Approximate time to read: 7 minutes.
Troupe play is about the breadth of experience available within a setting, the possibility of approaching a deep and vibrant environment with fresh eyes. In Ambria, you might see the streets of Yndaros from the gutter as a band of feckless vagrants or street enforces of the Nobleman Dastan; or you might be courtiers of the feuding families in the Queen’s Court. One session might see unrest or outright rebellion from the streets, while the next approaches from the rarefied tapestry hung hallways of the Royal Palace. Direct action or the schemes that influence it, as the Game Master’s Guide puts it (see Troupe Play, p29 – 30).
The Iron Pact has referenced Troupe Play (or ensemble play) from the outset (March 2016, to be precise) because the breadth and depth of the setting, along with the simple methods for character generation, seemed to invite this sort of play. In some games, the time it takes to create a single character, and the expectation of a strong connection between a player and their character’s fate make this approach onerous. However, the danger posed by the world of Symbaroum to a lowly individual often means that investing in a single character feels like a long shot; but, knowing that you can have another character ready in minutes means that you’re never out of the game for long.
However, there’s another interesting form of investment that you might want to consider, that hasn’t been touched upon in the Game Master’s Guide. What of the GM themselves and the preparation for an adventure; something that can feel all too much liking lighting the touch paper and walking away.
The Many-Angled One
Troupe Play in Practice (GM’s Guide, p30) lists various fundamentals to be considered in handling the concept. Still, the options also serve as concepts for troupe play itself – superiors and subordinates, influencers, different departments within a broader team, and West Marches-style members of a group of peers who rarely head out together in the same group, but impact one another nevertheless.
As a Game Master who runs a few standard adventures at conventions as a means to introduce new players to the world of Symbaroum, there’s another possible approach – the many participants in a single adventure. Not just any adventure, but the original one – The Promised Land – which lurks at the back of the Core Book.
The Promised Land has not gone without consideration here on The Iron Pact:
Travel through The Titans (Feb, 2016) considered the time it takes to cross the Mountain Pass, given the narrative reference points of the adventure; and The Mountain Pass Hex Map laid the location out in hex-ified glory for those wanting to apply additional levels of detail.
Wheel of Misfortune (March, 2016) offered a prequel, while Trust in a Promised Land (Jan, 2018) considered the opportunity of using the fireplace scene at the start of the adventure as an opportunity to bind the characters closer through narrative connection (something considered further later in that year in Deep Connections, June 2018).
And On The Road (Feb, 2018) suggested a few additional diversions that might fill the hours and days it takes to complete the perilous journey from the devastated lands of Alberetor to the new promise of the north, in Ambria.
However, none of these entirely covers the idea of recycling the events and locations of The Promised Land from a different world view, the possibility of troupe play – or, indeed, competitive team play – in the same scenes.
The venerable World War II role-playing game Behind Enemy Lines puts forth an interesting idea about how a Gamemaster might run a Campaign:
There are two specific ways to design campaigns: the same problem approached by different groups of people, or the same group of people attacking a series of different problems.
The second option is the one we commonly adopt for Symbaroum, whether with a single group of treasure-seekers or a troupe-style organisation. The first option, however, is a little different; Behind Enemy Lines suggests it because you can approach the iconic battles of the War from many angles and with many forces. But, the same is true of Symbaroum and the many factions, right?
Are We The Bad Guys?
As Mal-Rogan meditated on the next move to make, seeking wisdom from the dark powers that had raised him from the grave, Oric sneered at Keler and spat. “You think you’re better than us? Do you think you’re better than the chief? Perhaps I should wake him?” Keler’s eyes shifted rapidly from side-to-side, his pose defensive, his hand hovering close to his dagger.
