Tag Archives: Age of Sail

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.

Miscellaneous

  • 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.

Miscellaneous

  • 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.

Miscellaneous

  • 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.

Sea Dogs, Chapter II:II, GM Debrief

GM Confidence: 3/5. Once again, after a solid first session, the second session that followed was frustratingly sloppy, from my perspective, at least. I felt kinda dirty afterward. As with the previous session-2, maybe the players didn’t really notice…

The Bounty hunter

We got off to a good enough start. Mel got to tell her story. As soon as I started on wrapping up the bounty hunter story, I started to realize how I’d forgotten to really process the situation, having, instead, focused entirely on other, farther-out issues.

I had not actually worked out what item Friendly might have had of Matthew’s, except a passing thought about the letters—I had meant to come up with something a little more dramatic. I had not fully processed how Mikkel should interact with the people/situation, and how he might start to break down a little upon discovery of his runestones being missing. I had also meant for the local townies to make a bit of a fuss over the kidnapping, and completely missed that—more on that note, later. I didn’t really process Friendly’s reactions, either. Overall, “it happened.” It wasn’t terrible, it just could/should have been a little more.

The Interrogation

Just like in the Season 1 Episode 2, I had planned to interrupt an ongoing complex process (the PCs’ shore business) with an “event,” and just like the previous, it screwed up the narrative flow. In retrospect, I think it would have made more sense to go ahead and get the business die-rolling out of the way, and better establish who was where before interrupting, but I had made the stupid mistake of assuming everyone would be in one place—which could easily have occurred if the event had happened before everyone broke off, but in the heat of the moment, I couldn’t course-correct for some reason.

As to the interrogation itself: I decided to roll Reaction for Lt. Brace’s “baseline” and rolled high: 14 (which I lowered by two, ultimately). It caused a little cognitive-dissonance with my prior imagining of the scene, and I didn’t fully process what these results should look like, before the game. I should certainly know better by now, but I also did not make any plans for what might happen if one of the PCs were to fail, much less deliberately antagonize him. (Rogers’ behavior appears to have been somewhat of a misunderstanding, but that’s another matter.) I also didn’t think too hard about his line-of-questioning, which could have been a lot more challenging and sensible—other than “What’s your side of the story?” and “That’s good enough for me!” I could kinda feel the whole thing tilting off-balance as we progressed through it. There are so many good resources for this sort of situation, and I used none of them.

One thing I realized after the game was that I should have had some “cumulative” effect for everyone’s level of success or failure that would result in a “final tally” of guilt or innocence. But then “guilty” wasn’t really an option here, and it should have been. For shame. That’s just bad GMing. Never, ever do that.

Another thing I realized after the session was over was that, once again, I had a situation where the players weren’t asking the questions I expected them to, and once again, I find myself wondering what is the right way to coax those questions out of them? There’s no way to say, “So, are you going to ask Lt. Brace the identity of your accuser?” without giving away that it is important information, or essentially, “playing their character for them,” which is always bad form. Every time I consider it, I feel myself drifting away from GMing “propriety” toward “pragmatism”—just give them a list of knowns and unknowns beforehand so they don’t forget. Maybe next time. In this case, I’m going to have to do a little cleanup next time.

Shore Business

When it came to wrapping things up ashore, I quickly found that my notes were badly ordered, parts missing, mechanics either not fleshed out or not recorded in their final incarnation, etc. There were big chunks of my rules on Speculative Cargo missing. I kept having to scroll miles up and down my notes to get to that other thing I needed. I desperately needed to do a thorough read-through, to grasp the narrative flow, and find the gaps in my information to-hand. It could’ve been worse, though.

I had a bunch of character stuff planned, for crew ashore and whatnot, that I just skipped completely past, for no reason I can think of, except that those notes weren’t where they needed to be in the flow. There was a whole thing about pineapple being a cash-crop on Eleuthera that the PCs might have been interested in; completely missed. I really wanted to do more with Friendly; just dropped away. The townies were supposed to be trying to get to the bottom of the kidnapping, and I wanted to force the PCs to answer for his release (or lie about it).

