Sea Dogs, Chapter I:X, GM Debrief

Session Recap; Stream

GM confidence: 4.25/5. This session went pretty well, overall; I don’t have much to complain about. The entire session more-or-less revolved around “The Shindig,” plus Spenser’s “Treasure Map” plot-point.

Pre-Shindig

  • I am discovering that asking individual players, “What is your character doing?” is more effective than asking the entire group and waiting for individual responses, which usually only trickle in slowly and inefficiently.
  • Spenser’s meeting with Cassandra went as expected, though he missed a few possibly-important questions I had prepared (a little) for—again, the players’ “necessary questions” issue, which I haven’t discovered the solution for yet.
  • Spenser’s serendipitous snagging (:P ) of the lurker’s pendant was something I wasn’t actually prepared for, and afterward, I realize I should have been.
  • After last week’s session, I realized the PCs had arrived at a foreign (French) port and had not been harassed by customs. I’ve had a little more luck with related research, lately, so I have a better picture of how that should go. Thanks to the fact that the goods had not been delivered yet last session, I was able to insert an encounter without breaking the narrative. As I was working that angle, though, I realized they hadn’t used any of their Plot Points yet—I have always struggled with how to keep the players mindful of them. Now I’m also wondering if those should carry over to the next run.

At the Shindig

The money-shot of the session.

  • Espionage is a perfect fit for the “secrets” Theme of the campaign, and it was an opportunity to set up the political “inciting incident” for the upcoming war, that being the Treaty of Vienna in April 1725.
  • I decided to give each “group” at the party a tarot-draw event, which meant improvising—scary, but I managed. I’m getting proficient enough with the tarot lately that I didn’t have to look up everything that was drawn. I have to praise the players’ roleplay in this one. I enjoyed the results. This would work better for a face-to-face session where they could draw the card themselves, though.
  • On the downside, I realized when the soldiers arrived that I had not actually worked out what they were going to be doing sufficiently well, and it felt a bit flat—probably the worst part of the session, IMO.
  • It felt a little forced, but I managed to get in a bit of Hayden’s “Treasure Map” info, in the mention of Jean-Baptiste Daucourt—this will be important later.
  • I thought the Chase went pretty well—I suppose a stronger “map” might have been nice. At the end, however…I really didn’t think through the assassin’s interrogation. I probably assumed he would be killed, and I really should know better by now.

Other Stuff

  • Davino didn’t have much to do in this session, but it’s really the player’s fault for not getting himself more involved. (I’ve made the same common mistake playing in my face-to-face Friday game.) My natural inclination is to try to coax/drag the character into the narrative, but I have intentionally held back—I want the player to learn to be more proactive, but I realize it may not actually work, and the character may end up sidelined a lot.
  • I gave the assassin a “face” when I probably shouldn’t have, mostly because I had actually tried to introduce that character three times before, in other roles, but the PCs never interacted with him! 😛 As a result, he will probably escape his captors to reappear later.
  • It was looking like the session would end too early, at the beginning. Thankfully, that didn’t happen, but it did end in a spot where I didn’t have a proper cliffhanger prepared. I had to think fast, and it wasn’t really working, until the players brought up Hayden’s “Death Check” separately. That was my best opportunity, even if it was a little weak as a cliffhanger. (And what would have happened if he had succeeded?) I keep meaning to give some forethought how to drop a cliffhanger at every natural stopping-point in the story, just in case.

Coming Up

I really wanted to get a proper fight in this session—there hasn’t been one in a while—but I ended up dropping it, as it would have felt too forced. I expect to make up for it next time. But there are only two sessions left in this run, and I’ve got to figure out how to end this thing on the right beat, which will be more difficult considering it’s going to end nowhere near my originally-intended endpoint.

Sea Dogs, Chapter I:IX, GM Debrief

Session Recap; Stream

GM confidence: 3.5/5. Another rough week leading up didn’t do me any favors. A lot went really well. A lot went really clumsily.

Failure to Prepare is Preparing to Fail

I had some basic plans for this week’s session but the details refused to come together, for various reasons, until late in the week—that is, the last puzzle-piece fell into place on game-day morning. As a result, I was very late getting everything typed in, and that meant a lot of my usual notes keeping everything in proper order and accessibility were incomplete. It showed, especially when dealing with the minutiæ of the travel segments. I kept losing track of the date. I kept mixing up the weather. I kept having to do math that should have been done beforehand. My spreadsheet was set up for a later segment, not the one we were working at the time. Very messy. If nothing else, it certainly shone a light on the value of proper note-keeping. A side effect was when I realized at the last minute that I really needed to build tables in Fantasy Grounds to automatically handle the details for “Medieval Sea Trade” I had no time to create them. More mess. It was fortunate that these issues could be handled on the fly, where the background details would certainly have suffered worse for it.

