamps of Okavango. You already know how many guards will be stationed around the nerve-gas canisters, and how many bullets they have in their weapons. You'll need to know exactly where you want your story to go. Yes, this is YOUR story. The players are just the leading actors, usually swept up in the flow of events.

So what sort of scope are we talking about? Simply put: strategic. To use a movie analogy, you need to know that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker's father from the very moment he walks past the dead Rebel troopers in Episode IV. Not only that, but you need to know which NPC dies when and where before you sit down to run the session. Not only will this knowledge give you confidence in your story, but it will enable you to improvise better, since knowing more about your story will prevent you from making embarrassing contradictions in the future. Players actually enjoy poking holes in your plot. Well, at least my players do.

Now, I'm not saying you should sit down and right My Campaign: The Novel before you start gaming. These things evolve naturally as you play. However, the general plot outline should be figured out beforehand. The seeds in the story should be sown early in the campaign, so that when things start getting interesting, all the pieces start to come together.

For example, I'll show you how my last campaign was outlined.

  1. The PC's are part of a Badlands courier/prospecting firm run out of a homestead called Trinwood. They're sent on a couple of routine sorts of package running jobs to get the lay of the land, the feel for the Silhouette system (this was the players' first time playing Heavy Gear), and to let me introduce some of the more colourful NPC's I want to have hanging around, including some of the main villains, who early on develop a dislike for the PC group.
  2. The group is hired by the WFP to do a geological survey of a remote part of the Badlands.
  3. There is a rover group, called (ugh, I still think this name is cheesy...I think I improvised it at the time) The Stormriders who are harassing the towns in the area in a unique way: they're insisting that all water be supplied by the Stormriders, or else. After a few run-ins with these rovers, the PC's start to get suspicious, especially when they happen upon a small valley town in the Badlands that looks far too lush and green for the middle of the desert.

GM Info: What's going on? Well, the Stormriders are a front (excuse the pun) for a movement to take over Terranova from an unexpected direction. The Stormriders modified a number of the Hermes 32 satellites in orbit around Terranova. They are about to launch a number of additional satellites into orbit. These satellites, of course, can control the weather, and by holding both the North and South's cities for ransom, the Stormriders want to be the rulers of Terranova.

Cheesy? Absolutely. Has it been done? Of course. Do players love this stuff? Mine did. The trick is to figure out a story that is going to appeal to your players. You have to keep in mind the kind of game you're running. Mine was definitely in the "Adventure" category, according to the Silhouette Reality Distortion Factors. There were, however, times when we were playing "Cinematic" and other times we were definitely "Gritty."

Where'd they get the technology, the military equipment and the personnel? That's where thought and planning comes in. The tech came from the CEF, the military equipment from old War of the Alliance caches found across the Badlands, and the personnel? Well come on, just ask Cobra Commander where he got all his troopers!

  1. What happens? Well, the PC's get involved with a Badlands militia group that has been fighting a losing war against the Stormriders. Eventually, they infiltrate the Stormriders' command center, are captured, learn about what's going on, and with the help of an NPC (who realizes he doesn't want to stand by while his boss destroys Ashington with a huge tornado), destroy the control center.

That was my campaign in a nutshell. My players still talk about it, and we've started a second campaign based out of the same courier/survey office in Trinwood. Will it be the same sort of campaign? Not at all. The action story was great, but I want to try something a little grittier while putting my players somewhere in the meta-plot of Heavy Gear. I will not divulge more, since they're probably going to read this article. Oh, who am I kidding?

2. Characters

My second pillar for designing a successful campaign is 'characters'. Central to everything are the PC's, but major NPC's and even non-traditional role-playing characters are covered here. For any campaign set in the Badlands for example, the Weather is an NPC. The people and places you populate your campaign with are going to make it much more interesting. Action stories pretty much boil down to the same formula, but it's the characters involved that make it memorable. My favourite war movie of all time is Kelly's Heroes because of the memorable characters (the subversive undertones of that movie come a close second).

Where do you get good characters? Well, your players have to flesh out their PC's on their own. My players are no exception, and for tm the most onerous of chores during the character creation process is the inevitable "coming up with a background and a list of 5 contacts subject to the GM's approval." Groan they will (mine sure do!), but having a background for each PC makes it easier to generate a story around them, as well as providing for instant sub-plots. It also helps each player figure out how to play their character.

NPC's are generally easier to create. The trick is to make them believable and memorable. Boba Fett is memorable because of his armour. Because of his speech patterns, Yoda is. Chewbacca because of well...he's Chewie! Populate your world with colourful NPC's you must, or bored your players will be.

Sorry. But you get my drift.

Mind you, there is a fine line between colourful and clichee, of course: not every cantina has to be Mos Eisley and not every gangster must talk like Jimmy Cagney. And for the love of all that is good and decent in this world, no plucky kids named Max!

Once you've developed your villains, your henchmen and the settings, you are pretty much ready to bludgeon your players with your campaign.

3. Contingencies, or "the show must go on!"

Well, you've got your story about the renegade MILICIA gear compagnie, led by an orange-haired reservist named Capitain D'Alembert. Your setting is the Okavango swamps, and the PC's are Southern Republic soldiers who have to bring D'Alembert to justice while avoiding the wrath of the local MILICIA battalion commander, Shirow's rebels and the natural dangers of the swamps. Did I mention that D'Alembert stutters when he gets angry, and some of the rebels are willing to help the PC's because D'Alembert is a more pressing threat than the Southern Republic? Hey, this is actually pretty good!

Anyways, the interesting thing about running a campaign is that the plot you have in your notes is rarely the one that is going to be played out exactly. Of course, you're still going to go from point A, the introduction, to point B, the conclusion, but you're probably not going to be on the path you envisioned.

That's ok. No, really it is. The trick is to go with it while improvising off of any opportunities that come up during play. This is half of the 'art' in GM-ing. You're in no rush to finish your campaign. If the PC's want to go off and deal with a personal subplot, that's fine, just as long as they always feel the effects of the main story somehow during the session. Keeps them on their toes.

The other half of the 'art of GM-ing' is to be descriptive. I can't stress this enough. I've even italicized it for your benefit. Some examples are probably in order:

  1. The main henchman isn't just "a well-built martial artist." No. She's a small woman with dark skin and flashing green eyes, wearing loose-fitting jade flak clothing. The wry smile on her face seems to be saying it all: "I'm going to eat you boys alive."
  2. The Badlands aren't "hot." No. Helios' harsh rays beat down on you, as gusts of wind blast the sand into your face-Don't you just hate having sand in your mouth?
  3. You don't "dodge the volley of rockets." No. You jam the controls of your Hunter hard, cutting in the SMS at the last second-you skate to the right, ducking away from the volley of rockets streaking your way.

You get the point. The only pitfall here is that it is tempting to let your inner poet surface while describing things. This is fine for the big moments, but try to keep the flowery descriptions to a minimum. I'm not contradicting myself here. You have to get the mood across, but more importantly, you have to get the point across. Are the characters supposed to be suffering while in the Badlands? Ok, tell them how they're suffering. If not, tell them it's hot, but they're managing somehow. Otherwise, you'll find your players getting a little bored of your scenery. They may even think you're a sissy.

All this 'artsy' stuff takes practice, but these are some basic pointers that can help you grab your players' already limited attention spans, and draw them into the beautifully prepared and well thought out story you have come up with. Of course, by the end of the night, you'll probably find that you've had to improvise 4 different combat maps, ignore half of your notes, and give D'Alembert a lisp instead of a stutter. But hey, you volunteered, didn't you?

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APAGear II Archives Volume 3, Number 8 September, 2001