Some of my issues with the above stemmed from a small amount of “panic” regarding the PCs’ decision to cut things short. I hadn’t planned for them to leave in the evening of the 13th. Not at all. I was far too lenient in twisting conditions to allow it to actually happen—maybe, in some way, I was afraid that if they were delayed after dark, they would attempt it anyway, and I didn’t have a plan for it. I also had specific routes worked out that did not include things like “stopping in Nassau for any reason”—I could’ve managed with that, I think, but I found myself “steering” the players a bit. Once again, bad form.

Pacing

My pacing expectations for this campaign—early, though it is—has been a bit off. I expected them to be at Havana at the beginning of this session. I expected them to be at Havana at the end of this session, too. I’m not sure where I went wrong; not yet, anyway. I expect this to improve as we go, though. It did result in an awkward ending/cliffhanger, which I hate. Such is life.

Miscellaneous

  • I did a lot of spreadsheet cleanup over the week. This needed to happen, but it did take time away from the other stuff, and that didn’t help matters.
  • I realized afterward that, with regard to Area Knowledge, it might benefit from using a “Group Roll” rather than individual—since everyone will normally be communicating, and can pool their knowledge. There are probably some other instances of this I can use. (I may discuss the concept in a later post.)
  • When the PCs were departing, I pointed them to the wrong island for where the Hazard was anchored. It was much farther north. Not sure why I got that wrong.
  • After the session, I discovered a number of things in (or adjacent to) Social Engineering. The big ones are using Savoir-Faire to “impress one’s status on another,” and that to get the Reaction bonus for Talent, one must be observed using a skill covered by the Talent.
  • Mikkel “the Hound” Skaarup not only lives, and is still “in play,” but is actively looking for Hayden’s son, now, as well. I look forward to bring him in again later.
  • Regarding “Handsome” Ned Long: I finally figured out what’s going on with him. It’s gonna be fun to reveal this one. 😉

Sea Dogs, Chapter II:I, GM Debrief

GM Confidence: 4.5/5. I’m finally back at this one, only two years later than originally predicted. 😛 Despite the usual pre-run jitters, I felt pretty good about this one. I honestly can’t think of anything in particular that went “wrong” in this session, with an admittedly-minor exception.

What’s New

The most drastic change for Season 2 is that I’m now using Fantasy Grounds Unity. I’ve been playing it for quite a while now, but this was my first time running. I’ve gotten used to the quirks, and I still have a problem with some of the changes, all of which made me reluctant to switch. Anyway, I spent some time getting proficient with the new features, and I plan on getting the most out of them. In this session, the combat was certainly enhanced by the lighting features, at least.

The second biggest change is that, once again, I have a couple of PCs with new players: Claudia and Rogers. Claudia was only played once by her original player. Her storyline lapsed during her tenure as NPC, and I’m getting her caught up. Also, Mel has already started writing some prose to flesh out her background. Regarding Buck, I feel that Nosh is a pretty good replacement for his original player, but I’ve also not run with him before, so there’s some uncertainty there. But these aren’t “worries” for me—I expect good things.

Outside of those changes, I mostly just picked up where I left off. I had a long run-up from my initial announcement to the start of the campaign run (including some delays), which gave me plenty of time to research. I managed to get some answers to some questions that had nagged me throughout the previous run—things like the dollar-amount of import/export tariffs, the nature of smuggling, pilotage costs and operations, etc.—and I made more improvements to the spreadsheets (and discovered yet more that were needed).

The Fight

Kicking off with a fight is a great way to let everyone get acclimated. The combat in this session was a set-piece that had, ultimately, been in the works since the end of the previous run. It’s always worrying to me when I find myself stacking the deck against the PCs so strongly. The weather conditions and such were the result of the real-world weather I’ve been using, as was the “new moon”—that is, not something I had deliberately decided to inflict upon the characters. I struggled a bit with how the PCs would actually arrive at the proper location, much less be able to conduct the rescue at all in those conditions, but I obviously found a way. I made certain to spell out all the adverse conditions in much detail well prior to the engagement, so the players had time to fully process and come to terms with them. It didn’t make sense for the bad guys to have a small (PCs-sized) crew, but turning half of them into “non-combatants” kept that from turning into a disaster.

