I meant to write this up weeks ago, but was only now able to get around to it. If you’ve read through all my Zora’s Legion AARs, in addition to the notes there, I have some additional hard-won advice for play:
I think my biggest and most important piece of advice, based on a common complaint I’ve seen about game structure and fictional engagement, is that while your instinct might be to get through the campaign phase quick, to just run through the list and the mechanical decisions and move right into the mission phase. Don’t.
Lean hard into campaign phase fiction. There are a few ways to do this. You could play the decisions out as the command staff (and any other characters you want to draw in) discussing, planning, and possibly arguing about what to do. You could also make mechanical campaign phase decisions, and then describe or play out a scene or scenes showcasing those decisions in the fiction. (Our group decided early on we were going to handle it using the latter method — we didn’t always stick to it, and that’s OK. You can mix it up.)
What the latter means is even if you make the decisions mechanically, go back and flesh it out with for-real fictional content:
Marshal: “OK, I’m choosing the Owls and the Scout for this one.”
GM: “How does that play out? What’s that look like?”
Marshal: “Well, obviously, our Scout has been pushing hard for this. She wants Zenya’s head, now she knows Zenya’s right here, so she’s going to go after her whether or not the Commander says she can. I think what happens is we see the command staff gathered in the tent discussing the supply situation. The Scout pushes past the two guards to get in, immediately and loudly demanding that she be allowed to go after Zenya. And she insists she’s going to do it whether or not the Commander gives her the go-ahead. The Commander looks pissed, but in a surprisingly tactful moment, declares that’s what was planned anyways, and glances at the Marshal. And the Marshal just kind of sighs and goes with it — tells her to go get the Ghost Owls ready, and not to get them killed this time.”
Commander: “Sounds good to me! AND WOW. The Scout is so angry about that! She’s so going to show the Marshal. She is going to bring Zenya’s head back on a platter for her! And she’s not letting anyone die this time. She’s tired of this ‘jinx’ rumor around camp.”
Marshal: “Yes! I think that’s exactly what the Marshal was trying to inspire here.”
Similarly, do not forget to play back-at-camp scenes.
I don’t just mean the ones the Lorekeeper requests. Whether you are a player or a GM, bring up stuff with the other players that might have happened back in camp on the squad’s way to the mission, or stuff that happens to the squad on the way back from a mission (as a kind of narrative denouement). It’s important that things happen with squaddies and Specialists between missions to create narrative content.
If you are the GM, and the players are stumped about free-play scenes to run, or get stuck during free-play scenes, ask for ideas. You’ll be tempted to just say “What do you think was happening in camp while the squad was away?” or similar. But that’s a pretty open-ended question. It’s better to use leading questions, or provide some texture for the players:
“Breaker’s red-eyed crows have been circling the Legion’s camp, clearly spying on you. The Commander wants something done about it and I think he goes to the Star Vipers to get results, right?. What do they do?”
“This was definitely an Ember Wolves style-mission, but the Stags were assigned instead. How do they feel about that? Snubbed? Do they go to the Commander or the Marshal and complain?”
“Hey, Atair and Enya haven’t seen each other since Ettenmark. I think they finally have a moment to catch up at the mess. How does Enya feel about this ‘deserter’ rumor going around camp? Does she ask her brother about it?”
Dig into those personal stories.
BTW, it is OK to tell other players what happened with various characters, what a character was doing, or what antics occurred. This is easiest if you frame the story as a suggestion by using “…How’s that sound?” and “I think it would be cool if…what do you think?” The other players will jump in.
If not, use leading questions and texture: “OK, how does the Dame feel about that? I see she likes making dark jokes…what joke does she tell here?”
One thing I’ve found that really helps to bring the Legion to life is to play the “NPCs”: get them involved in these stories, or let players take the NPCs out for a spin instead of a squaddie (suggest it!), such as the Legion alchemists and mercies, heck even random laborers – let someone create names, motivations and personalities.
For example, our alchemist was unforgettable: he was a scheming, brewing, hard-eyed bastard whose creepy subterfuges with the Quartermaster saved the Legion. We know all this from the free-play built around the campaign phase — he was never played on a mission.
