Thoughts on Adventure Design and Nephilim’s “Les Veilleurs”

Looking back over the scenario reviews that I have published on this site, I am struck by the fact that most published scenarios seem to miss my personal sweet-spot when it comes to the trade-off between providing content and empowering GMs to create their own content: Those scenarios that go long on detail feel restrictive and that sense of restriction makes me second-guess and resent the author’s creative decisions. Meanwhile, those scenarios that are short on detail under the guise of allowing GMs more freedom to write and/or improvise often feel thin, poorly structured, and a waste of money. I would argue that this sense of dissatisfaction is inevitable and unavoidable.

The problem is that every group has its own energy and every GM has their own creative workflow. Indeed, before we even address the question of what constitutes a ‘creative workflow’ we need to recognise that while some groups are happy taking action and driving their own narratives, other groups will be much happier sitting back and allowing GMs to narrate a story around them. Back in the day, we would have said that the first group were simply better or more experienced players but my time in the hobby inclines me to think that this is as much a reflection of personality as it is of experience. Either way, a group of people who are happy to have a story told to them are going to want something very different from a scenario than a group that wants to create its own stories. There is no such thing as a one-size fits all published scenario. Even the greatest and most legendary of campaigns is likely to fall flat if your group don’t vibe with the type of story that a campaign contains.

Moving beyond the players to the people running the games, I think that different GMs have different levels of comfort with the idea of a mutable text. Even GMs who do enjoy improvising will sometimes struggle to deal with groups that depart too violently from narratives laid out in published materials and some people do not want to improvise at all. Indeed, if you look at your average published dungeon crawl you will find very little room for ambiguity or the kinds of mutable narratives that are unlikely to survive initial contact with a group of players determined to pursue their own goals and create their own stories. I am even tempted to say that the emergence of a non-traditional RPG scene has allowed traditional RPG designers to double-down on the use of linear narratives. After all, if you want your players to assume control over the narrative, why not play a game that explicitly gives them narrative powers?

The best RPG sessions I have ever run were those in which the players were free to explore and engage with the things that were of interest to them. While it would be impossible to produce a published scenario that allowed for every possible narrative swerve groups throw at their GMs, it should be possible to produce published adventures rich enough to encourage player agency whilst supporting a GM’s ability to deal with that freedom. This is what I mean when I talk about my personal sweet-spot for adventure design and I find it really interesting that so few scenarios and campaigns have any interest in positioning themselves anywhere near it.

Reflecting on this point, I tried to remember which (if any) published adventures manage to get that balance right and while my first thoughts went to Gary Gygax’s The Village of Hommlet (opening chapter of his famous Temple of Elemental Evil module) I then remembered the first supplement put out in support of the original French edition of Nephilim.

First published in January 1993 and written by Fabrice Lamidey and Frederic Weil, Les Veilleurs was an attempt to do for Nephilim what The Haunting had done for Call of Cthulhu, namely set the tone for the game while also ‘training’ both players and GMs in how to run a game of Nephilim.

This idea of writing first adventures as explicit learning/teaching experiences is something that contemporary RPGs should think about returning to. The idea was quite common in French RPGs of the 1990s as most French RPG core-books consisted of a load of rules and a bit of lore but very little in the way of explicit instructions or guidance as to how games were intended to be run. First adventures were designed not only to show-case the various rules and allow everyone to acquaint themselves with the mechanics, they also set the tone in terms of genre, imagery and power-level. For example, when people like Ron Edwards criticised games like Vampire for failing to play in a manner consistent with the themes touched upon in the body of the rule-books, quite often they are talking less about the rule mechanics and more about the examples of play that featured in professionally-published adventures. In the case of Vampire, the rulebook talked a lot about subtle court politics and interrogating the humanity of the characters while the style of play supported and encouraged by professionally-published adventures looked a lot more like a street-level supers game.

Les Veilleurs was actually the third attempt at a starting adventure for Nephilim. The game’s first edition rulebook contained a very cerebral investigation-based adventure that dealt with someone revealing real occult secrets through a small press publisher and the magazine Casus Belli had an adventure in which the PCs are awakened by a bad actor and then manipulated into fucking over a potential ally. While the adventure in the rulebook took its cues directly from Call of Cthulhu, the magazine adventure was a lot closer to Vampire in so far as it was a bit more action-oriented and presented Nephilim society as a web of intrigue and deception. While both sets of influences are quite obvious on the history of the game, I would argue that the first edition of Nephilim took its cues mostly from the vision of the game explored in Les Veilleurs.

