Next month marks the beginning of Year Five of Ocean City Interface, one of my f2f campaigns. Its PCs come from a near future setting, Ocean City. We call this the “Alpha” world. However, strange forces have also dragged them into other worlds, which we call Portals. Players move through the multiverse of these portals, dealing with stories within them as well as a larger connecting story.
I want to talk about this because of the upcoming anniversary, but also because I’ve seen threads recently on Gauntlet Slack about handling multigenre games. Maybe my experience will help others run this concept. As a side note, our campaign plays bi-weekly and with the usual losses to holidays, illness, and scheduling, we’re probably at about session 80+ of the campaign. That schedule has some impact on play (as I’ll come to later)
I talked about this campaign in an earlier Age of Ravens post, but let me give the basic concept. Players begin with an Alpha character. We use Action Cards, a card-driven system which borrows a great deal from Fate. Each character has a unique resolution deck, tuned to their strengths and personality. The deck evolves over play by marking things up, Legacy style. PCs also have a character sheet which covers their skills (allowing redraws), aspects, damage tracks, and abilities (powers and stunts). When the game moves from one portal to another we swap out the character sheet completely and the deck partially. About half of a player’s deck remains the same throughout.
We started the campaign with six players. Five chose the portals. We began with a fantasy mercenary portal we called Sellsword Company. I built this on a mini-campaign I’d run before, a world where artifacts have intelligence and drive events. We’d originally done a Microscope session to create the setting (which ended up a little like Wield). I deliberately cut corners here as I expected the player who’d chosen this setting would drop eventually.
The conceit was that we began playing Sellsword Company straight, and only at the end did we introduce the idea of the Alpha world. Then the characters popped out of the portal back into their lives in Ocean City. They believed they’d been in a strange highly detailed, VR game they hadn’t signed up for. In trying to figure out what had happened the PCs met one another.
We then played out that investigation for several sessions before they slipped into another portal. This established the gameplay loop. Sessions of meta investigation followed by a trip into a portal for several sessions and then back again. Once Sellsword dropped out of the rotation (after that player dropped) we had four portals (in this order):
- Neo Shinobi Vendetta: Cyber-ninja clans battle in a strange megalopolis.
- Masks of the Empire: In an effort to reclaim it, Imperial Agents enter a land mysteriously closed off for 80 years.
- Sky Racers Unlimited: In a dieselpunk world sky fortresses compete in a cross-continental race over a fallen North America.
- Assassins of the Golden Age: A secret conspiracy of mages strikes from the shadows to maintain balance between science and sorcery.
In my earlier post I talked about the pitfalls and challenges of this kind of campaign. I offered solutions as well. With four years play experience, I want to see how they’ve held up and what lessons I’ve learned. I’ve put the text of my original solutions in purple.
One Rule: I need to use one core system across all of the levels. That means using a generic system or engine that scales well, has lots of resources, and is easy to adapt. Both GURPS and HERO are a little too heavy and have some genre blind spots. That probably means Savage Worlds, True20, Basic Role-Playing, HeroQuest, FATE, or our homebrew Action Cards. GUMSHOE and World of Darkness, while interesting don’t have all the necessary resources. Ideally I’d like to have some of the mental aspects of characters carry across levels.
I ended up using Action Cards since it’s flexible and my players know it. Like Fate, you can hack AC fairly easily for the different settings. I offered novel sub-systems for each portal. Neo Shinobi Vendetta has an array of ninja powers. Those combine with different unique sources (memetic training, psionics, cybernetics, etc.) to make each character distinct. Masks of the Empire has a simple tag-based magic system, but each PC also has a unique arcane mask. Players built powers and drawbacks for their items using a variation on Venture City Stories’ superpowers. Sky Racers Unlimited has a miniature-based dogfight system. Players build their own airplanes as a secondary character. Finally, Assassins of the Golden Age has a more detailed magic system which echoes Mage’s idea of Spheres and Techniques.
Keeping a single system solved many problems. It meant that we didn’t have to constantly learn rules. Characters could have some mechanical continuity (via carry-over cards). It also meant we could shift from one portal to another mid-session without issue. In later games we’ve had some aspects and powers bleed over from one portal to another. That translation would be harder in multiple systems.
Originally I’d thought about having “mental experiences” and personality carry. That ended up feeling too intrusive. It also created metaphysical issues about identity within the story. I just went with the mechanical option above. As it was, players tended to adopt a connected theme. Characters echoed their Alpha’s personality—exaggerating elements, inverting habits, or even exploring darker aspects.
However, I made several errors along the way. By the time we started OCI, I’d been running Action Cards in various iterations for almost a decade and a half. It had gotten stronger, but each version changed some rules. Since we started OCI, I’ve spotted several mechanics I want to change. They’re big enough I can’t implement them across the games. It’s a minor thing, but one to recognize. If you’re doing a game like this, you’re committing to longer term play. Better be happy with the system you’ve chosen. Switching it later won’t work easily.
Other problems came from my implementation of the rules. Early on it didn’t occur to me to make the cards distinct for the portals. Eventually I did different borders to make swapping out easier. But we still have a road bump when we switch. I also wanted to make sure each portal felt unique, so I did distinct skill and stunt lists. It contributes to the feel and only shifts things slightly. But those differences between portals can be enough to trip things up. From time to time I forget what we’re calling things in this portal. I also changed how some stunts work—so they differ between portals. I need to go back and fix that, but the time gap between settings makes me forget to.
