Mystical Throne Entertainment produce the Savage Worlds magazine Savage Insider and are a platinum publishers at RPGNow. They know their Savage Worlds games and this month Geek Native is giving away their Mercenary Breed setting.
In this interview, however, we’re neither talking about Mercenary Breed nor Savage Insider but the Kickstarter project Twilight Continuum. It sounds impressive and different; but what exactly is it?
Fortunately, Aaron T. Huss, President and Publisher at Mystical Throne Entertainment and lead developer Curtis Lyons (aka Curtis Lyons of Three Sages Games) are here with answers to all the questions.
In a nutshell can you describe what the Twilight Continuum is?
Aaron: Twilight Continuum is a sci-fi action storyline, presented as a six-part adventure series for Savage Worlds (this publication model is known as Perilous Journey). The storyline follows the player characters from their first days at Novice through their ultimate days at Legendary, presented as a complete package out-of-the-box that the GM can read through and run right away without the need to fill-in the blanks.
Curtis: That’s actually a bit of a trick question. “Twilight Continuum” is a serialized adventure that follows the path of a handful of heroes, as Aaron said. The Twilight Continuum, on the other hand, is actually an extra-dimensional prison where a race of powerful beings – who were bent on galactic conquest – were sealed away twelve millennia ago. Their attempt to escape is actually what drives the plot.
The Twilight Continuum has players in the role of freshly trained fighter pilots battling against the invading Zentari. Doesn’t that make Twilight Continuum a new setting after all?
Aaron: Twilight Continuum itself has a storyline setting, but it does not require a licensed core setting guide such as Mercenary Breed to run. You can use it with only the Savage Worlds core rulebook and the content presented within the six-part adventure series. By presenting the “setting” in this generic fashion, you can either run it only with the Savage Worlds core rulebook or tweak it slightly to fit within a space opera setting you already enjoy, such as Mercenary Breed, Nemezis, or High Space.
Curtis: Twilight Continuum could be a setting, but the core idea behind it is that it’s a story, first and foremost. The downfall of almost every Space Opera setting is that they’ve been handled as settings. The fact of the matter is, what makes any Space Opera compelling is the story. You can have the coolest ships and the most awesome aliens and worlds imaginable… but if there’s no story to tell, it all falls flat.
I’m often told by people in the industry that adventures don’t sell well. Do you agree? Why do you think that is?
Aaron: I think standalone adventures are inherently a difficult sell because only the GM needs to purchase them and they don’t necessarily fit within the campaign already established by the GM. Additionally, there are many out there. The difference between adventures and the Perilous Journey publication model is that you get an entire campaign, not just a collection of adventures. That means the GM can either run the campaign as-is or pick the adventures and scenes apart and place them within their own campaign. To further increase the value of the Perilous Journey model, each book includes the campaign material, supplemental material, mini-bestiary, and one part of a novella. We are thus making Twilight Continuum about more than just the campaign within each book.
Curtis: Ironically, you’ll hear how difficult a sell standalone adventures are, while at the same time hearing complaints about a product because there aren’t enough adventures for it. The hard part of the sell, I think, is largely getting the prospective GM to believe you’re going to be able to give them a good adventure. I can’t even begin to tell you how many published adventures I’ve bought, only to realize I needed to go back and retool almost the whole thing to be usable – especially if one wants to run more than one adventure. The only difference between Twilight Continuum and a standard Savage Worlds plot point campaign is there’s no setting book and side adventures specifically for the plot. That’s why it can be plugged in where a GM wants it.
In many ways, The Twilight Continuum feels out of the norm for Savage World fans. It’s a different approach to the usual setting or adventure series. Was this something you felt that had to be done?
Aaron: It’s completely out of the norm for Savage Worlds fans and I’ve dared to use the term radical before to describe this type of release. I feel that there are lots of great Savage Worlds settings out there and what do you do after you’ve played a series of linked adventures, maybe a one-shot or two, or even completed the plot point campaign? That’s where the Perilous Journey model fits in nicely! You can take that setting you already enjoy and pick-up a completely campaign package to present to the players for a completely new experience, within that setting they already enjoy. It’s also a way of presenting an campaign (the six-part adventure series) for those settings that don’t have plot point campaigns or a large number of linked adventures.
Curtis: Had to be done? No more than the light bulb had to be invented. But I’ve seen a desire to have a series of connected adventures that would take a character or group of characters from their humble beginnings to the heights of fame and glory. The idea isn’t new: Paizo did it with their Adventure Paths, and Triple Ace actually did it for their Daring Tales. In fact, the only big difference, in my opinion, between Twilight Continuum and the Daring Tales series of your choice is that Daring Tales always gave you a set group of assumed characters for the story. It made for a consistent set of adventures, but limited the choices of the players considerably.
What do you think makes for a good sci-fi story? Are any elements critical to success or are there any pit traps that could ruin the whole thing?
Aaron: I think a good sci-fi story contains a lot of elements of inspiring technology that isn’t so far-fetched that it either becomes unbelievable or feels too much like a fantasy story. I also enjoy storylines that introduce elements of drama or social conflict, depicting the fact that in the future, or within a different galaxy, social conflicts are as important as military ones. It’s also exciting to read about the main protagonist’s ability to travel great distances without thinking twice about it. It means the grand setting can have a huge mixture of environments as no two planets, continents, or even galaxies are quite the same.
