Tag Archives: Age of Sail

Sea Dogs, Chapter I:V, GM Debrief

Session Recap; Stream

GM confidence: 3.75/5. Honestly, I don’t have much to complain about for this one, but there were a few bits here and there that were nagging at me afterward. I accomplished what I meant to, overall, but it was a bit rough.

Side Mission

There’s a tendency to have some sort of “adventure” at every stop along a long voyage in campaign-situations like these. I have wanted to distance myself from that. Thus, I originally intended Santo Domingo to be a non-adventure stop, but this turned out to be a special case. We were (supposed to be) down two players for this session, and I had considered skipping it, but decided instead to do a side-mission with the three players that were available. By the latter part of the week, the event had morphed into Furlong’s “Loyalty Mission.” I kinda wanted to “take it easy” this time and just do some character-development.

Full disclosure: I may have been experiencing a mild depressive episode during the week, which may have influenced the tone of this session’s story 😛

Treasure Maps

Each PC has a “Treasure Map,” essentially a personal campaign objective they’re attempting to complete. For each such Treasure Map, I make a weekly 3d6 roll in secret against a target of 6, like a Secret. On a success, some event occurs relating to that plot-thread, often in the background. I took the opportunity of a couple of them having succeeded to bring in some events I had been planning for a while (Hayden’s actually fired last week, but I delayed it). “CptButton” is one of our regular Twitch viewers (and played a session of Shadowrun with us); I’d been looking forward to an opportunity to start working some of those viewers into the narrative where I could.

Write It Down

In recent years, I had mostly gotten out of the habit of writing extensive GM notes, in an attempt to reduce the overall pregame workload. Plus, one can always tell when the GM is reading off a script. This session, however, was a bit of an anomaly, in that there were a few instances of complicated dialog that I had to write down. I observed afterward that I was able to deliver the stuff I wrote down comparatively smoothly, while I tended to stumble over the stuff I didn’t write down. I guess it really wouldn’t hurt to write down more. I’m trying to work on my “storytelling” anyway, and I suspect that’s going to follow the same pattern—I need to start pre-scripting more of the narrative elements.

Dependencies & Assumptions

I’ve learned the hard way, over the years, the danger of planning events that depend on or assume specific PC actions, as the PCs will inevitably do the opposite. I’ve had to re-learn it many times 😛 . In this session, there were multiple instances where I realized, to my horror, I had assumed the PCs would turn left, while they were determined to turn right. I was fortunate that they self-corrected onto the Golden Path before I had to take emergency action. I should know better by now.

But that brings me to an issue I’ve been trying to figure out lately: what to do when you place an opportunity for exposition in front of the player(s), and they just won’t ask the question? Taking away player agency to say, “You ask the guy about X,” is bad GMing, in my opinion. Allowing them to not get the important info isn’t ideal either. I don’t have a good answer for this yet.

Minor Issues

  • Rogers’ player was supposed to be out this week, but he showed up for the game anyway, and I wasn’t prepared for it. Therefore, I didn’t have any specific content in mind for Rogers. Worked out okay, anyway.
  • I missed the “maintenance” roll last week (3/103 Setbacks, “Spaceship Malfunctions”), so I made it up here
  • I stumbled a bit over accents and language issues, despite my practice during the week. The more I do it, though, the more comfortable I’ll get with it. But this also goes back to the “write it down” thing, too. I’m trying to remember to introduce the character/situation, and not try to carry the accent/etc. through the rest of the conversation.
  • Regarding the above: I used some Spanish with the watch-captain, and when asked to, didn’t translate it—I don’t know why I did that; I didn’t mean to
  • Shifty’s introduction and the surrounding events got a bit more jumbled than I intended
  • I totally forgot about Dora when the PCs started sneaking Shifty out of town. I guess that’s fine, since I really didn’t have anything specific for her to do. I hate when that happens, though…
  • There were a handful of events that got used out of sequence due to “forward progress”; the scene where they drink to Shifty after his recapture was supposed to happen after the hanging, but it didn’t make sense to wait at the time
  • There were some bits that were completely missed, like the rather-important revelation that Shifty’s “escape” wasn’t entirely accidental (but a ploy to find his crew)
  • I didn’t remember Plot Points until the moment the Tactics roll happened before the shootout, otherwise I might have had some better suggestions for their use other than re-rolls (though it ended up working out, in that regard)

