When my friends are having fun, I’m having fun. When I’m running an RPG, one of the main questions sitting at the forefront of my mind is are they having fun? Most of the decisions I make in terms of games (what to run, what to focus on, what to prep) filter their ways through that lens. What’s the most fun my friends can have, and how the heck do I make that happen? That’s a big part of my fun. There’s probably some kind of term for this type of personality. It might not be healthy. I refuse to think too hard about it.
I guess a disclaimer is in order before you come for me. I’m not saying that the GM isn’t a player too, and that the GM should always be focused on being a provider of fun or some other such nonsense. I think everyone at the table is really responsible for their own fun, and that looks different for everyone.
But my fun comes from providing fun. Yours might vary.
That’s not to say I don’t have my little indulgences. For example, let’s look at my little secret magical society that is present in every single game I run. I’m not messing around here. I’ve thought about how it fits into every single world, even when there’s no chance it’ll ever come up in the game. It’s a little worldbuilding thing I give myself, as a little treat. The group is called the Caducaus, not to be mistaken by that Greek thing that hospitals use. (Give me a break here, I created this group when I was still a teenager.)
A Faction Without Enemies Is A Boring Faction
But what is a faction without an enemy? Not a faction at all, I’d argue. Nothing exists in a vacuum, and a good faction is only as good as the factions it has to push against. So, yes, the Caducaus has enemies. They’re the Archaics. Imagine demons, and devils, and gods, and demi-gods, and something just more than humanity. They seek control. And there’s a bunch of them, and when they show up in the game, it’s usually in the form of some kind of cult worshipping them. That’s an easy way to spot them. A red flag.
The Caducaus, despite their game-hopping magical abilities, are still mortal humans. The Archaics are not.
The First Time My Friends Noticed
My hubris sat perched upon my shoulder and whispered promises in my ear. Promises that certainly I could succeed where so many others failed? I could be the one that could pull off running an archipelago based sailing ship pirate game. I think I managed for a bit, even. My players were certainly having a blast. At one point, they were rushing to reach an ancient temple off the coast when they discovered that they weren’t the only group going for the prize. After a run in with the captain that resulted in both excessive flirting and a sabre duel, both groups decided to team up. This was a twist that delighted me.
There just so happened to be a wizard on this ship, and she was connected through backstory to a PC’s wizard. Both of them had learned magic in the same order. Both of them hated the other now. I was dealing with a real The Mummy kind of situation—teaming up with people you don’t trust just long enough until everyone can try a grand betrayal. Along with this wizard was another man—a feeble scholar—who seemed to walk about spouting facts and holding no fear for the dangerous pirates about. How he was so calm around these bloodthirsty cutthroats was a detail that my players immediately picked up on. His name was Taavus Parn.
As stories go, the temple got raided, the PCs fell in love with the NPC pirate captain (as they are wont to do) and ended up teaming up long term. The rival wizard and fearless scholar moved on with their bounty, and the game ground out not too much longer after that. Post-game questions were asked: who are what was Taavus Parn? (The answer given to my friends was a gentle shrug. The answer not given to my friends was that he was the leader of the Caducaus.)
I ran a short lived mash-up game that mixed together a zombie apocalypse with superheroes that didn’t last long. The system stumbled hard, and we all bounced off of it right away. Despite some great interactions, the players never really found out much information in the world. My secret society was, however, quite a large part of it—they ran Cadutech, a bio-research company trying to find a cure for the zombification.
I created a world that strictly wasn’t wild west America, but it was close enough that all the (good) tropes fit—revolvers, duels, horses, and outlaws. There were two vectors of magic that players could tap into, if they so chose: a cosmic horror ripple that you could learn to use and manipulate, and contracts you could make with various devil like creatures. Taavus Parn was here, quietly trying to seal off the cosmic ripple infecting the world, cutting off that source of magic. The Archaics were here as well, if it wasn’t obvious: they were offering power to mortals by taking on the form of devils in the night and striking a handshake deal. The PCs didn’t interact at all with Parn here, but one of them did have powers from an Archaic.
The Obvious Game
I was feeling particularly brave, so I ran another sailing ship game. This time I set in a wide and expansive desert, with the ships gliding across the sands. I ran this game way before the Seas of Sand Kickstarter, but wish I hadn’t—Sam’s ideas are all very cool and I would have torn out all the greatness from that back for my own game.
I pitched the game as a sort of “spiritual successor” to my previous pirate game, with none of the same content, but hopefully riding on a vibe of adventuring and swashbucklery.
Archaics got to go front and center in this one—the “good” ones were all bird-like creatures that humans worshiped and built temples too, a flock of five of them fulfilling the role of gods in the setting. The bad Archaics were out in the sands somewhere, being ritualistically worshipped by small cults. I called them Archaics in this game, even. Put up a big old signpost. (And it shout be noted, none of them were “good” so to speak, the bird-like ones just managed to capture popular opinion.)
