When the time came for me to run my second campaign, two years after my first (I had run a successful Buffyverse campaign in-between), I knew I would have to do a few things differently. I set to work writing down long-term plans for a continuous narrative, one that would take Joss Whedon’s vision and tear it to shreds. I was, at the time, hardcore into Battlestar Galactica, and that’s what my Firefly RPG’s took the most of their inspiration in tone and theme from, becoming games of spaceborne action, political manoeuvring and life and death struggles involving the entire human race. In recognition of my players inevitable amorality – something any GM will agree with and lament – I titled this second of three campaigns with a shared universe “Big Damn (Anti) Heroes”.
Things started out simply enough: a new crew, a new ship and some adventures to go on, a mix of my own ideas and some official adventures that had been published recently, that were good for a once-off and that I did everything I could to tie into my main narrative. Sometimes this was as simple as swapping one villain for another. The narrative was something fairly large in scope, and involved one of Firefly’s best known bits of universe padding. “Shan Yu” is just an historical dictator that Book and Niska offhandedly mention in the episode “War Stories”, but I saw the opportunity for me to do with him.
In all this I was inspired by a few select bits of fan-fiction writing I had happened upon in my constant scrolling across the internet for Firefly related things. One story I read envisioned Serenity getting involved in a hunt for the warlord’s lost treasure, stored inside a gigantic warship dubbed the Sun-Tzu, a ship that held dark secrets. I latched on to that idea, and decided my crew would be hired by a nefarious Tong to find the same thing.
The standard quest outline, whereby a party go out to find numerous objects that will lead them to a singular object, will often make gamers groan with its apparent mundanity, but it’s popular for a reason: you can take any kind of story and wrap it around such a template. In looking for the locations of the Sun-Tzu the crew got to go on a lot of varied adventures: duelling with nobility, investigating murders, escaping from Alliance prison colonies, lots of different things here and there. And, eventually, they found just what they were looking for.
Big Damn (Anti) Heroes was a game where I first began to understand that the in-jokes and mythology that the players make themselves is just as important to the overall quality of an RPG as anything else. To give an idea of what I mean, I’ll always remember fondly one incident, wherein the crew were preparing an escape from the aforementioned Alliance prison. They had found out that the passcode to get past the guarding ships was “Hackleback Rimrakers 76”. Later, as they prepared their departure and discussed the final details, one crewmember hand-waved away the passcode requirements, and I paraphrase “It’s Huckleberries or something”. I had an instant vision of missiles streaming towards the Firefly as the crew screamed “Huckleberries, huckleberries!” desperately into the radio, and I took me a while, and the others, to stop laughing. This is the kind of thing that loses all of its punch in just writing it down, but it’s what I’m talking about.
This was a game I was enjoying the hell out of, but I was aware that I could be badly tripped up by my next step, which was a game-changer inspired by ideas from more fan-fiction: the resurrection of Shan Yu himself, or rather a clone, kept in cryogenic storage onboard the Sun Tzu along with a troop of deadly bodyguards. The crew unwittingly woke Sun Tzu up, and the stage was set for something really large scale.
During the Christmas break, I made daily updates to a log describing a six month period when the crew were imprisoned by the Alliance and the ‘verse went to hell in a hand-basket. Shan Yu, with the aid of his gigantic Death Star-esque battleship, essentially resurrected a defunct Empire based somewhat on the Japanese shogunate, that proceeded to human wave its way across a bunch of planets, wrecking the Alliance forces through sheer attrition. With the Purplebellies distracted and sucking every last resource they can spare away from the rim, Browncoat guerillas and others rise up with no opposition, taking over a bunch of places and eventually declaring an new “Independent Republic of Planets” (it had to be that way, think of the acronyms if I moved some words around?). In the space of a few weeks, I took the Alliance dominated universe and turned it into a three-way dance between wildly different factions, all taking aim at each other. And then to really mess things around, I had the crew help negotiate a secret truce between Alliance and Independent, so that they could both take on Shan Yu’s genocidal Tigers.
What emerged from there was something more like a spy drama than a Firefly tale, as the crew was conscripted into being the Alliance’s undercover strikeforce, breaking into Shan Yu’s secret police headquarters, fighting huge space battles, engaging inv ritual reality simulations of a Shan Yu victory, and trying to maintain the fragile peace with the Independents. In that, they were helped by Donald Mason, who might be my favourite NPC ever: a sad sack junior officer of Alliance military intelligence, who first passed himself off as a mysterious Colonel to get the crew to do things for him, and then found himself stumbling up the chain of command when the war came. This was much to the crews’ annoyance, as I played Mason up as a kind of lovable boob for most of the time, playing at being the dashing hero while being anything but.
Things came to a raging climax with the Battle of Eavesdown, when the Alliance and the Independents fought a gigantic brawl with invading Tigers on Persephone, with the crew right in the thick of it. The big space battle I had tried out earlier in the campaign was a bit of a bust, the intended experience lost amid trying to figure out the right kind of ship based combat rules. This ground based one was a bit better, and I hope I was able to capture a bit of the grandeur I was going for.
The good guys won, but they still had to take care of Shan Yu and his super-ship, accomplished by a daring commando raid and the sacrifice of one of the player characters (the player having left the campaign for work related reasons). One nuke in the engine later, and the Sun Tzu was burning up in orbit.
All that was left was for the final terrible confrontation with Shan Yu himself. That finale session has one of my favourite RPG moments, when one player had a samurai duel with Shan Yu’s head goon that I had been planning for ages. Only, it didn’t quite work out: said player botched his first dodge roll just as the bad guy aced his attack, and so had his spinal cord severed. Said bad guy died in a hail of crew generated gunfire, and the now paralysed samurai six-shooter found himself spending the rest of the assault on Shan Yu’s palace in a wheelchair…for around five minutes, before being sliced in half by minigun fire.
Shan Yu went down in a blaze of glory and the war come to a close, the crew heroes. But then the Independents launched a sneak attack on the Alliance the day after, and everything started up again. Quite the cliffhanger, if I do say so myself.
While I throw up my hands and say that Big Damn (Anti) Heroes wasn’t my most original work, it was still easily my favourite campaign. Everything just seemed to come together really well: the fun in the sessions, the intricacy of the plot and the big moments that popped in just the right way. If there were three things that I can say I learned, they would be:
-If the players are enjoying themselves in a session, even if it’s just with stupid jokes and poking holes in things, even the most far out plot can be excused.
-Eventually, you got to go big or go home when it comes to your plots: at least once you should try a galaxy spanning, universe altering narrative, because it can be immensely liberating, and fun, to do so.
-There are few greater joys in GMing then creating an NPC you love and getting to act out his evolution as time goes by. Donald Mason would return.
The third part of what my players generously described as the “Dave-verse” was yet to come, when I really went to to town on the ‘verse I had already messed up.