Sea Dogs, Chapter I:IV, GM Debrief

Session Recap; Stream

GM confidence: 4/5. I was prepared for this one to get messy, and was pleasantly surprised when it didn’t. It basically came in two parts:


I was afraid I’d overpowered the PCs, but in the spirit of “sandboxing,” I didn’t want to pull my punches here. But with some subtle disadvantages (no boat, and the need to get information before killing everyone), and clever placement of distractions, the players had the space to deploy their typical shenaniganry to their advantage. I was actually prepared for “normal” combat here, but that didn’t end up being necessary. The players finally used some Bennies, to good (and expected) effect. “Dora” and her pursuers were not a random event—that thread is much more important than it might at first seem.

I’ve long tried to figure out the best way to make suggestions to the players without feeling like I’ve handed them the solution. Most GMs rely on die-rolls for this: they make it, and you tell them the answer. I never liked this solution, because it means there’s a chance you don’t get to tell them that thing they need to know, and if that’s not so, there’s really no point in the die-roll. As it happens, this campaign has an outlet for this: the NPC crewmen. That is, if I need to make a suggestion, I can have the NPC crewmen give it to them. It gets the information to the players, and it makes the NPCs feel a bit more alive. Win/win. In this case, I had Mr. Bold deliver the suggestion to circle around and walk in from behind. I need to look for more opportunities to use this.

Travel to Santo Domingo

Now to the truly sandboxy part. This was a bit of good and bad, and as usual, it’s far easier for me to focus on what went wrong, minor though it was:

  • I discovered, in the middle of it, that my spreadsheet voyage calculator had a bit of a bug, which prevented me from setting the proper departure time. By the time we got to the end, I had forgotten, and I screwed up the narrative a bit. I didn’t realize the error until after the game, though, so it didn’t cause me any real stress.
  • I “misplaced” my weather data for the trip. I didn’t want to subject everyone to 15 minutes of dead-air while I dug around for it, so I just went with what I had on hand, correct or not. The players wouldn’t likely know the difference.
  • There was a glitch at one point, where my random event generator system kept telling me there was a “traffic” event after it had been determined that there was no traffic. It threw me off my game, a bit, at the time, though I realized afterward that I could have just generated some traffic anyway—I’m sure nobody would complain, “But we rolled no traffic?”
  • I had some content for Mr. McNeill—the (randomly determined) NPC-focus for the session—but I forgot to sort out where that content should fit. It got a little jumbled, though again, the players would never know.
  • We wrapped up at a spot that didn’t make for a good cliffhanger.

But some stuff went well:

  • The incident with the guarda costa was completely random. I didn’t mind the back-and-forth about signals—good fodder for some research afterward—though I would obviously rather have known those answers beforehand. I established the PCs’ level of “vulnerability” long before the campaign started, so I don’t feel the need to worry about them getting inappropriately belligerent towards a strong enemy. Plus, the shakedown was a fact-of-life I wanted to establish, anyway.
  • The ship “stations” map seemed to be well-received, and did its job. I think this will keep things nicely organized for the future (and potentially, for other games).
  • I added a travel checklist the players could see, which should also help keep the travel processes better organized, and we established an SOP. This travel segment went pretty smoothly as a result, and I expect good results in the future.

Overall, I felt pretty good about this session. There were some lessons learned, that I’m in the process of addressing, and that’s always good news for the remainder of the campaign. We’ll be missing a couple of players for the next session, so I decided to run a “side-mission” with the ones that are available—I did want to get away from the “adventure at every stop” tendency, but it fits here, under the circumstances. The trick will be how I merge the other PCs into the narrative for the session that follows. We’ll see.

Sea Dogs, Chapter I:III, GM Debrief

Session Recap; Stream

GM Confidence: 4/5. I thought this one went pretty well. Seemed like the players did too.

