Category Archives: GURPS: Sea Dogs

Sea Dogs Chapter II, GM Retrospective


On the surface, at least, I think this season went pretty well. Is it better or worse than season one?—even a month or so later, I’m not quite sure. I reached my ultimate story milestone, one twenty years in the making. Mistakes were made, as usual, but none of them were unrecoverable. I feel like I have advanced my abilities as a GM, even if I learned some lessons later than I’d like. Even so, it was the greatest struggle I can recall behind the Big Screen, and one I’ll be in no great hurry to repeat.

The Elephant-in-the-Room

I officially announced the campaign in August of ’22, expecting to run late in the year. But the holiday season caused its usual delays, and the previous campaign ran a little long. Then there were some scheduling issues with some of the players after the holidays, and I didn’t want to start without a full house. Ultimately, we didn’t end up starting until the beginning of February—a nearly six month lead time. In itself, this isn’t a big deal.

During that time, though, the pressure at work got ramped up to eleven, depleting my motivation to work on the campaign when I would finally get home for the day. I knew this was a recipe for disaster, and I nearly called off the campaign a week or two before it started, for “mental health” reasons—maybe I should have?

As the campaign progressed, the work situation fluctuated, but on average, never truly “improved.” There were more player scheduling issues than with Season One, but I was glad of the more-frequent breaks when they came. Starting the last quarter, when I generally start to break down anyway, I struggled so hard to get the Season wrapped up satisfactorily that I canceled Session Nine in the (literal) last minutes so I’d have an extra week or two to make it right—it was this delay that caused me to have to end the campaign short of the intended twelve sessions. All told, there were four months of the campaign run, plus the six month run-up, which adds up to having spent nearly a year with a (figurative) gun to my head. In the end, while I felt pretty good about the results, I can’t help but wonder if it might have been a little better, overall, without the additional strain on my sanity.

Lessons Learned

Firstly—and I don’t know that I’ve learned this one yet—I need to read through my previous run’s GM reviews to remind myself of the lessons I learned last time. I keep discovering I had already come to this-or-that realization last time, and forgotten about it. Learn from history or you’re doomed to repeat it… 😛

The next lesson, which I am still learning: I have continued to feel dissatisfied with the social encounters as I’ve run them, and I have continued to iterate through different methods of better handling them. The last idea was the “Lock & Key” concept, which still has merit, but I’ve found I haven’t really used it in actual play—it doesn’t flow naturally in the moment. Once again inspired by screenwriting advice, unfortunately a bit late in the campaign, I arrived at the current “Attack & Defend” concept, which seemed to work much better. It needs some more polish, but this is the direction I will push in the future. I won’t go into a lot of detail here—it’s worth its own article later.

Also still in-progress: I’ve continued to try to implement the “prep situations, not plots” concept. In this campaign, I have also been focused on the idea that each of these situations needs to revolve around a decision for the character(s) to make, which needs to be clearly-defined, and have meaningful consequences (and where appropriate, a proper sense of urgency). I’ve applied this thinking to social encounters, the various chases, as well as expanding combat (though those were few in number). I feel like this is definitely the right way to go, and I feel like it worked well in this campaign (when I got it right, anyway). It is difficult, however, to apply this concept to the “crunchy travel bits.” There are a lot of little decisions to make, which should be elevated beyond triviality—like merely which skill to roll against—but their importance can often be vague or obscured, and as such, the segment can feel like a meaningless slog. This I do not have an answer to, yet.

The Big One: It is known in TTRPG circles that you always end up GMing the campaign you actually want to play in (because no one else usually will). There were grumblings about some of my intended features of this campaign even before it kicked off—in fact, those grumblings caused Season One to be delayed by a year. Those grumblings returned during the course of Season Two, despite having been mostly smoothed over before. Given the combination of those two elements, I now find myself affirming that not everyone actually enjoys this sort of campaign. Most enjoy it “enough,” and/or tolerate the bits they don’t like, however, some have vocalized their dislikes enough that it’s affected whether or not I want to continue running these kinds of campaigns. Taking away the slice-of-life sailing elements from this one turns it into an altogether different thing, resulting in the need for drastic structural changes to continue it.

