Sea Dogs Chapter I, GM Retrospective

Overall, I have to say that I’m pretty happy with how this campaign run went. There were some difficulties here and there, but they were easily overcome, for the most part. The run went for twelve sessions, which is the longest I’ve run for Olympus so far (double the nearest, at six), and tied for my longest run ever. I did not suffer the “attendance issues” I’ve always struggled with: there was only one session with partial attendance, and a single delay in the middle of the run. I didn’t feel exhausted at the end, like I usually do, and I might have been able to continue longer.

Lessons learned

Preparation: I had proven, to my satisfaction, that week-before-only session prep can work, but I didn’t strictly adhere to that method this time. I had worked out a bunch of “drop-ins,” events that could occur wherever the PCs ended up. In the latter part of the run, however, when I was scrambling to come up with some content for the session, I found I didn’t have enough of them, and I think the narrative suffered for it a little. I now know roughly how much material I can expect to go through during a run, so I can be better prepared for the next—so that’s good.

Sandbox: This wasn’t my first time running a more-or-less pure sandbox. My objective was to allow the players to do as they pleased while I throw obstacles in their path. Like its inspiration, Traveller, visiting a limited set of ports in a linear fashion results in a narrative that’s easy to get out in front of. My handing out story locations (via the Treasure Maps) at the start meant they only needed to map out which ones to hit in which order. I was fortunate the players didn’t really deviate from the plan we established in the first session.

Minutiaæ: The “Wilderness Travel” stuff from DF16 went a little clunky at first, but with some tweaking along the way, the players and I started to get the flow of it. They even started to track their own progress on the map, and came up with their own downtime material without prompting—a good sign they’re invested. While making the players roll for everything is a big part of the sandbox/hex-crawl feel, it’s also a pain-in-the-ass to GM—my need for foreknowledge won out, in the end, but I think we ended up with a workable balance. Similarly, the voyage’s inevitable logistical concerns started a little rough, but smoothed out relatively quickly. But I found myself forgetting or intentionally bypassing/delaying things as we went on. Now I’m considering streamlining—for example, next run, I will probably turn provisioning into an “automatic allotment” (as I had for maintenance expenditures) rather than bothering the players with it. I’m also considering instituting some version of the standard Cost of Living mechanics to cover purchasing of lodging and whatnot in port, since I haven’t managed to consistently enforce purchasing of those things.

Random Encounters: My theory on random encounters has been that the players need to know what’s on the list—if they know one option is certain disaster, it will provide a bit of tension/drama when the dice are cast. I never quite managed to build out a “normal” encounter list, though, and ended up using Universe Reaction Rolls, which everyone understands well enough without the need for specific details. I started out having the players roll them out in-game, but that soon fell away to me rolling them up between sessions. It just flowed so much more smoothly if we didn’t have to stop the narrative to roll more dice (especially for multiple in-game days in a row), and figure out how to interpret the results. For now, I’ll save the old-school player-rolled stuff for another time.

Spreadsheets: They were not only helpful, but necessary to make it all work. That said, they ended up mostly being used by myself, in the background, and not by the players, as I had intended. It’s less of a disappointment for me, I suppose, than it is a recognition of what information is important to telling the story, and what level of management the players will invest in. I’ll end up shuffling some stuff around before next time, taking the stuff they don’t need out of their sight. There were multiple instances where “bugs” resulted in some screwups at game time, and I really need to use the downtime to make improvements.

Combat: The reduced focus on tactical combat was intentional, not only due to the potential lethality of the Low-Tech non-magical (on the surface) setting, but it also just doesn’t really fit the narrative—these PCs aren’t typical murder-hobos. I wasn’t intentionally avoiding, combat, but I didn’t generally try to force it either. The combat that did occur, though, felt a bit too perfunctory—I need to find ways to make the fights we do have more memorable on their own. Naval combat, on the other hand, was something I wasn’t sure the PCs were ready for—specifically, due to their very small ship—but the players were aware of that, and I knew they weren’t going to bite off more than they could chew. I’d like to get them into a naval action at least once while they’re still aboard the current ship, but it will have to be carefully planned ahead, lest there be a campaign-ending result.

Other Stuff

  • I kept trying to focus on “storytelling,” with some occasional success; I think it’s easy to tell when I actually got it right. But the more “mechanical” nature of RPGs makes it sometimes difficult to stay out of the weeds. Also, I’m not certain to what degree I succeeded in getting across that “nautical” feel I wanted. I expect I will always be working on this one.
  • I figured out a great mechanic for good-play rewards, the “Bennies” thing, and then hardly made use of it due to my focus on other goings-on in the moment. It’s disappointing. I can’t really consider this a good test of the mechanic. I’ll just have to try to do better next time.
  • This was my first campaign to get full, regular use of the “Activities in Town” concept (turning the shore-business question into “multiple choice” instead of an “essay”), and I definitely feel like it helped organize things. Now that I’ve seen it in action, I’ve got some improvements in mind. I also intend to get the NPC crew a little more actively involved with their own on-shore shenaniganry.
  • I used the tarot to generate details quite a lot in this campaign, but I’m learning how to read them well enough that I haven’t needed to look things up as often. Progress.
  • The idea of non-players influencing the game bothered me quite a lot, at first. But we did find some ways for the Twitch audience to participate—specifically, using the chat-bot die-roller—which turned out less awkward than I expected. I had some fun giving the regulars cameo-characters. This will likely continue in the future.
  • Using real-life weather isn’t a new GMing concept for me—I’ve done that several times now. While it didn’t give me any mechanical trouble, the weather for Jan/Feb wasn’t all that interesting, until the end. But I know that the further the story goes into the year, the more “interesting” it will get, so I don’t think it needs fixing, per se.
  • I still haven’t found a sufficient answer to the question of trade-restricted ports buying/selling of provisions, etc. I’m fine with continuing as I have, since it’s functional, but not knowing the right answer will continue to bother me until I find it.

Final Thoughts, and Next Chapter

The feedback I’ve gotten since the season wrap-up tells me the campaign has been well received, maybe moreso than any previous run I can think of. I’ve really enjoyed running it, too. Maybe the two are related to some degree, or influenced by the same factors, at least. The replays are also performing really well on YouTube. Ultimately, though, I didn’t get nearly as far into the story as I wanted, but that means there’s plenty more material for next time. Historically, it’s been about a year for the GMing wheel to circle back around to my turn again, so I’d expect Chapter Two around the end of 2020 or early 2021—but it will definitely come.

Leave a Reply