Tag Archives: Swashbucklers

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.

Sea Dogs, Chapter I:VIII, GM Debrief

Session Recap; Stream

GM confidence: 3.75/5. I wasn’t in the best mental shape this week. Although I can’t think of anything in particular that went wrong, per se, I can’t help feeling it was a bit rough and unpolished.

Excuses, excuses…

Because of some absences, and a couple of rough weeks at work, we took a break from Sea Dogs. Unfortunately, due to the same rough weeks, I wasn’t able to make the best of the time off, to plan ahead. Then, last week was another rough one at work, which combined with one of my worst allergy seasons I can recall to keep me at rather less than 100% throughout. My confidence level going into the game on Saturday was not high. It turned out fine, as far as I can tell, though I do blame some of the sloppy execution on those aforementioned conditions.

What Went Right

I finally got to do the proper “long” Chase (from Action 2) I had been wanting. I inserted the narrative bits in between the Chase Rolls; I feared this would be distracting, but it seemed to work well enough. I dropped the standard range scale for a more “narrative” distance; I didn’t expect that distance to actually change, due to the PCs’ skill levels, but if it had closed up, there might have been some shooting. The situation was also simplified by the fact that there was really only going to be one Maneuver used, overall, so we didn’t have to bother with choosing. I do think I should have announced the Chase Roll results a little more deliberately, just to reinforce the mechanic. My intention for using a Chase here was to build tension, and I think it worked.

Some of the narrative parts were added in late, to add to the tension: like the Rumjack (the enemy) and Princess Mary (the friendly) disappearing at night. Some details were the result of tarot draws. The rescue was added as a mid-point obstacle to force them to change-up and worry about the enemy catching them up. I did have a plan in case the PCs chose to move on, though I really didn’t expect them to, being heroic types. The “argument” was a later addition, though, to fill things out and give the PCs more worries.

While I continually built up the expectation of a naval action of some sort (I intended to reinforce that a bit more, but for the aforementioned “excuses”), I fully intended to yank that rug out from under them with the intervention of the ghost-ship. I wanted to leave them scratching their heads, and I got the reaction I intended. This happens to be the PCs’ first “undeniable” encounter with the supernatural, which the entire crew (and then some) experienced together. I consider this series to be Act 1 of the overall story, and this encounter destroys the “lie” of the normal mundane world at just about the right segment.

What Went Wrong

I can think of a few specifics that, after the fact, could definitely have been improved. Ironically, in spite of having thrice the usual prep time, I ended up quite rushed before game-time. As a result, I didn’t give some of the narrative elements the thorough editing they deserved, and I feel like it showed—early parts in the session were better, but the latter parts suffered. Although the ghost ship concept has been in my hopper since the beginning, I actually had to scramble to patch together a last-minute backstory for it. I completely forgot about Dora through the whole thing, and I fear my addled brain wasn’t quite up to the task when the question of her reactions was asked in-game, and I may have made some mistakes there. The cliffhanger at the end was terrible. I hate ending on a “You arrive at this-or-that port” beat—I’ve done that multiple times now, and I need to do better.

Other Stuff

  • I did discuss strategy with the players on our message boards before the game, just to make sure we were on the same page (bearing in mind lessons learned from Generica: don’t trust them to stick to it)
  • Up to this point, I had avoided the unnecessary bother of setting up a watchbill for the PCs, but since I (sensibly, IMO) broke the Chase down into watches, it became necessary to come up with something—and I knew it would take up a non-negligible chunk of game-time to get it sorted, which helped pad the session a bit
  • I had considered that the PCs might want to scavenge the enemy ship, but I hadn’t considered them paying for it, or I would have looked up some prices for cannon. Also, I apparently didn’t plan for them looting anything other than the cannons, really, at all—definitely due to the rush. Fortunately I can sort some of that out after-the-fact on the message boards.
  • Afterward, knowing what was coming at the time, I should have pre-rolled all the NPCs’ Fright Checks, at least, or just come up with some basic fear-reactions for them, individually. As it was, I kinda forgot about them, and when asked about their reactions, my brain lagged a little too much to do it proper justice.
  • I finally got my opportunity to work in a cameo for one of the Twitch followers, “Bruno,” but sadly, he wasn’t actually on Twitch at the time. That’s okay, though—they’ll likely see him again when the Expedition turns south toward Brazil.