It started off with the “recap.” I basically went back over the whole previous session and straightened out the timeline, adding in all the elements I forgot, like making the planning rolls, introducing the crew properly, fixing some mistakes, etc. Regarding the planning roll: this was the second time I’d used it, borrowing heavily from mechanics established in Dungeon Fantasy 16: Wilderness Adventures, but due to the changes I’ve made since the previous usage, the PCs ended up with a lot more Plot Points to spend. We’ll see how they get spent. I had to retract my former advice regarding “leaving with the tides” as well—I know quite a bit about nautical matters these days, but I’ve still got plenty to learn—and that significantly changed the PCs’ post-sabotage plans once the regular timeline was resumed. I wanted to keep the whole thing short, but it ended up taking half the session. Oh, well.

Claude’s player decided to drop out of the group, at the last minute. It is a little disappointing, but it will be easier to run with fewer players, so there’s some benefit. Ironically (and conveniently), her Secret fired this session; it ended up playing out without her, and I was able to work it into one of the random events.

This was the first session where (finally) the PCs took to the open sea. That meant it was the first time making in-game use of the sailing spreadsheet stuff, which worked pretty well, but I discovered it needed some improvements (some of which I’ve already made). It was also the first time using the departure/under-sail/arrival checklists, which meant a lot of die-rolling—I was afraid that would be a mess. Afterward, I think it felt about right. The “repetitive” feel of it is entirely intentional; it’s an aspect of the life I wanted to get across, though it’s possible I’ll start allowing them to Take Average on those rolls down the road.

I’m using the “Interesting Times” interpretation of my Universe Reaction rolls to handle daily random encounters, which I combined with tarot to determine the nature of generated events. I did find myself hesitating a bit at first, but I think I’ll get used to it. It might be a good idea to come up with a few crewman/ship-specific events ahead of time, rather than the more generalized list I currently have. After-the-fact, I’m pretty sure the calculations were a bit off, but I’m not going to go back and fix it. The players won’t notice (unless they read this 😛 )

The events at Île-à-Vache were a bit last-minute, and I think they could have benefited from a bit more processing—it wasn’t bad, I just felt it needed a little more…something. I need to keep in mind for the future that such events should probably always include a “twist” of some kind, beyond the initial confrontation. The session ended on a much better cliffhanger than last time, too—though I hope I haven’t painted myself into a bit of a corner as a result.

Sea Dogs, Chapter I:II, GM Debrief

Session Recap; Stream

GM Confidence: 3/5. I really buggered this one up. I’d rate it worse, but I think the mess was, thankfully, mostly invisible to the players.


I thought I had everything properly organized, but “no plan survives contact with the enemy.” I suppose it could be accurately said that my failure here was the result of players doing what I should have expected, but did not. In hindsight, the first domino appears to have been my intent to have the “voyage planning session” occur after the “dive.” I expected all the PCs to participate in the Skill Challenge, and not make any real plans until after it was resolved. When some split off, it made more sense for them to start making voyage arrangements on the side, which would require them to know where they would be going first. (Payne already knew about Île-à-Vache, so they could reasonably plan it out, even though the Coin wasn’t yet in hand.) That meant they had to have the conversation before the dive—which would sensibly occur when they returned to the ship that night. Since I didn’t know they were going to split up until afterward, that meant I had to backtrack. The second fail was my on-the-spot decision to roll-up the entire Skill Challenge at once and sort it out afterward, which caused me to miss a bunch of events I intended to occur during the process, and muddled up the timeline even more. Those two combined with other mistakes, to make a complete mess of things, behind-the-screen:

  • I realized days later that I had completely forgotten the second clue from Old Tom, which will greatly affect the voyage planning (requiring a bit of backtracking next week)
  • For whatever reason, it skipped my mind that the process of getting freight/passengers/etc. takes two days, which meant my timeline needed to be extended (and some events could have occurred later); also, even though I did review the rules in Pyramid 3/97 “Medieval Sea Trade” beforehand, I didn’t actually make note of the skill needed to roll against
  • In spite of my extensive notes on the matter, I completely forgot to actually do the skill-rolls for the voyage planning process—I’ll have to backtrack next time and cover that
  • I have no idea why it didn’t occur to me that one of the PCs might actually try to seek out the captain of the Nijmegen and, y’know, talk to him. At least it’s got their curiosity going. It’s a shame I didn’t have any real detail on the character. That would have been a good idea…
  • I had forgotten how absolutely passive Davino’s player has always been, and I wasn’t prepared for his complete lack of response to his info dump (though, in my defense, I’ve not GMed a full campaign with him in it before)
  • There were a few events in town, and a number involving the NPC crewmen’s introductions, that I completely skipped, in the general confusion
  • It never occurred to me that someone on watch aboard the ship might just “yell at” the saboteurs in the water—I completely froze for a minute, not quite knowing how to respond; I think my use of Serendipity wasn’t quite in the spirit of the Advantage as written, also