Curtis: There’s a fine line between science fiction and science fantasy – and, to be fair, Twilight Continuum straddles it quite a bit. The crucial thing is to have believable and consistent technology. The other important factor – and the thing that moves a story from the realms of science fiction to proper space opera – is it has to revolve around the people. How the characters in the story are reacting and interacting with the technology in their environment as well as the other beings in their environment goes a long way toward defining the quality of the story. Being a hero isn’t just a matter of having big guns and a super star fighter: it’s also a matter of certain ethical qualities that should be put to the test in the story.
What sort of challenges are there in designing adventures, coping with plots, encounters and NPC reactions in advance when you have no way of telling how different gaming groups will play through the scenes or might respond to events?
Aaron: One of the most difficult parts of designing an adventure series like this is keeping the storyline consistent and interesting throughout. There must be a build-up of suspense and interest to lead to the final book, but there also needs to be that same build-up within each book from beginning to end. To compensate for different gaming groups, it’s almost easier to focus on the storyline and allow the encounters to resolve however each particular gaming group desires. Whether the result is social or military, the plot should continue on while the story directly surrounding the player characters should be shaped and moulded according to the decisions of the gaming group. This is done through flexible encounter resolution instead of stating: “If you don’t succeed at this military conflict, the story ends and the group dies.” Or something like that.
Curtis: It’s been my experience that the toughest part is for the writer to remember he’s writing an adventure and not a novel. Many adventure writers are also frustrated fiction writers, and so they want to tell a story – which is good. But if you don’t allow the players the opportunity to go their own way to some degree and even fail… That’s bad. Some campaigns, like Twilight Continuum, get around part of it by involving the characters in a specific organization that starts out by giving them specific ‘missions’. This at least helps keep the players all on the same page and moving roughly the same direction. But after that? Well, you’ve got to leave the players the latitude to make their own decisions. For example, I’ve always found it to be a bad idea to assume the players will either like or hate NPC “X”. Odds are, they won’t go with your planning. So it’s a good idea to tell the GM what NPC “X” can do for or against the characters based on their actions. And I never ever offer a Deus ex Machina way out of a situation if I can help it: the players will either succeed or fail on their own merits. If the cavalry is always there to swoop in and save the day, the players won’t feel like they have to work too hard to win.
You’re planning a six-book adventure set. Does that magnify the challenge of adventure design six-fold or does it get easier to design adventures knowing a little of what the players have experienced in the previous books?
Aaron: Yes and no. The yes is keeping storyline synergy across six books. The no is designating a single lead developer who oversees the storyline’s development because he (Curtis Lyon) has it “scripted” out within his mind. We’re also planning to keep each book separate as much as they are a part of the whole campaign. That means the storyline follows from book to book, but you should be able to remove a single book and place it within your own campaign with little effort. You want a cohesive storyline across all six books, but you don’t want one book 100% dependent on the previous books.
Curtis: There’s some give and take with that one. With six books, it’s easier to spread things out and tell a broader story; with six books it’s also hard to predict how something in Book 1 might affect something in, say, Book 5. Personally, having written a number of both standalone adventures and plot point campaigns, I’d say the differences are largely in scope. A short adventure allows a writer to keep things tight and integral to the story, but a long series like Twilight Continuum allows the story to be savoured. One reason Twilight Continuum sounds almost like a setting is because there’s so much story there that it creates the illusion of depth… and the ability to create that illusion is what makes creating the long term adventures more interesting.
Should game designers, people who write core rules and campaign settings, also think about the challenge of writing adventures? That is to say; is it acceptable to design a great game but one that makes it really hard for the GM to compose scenarios?
Aaron: That’s a tough question as it really depends on the tools the core rulebook or campaign setting provides. I’ve recently picked up a new RPG and after reading through it, I have an extremely difficult time figuring out what type of adventures the RPG is meant to encompass. On the other hand, settings like Mercenary Breed and Nemezis (from GRAmel) contain fairly simple tool-kits for randomly creating adventures. If the setting seems difficult to discern for the GM, then adding a simple tool-kit can take a lot of that difficulty away.
Curtis: That’s one of my pet peeves, and one reason I’ve created stories like Twilight Continuum. I’ve got shelves full of really great campaign settings that I never run because I don’t have the time to sit down, figure out the setting and create a solid adventure (let alone adventures) to run. Some settings try to create a work around with ‘random adventure creators’, but it’s been my experience that your mileage may vary with those. Some GMs love them; some GMs just can’t figure out how to make them work. I’ve found it largely depends on how ‘like-minded’ the GM and the setting writer are. Personally, I think if you’re creating a setting but haven’t got any adventures to play in it, you haven’t really completed your setting. Adventures give the players and the GM a peek into what you had in mind when you created it in the first place. And if you haven’t written any adventures to run in your own setting… well, how can you say it’s fun to play in? On the other hand, if you have written adventures and run them in your own setting, why not put them to print and publish them?