The Chronicles of Zeska, or simply Zeska for short, was a short lived campaign I ran. The game was around 20 to 30 sessions long, and lasted a few months. Overall, the game ended up being what I can only describe as a successful mistake. It achieved a lot of the goals I set out to do, but it became clear that the game was entirely player driven, and much of what I loved to do as the Dungeon Master (DM), was absent, or minute in it’s application. As the game progressed, the role of DM started to feel more like a referee rather than a storyteller due to the reduced emphasis of the role.
When I run a campaign, I tried to do something different than any previous campaign with my group. I try new themes or mechanics, and I always have some goals for what I want the game to achieve. Zeska had four overarching goals that affected various aspects of the gameplay:
- Create a feeling of war. I wanted the setting to actually feel like a war, with armies marching, soldiers fighting and dying, victories, retreats, and even defeats.
- Collaborative combat. I wanted players to remove themselves from any individual combatant and focus of team collaboration and strategy rather than individual actions.
- Focus on player versus player roleplay. I wanted players to be at odds with each other in a roleplay situation, but have that be removed from actual physical violence and combat.
- Have players play many characters. I wanted the players to be in situations where they had to jump between multiple characters. The goal was to help people learn to have a wider perspective of a fight.
These goals were responses to situations with some of my players and my own desires at the time of the game’s inception. A few of these are detailed below:
- I was finding that many players didn’t want to collaborate and create uniform strategies within a fight, instead they would play the fight in isolation from their allies.
- I wanted to expand on a system from an older game where the players had an array of NPC’s that they occasionally played. I had noticed at the time that players had difficulty playing to a character’s written and defined personalities and characteristics.
- D&D is very individually focused, which I believed was the main reason for the above issues. I felt that by focusing the game on a large-scale war that the game could help address the above and other similar issues. However, I needed to make the game feel like a war, which to me meant the characters couldn’t be standard D&D heroes, they had to be expendables.
My goals helped to shape and dictate what mechanics or systems I introduced and what the players would know about the setting itself. In a broad sense, this is shown through four major aspects of the game: the plot and setting, the roleplay opportunities, the soldiers and combat system, and lastly what I call the management of the game. Each of which I will introduce in sections below as well as further elaborate on in a series of future blog posts.
Throughout this series, I will be talking about various aspects of the Chronicles of Zeska Campaign, and I have a collection of documents from the actual game available to browse on google drive. These files can be read and browsed to help better understand the game.
These documents were never intended for a wide audience, so character features are shortened, and simplistic to read. As well, the letters which were only read by two people, were never proofread or edited.
Zeska was a very simple setting and plot compared to most campaign settings, including the size of the world. This was an intentional choice on my part at the time. I wanted the world restrained with a very centralized focus. I also wanted players to possess different versions of the history based on their council faction, this required a simple history that could be altered for each player. Likewise, I never intended to use the campaign setting beyond this one game, so I didn’t create anything complex or deep.
The basic premise is that the land of Zeska is entirely isolated, possibly the only land in the world. However, a long time ago, a mysterious man appeared called Azcor. He travelled to the land and spread a cult. People followed after Azcor, and his cult turned treasonous. Eventually Azcor took his primary followers and turned them into horrendous creatures known as Abaddites.
Azcor used an army of undead and demons to slowly take over the lands. However, during the course of the war, heroes arose. People of virtuous morales and strength, who gained mysterious and magical powers. Some turned into priests or paladins. Others turned into wizards or eldritch knights. With this power they fought back and reclaimed the lands, killed Azcor, and forced the demonic Abaddites back into the dark portal from whence they came. After the war more magical powers appeared, those magics of the druids, barbarians and the rangers. As well, the three seeds of the Almighty (God) appeared, born from a brilliant light. They wield the three artifacts of the Almighty, and have tremendous power.
Fast forward to the current time of the game. A war council has been summoned composed of the various political factions in Zeska. News has told of a sudden appearance of zombies within the West, where the Wizards dwell. As well, demons begin to appear in the far south. The army is conscripted and begins to fight back, however soon these hellish armies reveal the Abaddites have returned once more, and with them a new mysterious man clad in black armor.
