Sea Dogs, Chapter II:V, GM Debrief

GM Confidence: 3.75/5. Honestly, this session went relatively well, overall, but it began to unravel a bit in the last hour or so, and ended on a bit of an off note (to me, at least). Those nagging postgame regrets prevent me from calling this session entirely “good.”

Continued from last session

This session was, in essence, a continuation of the previous. The narrative plan for Havana had been mostly sorted out some weeks ago, and I was just running through what I had left over. The things that worked well in the previous session continued to work well: The “narrative vs mechanics” separation being the most important. There was a bit of commerce in there, which went relatively painlessly, now that some SOPs have been established (or re-established).

One point-of-interest in the “good” category is the use of the “Romance” stuff from Social Engineering for Payne’s “Lady Amira” narrative. Specifically, this came up as part of the “day 3” segment at her father’s townhouse, where Payne had to decide whether to continue/advance the relationship or not. Mechanically, it fell to the “Building Trust” and “Courtship” subsections (SE40), rather than the earlier subsection on “Romance” (SE28) that pertains to “short-term” operations. I sorted out all the mods beforehand, and his roll would be heavily penalized for a number of factors. But he rolled a 4 anyway, on a skill for he was already master-level. On her Will roll to resist, I allowed him to use Luck against her, and one of those rolls did legitimately fail. His success and her failure meant she “accepted”—if he were proposing marriage, she would have agreed. Her Loyalty, as a result, at 1d6 + 15, ended up a 20. It couldn’t have gone better, for him. This is outside the fact that, given her deception (the details of which have not yet been revealed), she would have appeared to agree, regardless of the results. Ultimately, this will have lasting effects, as the player has decided to take her as an Ally+Dependent.

A point-of-interest in the “moderate” category is an issue with Spenser’s Secret (He was a mental patient in Bedlam), which had fired for this session. The disadvantage to the Disadvantage ( 😛 ) is in having to actively suppress or prevent the discovery of the Secret, and the conversion of that Secret to some other undesirable condition should that attempt fail. Unfortunately, the end result of the other PCs discovering his secret probably wouldn’t amount to much in the first place—so what if he was crazy before?—and in the instance where I was finally able to work it in (via his Absent-Minded trait), there ended up being far fewer PCs present to react to its revelation, and the one that was present blew it off as “ramblings,” so there was really nothing for the player to do about it. Although I consider the failure a minor one, it is a failure on multiple points: the consequences of the revelation of Spenser’s Secret are not really “dire” enough to qualify (which I had never fully processed until now), and I failed to present a situation where its revelation had the necessary impact. It’s too bad, as the last time it fired (on St. Kitts, in S1E09), the response was quite amusing, and appropriate. So, who’s to blame here?—ultimately, the GM will always be, in such cases. In the meantime, the player and I have discussed some potential rewiring of this element of his character.

A point-of-interest in the “not so good” category falls under some old advice I typically give and/or follow—”know your players.” In the case of Rogers’ (new) player, I’m finding I don’t really know him very well, and I have done a poor job of predicting his role-playing behavior patterns. I keep expecting him to get help from the other PCs, and then he doesn’t—I’m getting wise to this one. I failed to properly motivate him to help Rodney recover his “treasure”—but I knew this might be a problem beforehand. He has taken some surprisingly “reserved” approaches to situations where I’m used to players being overly aggressive—something it took me years to learn to expect. A good deal of the session’s unraveling toward the end was, directly or indirectly, the result of decisions he made for which I wasn’t quite prepared. Some of those decisions resulted in events getting pushed down the timeline, or not occurring at all, throwing off the timing and causing the session to end in a weird spot. Of course, I don’t consider this “bad behavior” on the player’s part, just a typical challenge the GM has to overcome.

After-the-Fact Epiphany

Too late, inevitably, I keep thinking of ways I could have made situations more dynamic and interesting. I should have had the Havana authorities on a city-wide manhunt for a British spy before the PCs got there. At the spy-tavern, I should have had some high-ranking Spanish officer start talking to Rogers like he knew him, or maybe recognize him as British and harass him a bit. I should have had someone either competing with Sir Randel for “Amira’s” attention or actively trying to expose her as a fraud—there was a little at first, with the drunk nobleman, which I could have expanded upon a little more. Maybe next time.

Miscellaneous

  • This was week three absent Davino’s player. He should be back for the next one.
  • Apparently, after the session, I found out that Madame Cassandra never actually told Spenser to not trust Damian Rush, because the player never asked her about him—but I did have it in my notes. Oops 😛
  • Spenser never ended up asking anyone about the “crazy man” in the square because he didn’t want to hog the spotlight, which is too bad, because the answers to those questions might have revealed a little more about WTF that was all about
  • The session, again, didn’t end where I expected, and as a result, the cliffhanger was a bit “meh”—and the session a bit short
  • Next session is going to be another sailing segment; I have to apply some lessons learned from session 3, and break up the crunchy bits a little better

Sea Dogs, Chapter II:IV, GM Debrief

GM Confidence: 4.25/5. I felt a lot better about this session, compared to the ones that preceded it. We finally got past the “crunchy outer shell” into the “meat” of the campaign, and it showed. Not perfect, but much improved.