Other Stuff

  • This was my second “season two” for the Olympus group
  • This was my first campaign to use the new Fantasy Ground Unity, to which I say…actually not bad. I still have some lesser complaints, but I wasn’t held back by the software in any way I can recall, and in some instances, I’d say the experience was enhanced.
  • There were a number of research questions I was finally able to answer during the course of this campaign, like how much the port fees and tariffs were, and how smuggling worked at the time.
  • This campaign mostly revolved around two big set-pieces: Havana and Campeche, which took up most of the play-time. Now that it’s done, I can’t help but feel like this “sailing” campaign didn’t need rather more actual sailing in it.
  • One of the great successes of this run, I think, is the continued improvement in the employment of the “crew” NPCs as active participants in the story, though other campaigns of mine, so far, haven’t had as much use for that sort of thing. The idea of treating recurring NPCs as “campaign” (as opposed to “character”) Contacts, though, will definitely see exploration in the future.

To Be Continued?

There would be a lot of character turnover for a prospective season three: Davino’s player is out (temporarily?), and we’ve been playing with a new guy lately. I felt like Roger’s replacement player needed to make his own, so Rogers would likely be out. This sort of thing makes it difficult to continue the existing campaign as-is.

That said, I’ve also been rethinking how I run things—as discussed above—and the overall “style” of this campaign is probably something I will be avoiding in the future. Plus I find myself needing to streamline the pregame process as much as possible, as I have little time for the necessary leg-work these days. All that to say: I may not return to this campaign after all, which will truly be a shame. If I do, it definitely won’t be soon—I need a damned break 😛

Sea Dogs, Chapter II:XI, GM Debrief

GM Confidence: 3.5/5. This session, the season (and maybe campaign) finale, had the potential to be great, but for all the shouldadones that came immediately to mind afterward.

Full of Regrets

We got off to a late start in the first place, and with the hard-stop at the end, and no session twelve for overflow, compromises were inevitable. I had some combat planned, but I knew we wouldn’t have time for it.

  • The crew of La Dame Blanche was supposed to go into the Treasury with the PCs but I screwed that up: they arrived on the scene late, got left behind, and then I kinda “forgot they were there” until afterward. So, technically, they’re stuck in the hole with the PCs, having explored the caves a little in their absence, trying to find a way in.
  • I didn’t consider whether or not the small “treasure box” would appear on the “other side” with the PCs until someone brought it up.
  • I had expected all the players to voluntarily fail the initial Will check and was taken aback a little when they didn’t—I probably should have worded that differently.
  • I knew the shadowy figures would press the PCs forward, but I didn’t actually think about the “details” of that process—could have been more effective.
  • I missed some bits of Reade’s monologue.
  • I had other “incidents” planned in the Maze that might have been a bit more…dynamic, but I had to truncate.
  • I had intended for the shadow-figures to catch up in the treasure room and do a little combat there.
  • The “druid water” coincidence came completely out of left-field—but to be fair, there was no way to have been prepared for that.
  • I realized, in the moment that Payne (PC and his player) was flailing for a clue in the treasure chamber, that I hadn’t actually defined the conditions under which the “hall” would be revealed. I was lucky he decided to “call Reade out” like he did, which gave me a way out.
  • On the other hand, given I didn’t know about the “calling out” before it happened, I didn’t think through the potential consequences of having Reade in the hall. I had considered Davino might shoot the statue, but Reade wasn’t actually supposed to be there. I toyed with the idea of having it not work—there was justification—but the time crunch caused me to back off.
  • Boissonade was supposed to discover Boulet and his journal, so he could confirm it was the original, and the copy was a forgery.
  • I meant to review the PCs’ Move scores before the game and calculate the “collapse” timing a little more thoroughly. As it was, I had factored in maybe a three-second delay, but not eight, which at the time of execution, I thought was too far for it to catch them up. After the game, Spenser’s player calculated it, and discovered he might not have made it, if it had played out normally. In any case, in the heat of the moment, I didn’t like the clumsy way I was handling the movement, and I just let it go. This segment is probably my biggest regret of them all.
  • I completely forgot to reveal that Reade had the Steward’s brand on his chest. I also meant for him to catch fire from within, which would have eliminated the need for “medical attention.”