Les Veilleurs is set in small-town France. The book does not specify where the town is located; it also provides a variety of different names so that GMs can position the adventure in whichever region feels most appropriate. This positioning is important to the game as the first edition of Nephilim is written to be in dialogue with a certain vision of small-town France; one where the lives of normal people are massively overshadowed by the sense of history embodied by medieval architecture as well as the presence of weird myths, urban legends, and regional folklore that swirl around almost every village in rural France. While this vision of the game would find its most exquisite expression in Souffle de Dragon, Nephilim’s first full-length published campaign set in small-town Brittany, the tone of the game is set right here: Nephilim is not just an urban fantasy game about magical beings inhabiting the modern world, it is also a game in which the anachronistic nature of the characters is reflected in the landscape that surrounds them. This is a game set in a France that is old, magical, weird, and full of secrets.

The sense of oddness is amplified by the book’s visual presentation. While the publishers Multisim would break with this tendency as soon as the game started to acquire an audience, the original rulebook and a few of the original supplements were notable for the near complete absence of conventional artwork. Indeed, rather than paying someone to draw the content of their game, the writers of Nephilim chose instead to illustrate their books with photography. In the case of the rulebook, they even took the somewhat unusual step of drawing all over their own photographs in order to transform normal human faces into the altered features of the magical creatures that feature in the game. While Les Veilleurs sadly contains no pieces of ‘augmented’ photography, it is full of under-exposed and excessively grainy black and white images of houses and landmarks. Though obviously born of the publishers trying to save money on internal artwork, the graininess and darkness of the images actually work pretty well in the context of an adventure set in a medieval village that is both slightly magical and somewhat down-at-heel. However, as lovely as these images are, they are somewhat few and far between, which maybe explains why nearly half the book is given over to physical descriptions of the setting. I don’t even mean floor-maps and contents, I mean descriptions of what houses look like and how they feel when you step inside them.

The levels of detail lavished on the appearance of the village do pay off as they are evocative and memorable enough to acquire a level of textured realism that you simply cannot reproduce with a floor-map and a list of contents. These places not only have a look, but also a sound and a smell. They leap off the page and feel surprisingly real. This level of detail is further augmented by the amount of thought that has gone into both the layout of the village and the nature of the subterranean tunnels that bind together all of the village’s magical sites.

Having described the village at considerable length, the authors move on to describing its inhabitants. Each notable NPC comes with a stat-block that not only describes their skills and characteristics but also elements of their personality. For example, the local farmers have skills like ‘talking about the weather 65%’ which has always struck me as a really cute way of giving a little bit of colour to an NPC. The NPC descriptions also give a lot of detail on each NPC’s agenda as well as where they sit in the network of cliques, groups, and secret societies that comprise the village’s social life.

This is the one area where the adventure’s design feels somewhat underwhelming as the book describes the village, gives you a history of the village, talks about the network of secret passages that link together various parts of the village, and then talks at length about how various more-or-less secret groups are vying for control over the village and the secrets it contains. While this is very thoughtfully and evocatively done, it really does remind me of The Village of Hommlet as it’s not immediately clear why any of this stuff should matter. Indeed, I can remember playing The Village of Hommlet and absolutely failing to engage with any of the various groups or power-plays at work within the village. My group treated Hommlet as a place to rest, re-equip, and sell excess equipment and who happened to be running things really didn’t matter that much to us. The reason for this was that while the module provided a lot of detail on the background to the village, it completely failed to provide any hooks encouraging players to engage with said background. Similarly, the first time I played Les Veilleurs, I completely failed to notice the power-struggle in the village and what groups the village did contain just came across as a bunch of colourful NPCs who could be teased, threatened, or ignored as desired. Re-reading the adventure, I think this is because the people who ran both The Village of Hommlet and Les Veilleurs presented us with very strong narrative lines from which we refused to deviate.

In fairness to Lamidey and Weil, Les Veilleurs does present GMs with a variety of hooks designed to capture the interest of the players. In one scenario, the group simply happen to stop off in town to refuel their car and start noticing a load of weird stuff. In another scenario, the group either happens upon the history of the town or learns of weird things that have recently taken place. Both of these scenarios give the players reasons to explore the village and it’s natural to move from exploring the village to exploring that place’s social web. The problem was that when I played the adventure, I was presented with a third scenario… namely that a painter displaying off physical characteristics consistent with possession by a Nephilim had moved into the village church and begun producing paintings filled with occult imagery. Baited with this hook, it’s no surprise that my group engaged with the village purely in terms of that painter and what he was up to. Similarly, if you tell your group that you are going to be running The Temple of Elemental Evil then it follows that your players will process everything in said adventure in terms of its relationship to that single narrative line. Les Veilleurs does have a plot; it’s just that the focus of the adventure is the village rather than the plot, which exists solely as a reason for the group to engage with the focus of the adventure.