Geoffrey de Saloman

AKA Solomon, son of Geoffrey, Trenton Solomon (and many other names); AKA The Saxon. I’ve been waiting a long time for the opportunity to bring in this character. I was happy with how it turned out.

I have always included the unofficial Highlander: The Gathering material for World of Darkness in the Daniverse. The players have already correctly deduced that Geoffrey is an Immortal (Highlander style). He was actually an old non-GURPS WoD character of mine that I only got to play once or twice. He began in WoD Sorcerer character whom I gave the “Immortal” trait. Naturally this became the HTG-type Immortal when I discovered that material. I have a long timeline dating back to his origin in 8th-century Saxony, all the way to modern age (where he would presumably be killed before McLeod could claim the Prize). In Sea Dogs he has been operating in the Caribbean as a “buccaneer” for (actually) around a hundred years, and did know Captain Morgan personally. His story about the two troubadours is autobiographical. He is, however, also (still) a hedge-wizard—this will show up soon—and former Templar. This introduction was one of many versions I had considered, but they all ended the same way—in a secret duel the PCs would (likely) eavesdrop.

That said, he won’t be hanging around. I don’t intend him as a GMPC or anything.

Buck Rogers

For each player’s “Treasure Map” I’ve been rolling vs 6 each session, at +1 per fail, to determine when some clue is revealed or related event occurs. Rogers has had some truly rotten luck in that regard since the beginning, compared to the others, but his turn finally came in this session. Since the player had ripped off Buck Rogers, I have intended to introduce other related characters throughout. This is the first time one has made an appearance—and won’t be the last. I was just happy that everyone recognized Erin Grey when I brought up the picture (except Ethan, understandably, who is not nearly old enough to have seen the show). It got the reaction I had hoped for.

Other Stuff

  • The Expedition is finally starting to turn a little profit—a small start
  • I’m running out of “bad luck” events for Red Sherd to find himself on the wrong end of
  • Falko Rijnders was the Frisian—though actually, after rewatching The Highlander recently, I realized I had been mistaken all these years, in that they weren’t actually referring to the other Immortals by their place of origin as a matter of course, only when they didn’t know their names. Was I the only one who thought that? Now I have to wonder if there being only one per “region” is also incorrect? (Which is one reason the TV series always bugged me.)
  • I’ve been focused on the “storytelling” aspects of GMing. I still feel I have a long way to go, but I am starting to feel like I’ve made some progress. (If only my notes hadn’t been so rushed.)
  • I finally got a good cliffhanger ending, after a few lackluster ones. It felt good.

The End is Nigh

The original plan was to do a run of twelve sessions, which means three remain. I wanted to end at the end of one of the Treasure Map quests, at least, but that doesn’t look like it will happen. I actually feel like I could keep going, which is unusual—I’m usually pretty exhausted by this point. Unlikely, but we’ll see.

Sea Dogs, Chapter I:VIII, GM Debrief

Session Recap; Stream

GM confidence: 3.75/5. I wasn’t in the best mental shape this week. Although I can’t think of anything in particular that went wrong, per se, I can’t help feeling it was a bit rough and unpolished.

Excuses, excuses…

Because of some absences, and a couple of rough weeks at work, we took a break from Sea Dogs. Unfortunately, due to the same rough weeks, I wasn’t able to make the best of the time off, to plan ahead. Then, last week was another rough one at work, which combined with one of my worst allergy seasons I can recall to keep me at rather less than 100% throughout. My confidence level going into the game on Saturday was not high. It turned out fine, as far as I can tell, though I do blame some of the sloppy execution on those aforementioned conditions.

What Went Right

I finally got to do the proper “long” Chase (from Action 2) I had been wanting. I inserted the narrative bits in between the Chase Rolls; I feared this would be distracting, but it seemed to work well enough. I dropped the standard range scale for a more “narrative” distance; I didn’t expect that distance to actually change, due to the PCs’ skill levels, but if it had closed up, there might have been some shooting. The situation was also simplified by the fact that there was really only going to be one Maneuver used, overall, so we didn’t have to bother with choosing. I do think I should have announced the Chase Roll results a little more deliberately, just to reinforce the mechanic. My intention for using a Chase here was to build tension, and I think it worked.

Some of the narrative parts were added in late, to add to the tension: like the Rumjack (the enemy) and Princess Mary (the friendly) disappearing at night. Some details were the result of tarot draws. The rescue was added as a mid-point obstacle to force them to change-up and worry about the enemy catching them up. I did have a plan in case the PCs chose to move on, though I really didn’t expect them to, being heroic types. The “argument” was a later addition, though, to fill things out and give the PCs more worries.

