Preparing The Enemy Within campaign: Command-Shift-4, The Black Hack, & the Tech Stack.

For years I’ve dreamt of jumping into one of the game properties of my youth with utter and reckless abandon. To do something big… prepare something huge and glorious like I could when I was in high school and had the summer (and, well, all of life) stretching out before me. To spend hours poring over a game, knowing that it would, one way or another, get played.

For a time the dream was running the full set of old-school published adventures for Gamma World. At one point I got so into The Morrow Project that I wrote a full scale conversion for Hero System. And just before COVID hit, I took a couple of my gaming buddies through character generation for GDW’s Twilight: 2000. And even though T:2000 is getting a new lease on life, I’ve moved on… I’ve got a new grail to chase: The Enemy Within cycle for 1st Edition Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay.

But it’s not as simple as reading it and running it. Ohhhhh, no.

I guess I should begin at the beginning…

Hacking the Hack

It all started a few weeks ago when my group’s online gaming session was teetering on the edge of cancellation. I’d sorta/kinda read David Black’s The Black Hack (second edition) and could tell it was well-suited for fully improvised play. My buddy Zach and I took it for a spin and we had a blast.

Over the past few weeks it’s occurred to me that TBH’s lightweight OSR mechanics and darkly comic tone might make it a great fit for the gritty world of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. To borrow a cooking metaphor, I realized I could make a reduction of the old WHFRP mechanics, stir it into TBH, and then I’d be off and running. (As a bonus I wouldn’t have to master the mechanical subtleties of WHFRP.) For years I’ve had a fascination with The Enemy Within. Playing it with The Black Hack‘s mechanics would allow us to “center” the story of this epic, baroquely convoluted, adventure path without needing a traditional game engine.

We could have it all!

As I write this, I’ve already started to port over some of the key aspects of WHFRP. First edition has a very light build around the playable “races,” and translating those into TBH is already done. Likewise fate points, which are a spend-and-lose-forever resource that save you from imminent death, are easy to bring across. It’s going to be more work to bring careers over, but I’m playing around with that. It seems possible, at least.

I’ve already told everyone in my group that the goal is to create the feeling of WHFRP in TBH, not to make it a full WHFRP emulator. My belief is that a focus on the module content will carry us along way towards giving us that Warhammer feeling.

SoB_coaching_housesDigesting Shadows over Bögenhafen

Holy Nurgle toes, there are a lot of moving parts in this module! It’s noir dark fantasy. Wheels within wheels doesn’t quite cover it.

I was talking to my wife about how insanely detailed Shadows is, and I found myself telling her about the Coaching Houses. These are the various coach lines that jockey with each other for business on the Empire’s thoroughfares. Not only did Games Workshop feel the need to invent 9(!) different Houses, but they paid their artist to illustrate the livery for each one. Setting doesn’t get deeper than this. (It’s worth pointing out that I’m not even sure if this bit of world-building has anything to do with the plot!)

Anyway, it’s a big lift putting all this into my head. I painstakingly read all the intro material, because I’m a newbie when it comes to the Warhammer universe. Sure, I’ve seen the minis, heard stories about the RPG, but when it comes down to actionable knowledge, the setting details you need to dole out to the players… I had zero.

And it’s not just poring over Shadows that’s time consuming. My group is committed to gaming online until there’s a vaccine for COVID. We’re all looking after each other and don’t want to push it… so that means building all the digital assets required to play online.

Wrestling with Roll20

These Enemy Within modules come with a mountain of content: player handouts, maps (regional and battle), evocative images, character portraits, etc. Just so much good stuff. But the fact that these adventures are so visual is a blessing and a curse. When I was talking to my buddy about how to pull all this stuff from the Shadows pdf, he quipped, “There’s always Command-Shift-4.” That’s the shortcut for the MacOS’s native screen grab widget, and oh my god has it been useful. It’s the quick and dirty way to pull out visual content. (If you know something more efficient, let me know.)

It’s a time consuming process, but it’s not difficult. The harder part is the many, many decisions to make as I put it all into Roll20. Do I need to make a character handout for this person, or just have their portrait in my GM library? Do I bring EVERY portrait into Roll20? Isn’t that a bit much? Well, no, the players become involved in a giant conspiracy, so I have to bring all the NPCs. It’s giving away the game to only include the characters that turn out to be important.