24 Hours Earlier…

As a response to some grumbling over the excessive crunchiness last week, I decided to establish some personal Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) during the week for the PCs, specifically with regard to things like what they do to unwind at port, and where they’ll be spending the night. The purpose: by establishing this information, I don’t have to waste time asking the question during the game, especially for something so repetitive and, seemingly, unimportant (though the information can certainly become important). Unfortunately, as has always been the case, participation was not 100%, so I suppose this will have to be part of an ongoing effort. As a result, though, it became clear to me that it can be a difficult question to answer, and might benefit from a “multiple choice list” of suggestions—very much like my Activities In Town list, which serves a similar purpose. But then I need to create a list…

I had to wrap things up quickly last time, and Rogers’ player’s decisions resulted in advancing to the next day before we had even dealt with the first, so a “rewind” was inevitable. (I hate the “24 Hours Earlier…” trope, generally.) Therefore, we started the session by finishing up the crunchy bits from last week. Fortunately it didn’t take too long. One benefit to the early cutoff, however, was that I had all week to weave the search-roll results and whatnot into the narrative. I decided I want to make that the norm from now on, and pre-roll as much of that sort of thing as possible, allowing us to get to the good part sooner. In this case, it worked out nicely.

It is of some interest to me that, lately, I find myself “backing out” of mechanics I had previously determined to use—case-in-point: my intention to use the “Actual Price” tables to randomize currency conversion rates, which, in the moment, I decided to throw out. I usually like crunchy mechanics, but it felt like too much when it came time to execute—you need to sense when you’re about to cross the un-fun boundary, and be able to stop yourself.

Never Split the Party

Havana is a (in this context) big city, and I want it to feel big. Everybody had something to do, and (mostly) they all split off to do whatever-it-is on their own. I would usually advise against having the PCs split up like this, but there are cases like this where it is inevitable. When you do so, it becomes, primarily, about “time management”: you mustn’t linger too long on any one character’s perspective at the expense of the others. I think I did alright, here, but there were still some elements that needed to be broken into smaller chunks. The average ended up around fifteen minutes, which isn’t too bad.

Incidentally, during the week, I realized some of the characters didn’t really have anything going on for this or that reason, so I ended up reassigning some things, to make sure they all had their own plot-thread. In one case, an event got (partially) reassigned to another character, and in another, events intended for a later part of the adventure got moved up. It all worked out, though.

Social Engineering

This session was all about the social encounters, and I got to make full(er) use of some elements of GURPS Social Engineering I hadn’t before—specifically, the “Search” (“for an individual,” “for information,” “for a government office,” etc.). While I’ve grown more accustomed to the mechanics therein, I still feel like I don’t have a fully-functional understanding of how best to use them. That is, behind-the-scenes, at least, social encounters still often feel a bit clunky to me. It’s something about how the die-rolls and modifiers translate to a narrative-in-miniature, I think. I’m still not satisfied with this.

Regarding the “Search,” though: It might be of interest to other GMs what I did here. The book says that the GM should make the search rolls in secret—which I (effectively) did—but rather than a binary go/no-go, I applied what I call the “Take the Clock” concept—that is, failure just takes longer, according to the Time Spent mechanics (B346). The effect is that the player doesn’t know how long it will actually take to find what they’re looking for, and they may assume failure and leave before it happens, or decide “maybe just one more day…”

Set Pieces

There are a lot of player elements—Enemy, Treasure Map, etc.—firing off here in Havana. But the primary impetus for the PCs’ arrival here is Rogers’ search for Pickford Rodney, the first step in finding his Treasure. I planned for the situation at the graveyard to be a combat encounter, or chase, or possibly be short-circuited by some social shenaniganry. I really didn’t expect the combination of Rogers, Spenser and Dora, though. The Chase itself dragged on a little—I think the images were helpful, but I needed a little more “tactical” variety there to make it interesting. It might be useful for the future to think of particular advantages one party might have over the other, and provide opportunities to showcase them along the way. I’ll admit the ending was a bit of an ass-pull to keep the Chase from going on indefinitely.

The introduction of Lady Amira Mercedes de Luna is a big element, too, but I won’t go into detail on it just yet, not until it’s played out. I put a lot of thought into getting this one “just right.” As it happens, though, I really hadn’t delved into the “high society” stuff before, for which Payne is especially fitted-out, and this was a perfect chance to fix that.

Both of these will probably wrap next week, if not bleed a little into the week after. I’m definitely looking forward to it.

Miscellaneous

  • This was week two absent Davino’s player. He’ll be out one more (at least.)
  • I found it amusing that the bookish Spenser was paired with Rogers to go pub-crawling, looking for Rodney, while Sir Randel was paired with Captain Hayden to comb through boring naval records. Not sure how that happened 😛
  • There is remarkably little I could find regarding Treasure Fleet voyages (that didn’t end in catastrophe), but I did find some stuff about a fellow called Gemelli Careri, who traveled with the Fleet in the 1690s, and wrote about his experience—very helpful. I also found some records regarding the South Sea Company “annual ships,” through which I was able to determine that the Fleet did in fact sail in 1725, though I had to extrapolate some of the specifics. The arrival at Havana and departure of the South Sea Company ship, Elizabeth, is historical, though. The Fleet does not sail in 1726, however, due to war with Britain.
  • The random crew events were the result of tarot card draws. There was also the “crash” event at the docks as a result of tarot, which I should have made into something the PCs needed to actually do—decision, die-roll, or whatever. Oh, well.
  • There was some grumbling from (one of) the players about the (in)Stability gained from the voyage at sea. Though I don’t entirely agree with the grumbling, some valid argument was made. But actually, I had already decided that the gaining of Long-Term Stability Points as rolled up on their last stint at sea might have been a bit much. So, I took the opportunity to rethink it a little, and there will be some adjustment for next time.

Sea Dogs, Chapter II:III, GM Debrief

GM Confidence: 3.75/5. I felt pretty bad about this one immediately after it was over, but when I rewatched the stream the next day (while adding the chapters in Youtube), I decided it wasn’t quite that bad. It actually got off to a decent start, and then started to unravel for me in the last 30-45 minutes. Having two weeks off (for various absences) both helped and hurt: I had plenty of extra prep time, but lacked any “earned” momentum.