It Wasn’t All Bad

  • The Skill Challenge actually went through more-or-less without a hitch, which surprised me—maybe we’ve finally figured it out
  • Once again, my pacing was pretty accurate—it ended roughly where I expected
  • As GM or player, I’m not usually the “accents” guy; this was my first time attempting French—good or bad, I felt mostly comfortable doing it, which is a big step for me. (I’ll have to listen to the stream later and see if it makes me cringe 😛 )
  • Planning big operations always takes a lot of table-time; I tried to speed it along, and I don’t think it dragged on excessively, so that’s a win

Unsolicited Information

During the Skill Challenge, I ended up volunteering some background information regarding goggles and diving bells. It was related, and potentially useful, whether or not it was “interesting.” But it was unsolicited, and frankly, I doubt the players would ever have asked for it, because it probably never would have occurred to them. I find myself wondering what a GM should do here? You want them to have the info, but if you volunteer it, it can feel forced, and can be mistaken as “important” when it isn’t really. I don’t have an answer (yet).


I like to think I generally learn from my mistakes, and that means I should have learned a lot from this session. But we’re going to be moving out of the relative safety of the kiddie-pool next week, and into the deep end of the unknown (that is, stuff I haven’t prepared for as thoroughly, due to the sandbox nature of the campaign). That will be the real test of my GMing ability.

Sea Dogs, Chapter I:I, GM Debrief

Session Recap; Stream

GM Confidence: 4.5/5. Finally, after (literally) 20+ years in the making, the Sea Dogs campaign officially began. I had the usual first-session-jitters, but it went pretty much according to plan. I felt like everyone was engaged throughout. The session splits into three basic parts:

Part I: The Duel

I was pleased with how the “duel” segment turned out, overall. I made a point to find some way to highlight each of the PCs’ character; I had some difficulty figuring out how to do that for Hayden, but he ended up being the volunteer, which worked out perfectly. I did not think through the medical aftermath, though; I really should have read up on that beforehand.

Part II: The Priest

I had to make a lot of changes to the “priest” scene at the last minute to fill some plot holes, and it could have benefited from cooking a little longer, I think. But it had the effect I was looking for. I hadn’t actually expected Davino’s player to hesitate to the degree that he did, but at least it had occurred to me, and I planned for the servant offer to do it for him in that event. I did not consider he would bring another PC along, though, but that ended up working to my advantage, as Rogers’ reaction added a little more conflict/drama to the scene. There’s actually a lot more exposition to get through to set everything up, here, but I decided to have the servant catch up to Davino later, rather than slog through it all in one go. We’ll see if that was the right call.

Part III: Old Tom

I was a little disappointed that the “random encounters” on the road came up nil, but I want to stick to the plan—it’s supposed to be sandbox, after all. I discovered too late that, although it had occurred to me the PCs might want to talk to the assassins, I hadn’t actually considered their response. I should have paid more attention to their equipment, as well. But to be fair, I really procrastinated to that end. Next time, better, I hope. I did have an idea after the game that I might come up with some sort of “random mook personality trait” table, just to give them a little individual flavor. I had a short Action 2 Chase in mind for the runaway at the end of it, but the PCs didn’t try to run him down. That’s fine. It was probably unnecessary.

Other Stuff

My pacing was spot on; it ended roughly where I expected. And on a good cliffhanger. On the down-side: I didn’t give out any bennies—new mechanic—as my mind was occupied with too many other things at the time. Some of the interludes were a little stumbly. I missed getting a reference image for the jungle trail. I totally forgot the monkey until the fight at the end. But those were all pretty minor, and I’m confident I can improve, now that the first-session dread is past.