Not All Bad

  • I do think I achieved the supernatural “look and feel” I was going for.
  • At least some of the PCs failed that initial Will check, voluntarily or otherwise, and the confused fighting of each other worked out nicely—I had just intended that effect to be a little more widespread.
  • The session ended pretty much as I had intended, on a nice, solid cliffhanger.

Sea Dogs, Chapter II:X, GM Debrief

GM Confidence: 4/5. I actually felt pretty good about this one, in the end. Thanks to the two-week delay, I wasn’t under-prepared this time, though that delay comes with some unfortunate consequences.


This session was supposed to have happened two weeks prior, and it nearly did. I had warned everyone that this was a bad time for me to be GMing, and that assertion was definitely accurate. Work has been…more work than usual, of late, which is never conducive to good gaming prep, for a variety of reasons. A (becoming “predictable”) late-campaign stress breakdown (aggravated by work conditions) undermining my confidence in the material I had prepared, and a broken air-conditioner in the apartment on a hot game day, caused me to falter in the (literal) last minutes, and postpone. I was already going to be out the following week to attend my son’s college graduation, delaying the session further. Anyway, I completely unplugged from the campaign for (most of) the first week, and got back to it with a good head-start on the next. But the delay(s) pushed the campaign further toward summer, and after some discussion, we decided I had better wrap it up early. Therefore, the campaign will end on session eleven—greatly offending my (quasi-)OCD.

Risks and Manipulations

I knew this session was going to consist almost-entirely of a wilderness travel segment. I didn’t want to stretch it out too far, as it is “filler” after all, if I’m honest. But I did want the players to feel like they’d “earned” their success when they reached the Treasury, so it needed some teeth.

I realized somewhat late in the process (as usual) that a big problem with the content I had was lack of real consequences for and/or chance of failure during the trek into the jungle. There were things happening, but success was more-or-less assumed. Real consequences are what separate boredom from edge-of-your-seat anticipation—it’s worth its own article, and might get one at some point. Given the lateness, I didn’t have much time to re-engineer things, but what I could do is “fake it” a little.

A GM’s psychological manipulation of the Players is not just acceptable, but an essential part of the GM’s toolset (not to mention other literary applications, in general). You probably do it all the time without realizing it. In this session, my attempt to manipulate the players was quite deliberate:

  • I decided to clarify all the potential risks before the characters set out, just to place them at the forefront of their minds. Likewise, I encouraged the players to ponder what might cause them to turn back. A consequence doesn’t have to be “real” to be effective, though in this case, I did give a thought to what I might do in the highly unlikely event they did decide to turn back. Ideally, I would rather deliver this sort of thing in-game, through NPCs or whatnot, rather than via GM exposition, but it was all I had at the time.
  • The use of the actor from Predator as the guide got the players expecting a “creature” to be lurking in the jungle—also the later “staring into the jungle” incident, another movie callback.
  • Like with the “dinner” in session 8, I used a “combat” map to set up the marching order. This served multiple purposes: to get the players paranoid about an ambush, which was later justified; to set up “social geography” for conversations; and to work around the limitation with the built-in “marching order” panel in Fantasy Grounds, which doesn’t allow you to add “non-combatants.”
  • Knowing there’s another party out there “racing” for the prize, and that they might have a shortcut/advantage, got the players thinking about trying to keep things moving quickly.
  • Losing some porters along the way helped to get them wondering if they’d be able to complete the mission (especially if they lost more)
  • Building up the guide, and then taking him away suddenly, is a trick I’ve used before to ramp up tension (a really long time ago)