Improvements over last time

There were some missteps in the previous session, which I discussed previously. I took corrective measures. For starters, I rearranged my notes, and added colors and redundant references that reduced the need to scroll around the document, and made it easier to keep my bearings when I had to scroll anyway. This worked pretty well, though I’m sure it will improve—there is a noticeable “evolution” in the arrangement of my GM notes over the years.

To combat the problem of the “interrupted narrative” problem I previously identified, I decided to try something new(ish): breaking out and front-loading the mechanics—all the die-rolling and modifiers, and critical decisions, etc.— to get them “out of the way” ahead of the narrative segment, which should then flow together, ideally, incorporating the results. This actually felt pretty good to me, through the sailing parts, at least—better than the past attempts. (But read on for the “bad.”)

I completely revamped (actually a third time) the travel/navigation spreadsheet I was using, and all that blood, sweat, and voluminous cursing did pay off. It was easy for me to use and modify on-the-fly. Unfortunately, it was also the source of the first big failure of the night: I had assumed that any sensible sailors would shorten sail to slow down through the Great Bahama Bank, so as not to risk running aground, so that’s how I set up the spreadsheet. I never asked myself the necessary “what if they’re not sensible?” question, and at least investigated how that would change the situation. There was a ripple-effect to that failure, though it was easily corrected, for the most part. The second failure was realizing, too late in the process, that I had been applying the modifiers for the PCs’ in-game performance in reverse—I forgot to add the “minus” (-) to their daily mileage total, so it actually increased instead of decreased. Oops. I’ll get it right next time.

The Chase

There’s not much to tell, really, except that (a) it was the first time they’ve gotten a proper (sea) Chase, and (b) it went about like I expected. For whatever reason, I didn’t include the extended Range Bands, and I really should have—I’ll fix that for next time. I did have a plan for their possible failure, though I didn’t really expect that to include ship-to-ship combat, if needed at all. I wanted to give them a good scare, not sink the whole campaign right there.

Because I had front-loaded the crunchy bits, I could work the Chase into the narrative without much fuss. That actually felt pretty good, too.

The real problem came later, when I realized that the PCs’ brazen full-sail charge across the shoals meant this event actually shouldn’t have occurred before they exited the shoals, but some time afterward. This would have changed the conditions quite a bit. With the Chase ending at sundown, there was no way to move it “temporally,” and as exiting through the reefs in the middle of the chase was not something I had considered in advance, I really didn’t have a quick fix for it. Ultimately, the geography was ambiguous enough that, at the time, it wasn’t so noticeable to the players without it being pointed out—unless they read this, they may never know—but I consider it “bad GMing” to rely on the fog-of-play(?) to hide the seams.

The Unraveling

For starters, the failure with the navigation plan resulted in the PCs’ arrival ahead of schedule—by a full day. This screwed up planned events. This screwed up the weather conditions. Not an insurmountable problem, but I did have to take a break to process all the consequences. Also, it was later in the session than I had expected—pacing failure, again. The arrival went well enough on its own, though.

Then we started getting into the now front-loaded crunchy bits of entering port and getting about their expected business. Things got out of order. And it took too long. And it was confusing. And it was kinda boring—even I, who usually like this sort of thing, really just wanted to get on with it. And I found issues with the situations I had planned there as we were navigating them. And then Rogers’ player had to leave in fifteen minutes, and I really needed to interrupt the process to wrap things up in time. Ultimately, it ended on one of the cliffhangers I really wanted to use, but not in the way I wanted, and it felt rushed and weird.

I’m not sure how this could have been handled any better, given the situation. But I do have some ideas to make things run a bit more smoothly in the future, that I will undoubtedly discuss next time.

Miscellaneous

  • I almost tossed out the Pyramid 3/103 Setbacks “Mad as Bones” concept before this season started as it wasn’t amounting to much in the previous one. But I only just now realized how I’d misunderstood it, due to some problematic editing/writing of the article. Now that I’ve corrected, it may end up needing some fine-tuning—I may end up giving everyone a bonus to resist gaining Long-Term Stability Points during the voyage, or maybe change how often they accrue, depending on how it goes.
  • Davino’s player announced he would be missing this session a bit late in the week, and I now know he will miss at least two more. So, anything I had in mind for that character will have to be put off. Such is the unfortunate lot of the GM.
  • I put off creating any sort of random tables for generating age-of-sail ship malfunctions due to its being a large and complicated task, but it’s clear that was a mistake: it requires far too much mental processing to come up with something “truly suitable on-the-fly. But the most common hull problem, to my knowledge, is a “leak,” so I copped-out and went with that in the heat-of-the-moment. It might have been more interesting if they weren’t just pulling into port at that moment (like they were meant to 😛 )
  • The mystery-ship was, in fact, a guardacosta, the San Antonio y Animas of Havana, Cpt. Bartolomé Diaz; a 45 ton sloop of six guns (plus a bunch of swivel guns) and a crew of 20 or so. It would have been a tough fight, if the PCs had given one, and they would undoubtedly have lost men in the process.
  • The Old Man’s “riddle” is taken directly from the TV series 12 Monkeys, first introduced in S1E6 “Red Forest”—I always really liked it, and had been looking for a good place to use it. I almost used it for Spenser instead, but Claude seemed to fit a little better.

Sea Dogs, Chapter II:II, GM Debrief

GM Confidence: 3/5. Once again, after a solid first session, the second session that followed was frustratingly sloppy, from my perspective, at least. I felt kinda dirty afterward. As with the previous session-2, maybe the players didn’t really notice…

The Bounty hunter

We got off to a good enough start. Mel got to tell her story. As soon as I started on wrapping up the bounty hunter story, I started to realize how I’d forgotten to really process the situation, having, instead, focused entirely on other, farther-out issues.

