So I created a town.
When GMs say this, they usually mean they created the narrative of a town: a pencil map, a few key buildings, a dozen significant NPCs. But my hyperefficient tool lent itself to a more extreme approach. My goal became to marry the organic, procedurally-generated detail of a videogame like Dwarf Fortress with the human consciousness and genuine reactivity of a tabletop game. My town would have hundreds of named characters—and nearly as many grudges...
Everywhere in town, I stretched tensions as thin as they’d go. Here, a deeply crooked and vicious campaign for sheriff. There, “respectable” business owners versus “rowdy” roughnecks. In the boonies, robbers versus marshals, marshals versus deputies, robber gangs versus robber gangs, a gangs robbers versus its robbers. A powder keg of a county, always ready to blow.
Then I dropped the players into it.
It may seem like my goal was to create as many combats as possible, but that’s not true at all. I knew that if PCs died every few minutes and there was no continuity of story, even gory Boot Hill combat would grow boring. Instead I designed my setting to offer the constant threat of violence: the tension of knowing that a sudden and fatal battle might result from any misstep.
After all, a powder keg’s more thrilling when it hasn’t blown up yet.
Not many games discourage players from pissing off NPCs. The worst thing an aggrieved character can do is fight you, and that’s just where most RPG characters are built to succeed. I know from personal experience that, roleplaying aside, it’s tempting to conclude: “I’m going to fight this douchebag eventually. Why not get it over with now?”
Played ruthlessly, Boot Hill‘s mechanics and milieu produce very different expectations. That any character can die easily in a fair fight is almost a moot point; if you provoke a cattle baron or a slimy industrialist or a crooked sheriff, he’s not going to get his henchmen and fight you fairly. He’s going to pay someone to shoot you in the back with a shotgun, and if you’re not ready for it, that’s not much better than a death sentence. The only reason the streets aren’t awash with blood at all times is that the NPCs are also hapless mortals that have to watch where they step. That’s another reason to fill the setting with conflicts rather than prebuilt adversaries: the PCs stand to live longer if there’s a balance everyone else fears upsetting.
Faithfully roleplaying the game’s emergent “villains,” or the characters willing to risk death and murder to get their ends, comes with a set of broadly-applicable rules. Don’t fight unless the rewards or risks are too great to avoid it. If you’ve got power or money, abuse it to keep yourself safe and your interests protected. Confront enemies directly only when you’ve got the force to bully them into backing down or surrendering; otherwise, strike from ambush. Use the extent of your cunning or guile. Be wary of crossing other powerful interests, like the law or organized crime; strike surgically whenever possible. Wait for the right moment.
Very naturally, the players found themselves observing the same rules...
I wouldn’t normally end a player character like that, let alone two at once. In most games it would be an ignominious and frustrating end to a story. But for this story, for this campaign, it worked. It was the ending that was earned: the ultimate escalation of a war between bitter and heartless people. It was thrilling, tense, and an epic finale that did justice to the danger both characters had been in the entire time.
Sounds like one for the Inspirational Campaigns file, next to West Marches.
The bit about having a concrete cast of a few hundred reminded me of Ker's remark on Icelandic literature - "All history in Iceland shaped itself as biography, or as drama, and there was no large crowd at the back of the stage."
And it seems like precisely the vicious, Renegade Crownsy sort of campaign that I have tried to get at with ACKS (particularly the first summer of the Shieldlands campaign) and never quite succeeded at, perhaps, as the author points out, because PCs even in OSR D&D have a tendency to solve their problems directly. Because they can (eventually). Another part of it might be that managing a big stable of NPCs, even with characters as simple as OSR D&D characters, is still a fair bit of mechanical complexity. My henchman generator is pretty good but it still doesn't do class proficiencies, and magic items and spells lists introduce a lot of variance in capabilities.
So this is really something to think about. Maybe I need to get even simpler and even deadlier.