While I continually built up the expectation of a naval action of some sort (I intended to reinforce that a bit more, but for the aforementioned “excuses”), I fully intended to yank that rug out from under them with the intervention of the ghost-ship. I wanted to leave them scratching their heads, and I got the reaction I intended. This happens to be the PCs’ first “undeniable” encounter with the supernatural, which the entire crew (and then some) experienced together. I consider this series to be Act 1 of the overall story, and this encounter destroys the “lie” of the normal mundane world at just about the right segment.

What Went Wrong

I can think of a few specifics that, after the fact, could definitely have been improved. Ironically, in spite of having thrice the usual prep time, I ended up quite rushed before game-time. As a result, I didn’t give some of the narrative elements the thorough editing they deserved, and I feel like it showed—early parts in the session were better, but the latter parts suffered. Although the ghost ship concept has been in my hopper since the beginning, I actually had to scramble to patch together a last-minute backstory for it. I completely forgot about Dora through the whole thing, and I fear my addled brain wasn’t quite up to the task when the question of her reactions was asked in-game, and I may have made some mistakes there. The cliffhanger at the end was terrible. I hate ending on a “You arrive at this-or-that port” beat—I’ve done that multiple times now, and I need to do better.

Other Stuff

  • I did discuss strategy with the players on our message boards before the game, just to make sure we were on the same page (bearing in mind lessons learned from Generica: don’t trust them to stick to it)
  • Up to this point, I had avoided the unnecessary bother of setting up a watchbill for the PCs, but since I (sensibly, IMO) broke the Chase down into watches, it became necessary to come up with something—and I knew it would take up a non-negligible chunk of game-time to get it sorted, which helped pad the session a bit
  • I had considered that the PCs might want to scavenge the enemy ship, but I hadn’t considered them paying for it, or I would have looked up some prices for cannon. Also, I apparently didn’t plan for them looting anything other than the cannons, really, at all—definitely due to the rush. Fortunately I can sort some of that out after-the-fact on the message boards.
  • Afterward, knowing what was coming at the time, I should have pre-rolled all the NPCs’ Fright Checks, at least, or just come up with some basic fear-reactions for them, individually. As it was, I kinda forgot about them, and when asked about their reactions, my brain lagged a little too much to do it proper justice.
  • I finally got my opportunity to work in a cameo for one of the Twitch followers, “Bruno,” but sadly, he wasn’t actually on Twitch at the time. That’s okay, though—they’ll likely see him again when the Expedition turns south toward Brazil.

Home Stretch

The plan was for twelve sessions, which means there are now four remaining. It’s begun to dawn on me that I need to start wrapping things up for this run, and also, how little actual time I have to do it.

Sea Dogs, Chapter I:VII, GM Debrief

Session Recap; Stream

GM confidence: 4/5. I think this week’s session went pretty well, overall, if a bit less smoothly than I wanted.

Necessary Questions

A couple of sessions ago, I lamented my lack of solutions for when the players, for whatever reason, aren’t asking the right questions. Multiple times in this session, I found myself giving away information without having been asked, because the players needed it in order to make an informed decision. I don’t want to do that. There’s no reward for clever play if the GM gives you the answers without your having asked. Standard practice would be to call for a skill-roll and give them the answer if it succeeds, with the obvious downside that if the roll fails, they either go without or you’re left having to fudge or ignore the results, which renders the roll pointless. Lately, I prefer to take a page from Night’s Black Agents and give them the necessary info up front, if the character has sufficient skill, and then let them roll for “extra”—this is fine if you actually have something “extra” to add. Lately, I think I’ve been assuming too much. When I script out the answers, I really should consider more carefully what happens if that question goes unasked.

Anansi, Behind-the-Scenes

As I’ve stated before, the Daniverse has World of Darkness at its core. It has been my plan all along to introduce the many creatures of WoD in the course of this campaign. When I first started to study Barbados for the game, I took its considerable African-slave through-traffic as an opportunity to introduce the Ananasi, whose African mythological origins made a logical connection. As in all WoD cases, I’ve made alterations—such as the “royal we”—though I mostly stuck to abilities from the original source material here (the powers she used were deliberately chosen). The name “Anansi” in this case is not her name, but what she was called by the Africans she encountered. The encounter went through quite a few iterations—I was admittedly tempted to borrow from Anansi’s portrayal in American Gods. Ultimately, I was shooting for something “alien,” and I feel like I succeeded. And of course, she could easily return later…

This is not the first WoD creature they’ve encountered, of course, and it certainly won’t be the last.

