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 😛

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