The above is a very brief summary of the plot, but it is a reasonable one. For those of you that are curious, a full plot can be discovered by reading through the Campaign’s History.
The game wasn’t entirely this simple for the players however. One of the wrenches thrown into the plot was that each player was given secret knowledge about present or historical events that no one else knows. These help to shape how they view the setting and world. As an example, one of my players was playing a nobleman loyal to the King: Earl Marcius of Hasting. His documents are accessible within the folder shared above and within his goals he had secret knowledge for his character documented. As an example:
Zeska was a part of a great landmass previously, where magic and divine powers existed. Long ago the Monarch separated Zeska by breaking and sealing it away. This removed the powers from the realm, and prevented the ability for the non-royals to raise up.
This completely changes the game for this player. Now the demons, the mage Azcor, the flow of magic, the raise of heroes, none of that has the same air of mystery to him as it does to the other players. But if the others others found out, it would be dangerous for him. Suddenly part of his game is to try and prevent this discovery through his character on the council, and it will force him into a situation where he must act against the other characters within the game as he roleplays Marcius of Hasting.
The main roleplay aspect of the game was regular council meetings, where each player took charge of a specific person in a position of power from the different factions: the Wizards, the Druids, the Knights, the Royal Guard, and the Nobility. During these meetings the players had to discuss what direction to send their soldiers, and what, if any scouts should be sent out, and where they should go to. Generally it sounds simple, but there are, of course, many wrenches.
All the characters were given objectives. If they completed these objectives, they were rewarded with Influence Points (IP). The players had major objectives, which were objectives that were designed to span the full campaign, and minor objectives, which tended to only last one or two sessions. The objects and IP were tracked within a goals document.
However the players were not suppose to discuss their goals with each other. Actually, the other players could try to call the other players out on their goals. If the accuser is correct, then the person who was called out loses influence, and the accuser gains influence. As such, the players need to play a game of cloak and dagger to try and pass goals without others knowing. These objectives changed how the player will interact with the other players and forced conflict when two people have counteracting objectives.
I spoke briefly about Earl Marcius of Hasting within The Story section above, and I will use his as an example once more. He had an objective to send a squad to save another earl. Marcius had to convince the others to save the earl even though saving the earl wasn’t declared as a possible mission. Additionally, he had to do this without the others knowing what he was up to. Not only did Marcius convince the council to send a squad to rescue the earl, he sent a letter with a bribe to the woman who was appointed the leader of the squad to ensure the safety of the earl. This all together got him a successful objective.
However, perhaps the most important aspect of the game’s roleplay was the private side of things. Each player was given a journal that they could write in. Within these journals players could write letters and ask questions to various NPCs across the setting, even NPCs of their own creation. Then, I would write replies and add them to the document for the player to read and review. Sometimes it’s nothing more than fluff, sometimes the players learn important information. As well, the players could hire scouts for personal missions, to spy on other factions through their journals. Some players wrote little skits from scenes happening behind the screen, away from the council meeting, or private letters to each other to scheme behind the scenes.
However through all of this, not a single die was rolled. The council was completely removed from anything mechanical. It was purely roleplay, and made up about a third or less of the game time. The rest of the time was combat, where the players took control of the squads they sent out to various points of interest in the world.
For a large portion of the game, the players united together to control their military detachment within the combats and scenes they chose to fight at. However, the detachment had a very large cast of characters, easily forty soldiers. Due to this, players had to take control of many characters within a fight and work together to agree upon strategies and actions.
The soldiers all fit into a few molds, such as knights having action surge, or paladins coming with smite. Yet despite this, the characters were complex characters. They were given some defining character traits and an alignment in addition to unique features that typically helped add some mechanical advantages and disadvantages based on their personality. As an example, we can look at one of the Ranger soldiers, Amanda Cole.