I had not actually worked out what item Friendly might have had of Matthew’s, except a passing thought about the letters—I had meant to come up with something a little more dramatic. I had not fully processed how Mikkel should interact with the people/situation, and how he might start to break down a little upon discovery of his runestones being missing. I had also meant for the local townies to make a bit of a fuss over the kidnapping, and completely missed that—more on that note, later. I didn’t really process Friendly’s reactions, either. Overall, “it happened.” It wasn’t terrible, it just could/should have been a little more.

The Interrogation

Just like in the Season 1 Episode 2, I had planned to interrupt an ongoing complex process (the PCs’ shore business) with an “event,” and just like the previous, it screwed up the narrative flow. In retrospect, I think it would have made more sense to go ahead and get the business die-rolling out of the way, and better establish who was where before interrupting, but I had made the stupid mistake of assuming everyone would be in one place—which could easily have occurred if the event had happened before everyone broke off, but in the heat of the moment, I couldn’t course-correct for some reason.

As to the interrogation itself: I decided to roll Reaction for Lt. Brace’s “baseline” and rolled high: 14 (which I lowered by two, ultimately). It caused a little cognitive-dissonance with my prior imagining of the scene, and I didn’t fully process what these results should look like, before the game. I should certainly know better by now, but I also did not make any plans for what might happen if one of the PCs were to fail, much less deliberately antagonize him. (Rogers’ behavior appears to have been somewhat of a misunderstanding, but that’s another matter.) I also didn’t think too hard about his line-of-questioning, which could have been a lot more challenging and sensible—other than “What’s your side of the story?” and “That’s good enough for me!” I could kinda feel the whole thing tilting off-balance as we progressed through it. There are so many good resources for this sort of situation, and I used none of them.

One thing I realized after the game was that I should have had some “cumulative” effect for everyone’s level of success or failure that would result in a “final tally” of guilt or innocence. But then “guilty” wasn’t really an option here, and it should have been. For shame. That’s just bad GMing. Never, ever do that.

Another thing I realized after the session was over was that, once again, I had a situation where the players weren’t asking the questions I expected them to, and once again, I find myself wondering what is the right way to coax those questions out of them? There’s no way to say, “So, are you going to ask Lt. Brace the identity of your accuser?” without giving away that it is important information, or essentially, “playing their character for them,” which is always bad form. Every time I consider it, I feel myself drifting away from GMing “propriety” toward “pragmatism”—just give them a list of knowns and unknowns beforehand so they don’t forget. Maybe next time. In this case, I’m going to have to do a little cleanup next time.

Shore Business

When it came to wrapping things up ashore, I quickly found that my notes were badly ordered, parts missing, mechanics either not fleshed out or not recorded in their final incarnation, etc. There were big chunks of my rules on Speculative Cargo missing. I kept having to scroll miles up and down my notes to get to that other thing I needed. I desperately needed to do a thorough read-through, to grasp the narrative flow, and find the gaps in my information to-hand. It could’ve been worse, though.

I had a bunch of character stuff planned, for crew ashore and whatnot, that I just skipped completely past, for no reason I can think of, except that those notes weren’t where they needed to be in the flow. There was a whole thing about pineapple being a cash-crop on Eleuthera that the PCs might have been interested in; completely missed. I really wanted to do more with Friendly; just dropped away. The townies were supposed to be trying to get to the bottom of the kidnapping, and I wanted to force the PCs to answer for his release (or lie about it).

Some of my issues with the above stemmed from a small amount of “panic” regarding the PCs’ decision to cut things short. I hadn’t planned for them to leave in the evening of the 13th. Not at all. I was far too lenient in twisting conditions to allow it to actually happen—maybe, in some way, I was afraid that if they were delayed after dark, they would attempt it anyway, and I didn’t have a plan for it. I also had specific routes worked out that did not include things like “stopping in Nassau for any reason”—I could’ve managed with that, I think, but I found myself “steering” the players a bit. Once again, bad form.

Pacing

My pacing expectations for this campaign—early, though it is—has been a bit off. I expected them to be at Havana at the beginning of this session. I expected them to be at Havana at the end of this session, too. I’m not sure where I went wrong; not yet, anyway. I expect this to improve as we go, though. It did result in an awkward ending/cliffhanger, which I hate. Such is life.

Miscellaneous

  • I did a lot of spreadsheet cleanup over the week. This needed to happen, but it did take time away from the other stuff, and that didn’t help matters.
  • I realized afterward that, with regard to Area Knowledge, it might benefit from using a “Group Roll” rather than individual—since everyone will normally be communicating, and can pool their knowledge. There are probably some other instances of this I can use. (I may discuss the concept in a later post.)
  • When the PCs were departing, I pointed them to the wrong island for where the Hazard was anchored. It was much farther north. Not sure why I got that wrong.
  • After the session, I discovered a number of things in (or adjacent to) Social Engineering. The big ones are using Savoir-Faire to “impress one’s status on another,” and that to get the Reaction bonus for Talent, one must be observed using a skill covered by the Talent.
  • Mikkel “the Hound” Skaarup not only lives, and is still “in play,” but is actively looking for Hayden’s son, now, as well. I look forward to bring him in again later.
  • Regarding “Handsome” Ned Long: I finally figured out what’s going on with him. It’s gonna be fun to reveal this one. 😉

Sea Dogs, Chapter II:I, GM Debrief

GM Confidence: 4.5/5. I’m finally back at this one, only two years later than originally predicted. 😛 Despite the usual pre-run jitters, I felt pretty good about this one. I honestly can’t think of anything in particular that went “wrong” in this session, with an admittedly-minor exception.

What’s New

The most drastic change for Season 2 is that I’m now using Fantasy Grounds Unity. I’ve been playing it for quite a while now, but this was my first time running. I’ve gotten used to the quirks, and I still have a problem with some of the changes, all of which made me reluctant to switch. Anyway, I spent some time getting proficient with the new features, and I plan on getting the most out of them. In this session, the combat was certainly enhanced by the lighting features, at least.

