— Myles Birket Foster, 19th century
This is part two in a series. You can read part one here.
This post will primarily cover session zero procedures for a rebellion-focused campaign. While I recommend holding a session zero before any campaign, the heavy subject matter involved in a game of rebellion—and its reliance on collaborative world-building—magnify the value of a session zero. Use of the second person assumes you, the reader, will assume the role of GM.
Safety Tools & Setting Expectations
Be diligent in establishing safety tools, such as lines and veils. Make clear that non-player character deaths and player character deaths may be frequent. The procedures outlined below won’t lend themselves to an uplifting game about plucky rebels who defeat an evil empire through the power of friendship. Communicate to the players that they should expect to experience challenge, struggle, sadness, and perhaps frustration—but also the joys of rebellion and liberation.
Building the Community
Work with the players to collaboratively build the characters’ community. The more detailed and personal, the better; they will be more invested and immersed if the community feels theirs. Consider having the players draw a map of their hometown. Ask the players questions such as:
- How did your hometown get its name?
- What is the landscape around your community like?
- How does it sustain itself—through farming, fishing, trade?
- What deities does your community worship?
- What traditions does your community practice in relation to birth and death?
- What traditions does your community practice in relation to coming-of-age?
- Who are the political, spiritual, and social leaders within your community?
- What festivals does your community celebrate, and how does it celebrate them?
- What is your community proud of? What is it ashamed of?
- Who are the famous members of your community, and what are they famous for?
- What hardship did your community overcome recently?
- What goal is your community working towards?
Additionally, the following games include collaborative world-building procedures that you might adapt for this purpose:
- The Quiet Year & The Deep Forest by Avery Alder
- Kingdom by Ben Robbins
Establishing the Tyranny
Involve the players in establishing the form of tyranny their characters will oppose. Or, at the very least, make sure you have player buy-in—some players may be uncomfortable including certain types of tyranny in the game. Discuss the chosen form of tyranny as a group to ensure everyone understands how it functions. Then explore how it has impacted the community.
A succession of monarchs has ruled for generations. The player characters are peasants who work land leased to a lord or knight, either by a greater lord or by the monarch. Feudal systems vary in their specifics. Collaborate with the players to answer questions such as:
- How long has the current monarch reigned? What is their reputation?
- Whose land do you occupy? What is that lord’s reputation?
- What grievances brought to your lord remain unaddressed?
- What happened when your crops didn’t yield enough to pay taxes and feed your family?
- What happened the last time disease spread through your community?
- What happened the last time your lord went to war?
- When are you able to forget how dirty and exhausting life is?
A foreign civilization invaded the player characters’ homeland. Settlers from that civilization may have occupied land seized by the invaders, or perhaps the invaders seek solely to extract resources. In either case, anyone unable or unwilling to flee has been killed or, like the player characters, enslaved.
- What happened to the temple that once stood at the center of your town?
- How do the invaders extract wealth from your community?
- What penalty would you face if you spoke your language in public?
- What lies do the invaders try to teach your children?
- Which of the invaders’ cultural practices are uncivilized or taboo?
- What has your community lost that can never be restored?
- When did your community last hold a festival? Are you old enough to remember?
Fascism takes many forms that share common characteristics. Fascists seized control of the government from within via military coup or perhaps by perverting political apparatuses. The fascists imprisoned or executed detractors and leaders of opposition parties. Now, they control all aspects of life, and their agents are everywhere. Collaborate with the players to answer questions such as:
- What form of government preceded the dictatorship?
- How did the fascists seize power? Who aided them, and who stood idly by?
- What bogeyman did the fascists rally people against?
- Who from your community did the fascists first imprison? Who did they execute?
- A library or university once stood in your town. What happened to it?
- What leverage do you fear the fascists could use to turn you into an informant?
- Where can you go and be certain the secret police aren’t watching?
Kleptocratic Military Junta
Following social and political upheaval, the military seized control of the government. Now, a hierarchy of officials, bureaucrats, and goons oversees all aspects of life. The populace languishes under the countless taxes levied against them, and accomplishing even minor tasks often involves a series of bribes. Collaborate with the players to answer questions such as:
- What is the grandest building within all of your homeland? Who lives there?
- Who in your community has profited under the junta?
- What punishment would you face if caught stealing?
- How do officials cruelly flaunt their wealth?
- What did you swear you’d never sell? Why did you sell it?
- What lucrative activity have you refused to participate in?
- What small pleasures can you still look forward to?
Considerations in Character Creation
Adjust starting coinage and gear as seems reasonable based on the scenario. Some character classes may be more difficult to incorporate into the fiction—work it out together.
Each player character begins with one bond and may establish more throughout the campaign. Though player characters should have close relationships with NPCs, the bond mechanic concerns only player characters and hirelings. Bonds may be mutual (Anna and Sonya are sisters) or not (Fintan owes Prakash his life, Prakash is enamored by Shirin, and Shirin credits Fintan for protecting her little brother).
Once per session per bond, if that bond comes under threat, a player may invoke the bond to force a reroll of any die—provided the player can justify doing so in the fiction. For example, a lizard man hits Galindo, Alfonso’s cousin, with a poisoned arrow. Alfonso’s player invokes their bond, asserting that Alfonso warned Galindo of the incoming arrow. The GM must reroll the lizard man’s attack.
Despair, Grief, & Jubilation
When a character or retainer dies, any player who has them included as a bond on their character sheet adds despair to their character’s inventory. Despair fills one item slot. In addition, a character’s hit point maximum decreases by two per instance of despair in their inventory (to a minimum of one). A character can clear despair in two ways:
- When characters join the community in grieving a fallen member by practicing their funerary rites, they may clear any despair caused by the death of that community member.
- When characters join the community in celebrating a festival, the jubilation reminds characters of what they fight for, and they may clear all despair.
I’ve adapted this mechanic from Isaac Williams’ Mausritter. Consider imposing despair in other situations, such as when the forces of tyranny recapture a liberated town.
Player characters can no long hire retainers. Instead, they gather recruits by accumulating repute. (For example, if playing B/X D&D or one of its derivatives and substituting repute for XP at a 1:1 ratio, characters might attract one recruit per 2,000 repute earned). Low-level characters will attract recruits slowly, while high-level characters, who earn repute at a greater rate, may find themselves leading a small band of rebels.
You may find that the fiction supports this mechanic quite well; if the player characters liberate a town, thus earning considerable repute, aspiring rebels will naturally flock to their side. Characters need not supply a wage, and recruits also do not siphon shares of earned repute. However, player characters must feed and house their recruits and provide all necessary equipment. In addition, recruits can never be replaced if they defect or are slain. Earned repute creates a limit on the number of recruits a character can attract throughout the entire campaign.
While individual characters may die, stories of the party’s deeds live on. Party repute equals one-twelfth of the total repute earned by all player characters throughout the campaign. When a player loses a character and rolls up another, that new character begins with repute equal to the party repute.
To Be Continued…
Part three presents GM principles and tools for running a rebellion-focused campaign. Thank you for reading, and, as always, I welcome your thoughts and criticisms.
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