The scenario made a good showcase of some of the new FGU features, and I feel like the novelty of it may have helped make the combat “fun,” rather than tedious. It lasted for a little over an hour; roughly what I had anticipated. I didn’t think about the “Bad Footing” for the beach sand until the last minute, and as such, I held back on enforcing it, having not fully established that condition beforehand—players don’t like that sort of “surprise,” I’ve found. It was similarly late in the process when I remembered Disasters – Hurricane as a source, so I didn’t have time to wrap my head around those mechanics. But I think we all had fun with the results.

The Prisoner

It was the previous run of this campaign where I had identified a problem I had with managing social interactions, and had begun figuring out a solution. Here I made use of the latest iteration: the “Lock & Key”—identifying factors or lines-of-questioning/approach that will cause the NPC to open-up or shut-down. In the case of the county hunter, both were “control”—as long as he feels he can complete his mission, whatever the detour, he will hold fast (bonus to resist Influence); if he feels he is losing control of the situation, he would begin to lose control of himself (penalty to resist Influence). In practice, it seemed to work, but I don’t think the players really pushed the limits. I should have come up with some specific success/fail responses for him beforehand, though, instead of improvising. That said, my “big fail” of the session was not actually knowing the circumstances of the delivery of his prize—a dumb mistake on my part. So I had to come up with something plausible on-the-fly. If I change my mind later: maybe he was lying? 😛 Regardless, this segment took more time than I had anticipated, and is probably the main reason I ended up, story-wise, coming up shorter for the session than I had intended (aside from the delayed start).

Miscellaneous

  • I completely forgot to hand out Bennies at the start. I’ll have to make up for that next time.
  • Post Season 1 research uncovered a lot of little “errors” I needed to correct at the beginning of the session. The good part: The time taken to issue the corrections gave me some time to ease in behind-the-screen.
  • I had actually not prepared for the PCs to end up getting lost or going the entirely wrong direction—another dumb mistake. Always ask yourself: What’s the worst logical result of player involvement, and be prepared for it. 😉
  • I was particularly happy with how all the PCs managed to find a little way to “contribute” during the fight, even if it wasn’t dealing damage, that served to highlight their characters’…character.
  • Hayden’s “commission” of the bounty hunter in his own search was a complete surprise to me—the idea had never occurred to me at all—but I can certainly make use of it!
  • I was fortunate the players didn’t settle on some of their other ideas about what to do with the bounty hunter—there were quite a few I hadn’t even considered (and probably should have).

On top of everything else, I have to get used to writing these things again… 😛

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.

Sea Dogs, Chapter I:XII (Finale), GM Debrief

Session Recap; Stream

GM confidence: 4/5. It was another desperate, last-minute effort, with the added weight of the need to wrap up the season properly, that I feel I barely squeaked out, behind-the-scenes, but it worked. As much as I’ve actually enjoyed running this campaign, I’ve been struggling to keep up, lately.

The Central Conflict

It was Thursday when I realized that, although I had a number of disconnected individual events that would occur during the session (most of which were leftovers we didn’t get to, from the previous session), there was no “central conflict” around which the session would revolve. Very weak storytelling. I hobbled together the Jack Rackham/pearls/Scooby-Doo thread, which I feel worked well enough, though I was still wrestling with the details an hour before the session.

Medical Drama

For the first time during this campaign, a PC would require surgery. It was very possible he could die as a result. Very dramatic; everyone was prepared for the worst. We tried to sort out all the modifiers ahead of time. I had already intended to be using the rules from Low-Tech Companion 1, which we used once after the duel in the first session. I wanted to have the rolls made in secret and reveal the results in a more narrative fashion.

The end result was rather less dramatic than expected. Spenser succeeded both rolls; one needed a single Benny to become a success, and the other was a Critical Success on its own. The automatic damage rolled was really low, and further reduced by the surgery success. It was a little anticlimactic, truth be told. I tried to keep them guessing about the actual recovery time, but it turns out that’s really difficult to do, the mechanics being what they are.