The second biggest change is that, once again, I have a couple of PCs with new players: Claudia and Rogers. Claudia was only played once by her original player. Her storyline lapsed during her tenure as NPC, and I’m getting her caught up. Also, Mel has already started writing some prose to flesh out her background. Regarding Buck, I feel that Nosh is a pretty good replacement for his original player, but I’ve also not run with him before, so there’s some uncertainty there. But these aren’t “worries” for me—I expect good things.

Outside of those changes, I mostly just picked up where I left off. I had a long run-up from my initial announcement to the start of the campaign run (including some delays), which gave me plenty of time to research. I managed to get some answers to some questions that had nagged me throughout the previous run—things like the dollar-amount of import/export tariffs, the nature of smuggling, pilotage costs and operations, etc.—and I made more improvements to the spreadsheets (and discovered yet more that were needed).

The Fight

Kicking off with a fight is a great way to let everyone get acclimated. The combat in this session was a set-piece that had, ultimately, been in the works since the end of the previous run. It’s always worrying to me when I find myself stacking the deck against the PCs so strongly. The weather conditions and such were the result of the real-world weather I’ve been using, as was the “new moon”—that is, not something I had deliberately decided to inflict upon the characters. I struggled a bit with how the PCs would actually arrive at the proper location, much less be able to conduct the rescue at all in those conditions, but I obviously found a way. I made certain to spell out all the adverse conditions in much detail well prior to the engagement, so the players had time to fully process and come to terms with them. It didn’t make sense for the bad guys to have a small (PCs-sized) crew, but turning half of them into “non-combatants” kept that from turning into a disaster.

The scenario made a good showcase of some of the new FGU features, and I feel like the novelty of it may have helped make the combat “fun,” rather than tedious. It lasted for a little over an hour; roughly what I had anticipated. I didn’t think about the “Bad Footing” for the beach sand until the last minute, and as such, I held back on enforcing it, having not fully established that condition beforehand—players don’t like that sort of “surprise,” I’ve found. It was similarly late in the process when I remembered Disasters – Hurricane as a source, so I didn’t have time to wrap my head around those mechanics. But I think we all had fun with the results.

The Prisoner

It was the previous run of this campaign where I had identified a problem I had with managing social interactions, and had begun figuring out a solution. Here I made use of the latest iteration: the “Lock & Key”—identifying factors or lines-of-questioning/approach that will cause the NPC to open-up or shut-down. In the case of the county hunter, both were “control”—as long as he feels he can complete his mission, whatever the detour, he will hold fast (bonus to resist Influence); if he feels he is losing control of the situation, he would begin to lose control of himself (penalty to resist Influence). In practice, it seemed to work, but I don’t think the players really pushed the limits. I should have come up with some specific success/fail responses for him beforehand, though, instead of improvising. That said, my “big fail” of the session was not actually knowing the circumstances of the delivery of his prize—a dumb mistake on my part. So I had to come up with something plausible on-the-fly. If I change my mind later: maybe he was lying? 😛 Regardless, this segment took more time than I had anticipated, and is probably the main reason I ended up, story-wise, coming up shorter for the session than I had intended (aside from the delayed start).

Miscellaneous

  • I completely forgot to hand out Bennies at the start. I’ll have to make up for that next time.
  • Post Season 1 research uncovered a lot of little “errors” I needed to correct at the beginning of the session. The good part: The time taken to issue the corrections gave me some time to ease in behind-the-screen.
  • I had actually not prepared for the PCs to end up getting lost or going the entirely wrong direction—another dumb mistake. Always ask yourself: What’s the worst logical result of player involvement, and be prepared for it. 😉
  • I was particularly happy with how all the PCs managed to find a little way to “contribute” during the fight, even if it wasn’t dealing damage, that served to highlight their characters’…character.
  • Hayden’s “commission” of the bounty hunter in his own search was a complete surprise to me—the idea had never occurred to me at all—but I can certainly make use of it!
  • I was fortunate the players didn’t settle on some of their other ideas about what to do with the bounty hunter—there were quite a few I hadn’t even considered (and probably should have).

On top of everything else, I have to get used to writing these things again… 😛

Sea Dogs: Treasure Maps

Work on Sea Dogs season two continues, still with the expectation of running it after New Year’s. In the meantime, I thought I would discuss a mechanic I’m using in this campaign, which might be of use to someone out there.

When I started work on this campaign, I decided I wanted it to be a more player-driven sandbox than its predecessors. To that end, I denied the players the use of things like Patrons, so they would have no “NPC Authority Figure” whose orders they follow without question (as is generally the like-it-or-not case). But then, how do you motivate the characters to some end without such a reliable source of direction? My solution, in this case: “Treasure Maps.”

What’s All This, Then?

The idea is that each player would define a “treasure” he is attempting to find—though this treasure would not necessarily be “silver and gold,” but could be anything. In fact, I encouraged them to each come up with something unique among the group. I was really happy with the results, summarized here:

  • Artegal Spenser is looking for the means to free his wife from a fairy-prince, and knew to look for a “witch” in Port-de-Paix.
  • Claudia Lucroy has a small golden Skull she had stolen, that would lead to “something valuable”—I already had something in mind for this. It causes weird dreams of another Skull, and a “pull” in what is presumed to be its companion’s direction.
  • Davino Palange has The Gun™—in his case, he already possesses the “treasure,” and the conflict would come looking for him instead, though he had a clue regarding the former owner in Barbados, that leads to more information.
  • John Hayden is looking for his recently-discovered son, with the name of a ship he had served on, and the whereabouts of the lad’s good friend who might know where he went.
  • Sir Randel Payne had knowledge of a couple of items that would lead him to a “Treasury,” hidden by Captain Morgan near Campeche, and a journal containing more clues.
  • William “Buck” Rogers has a painting that he knows to be a map of the Amazon River, pointing to the location of something of great value, along with the name of the thief that stole it—it’s an actual treasure map

Many of these are in some stage of progress/completion as of the end of season one.