On that note, definitely don’t forget the Chosen: get her involved in the day-to-day camp-life stories, in the command staff fiction, or whatever. Make her a presence in the Legion. Describe at least something she did that day. Use the descriptive words you pick for her as a guide, and tell the other players what she was doing in camp while they were off on a mission, or ask if they want to run an interactive scene about it, ask the command staff players how they feel about the Chosen’s activities, did it step on someone’s toes, were they there supporting her?
I know this seems like a lot when written out, but it’s actually not. It’s really just one simple question to add pre- or post-mission: “What cool thing could happen here in camp?”
Also, don’t let the idea of all this non-mission character RP overwhelm you: none of this needs to be played out with dialogue and full characterization in half-hour interactive scenes.
Just create some fiction in some way. Whether that is fully-blown acted-out scenes, or brief “so this happened” narratives doesn’t matter.
Our big blow-up between the QM and the Blazing Lions — one of the most problematic issues that faced the Lions afterwards — involved one roll and about five minutes of “OK, so this is what happened…” “YES! And then…” ending with “Oh crap. The Lions are so screwed now.” Zero traditional “role-playing.” But it pained a very clear picture and created feelings about things.
One area I also see people saying they struggle with is characterizing the Broken or their subordinates so that the players care. One technique you can use to bring life to the Legion’s opponents is to flash the fiction over to enemy encampments for a slice-of-life, giving us as players and narrators an idea of what the enemy does in general, but especially how they interact with their leaders, victims, and minions. (Or even what the situation on the ground looks like before the squad arrives!)
I definitely need to do more of this myself!
Remember, you’re not trying to hide stuff from the other players: you are equal partners in designing a narrative; ie: “So, we as players know…though our characters don’t.” (I used this technique rarely in this game, but I know other GMs who use it very effectively.)
One big piece of advice regarding legionnaires, when you play a character, use the Notes: record personality traits, behavioral quirks, and significant events from in-camp or on-mission about the character. These are great sources of material for scenes and future play during missions, even as mission NPCs.
One note we had on a rarely used character was “has never successfully hit anything with a gun” — so the few times he was played after his miserable efforts, he never took a musket because “I’m useless with those things!” (crossed it off the sheet) and instead was “the Legion’s scholar and religious expert” (high Study, reliquary heritage, and fiction).
Parallel to this is something easy to gloss over: don’t forget about the NPC squaddies on missions. They have personalities and backgrounds. Use the Notes to throw color into a scene, or wrenches (even the occasional benefit). Bring them up occasionally during a mission as individuals with faces.
Either have their sheets out, or scribble down something about each of them for the mission and put it where everyone can see.
“You’re right, one of the squaddies is a demolitionist! OK, I think that’s worth something. I’ll grant better Position or Effect because he’d know where to place the charges…you’re either faster and can get out quicker, or the avalanche is much more effective?”
“Wait, doesn’t Klarin trust the Black Oak to act honorably? And we sent him to negotiate? We didn’t tell him about the ambush plan, right? I need a flashback to make sure his naivety doesn’t screw this up.”
You don’t have to do this all the time, it doesn’t even need to be complex. Even just one mention of something about each specific squaddie during the mission is enough: something they say or do or how they react (“Pavel grunts and shakes his head. He ignores it and figures it best if the hot-heads work it out between them.”).
Again, these aren’t just GM suggestions, they’re suggestions for all the players. Don’t be afraid to say:
“Hey, I was thinking that this happened… Yeah?”
“Is everyone good if the Legion’s Mercy went out and…?”
“Vexing Crimson is trying to earn that third name, so she…”
Now, one bit I should have done but didn’t: when the Lorekeeper creates the Legion’s tenets, write them down and place them somewhere everyone can see. These are great motivations to help characterize the Legion and create internal conflict.
And as one mechanical note, I should mention it’s OK to lean on the other players for help recalling how specific rules work, if you have a blind spot or haven’t quite gotten the hang of stuff yet, or even to catch when you mess up as GM. (A few of the other players in my game were very good at this, and very helpful.)
Finally, you’ll note I generally say “we” in most of these reports, instead of “the players” or “my players” etc. Because it is “we”…you’re one of the group. You’re a player. This is co-operative fiction.
WHEW! I know that’s a lot, and may take time to internalize, but hopefully this helps someone.
It’s all really just a few simple bullet points:
- Ask leading questions.
- Do stuff in camp.
- Use the NPCs.
- Create campaign phase fiction.