Last Sunday I ran my second session of Cryptomancer for February. In session one they picked characters and I’d thrown them into a Chad Walker’s challenge dungeon from Code & Dagger 2. Both Code & Dagger supplements come free with the purchase of Cryptomancer and have a ton of interesting new material. The dungeon scenario introduces the setting’s hacking and infosec concepts in an easy to grok way.
For this week, I went to one of my favorite play structures—what I’m calling a Conspiracy Sandbox. It’s a kind of session I adore running. I walked away from the game jazzed and excited. The players seemed to dig it—doing legwork, building a picture of their target, and starting to think of approaches. I have a video of the session which you can see here.
In a Conspiracy Sandbox the characters work in the shadows against multiple factions to achieve an objective. They have the tools, resources, and powers to carry that out. The question is how to apply these resources to achieve their goals without blowing things up. The GM sets a goal, presents the actors, and then lets the players get to it. You may have already run or played in this kind of game before. If not, let me encourage you to give it a try.
As an example, in my Pulp supers game Thirty Days to Save Science City, a preeminent hero reaches out to the PC team of second-tier supers. An absolutist super-villain has threatened to destroy Science City unless someone cleans up the mob operations, mad scientists, and general villainy there. The A-List heroes can’t do it without being seen to give in to terror demands, but know the threat isn’t a bluff. So they supply the PC team with resources, a base, and a breakdown of the dangerous groups in the city. From there, it’s completely up to the PCs as to what they do.
Play consists of legwork & investigation, planning, doing set up jobs, then carrying out a bigger operation. Then the cycle starts again as they move on to another target. If you follow the link to my blog post on it, you can see that I over-prepped 30 Days. I didn’t need nearly the amount of detail I created for the different groups. Sketchy notes and an outline would have worked just as well. I used Fate Aspects to define groups & people; I could have easily stuck with that.
SUCCESSION OF ROOKS
I took a slightly lighter approach with another Fate game using this template, Reign of Crows. I wanted to create a loose, open-ended take on A Game of Thrones-style play. In Reign of Crows the PCs are different senior members of a noble house. The Queen’s death has left a power vacuum. The game started with faction building—defining aspects and powers for the different groups. Then I rolled random seasonal events as background and set the group loose on the problem.
In play we would do a series of “once-arounds.” Players took actions to set things up or uncover information. After everyone’s individual actions and scenes, we’d check to see if we needed a group scene to decide on their next course. In Reign of Crows and my other Conspiracy Sandboxes, I approach information gathering with a combination of Fate, PbtA, and Gumshoe tools.
When someone investigates something, they define their approach: hitting the streets, using a network, research, divination. That determines what they roll with. As with Gumshoe, any investigation generates basic information. Any test the PC makes determines costs (resources, time, etc) and additional questions. Depending on success, players get a number of PbtA style additional questions. I leave these open-ended, but if the query feels broad I ask how they get those answers. To use this for Fate, imagine the Create Advantage action, but instead of invokes you get questions.
We also assume that information obtained in an earlier scene is available to players in following scenes. Sometimes we have an in-fiction explanation for this (magical communication, cell phones, etc), but it isn’t necessary. This approach smooths things; later acting players can reshape their actions based on new information. Players still have the option to withhold information—but they have to make that explicit. That helps define a character’s intentions to the table.
Reign of Crows ended up an amazing story of manipulation, double-crossing, salvation, and corruption. If you’re interested in this style of game you can check out the videos here. I probably still over-prepped, but I hoped to create a template for future games. What then does a minimal prep Conspiracy Sandbox look like?
I’ve run my face-to-face campaign-- Ocean City Interface-- for five years now. It’s a “multidimensional” game, with the characters sliding into a repeating set of different worlds and identities, called Portals. Our Assassins of the Golden Age portal lets me borrow elements from 7th Sea, Assassin's Creed, and Mage: Sorcerers’ Crusade. The PCs are effectively magi ala Mage: The Ascension. In this world, the battle between Reason and Magic has reached a stalemate after a war that created paradox and rewrote history. The characters serve The Invisible City and work to keep either side from unleashing destruction again. In the two most recent arcs they hunted down the bearers of Koschei the Deathless’ souls in a mystic Moscow and gained a Dutch Pirate Hunter an audience with the English Queen.
But in the first arc, I created a Conspiracy Sandbox and let them go to town. They arrived in Genoa with a simple task, elect a man named Boccanegra to the position of Doge. I gave them only a few other details and requirements. I laid out how the voting occurred and how certain guilds and the Church had a strong say. They learned that two of the five candidates had backing from factions of the Order of Reason: Templars and Consigners, but not who. Their patron reinforced the importance of the PCs not causing chaos; the election had to still go through. If you’ve read the novella, you’ll see I lifted my set up and plot from Claire North’s The Serpent.
My prep simply consisted of a list of NPCs and a few details for each. They’re arranged in power from greatest to least:
Assets & Influence: Strong Church ties. Bishop is distant relation. Gifts to there. Undercut by own impiousness. Money and friends among the Priests.
