Help me get my campaign going again!

Continuing the discussion from Your current RPG campaigns:

G’day there everybodies!

I live in a rather remote rural fastness of New South Wales, where there are no roleplayers to be found. For some while my only roleplaying opportunity has been a one-on-one campaign that I have been running using FaceTime with a very forbearing character-player who lives seven hundred kilometres away. During the current unpleasantness my game has turned into one of very few social opportunities that the Player is able and allowed to continue, so it is a considerable disappointment to both of us that I haven’t been able to continue GMing it.

The problem is that I am circling the drain of another depressive episode of my bipolar mood disorder¹. My brain care specialist urges me to grit my teeth through the anhedonia and social aversion, to maintain my social contacts and normal activities for as long as I can bear to. So I’m resolved to do that. But such resolution cannot carry me through a generalised cognitive deficit: I’m about 15 points of IQ stupider than usual, my recall of memory is shot, and my creativity has gone on an extended vacation. Normally I can improvise adventures for an RPG; at present I cannot even plan one. If you here can help me with that I’ll be very grateful.

¹ The parlous state of current affairs my be a precipitating stressor, but this is most likely not a depressive reaction. I have been getting these episodes for nearly forty years. Like all the others before it, this one will pass in time.


The campaign is set in my usual SF RPG setting Flat Black ², which consists of a thousand independent human worlds with varied societies and governments scattered through a space that is governed by a weak but very determined Empire obsessed with preventing mass deaths.

The player character is an extremely capable secret operator, who works for an organisation that is so secret that neither he nor his field control knows what it is. He was recruited out of his final year of commando officer training at the Imperial Marines Academy, and the people who introduced him to the people who recruited him were people that he knew from before as retired Imperial servants. But he was recruited and has since received training entirely outside Imperial Direct jurisdiction, and has never known a serving Imperial servant to provide support or co-operation in any way. His missions have ranged from “rescue this journalist from that kidnapper without her or the Reporters’ Guild getting any idea that anyone was trying to rescue her” though “go along on this hare-brained treasure quest, plant these things among the treasure they find, and make sure that the cabin boy makes it home unhurt and without PTSD” to “infiltrate this politico-religious movement, perform an assessment, and if it seems bad kill it”. The one that the player seemed to enjoy most was the one where he had to covertly bodyguard the cabin boy (perhaps because it had pirates and sunken treasure in it).

The PC has broad capabilities. His greatest strengths are interpersonal: he’s extremely charming and reads people well, a convincing actor, persuasive, and likeable. His favourite mode of operation is to get into social groups in their homes and third places by pretending to be something he’s not, elicit intelligence in indiscreet conversation, and to persuade or trick people into doing things that they don’t realise that he wants. His second string of abilities are that he’s very good at fighting unarmed and with mêlée weapons, is an excellent shot with sidearms and smallarms, and is quite willing to just kill people to get his mission done (he killed fourteen gangsters to rescue the journalist, and hasn’t given it a thought since). Third, he has a strong capability at getting places unobserved: climbing, stealth, swimming and SCUBA skills, use of parawings and personal flyers. He’s a trained military scout. And he has backup vehicle skills.

The PC is supported in the field by an offsider whom he recruited himself, called “Ingham”. He rescued her from a life she didn’t want as a goddess on Navabharata and [his org] enabled her to reverse the body modifications she hated. She has never been told as much, but she has an impression that she and the PC are deniable effectives of the Planned Progress League, a non-government organisation. Ingham is can design, make, and repair a wide range of things, including forged documents and injured colleagues; at university she enjoyed designing, making, and controlling practical effects, lighting, and makeup for the amateur film-making club. She is competent with all sorts of vehicles, took quickly to picking locks and picking pockets, and is learning infiltration and self-defence skills. But she has never yet performed an act of violence against another human being. And she really isn’t much at dissimulation. Ingham doesn’t have a lot of interest in the unique and varied cultures of the places they visit, especially any supposition by the locals that she shouldn’t do any particular thing because of her sex.

The PC and Ingham are directed in the field by an identity called “Hunter”, which has certainly been at some times an actual physical man, but which might at other times have been an AI process running on a portable computer in Room 101 at the Old Star Hotel at the local spaceport. He seems to be able to disappear on one planet and reappear on another without having been a passenger on the only ship to have made the trip in the time. Hunter provides information of astonishing quality which it is sometimes hard to figure out how anyone can have got it, and also arranges for resources, equipment, and supplies to be provided. When possible, Hunter arranges for some hireling, agent, or asset to stash things the PC wants in accessible places, and them directs the PC or Ingham where to find them, without anyone meeting anyone.