Home Stretch

The plan was for twelve sessions, which means there are now four remaining. It’s begun to dawn on me that I need to start wrapping things up for this run, and also, how little actual time I have to do it.

Sea Dogs, Chapter I:VII, GM Debrief

Session Recap; Stream

GM confidence: 4/5. I think this week’s session went pretty well, overall, if a bit less smoothly than I wanted.

Necessary Questions

A couple of sessions ago, I lamented my lack of solutions for when the players, for whatever reason, aren’t asking the right questions. Multiple times in this session, I found myself giving away information without having been asked, because the players needed it in order to make an informed decision. I don’t want to do that. There’s no reward for clever play if the GM gives you the answers without your having asked. Standard practice would be to call for a skill-roll and give them the answer if it succeeds, with the obvious downside that if the roll fails, they either go without or you’re left having to fudge or ignore the results, which renders the roll pointless. Lately, I prefer to take a page from Night’s Black Agents and give them the necessary info up front, if the character has sufficient skill, and then let them roll for “extra”—this is fine if you actually have something “extra” to add. Lately, I think I’ve been assuming too much. When I script out the answers, I really should consider more carefully what happens if that question goes unasked.

Anansi, Behind-the-Scenes

As I’ve stated before, the Daniverse has World of Darkness at its core. It has been my plan all along to introduce the many creatures of WoD in the course of this campaign. When I first started to study Barbados for the game, I took its considerable African-slave through-traffic as an opportunity to introduce the Ananasi, whose African mythological origins made a logical connection. As in all WoD cases, I’ve made alterations—such as the “royal we”—though I mostly stuck to abilities from the original source material here (the powers she used were deliberately chosen). The name “Anansi” in this case is not her name, but what she was called by the Africans she encountered. The encounter went through quite a few iterations—I was admittedly tempted to borrow from Anansi’s portrayal in American Gods. Ultimately, I was shooting for something “alien,” and I feel like I succeeded. And of course, she could easily return later…

This is not the first WoD creature they’ve encountered, of course, and it certainly won’t be the last.

Scripting, Part III

I was really looking forward to the encounter with Anansi, but I suspected this question-and-answer occasion might not go as planned. As I feared, the player whose character was at the center of it entirely left the conversation to others. Their hesitation, and some incorrect assumptions on my part, led to scripted elements occurring out of order. Plus I ended up giving answers to questions that had not been asked, not only to get the information to the players, but to fill some of the dead air.

As a result, there were some spots in this interaction where it felt a little like the typical computer-game NPC delivery, at least, from my perspective. It highlighted the worst aspect of pre-scripting one’s dialogue, in that it tends to tie you down. I had encountered this before, to my detriment, when I’ve relied on heavy scripting in the past; I had hoped to rise above it this time. But this is not to say the scene was a failure. In spite of the difficulty, I think it went well, and more lessons-learned is always good.

Other Stuff

  • This is now, officially, the longest campaign I’ve run for Olympus—the others have not exceeded six weeks—though not my longest yet for any group (still twelve)
  • Davino will have the opportunity to make a Deduction roll next week, due to the slayer’s journal, which means I will have an opportunity to do a better job of it this time 😛
  • Details of the “traders” Sir Randel interacted with were the result of tarot draws. I didn’t design the scenario with Payne’s girl-in-every-port in mind, though I did expect it might go that way.
  • I am amused that at least two key elements to the PCs’ survival next session were completely random—the Princess Mary was a random event, and Captain Lockhart was the result of an off-hand comment by Hayden’s player and a bad Reaction roll
  • I couldn’t predict on which day the PCs would leave Barbados, therefore my prep for the journey North wasn’t as sure as I would have liked. I might have pressed on a little longer at the end, but for this fact, it seemed ideal to take the extra week to really think this next segment through—it could be important.

Sea Dogs, Chapter I:VI, GM Debrief

Session Recap; Stream

GM confidence: 4.5/5. Other than a couple of mistakes, I felt like I was firing on all cylinders this week.

A Rough Week

For whatever reason, I had a really hard time coming up with content for this week. I had the beginning (Randel’s intro) and the end (which we didn’t reach), but not the middle—I had the “travel” bit, of course, but I didn’t feel like that would be enough on its own. It took me until Thursday to come up with a plan, a compromise against what I wanted, but it eased my worry—and we didn’t get to that part either. It turned out well anyway. It’s worth noting that they didn’t actually accomplish a lot, but it felt like they did.