Scripting, Part III

I was really looking forward to the encounter with Anansi, but I suspected this question-and-answer occasion might not go as planned. As I feared, the player whose character was at the center of it entirely left the conversation to others. Their hesitation, and some incorrect assumptions on my part, led to scripted elements occurring out of order. Plus I ended up giving answers to questions that had not been asked, not only to get the information to the players, but to fill some of the dead air.

As a result, there were some spots in this interaction where it felt a little like the typical computer-game NPC delivery, at least, from my perspective. It highlighted the worst aspect of pre-scripting one’s dialogue, in that it tends to tie you down. I had encountered this before, to my detriment, when I’ve relied on heavy scripting in the past; I had hoped to rise above it this time. But this is not to say the scene was a failure. In spite of the difficulty, I think it went well, and more lessons-learned is always good.

Other Stuff

  • This is now, officially, the longest campaign I’ve run for Olympus—the others have not exceeded six weeks—though not my longest yet for any group (still twelve)
  • Davino will have the opportunity to make a Deduction roll next week, due to the slayer’s journal, which means I will have an opportunity to do a better job of it this time 😛
  • Details of the “traders” Sir Randel interacted with were the result of tarot draws. I didn’t design the scenario with Payne’s girl-in-every-port in mind, though I did expect it might go that way.
  • I am amused that at least two key elements to the PCs’ survival next session were completely random—the Princess Mary was a random event, and Captain Lockhart was the result of an off-hand comment by Hayden’s player and a bad Reaction roll
  • I couldn’t predict on which day the PCs would leave Barbados, therefore my prep for the journey North wasn’t as sure as I would have liked. I might have pressed on a little longer at the end, but for this fact, it seemed ideal to take the extra week to really think this next segment through—it could be important.

Sea Dogs, Chapter I:VI, GM Debrief

Session Recap; Stream

GM confidence: 4.5/5. Other than a couple of mistakes, I felt like I was firing on all cylinders this week.

A Rough Week

For whatever reason, I had a really hard time coming up with content for this week. I had the beginning (Randel’s intro) and the end (which we didn’t reach), but not the middle—I had the “travel” bit, of course, but I didn’t feel like that would be enough on its own. It took me until Thursday to come up with a plan, a compromise against what I wanted, but it eased my worry—and we didn’t get to that part either. It turned out well anyway. It’s worth noting that they didn’t actually accomplish a lot, but it felt like they did.

Write It Down, Continued

I talked about my need to “write it down” last week. This week, I made an effort to script out as much as made sense. My “narrative” mindset led to an attempt to arrange the order of events in a more readable, followable manner. Afterward, I felt like the results of the session proved last week’s theory correct. I didn’t follow the scripted elements exactly, of course, but I expected that. I intend and expect to improve this technique in the future, as there were certainly places that I feel could have been further improved.

The Hunt

When it comes to the PCs’ “Treasure Maps,” I have been using “The Hunt” (from Monster Hunters 2) as a guideline. Basically, when they find a “clue,” they get a Deduction roll to answer “the question” (the nature of which varies). It’s only come up once, so far: Payne’s finding the Compass was a clue, for which I allowed him to use Research (against the journal he had) to answer the question of “what do I do with this thing?” He didn’t get the entire answer, but it did give him forward-progress—he’ll get other opportunities later.

In Hayden’s case, he had gained a clue: the report that the Cardinal Virtue had been captured by the Spanish. He was therefore due a Deduction roll. I figured the records in Santo Domingo, combined with his own, would be a good enough opportunity. I took the precedent from Action 2 regarding Research taking 1d6 hours, and decided it would take 1d6 days to arrange to view the records. I had him roll this in secret: Hayden wouldn’t know how long it would take, and it was an opportunity to highlight his Obsession, and make him choose to delay the Expedition or not.

However, I messed it up quite a bit, mechanically. First, I forgot, in the moment, to make the roll in secret. Second, for reasons I can’t fathom, I didn’t sort out what the actual results of his success or failure would mean beforehand. (I blame the aforementioned “rough week.”) Ultimately, he did make forward-progress, in that he eliminated one of the many possibilities—this is a legitimate and helpful piece of information. But I failed to present that clearly, and as discussed after the game, it felt to him like a waste of time. The confusion resulted in the operation taking a little longer than it needed to. Lesson learned: results of success of failure on Deduction need to be spelled out, and it needs to be clear why it matters.

I had not discussed the use of “The Hunt” openly up to this point, for no particular reason other than I wanted to keep it a little more “organic.” It might have helped them understand the situation if I had brought it up before. But now that cat’s out of the bag, so we’ll see.