Background: Hates Boccanegro. Old and super fit; swims. Believes Boccanegro involved with his son’s death in Naples. Actually done by his brother Urbanio. Son was courting Urbanio’s mistress. Set up story about assassins.
In: Brother Egisto, lecherous confessor
Assets & Influence: Strong ties to the crafters: wool merchants, carders, etc. As well has agents coming from Byzantium with a piece of the True Cross.
Background: Daughter, Adria Grimaldi. Metal half-teetch. Tacitly allied with Doria Backed by the Templars.
In: Lodovica Schivone, assessor and overlooked clerk.
Assets and Influence: Has the support of Florence and potent financial resources. Consigner backed.
Background: His wife and family kept away. His wife’s affair. Loves her still. Vulnerable warehouses. Coldly Neutral. Somber dress. Wears a hidden hair shirt—rash my reveal.
In: Basillia, maidservant, seneschal, and go-between.
Assets and Influence: Contacts with Morocco. Strong exchange of goods and ideas—keeps this under the radar.
Background: Pox-marked. Hates Spinola. Smuggles expelled Jews. Has only modest financial resources. Kabalist saved his life. Son Decio; daughter Rainelda. Vulnerable through half-Jewish wife, Juliana, who also possesses some magical talent. She’s a strong figure and smart.
In: Everado, Antonio’s son with heavy gambling debts.
Assets and Influence: Old and strong reputation. Grandfather was Andrea Doria. Has contacts with Spain and some exclusive contracts to trade there.
Background: One-eye, with the area around it heavily ravaged. Heavily in debt and strongly influenced by the Genoese underworld. Tacitly allied with Grimaldi. Older children: Quieta, daughter, and Patrizio, son.
In: His own desperation to restore his family’s grand reputation.
I also made a small list of other NPCs—with a name, brief identity, and detail (Madeline Stroo, Dutch Underground Wizard, older and highly attractive, shaggy hound familiar). I detailed the Templar and Consigner agents a little more fully:
Tamara Kotarska, Templar Operative
Preying mantis familiar. Angular features. Lean & hungry look. Pious practicality.
Moves: 1. Dispose of Spinola and Boccanegro. 2. Maintain alliance. 3. Utilize Body Magics as needed. 4. Come to accommodation with Fieschi.
Atanasio Campobosso, Consigner Operative
Steel raven familiar. Stout. Waddles to belie his nature.
Moves: 1. Use Spinola to break Boccanegro. 2. Burn Grimaldi resources. 3. Bring Doria to heel. 4. Spend freely.
It took them three sessions to get Boccanegro elected. They shattered a vessel with paradox, hobbled agents of the Templars, pulled Doria out of debt, and made a dangerous trip to the backstreets of Byzantium.
Sunday’s Cryptomancer game took an even lighter approach. Their patron asked the PCs to intervene in the city of Crucible’s underworld. She’d received reliable information that the Risk Eaters (the big bad of the setting) worked to draw out the conflict between the two largest criminal gangs in the city, The Coppermen and The Silverhands. Both had absorbed most of the smaller criminal guilds and groups in the city, leaving them the last two standing. The Risk Eaters wanted a long, protracted multi-year conflict which would drain resources and slowly destabilize Crucible.
So the PCs have a clear goal: spark an open war between these two nasty groups. The Patron gave them the names of the two leaders, the three most important lieutenants for each, and a sketchy sense of their activities. Then I let them loose. For the once-arounds, I took a lighter approach than usual. Players could ask and obtain significant general information without a roll. I assumed they had the skills and connections necessary. However, once they dug down and focused on specific characters and operations, I had them roll to determine their level of success. As I mentioned above, I had a dynamite time and I’m excited to see how they pull on the threads.
My Cryptomancer prep took less than an hour, which included finding NPC pictures. In my notes I briefly described the two groups, wrote down the NPC names, and then created twisty details for each. I had some hooks prepped, but even more emerged from play. When players rolled critical successes, I made the revelations more dangerous for their targets. I also took a page from Blades in the Dark and created Heat clocks for The Coppermen, Silverhands, and Risk Eaters. Failures and mixed successes added to that. Filling those clocks would alert their targets. In retrospect I should have also tied this to Cryptomancer’s Risk mechanic.
There’s a lot of Blades in the Dark in a Conspiracy Sandbox. Both have groups carrying out shadowy missions. But Blades’ engagement roll reduces or eliminates planning. BitD has a legwork phase, but that’s minimized. This sandbox leans into the planning, something Cryptomancer’s unusual setting mechanics needs. This kind of game thrives on players who love mysteries. A mystery is just a problem to be solved and there’s a real pleasure to be given the problem solving resources and let loose to tear into a challenge.
- Age of Ravens: Factions in Action
- Age of Ravens: Multigenre Campaigning
- Age of Ravens: Mysterious Planning
For the full backlog of Age of Ravens posts on Blogger see here.