GM Perspectives and Introspectives
For the better part of February, I stepped in as guest-GM of my Saturday Traveller campaign. The nature of the overall campaign’s construction allowed for easy swapping of GMs, which would give the regular GM a chance to play in the campaign for a change. Plus, I had some stuff in mind that I wanted to see that, when presented with the guest-GM idea, made sense for me to run as guest-GM instead of waiting for the regular GM to get to it. I just needed the right opportunity, certain conditions met, to set it up. This would be my first GMing foray for this year, and the first since the Inception one-shot over a year prior.
In our regular Traveller campaign, we tend to hand-wave, for the sake of time/mundanity, the day-to-day operational details discussed at length in GURPS Traveller: Far Trader. I wanted to deliberately focus on those details, if for no other reason than to have that experience to reference, at least once. A countdown—like a race, or a tight schedule—would be an excellent justification for that level of focus; by taking each step of the process and introducing delays or other obstacles to on-time completion there would be plenty of content for a session or two.
As I started working on the one-shot when the time came, I also decided to take the opportunity to bring up a number of Disadvantages amongst the PCs—Enemies, Secrets, Duties and the like—which had gone neglected for whatever reason, and use those as the adventure’s obstacles. One such Trait came from the regular GM’s new character, Eddy, his Secret (Some Crime)—which turned out to have been removed when I wasn’t looking—to be represented by the appearance of a bounty-hunter which would threaten to expose said Secret by causing the others to ask “why?” This would be the centerpiece of the adventure. (I kept the bounty-hunter storyline anyway after I realized the Disad was removed.) I did not do any actual work on the content, that is researching and writing things down, until the week prior to the run—intentional standard procedure for me, of late, but I really wanted to keep this simple. I did not have a specific target for how many sessions the run would take up, but once I had the content sorted, I figured it would be at least two, maybe three—which turned out to be correct.
The PCs, for reference.
There were only two NPCs that I “officially” cast: Maaq Mountain (Dwayne Johnson, a mix of his characters from The Rundown and Fast and Furious 6) and Ulysses Pitt (Nick Chinlund, a “Tooms” ripoff from Chronicles of Riddick)—and crew. I didn’t stat them out, but I did have a general idea of their capabilities and background. I had a “face” in mind for the brokers, but I did not present that to the players—these were throwaway characters, really, and I didn’t want to lock in those actors. Truman Park (Matt Damon, from The Martian, specifically) was an on-the-fly addition—details on that later.
I wrote my own PC, Haank, out of the story, taking the opportunity to focus on an aspect of the character that hadn’t gotten much attention—he’s a “serious” golfer. Porozlo has a perfect environment for golfing, and the “celebrity tournament” made it something Haank would definitely not miss (and nobody would make a fuss). I had him take Valerie along to remove her from the crew’s concern, with the good excuse of getting her off the ship and in the open air for a while, something the character desperately needed. Haank also normally saw to the ship’s business interests ashore, his absence meaning that some PCs would have to perform jobs they weren’t accustomed to—intentional, to get them involved in those day-to-day details.
There are a number of mechanical adjustments/experiments I intended to use (as usual), as follows:
- The “rush job” was specifically intended to create the “countdown,” to generate the dramatic tension for the story. I had already planned for Haank to get his HAZMAT certification at Rhylanor, so a hazardous cargo was a natural choice. I pre-generated the other outgoing freight and passengers, which turned out to be quite a lot—commerce between Rhylanor and Porozlo is very heavy, as it turns out—and this locked in the PCs’ intermediate stop at Porozlo, which was important to the PCs, due to their previous visit. I had to scour the books to find the standard deadline for freight, on TFT28; I worked out the tightest possible schedule for the rush job’s deadline.
- My original plan was to have the bounty-hunter 24 hours behind the PCs as another countdown, giving them that window to get in and out of port before he arrived, but as I started to work out the details, specifically, how fast his ship would be compared to the overall transit time, I decided not to force it—it wasn’t really needed, and having the bounty-hunter at port at the same time would force them to get creative. I went over the Traveller: Bounty Hunters book a couple of times to get the background squared away—the bounty did not originate from the judicial system, but it was technically legal (all the paperwork was filed), though by private parties for private reasons.
- I originally planned to give out points at the end based on Victory Conditions. One of those conditions, specific to Eddy’s player, was that, at the end, the other PCs were not made aware (in character) of the true nature of his “Some Crime” committed—of course, that was before I found out the Secret had been removed. I was a bit disappointed that it was no longer applicable; I really wanted to see how that might turn out in the end. The other Victory Conditions I had in mind were like “On-Time Delivery” and “Eddy Leaves with the Ship.” But I don’t like setting conditions like that without a tangible threat of failure, and I don’t like surprising the players with unexpected changes to the reward system, nor did I want to end up arbitrarily inflating point gains. In the end, I didn’t have a solid plan by game-time, so I dropped it; the conditions were all met anyway.
