Monday, December 15, 2014

The Magic School Campaign, Part 1: Themes and Motivation

Image Courtesy of Little Witch Academia, designed by Studio Trigger

Since early August I've been running Arcana High, a Pathfinder campaign for a solid group of four players I've had the pleasure of befriending online.  Even before the popularization of Harry Potter the concept of a wizarding academy has been a strong fixture in the fantasy genre.  It might go back as far as 1968, with Usula LeGuin's Wizard of Earthsea.  Even our own table-top community has made inroads to this subgenre with Redhurst: Academy of Magic back in 2003 and an upcoming Sigantium: Academy of the Arcane project on KickStarter.  Another major influence for my campaign are the Persona series of video games, where students at a normal Japanese high school secretly go out and fight supernatural monsters while balancing their social lives (an equally important aspect of the game).

Even before I first set out my first planned adventure, I realized that the overall themes and design considerations of such a campaign would be very different than a typical Dungeons & Dragons adventure.  The setting would be based around a central school/city hub rather than adventures traveling the world; the party make-up would lean entirely towards spellcasters over the mundane classes; and the drama and conflict of a young adult's social life is too ripe for role-playing opportunities to pass up!

This is but the first of several planned articles for this unique kind of campaign.

Themes, Motivations, and Experience

Unless your school's set up to be an adventuring academy, your student PCs probably have hopes and dreams unrelated to exploring dank dungeons in search of gold and artifacts.   Perhaps one of them wishes to continue the long and proud tradition of family illusionists; another might not even want to be there, viewed as cursed for their sorcerous ways and shunned by family to get their budding mage out of their hair.  They might even be inheritors of a heroic legacy or members of a secret organization safeguarding the mundane world from the forces of evil.  

Traditional D&D gives an incentive for player behavior by making the accumulation of experience and gold add to character growth.  In a magic school campaign, experience points should be handed out when the PCs stay in line with the themes of the game.  Altruistic mages who use their spells to save a burning house full of innocent citizens deserve just as much of a reward as if they were saving the people from a vicious monster.  A prospective gnome studying necromancy in spite of her culture's taboo on it might gain experience for tasks and quests related to the advancement of this goal.  Social interaction, conflict resolution, and personal identity are all major influences on the PCs in a magic school campaign.

The Theme System

PCs choose 2 themes at character creation, reflecting some kind of goal, personality trait, or social bond to another character or group of characters.  The DM is encouraged to create conflicts focused on said themes, and PCs who successfully overcome this conflict gain experience points for doing so.  This is not the only way of earning experience in the game, but it encourages a sort of group-based means of adventure generation by having the Dungeon Master create scenarios his players will be most likely to follow.

In order to benefit from a theme, it must occur during the course of the gaming session and inconvenience the PC in some way, shape, or form.  A PC or party which manages to overcome the theme’s challenge is awarded bonus experience points depending upon the severity of the theme.  PCs who manage to overcome and/or deal with obstacles related to their theme receive bonus experience points about equivalent to one near the average party level.  A minor conflict might be monsters up to 2 levels lower, a conflict with some noticeable risk of tangible loss equal to the party level, and a significant and urgent matter up to 2 levels higher.  In the case of Pathfinder, levels represent an equivalent monster's Challenge Rating, while for an OSR game the level might represent an equivalent monster's hit dice.

Asking players about their character's backstories and what they want out of life can be a great way to design obstacles and tasks.  All experience gained is divided among the party, even if said challenge really affects only that PC.  This encourages teamwork and cooperation, in that everybody stands to gain something if the PC’s struggles are overcome.  Plus, it’s always nice to know that your friends got your back!

My next post on Magic School Campaigns will cover group composition and the unique considerations and  challenges facing an all-caster party.