Sea Travel

In spite of its potential for drudgery, I think the sea-travel bit turned out to be the most fun:

  • Knowing there was going to be a lot to get through, I pre-rolled the random encounters and traffic stuff, which also allowed me the week to figure out how to interpret the results in a narratively-efficient manner
  • I’ve been rolling for a random NPC crewman to be “in focus” for the session, and Moggridge’s turn came up, but the random at-sea events rolled him up anyway—that was not intentional, but it worked out nicely. I did have notes to bring up the superstition regarding weighing anchor on Friday, but I didn’t expect it would actually occur. Mr. Moggridge’s illness was actually the result of the random events; its apparent connection to “Friday” was entirely coincidental.
  • I got the bugs in the spreadsheet from last week sorted out, but Ronnke started tracking the progress on the map, which meant I needed to add a daily mileage total as well—already done
  • The group is starting to get the hang of the at-sea procedures, so the die-rolling and assignments went smoothly—including those rolled by our audience (thanks to Ronnke’s chat-bots)
  • The “bet” was a surprise, though a welcome one—shows the players were engaged
  • The “man from the sea” event garnered exactly the reaction I intended; it was also the first time in the campaign the PCs have had to make a Fright Check (it won’t be the last)
  • The Ship Malfunctions (from Pyramid 3/103 Setbacks) didn’t confuse anyone, but I realized in the moment (or re-realized) that I really need some defined examples to pull from, and some mechanic to determine when/how the symptoms become apparent

Other Stuff

  • This week was my intended halfway-point of the campaign
  • Randel’s intro was an echo of a long-ago D&D game, with a similar incident involving another character of his
  • Claude’s Secret (nevermind the absence of his/her player) came up for this week, but I couldn’t quite figure out what to do with it in time, so I’ve deferred it to next week
  • The arrival of the Rumjack at the end was a part of the previously-mentioned “compromise solution,” but it was a good cliffhanger.
  • The session ended short of the content I had, but as I said before, that’s fine—I have a good starting point for next week, now. I expect them to get under way for St. Kitts next week, plus it’s Davino’s turn to find a Treasure Map clue.

Sea Dogs, Chapter I:V, GM Debrief

Session Recap; Stream

GM confidence: 3.75/5. Honestly, I don’t have much to complain about for this one, but there were a few bits here and there that were nagging at me afterward. I accomplished what I meant to, overall, but it was a bit rough.

Side Mission

There’s a tendency to have some sort of “adventure” at every stop along a long voyage in campaign-situations like these. I have wanted to distance myself from that. Thus, I originally intended Santo Domingo to be a non-adventure stop, but this turned out to be a special case. We were (supposed to be) down two players for this session, and I had considered skipping it, but decided instead to do a side-mission with the three players that were available. By the latter part of the week, the event had morphed into Furlong’s “Loyalty Mission.” I kinda wanted to “take it easy” this time and just do some character-development.

Full disclosure: I may have been experiencing a mild depressive episode during the week, which may have influenced the tone of this session’s story 😛

Treasure Maps

Each PC has a “Treasure Map,” essentially a personal campaign objective they’re attempting to complete. For each such Treasure Map, I make a weekly 3d6 roll in secret against a target of 6, like a Secret. On a success, some event occurs relating to that plot-thread, often in the background. I took the opportunity of a couple of them having succeeded to bring in some events I had been planning for a while (Hayden’s actually fired last week, but I delayed it). “CptButton” is one of our regular Twitch viewers (and played a session of Shadowrun with us); I’d been looking forward to an opportunity to start working some of those viewers into the narrative where I could.

Write It Down

In recent years, I had mostly gotten out of the habit of writing extensive GM notes, in an attempt to reduce the overall pregame workload. Plus, one can always tell when the GM is reading off a script. This session, however, was a bit of an anomaly, in that there were a few instances of complicated dialog that I had to write down. I observed afterward that I was able to deliver the stuff I wrote down comparatively smoothly, while I tended to stumble over the stuff I didn’t write down. I guess it really wouldn’t hurt to write down more. I’m trying to work on my “storytelling” anyway, and I suspect that’s going to follow the same pattern—I need to start pre-scripting more of the narrative elements.

Dependencies & Assumptions

I’ve learned the hard way, over the years, the danger of planning events that depend on or assume specific PC actions, as the PCs will inevitably do the opposite. I’ve had to re-learn it many times 😛 . In this session, there were multiple instances where I realized, to my horror, I had assumed the PCs would turn left, while they were determined to turn right. I was fortunate that they self-corrected onto the Golden Path before I had to take emergency action. I should know better by now.

But that brings me to an issue I’ve been trying to figure out lately: what to do when you place an opportunity for exposition in front of the player(s), and they just won’t ask the question? Taking away player agency to say, “You ask the guy about X,” is bad GMing, in my opinion. Allowing them to not get the important info isn’t ideal either. I don’t have a good answer for this yet.

