The Dann Campaign, Part 2
This is Part 2 of a multi-part article intended to illustrate what we call “Dann-style” campaigns. I’ve created a ficticious campaign that exemplifies the various elements, and I’m laying out the story with interspersed commentary to explain the various choices. You can find part one here.
To review, the attributes 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.
And we have three PCs:
- Ratigar Estrava, an improvisational con-man working as a Palace Guard
- Alistair Macray, a magic-using physician with a hatred of bullies and a mean streak
- Drak Torva, a jack-of-all-trades working as a bouncer and moonlighting as a prize fighter
Ratigar had found the only honest guardsman in the whole goddamn palace. He’d heard Valeron’s reputation, of course, heard that he was the real deal. But he didn’t believe it until now. The man was just so… earnest. Ratigar (under his cover identity of Morisar Balefain) had worked his way up from front door detail to the kitchens. From the kitchens to the harem. From the harem to the King’s audience chamber. Now he just needed to get put on throne room detail and he’d be set. So he dropped a couple hints to his new boss about how he was really intrigued by the comings and goings of the court, and how he’d do anything to stand guard inside the throne room. Valeron just spat him some bullshit about hard work being its own reward and do the right thing. This is going to be tougher than he expected.
He met Tomari at the usual place and time, in the unused lavatory on the 4th floor. Tomari had found a way in that was as inconspicuous as it was unsavory. Tomari let him know that everything was going pretty well. Tomari and Fatel were making progress mapping the passages, and were slowly working their way up. In a few more days he should have a path all the way to one of the rooms near the throne, and then could burrow a hole or look for a secret entrance. The plan remained the same: first Ratigar gets put on throne room detail. Then, late at night, he kills the other guard with a poison dart and takes the jewels. He passes the jewels and the dead guard to Tomari and Fatel through a wall. They make their escape through the walls. Then, at the exit at the bottom, they leave the guard’s body, stabbed in an obvious fashion. Then Tomari lures Fatel away from the palace, kills him, and stashes his body someplace safe. The cops find the body, ask around about people who have been seen going into the caves under the palace, and then start looking for Fatel. Ratigar/Morisar stays on the job for a few more weeks, then says that he has to leave for family reasons. Nothing to it, except for one incorruptible guardsman.
Tomari says not to kill him – it would be too suspicious, and might tip people off that something is going on. The last thing that they want is more guards posted. What he has to do is work to earn the guy’s trust. They both knew this was a long con, right? There is one thing, though. Tomari and Fatel have seen some other guy walking through the wall passages. He hasn’t figured out yet where the guy is coming in from, somewhere further up that they haven’t mapped yet, but he’s going out the same exit that they’ve been using. They’ve had to be extra careful not to be seen.
Drak was just doing his usual thing. Hanging out at the Drunken Dragon, nursing a beer, and listening to the locals brag about things that they all knew had never really happened. Everybody in this part of town knew Drak, and they knew better than to give him an excuse to start a fight. It was the most peaceful tavern in Ballar-Dur. The only problem was when you got people from out of town – like tonight. Some trader saying that he’s from Avarka, but with an obvious Gravic accent. He had three guards with him, big guys in boiled leather, acting like they own the place. Drak starting sizing them up the second that they walked in the door. One of the guys looked like he actually knew his way around a sword. The way he checked the doors, kept his eyes moving. The other two were just dumb muscle. One of the dumb muscle, true to form, got a little handsy with Madira, one of the serving girls. Madira could take care of herself. She was the daughter of the captain of the guard and had learned a thing or two growing up around the barracks.
She was also Drak’s girlfriend, and he was eager to see what these guys were made of. He stepped in, towered over the seated guardsman, and told him that if he couldn’t keep his hands to himself, Drak would have to remove them. The guardsman took the bait and started to stand up. Drak reared back his fist and clocked the guy. He was out cold before he even stood up. The second guard, the other dumb muscle, started reaching for his sword. Drak kicked him in the knee, hearing it crack as he went down in a pile. The third guy was standing, hands free at his sides. No move towards his weapon. Drak grinned, popped his neck, and dove in. A few minutes later, the trader and his men were leaving, with the polite suggestion from the barkeep that they may be happier at a different establishment.
Alistair was seeing a patient when Illion came in. His patient was an interesting case. The son of a duke, he had gone missing while the Duke was visiting the palace. A few days later the kid turns up, walking the streets with no idea who he was or what had happened. He told his distraught parents that the boy had probably fallen and hit his head, if he could study him for a few more days… but no, they were eager to leave the perils of the big city behind. So this was his last chance to study the boy, to figure out why he had such a strange mental signature. But Illion, who was usually so unflappable and easygoing, looked distraught and that was reason enough to cut short his examination.
After some interrogation, Illion reluctantly admits that his anxiety is because their mentor at the Academy, Makarandas, has been asking him to do some pretty strange things. Illion was an architect. He could shape living stone, create spaces that appeared larger on the inside than out, and create magical traps and locks. Makarandas had recently been tasking him to scout the palace, starting with its outer walls, and slowly moving his way inward. He was originally told that it was a research project, that Makarandas was studying the building practices of the Drunar. But as the weeks have gone by, it’s become obvious that he’s planning on entering the palace by stealth somewhow. Illion doesn’t know what he’s up to, but it is clearly illegal, and he’s worried that Makarandas has gotten into something over his head. Maybe Alistair can figure it out, and talk him out of it? Of course, he can’t let Makarandas know that Illion told him anything.