² Please don’t feel that you need to know a lot about my setting to be able to help me in my current predicament. If you would like to know more about Flat Black, there is a discussion category on this very site, which is a bit chaotic. There is also a fairly well-organised 9,700-word introduction for players downloadable from Wikidot.

OK, off the top of my head: the assignment is to infiltrate and topple (destroy/discredit) a planetary organisation. But the further the infiltration goes, the more they seem like good guys. Do they have a hidden dark secret? Or do the shadowy bosses want to make things worse on this planet for some reason?

At the moment the PC and his team are on Persatuan, which is a cool planet tidally locked to its star, so that the region around the subsolar point is warm and very wet, and surrounded by a belt of cool, windy, semi-arid to arid lands halfway to the terminator. Industrial development on Persatuan is such that the locals can use manufacturing techniques and produce items about as sophisticated as Old Earth in the 1950s CE. But there are a lot of (expensive) imported goods in high-value applications, such as cellular comms towers, and smart-ish phones.

There are basically two cultures on Persatuan, though they aren’t very different. The wetter and more industrial parts are dominated by “masyarakat”, which are industrial or agricultural communes, each both a clan and a workforce. The drier and more pastoral areas are dominated by “pusaka”, which are less egalitarian and tend a bit towards the economical and social structure of a cattle station or feudal manor.

The union of workplace and home in most parts of Persatuan creates constraint; the most socially acceptable escape from this is through musical ensembles and amateur music-drama: practice and performance give people on Persatuan places and occasions into which to escape from mundane concerns and pressures.

On Persatuan it is accepted that people will take mood-altering and noötropic drugs from time to time to modulate their experience and behaviour: drugs to make them diligent at work, drugs to make them feel transcendent while jamming, drugs that will make them affable at parties, drugs that will make them horny in the marital bed. It is, however, very poor behaviour indeed, and in circumstances a serious misdemeanour, to give people such drugs secretly or without their consent.

The people of Persatuan seem superficially very informal and relaxed, but they are actually strongly attached to their dignity and self-possession. They react angrily to any humiliation, and are ashamed of sensual abandon. On the other hand they admire, and like to be admired for, musical ability and the diligence with which they collaborate in their masyarakat or pusaka.

Persatuan is nominally a unitary republic, but in practice the central authority discharges few functions and its most important branch is its judiciary. Executive functions are mostly subsidiarised to the level of “subak”, which are approximately counties. County officials are elected, and in routine matters citizens deal with the subak government through their masyarakat and pusaka.

I want to pep Persatuan up a bit. It’s not as pungent as I would like.

1 Like

The target organisation is covertly dosing people with mood-altering drugs for good purposes (e.g. “I don’t feel like mugging someone tonight after all”).

The PC and Ingham have completed one mission here, which didn’t go terribly well because (1) the player did not put thought or care into his cover before infiltrating the Assart of Parcroor on a preliminary scouting mission, (2) the player was distracted by all the sexy bits that the director of oppo security put in the PC’s way to distract him, and (3) both PC and player were blindsided when a third-party operation turned out to be going on. Anyway, the team effected their mission, which was to get dome of the genetic material of the Entrepreneur of Parcroor into the hands of a journalist so that he can be outed as Ashgarah, former Imperial judge on New Lhasa and son-in-law of the late Great Blahma, the expectation being that he will them be assassinated by the Sons of Patrick Henry. The player and PC are very unsure that they ought to have prevented his immediate assassination by effectives of an unknown group.

My plan, agreed with the player, is that the PC will stop on Persatuan for a few years to get more familiar with and effective within its society. The player has expressed an interest in some non-mission “bottle episode” stuff in which he deals with establishing his long-term cover, makes some contacts who might be usefully disposable cash employees, gets to know his neighbours. He suggested “Burn Notice sort of stuff” with apparent enthusiasm.

Hunter has established himself in Room 101 of the Old Star Hotel, in the Imperial enclave at Bandarajah. That’s on the leeward side of a windswept and arid to semi-arid island near the equator, 40° east of the subsolar point. He has rented a penthouse apartment for the PC in Rumaputih, the raffish port city adjacent to the spaceport. Chosen because it has line-of-sight to the Old Star for secure and reasonably discreet communications, the apartment belongs to and was formerly occupied by a courtesan, the kept woman of a venal port official. It takes up part of the third (fourth) floor of a mixed-use building in a part of town where tourists and spacemen often come for their sample of the fleshpots of Persatuan. It has the roof of the adjacent building for a terrace, that building containing a small café-cum-casino-cum-cabaret that verges sometimes upon being a burlesque house.