Minor Issues

  • Rogers’ player was supposed to be out this week, but he showed up for the game anyway, and I wasn’t prepared for it. Therefore, I didn’t have any specific content in mind for Rogers. Worked out okay, anyway.
  • I missed the “maintenance” roll last week (3/103 Setbacks, “Spaceship Malfunctions”), so I made it up here
  • I stumbled a bit over accents and language issues, despite my practice during the week. The more I do it, though, the more comfortable I’ll get with it. But this also goes back to the “write it down” thing, too. I’m trying to remember to introduce the character/situation, and not try to carry the accent/etc. through the rest of the conversation.
  • Regarding the above: I used some Spanish with the watch-captain, and when asked to, didn’t translate it—I don’t know why I did that; I didn’t mean to
  • Shifty’s introduction and the surrounding events got a bit more jumbled than I intended
  • I totally forgot about Dora when the PCs started sneaking Shifty out of town. I guess that’s fine, since I really didn’t have anything specific for her to do. I hate when that happens, though…
  • There were a handful of events that got used out of sequence due to “forward progress”; the scene where they drink to Shifty after his recapture was supposed to happen after the hanging, but it didn’t make sense to wait at the time
  • There were some bits that were completely missed, like the rather-important revelation that Shifty’s “escape” wasn’t entirely accidental (but a ploy to find his crew)
  • I didn’t remember Plot Points until the moment the Tactics roll happened before the shootout, otherwise I might have had some better suggestions for their use other than re-rolls (though it ended up working out, in that regard)

Sea Dogs, Chapter I:IV, GM Debrief

Session Recap; Stream

GM confidence: 4/5. I was prepared for this one to get messy, and was pleasantly surprised when it didn’t. It basically came in two parts:

Île-à-Vache

I was afraid I’d overpowered the PCs, but in the spirit of “sandboxing,” I didn’t want to pull my punches here. But with some subtle disadvantages (no boat, and the need to get information before killing everyone), and clever placement of distractions, the players had the space to deploy their typical shenaniganry to their advantage. I was actually prepared for “normal” combat here, but that didn’t end up being necessary. The players finally used some Bennies, to good (and expected) effect. “Dora” and her pursuers were not a random event—that thread is much more important than it might at first seem.

I’ve long tried to figure out the best way to make suggestions to the players without feeling like I’ve handed them the solution. Most GMs rely on die-rolls for this: they make it, and you tell them the answer. I never liked this solution, because it means there’s a chance you don’t get to tell them that thing they need to know, and if that’s not so, there’s really no point in the die-roll. As it happens, this campaign has an outlet for this: the NPC crewmen. That is, if I need to make a suggestion, I can have the NPC crewmen give it to them. It gets the information to the players, and it makes the NPCs feel a bit more alive. Win/win. In this case, I had Mr. Bold deliver the suggestion to circle around and walk in from behind. I need to look for more opportunities to use this.

Travel to Santo Domingo

Now to the truly sandboxy part. This was a bit of good and bad, and as usual, it’s far easier for me to focus on what went wrong, minor though it was:

  • I discovered, in the middle of it, that my spreadsheet voyage calculator had a bit of a bug, which prevented me from setting the proper departure time. By the time we got to the end, I had forgotten, and I screwed up the narrative a bit. I didn’t realize the error until after the game, though, so it didn’t cause me any real stress.
  • I “misplaced” my weather data for the trip. I didn’t want to subject everyone to 15 minutes of dead-air while I dug around for it, so I just went with what I had on hand, correct or not. The players wouldn’t likely know the difference.
  • There was a glitch at one point, where my random event generator system kept telling me there was a “traffic” event after it had been determined that there was no traffic. It threw me off my game, a bit, at the time, though I realized afterward that I could have just generated some traffic anyway—I’m sure nobody would complain, “But we rolled no traffic?”
  • I had some content for Mr. McNeill—the (randomly determined) NPC-focus for the session—but I forgot to sort out where that content should fit. It got a little jumbled, though again, the players would never know.
  • We wrapped up at a spot that didn’t make for a good cliffhanger.

But some stuff went well:

  • The incident with the guarda costa was completely random. I didn’t mind the back-and-forth about signals—good fodder for some research afterward—though I would obviously rather have known those answers beforehand. I established the PCs’ level of “vulnerability” long before the campaign started, so I don’t feel the need to worry about them getting inappropriately belligerent towards a strong enemy. Plus, the shakedown was a fact-of-life I wanted to establish, anyway.
  • The ship “stations” map seemed to be well-received, and did its job. I think this will keep things nicely organized for the future (and potentially, for other games).
  • I added a travel checklist the players could see, which should also help keep the travel processes better organized, and we established an SOP. This travel segment went pretty smoothly as a result, and I expect good results in the future.