The plot of Les Veilleurs is that the village was once a Templar strong-hold and because said strong-hold was close to a number of sources of elemental magic, the Templars built an alchemical engine designed to capture the elemental magic and use it to basically drain Nephilim of their energies. When the Templars were dissolved and their possessions seized by the French crown, the Templars tried to secure their legacy by initiating the local villagers into a secret society designed to conceal and protect the existence of the alchemical engine. As the centuries passed, this secret society lost track of its roots and became nothing more than a xenophobic talking-shop obsessed with the (fraudulent) legends created to help conceal the area’s magical sites. However, this status quo is disrupted when a Nephilim inhabiting a painter who was born in the village decides to start producing magical artwork that super-charges the sites of elemental magic and starts to re-awaken the dormant alchemical engine. Thus, the players’ investigation of the village is set against a background of magical chaos as well as a variety of occult actors trying to accelerate the awakening of the sites, restore stability, or take control of the magical machinery.

In other words, Les Veilleurs is an adventure with a lot of moving parts and the adventure supports the GM by giving them a lot of detail on people of places and then providing quite a rigid timeline of what might happen should the players fail to intervene. This is what I meant when I said that most commercially-produced adventures fail to meet my sweet-spot as all of that fluffy detail at the start of the book is designed to make GMs so familiar with people and places that they will feel able to improvise and re-act to the any choices the players might make. GMs are further empowered to make decisions by a solid timeline and a series of well-designed and dramatic set-pieces that can be deleted, augmented, or riffed upon based upon how the players respond to the adventure. In other words, the structure is there if you want to just tell a story and run the adventure on auto-pilot, but the adventure is sufficiently detailed and shows enough of its work that you also feel empowered to allow events to develop organically.

Les Veilleurs further recalls The Village of Hommlet in so far as it is presented as a ‘base of operations’ for further adventuring and, much like The Haunting, it achieves this sense of openness by filling the adventure with plot-hooks that the adventure itself never quite gets around to addressing. For example, the canonical ending of the adventure has the group in control of what the game calls a Nexus; an expression of magical energy that draws on all five elements. This is comparatively rare in the world of Nephilim and so the adventure effectively ends with the group in control of a very desirable piece of in-game real estate. It is here that all of the cliques, factions and secret societies become relevant as their desire to take control of the village would most likely only intensify with the awakening of the Nexus and so the group would be forced to wade into local politics as well as engaging with the various groups and agents living in the village. In addition, there are also a number of intriguing plot-strands like a haunted mansion and a medieval gate that seems to drain magical energy and it is easy to imagine a creative GM getting an adventure out of any of these dangling plot hooks.

To put it bluntly, while Les Veilleurs can be used as a single adventure with a beginning, middle, and a denouement, it is best used as a short-to-medium term campaign setting. The strong narrative line based around the painter and the awakening of the Nexus serves to introduce players to the setting and gives them a reason to explore but the richness of the setting and the complexity of the setting’s social web means that the awakening of the Nexus is really only the start of a series of adventures that enterprising GMs can create based upon the writing prompts and plot hooks littered throughout the body of the adventure.

Reading Les Veilleurs and thinking about my reviews of Call of Cthulhu adventures like The Mummy of Pemberley Grange and One Less Grave, I am struck by the differences between my personal creative workflow and the kinds of products that RPG companies tend to produce. I wish that more RPG books hit that sweet-spot between supporting play and empowering GMs to create their own play. Instead, the market seems to be dominated by published adventures that are too restrictive and campaign setting materials that are too abstract and high-level to be easily usable at the table. Supplements like Les Veilleurs strike the perfect balance between support and empowerment by providing you with rigid structures but also encouraging you to come up with your own creative responses to player actions. To read Les Veilleurs is to be encouraged to think one or two adventures ahead, to ask what might happen when the Templars learn that their old strong-hold has re-awakened and is now in enemy hands. To ask how the squabble between arriviste hunters and old school mystics will play out in local politics and what that might mean for PCs who want to settle in the village. To ask how other Nephilim groups might try to gain access to the Nexus and what they might offer the group in return. Les Veilleurs is a great adventure as it makes you want to find out what happens next… how many of today’s adventures are so evocative and rich that you immediately want to turn them into an entire campaign?

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