- The potential for delays was going to be central to this adventure, but I didn’t want to arbitrate that sort of thing, so I came up with the “Universe Reaction Check.” It’s an otherwise-normal Reaction roll (B560), in the “General” category, with the results applied to the universe/environment. In this case, I didn’t have a fixed set of effects, I just gave them a delay in minutes for a Poor result, or hours for a Bad result, etc., and a Good result let them sail right through, unhindered. It actually worked pretty well—even got used by other GMs in other games afterward—but it’s not something you’d want to use all the time, just when it counts.
- We had not dealt with “jump masking” before in the campaign (TFT60). I planned to introduce it here, and as it turned out, both Porozlo and Rhylanor were always masked. Fulacin was another matter; it was listed as being masked, but those “abstract” statistics assume a much closer position than the mainworld actually occupied—not to mention the lack of an allowance for binary systems. In the end, I eyeballed it, and decided the Fulacin mainworld was too far to be masked at all. I’ll have to figure out a better way sometime.
- I used a system in my S³M campaign that allowed a Piloting or Navigation check to reduce trip time by fine-tuning the plotted course. As the timetable for this mission might come down to “hours,” it was a good fit here, and something I wanted to see in the regular campaign anyway. However, I didn’t realize until I began to use it in the game that, because of the way GURPS Traveller presents insystem trip calculation (via tables; TFT59-61), my old method needed some tweaking—Traveller gives the shortest route at the start, whereas my old mechanic assumes a less-efficient result that can be shortened. On top of that, the Traveller tables cover the conditions rather broadly, non-specific, resulting in a level of inaccuracy I don’t think is warranted. So, I ended up winging it a bit when it came up. After the run, we sorted out the details, and may use the adjusted version in the future in the regular campaign.
- I planned to use what I refer to as “Reverse Influence”; the idea is to have the player make a secret Reaction or intended Influence Skill roll (being Fantasy Grounds, this would be “in the box”) immediately when the character meets the NPC, and after-the-fact, through dialogue and/or identification of effective modifiers that might apply, adjust the results of the Quick Contest throughout the encounter. (It’s usually done the other way around—figure up everything first, then roll.) The idea is that the encounter would play out in a more “natural” flow, the NPC responses and attitudes changing as a result of the changing Quick Contest results. Unfortunately, I don’t feel like this got the attention it warranted; I did do the rolling up-front, but there were no pre-prepared social encounters, and I didn’t brush up on Social Engineering beforehand like I should have. For what it’s worth, I didn’t encounter any problems with what was implemented, but Inception is expected to center around the social stuff, so I expect the mechanic to get a proper field-test there instead.
- I’ve always wanted to see a bit more “color” when it comes to daily maintenance on a typical far-trader or similar vessel, and have used various mechanics to generate this sort of thing in the past. This time, I used tarot: I drew one card for each leg (in this case: pre-flight/takeoff, transit, entering jumpspace, during jump, exiting jumpspace, transit, and landing/post-flight) of the trip. On a draw of a Major Arcana, I rolled against the ship’s HT score (10); on a success, I worked out a “cosmetic” incident based on the card, and on a failure, an actual problem. For example: the artificial gravity cutoff was a failure (the card was Moon, Reversed), and the bad sensor a minor (9 of Wands). I figured the severity of whatever mishap occurred would be affected by the overall level of preventative maintenance done regularly aboard the ship, which in this case was properly and skillfully managed, so the repairs would be a small matter—I knew that would be the case, so I didn’t bother coming up with a system for that. I liked how it worked out, overall, and we discussed keeping it (or something like it) going after my run ended, though it was agreed that there should be fewer rolls per trip for that sort of thing—we’ll see how that goes in the future.
- I continued to use tarot to generate a little extra color for encounters and such. It’s still working for me, plus I’m getting better at reading them. For Traveller, though, it feels a little funny to use a Medieval-themed Rider-Waite deck—something more “technological” would be more appropriate.
- I broke up the events into 1-hour blocks and sorted them into a rough timeline, though some events would have to be plugged in as they happened. I had pre-figured the flight details, and knew the bounty-hunter would be landing at 3 hours after the PCs; I gave him a d6 hours to locate Eddy, then he would wait for an opportunity to take him. I used combat sequence to organize PCs’ actions throughout—this worked pretty well to maintain focus.