Overall, I felt pretty good about this session. There were some lessons learned, that I’m in the process of addressing, and that’s always good news for the remainder of the campaign. We’ll be missing a couple of players for the next session, so I decided to run a “side-mission” with the ones that are available—I did want to get away from the “adventure at every stop” tendency, but it fits here, under the circumstances. The trick will be how I merge the other PCs into the narrative for the session that follows. We’ll see.

Sea Dogs, Chapter I:III, GM Debrief

Session Recap; Stream

GM Confidence: 4/5. I thought this one went pretty well. Seemed like the players did too.

It started off with the “recap.” I basically went back over the whole previous session and straightened out the timeline, adding in all the elements I forgot, like making the planning rolls, introducing the crew properly, fixing some mistakes, etc. Regarding the planning roll: this was the second time I’d used it, borrowing heavily from mechanics established in Dungeon Fantasy 16: Wilderness Adventures, but due to the changes I’ve made since the previous usage, the PCs ended up with a lot more Plot Points to spend. We’ll see how they get spent. I had to retract my former advice regarding “leaving with the tides” as well—I know quite a bit about nautical matters these days, but I’ve still got plenty to learn—and that significantly changed the PCs’ post-sabotage plans once the regular timeline was resumed. I wanted to keep the whole thing short, but it ended up taking half the session. Oh, well.

Claude’s player decided to drop out of the group, at the last minute. It is a little disappointing, but it will be easier to run with fewer players, so there’s some benefit. Ironically (and conveniently), her Secret fired this session; it ended up playing out without her, and I was able to work it into one of the random events.

This was the first session where (finally) the PCs took to the open sea. That meant it was the first time making in-game use of the sailing spreadsheet stuff, which worked pretty well, but I discovered it needed some improvements (some of which I’ve already made). It was also the first time using the departure/under-sail/arrival checklists, which meant a lot of die-rolling—I was afraid that would be a mess. Afterward, I think it felt about right. The “repetitive” feel of it is entirely intentional; it’s an aspect of the life I wanted to get across, though it’s possible I’ll start allowing them to Take Average on those rolls down the road.

I’m using the “Interesting Times” interpretation of my Universe Reaction rolls to handle daily random encounters, which I combined with tarot to determine the nature of generated events. I did find myself hesitating a bit at first, but I think I’ll get used to it. It might be a good idea to come up with a few crewman/ship-specific events ahead of time, rather than the more generalized list I currently have. After-the-fact, I’m pretty sure the calculations were a bit off, but I’m not going to go back and fix it. The players won’t notice (unless they read this 😛 )

The events at Île-à-Vache were a bit last-minute, and I think they could have benefited from a bit more processing—it wasn’t bad, I just felt it needed a little more…something. I need to keep in mind for the future that such events should probably always include a “twist” of some kind, beyond the initial confrontation. The session ended on a much better cliffhanger than last time, too—though I hope I haven’t painted myself into a bit of a corner as a result.

Sea Dogs, Chapter I:II, GM Debrief

Session Recap; Stream

GM Confidence: 3/5. I really buggered this one up. I’d rate it worse, but I think the mess was, thankfully, mostly invisible to the players.

Wibbly-Wobbly

I thought I had everything properly organized, but “no plan survives contact with the enemy.” I suppose it could be accurately said that my failure here was the result of players doing what I should have expected, but did not. In hindsight, the first domino appears to have been my intent to have the “voyage planning session” occur after the “dive.” I expected all the PCs to participate in the Skill Challenge, and not make any real plans until after it was resolved. When some split off, it made more sense for them to start making voyage arrangements on the side, which would require them to know where they would be going first. (Payne already knew about Île-à-Vache, so they could reasonably plan it out, even though the Coin wasn’t yet in hand.) That meant they had to have the conversation before the dive—which would sensibly occur when they returned to the ship that night. Since I didn’t know they were going to split up until afterward, that meant I had to backtrack. The second fail was my one-the-spot decision to roll-up the entire Skill Challenge at once and sort it out afterward, which caused me to miss a bunch of events I intended to occur during the process, and muddled up the timeline even more. Those two combined with other mistakes, to make a complete mess of things, behind-the-screen:

  • I realized days later that I had completely forgotten the second clue from Old Tom, which will greatly affect the voyage planning (requiring a bit of backtracking next week)
  • For whatever reason, it skipped my mind that the process of getting freight/passengers/etc. takes two days, which meant my timeline needed to be extended (and some events could have occurred later); also, even though I did review the rules in Pyramid 3/97 “Medieval Sea Trade” beforehand, I didn’t actually make note of the skill needed to roll against
  • In spite of my extensive notes on the matter, I completely forgot to actually do the skill-rolls for the voyage planning process—I’ll have to backtrack next time and cover that
  • I have no idea why it didn’t occur to me that one of the PCs might actually try to seek out the captain of the Nijmegen and, y’know, talk to him. At least it’s got their curiosity going. It’s a shame I didn’t have any real detail on the character. That would have been a good idea…
  • I had forgotten how absolutely passive Davino’s player has always been, and I wasn’t prepared for his complete lack of response to his info dump (though, in my defense, I’ve not GMed a full campaign with him in it before)
  • There were a few events in town, and a number involving the NPC crewmen’s introductions, that I completely skipped, in the general confusion
  • It never occurred to me that someone on watch aboard the ship might just “yell at” the saboteurs in the water—I completely froze for a minute, not quite knowing how to respond; I think my use of Serendipity wasn’t quite in the spirit of the Advantage as written, also

It Wasn’t All Bad

  • The Skill Challenge actually went through more-or-less without a hitch, which surprised me—maybe we’ve finally figured it out
  • Once again, my pacing was pretty accurate—it ended roughly where I expected
  • As GM or player, I’m not usually the “accents” guy; this was my first time attempting French—good or bad, I felt mostly comfortable doing it, which is a big step for me. (I’ll have to listen to the stream later and see if it makes me cringe 😛 )
  • Planning big operations always takes a lot of table-time; I tried to speed it along, and I don’t think it dragged on excessively, so that’s a win

Unsolicited Information

During the Skill Challenge, I ended up volunteering some background information regarding goggles and diving bells. It was related, and potentially useful, whether or not it was “interesting.” But it was unsolicited, and frankly, I doubt the players would ever have asked for it, because it probably never would have occurred to them. I find myself wondering what a GM should do here? You want them to have the info, but if you volunteer it, it can feel forced, and can be mistaken as “important” when it isn’t really. I don’t have an answer (yet).

Conclusion

I like to think I generally learn from my mistakes, and that means I should have learned a lot from this session. But we’re going to be moving out of the relative safety of the kiddie-pool next week, and into the deep end of the unknown (that is, stuff I haven’t prepared for as thoroughly, due to the sandbox nature of the campaign). That will be the real test of my GMing ability.

Sea Dogs, Chapter I:I, GM Debrief

Session Recap; Stream

GM Confidence: 4.5/5. Finally, after (literally) 20+ years in the making, the Sea Dogs campaign officially began. I had the usual first-session-jitters, but it went pretty much according to plan. I felt like everyone was engaged throughout. The session splits into three basic parts:

Part I: The Duel

I was pleased with how the “duel” segment turned out, overall. I made a point to find some way to highlight each of the PCs’ character; I had some difficulty figuring out how to do that for Hayden, but he ended up being the volunteer, which worked out perfectly. I did not think through the medical aftermath, though; I really should have read up on that beforehand.

Part II: The Priest

I had to make a lot of changes to the “priest” scene at the last minute to fill some plot holes, and it could have benefited from cooking a little longer, I think. But it had the effect I was looking for. I hadn’t actually expected Davino’s player to hesitate to the degree that he did, but at least it had occurred to me, and I planned for the servant offer to do it for him in that event. I did not consider he would bring another PC along, though, but that ended up working to my advantage, as Rogers’ reaction added a little more conflict/drama to the scene. There’s actually a lot more exposition to get through to set everything up, here, but I decided to have the servant catch up to Davino later, rather than slog through it all in one go. We’ll see if that was the right call.

Part III: Old Tom

I was a little disappointed that the “random encounters” on the road came up nil, but I want to stick to the plan—it’s supposed to be sandbox, after all. I discovered too late that, although it had occurred to me the PCs might want to talk to the assassins, I hadn’t actually considered their response. I should have paid more attention to their equipment, as well. But to be fair, I really procrastinated to that end. Next time, better, I hope. I did have an idea after the game that I might come up with some sort of “random mook personality trait” table, just to give them a little individual flavor. I had a short Action 2 Chase in mind for the runaway at the end of it, but the PCs didn’t try to run him down. That’s fine. It was probably unnecessary.

Other Stuff

My pacing was spot on; it ended roughly where I expected. And on a good cliffhanger. On the down-side: I didn’t give out any bennies—new mechanic—as my mind was occupied with too many other things at the time. Some of the interludes were a little stumbly. I missed getting a reference image for the jungle trail. I totally forgot the monkey until the fight at the end. But those were all pretty minor, and I’m confident I can improve, now that the first-session dread is past.