Right off the bat I introduced a powerful NPC as a sort of quest-giver: a man named Suvaan’tapr. He was scholarly and unshakeable, but very cruel and mean. This was, of course, Tavuus Parn. At this point, I could tell my players were feeling an eerie sense of deja vu, and managed to work out that Suvaan’tapr was an anagram of their old friend Tavuus Parn. That discovery was fun for me, and it shifted the entire game’s theme and meaning around, because suddenly the players knew that they were dealing with someone pretty damn powerful.
The Joy Of It
In my dream world, I have a nebulous sort of game in mind, where the players are all part of the Caducaus themselves, and they’re hopping between a bunch of different worlds we’ve already played in, trying to sort out the problems of them. That isn’t the goal, though.
My main goal is to sneakily include my Archaics and my Taavus Parn, twist around how the two groups interact, and see what kind of things they can get up to in the world. I like to sit down and consider just how involved the Caducaus and the Archaics are in this particular world. I do this sometimes even for published settings, though I rarely (if ever) run those. And when I’ve done all my thinking, I ask: how much of this is even going to be visible to my friends?
And the answer to that question usually ends up being: not very much at all.
Building Your Own Secret Society
Alright. How about something vaguely useful for anyone that made it this far. Pick up one of each size of dice (d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, and d20). Shake ’em up and let ’em roll. Then, consult the tables below and find out just exactly what kind of game-hopping secret society you might or might not ever let your players know about:
|WHAT KIND OF WORLD DID THEY ORIGINATE ON? (d4)
|WHAT GENRE IS THEIR ORIGIN WORLD? (d6)
|HOW DO THEY TRAVEL BETWEEN WORLDS? (d8)
|They have a single piece of technology: The Doorway.
|The magic inherit to their world has been gathered as fuel to make jaunts.
|They project their consciousness into their “parallel bodies” on other realities.
|They know the location of portals between worlds and how to open them.
|They now exist on the surface between realities and can make short dives.
|They can project themselves as intangible figures into other realities.
|They make pleas to a “reality arbiter” who decides if they can slip through.
|They’ve lost their grip and blink in and out of reality without tight control.
|WHAT ARE THEY TRYING TO DO? (d10)
|Excise a memetic corruption that spreads through the sentient minds of reality.
|Chase down and bring to justice one of their own who went rogue.
|Gain a foothold on the new reality and turn it to their own needs.
|Gather worshippers on each world to eventually engage in a war of the heavens.
|Collect a rare, finite resource so their society can continue to survive.
|Utterly destroy those who betray the Five Tenets.
|Harvest the blood of a special group of otherworlders to slow the spreading rot.
|Search for the Final Mechanism to complete their Void Machine.
|Sow dissention among the reality’s people so they rise up and tear down their rulers.
|Bring their reality ending Consuming Devices online.
|WHY DO THEY NEED HELP IN THE NEW REALITIES? (d12)
|There aren’t many of them and they need agents to work for them.
|Changes they make in the reality with their own hands are unwoven.
|They have a strict societal taboo against taking direct action.
|They cannot perceive certain things in the reality and need agents for the whole picture.
|Overt action taken directly will draw the eye of their enemies.
|All but a small group of sentients experience a deep feeling of wrongness about them.
|Each time they take a direct action, their enemies know.
|The amount of bureaucracy required to do anything takes months if not sidestepped.
|Each action they take is powerful, but leaves them weak and helpless afterwards.
|They find the nitty gritty details of the world’s people boring and trite.
|The reality-disease they all contract worsens with direct action.
|They value the game of moving pawns on the board and setting up elaborate plans.
|WHAT’S THE TWIST? (D20)
|They can all be identified by their unique reality bending ribbons.
|They are humanoid animals.
|Their eyes glow with a colorful light.
|They’re able to morph and change their shape.
|They have skin made from iron.
|Their mouths are upside down.
|Their leader has just been assassinated.
|They’ve just discovered a new source of magical power.
|The current world-hoppers cannot find their way back to their own civilization.
|One of their enemies has infiltrated their society and pulls strings from a position of power.
|Their travel between worlds requires some kind of blood sacrifice.
|They actively recruit new members from the worlds they go to.
|They can spread their powers and abilities out to a small group of agents.
|They require a complex set of machinery, mutations, or magical augmentations to survive in new worlds.
|Their enemies just uncovered a new weapon that is going to change the face of this war.
|Their presence on a world begins to cause a slowly growing rot that eventually consumes everything.
|They have fortresses set up on three separate worlds and operate out of them.
|If push comes to shove they can quickly field an army of highly trained soldiers, but the cost is heavy.
|The greatest threat to them isn’t another civilization, but rather a single entity in the multiverse that feeds on them.
|They’ve mastered time as well as space, able to flit back and forth throughout the universe.
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