Unfortunately it did mean that Rogers would be out of action for recovery. The player ended up bailing on the session early as a result, which is too bad—I think it might have been more fun for him to play the stubborn patient, and continue to contribute in spite of his wounds, against doctor’s orders. Oh, well.

Raynard Adler

AKA Raymond Atchisson, Mr. Atwell, etc. This is another old character of mine—I believe, the second character I ever created in GURPS—and, essentially, a self-character-plus. He’s a time-traveling antiques-dealer and adventurer. Basically, in this case, he came to Nassau looking to get his hands on one or more of Rackham’s pearls for a client, and landed in a hot mess. Afterward, he teleported out to Barbados a week or so before, to send himself a letter detailing the positions, etc., of the bad guys in the warehouse, and enlist the PCs’ aid.

This is not the first time this character has appeared in a campaign of mine: he showed up in both timelines of Fortune Hunters, Inc.; and was planned to appear in The Crusade eventually; I also played the character as a GMPC in an early Temporal Solutions game.

I don’t have plans to introduce any other of my personal characters in the campaign. Last one. Honest. 😛

Other Stuff

  • Throughout the campaign, I had a bunch of what I refer to as “drop-ins,” events I can easily wire in wherever the PCs happen to be. But I clearly didn’t have enough of them to last the whole season. At least now I have a better idea how many I will need, and what it takes to implement them, before the next season rolls around.
  • I made an effort to tie this season finale to the Campaign Theme, and the business with the pearls—that is, the merchant not keeping the secret when he should have—fit nicely, after much last-minute tweaking.
  • There were several social interactions in the session that, for no good reason, I didn’t give nearly enough thought to before they happened. Something I’ve decided is that in all such future cases, I should take the “main six” social skills (as implied in Social Engineering: Diplomacy, Fast-Talk, Intimidation, Savoir-Faire, Sex-Appeal, Streetwise) and write a note or two toward each approach, just to establish a baseline for responses.
  • Likewise, there were a few elements for which I had never sorted out the details, though they had been in the works from the very beginning (or before). I found myself in a last-minute scramble to sort them out. Adler’s business in Nassau was one. Friendly’s background with Hayden’s son was another.
  • Jack Rackham’s lost bag of 5000 pesos worth in black pearls is not a historical occurrence (to my knowledge). Rather, it comes from Season 1, Episode 2, of Black Sails.
  • Artegal’s discovery of his own black pearl was the result of his newly-added Perk: Moneyclip Magnet.
  • I realized afterward that I probably should have rolled for random encounters during the PCs’ downtime in town, but maybe the padding wasn’t really necessary.
  • Boissonade’s presence was the result of Payne’s Enemy (Rival) finally showing up for the first time since they lost them at Île-à-Vache. The wager was originally intended to occur at that island, but their navigation failure during the race made their arrival narratively impractical. It also meant I never got to introduce any of the La Dame Blanche crew, since I failed to do so in Kingston. They should be more available in the near-future, though, now that they’re in the area. The reappearance of Handsome Ned is another matter entirely…
  • I had to sort out the weather for two weeks and hope the PCs didn’t stay in Nassau longer than that. As I did so, I saw there was going to be a bit of a storm on the 11th-12th—gusts up to 50mph—and thought it would be hilarious if they ended up setting sail that day. They did. Totally unintentional. 😛
  • I had a hard time working out a proper cliffhanger for the session—more important due to being the end of the run. I went through quite a few revisions before I settled on Dora’s kidnapping, which was the easiest to drop in wherever the PCs ended up, and I expected it to be effective—and it was.

Wrapping Up

My original intent was to end the season at Campeche with the first Treasure Map done. My adjusted expectation was that it would end at Havana. Obviously, it ended up even shorter, but that’s fine. That just means I have some big set-pieces coming up at the beginning of the next. With this season over, my intention is not to set it aside, but really focus on fleshing out the bits I know are coming up—especially Campeche—and generate more drop-ins. After a bit of a break. If the usual pattern continues, I would expect to see Sea Dogs return for Season 2 at the end of the year, or beginning of 2021.