And the Rest

The session focused a lot on Sir Randel—I usually try to avoid focusing too much on one character, but this is the climax of his story, so I thought it was warranted. I ended about where I expected/wanted, but I had to cut some corners to get there: using Sir Randel’s Intuition without his player’s asking for it, and using a Universe Reaction roll basically like Luck—a clumsy solution in the heat-of-the-moment. The next session is the “money shot” of the campaign, so I really need to get that one right.


  • I don’t think I fully realized how much medical gameplay was going to be involved until game-time
  • I pre-rolled the results of the ambush, since I knew where/when it would go off—no reason to roll all that out in the moment if you don’t have to
  • After the assassination attempt, there was a big miscommunication about what had been observed where. As a result, everyone went to the top of the cenote, where nothing had happened, to look for clues. Afterward, I think maybe they had assumed he had fallen from the top, into the water? I know I didn’t say that, though. I had to fudge some stuff there at the last second, so I’m not surprised it went a little askew, and the misunderstanding threw me off a little.
  • I tried a new technique for handling the social issues—specifically interrogations here—based on the concept that each party should always be “attacking” or “defending”; basically, I defined the bad guys’ “defense strategy” and used that to guide their responses. I think I like these results better than previous attempts, but I need to process it a bit more.

Sea Dogs, Chapter II:IX, GM Debrief

GM Confidence: 3.5/5. I’m really conflicted about this session. On the one hand, I was severely under-prepared—the worst yet—and the session was a bit of a mess, behind the scenes, as a result. On the other hand, it ended up where I wanted it, overall, and was enjoyable.

Mistakes were made…

The combat encounter

I was having a monumentally hard time getting motivated to work on the campaign this week—I’m clearly hitting the point of burnout. At any rate, I decided to kick it off with the combat meant to end the last session—a legitimate decision on its own merits, though I knew it would take up a big chunk of the session, leaving me with less to plan for afterward.

Even though Davino’s player was out this week, Davino needed to report on his encounter with the Rokea at the end of last session, so I had a moment reserved for it. It was very late—that is, early Saturday, a few hours before the game—that it occurred to me that it would make more narrative sense to begin with that segment, rather than have the PCs fetched to him after the combat. I failed to think through the potential consequences, for instance, what might happen if any of the PCs decided not to go back to the hacienda… When Rogers’ player did just that, it threw me completely: One man short in the combat would mean they would be more seriously outnumbered, so I’d need to scale back the opposition. Scaling back the PCs and the opposition meant the fight would take less time than I had allotted. Leaving that PC out of the fight meant the player would be thumb-twiddling on the sideline for the duration, and I hadn’t prepared a surrogate. Had I more time, I might have come up with a way to get them all to the hacienda, together. After a brief recess, I couldn’t come up with a better plan, so I decided to just lay back and let it happen. Despite some minor technical oopses, the combat went entertainingly enough, though not so much for Rogers’ player, I expect.

Operational Security (OPSEC)

Again—I didn’t realize until too late that we had not had any sort of discussion of whether or not the Expedition would be maintaining any level of secrecy regarding their situation. This was fine, up to the point where they really needed to cooperate with someone, and I started to struggle, trying to nudge them in the direction I was better prepared for—which is always bad a GM move. I was fortunate, as I suspect the players may have picked up on this fact (subconsciously, maybe), and helped keep things on track.

The Hunt

At some point, when I started to tally the progress of the PCs’ (unwitting?) investigation, I wanted to be able to tell them what they had deduced, but it hadn’t occurred “naturally” at the time. For some reason, I started asking questions in a clumsy attempt to get them across that line. I really don’t know what possessed me to do this, and I knew it was a bad move as the words were coming out of my mouth. I’m sure the players were scratching their heads, wondering what that was about. I just moved on and pretended it didn’t happen—there was a bit too much of this in this session 😛 Regardless, as it stands at the end of the session, they have more-or-less successfully deduced all but one of the questions: Where (that is, where the bad guys were hiding out)—which they don’t need unless they intended to actually hunt them down.