For a moment, it looked like he might chance the fight, relying on the essential cowardice of the other robbers to leave him one-on-one with Oric; the others wouldn’t chance to hurt themselves if they could just hang back and watch. The thief seemed to consider it, but then he snapped, scowled, turned and ran. “Screw you, Oric. Screw you all. I am better, better than the lot of you. I heard things, you’ll see…”
Oric chuckled as the blowhard Keler ran off, like a yapping dog more bark than bite. He’d be dead before the end of the week…— Before The Promised Land
How about running the elements of The Promised Land as bandits in the employ of Mal-Rogan? The crew of the Robber Baron could come from as diverse a range of backgrounds as any, and they’d have a common purpose from the outset. Mal-Rogan plans to build a power base in the Titans, to rival, if not best, the Ice Witch or the Ogre, Mound. He recruits to the north and south of the mountains, gathering likely thieves and ne’er-do-wells from settlements on the fringes.
The adventure can kick off with travel across the Titans using one of the footpaths. The trail runs through the mountains to the west of the caravan’s path in the adventure – and the bandits make the passage before The Promised Land kicks off. The player character bandits might serve as scouts or Mal-Rogan might split his crew into smaller groups to seek out possible targets. The first encounter might be with a couple of Snow Jackels, hunger and unafraid of the bandits. Or you might use one of the #hextitan encounters that I posted on Twitter in 2018.
The next step would be to have the player characters replace Mal-Rogan in coming across Keler at the ruined windmill. Keler sets a smoke signal recognised by the crew, and they see it rising above the lightly forested foothills. When they near the open, they realise that the cantankerous blowhard thief isn’t alone; he’s got himself cornered in the ruin by a bunch of sellswords, presumably from one of the caravans. The player characters have the opportunity to attempt to aid Keler and recover the Sunstone, facing off against some of the pre-generated characters – enough for a challenge that will have them using their better judgement and leave the thief, perhaps?
It makes for a more exciting follow-up if they see the Sunstone and consider its potential as a prize for the Robber Baron; Mal-Rogan would certainly value possession of the artefact. If they take information back to Rogan, the events of The Price of Firewood (Scene 4) can become a three-way ambush, or simply complicate activities, even more, when the crew realise that there are Elves involved. Rogan might suspect the Mound and his non-human supporters; else, the encounter in the woods might be an opportunity for a crack team – i.e. the player characters – to use a worthy diversion to attack the caravan.
Without wanting to spoon-feed you the particulars, a Gamemaster who has run The Promised Land more than once can consider the Scenes and what they might mean to another group. Geographically and thematically, when certain events occur, what about the rest of the caravan? What opportunities does a particular Scene offer to another party coming at it from another direction or with opposing motivations?
And There’s More
What if the player characters are still part of the caravan, but they’re the doomed adventurers Belun and Ludo? Reduce the amount of corruption they’ve suffered, but still have them in a bad way. There’s something almost Alien-like in the scenario, and the possibilities of the Scenes change again. Extend the options to other characters who all come along on the trip as part of the caravan team; Belun and Ludo might be friends with Telk, the mule-keeper (who might also be a player character).
The adventure becomes something about survival. The loss of the Sunstone might be something more to Belun and friends; they might perceive the artefact as a potential restorative that could burn the corruption out of their souls. You could still look to the #hextitan encounters – the “single long shard of cloudy crystal” at 0708, or the ring in possession of the Goblin Bandit at 0814, amongst other possibilities.
Perhaps the unlikely assistance of Lestra could be a way forward? If the player characters can find a way to avoid the elves of the Iron Pact, the Black Cloak might take the caravan on to the sanctuary of the Monastery to the north? Maybe the end game of the adventure turned into some bitter and twisted success – the sense that Lestra might have a cure, but the players realising that when the portcullis slams closed Belun, Ludo and others won’t emerge “whole”.
Even More, Still
And that’s not the end of it, because you could play The Iron Pact travelling south across the mountains at the north of the Pass in pursuit of a foul Abomination on the run? What’s worse, as you get further south you realise that there are other survivors of a recent expedition into Davokar and artefacts that should not be in the hands of humanity.
Or, maybe the role of the caravan leader and his wary investors, who might not be entirely above board in their purpose – maybe there’s more to meet the eye and these sellswords you’re hiring are meant for more than just protection.