Sea Dogs, Chapter I:XI, GM Debrief

Session Recap; Stream

GM confidence: 3/5. This session revolved mostly around a combat encounter, and while everything outside the combat went pretty well, the combat itself felt rather sloppy, at least, to me. To be honest, my planning for this week’s session could have benefited from a few more days to process, and I feel like it showed in the execution.

Calm Before the Storm

I had some basic stuff planned leading up to the fight. I presumed it wouldn’t take very long to go through it—that turned out to be wrong, though I couldn’t say what took so long.

  • We’ve been getting more comfortable with the “sea travel” bits, settling into a rhythm. That rhythm was interrupted by some character stuff, but that’s fine—I want that to happen.
  • The encounter with the impressed schooner served a couple of purposes: the obvious, the way-out for Geoffrey de Saloman, but also to start setting up the British as being less-than-upright. I don’t personally have anything against the Brits (more than anyone else in the period), but I also don’t want them to be looked to as the shining-good-guy-city-on-a-hill either, and that means tearing them down a little, if just as a reminder.
  • I worked in a bit more harassment from the Revenue Service which had been previously lacking.
  • I realized I had been missing an opportunity to get the NPC crew a bit more involved by not giving them their own “shore business” to take care of at port. I decided to give them all a tarot draw, ignoring anything but face-cards. I got some results I wasn’t expecting, but I managed to make something out of it, I think. I’ll try to keep that up in the future.
  • The introduction of Raynard Adler went mostly according to (much-adjusted at the last minute) plan. In spite of this scene being in the works since the beginning, I never actually fleshed it out properly, and I had to fill in a lot of holes. For some reason, though, I expected all of the PCs to be present, not just one—I should know better. 😛

Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda

We hadn’t had a proper fight in a while. I expected it to consume a lot of game-time, as they do, but I also expected to get to it earlier. It really felt sloppy, to me. I think the players didn’t notice so much, as usual, but I really wish I had done better.

  • The map was bad, in retrospect. I had focused on the PCs’ approach, and the possibility of taking the fight into the street, and therefore got a map of a much wider area than was needed. That took away clarity and detail from the warehouse itself, where it was more useful. I also really needed an establishing shot of the warehouse itself, which would have helped the players decide on points-of-entry and whatnot.
  • I had expected a more one-sided, quick battle, like the one in Santo Domingo. In the moment, I realized I had failed to actually set that up properly, and kinda fumbled it.
  • I was completely unprepared for the PCs to enlist the NPC crew in the operation—again, I should know better. When the fight got going, I didn’t have the NPCs entered into the combat tracker, which resulted in me forgetting them entirely. I was fortunate the players started dragging them along without me.
  • I keep forgetting to check the Malf numbers for black-powder weapons; we’ve probably missed some misfires here and there.
  • Based on some of the missteps I made in this combat, here are a few lessons to learn:
    • Always ask yourself how the bad guys are armed, and how ready they are
    • Always make sure it’s easy to tell which is which at a glance
    • Always clarify possible entry points, even if they’re unlikely to be used
    • Regular ally NPCs should be statted and ready to be dropped in quickly—no excuse not to

Other Stuff

  • I was pleased/relieved that when Geoffrey said people would be asking after him, the appropriate PCs said they would keep his secret—otherwise the “What? No!” response couldn’t have worked 😀
  • More on Raynard Adler next time…
  • The players didn’t end up asking some questions of Adler I felt were obvious (again), but there’s opportunity for that next time.
  • As it turns out, Aikido techniques are really difficult to describe to/by someone who knows nothing of Eastern martial arts (like the PCs)
  • The session ended where I originally wanted, but not where I had intended at the time
  • Lt. Rogers and Mr. Bold are going to end up requiring surgery to remove bullets (in spite of what I had said in the session—that would turn out to be incorrect)

Series Finale Coming Up

The injuries are going to end up causing the PCs to remain in Nassau for an extended period to heal, which is going to disrupt the narrative intentions I had before the session. I was already unsure how to end the series, and that delay won’t help. On the other hand, I’ve got material to last the session already, I think, so I can afford to devote more time to figuring out how to do a proper wrap-up. I really need it to end on the right note.

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.