Redacted 3, Part 4a, GM Debrief


GM Confidence: 0/5. I consider this session a complete disaster, and an entirely preventable one, which makes it worse. There is an easily-followable chain-of-failures, leading from the very beginning of the session, to its premature, unceremonious end with a GM’s BSOD.

How have I failed thee? Let me count the ways…

I had a bad feeling about this one, but couldn’t quite put my finger on why, and I was sorely tempted to call it off. There were interruptions during the week that resulted in less available prep-time. I discovered a bad plot hole on Friday that I was frantically trying to resolve up to game-time—that is, the use of an RPG near the “bomb” nullified the deception. That I eventually came up with a weak-but-serviceable resolution left me with a false sense of security in having solved the problem, while all the other issues I had yet to identify remained unaddressed. This was one of the worst cases of GM “tunnel vision,” on my part, in the last decade or so, that I can recall. The following is a list of known fail-points in mostly-chronological order:

  • I had originally assumed the “entertainers” got around the ship via non-guest-accessible areas, but in the moment the magician was asked about alternative routes, I realized that if I gave the players that option, they would take it, and that would result in a small amount of chaos. So, I backed it off. No harm done.
  • The PCs’ reactions to being monitored by the security CCTV system was the first real issue to be revealed. It wasn’t just the fact that I didn’t know how many cameras were where, looking at what, or how one “sneaks” around them. It wasn’t just that I didn’t know, specifically, where the monitoring occurs, or how thoroughly—I had some educated guesses. It was in that moment that I realized the PCs would be walking right past where I thought that should have been, in the “office” area behind the bridge, and if the bad guys had smashed all the monitoring stations, I had no idea where they could have gone to continue monitoring—but it was now well-established that they were. Plot-hole discovered.
  • When the players also mentioned finding the security office and, not just shutting down the cameras, but possibly using them, I went white. Another plot hole, and a potentially serious one. (See below.)
  • I didn’t think about the PCs going back to their cabins, which meant I hadn’t given any consideration to their potential interactions with the NPCs there. GMing is all about improv, so I did what I could—could have been better, I suppose.
  • Due to the above point, I hadn’t considered PCs asking about Dalavi’s background, and his relationship with his wife. I hadn’t actually developed that well enough. Improv, again. I let the Universe decide about the situation with his wife.
  • I didn’t think about going outside the ship, to the bridge—this is really inexcusable, as I had considered just that for the set-piece fight at the Dalavi’s cabin. As a result, I hadn’t fetched the right images, nor considered the geography of the area, much less what it would take to navigate it, or what doors might be locked. This is a pretty common operation, though, so we know how to wing-it. (I discovered afterward that I got the geography a bit wrong—but near enough.)
  • I didn’t consider someone (specifically, Zoltar—who else?) might go onto the bridge alone, meaning that first encounter with the 3rd Officer possibly wouldn’t be witnessed by all. I also didn’t consider him working his way past the windows, where he could see right into the offices, which I had presumed to house the security monitoring stations. Not a big deal, I guess.
  • Another moment of temporary insanity: At the moment the words were about to come out of my mouth, I realized that if the 3rd Officer was in the bathroom during the whole takeover situation on the bridge, he would have no idea where the bad guys had gone when they left. This meant the PCs would be floundering around trying to guess, now that I had said all the monitors were smashed. More improv—I had to let them see the hostages at the pool area without revealing too much. I had given no thought whatsoever to things like “zoom,” and “pan” capabilities.
  • What made the previous point worse: at the very moment I told the players what they could see on the pool deck, I realized full consequence of the PCs’ having access—my carefully planned, cleverly hidden ambush would likely be in plain sight to the wide-angle cameras. I heard myself saying “you see nothing” while my brain was frantically trying (and failing) to figure out a way for that to be true. This was the point where things truly started to unravel.
  • At some point, I threw out that the bad guys might have repurposed the media center as a monitoring station—I had seen this place in a tour video—I didn’t consider that they might make going there a high-priority agenda item. Of course, I had only a vague idea where it might be, if it was even suitable for that purpose. I was fortunate they decided to sort out the hostages first.
  • Now that the PCs were on the bridge, they had access to full deck plans—I knew this because I had seen it in some videos of bridge-tours within the 24 hours leading up to game-time (which I really needed to have seen much earlier). That meant they had full knowledge of the back areas of the ship. And if Zoltar taking snapshots of the plans weren’t enough, I realized they have a bloody “tour guide” now, with the 3rd Officer. Of course, I have been virtually unable to find any sort of diagram of what those areas look like, or how one gets around them, up to this point.
  • I had no idea what the hell an EPIRB was 😛
  • Of course the PCs would decide to take the back-way to reach the Deck 11 pool area. Fine. I could just fast-forward them to their exit—they don’t need the details, really—but I wasn’t really certain what exits were actually available, though I had a vague notion or two. (As a result, they didn’t come out in quite the right place, but I can correct that later.)
  • To be fair, I was pretty flustered already, by this point, given all the crap that preceded. But once the PCs got to Deck 11, the whole thing started to collapse. It’s not that they were expecting an ambush—I figured that would be the case. But I had gotten a little confused around the geography, and was expecting them to emerge somewhat closer to the main pool area. I had them much farther back, which meant my carefully-planned, cleverly-hidden ambush was going to be compromised. Then it got worse when they started talking about Mayhem going up a level to Deck 12 to scout around for a sniper position—in which case, he was highly-likely to end up on top of part of the ambush, neverminding causing some other tactical issues. For whatever insane, inexcusable reason, that had not occurred to me whatsoever.

After all that, my brain was just overloaded with cognitive dissonance, and the circuit-breaker was finally tripped. We took an intermission, which has sometimes been enough for me to regain my footing, but at that moment, I could not in any way arrive at an acceptable solution. The very thing that would have filled this set-piece fight with escalated tension would be utterly nullified, as the PCs leisurely sidled up behind the ambushers and murdered them, entirely unaware. To just move forward with it as-is would have been utterly boring, but I didn’t have time to reconfigure. So, for the first time in multiple decades (I think?), I had to cut the session short, because the players “broke the GM”—or, if I’m honest, the GM broke himself; I just let the players hold the hammer. It will go down in my GMing history amongst the other spectacular failures I’ve had to learn from.

After an extra-long night of rest and a long shower the next morning, I had already worked through all the problems—maybe 75-85% anyway. But that will have to wait until next week.

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