Friday, September 17, 2010

Sky Pirates of Castile, Part 1: Contesa Alejandra & Writing One-Shots

Since Talk Like a Pirate Day is fast approaching, and RPGNow/DTRPG is having a pirate sale (check the banner above), I guess I should also start talking about the other setting I promised to discuss.

Sky Pirates of Castile is a trilogy of adventures written for a mini-con.  The premise is simple: the adventures of the crew of a pirate skyship in a setting reminiscent of both Age-of-Sail Spain and Cromwell's England, as they seek revenge and treasure and get in over their heads politically.  It taught me some lessons about writing for one-shots and convention scenarios, and it was a lot of fun no matter how many times I ran it.

Indie games fans may note some similarities to the award-winning Lady Blackbird, which is complete coincidence - the first game of Sky Pirates ran back in '06.
First up is a character who is pretty unabashedly the center of the first arc: Contesa Alejandra Roselina Lopez y Vega - dispossessed noblewoman and captain of the pirate ship Vindicta.

Here's what she looked like in Savage Worlds for the first adventure.  I started all the characters off at the Veteran level, with 50 xp so they could have a variety of skills and abilities.

Contesa Alejandra Roselina Lopez y Vega

Agility: d10
Smarts: d8
Spirit: d8
Strength: d4
Vigor: d6

Edges: Attractive, Command, Florentine, Master & Commander, Natural Leader, Trademark Weapon (my father's rapier), Very Attractive
Hindrances: Stubborn, Vengeful

Skills: Boating d10, Climbing d4, Fighting d8, Intimidation d8, Knowledge (Battle) d8, Notice d4, Persuasion d4, Shooting d8

Design Notes

The Contesa was designed to be a good fighter on all fronts, with leadership abilities as well - several of her Edges help out her crew.  Her persuade may have been low but her massive (+4!) Charisma bonus more than made up for it.  Flat bonuses in Savage Worlds usually come in increments of +2, making them more worthwhile than an additional die step.

For the second adventure, I gave each character another advance, and the Contesa picked up the Hero edge, letting her spend a benny for a reroll and add it to the original roll rather than replacing it - but only once per session.  One misstep I made was in using Knowledge (Battle) - I think in a con game or one-shot you should focus on skills that have a clear use, and there were no mass battles in the scenario.

It's always a touchy subject when setting up a scenario where one player is in a position of authority over others.  If you know your players, you can gauge the likely responses, but for a con game that probably won't be possible.  What I did instead was try to align the interests of the rest of the pirates with the Contesa, at least at the beginning, so that the other players would be more likely to go along with the authority figure.

Another trick I used was placing all players in positions of some authority.  Savage Worlds is great for this, because you can attach a group of followers to a PC and still resolve combat quickly and easily.  So for other characters we have the captain's first mate & confidante, the leader of the boarding party, the person in charge of the gun deck, etc.  The only PCs that didn't actually have anyone under their command in terms of the game fiction were the cabin boy and the wizard, but both of those had other special circumstances.

The first adventure opens in media res with the Contesa's ship, the Vindicta, in hot pursuit of those believed responsible for the death of her lover, pirate captain Marco del Rios.  When the captain's ship went down it had on it the other half of the treasure map that both pirate crews planned to plunder - needless to say the rest of the pirates were right alongside the idea of hunting down the other ship.

I picked this setup for several reasons:

First, it presents an exciting scene right away to get the players into the game.  Nothing snaps attention to the game like an ongoing conflict, particularly in a game as fast-paced as Savage Worlds.  Grabbing the players right out of the gate lets you build up momentum to help you get through as much as possible in the time you have.

Second, it's got a very clear and defined goal.  If you've only got four hours for your game, you don't want to waste them with your players spending half the session talking about (or worse, wondering) what to do.  The more subtle tactics you might use in an ongoing campaign change for a one-shot, and big signposts that say "story here" are a lot more acceptable.

Third, it let the players get used to how the game plays (and taught the rules to the newbies). The other ship was captained by the cowardly pirate El Buitre (The Vulture, named for his habit of ) and his crew was no match for the Vindicta, giving the players a low-risk chance to try out their characters and the rules.

Last, it defines the feel of the game.  If you're firing cannons, adjusting sails, and swinging across to the deck of another ship within the first ten minutes, then you know you're in a swashbuckling pirate game.  The fact that their ship was the one in pursuit also established the characters as badasses—if I had reversed the situation, with the PCs attempting to escape from the Navy perhaps, it would have changed the initial perception of the characters and reflected on the rest of the session.

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