Other than that, it actually went pretty well, I thought. I ended up adding a day to the layover time at the end, because it made sense to do so, even though that wasn’t part of the plan. But it did allow me to have Hayden make his Death roll before they stepped out, and the results…well, it was bound to happen. (I realized afterward that, although we had discussed an auto-death on a Critical Failure at some point, it wasn’t what was written down, and therefore, what was agreed to. So, we’ll have to “clarify” next time.) Now, I have three more sessions left, so I’ve got to find that motivation somewhere, and get the photo-finish the season deserves. Meanwhile, I’ve got a plot-hole or two to fill.


  • Both Claude’s and Davino’s players were out this week, so a chunk of content intended for them has to be delayed (more)—I may be doing a little catch-up next week.
  • The original plan for the combat, here, was a simple “lone assassin enters each room” bit, but I thought that would be a little boring; “arson” felt a little more like a terror-attack, and would avoid less combat-oriented characters from getting out of their depth, plus adding to Ned Long’s modus operandi worked nicely with the overall narrative. The risk of fire, and slippery surfaces, added to the overall difficulty without raising the bad guys’ skill levels.
  • I’ve had a hard time finding where GURPS has any information on putting out fires, but I finally located something usable in GURPS Vehicles (3e) p. 185, and the bottom of the sidebar—not that I ended up needing it
  • I still don’t have a solution for handling “social encounters” (like interrogations) in a manner I’m satisfied with, but I keep trying to find one

Sea Dogs, Chapter II:VIII, GM Debrief

GM Confidence: 4/5. Saying “I was under-prepared” is becoming a trope, I think, but it was definitely true in this case. That said, it went pretty well overall, and ended right where I wanted, so I really can’t complain.

I had an extra week to work on this one, and it was somehow still not enough. I just couldn’t get properly motivated, nor inspired. I decided, some time after mid-week, that I needed a “random ninja attack” (not literally) to raise the stakes a little. This would pad out the time considerably, and allow me to make more use out of less “content,” and let me relax a little. In the end, I didn’t even get to the combat—the rest was perfectly fine.

The Dinner

I knew there was going to be a lot of exposition here, and I needed a way to keep it from falling into a maelstrom of random questions and answers, or worse, my putting everyone to sleep with droning on for an hour or two. I decided to employ something I had experimented with in Generica (S2E06 and S2E07 tournament stuff, and the “Tour Montage” from S2E09). I’m finding I really need a name for this thing; for now, I’ll call it the “Social Montage.” There are three things I wanted to keep in mind (thanks in great part to Filmento’s review of Minority Report for the reminder):

  1. Make sure there is a clear goal
  2. Keep things moving toward that goal
  3. Put obstacles in the path of that goal

I laid out the knowns and unknowns before we got under way, so everyone had an idea what to ask about. The use of a “combat map” was definitely to make the players a little paranoid about a possible attack, but also to set up proximity that might suggest conversation partners. I broke everything up in turns so the players wouldn’t step all over each other, scheduling the more talkative characters first to give the less talkative ones time to process. I tried to use the NPCs to bring up questions and subjects the players might not have considered, and highlight aspects of their character, while avoiding NPC-to-NPC dialogue (which always feels clunky). (The main NPCs also had their own “goals” for the night.) I set up the “stages” to keep the scene from becoming too “static,” and give a better sense of the passage of time. I wanted to introduce more “obstacles,” but the warning letter was all I could think of at the time—it did help with raising the tension, at least. I really wanted to make the characters “earn” deeper, more important information—another part that could have used a bit more thought. The “lines” themselves were very deliberate, for the most part. For example:

  • Boissonade’s back-and-forth with Inara at the beginning filled in Payne on what he’d missed from the letter (that Artegal burned) and demonstrated Inara’s wit
  • Inara’s question about Read’s lack of a wife was one the PCs likely would never have asked on their own
  • Ulysse’s question about “what to do with the treasure” was meant to prompt the players to think about it—this may be important in the future
  • Demonstrated Ulysse’s seamanship, and Remi’s autism

It did get a bit messy. Some parts occurred out of sequence, or I had put them in the wrong place. I didn’t expect Rogers to go spying on Remi—which I realized afterward should have been an obvious move. I didn’t expect Hayden to “disengage”—I still don’t know what that was about. Afterward, I realized I should have refreshed the knowns/unknowns at the beginning of each stage, as reinforcement and a measure of progress. It would have also been helpful to establish some “personal” objectives for the PCs other than Sir Randel, and have some backup plans for when they inevitably run out of ideas. As with the attempts in Generica, I think this is still a good idea that needs a bit more work to make it truly shine.

The Hunt

Deciding to use The Hunt (Monster Hunters 2 p.4), here, was a very late addition that would likely have been improved if I had thought of it earlier. As with previous iterations, I gathered up the questions—Who, What, When, Where, Why—and figured up their penalties ahead of time per the MH2 criteria, along with assessing the appropriate skills and traits needed for Deductions and clue-gathering. As written, though, it’s a lot of die-rolling. This time, I decided to use the “Take 10” mechanic—assume an average roll of 10, rather than rolling it, and let the clue-bonuses accumulate until the “roll” actually succeeds. When I started, though, I was using the Group Roll concept—which I still need to cover separately at some point—but realized too late that if using the Take 10 mechanic, I could have let them have their individual results instead. (The purpose of the Group Rolls is to reduce laborious and counterproductive die-rolling which was already taken care of.) But the real difficult question for me was whether or not to announce that I was using The Hunt at the beginning, so everyone knows what to do, or hope they get the idea on their own and it develops organically—obviously, I opted for the latter. They’ve got a pretty solid answer for Who and What, now—even before the super-obvious reveal at the end—and some good progress toward the others.

In the end

I could’ve certainly used more time to apply a little more polish (but I know that would have just given me longer to procrastinate, instead). My plan to end with a fight didn’t materialize; I’ll probably use that to kick off the next session instead. Ultimately, though, I feel like my attempt to ramp up the tension was successful. The story moved noticeably forward, and didn’t lag too badly. I gave some answers, that lead to more questions. That’s a good result.


  • Claude’s player was out this week, recovering from a surgery, so I took the occasion of his “shyness” at the end of last session to write him out—made things nice and neat. Some of the stuff I had planned for Claude will show up next time, instead, probably.
  • The “snake” was the first time Spenser has seen a “spell effect” with his new abilities, though he doesn’t know what it means
  • I realized just at the reveal that I had the PCs on the wrong side of the fort—the sun needed to come from the West to reflect off whatever-it-was, but they kinda needed to be on the East side to see it properly. Oops 😛
  • The riddle—good or bad—was my own creation; I didn’t crib that from somewhere else
  • Spotting the “meeting on the beach” from the fort was an in-the-moment ass-pull; it might not have happened at all, otherwise—it wasn’t really a “mile” away, though; that was unintentional hyperbole
  • The “Bright Boy” reference from The Howling is right where I wanted to end the session, and a scene I desperately wanted to make happen. Also, this is the first direct contact with a supernatural enemy (that they know of), and the first time Davino’s monster-of-the-week/Hunters “Enemy” has caught up to him in an obvious way.

Sea Dogs, Chapter II:VII, GM Debrief

GM Confidence: 4.25/5. Despite seeming rather disorganized behind-the-curtain, I actually have a hard time identifying things that went wrong in this one.

