A development example: Dark Angel' as a role-playing campaign backgroundEdit

Dark Angel was a TV series directed by James Cameron and starring Jessica Alba.

The series is set in near-future Seattle. The world economy has collapsed, and just to add to the confusion a series of airburst nuclear devices hit major cities with electro-magnetic pulses (EMPs) which destroyed almost all computerised devices, apart from shielded military ones. The effect was to intensify the social gap: the poor got poorer, and although the rich didn’t get richer, they certainly didn’t suffer as much so the gap grew wider. The US’ infrastructure collapsed, and the Government became tyrannical and oppressive. Roadblocks and checkpoints divide the city into distinct sectors, some of which have restricted access.

The primary character is Max, a genetically-engineered young woman developed by top secret Government labs as a super-soldier. Along with several of her ‘siblings’, she escaped from the lab and has been hiding from the Government ever since.

As the series started, she was working as a cycle courier – an ‘off the grid’ job which brought her into contact with a lot of dodgy characters, and gave access to the rich city sectors from which she would normally be excluded. She was making extra money by using her special abilities as a burglar. Then she came in contact with one of the rich elite – but he was working secretly against the Government by helping those it tried to suppress, the voices of freedom. Rather than burglary, her second ‘job’ then became working with him.

So we have three sources of scenarios – the Government trying to hunt down their valuable property and take her back to the lab, the anti-Government activist helping those in need to escape or to fight back against the corruption, and her street-level friends at the cycle courier service trying to survive on the margins against degenerate landlords, criminals trying to squeeze them for protection, and a boss who wants to make them more ‘corporate’.

Setting up the campaign, the GM needs to decide whether the characters will also be gengeneered super-soldiers – my instant response was no, because that would make the campaign too easy. One unarmed super-soldier against the average band of street muscle is an acceptable match – five or six of them is overkill.

But we still need a reason why the Government are hunting the PCs. So they are scaled down from super-soldiers. They were raised in a remote area by a right-wing militia, many of whom were ex-military and with other ‘special skills’. Their children were educated in an atmosphere of distrust of the Government. It became the kind of ‘special educational environment’ that produces John Connor in the Terminator films – fitness training, weapons instruction, burglary and computer-hacking lessons. The result is characters that have a higher level of ability than the average (in GURPS terms, more points to spend on their characters and a wider range of skills available than ‘normal’ 21st-century civilians) without the over-the-top abilities of super-strength and hyper-speed of the original Dark Angel.

The militia was suppressed, and of course they didn’t go quietly. Huge gun battles raged around their hideouts, giving their children a chance to escape into the criminal underworld while the Army focused on the points of resistance. Knowing that they have been raised with anti-government ‘propaganda’ and training which enables them to be the core of an effective resistance, the Government is hunting down all those who escaped.

The PCs are some of those escapees. They’ve reached the city where the campaign is set – you need to decide where it is. In order to capture the gritty urban-decay feel of the series, it needs to be a big city. Since the original series was set in Seattle, that seems as good a place as any. It has a variety of weathers for dramatic effect, woody, hilly terrain in the surrounding areas with winding roads for good chase scenes, high-rise blocks of offices and luxury apartments, slum areas, riverfront and seashore docks…

The campaign will start with the PCs trying to find work of a kind which should keep them from official notice. It won’t pay much, so they have find contacts with the criminal underworld to rise above the subsistence level. They would be wise – as they were briefed in school – to have nothing to do with the powerful organised crime-lords or drug gangs. They are likely to be infiltrated by spies and informers who would sell them out to the Government. From a gaming point of view they’re too restrictive. The characters would have little choice over what they do – Big Vinnie would assign them missions to further the gang’s ends, not their own.

The first scenarios will about surviving in the underworld. Finding a place to live that’s secure in the crime-filled slums. Dealing with the landlord and his bullies. Getting jobs and meeting new friends and contacts. Learning about the powerful people of ‘the upper world’. Along the way, they find a few contacts – fences of stolen goods, computer hackers who are keeping an eye on the activities of the police, forgers of passes and other documentation.

Then comes the meeting with the Eyes. He is resisting the Government in his own way, and recruits the PCs to be his ‘long arm’. The campaign is set to take on all three kinds of adventure from the world of Dark Angel.

With that outline done, it’s time to write ‘the Book’. Start with what caused the downfall of civilisation. A credit crisis? A plague? Who set off the EMPs which devastated the modern trappings of civilisation? How did the Government bring in the repressive laws without being voted out?

Then move on to the PCs’ background. What cult or militia were they raised in? Where was it based? How old were they when it was suppressed, and how long ago was that? Were they responsible for the EMP, and if not, has the Government blamed them anyway? Does that make them figures of hate for the general public?

An outline of the city follows – names of the Mayor and prominent officials, organisation of the police and paramilitaries who are backing them up. Names of the organised crime families and drug-running street gangs. The people who are going to employ the PCs, and what sort of businesses they run.

I think that a campaign arc is a good idea, so let’s develop one. I mentioned John Connor earlier – let’s say that the ultimate ambition of the Dark Angel campaign is that it will merge seamlessly with a Terminator' one.

Right from the beginning, the players will have dealings with a technology company which will ultimately be a Skynet subsidiary, though it isn’t yet. With that knowledge, the GM builds scenarios with Skynet tech in mind. He decides that they are involved in the visual-recognition software which will ultimately go into the Terminators’ eyes, but this early in the development of the technology it is being tested with prototypes into the city sector checkpoint cameras to recognise wanted fugitives. This fouls up the PCs’ mobility for illicit activities, so the quest to find the software, hack it, and produce some form of countermeasure becomes one of the themes of the campaign.

Later, the information garnered along the way as they attempt this leads them to a secret project which ‘the Eyes’ wants them to investigate. It turns out that another company are using the recognition software in their prototype security robots… Eventually, the players will have enough leads to realise that the ‘supersoldier’ that they were expecting to encounter in a Dark Angel campaign is not going to be Jessica Alba, but the first Terminator. At that point you can let them ‘discover’ that the tech company has been taken over by a multinational corporation called Skynet…