The Setup

After the players did their part, I decided to give each of these objectives three “steps” to completion (or thereabouts), and worked out what/who/where those steps would be—I tried to spread the locations around the Caribbean. (Many of these steps are unknown to the players until they find clues.) Using Payne’s example, being the most complete at the time of this writing: his step-one was to dive for the Coin at Port Royal; step-two was to find the Compass at Île-à-Vache; and step-three is getting to Campeche to put it to use, with guidance from his research of the journal. Three steps times six characters equals eighteen potential destinations with related events. That, combined with the other potential events occurring in between, including Enemies’ appearance, Secrets, and the like, amounted to plenty of campaign content. I left it up to the players, when the characters planned their expedition in-game, to decide in what order the steps would be addressed—I offered no guidance in that regard.

Behind the Scenes

Firstly, I decided to treat each Treasure Map like a Secret: I gave it a 6 on 3d6 roll per session, success indicating that some “related” event occurs. In many cases, this would be something the character experienced and had to deal with, but in others, it would be something occurring behind-the-scenes—the bad guys make a move, travel, a witness dies, something is exposed off-screen, or whatnot. I made a bullet-list of such events for each Treasure Map thread. In season one, I used this roll exclusively to determine when things happened, but in season two, I have many events (as made sense) actually scheduled to occur on a certain date (so they can be “missed”). It has been the case in the past that, with Secrets, that roll of 3d6 might never succeed during a given campaign run, so I decided to increment the target number by one for each failed activation—this way, it’s guaranteed to fire at least once during a twelve-session run.

Secondly, I gave each Treasure Map an antagonist: someone also seeking that treasure, for their own reasons and by their own means. Each of these characters are more powerful than the associated PC, and have their own organizations under their control, and their own agenda they are pursuing (whether or not the PC has anything to do with it—in most cases, they don’t). All these bad guys are “tied together at the top” to form the campaign’s “conspyramid” (see Night’s Black Agents). Their activities are worked into the Treasure Map event bullet-points, mentioned above, and make up a considerable portion of the behind-the-scenes ongoing content that will be revealed as the campaign progresses.

The End Results

Once a PC has completed all the steps and found the treasure…well, we haven’t gotten there yet. Obviously, they’re going to be more wealthy (or whatever), but since the players decided to take each one in turn, the first to complete will lack that motivating factor for the rest of the campaign, without some sort of continuation—and that’s generally covered by the individual antagonists, who will undoubtedly continue to pursue. I had originally expected that each season of the campaign would feature the completion of one of these goals, but (a) the first season ended before the first goal was reached, and (b) the characters’ itinerary has them completing many of their steps in parallel, for the most part. I expect Payne’s will complete in season two, so I guess we’ll see how that goes.

Table News, 3 Aug 22

The ever-changing sea…

The Knight City campaign wasn’t making as much headway as I had hoped. So I shifted over to Inception, for which I had more work already done, and really want to run someday. On the side, I asked around about what (Olympus/Sat.) players would rather I run, and a plurality of them suggested Sea Dogs—actually, it was more-or-less unanimous. My brain wasn’t really headed that direction, though—it’s been a long time since I’ve connected with that campaign. So I decided to start going through the Youtube recordings and adding the “chapters,” thereby watching/listening to the entire run (at 2× speed anyway), and see if that triggers a connection again. It’s taken a lot of time, for obvious reasons. I’m almost done, at this point, and at least, I’m certainly remembering all the things I enjoyed about that campaign. I’ll probably make the switchover official, soon. But I’m not sure if my current non-game workload will accommodate the tons of research required. I guess we’ll see.

As a side note: I’m also reviewing all the GM After-Action Reports here, and I’m amused by all the lessons I’ve learned during the course of the campaign, that I learned again “for the first time” in subsequent campaigns, without realizing it. 😛

Table News, 1 Jun 22

Obviously, I haven’t had much to say in a while. But I’m still here anyway.

Post-Generica, I made an honest, good-faith attempt at getting Diversion I going—the PbP Ser Kenrick-focused “house-knight” storyline. But life & stuff just kept getting in the way until it all just fizzled. I did a lot of work on it, though. I still intend to get back to it at some point, but I couldn’t say when.

In the meantime, I’ve gone back to working on the Knight City Chronicles Supers campaign stuff, due to a comment on the YouTube channel. Like Generica, this isn’t strictly a part of the Daniverse, so it doesn’t “technically” belong here—not that I care so much about that.

But there is something worth noting, that, while not a true part of the proper Daniverse either, is “spiritually descended” from it. That is, Rigil Kent is going to start his GURPS Monster Hunters campaign, which features as its sole location, the fictional town of Apocalypse, NM, making it a more-or-less continuation of my Apocalypse campaign from 1998, taking place instead within his Red Sky/Dresden Files world. This is similar to his last Core Group campaign, The Verge, which technically is an official part of the Daniverse, though not run by me. Anyway, Apocalypse really did deserve another chance, and I’m glad it’s getting one.

FGLE Chapter II, GM Retrospective

GM Confidence: I averaged 4.31/5 for the run, and that’s pretty close to my overall feeling—maybe 4.5. It was definitely a good run, and an improvement over last time, even if I didn’t quite avoid all of the old mistakes. What a difference four years makes! This was my second full-length (12 sessions) run for Olympus, and the first “sequel.”

Overview

See the introduction for reference.