My buddy Brian walked me around some of the GM-facing R20 tech, and I couldn’t help but chuckle. It would have taken me hours to figure out some of the features without his help, and even then many things seemed overly fiddly or pointlessly opaque.

Still, with the sheer amount of content involved, and its ability to help me maneuver the players through it, I don’t believe Roll20 has a serious competitor in the online space. In other words… you get what you get, and you don’t get upset.

The Wall of Conspiracy

After a lot of poking around and looking at various online whiteboards, I’ve settled on using Miro to help us visualize the elements of the conspiracy. Roll20 does a good job of allowing the GM to display game content sequentially, but it isn’t designed for overviews. It isn’t built to show The Big Picture.

I’ve had my eye out for weeks looking for something that could. I won’t bore you with the apps and sites I worked my way through, but nothing else has the flexibility, ease of use, and scalability that Miro does. The thing that really sold me was the beautiful board that someone built for their Undying Empires game.

In Miro we can start out with images of a couple of shady characters, and by the end of the campaign we’ll have a huge web of corruption, lies, and deceit. Since it’s all digital, it’ll be easy for the players to add things, move them around, and consider/reconsider the roles of everyone they’ve run across. Honestly this excites me. If we were playing in person it would never have occurred me to look for a tool like Miro. I mean, imagine having a whiteboard that just gets bigger no matter how much you add to it?

Thanks to Miro’s Frames functionality, it’s easy to navigate around the whiteboard no matter how big it gets. I’m already finding other useful things to add. For example, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay has its own calendar, because of course it does! There are special names for months, days, holidays, etc., in a 400 day year. Now that calendar is on our Miro board, with a translucent block sitting over the current day. If you want to know, the campaign starts on Festag, the 24th of Jahrdrung.

One of the coolest things about Miro is that each element on the board has its own unique URL. So, if I want to make a handout in Roll20 about the Imperial calendar, for example, I can easily connect that to our campaign calendar on the Miro board. The sky’s the limit with building those kinds of links.

The Miro board is also a natural for showing relationships between factions in the various arenas of Imperial life. One of the first things I put together for our Enemy Within board shows the relationships between the various political powers of the Empire…

I’m no one’s idea of a graphic designer, but I feel good about this.

I may end up needing something like this for the various (legal and illegal) religious bodies in the Empire. And maybe the Coaching Houses??? We’ll see. Miro’s a flexible tool, and allows for data to be presented and pushed around in a really intuitive way. It’s fun to mess around with in a way that R20 just isn’t for me.

I’m Going to Need a Bigger Boat

You know you’ve bitten off a lot when you realize you need a spreadsheet to track your project. (I guess I’ll have to figure a couple of things about Google Sheets, which I’ve never used much either.)

If you’re looking for a breakdown of what all this looks like, here you go…

  • Port “essential” parts of WHFRP into The Black Hack
  • For part one of The Enemy Within: digest and prep Shadows over Bögenhafen
  • Collect images, handouts, maps, etc., and put them into Roll20
  • Sort those assets into an intelligible structure for both the player-facing and GM-facing file structures… because that’s how Roll20 rolls.
  • Design player-facing “pages” for Roll20, and (oh yeah), figure out how to use it to facilitate an actual game.
  • Make a reasonably decent looking board in Miro that can grow and expand with the game.

It’s an understatement to say that this amount of work, for a dang game, goes against the grain of everything I’ve been doing for the last few years. When my son was born in 2013, I quickly adopted the strategy of “least possible prep” to get by. I’m the lead parent and I’ve got my hands full… never more so than now! This project, then, flies in the face of the rational in much the same was as 2020 itself.

COVID times have brought home to me (again) that we get one crack at this. You get one big spin on the merry-go-round. If I want to do something big, potentially epic, then I can’t put these projects off forever.

Is it the smart play? Probably not. I could be using my time better, but I’ve been spending my time in “productive” ways over the last few years, and I have precious little to show for it. Why not do something that’s going to bring me a measure of fulfillment?

I have no idea how long this will take me, or even how “good” it will be once I’m done… but damn, it’s good to dream again.

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