The Nature of Plots and Obligation
In the midst of working on the Savage Tide reviews, I had built myself enough of a buffer that I could look at some of the broad arcs of my proposed Star Wars campaign and give careful consideration to that. (That was the strange thing; in the process of working through the six reviews, I built up something of a buffer and could actually look at other project ideas with my free time.)
I touched on the concept of Obligation in my first post on Edge of the Empire, at least as far as it related to the initial skim of the rules. In play, Obligation is a fluctuating value, depending on the particular needs of the characters and what sort of additional pressure they’re willing to take on. If they need to accomplish something that seems unlikely to be accomplished any other way, they can bump up their personal Obligation to reflect this. If they’ve made any sort of concerted effort to deal with the Obligation, they can potentially reduce it. The rules flatly state that there is no mechanical way to remove Obligation completely. It is a vital part of the rules, to the point that the system needs it in order to properly function and maintain flavor.
The way it works, overall, is that each character has a specific score for their Obligation, determined at character creation and modified in play. Depending on the size of the group, this can rage from a minimum of 5 points all the way up to 20 points for a two-man crew. At the start of each session, the GM rolls randomly on a chart that he has assembled to determine if any of the characters’ Obligations come into play. If not, the game goes on as planned. If so, then there’s a chance that something happens to reflect this. (Or not. There’s also the note that, if the GM is in the midst of a plot that can’t readily accommodate one of these character-driven subplots, it just manifests as a form of stress with a lowered Strain Threshold.)
All right, fair enough. It’s going to take a little bit of practice to see how it plays out.
As I noted, I was working up a campaign for Edge of the Empire, basing the general idea on Firefly. The characters are recent veterans from the losing side of the war, and they’re struggling to get by on the fringe worlds of the larger galaxy. Fairly simple and straightforward, and I was further customizing it to drop into an Old Republic setting, more or less framed in the time period of the Knights of the Old Republic video games. Each player has several characters for the sake of covering the roles on the ship, and the backgrounds are tied to the recent war.
The troupe style of gaming, with each player running a single character at a time from a choice of three, is unusual in some regards, but there’s nothing terribly new in it. There are plenty of games that have experimented with it over the years, to varying degrees of success. For the purposes of Edge of the Empire, it does make things a bit funky, as the characters are pretty much reduced to the minimum threshold of Obligation, just to keep from being wholly tied to the differing subplots. As it is, the nine characters guarantee that this is something that’s going to come up about half of the time. It’s recommended that the game start with somewhere between 40 and 50% Obligation, but for my group, this number is never going to reduce. A subtle difference, but there it is.
This set me to thinking, as I started sketching out the Obligations Table from my side of the screen. What if I were to treat this mechanic as the main plot generation device, overall? Instead of viewing these rolls as having the potential to mung up my plans and throw my long term plots out the window, what would happen if I let them take over the direction of the plot when they came up, keeping the ‘main’ plot as something of a fallback plan?
Right now, there’s a fair amount of tension relating to the war that they’re still trying to cope with. One of the soldier characters is taking orders from a splinter faction from the old command structure, a group of generals that are too invested in the war that they lost to ever admit defeat. They’re running a sort of shadow war in the sector as a means to try to retake the lost territory for their own purposes. Another one, an alien from a fairly isolationist culture, is trying to find answers for why her original unit was completely wiped out, effectively erasing her genetic line. And the sniper is sought for having massacred a village of civilians that were sympathetic to the enemy some time after the cease fire was declared, making him a known war criminal. There are nine characters at the present point, and each of them has a different Obligation to undertake, pulling the group in wildly different directions.
For the time being, I’ve taken to sketching out broad ideas for what each of the different concerns wants to have happen, as preparation for the first couple of sessions. For the most part, I’ve attempted to make each of these plots large and dynamic enough to base several adventures on, but segmented enough that I don’t have to worry about what happens when a different character’s background forces them into play. I’ve made a point to build out a broad idea for the campaign, on the idea that the character driven plots are only going to come into play about half of the time, but I have the feeling that the players will decide to pursue some of the hanging plot threads on their own, if they’re left to their own devices.
All of this hinges on having the players maintain their three character baselines. I’m personally waiting to see if this is going to be too unwieldy or not, given the complexity of the game otherwise. And to be blunt, it wouldn’t exactly cripple the game, were a couple of characters to end up being culled from the ranks.