This chapter ended up as a linear collection of self-contained episodes revolving (in the background) around Harmin of Grudgehold’s overly-elaborate revenge plot against the Heroes’ Guild. I tried to keep things simple—not trying to fool anyone with clever twists—working in all the fairy-tale and fantasy tropes I could.

Sounding-board

In summary: Shelley (LabRat), from our Friday face-to-face group, created the character that I ripped-off for Rayna. Since Rayna had become an NPC, as a result of the player leaving the Olympus group, I gave Shelley “control” of Rayna and started working with her on The Guffin Hall Job, while I was working on the details on the run-up to the start of the campaign. She “accidentally” became an essential part of the GMing process.

Having someone with whom you can discuss the details, who isn’t playing in the game, is a big help—especially if they don’t think like you. I’ve made attempts at finding a proper “sounding-board” before, but this was the first time it actually worked out, and I highly recommend it.

Other changes from Chapter I

  • The “new players for old characters” has been discussed before. That went well enough, though I decided afterward that, due to the players’ personality differences, I probably should have swapped the two. Both of them have said they will end up playing new characters in the next Chapter. Murdok will return to Dwarfmount to try to clear his brother’s name. Dustan is going to leave the Wizards’ Guild, though he may hang around as an NPC.
  • Chapter I didn’t benefit from my later epiphany regarding campaign “Theme.” I supported the “Fame and Fortune” Theme in Chapter II with all the Bad Guys using the “Great fame and wealth unimaginable” catchphrase, and the gradual increase in the PCs’ reputation and visibility, though I feel like I could have brought the “good or bad thing?” question into better focus. The secondary theme of “Family™” was an accident stemming from the PCs’ backgrounds; I didn’t intentionally push that one, but it did come up now and again on its own.
  • As a group, we had stopped using “general purpose” Plot Points for a while now, for reasons. I kept the “special purpose” ones, though: we used Preparation Points quite a lot, and occasionally, Tactics. In place of the GP points, I continued the more-recent use of Bennies, which had been working out pretty well.

Details

  • I did the original “skeleton” of the campaign some years prior, and had enough time in the run-up to go through the entire outline and detail each session (more) fully before it started. This is probably the most well-crafted campaign I’ve run so far; unusual, as the last few have been sandboxes, where I had no real long-term plan at all. Behind-the-scenes, that meant I was able to use proper foreshadowing, and work in lore elements and threads I might not have, otherwise, on-the-fly.
  • I also built a spreadsheet-based generator for Crusader Kings 2 “events” that I could work into the narrative, but those stayed in the background.
  • I’ve found that I’ve gotten pretty good at eyeballing the session notes for pacing; every session ended within 20 minutes or so of my target run-time. However, no (or few) cliffhangers makes me sad 😛
  • I used a lot of Skill Challenges (and derivatives) in this run—I tried to do one per session. As a group, we’ve gotten pretty efficient with these, so it didn’t require a great deal of handholding to get through, and tended to go pretty quickly. Best thing to come out of D&D 4e 😛
  • Given the “compressed” nature of the self-contained sessions, I didn’t want to drag out travel segments when it wasn’t really the focus of the campaign. I streamlined the process where I could, applying some of the lessons learned from my other recent campaigns. I think using different images along the way gives a good feel of “progress,” but I also tried to use the same images for areas that were repeated, for familiarity—I can’t speak for the players regarding whether or not that actually worked.
  • I did a number of different alpha-tests of my Action Challenge System throughout the run. They all had some minor issues, but those errors should translate to improvements down the road. I’m actually pretty happy with the progress, there.
  • Even in Chapter I, I tried to push the idea of interesting “components/rituals” for the usual magic spells. In this run, I ended up granting a Benny (usable only on that spell’s effects) for a proper description. This worked out really well in the early part of the run, and I really liked the results. But sadly, its use slacked off over time. I wouldn’t call the concept a “failure” but I need to find a way to promote its use more.
  • I continued using (when I could) the “Lock and Key” method for social encounters—pre-defining topics/approaches that will shut down the opposition or open them up. It still feels functional to me, but it also feels like it needs something. More definition? This will probably be worth its own article down the road, when I’m more comfortable with it.
  • I intentionally avoided any actual “dungeon crawls,” even though they are a fantasy staple. They would take way too long on their own, and moreso when combats occur within them.

Devils

  • I’ve gotten better about not letting my narrative desire—the “want/need” for something to occur in a certain way—drive the plot. I did run afoul of it here and there, but mercifully, it didn’t result in a disaster, as it did in the previous Chapter.
  • It has been pointed out that there was a possibly-excessive amount of the GM speaking, compared to the players, in the course of a session. To some degree, this is a fact-of-life of playing remotely, and I’m not sure there’s an effective remedy, other than to make a focus of leaving enough space for the players to have their say.
  • There was more than one occasion where I had friendly NPCs involved in a combat scene, and didn’t really have a plan for what to do with them. This is another opportunity for “show-not-tell” and lore-building that I really shouldn’t miss, but that’s difficult without preparation—I need to remind myself in the future.
  • I have done a great deal of work on the lore, and the wiki, but there are some key bits I never really fleshed out. Specifically: the “mana versus sanctity” question, or requirements for guild/church advancement. Given those bits involved active PCs, I really don’t have an excuse.