Write It Down, Continued

I talked about my need to “write it down” last week. This week, I made an effort to script out as much as made sense. My “narrative” mindset led to an attempt to arrange the order of events in a more readable, followable manner. Afterward, I felt like the results of the session proved last week’s theory correct. I didn’t follow the scripted elements exactly, of course, but I expected that. I intend and expect to improve this technique in the future, as there were certainly places that I feel could have been further improved.

The Hunt

When it comes to the PCs’ “Treasure Maps,” I have been using “The Hunt” (from Monster Hunters 2) as a guideline. Basically, when they find a “clue,” they get a Deduction roll to answer “the question” (the nature of which varies). It’s only come up once, so far: Payne’s finding the Compass was a clue, for which I allowed him to use Research (against the journal he had) to answer the question of “what do I do with this thing?” He didn’t get the entire answer, but it did give him forward-progress—he’ll get other opportunities later.

In Hayden’s case, he had gained a clue: the report that the Cardinal Virtue had been captured by the Spanish. He was therefore due a Deduction roll. I figured the records in Santo Domingo, combined with his own, would be a good enough opportunity. I took the precedent from Action 2 regarding Research taking 1d6 hours, and decided it would take 1d6 days to arrange to view the records. I had him roll this in secret: Hayden wouldn’t know how long it would take, and it was an opportunity to highlight his Obsession, and make him choose to delay the Expedition or not.

However, I messed it up quite a bit, mechanically. First, I forgot, in the moment, to make the roll in secret. Second, for reasons I can’t fathom, I didn’t sort out what the actual results of his success or failure would mean beforehand. (I blame the aforementioned “rough week.”) Ultimately, he did make forward-progress, in that he eliminated one of the many possibilities—this is a legitimate and helpful piece of information. But I failed to present that clearly, and as discussed after the game, it felt to him like a waste of time. The confusion resulted in the operation taking a little longer than it needed to. Lesson learned: results of success of failure on Deduction need to be spelled out, and it needs to be clear why it matters.

I had not discussed the use of “The Hunt” openly up to this point, for no particular reason other than I wanted to keep it a little more “organic.” It might have helped them understand the situation if I had brought it up before. But now that cat’s out of the bag, so we’ll see.

Sea Travel

In spite of its potential for drudgery, I think the sea-travel bit turned out to be the most fun:

  • Knowing there was going to be a lot to get through, I pre-rolled the random encounters and traffic stuff, which also allowed me the week to figure out how to interpret the results in a narratively-efficient manner
  • I’ve been rolling for a random NPC crewman to be “in focus” for the session, and Moggridge’s turn came up, but the random at-sea events rolled him up anyway—that was not intentional, but it worked out nicely. I did have notes to bring up the superstition regarding weighing anchor on Friday, but I didn’t expect it would actually occur. Mr. Moggridge’s illness was actually the result of the random events; its apparent connection to “Friday” was entirely coincidental.
  • I got the bugs in the spreadsheet from last week sorted out, but Ronnke started tracking the progress on the map, which meant I needed to add a daily mileage total as well—already done
  • The group is starting to get the hang of the at-sea procedures, so the die-rolling and assignments went smoothly—including those rolled by our audience (thanks to Ronnke’s chat-bots)
  • The “bet” was a surprise, though a welcome one—shows the players were engaged
  • The “man from the sea” event garnered exactly the reaction I intended; it was also the first time in the campaign the PCs have had to make a Fright Check (it won’t be the last)
  • The Ship Malfunctions (from Pyramid 3/103 Setbacks) didn’t confuse anyone, but I realized in the moment (or re-realized) that I really need some defined examples to pull from, and some mechanic to determine when/how the symptoms become apparent

Other Stuff

  • This week was my intended halfway-point of the campaign
  • Randel’s intro was an echo of a long-ago D&D game, with a similar incident involving another character of his
  • Claude’s Secret (nevermind the absence of his/her player) came up for this week, but I couldn’t quite figure out what to do with it in time, so I’ve deferred it to next week
  • The arrival of the Rumjack at the end was a part of the previously-mentioned “compromise solution,” but it was a good cliffhanger.
  • The session ended short of the content I had, but as I said before, that’s fine—I have a good starting point for next week, now. I expect them to get under way for St. Kitts next week, plus it’s Davino’s turn to find a Treasure Map clue.

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:

Île-à-Vache

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.