I had no real plan for breaking up the adventure once it started, but I guessed pretty well where the breakpoints would likely fall;. The second and third sessions benefited from extra time for polish and research. Here are some miscellaneous points-of-interest from after the game started:
- Eddy has the Bad Luck Disadvantage. I fully intended to use it, probably to get him captured at the end. Instead, the player decided to use it on himself throughout the adventure, to generally-hilarious result. He insisted on rolling the Universe Reactions himself, and applied anywhere from a -6 to -10 penalty; one such failure was Eddy’s date interruption by the bounty-hunter.
- At the time of the first session, I had not yet discovered a base time-period required to find freight. I did find a reference by the second session, Spaceships 2 p.41, that lists it at two days. This meant the PCs would be “rushing” their search, doing it in half the required time. I left the lots I had rolled up previously as-is, but adjusted the pricing down to compensate for the rush.
- For the “bank” scene, I drew Queen of Cups—a romantic encounter. Before the scene, I had not considered that the subject might be Ella (the only female PC)—not that it changed anything, really, but with Abe’s encounter with Katelyn at the same time, I didn’t want to pile on. I told Ella’s player that she had seen a guy that was definitely her type, and had her tell me what that type was (rather than try to guess). I gave myself the week between sessions 1 and 2 to figure out what to do with him. Ella has had a rough time since the start of the campaign, and I felt like she needed a break, but at the same time, I couldn’t pass up a chance to mess with her a little, so I made him “too good to be true,” natural PC-paranoia inevitably suggesting him to be some kind of monster-in-disguise. Then I engineered the “date,” fully expecting she would be out of commission for a while as a result.
- One time-slot in session 2 had multiple characters passing through the security checkpoint separately, in or out. I had them (and the bounty-hunter) each roll a single d6, and on a match, they would see each other as they passed through. They all missed each other in session 2, but another instance in session 3 had Ella and Abe encountering the bounty-hunter and Eddy.
- The “chase” in session 2 was unplanned, but we’ve used the Action 2 mechanic often enough in this group that it wasn’t difficult to improvise. I did find myself a bit confused at the results of failed Stunt rolls; I still think following up the failed Stunt round with a round of “recovery” feels weird—but that’s another story. The appearance of the monorail was player-agency. I drew a tarot card; I don’t remember the card drawn, but the result was “no luck”—I felt at the time that it should mean the train was out, but I wanted to give it a chance, so I decided it would be leaving. The handling of the failed Stunt that followed is probably my one real GM-fail; I wasn’t prepared for potentially-lethal consequences, and would have benefited from more time to think that through. In retrospect: I should have grabbed an image to work from, so we were all seeing the same thing; I should have used random hit location to determine what part of Eddy got caught; and I should have referred to Escape Artist for Eddy getting loose.
- I ended session 2 at the point where the PCs would be starting their rescue plan intentionally, to give them the week to think it over. In session 3, I planned to use the Action 2 “Planning” (p.17) mechanic to manage this—I wanted to test the concept for Inception. I skipped the “Big Picture” as unnecessary in this instance. When it came time, Sae ended up taking over the planning, and made the Tactics roll; I intended to give them some Plot Points at 1 per 2 points of success, but the roll ended up being made by 0-1, so they didn’t get any. If the roll was better, they would have been allowed to use those points to apply player-agency to the situation, even retroactively, saying “they planned for that.”
- I took a short break once the bounty-hunter reached out for the booby-trapped handle to think over the situation, and the first thing that jumped out at me was a “cardiac-arrest,” so I went over the Basic rules for electric shock. As it turned out, the trap ended up doing just enough damage that, with the associated penalty, had the bounty-hunter failing the HT check by 1—if it hadn’t, I might have fudged it anyway; it was both convenient for the GM (wrapping things up nicely) and hilarious to the players. Sae’s critical failure to diagnose was icing on the comedy cake.
GM Confidence: 5 of 5. Unusually, I did not experience the pre-GMing “dread” I normally do—I was really looking forward to running this one, maybe because it had been so long. Right from the start, I felt like it really went well; it had a really good energy to it, the pacing was fairly snappy, and I felt like the players were having fun with it. There was no combat, when it was all over—not planned as such, or intentionally avoided, it just wasn’t needed.
For the down-side: I really don’t have much to complain about, though there are a couple of minor things I would have liked to have done better. Specifically, the third session, after the bounty-hunter had been dealt with, felt a bit flat to me—too much like the wrap-up it was. And overall, I felt like there wasn’t enough for Sam to do; I felt like he had been left out, a bit.
Overall, I felt good enough about it that I pitched a straight-up Traveller game (borrowing the characters and other stuff from S³M—essentially, a continuation of that campaign, but in a new setting) to the Friday face-to-face group, and will be running it next, in place of Terra Nova (which I still intend to get to one day). As it happens, my turn is coming up in a few more weeks, so this one won’t be lingering in pre-production for very long. I’m definitely looking forward to seeing how it goes.