Running gags and themes

  • The “Great fame and wealth unimaginable” catchphrase is the most important running gag, designed specifically to work with the campaign Theme. As previously mentioned, the idea was ripped straight out of The Middleman and similarly employed.
  • By design, all but a few of the episodes started in the Heroes’ Guild tavern the same way: PCs have a pint delivered by Búrli, who either makes fun of Murdok or tries some culinary experiment, before one of the other guild officers delivers the mission, with a second to reinforce the narrative (and show some of the interplay between the officers, and demonstrate their character). Aside from the “start in a tavern” trope, and comedic potential, it served as a solid “get started/into character” moment players could latch onto.
  • The Town Crier was a way to deliver bits of lore and/or useful information about current or future missions. Some of the bits of “news” were drawn from the CK2 events mentioned above. When I didn’t have that, I shamelessly ripped off “herald” lines from Assassin’s Creed 2. If you hadn’t noticed, I observed the Rule of Three, both with the number of news items and number of regular heralds.
  • The original plan was for a running gag of people saying “Company of the Bere…Never heard of you”—which would have worked nicely with the campaign Theme. Not sure why it didn’t happen, exactly, but it was more-or-less replaced with the “Company of the Beer…sorry, Bear” gag. I didn’t think I could get away with continuing the previous “I thought there were more of you…” gag, as much as I liked that one.

To be (ideally) continued

By the end of the run, including several breaks, I didn’t feel so “exhausted” as I usually might, but I was certainly ready to stop. That said, I have already begun the Diversion I play-by-post (sort of) quasi-campaign, which is intended to lead into Chapter III, for which I have a “basic plan” now. I have no idea how long it will last, or how often progress will be posted, but it will appear on the blog when it happens. It’s a good excuse to continue updating the wiki and working on the lore—there’s plenty of that to be done.

There remains the possibility that I might run a separate Generica campaign on Fridays with the face-to-face group, likely revolving around Rayna and Guffin Hall, but I have no specific plans at the moment. And the Generica-based Keep on the Borderlands is still being considered, though I couldn’t guess, at the moment, the likelihood it will see the light of day.

FGLE Chp II:XII, GM Debrief

Session Recap; Stream

GM confidence: 4.5/5. Overall, the finale went pretty well. The new mechanics just needed a bit more polish.

Overall

This session had an intentionally simple structure: the reveal at the guildhall, the fight down the street, and the fight at the end. I managed to work in elements from nearly all the previous sessions—only the “Paladin Escort Job’ was missing, I think; I nearly had Ser Bryton show up, but the idea came to me a bit late. A strong countdown (the vortex) and increasing difficulty kept a pretty good energy level throughout. Narratively, the campaign as a whole was tied off nicely. From this “broad” perspective, the session was really successful, in my opinion.

The Guildhall

Obviously (in hindsight) it didn’t matter if the PCs pulled the trigger on Harmin or not. But I expected either Ser Kenrick or Murdok would be the ones to do so, if it came to it, and that was the case, for honor or expedience, respectively. I had one way to bypass the “rules” in mind, and I was happy that Maykew’s player found it (or near enough); I was in the process of deciding whether or not I might need to prompt someone when it happened. The real trick, here, though, would have been if the PCs had done nothing—that might have been awkward; someone else would have killed Harmin, no doubt, but it would have felt flat. There was a little more “discussion” required here than I might have preferred, though I can’t think of a way to solve that, and I wanted to pad the time a little, at that moment, anyway.

ACS: Combat/Disaster Zone

I tried this the first time in Earthfall. This time I tried to strip it down to only what was necessary. But the mechanics went through many rewrites, up to the last minutes before the game, and I think it showed. I won’t go into great detail here, since I expect to do a full article on the (more) “finished” version in the future.

I started the segment by explaining the rules and conditions, as has been my procedure. But there was so much to explain that I decided, in the moment, to delay some of it until it became immediately relevant—this was a mistake. In retrospect, it’s probably better to let things slow down, and be sure everyone has a full understanding of the mechanics, than to lose energy to players’ confusion (or worse, frustration) in the middle. Lesson learned.

The mechanical basics were sound, and we’ve all gotten proficient with the GURPS Chase stuff and D&D Skill Challenges on which it is based. I made a list of all the Maneuvers and considered how they would work in this situation, but nobody did anything other than “Move” (with the one exception that I had planned for). I laid out the Zones so as to ease the players in, and gradually added more difficulty. I hesitated midway through when it started to look like it might be too difficult, but that turned out to be an anomaly. (And then a day or two later, it sank in that I had missed some other modifiers in their favor anyway.) I replaced the speed and maneuverability “Mobility Advantage” modifiers with “Combat Advantage.” This is the part that got refactored the most, was the most clunky, and also the part that I failed to adequately explain. Aside from the excessive calculations (that should have been done before the game), I encountered an issue unique to playing on a VTT: having to scroll the chat back and forth to gather the necessary info to get those maths done. It didn’t take long after the session before I started to see “better ways” to manage this part.

Other than that, my only real complaint was that, after thinking it might end up being too short, it ended up taking longer than I had anticipated—but not too bad. I thought it felt pretty good, and I got quite a few good data-points for later improvement.

Final Combat

Is this the meat or the potatoes? These guys were intentionally tough on their own, but the environmental factors further limited players’ choices. In spite of that, as usual, the PCs kinda walked all over them. I don’t think I made any real “tactical” errors there, though it might have been better to back up against the vortex and hold there. The PCs (specifically Ser Kenrick) had better mobility, and used it well. I also keep forgetting DB. Also, the dice really screwed me over. It’s too bad we were running too late to keep it going, but my bad guys really had nothing left to give at that point.

Side note: This isn’t the first instance featuring “simultaneous action in the out-of-bounds,” and I’m realizing that seeing an “empty” out-of-bounds area doesn’t result in proper consideration—next time, I intend to graphically represent, or at least, hint at, the other combatants.

Miscellaneous

  • I was thinking of Se7en for Harmin’s entrance
  • I worked in a proper Sky Beam™, finally
  • If someone had walked the Key into the portal, they would have disappeared, never to return (until the next campaign, anyway, with an amazing story, no doubt)
  • It was late in the process when I looked up whether or not a knighthood was ever given to foreigners in the medieval period; it did sometimes happen, though it’s more common in modern times. But we were actually in the middle of the knighting ceremony when I realized that none of the PCs were actually eligible 😛