Campaign Report 117: “With any hope of the team infiltrating the warband impossible, we were left with few options. One, we could simply walk away and report the size and location of the horde. Of course, by the time we accomplished said feat, Grendel and Ranna would be dead or converted and the Guardian Gather of Fylg or Char already under siege. Two, we could charge headlong into the enemy camp, which would be suicide. Three, put our fate in the hands of the werewolf.”
Online reports, such as the one above, are shared and read world-wide by players of the award-winning role-playing game (RPG) Shaintar Legends Awaken: Rangers of the Greenway Road. An RPG is a game where players take on the personas of fictional characters. Written by Madison local Howard Brandon, the game won Campaign of the Month in June, which was awarded by Obsidian Portal – a web platform for RPGs to share narratives and collaborate.
The premise of the game is to protect the City of Harken in the world of Shaintar. However, unlike other RPGs with a set storyline, predictable checkpoints, and an ultimate end goal, the players’ actions have direct effects on other players, the world, and the narrative as a whole. After gaming sessions end, reports are written detailing what they did in their characters’ locations and the events that transpired. These reports are then read, utilized, and incorporated by Game Masters (GMs) who organize group games and narrate the overall story for the players: setting the scene, establishing missions, and presenting scenarios. Brandon further draws from those individual storylines to include them in upcoming books with the overarching narrative about the game. With over 800,000 words uploaded by players to a repository, Brandon – who is also a GM as well as a writer – has an extensive means to engage in collaborative storytelling.
“Our world is alive,” Brandon elaborated. “It is a truly vibrant, living campaign. It is collaborative storytelling at its most pure. To be part of this community where your actions really do change the fate of the world and actually change the course of the written products is unique. When a gamer contacts us and needs something, we respond and might create it for them. Then when it shows up in a book, the gamer says, ‘I didn’t think I’d show up in the book.’ There’s a sense of wonder and accomplishment that the gamers have when their contributions are included in the Shaintar world … To be part of something bigger than oneself is a human need, and this is a way of experiencing that with a community that is all over the world.”
The ability to effect change in the world of the game and accomplish tasks, win battles, or recover from injuries is determined based on a roll of dice. This randomization factor mirrors real life in which there is a chance of failure. The number required to succeed is weighted against a player’s skill set for a particular task and the challenge being faced. Brandon pointed out that a set of dice, a pencil, and a piece of paper are the only things required to join his game.
After meeting Sean Patrick Fannon, the creator of Shaintar, through a mutual friend at Momo Con 2013 in Atlanta, Brandon worked for the company Savage Mojo, which owns Shaintar. He began with data entry and then began building the website for Rangers of the Greenway Road.
“Fannon was preparing for his 2013 Shaintar: Legends Unleashed Kickstarter,” Brandon recalled. “I was running game demos when he invited me to be a volunteer with his new collaborative campaign. That concept has evolved into Legends Awaken. I ended up being part of the global campaign management board and then worked my way up to the rules expert and what they referred to at the time as the ‘culture warden’ – the person responsible for making sure that the storylines coming out actually fit within the ethos of the world. Eventually, I moved on to being a rules writer, and now I pretty much do anything, everything. There’s been a lot of changes in the company. Creative enterprises have a lot of turnover; it doesn’t matter if it’s film, music, or writing. So, right now, I work on rules and manage the global campaign and do whatever the company asks of me.
“Greenway Road has continued since 2013. It is the only game that I know of that started at the beginning of all of this and continues to this day with the original plotline. I also still use one of my original characters.
“You, as a player, join a collaborative story and take on a persona of a character of some kind. The type of game determines the types of characters. Shaintar is epic-high-fantasy, (which includes) the traditional fantasy tropes – elves, dwarves, and those sorts of things. Once you have a character, it has a ‘physical’ character shape with statistics, equipment, backstory, and personality just like in a play or film. You take on the persona of that character, and you act through that character in this shared world. The GM presents you with scenarios, information, and difficulties, and then you, in the mindset of your character, attempt to achieve goals, overcome obstacles, and move the story forward collaboratively.”
Brandon hosts players every other Sunday night; some have been a part of the game since its inception. As the personas are engaged in play, jokes are made, adventures transpire, and even accents may be affected all in all leading to moments where the players are nearly crying from laughter.
“Some groups don’t have the same camaraderie,” stated Jimmy O. who has been gaming since he was 13 years old.
Rangers player Tina L. stated, “There’s a lot of teamwork and problem-solving. You have people from various backgrounds all coming together at one table.”
“The inclusivity of the game is another great thing,” Ricky J., another player, added, “Literally, anybody can walk in and play. When everybody sits down, we’re all in it together.”
Tina intends to expand that inclusivity by making the game translatable into American Sign Language, which she is currently learning, in order to run silent games.
The players who meet in Madison agreed that one of the challenging aspects of the game is staying in character, ignoring the metaknowledge, and thinking about the choices that the created personality would make.
Jimmy noted, “For my first character, I had this idea in my head, but in my very first game (…) one little instance completely changed the idea for the character.”
“Just like people are the sum of their life experiences, the characters are the sum of their experience in the game,” Ricky elaborated. “In this game, there are certain tropes that carry over from real life. It’s kind of cool how you can explore real-life social issues through play.”
One of the truly enjoyable aspects that Brandon finds in the game is the ability to interactively be a hero in a unique form of collaborative storytelling: “Role playing is one of the few, if not only, forms of entertainment that has no limitations and in which you are an active participant. Role playing allows you to be part of the story, to actually become the character in the story and go on mighty quests. You yourself get to participate, and that’s unique. That’s the real draw. People on the outside might think we just sit around talking to each other, but the real magic of role playing is being drawn into the story for a few hours, and you get to be the hero in an epic tale.”