The Dann Campaign, Part 1
I learned a lot of my GM-craft at the hands of a guy named Dann. Dann got his start, like most of us, playing the typical campaign style: a set of characters progress through a series of one-shot adventures in a fantasy setting. The characters continue to accumulate experience, powers, and equipment until the players get bored. End of campaign.
When he started GMing a series of Vampire: The Masquerade campaigns (using GURPS instead of White Wolf) in college, however, he developed a new formula. I don’t honestly know if he engineered it or it evolved organically. When I started playing in his campaigns he was no longer doing Vampire campaigns, but kept the formula and ported it to other genres.
In addition to adhering to the guidelines laid out in The Way We Do Things, the features of a Dann campaign are:
- Well-developed PCs with individual stories.
- A mystery-based plot with a clear conclusion.
- A small group of players.
- A single setting, usually a city.
- NPCs with distinct and contradictory motivations.
It’s a highly successful formula, and the various pieces interact in surprisingly synergistic ways. The Dann Campaign is the baseline from which Ben and I build campaigns, and thus I feel that explaining it in depth as a foundation for future posts is called for. So I’m going to describe a fictitious (and relatively simple) Dann campaign, over the span of several posts with some interspersed commentary on the particular choices.
Ballar is a fairly standard fantasy kingdom. It is a monarchy, led by Arturas Maravos, the descendant of Arnis Maravos, who conquered the Drunar, a nonhuman (vaguely elven) race of evil necromancers that once ruled the land. Ballar-Dun is the capital, a walled city built around an ancient Drunic fortress that the king uses as his palace. The technology level is relatively standard fantasy fare. Steel, chainmail, mounted knights, crossbows. Magic exists, and is practiced by scholarly types in ivory towers. They could, theoretically, throw a ball of fire if that were their area of study and the circumstances called for it. The only formal school of magic is located in Ballar-Dur, and is simply referred to as the Academy. Ballar-Dur contains roughly 30,000 people, and is the largest city for many miles. It has a larger middle class than the surrounding hamlets, consisting of skilled tradesmen and merchants. It also has a larger population of beggars and thieves, including an organized crime group called the Syndicate.
I deliberately chose a fantasy setting for easier compare/contrast to standard D&D-style dungeon crawling (not that there’s anything wrong with that). In practice, the Dann model works for pretty much any setting. I’ve played and/or GMed campaigns using this formula in fantasy settings, a primitive polynesian island, modern-day mexico, and the old west. The only constraint is that the location needs to have specific borders. The non-mission based storylines give the players a lot more latitude about where they go and what they do, and it is important to give them some clear indications of which places are out of scope.
Ratigar Estrava, Palace Guard. Ratigar never knew his parents, but he knew the streets. He knew how to steal an apple when the grocer wasn’t looking. How to bump a man and cut his purse. How to fight and how to run. Especially how to run. He survived, and he learned. He learned a knowing smile opened more doors than a sword. He learned that you could make more money selling a noble a stolen horse than you could by robbing them. He learned the feel of nice clothes, the taste of good wine, the touch of beautiful women.
And he also learned that a really good scam requires more than one man. He met Tomari when they were both trying to con the same mark. They saw reflected in each other the same combination of competence and ruthlessness. Tomari comes up the with the plans, convoluted schemes engineered to make someone think that they lost their money but were lucky to have escaped with their lives. And Ratigar would execute those plans, improving and tweaking them along the way as the circumstances allowed. So when Tomari said that he’d come up with a plan to steal the crown jewels, Ratigar was quick to listen. And once he’d heard the plan, it was clear that the hard work would fall to him.
So Ratigar enlisted in the City Watch. A few weeks and a well-placed bribe later, and he was manning one of the gates. A few more weeks, a few more bribes, a new job in the palace guard. And so it went, maneuvering his way into a position of trust. The problem wasn’t getting the jewels. The problem was getting the jewels and then getting out of the palace. But Tomari knew a guy, a real cave-rat named Fatel, who found a way into the ancient tunnels under the palace. And while Ratigar worked to get on throne room duty, Tomari was mapping the tunnels and planning the escape route. And along the way, if Ratigar happened to find himself in a position to take a few bribes and trade some favors, well that was all the better.
Ratigar is charming and approachable, with a disarming smile. He is always smooth, regardless of the circumstances. He has a knack for suggesting bribes in a way that is clearly understood, utterly deniable, and completely relaxed. He moves and thinks quickly, and never seems to be at a loss for words. Ratigar prefers talking to fighting, but he is a vicious and merciless fighter when he has to be. His brief time in the guard has taught him how to use sword, shield, pike, and crossbow and how to properly wear armor. He’s still more comfortable fighting in loose-fitting clothes with knives or hands, and he always keeps a knife hidden on him somewhere. Ratigar’s biggest strength, his ability to think quickly on his feet, also tends to be his undoing. He’s not one to stick to a plan if he sees a new opportunity that looks better, and he tends to follow his gut and act on a hunch before his head can explain why it was a good idea. He also gets greedy, taking little risks that jeopardize the long con. He’ll steal the mark’s jewelry while they’re passed out, confident that he can convince them that somebody else did it and he fought valiantly to defend them.
Alistair Macray, Physician. Alistair’s father was a minor lord in a small, rural house. He came from a long line of hale, hearty, ruddy-faced farmers, and ruled his people well. Alistair was his tenth, and youngest son. His mother died in childbirth, and he was a sickly child. His brothers were tall and strong, petty and savage the way that young boys can be. Alistair discovered that he had The Gift while learning his letters at the hands of his father’s elderly magister. He was reading aloud the story of the battle of Tanrin, the fall of the ancient Drunic lords. As he spoke, an image appeared in the air of the battle, Arnis the Bold, the first king of Ballar, striking down Azatrael, the Drunic wizard-king.