For Ingham, Hunter leased the premises of a defunct light engineering firm, which happens conveniently to be on a canal. Ingham has put up a small sign that says “Goff Light Engineering”, but otherwise left the exterior untouched. She will renovate the half-loft into a habitable condition, complete the fit-out of machine shop etc, and garage boats and cars.

The player has suggested that the PC might establish a cover as a free-lance stunt man and stunt coach in the local film industry, and that Ingham might contract for some practical effects work &c.

The last adventure in this campaign that went really well, that it seemed to me that the player really enjoyed, was on the planet Fureidis. I cribbed the whole thing from R L Stevenson’s Treasure Island, with the sunken wreck of a colony ship in place of the pirate’s treasure. The PC’s mission was to go along on this mission on some pretext and make sure (a) that the cabin boy got back unharmed, (b) that the mission recovered some bits of treasure that he was supplied with, and that (c) nobody should twig that the whole thing was a set-up by off-world interests. The player had a great time nobbling the off-world bathyscaphist whom the Squire had contracted with, manipulating the Squire into dragooning him, his minisub, and his mechanic into the voyage, unmasking, nobbling, and helping to fight the pirates, and sneaking a set of excellent reproductions of the crown jewels of the Empire of Brazil into the salvage. The player ended up really liking the cabin-boy (Tiago Halconero) and admiring the master of the ship (Cabeza Pequeña), while finding the Squire (Major Iglesias) likeable but exasperating, and hating, loathing, and despising the cook (Joã da Silva) and his bloody parrot.

I have trouble getting feedback from this player, though he is very forthcoming with support and encouragement. So my only thought is to try to get him back into a situation in which the NPCs are engage in a severe contest and he is acting secretly on an orthogonal agenda, so that he gets to kick the arses of some people because he doesn’t like them rather than because Hunter tells him “this one must die”.

Apart from that I have a muddle of ideas concerning an isotope factory, and some scientist on her way to a conference of the Radiometric Methods Association being used by her fiancé as a mule to carry either some Po-210 (to be used as a poison) or a case full of sprytrons (to be used in making triggers for nuclear weapons), and her being set up by a third party to be searched and an airport, and the PCs being sent with a duplicate of her suitcase so that when she’s searched she seems above-board, and somebody disappearing from their hotel. I can’t get it to come together.

My own creativity has been… non-existent… Every week I tell myself this is the week I get back to writing… and then stuff happens.

Sounds like a fascinating setting. The drugs making you diligent at work remind me of something, I am not sure if it is a Black Mirror episode or something else.

I’d do a few scenes in which the character has to establish himself, make friends, connections and especially enemies or people who work against him and possibly interfere with whatever he is doing. When creating a new “adventure” I would (I haven’t in a while) create NPCs first and their relationships to each other and then introduce the PCs into that mess and see what happens.

So there’s a lot already here and I like the mule plot. Does the PC already know the scientist from a previous episode? If not that’s the first thing I would establish, a previous relationship. Maybe the scientist can help him establish himself on the planet in some way. Make her a friend of either the PC or his sidekick. Maybe she saves him from committing a terrible faux pas or helps him when his implied “honor” is being impugned and he doesn’t even notice…

How detailed do you do these things? Does that have to be a whole episode on its own or can you just tell him a bit about a bunch of people he got to know when he made his new home?

So what you want to achieve is that the mule gets through security with her cargo intact and without knowing it and the PC being caught up in it as well? Unless you really need that duplicate suitcase, I imagine a scene more like this… PC goes to meet his friend at the airport and because he’s already established in the city he has the clout to help her through the trouble at the airport. “Don’t you people know who this is? She’s the keynote speaker at XYZ conference.”

Also it’s his problem to get her “untouched” through the security.

I am not sure if I got the gist of it all right but I hope this helps a little bit to get your creativity flowing.

PS: I always found hooks the most complicated part of any “adventure” but also the most satisfying once you solve the issue of how to draw the PCs into the plot.


Faction A wants the item smuggled. Faction B wants the item found. Using the Mission Impossible model, the good guys want faction A to think it’s been found and faction B to think it’s been smuggled, so that it can actually be taken out of play entirely. So this might involve an “airport guard” arresting the scientist, while tipping the wink to B’s observer…

1 Like

I have a thought that could possibly help, or just make the muddle worse. (So… apologies in advance?) Let’s say there were a Mission Impossible or Ocean’s 11 type setup, with the PCs working to set up a complex series of actions among both willing and unaware actors. This being Persatuan, they could amplify everything with the effects of specific drugs to enhance various interactions, even going so far as to dope unwitting cogs in the plan to provide a sort of lubrication. There’s plenty illegal going on already, so what’s a bit more?