Introduction to Sea Dogs


This campaign has some deep roots, though it is only just now pushing up through the surface. I have some notes dating back to 2004. The idea at that time was a more-or-less traditional “pirate” game, influenced greatly by the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie; a loose-story/sandbox in a mythic-historical Age-of-Sail setting (around 1660-ish). It would feature some elements from the “flashbacks” in Fortune Hunters, which I (mostly) ran in 2001, though more of a retelling than a direct prequel. It was more of a “concept” than an actual campaign attempt; little more than a handful of collected ideas. I never announced it, and never had characters created. The opportunity never really materialized. But the desire to see it done one day never really faded, as this is a favorite genre of mine, and I thoroughly enjoy(ed) doing the research.

Recently, some at the Olympus (Saturday) group were looking for some Fantasy stuff, but I didn’t necessarily want to jump back into Legends of Generica, and on a whim, I pitched the Age-of-Sail idea. I was surprised when I weighed anchor that the fresh breeze of player interest filled the sails of effort, and we began to pick up headway almost immediately. With the current Traveller campaign end in sight, I rode the tide-current of opportunity out of the harbor, with a firm hand on the tiller.

Campaign Overview

Like its predecessor, this campaign is intended as a sandbox—basically an Age-of-Sail Traveller game—and I’m trying for a 12-session first run. I decided to stick with “realistic,” rather than the “cinematic” leanings we’ve used of late, mostly because I find a reality-check is easier to adjudicate. But being a part of the Daniverse setting also means a World of Darkness core, so it will definitely feature the supernatural. I’ve worked in most of the (admittedly, sparse) original material. My plan is to make this campaign mostly out of player-generated content, and do a bare-minimum of GM guidance in the PCs’ in-game affairs; my intent is to drop interruptions in their self-chosen path rather than guide them to a path of my own design. A pool of additional (crew) NPCs with a mobile base-of-operations also makes it easier to swap PCs in and out when a player comes up absent for some reason, providing I can end the sessions at or near the ship.

In the interest of keeping things player-generated, I started a series of question-and-answer posts on the boards regarding the starting conditions. The players decided where the campaign would start, at what date, how they acquired the new ship, how they arrived at that point together, and the nature of their association. In addition, I required all PCs to have what I am referring to as a “Treasure Map.” It didn’t need to be an actual treasure map, just a plot/goal of some kind that they would be seeking out, individually. My goal was to make whatever comes first/next more of a “multiple-choice.” Additionally, I steered them away from having a single character as an authority-figure they would be deferring to for decision-making (which has taken some effort to sort out, given the fact that one of them would inevitably be “captain”), including any sort of “quest-giver” Patron.

I decided to go with a low-level start (originally 150pts, later bumped to 175 at players’ request). I gave them a ship to start with, a very small and weakly-armed ketch (based on the HBC Nonsuch). As we started working out the characters, it started to develop into a very “British” party, and I decided to push that a little further by allowing Brave as a campaign Perk for English characters who behave in a properly-British manner. The party we ended up with is a bit quirky and unusual, but I’m happy with it.

Some additional notes:

  • I’m okay with the Mass Combat rules in general, but I wanted something a little crunchier than that for ship combat. There are plenty of related Age-of-Sail board games, and as I encountered it, I decided to use Don’t Give Up the Ship!. It’s really simple, but gets the feel across, and has enough room for some GURPSification.
  • We recently decided as a group that, although there’s nothing wrong with the idea of Plot Points, we’ve lost a bit of the usual fear-of-death as a result (partially or fully). We’re going to try this campaign without them, or at least, the general-purpose variety.
  • I’ve been leaning toward using D&D 4e’s Skill Challenges in GURPS. I plan to use them a lot in this campaign, subject to change if it sucks for some reason.
  • I’ve been influenced quite a bit by Night’s Black Agents. I thought some elements of that might be applicable in this campaign. I have re-skinned my Relationships mechanic to imitate NBA’s “Trust.” I also wanted to work in NBA’s “Stability”—long sea-journeys and their difficulties can often result in madness to some degree. That required something new. Fortunately, there’s Pyramid 3/103, “Mad as Bones” (pp. 4-9) by Christopher Rice, which covers it quite well.

I expect I’ll be doing the same thing as Generica with regard to my blogging of the campaign. That is, I’ll leave the recording of the players’ side on the Olympus blog, and record my GM behind-the-scenes stuff here.