The magister began instructing him in the ways of magic, and found Alistair to be a quick study, particularly in the realms of magic that dealt with the manipulation of the flesh. Alistair’s first practical experiment was to cause his brother Odgar to vomit during his 16th birthday party. Then he made all of Tomas’s fine blonde hair fall out one night when he slept. On the day of Alistair’s 14th birthday, one of the servants spilled a drink on him. Everyone laughed and pointed. Alistair began chanting, and the servant’s arm withered and turned before everyone’s eyes. The laughter stopped.
After that, Alistair was sent away to Ballar-Dun, the capital of the kingdom of Ballar, to study magic. His banishment was a happy one. For the first time he met other people like him, who preferred speaking to animals to chatting up barmaids and battles of wits to battles of blades. He made his first real friends at the Academy, and he treasured them. His early studies in flesh manipulation turned into studies of healing, first the flesh, then the mind, then the soul. He still learned the basics of other disciplines, of course, how to ignite tinder, create light in a dark room, levitate small objects. But each Sorceror has a specialty, and his was healing.
Of course, with the knowledge of how to mend flesh comes the knowledge of how best to rend it. And the tools needed to enter someone’s mind and find what troubles them can also be used to pry open their darkest secrets. Alistair was not afraid to use his powers in such a manner, in ways that were forbidden by the elder Magi. He would tell himself that he would only do so to people who deserved it, but in truth, Alistair had become much like his brothers. He was strong and powerful, and he craved the respect and dominance that came with that power. He found that many of his peers were weak, afraid to use their power, and easily intimidated. After he completed his preliminary studies at the Academy of Magi, he established himself as a physician for the nobility of Ballar-Dun. He charges a high fee, and refuses to leave the city, but still is in high demand with nobility suffering from obscure ailments traveling from distant duchies and even other kingdoms to seek his aid.
Alistair is a man of powerful intellect and powerful emotions. He is a loyal and protective friend, taking a slight against his chosen comrades as a slight against himself. He hates bullies, particularly those who remind him of his brothers, but he himself is a bully, using wit, wealth, and wizardry to put people in their place. He has a quick temper that can sometimes get the best of him, and a ruthless viciousness that surprises those who only know him as the gentle doctor. He can be quite charming when he chooses to be, and is well-skilled in the social graces of the upper classes. He is in good physical health, but is not particularly strong or athletic. He is utterly useless with a sword and takes special care to never need one. He carries a wizard’s staff, styled as a cadaceus with intertwined snakes curled about a green stone at it’s head. While the staff serves primarily as a focus and a power source to draw upon, he can defend himself with it when there is no other recourse.
Drak Torva, Bouncer. Drak’s father was a blacksmith. So he learned his way around the forge as a kid. But being a smith never really held his attention, so when he was fourteen he ran away with a band of tinkers. He learned the tinker’s trade for a couple years, mending broken tools, patching torn clothes, stealing when it was necessary to survive. They were good people, joyous and kind, but it was a hard life and he got tired of wandering. So when they passed through Ballad-Dur, he said his goodbyes. He found work as a mason, a carpenter, a smith. It wasn’t that Drak was lazy, far from it. He was a tireless worker, and he took pride in doing a hard day’s work. He just always felt like there was something else that he was supposed to be doing.
When Drak was 23, he signed on with the city guard, and it was there that he found his calling. The guard taught him how to fight, and he was good at it. The rest of the job, the rules, the uniform – that wasn’t really for him. But he liked the fighting. So when he found out about the underground boxing matches run by the Syndicate, he couldn’t resist. He signed up for a bare knuckles match under a fake name. His opponent was the current champ. Drak killed him. Two days later he quit the guard and took a job as a bouncer at the Drunken Dragon. He mostly just hangs out at the bar and looks menacing so that nobody causes trouble. He makes his real money in the fights, betting on himself. The Syndicate owns the circuit, but they don’t own him. He won’t take a bribe, and he won’t throw a fight. It’s not that he’s a saint, or feels like what he does is noble. He just doesn’t have it in him to lose on purpose.
Drak is big, strong, and casually menacing. He doesn’t feel the need to talk or threaten people. If somebody is out of line, he hits them until they cease to be a problem. Drak likes to fight, and relishes the opportunity, but he’s no bully. He won’t hit a girl, he won’t beat a child, and he won’t hurt innocent people. Drak’s never been much for rules or laws, but he believes in right and wrong, and the value of doing the job right. Once he decides that he’s going to do something, he will see it through to the end, regardless of the consequences.
I deliberately chose variations on some of the classic D&D-style character archetypes, the Thieft, the Wizard, and the Fighter. Since it’s not a setting where plundering dungeons filled with treasure is a suitable profession, they have other jobs that are more appropriate. In a real campaign, the PCs tend to fit less neatly into these categories. A PC in this setting could just as easily be a court jester (social skills, high dexterity, juggling, acrobatics, sleight of hand), a blacksmith (high physical strength and health, some weapon skills, merchant), or a beggar (social skills, streetwise, scrounging, some combat).
The important thing is that whatever the player wants to play, the resulting PC has the right sort of characteristics (more on that topic in a later post). Aside from that, these are relatively typical PCs for a Dann-style campaign. They have things that happened in their pasts that can be brought back later if needed. They have ties to the setting, be it jobs, friends, or family. And they have character flaws that will affect the way that they handle situations.