Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Tales of a Guerrilla Roleplayer: The Imperial City

I've mentioned it a few times before, but here's the rundown.

I ran a campaign.  It was crazy and sprawling and lovely.  We played for about eight years, but the game only took place from 2000-2002, with the bulk of the game taking place from August 2001 to June 2002.  It took place in New York City, in the old World of Darkness.  It was called The Imperial City.

I was young when I started running it, and I had all sorts of big, crazy ideas.  For starters: play whatever you want.  Second: I'll probably include whatever I want.  If something sounds cool, I'll try to use it somewhere.

After a couple of false starts, the plot basically took the form recognizable by any of its players.  After some time spent playing, the scope narrowed: mages only.

It wasn't any feat of writing, but it was apparently fun to play.  I take very little credit for that.  For most people, it was luck: it was their first long-running campaign.  Or their first roleplaying game ever.  For others, gaming was scarce, and they found an excuse to goof around with a bunch of friends.

But apparently, people had fun.  We still talk about it from time to time.

The Imperial City New York was a sandbox, albeit one with certain imperatives.  There were Technocrats and Nephandi, and the occasional Marauder.  Presumably, there were Traditionalist politics, but these were young mages with a powerful patron, and they were largely insulated from such petty bickering.  Really, their patrons were fighting the good fight against the other factions in the city.

The game was insane.

Don't get me wrong.  I've run games multiples of insanity higher than this one.  I wrote a campaign setting where a sapient bear in power armor with a lightsaber and a pet Pokémon is a viable character option.  I have recently run three games with a 100% mortality rate.  I've run games where characters are fomori from Freak Legion.

But where those had some level of planning, Imperial City was the Wild West.  I had never run a game, so it had a free-wheeling character that I haven't really emulated again.  People could play what they wanted as long as it made sense.  If you were willing to put some work into it, it didn't even have to make sense.  I mean, a vampire, a weredragon, a cyborg, and a bunch of wizards live in a house together.  Does that make any sense?

And the story was whatever you wanted out of it.  I threw history, occult symbolism, and literature (the trinity of Heart of Darkness, The Hollow Men, and Apocalypse Now were major influences on the game) into the mix, and had an enormous number of NPCs, but if you wanted, you could easily get by on ridiculous setpiece battles.  The PCs fought mummies in nightclubs, mutants in hotels, and Nazis on New York City streets.

I also refer to it as guerilla roleplaying due to the scheduling.  Initially, there was the typical attempt at playing on specific days, but after a while, there wasn't any.  Imperial City was held whenever players were together and wanted to play.  We played in houses, but we also played in cars, in restaurants (Denny's and IHOP both saw some late nights of gaming), on walks, in hotel rooms, and online.  A character fell to the Nephandi, and her first task was to betray her mentor.  We rolled the combat on one of the metal counters at the back of a 7-11 (which wasn't so much a combat as a brutal murder, which is why we could get away with combat on the go).

Speaking of brutal murder, Imperial City was full of them.  It was the deadliest game I've ever run, as it was completely unforgiving: if you wander into a situation where you should die and do not immediately extricate yourself from that situation, your death is probably the only outcome.  I encouraged characters doing things on their own time — long chains of solo play ran throughout the campaign's run — but mistakes were frequently bloody.  There's a binder of defunct characters, and while most of those are dead NPCs or characters who just stopped being used, there's a sizable group of dead PCs.

This ensemble cast also lent the game its unique mythology: as players and characters came and went, they added more stuff to the campaign setting.  Major NPCs were added or given enhanced backstories by players rather than myself.  Extra NPC groups were added by people who were between characters.  For as much as people give me credit with the intricate plot, everyone added something.  There was an entire Chantry formed from the misfits of other Chantries.  Major NPCs like Kalidas and Regina weren't really my creations, but background elements from PC backstories.  Doctor Stopwatch was revealed to be a member of a small school for orphans with special abilities.  Doctor Zirpoli was revealed to have funded said school.  None of these elements are truly mine, and I think the game benefited from that.

Recently, I've been going through my old notes, and it's a bit odd.  I left a lot of gaps in my notes because I mostly remembered what was happening.  It's been four years since then, and now there are gaps in my memory.  Some of my notes seem like things other people wrote.  For as much as I forget, though, the amount I remember is similarly surprising.  I read some notes and see things I was introducing, plot hooks I was throwing into the mix.  I read other notes and recall what was happening, how things turned out.  It's all very odd, but it's interesting reading.  I've changed in some ways, and stayed the same in others.

We've been talking for four years about doing a reunion, and my plans are still nebulous, but I think I'm ready to return to Imperial City.  Part of my hesitation is simply being busy, but a large part is the concern that the game has come and gone and any sequel will add a sour note to something best left alone.  People have been excited at the prospect, though, so we'll see.  If I actually do a reunion, I'll be sure to keep better records for the benefit of anyone who is interested in that sort of thing.  And probably for myself, so that when I look back five years later, I'm not completely bewildered by what I read.

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