A Fine Mess: Averted

It took me the better part of the week to identify the problem with what I had to-hand for this weekend’s session. I had a scattered collection of situations/encounters in mind and no real thread of connection to chain them all together. The problem: None of the PCs, other than Payne, had any actual objective to pursue, and therefore, for me to frustrate. I realized, rather late, that I needed to give them something to do; ideally, something that they can share, and not have them split off all over town, like they had done in Havana. Bringing in Hooper’s “Big Ugly Guy” from Harbour Island allowed me to call back to that incident, and draw in as many PCs as weren’t tagging along with Sir Randel, along a plot-thread that had not, until then, been adequately incorporated. It took me far too long—up to the last hours—but I worked out what the bad guys were up to, such that the involved PCs could follow them around all day, if needed, and sorted out their response should the PCs attempt to confront them.

I knew the above would take a good-sized chunk of session time, with all the usual plotting and sneaking about. Adding to that, I needed to backtrack a little, once again—which I hate—to clarify the other “Day One” stuff I had skipped to get to my desired cliffhanger last week—another chunk of time, there. I decided to go ahead and get the question of the Expedition’s extended itinerary out of the way, which was necessary for me to be able to properly plan for the future, and would also take a big chunk of time. Having all that together made me feel a bit more comfortable with the inevitable ass-pullery that remained. I didn’t have much of a plan for directing traffic, so I expected the events I had would end up “out of sequence” and connected in ways I hadn’t intended.

Ultimately, the result wasn’t as bad as I had feared. The decision for the PCs to overnight at the same location as the rest of the crew made it easy to loop them all in as needed. The individual situations—broken up to try to keep from spending too much spotlight time on one PC—flowed together with little fuss.

Sir Randel

Sir Randel is the obvious primary focus of this segment of the campaign occurring in Campeche. But I have to do what I can to prevent him from taking up all the spotlight, while ensuring this still feels like “his time.”

Having the week to decide what to do about Ned Long’s surprise-arrival kept the player from taking too much time agonizing in-game over what to do about him. I used Inara to help mitigate some indecision regarding the letter, by taking the opportunity to demonstrate her quality for the future, and taking the decision off his hands—something I’ve been doing more, these days: using an NPC to keep the players from fussing too long over problems that don’t deserve it.

Having highlighted the realities of his financial situation last week, there was some discussion during the week about what the player was willing to do about it. We agreed that, if this part of the journey is a success, the character’s empty purse will be a temporary problem. I wanted the sale of the schiavona to be part of their first encounter with the Watchers. But I hadn’t quite figured out how to incorporate it yet, as it wasn’t part of anyone’s Treasure Map, Secret, Enemy, or whatever else, and I couldn’t justify telling them outright the nature of the “better sales opportunity” that awaited them some (undetermined) distance down the road. After some digging, though, it turned out it actually does fit one such story element, so its introduction would solve several problems at once. While the amount offered sounds like a lot, it actually wouldn’t last Payne more than a month or two, at his Status level.

The Host

Gordon Reade is a plot thread dating back to the origins of this campaign—2008 if I have that right. I had cast Alan Rickman in the role back then as well, which I decided to keep, though I knew it would bias the players toward believing him, rightly or wrongly, to be the Bad Guy. It’s needless to say that I’ve been excited to finally get to introduce him, and what comes next. But there’s a great deal of uncertainty between here and there—not unlike this session. We’ll see what I can make of it.

Sea Dogs, Chapter II:VI, GM Debrief

GM Confidence: 4.5/5. I think I finally hit my stride on this one. Despite feeling a bit under-prepared before the game and making a lot of last-minute changes, it ended up roughly where and how I wanted.

From humble beginnings

By this point in the campaign, I knew I could build the entire session around the Havana-to-Campeche sailing segment—in fact, it might be inevitable—but I really didn’t feel like that would be enough to make it a “good” session. In fact, I expected that would actually be rather boring (and possibly, too short). I spent the better part of the week worrying over how to prevent such an outcome.

