Monday, 5 May 2014

Crossed Genres: Dark Stryder and Rogue Trader

The Dark Stryder Campaign Box

Of all the many, many published sci-fi and space opera campaigns I've come across over the years, Dark Stryder was easily the best. With the old Living Force campaign series run by the RPGA a very close second (I only have the first two seasons of that in my collection at the moment though, due to hardware failure. If anyone has the rest of it, please give me a shout).

Some of my favorite campaign ideas involve taking a campaign or setting from one roleplaying game and combining it with the rule-set for another. This is pretty evident from my current Dark Heresy campaign, which basically takes the players through the excellent Mask of Nyartlothop (or however it's spelled) campaign for Call of Cthulu.

In the same vein, I'd love to take the wonderful Dark Stryder campaign for D6 Star Wars and run it in the 40K universe with the Rogue Trader rules. Instead of being agents of the New Republic pursuing a Rogue Imperial Moff through uncharted space, the players would consist of a newly enfranchised Rogue Trader and his crew. 

So what are the elements of the Dark Stryder campaign that made it great? Well, first of all it drew upon the troupe style play experience of other RPG's such as Ars Magica. Every player had multiple characters so that no-one felt left out in any given scenario. If your main character was the Chief Engineer and tonight's adventure was a straight up combat mission, then you took control of one of the ship's Marine grunts for the evening. A good DM would even incorporate a cut scene away from the action so that all the main character's got a little air time, even if was just at the planning session or using the ships sensors to locate an incoming enemy. There were even whole adventures in the campaign specifically set up so that none of the ships command crew (the main player characters) were involved. Very similar to the handful of Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes that revolved around a group of minor  recurring characters from the lower decks. 
Rogue Trader Style Command Crew
In the 40K universe, I'd take this further. Each player would control a member of the command crew,  a Deathwatch Space Marine, and a pair of Imperial Guardsmen and lower deck crew. This would me to combine all the various sets of 40K RPG rules (Rogue Trader, Deathwatch, Only War and Dark Heresy) in a single campaign. I could even include one-off games where the players get to play the Renegade Moff (In this case, a Renegade Sub-Sector Governor) using the Black Crusade rules.

I think that was one of the reasons the campaign always stayed so fresh, despite it taking us about 18 months to play through (12 hour weekly sessions during term time). We weren't always using the same characters or playing the same type of scenarios. Or even at the same power level.

The second element was the theme of exploration and world building. It was, in essence, one great big sand-box to explore in the hunt for the Rogue Moff. With incomplete charts of the Kathol region (I'd call it the Kathol sub-sector in 40k) the players had to "fill in the blanks" as they went, purchasing, stealing or capturing parts of the sector map as they went. In this way, the GM kept some control over where the players could go from week to week by limiting their available options to just a handful while at the same time giving the players considerably more options than they would find in a modern linear campaign, such as an adventure path. In my opinion, they found the perfect balance between the two, with ever less than three of four options for which planetary system to visit next. It means that no matter where the players went, the GM could be prepared. It's much easier to prep for three possibile adventures than it is to prep for twenty from week to week.

Thirdly was the heroic feel of the game. The ship was on it's own. The sole representatives of the New Republic (or, in this case, the Imperium of Man). This mean't the stakes were big. Using diplomacy or force, the characters were able to gain local support against the renegades and even recruit new worlds in the Republic. In essence, they were gathering an alliance to take on the forces of evil. But on the other side of the scales, if they performed poorly or made enemies, they not only weakened themselves but risked driving other worlds into the renegade fold as well. 

High stakes and high adventure? What could be better.
Alternative Command Crew
It would also be fairly easy to adapt all the existing worlds and adventures  into the 40K universe. Very few changes would be needed. After all, the 40K universe is very much a kitchen-sink setting, with room for just about anything ever featured in sci-fi. Plus the interactions between the humano-centric and even downright xenophobic Imperials (the PC's) and the handful of mixed species and even purely xenos cultures encountered should make for good roleplaying opportunities. And as for the Dark Side of the Force? When, in the 40K universe we just call that Chaos.

The only complain I ever had about the Dark Stryder campaign was the frankly awful final book in the series. Rather than presenting  a number of concluding adventures that tied up the campaigns loose threads in a series of episodes (like Season 4 of Babylon 5) the designers decided to cram everything into one long super-adventure. The end result was more like a series of jumbled notes and cool-sounding ideas rather than a coherently presented adventure. In fact, when I picked it up just a few weeks before we'd come to that point in the campaign, I'd expected to be able to run it after a quick read through or two, much as I had the other adventure packs for the campaign.

Instead, I had to break up the flow of the campaign (and lose some considerable momentum) while I basically re-wrote the thing from scratch. While the conclusion of the campaign was still a resounding success (high-fives and cheers everywhere) I can't help but think it would have been even better if we hadn't had to play a different game for five weeks while I wrote the ending myself.

If I ever get to run this campaign again (and if I do, it will be in the world of 40K) I won't make that mistake again.