After his chat with Tomari, Ratigar decided to go and find Valeron and talk to him again about how much he’d rather be working on a detail where he could observe the political intrigues of the court. To his surprise, Valeron was excited by the idea. The king had a new advisor, a deposed Granic count named Gakhara. Ratigar was aware of this, as everyone was quite scandalized by the King bringing in a foreign adviser from Ballar’s main rival. Valeron was worried that there might be an attempt on Gakhara’s life, so he was posting guards outside his chamber. Since Morisar (Ratigar) wanted to be closer to the political action, he seemed like a good fit. And if he should happen to catch Gakhara doing something that he shouldn’t, well then maybe they could talk about finding him that position in the throne room.
Valeron escorted Morisar/Ratigar to his new detail, and as they approached the Count’s quarters, they heard the sounds of steel on steel. Someone was trying to kill Count Gakhara! Valeron and Ratigar sped to the fight, where they found two wounded guards trying to hold off four armed attackers. Ratigar and Valeron drew swords and set upon the assassins from behind. Ratigar was not an excellent swordsman, but he held his own and the assassins were quickly dispatched.
Drak rented a room in a block near the Drunken Dragon, and was happily walking there, with his arm slung around Madira’s shoulder. The brawl had put him in good spirits. Waiting in front of his door were three men, Botha and two of his goons. Botha was an underboss in the syndicate, a mid-level crimeboss who organized the fights. Drak’s pleasant mood disappeared. Botha told him that they had a big fight coming up in a couple days, an important fight, with important people in attendance. And those important people and their important money meant that everything needed to go just right. Including the fight itself. And the best way the night could result would be in a big upset. Maybe if the champ went down? Perhaps in the fifth round?
Drak reminded Botha that he wasn’t for sale. Botha commented that every man has a price, and that there are certain men that are even willing to kill if they are paid handsomely enough. As he said this, he ran one hand down Madira’s cheek. Drak slapped his hand away, and nearly punched Botha as his thugs reached for their shortswords. But he was able to restrain himself, and simply told Botha that if he wanted a fixed fight, he should find a different fighter.
Alistair left his office to go home, wondering how he was going to possibly speak to Makarandas. His mentor was proud, shrewd, and imposing. A large, boisterous man with a bushy beard and a towering presence. He would not take well to having his motives questioned. Perhaps if Alistair just asked him what he was working on these days…
Alistair’s concentration was broken, as he heard a noise behind him. He came out of his thoughts to realize that the road he was walking down was darker than usual. And that there were two menacing-looking men blocking the other end. He turned around to see another man approaching him from behind. They seemed to be carrying some sort of clubs. The men informed him that if he were to relinquish his personal possessions, he needn’t be harmed. He replied that if they were to turn and leave now, he may let them live. Unfortunately, Alistair was not carrying his physician’s staff, but he liked his odds against three ruffians. And besides, he hated people that tried to use their physical strength to exploit the weak.
He started muttering something, and then turned and threw a green ball of light at the man closing behind him. He collapsed to his knees, blinded. He ducked and stepped back, evading blows as he started casting. One of the blows struck him in the side, and he grunted in pain. A man of lesser will might have lost his concentration, but Alistair relished the opportunity to show that intellect was mightier than muscle. The next time that one of the men swiped at him, he stepped aside and then grabbed his arm. Under his touch, the limb withered and turned. The third man screamed in horror, then fled while he was still unarmed. Alistair picked up a cudgel from the ground, carefully aimed, and struck his assailants on the head. Then he withdrew a scapel from his robes and carefully, surgically, slit their throats. He cleaned his scapel, sterilizing it by coating it in flames, and then cast a spell to heal the bruises on his side.
So, how to approach Makarandas…
This is roughly one session’s worth of play, and is fairly typical of a first session. Each of the PCs is given an obvious plot hook to start chewing on, an example of what their routine life feels like (before the events of the campaign disrupt it), and an opportunity to practice their major skills. I also try to find a way to work each PC into a combat in the first session, even if it’s obviously forced. I’m not a believer in random encounters or meaningless fights, but I think that the first couple sessions serve to let the player feel out what their character is capable of, and that should include a fight that they are likely to win. Later, when the fights matter more and the stakes are higher, they have an idea of what their capabilities are.
I’ve also subtly introduced some of the major NPCs: Tomari, Fatel, and Valeron for Ratigar (aka Morisar), Illior and Makarandas for Alistair, and Madira and Botha for Drak. In traditional RPGs, the NPCs serve as a background cast for the PCs — they are the enemies, the allies, the contacts and obstacles. In a Dann-style campaign, the NPCs are both the story hooks that draw the PCs into what is really going on and the various actors in the larger conspiracy. As such, it is critical that the important NPCs are introduced early on, and that they seem to have distinct personalities and motivations.
The PCs have not met at all, and seem to be pursuing completely different stories. This is very deliberate. One of the goals of the Dann-style campaign is that every PC is the star of their own movie. When the whole campaign is over, they should each feel like they had a complete story that revolved around them, with the other PCs as part of their supporting cast. One of the ways that this is accomplished is giving them each their own problems that they are dealing with. As the story progresses, of course, their seemingly separate problems will all turn out to be related somehow (much like a William Gibson novel).
With only three players, it’s possible and desirable to let people explore in the world a little bit and figure out what their personal story is before they encounter the other players. If you throw them together too soon, the strongest role-player tends to dominate, and it just becomes their story. With four players, I find that I have to accelerate things a little bit more, but that’s another post.
One of the characteristics of the Dann Campaign is that there is some sort of conspiracy-based mystery, and the need to let each character have their own story is a big part of that. A conspiracy, by it’s nature, involves different parties, each conducting their own part of some larger plan. So you can build a conspiracy that somehow touches on each PCs’ sphere of influence. The story (and explanation) continues in Part 3.