The right drug in the right situation could confer an advantage, a buffer against the high-wire danger. But what of there were a risk of getting the wrong drug or person, setting up the need for a backup plan or last-minute intervention? I don’t know how your player might enjoy it, but I’m imagining them constructing a Rube Goldberg contraption and racing to keep it from crashing in pseudo-real time. Could you offload some of the creative design efforts onto them for a bit?

I also have to share this, which I just stumbled across: Solve Your Life Problems with These Outlandish Remedies by Artist Dana Wyse The reference to 1950s-style production really made it click.

PS - As someone else who’s had decades of struggles with depression - not made any easier this year - I know it’s a long slog. But I also fully expect we’ll be seeing you on the other side.

1 Like

What I want, really, is for the PC to go on a mission where his task is to remain un-noticed while he pulls a switch on somebody who is pulling a switch, and then to have something unexpected force him to get involved under a shallow cover, improvising so that (if he pulls it off) his org gets the outcome they want without their involvement or even existence being suspected.¹

That could involve up to four identical suitcases, which threatens to descend into farce. We eliminate one suitcase by having the scientist’s perfidious roomie slip a phial of Po-210 into her suitcase rather than having some other colleague swap a whole suitcase.

So, we have the Deadly Suitcase, the Dummy Suitcase, and the Desirable Stuicase. The scientist gets on the plane with the Deadly Suitcase, and the authorities have been tipped off to catch her with it. The PC has the Dummy Suitcase. His objective is to have the scientist searched with the Dummy Suitcase, which means that he expects to end up with Deadly (but that might not be an objective).

  1. If the third party swaps their case with the scientist’s before the PC does, they get Deadly, she gets Dummy, and the PC gets Desirable. She notices nothing remarkable. He opens a case expecting to find a manuscript, a cocktail dress, mood inhalers, and toiletries, instead there are masks, gecko gloves, a lockpicks and rubies. The jewel thieves expect rubies and burglary kit, they get a scientific paper and enough illicit isotope to poison a whole pusak. What do they do?
  2. If the third party swaps their case with the scientist’s after the PC does, they get Dummy, she gets Desirable, and the PC gets Deadly, which is what he expected. The PC disposes of the phial according to his instructions and goes home. The jewel thieves go to the conference centre to swap the cases back. Depending on timing, the scientist opens her case and finds stolen jewellery. That’s an adventure for her but not for the PC.
  3. If the third party swaps their case for the PC’s before he makes his swap, they get Dummy, he gets Deadly (which he expected), and she gets Desirable. That’s the same as 2.
  4. If the third party swap their case for the PC’s after he swaps his for the scientists, they get Deadly, she gets Dummy, he gets Desirable. Then the PC opens his case expecting to take the Po-210 out of Deadly, but finds rubies. The scientist finds only what she expects. The third party expect rubies and find poison and the paper. They go to the conference centre to get their rubies back.

I think 4 is best. The PC has accomplished his ostensible mission, in that the scientist is through security and at her conference, but he really doesn’t want anyone to realise that there are two identical cases containing identical clothes and papers, because that is pretty sus. Also, shouldn’t someone secure the Po-210?

But now question. What was the perfidious roomie up to with his isotope and his tip-off? If he was just trying to hurt or get rid of her Hunter wouldn’t care enough to send the PC.

What if a different isotope factory on the planet is up to no good, and they are trying to make Imperial Naval Intelligence investigate the facility where the scientist works instead of them? Does that work better if the sprytrons are hidden in her case at the conference, and she is set up to look as though she is smuggling them back to her work to build a Bomb?

¹ Doctrine, as explained to the PC by his first field supervisor, is that a perfect operation results in nobody outside the team realising that anything in particular has happened. If something noticeable must happen, it is best that people suppose that it happened all by itself, not as the result of anybody making it happen. And if something must happen that it is obvious that somebody made happen, everyone must believe that some fall guy did it. In no event ought anyone to believe that a mysterious somebody came out of nowhere and upset or saved their applecart for no obvious reason. And under no circumstances whatsoever is anyone to end up alive with reason to believe that there is a very secret organisation clandestinely doing the sorts of things that the Empire would like to do if it were not strictly forbidden.

² The PC, who has spent most of his life on either very high-tech worlds or places where he brings his own aircar, was unfazed by a trip on a sailing ship full of pirates, but has been very disconcerted by air travel fifties style.

