When a campaign starts out it isn’t clear where it is going to go, but I do try to come up with a narrative hook that could span multiple adventures and link them together in a larger story.
I like to write a synopsis as a kind of motion picture trailer. I don’t share it with the players, as it contains spoilers. Basically, the launch of the Deeps of Lyrae campaign is plotted around a villain, Captain Sem, who for his own reasons wants to manipulate the players into a life of space piracy. The players only know the prompt they received at character creation: they must have a good reason to be tempted by an invitation to criminality. The beginning plot of the campaign is about who provides that invitation and why — and how they get out of the resulting mess.
This trailer provides the big picture that they don’t have. Here’s the trailer:
Campaign Plot Synopsis / Trailer (GM Only)
The Deeps of Lyrae is a quiet subsector of a quiet sector, surrounded by peace on all sides. That’s a problem for Captain Sem, second in command of the 261st Imperial Fleet (the “Fierce Falconets”). Subsector Lyrae is a comfortable posting. Yes, it’s a backwater of the interior and the prospects for glory are slim, but on the other hand The Falconets are well-staffed, supplied, and respected. Without enemies the fleet has little to do. Unfortunately for Sem, the command staff finally noticed his expensive, idling ships. It looks like the 261st is going to be dissolved.
Facing the prospect of an aborted Naval career, Sem has hatched an audacious and criminal plan. If The Falconets are being eliminated because they lack enemies, he will create some. No one wants a war, but an outbreak of criminality might do him proud. This is Sem’s own unauthorized, secret mission: He’ll find a group of local patsies and turn them into dangerous space pirates. Then he’ll catch them. Sem has at his disposal both the mighty resources of his squadrons and all the devious tricks and devices of naval intelligence. He’ll need them, because to obtain enough publicity to make himself essential, Sem has to make these “space pirates” do something truly terrible…
How I Wrote It
Here’s how I came up with it: The central hook is based on some news stories that I read about the real life Brazilian policeman, television host, and politician Wallace Souza. Souza was a law-and-order state congressman who railed against crime on his lunchtime television show. When crime dropped, police charge that Souza created an elaborate conspiracy to produce more crime himself, allegedly using hired assassins to kill nine people. He then denounced the murders, reported on them, and may even have intended to “solve” them on television. He reportedly wanted to use this publicity as part of a bid to become chief of police. In 2009 when his alleged plan was discovered and his arrest seemed immanent, Souza disappeared. Then I thought: what if I GMed that plot in space, with the players as patsies?
Inspirations From Fiction
The fictional Hollywood movie “Nightcrawler” tells a similar story to that of Souza. Looking farther afield, I chose this setup because it will help me explore some themes that I like a lot in military fiction and science fiction.
Protagonists who are trapped in the clutches of a futuristic, autocratic police apparatus are common in sci-fi. In Philip K. Dick’s novel Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said, Jason Taverner is caught in a web of police officials and informants in a future authoritarian state. Everyone tries to use Taverner for their own ends, tracking him with microscopic devices. A high-ranking police official eventually implicates Taverner as a way to cover up the official’s own wrongdoing.
Minority Report, another Philip K. Dick story (later a movie), also involves police officials willing to commit crimes to increase the power and influence of the bureaucracy that they work for.
I also like the theme of people having to learn to do something dangerous that they are new at. Captain Sem doesn’t have any space pirates, so he’ll have to make some (out of the players).
Lots of military fiction and non-fiction starts with basic training. The perspective of an inexperienced person is a great way to introduce a new setting. More specifically, the scenario of the reluctant and inexperienced pirate or ship’s crewman has been developed extensively in naval fiction and nonfiction.
Fiction about the navy in World War II often deals with conscripted crew who must operate and fight using a ship they do not fully understand. The Good Shepherd tells the story of drafted troops with no sea experience who must quickly learn to function as a unit to operate a destroyer escort, some of the most dangerous duty in the WW II navy. Patrick O’Brien’s novels about the Napoleonic Wars feature ships crewed by press-ganged sailors who have to sail around the world committing acts of piracy (albeit often legally sanctioned piracy) for a cause they usually don’t particularly care about.
Some of these stories also deal with characters that grapple with the hardships of sea travel and the long stretches of dead time between actions, analogous to the time spent in jump space in this campaign.