- Class Feature. All classes shared one feature in common across the board that help define what they did. All rangers had Nature’s Stride, which allowed them to ignore difficult terrain.
- Trained Feature. All soldiers have one trained feature, for the rangers there were three possible trained features: Sniper, Forked Shot, and Green Arrow. Amanda had the Forked Shot, allowing her to attack two different enemies on her turn if both targets were within 5 feet of each other.
- Positive Feature. Each soldier had 1 positive feature. This is not based on the character class or specialization, like the previous two. This feature is based on the character’s history or personality. Amanda had the feature Thrill of the Hunt, which allowed her to attack a second time within a turn when she kills an enemy.
- Negative Feature. Each soldier had 1 negative feature that is based on the character’s history or personality. Amanda had the feature Solo Act, which prevented her from attacking if an ally was within 10 feet of her.
Soldiers also had a weapon or cantrip in addition to the above features, there were a few soldiers that were more unique than others, such as a few stand alone figures and druids who each had a different play style. All of the soldiers were managed through a shared sheet. As can be seen from the personality and histories of the characters, none of these soldiers were made to be equals. Some were meant to be heroes or good soldiers and others had no place being conscripted into the war. Making use out of, and managing, each and every soldier was part of the games strategy.
The last major element is more a constant theme throughout the campaign, and that was management. The game was very heavily controlled and managed across multiple documents, each with express purposes and reasons. This was the central pillar to the entire game that helped keep everything together. Without it, the game would fall apart, and would make any strategy and planning no different than using Cromniomancy to create your plans.
The first major aspect was the calendar system. The setting was divided into 4 seasons (Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter) each composed of 90 days for a total of 360 days. The year began on the first day of Spring.
Every event and action possible was mapped out onto this calendar. The calendar was then integrated into the world map by counting the number of tiles it took to travel between two locations. All units, whether soldiers in a detachment or demons in a massive horde, followed the strict travel time requirements to get from one location to another based on the number of tiles. Even the letters players could send would abide to the calendar based on the amount of time it took for the letters to be delivered by a messenger. All of this together meant that every single action the players could consider was calculated within the calendar and was based on distance between places. Therefore, players could intercept enemies on the march and could calculate how quickly a plea of help or an order would reach its recipient.
The soldiers had to be managed as well, they had to be placed into squads of three to six and sent off on missions, either alone or alongside other squads. Some characters couldn’t be in a squad with other characters and others gave bonuses to only their assigned squad. This was done to ensure characters were not just randomly distributed and character synergy had to considered.
Players also had to manage and document their supplies of influence as well as their goals within their goals sheet. This was mainly done so that other players could review what each other were up to once the game ended in order to understand the full story and to see if their suspicions were right. However, it also acted as a historical reference for the player, allowing them to keep track of their actions between council sessions.
The last two heavy management documents were the Council Minutes, and the Chronicles of the Second War. The minutes were entirely ran by the players during council meetings. They used it to help plan and organize their army, and make votes. Generally it’s messy, but it was also never meant for anything more than a scratch pad and to keep track of who voted for what. Whereas the chronicle was used by me to document the campaign and events in a simple and concise matter. It also helped to highlight what other detachments and important figures were doing during the game.
Looking at all of these documents, and notably the chronicles, it’s quite clear that the game never reached a true conclusion. That is not because people wanted to stop playing. It was because I wanted to stop DMing.
Despite the game being well received, I missed a normal campaign too much. Within the council, I was mostly silent and clarified the events and knowledge for the players. Then in combats I played a bunch of monsters. The only roleplaying I really got to do was during the letters, and it is a fairly large time investment to write all of these letters back and forth with the players. Theoretically, I would spend five times longer writing letters than any other player. Not only that, I had to maintain the chronicles and other documents. Suddenly my weeks were filled with nothing but this game.
That is why it was a successful mistake. It succeeded at what I wanted to do, but in doing so, it also mostly removed the DM from the game entirely. While I’m sure there are better balances, the about of work I needed to do compared to the fun I received broke my will to run the game.