The player in this campaign is one whom I have often had trouble engaging with hooks other than romantic opportunities. One of the advantages of the set-up that we have adopted for this campaign is that Hunter can tell his character “in such-and-such a place there is Situation X; take this equipment and do Y or whatever else is necessary to bring about Outcome Z”.

1 Like

I seem to have missed where the third party comes from and what their motivations are… why would they swap their valuable rubies for the scientists suitcase? So apparently they also want to use her as a mule

There needs to be a compelling reason why 2 parties are turning the same person into a mule.

So wait the roomie tipped off Hunter about slipping the first “cargo” to the mule?
The roomie must have been blackmailed and how do they even know about Hunter in the first place?

Alternatively, roomie and scientist had a fight about something and as revenge the roomie did the bad thing but now that it is happening he feels awful about it and tries to fix it…

Or the roomie knows more about Hunter & PC then he lets on and it is all a plot to set up them and the scientist is in on it.

Well, that is solved then. Every player has their own motivations–or each character does. Romantic complications can also lead to quite compelling stories. You could complicate this story with one as well :slight_smile:

They are needed to introduce the complications that turn the adventure from an exercise in taking candy from a baby into a challenge that will force the PC to think on his feet and exercise his abilities. I don’t know who they are, but I seem to have slipped into the assumption that they are involved because of a genuine mistaken identity of cases.

No-one knows about Hunter and the PC. It’s a premise of the campaign that the very existence of any such organisation as they work for is and must be kept utterly secret. If it develops in this campaign that the secret gets out everything will change drastically for the PC, and there would be political repercussions that would shake the Empire.

On the other hand, Hunter doesn’t need tip-offs. He isn’t omniscient — the PC has run into gaps in Hunter’s knowledge — but he is uncannily well-informed. The PC has worked out that on at least two occasions Hunter has acted on knowledge of the contents of an encrypted and sealed message in the interstellar mails before the recipient got it.

I will offer the player a romantic entanglement between his character and the scientist, but I’m going to start on establishing her appeal by making her unwilling to cheat on her partner. In the immediately previous adventure the PC got a rough lesson in being distracted by the sexy — he bedded (or was bedded by) all the Bong girls and the Bond boy whom the direction of opposition security threw in his way, and they mission ended up a schmozzle because he wasn’t paying attention. The player might not play him as any more circumspect this time (he is a rather young man), but it wouldn’t be strong play by me as GM to inflict an object lesson about getting distracted be sex and then to count on the PC doing it again right away.

1 Like

So here’s one approach.

Faction A has the poison. They want Scientist discredited, so they blackmailed Roomie. Airport security has been unofficially briefed (hey, wanna catch a terrorist and make your career?). Airport security has leaked a bit; the mission is to swap the case back without alerting Scientist.

Faction B spots the poison with a radiation detector when it’s briefly exposed in the room. Oho, they think, we could use that. They don’t know about Faction A’s plan, but they can see that Scientist is not a professional smuggler, so they try to smooth her way by bribing guards etc., planning to nobble her at the far end of the trip.

So when faction B’s guard says “oh, hey, our radiation detector didn’t go off, great job shielding it” they realise something’s gone wrong, and try to work out who PC is…

I must remember to work in as somebody’s motive that a compulsory marriage is imminent. Is the roomie willing to dump the Scientist because he’s about to have to marry someone else? Because she’s about to have to marry someone he’s jealous of?

If the third suitcase is not swapped by accident, but by design, there must be two parties independently planning to use the Scientist as an u witting mule, which requires that she have some special quality in that role. Does she come from somewhere few people get to bring a closed case from? Is she going somewhere few people get to bring a closed case to? Is she travelling by a means where few passengers get to take such a case (and if so, how can the swaps be done?

Should I give this a rest and crib some other Harrison Ford movie?

She’s going to a conference of important people, so that’ll have security, and probably delegates get to bypass at last some of that.

Conferences of important people also offer contacts working for other factions.

I wonder whether there’s the equivalent of diplomatic immunity in play – her luggage is ideal because it should pass through customs without any examination due to the scientist’s position. There’s the option to bring in motives of creating a lot of political uproar if this channel is shown to have been abused, or indeed if the sanctity of has been breached.

[Edit] Or perhaps the scientist isn’t on the planet for a conference. Maybe it is the staging point for an expedition to a specific location that is about to be mobilised, and she’s there attending final workshops and briefings. The only way to get anything to the location is to have associated with the expedition. Maybe the science project has opponents, and they’ve got an agent on the inside, but there’s a need to get tools to them to complete their sabotage etc.

…to follow on from the above, and because you mentioned Treasure Island could this scientist be looking for another scientist, a supporter of advanced technologies trying to effect social change in a Captain Nemo style?