There was a need for a “planning” segment. It’s not exactly exciting, but the players are making decisions and plans, and that takes time and energy, so that’s something. I learned, from session three, that I didn’t want to go from the crunchy sailing stuff directly into the crunchy shore stuff—I needed to break that up with some interactions of some kind. I’d likely end the session on that beat, and maybe work in a cliffhanger-reveal of some kind. There are a number of easy entries there I could use to that end: customs, pilots, other ships. Plus I had an upcoming-event backlog of Treasure Maps, Enemies, Secrets, etc, that all needed to be addressed—most of which I had plans for already, once they got to shore. But the session needed a little something more in the middle.

The solution came (later) in two parts:

First: Payne’s player had decided to officially take “Amira” as an Ally. I had him roll her Frequency of Appearance offline to see if she would be immediately available, and she was. I had some ideas how to work her in, but it was mostly “perfunctory,” just to get her aboard the ship. I wanted to do something more to make the player feel like he’s “earned it,” so I was working on some sort of “escalating” scenario—Payne sees her and goes to her, then a pimp shows up and he has to interact with him, and then something else… The preceding interaction between Spenser and Payne, with Boissonade’s letter, was, in a way, “prearranged”—the players had discussed it offline—but working with them, I/we arrived at the idea of using Spenser’s Serendipity ability to “cause” her to appear. If Payne had performed less well at the start, the soldiers would have arrived during the interaction and possibly arrested him, which would have delayed their departure—consequences.

Second: To give the sailing part a little more spice, I decided the PCs needed to chase someone (rather than be chased by them, for a change), or otherwise have a “need” to reach the destination ahead of their quarry. I believe it was Thursday before all the puzzle-pieces finally fell into place for me—the “slanderous dispatch,” the negative outcome of which would certainly be uncomfortable, though not deadly. Having “Amira” deliver the news tied it all together nicely. They would also need a clever plan to prevent the delivery of the letter, should they succeed in catching or passing their quarry.

The mechanical aspects

Knowing there was going to be a lot of crunch in this session, I wanted to do as much behind-the-scenes as I could, and try to keep things moving, to get to the narrative parts—fortunately, the PCs were all in one place, now. The chase/race was a simple matter of duplicating the navigation spreadsheet and applying pre-rolled skill checks for the opposition, to determine their daily progress. Just add PCs—only they rolled ridiculously well (and would have been worse if Rogers’ player had been making the Control rolls). I would have liked it to be a bit more challenging, but worse for me, their excellent rolls had them arriving nearly a day early, which screwed up the plan a little—that’s GMing for you. I continued the “mechanics, then narrative” approach from before, and it still feels like the right call. Breaking up the crunch at the end felt right as well. It was a shame, though, that I had to cram a little at the end to get in the cliffhanger I wanted, and it resulted in taking a few shortcuts that I’ll have to clean up next time. Still, it may be the first time since session one that I felt satisfied with the results when it was over.


  • Pacing—finally got a session to end where I expected
  • Payne’s Intuition was actually helpful here—allowed the GM the necessary excuse to direct the PCs where he wanted
  • This was the first instance of someone swinging on a rope in the campaign—a long time coming 😛
  • The “stuck ship” was actually a random event, not something I planned to give the PCs a “hard choice”
  • This was the first time since I added the “disease check” that someone failed
  • I think this was the first time a “spoilage roll” came up with a loss of provisions
  • The spider was the result of Davino’s Treasure Map that fired off a few sessions back, but had to be delayed since the player wasn’t available
  • I revamped the Long-Term Stability thing after the previous journey; I pre-rolled for the crew, and Furlong critically failed—hence the “snippyness” during the voyage; rolled 4 LSPs on 1d6
  • This was the first time I had a player “draw from the tarot deck”—rolled via table—which is something I had been intending to do from the very beginning, but just happened to have the need for a little more “color” at this moment
  • Cpt. Button of the Fortune is the second reference to our regular Twitch follower by that moniker, as promised

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.


  • 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.


  • 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.


  • 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.