Bottom line: take a careful look at how you’re reskinning the rules for your different worlds. Make those shifts easy to follow and avoid big mechanical changes.
The question of the “reality” of these worlds has evolved over time. I haven’t set hard and fast rules about what’s true. Part of the pleasure has come from the players thinking about what it means to become another person—with their own lives—in these portals. How and why that happens has become a key question. As we’ve gone along I’ve played with that—most recently with one of their “portal selves” entering into the Alpha world.
I’ve only done a little with the mechanical side of things. On a few occasions I’ve had them carry over Wound cards between portals. As they’ve traveled among worlds I’ve offered them the opportunity to buy skills and powers from one portal in another. That’s done a lot to raise the stakes and push the story. I’d definitely recommend saving that option until later in a campaign.
Limited Portals: We don’t have an infinite # of portals. There’s the real world, the Hub, plus one portal per player. In fact, each player should get to pick the theme/setting for one portal. That’s their key place and connection. Depending on the time and structure of things, perhaps we could even do a Microscope session before entering into some (or all of the portals). We could have a drafting session at the campaign start, allowing each player to pick one (from a list of ideas I’d create).
We ended up with four portals, one per player. The ones the players picked created a great spread. As the players keep saying, each one of these alone could be a fully fleshed campaign. That’s a good thing in that they’re excited and engaged for all four of them. I’d worried that players might rush through other portals to get back to their own. That hasn’t happened. On the other hand we don’t get as much of a chance to explore the portals, so I’m constantly pushing to the highlights. We don’t have as much room for more delicate and personal scenes.
As I mentioned, I dropped one portal out of the rotation after that player left. That tightened the play, but also meant they don’t get the chance to go back to that world.
I ended up building each of portal setting. In two cases (Sellsword Company and Masks of the Empire) I used previous Microscope sessions and material as the basis. I like recycling old material and there’s no shame in that. I built Neo Shinobi Vendetta myself. However, for Sky Racers and Assassins of the Golden Age, I wrote up some background and then asked for input from the player who picked it.
I tried to keep my world building tight. I knew I’d be spending serious time on the mechanical add ons for each portal. I didn’t want to make my job harder. So I restricted myself to a single background document. The players and I started on a relatively equal footing since they knew as much as me. I did these up as “23 Things About…” documents which had both in world details and a statement of what they’d be doing in play.
That worked and I’d recommend not using an established setting. Instead, create the portals yourself, write up a simple setting summary, and give that to your players. Reduce everyone’s cognitive load.
Rotation: Each portal gets a fairly strict number of sessions—a single arc with a key story and perhaps some interaction time. We don’t go back to a portal until we’ve done all of the other ones.
When the players first went to a particular portal, I did an extended sequence. We played six sessions with a couple of story arcs. That gave us time to collaboratively develop the feel of the world. When we go back to a portal, we generally do two or three sessions, usually covering a single story or situation. For example rescuing a lost sleeper agent in NSV, guarding a boxing match in SRU, or fixing the election of a doge in AotGA.
As I mentioned above, the players have created their own continuity of character between portals. For my part I’ve leaned into a few things. Each portal has some version of artificial intelligence (mad science doppelgangers, nano-kami, unsleeping automatons, magical clockwork cities). Each portal also has the “return of the repressed” (lost lands opened up, recovery from brainwashing, memories of a forgotten war). There’s also significance in numbers—key elements come in sevens, with two of those lost.
Bottom line: Motifs help the players organize and understand the worlds. Be obvious about these patterns. They give the characters something to actively look for.
BOTTOM BOTTOM LINES
A few additional observations.
- Plan where you need to. Do light prep on your sessions, but be prepared to invest time getting the mechanical side right. Pull back from occasionally to think about the “metastory,” but don’t plan it out. Have ideas, but let that evolve in play. Focus on mapping the trail rather than laying down the track.
- Don’t rush it. You might have great ideas for the next portal and want to get there. If you’re a person who flits from idea to idea, you may trip yourself up. Realize that nothing’s going to be simple or quick. You’re moving through multiple worlds and stories; give each of them the attention they deserve.
- Bi-weekly sucks. That’s the nature of our f2f scheduling. As the campaign’s rolled on, there’s been more information to track. Bumping a single session means we don’t play for a month. I’ve had to be ready to do “re-orientation” sessions when we return from a break or shift to a portal we haven’t been to for a year.
- If you have a world they return to again and again, you need to give it more attention. It’s likely to be the world the PCs have the most contact with. Eventually you’ll be able to connect portal events to Alpha events and vice versa. But early on you want it to be compelling on its own. It probably needs more depth of character than anything else (NPCs, daily lives, etc).
- Here’s the one thing I hadn’t realized when I started: you really need to engineer for success points in the meta-story. If there’s a connected reason why they’re moving between worlds (a conspiracy, a foe) show them pieces of that early on. Let them battle elements of that enemy. In the case of my game, multiple factions, each drawn from a portal, struggle for control in the Alpha world. The PCs have fought them there and stopped several schemes. I’ve also had information and details they’ve uncovered in a portal give them clues to events and weaknesses in the Alpha world.