Sunday, April 19, 2009

Campaign Postmortem: Vampire (Part Five)

Vampire Campaign Post-mortem Part One 
Vampire Campaign Post-mortem Part Two 
Vampire Campaign Post-mortem Part Three
Vampire Campaign Post-mortem Part Four
Vampire Campaign Post-mortem Part Five

We wrapped the campaign up up about a year and a quarter+ plus after we'd begun. At least that's my estimation, I may be off a little in that. So around 25-30 sessions? I'd have to check Shari's notes on that-- she manages to keep excellent track of those things.

I'll admit my recollection of the last couple of session remains a little fuzzy for a couple of reasons I'll come to later. We had all the bad guys and good goods arrayed and arranged by this point. Notably, the actual other Vampires of the city played a fairly minor role in the end game, with a couple of exceptions. We had a fairly major showdown at the party's haven, which led to the scene I honestly consider the finest of the game. Shari had been caring for her father, speaking with him and trying to insulate him from the worst of the awfulness going down. The other NPCs had pitched in as well-- a device that allowed some of them to have their own redemption. However, in the final battles, Shari's father passed away, tending his garden in the rebuilt greenhouse. That death scene and conversation between Shari's character and her father-- him extracting a promise for her to try to be good, well it made the whole game worth it. We had a whole and complete narrative arc with that NPC that mattered to the story, especially with what came next.

I should stop here and say that the end of the campaign did fall into one of my classic narrative patterns. Throughout the game I imagine the party building up several kinds of resources. On the one hand, the PCs improve through expending experience. That's a very real and tangible reward for the players. Likewise, they gain material goods-- items, wealth, and even places. That's easy to measure as well. But as importantly, I usually count up the friends and allies the group has made-- since often they'll be called upon to aid in the end struggle. Certainly my fantasy campaigns often have that as a central trope-- the Steambuckler campaign, the Red Emperor campaign, the Pavis campaign. All of those came down to a fairly climatic showdown where they called upon everyone they knew to assist them. Honestly, the friends you make-- by my reckoning-- help really judge your success. The benefit does have a hidden thorn as well-- by asking those characters to aid, you also put them at risk. The nature of this depends greatly on the flavor of the campaign. In the Vampire game, while we have the assembly of allies, the characters would, ultimately make their final play on their own (which I'll come to). In Will's excellent Hunter game, the last session had us stripping down to the bare essentials, little equipment, few resources, and no allies, to face the final evil. That worked well-- emphasizing the theme of our characters' isolation from other people and our need to keep our humanity by not endangering those we cared about. There's a subtle arc in Will's campaign of the group slowly building up allies and then running the reverse course as we headed towards the end, of those allies falling away one by one. I don't know how much of that he planned, but it had enormous impact.

Following the big battle, the group made their way through the dreamscape of the sleeping Vampire, giving him a reason to redeem himself. From there they, just the four of them, made their way back to the empty spirit city of Metropolis. They fought against the last agents of the Dark Empire of Jade-- preventing them from usurping Chicago's spirit realm with their own. And then they faced the returned Godhead, who gave them a choice-- they could remain as they were or be redeemed, and receive back their lost souls. Sherri, of course, immediately took it. Brandy did as well, but greatly out of practical considerations since she'd found life as a Vampire constricting. Chris hesitated, and ultimately decided to take the offer. I'm still not sure of his reasoning. Shari in my mind, had the most chance of not choosing humanity. She'd found a new and more empowering life, but her last conversation with her father heavily impacted her choice and ultimately made her follow the others in the decision. It was nice to see all of that play out.


OK, wrap up time-- final assessment.

*The play and course of the campaign generally pleased me. I look back on a number of the sequences there with some pride. I liked a lot of the ideas and images I played with. I enjoyed tangentially adapting in material from other sources. That having been said, I gave/traded away nearly all of my Vampire rpg materials immediately after I finished running the game. I'd played in a game which had hit on the core thematic of that setting to my satisfaction, and now I'd run one. I intend never to play or run in it again. I'm done unless something that completely changes up the central ethos comes around.

*I have a tendency to over-complicate plots, which I've alluded to in my earlier comments on this game. A good chunk of the plot materials the players never really came into contact with. That's OK-- I can use those elsewhere. If they didn't get to it or if they came into contact with it but it didn't make an impression on them, then really it doesn't exist for them. I believe part of the GM's responsibility is to not over-talk too much beyond the tabletop experience. There's a difference between a game and a David Lynch film where you have to go to a Wikipedia page to understand it. Part of that lies in the amount of time invested by the players in what's going on-- so if you undercut that to much-- by info-dumping or talking too much about what they didn't get, then you reduce their experience. I've been trying more recently to provide clearly information about things-- allowing NPCs to reveal more-- with the idea that such a revelation doesn't destroy the plots or secrets, but instead allows the players to actually interact with them. That's a tough decision for a GM to make-- you don't want to give away the good too early, but the longer you take from what we might call the “initial point of impact” the more risk you have of alienating players, discovering they've forgotten about the element, or even forgetting your own purpose in the original plot.

*As I mentioned at the start of this series, I still haven't come to a good decision about handling morality at the table. That's a difficult problem. I think the Gm has to strike a balance between being the moral arbitrator and the person who let's things simply happen. The trick to to spend time thinking about the consequences of particular actions in the real world, and making sure they happen. Making any responsibility organic to the situation removes some of the burden from the GM. At least it feels more like the GM is playing fair, rather than simply imposing arbitrary rules. Hence a strict mechanical system has real problems. That was witnessed in the classic moment in the Vampire game when Shari got a reward for moral action in the form of a raise to her Humanity. Brandy asked how that was possible and I explained the system. She asked if she could have her Humanity rating raised. I asked what she'd done to earn that. She thought for a bit and answered: “When my character was in that hospital nursery, I didn't stab the babies.”

*In games where characters are either really potent or morally ambiguous, I try to set up an artificial system whereby the players can't directly hurt one another. That ended up being hugely important here.

*I mentioned the structural problem of switching between settings in the course of the campaign. Two of the players were relative newbies to my style of running. While they tried hard, I kind of overwhelmed them a little. I should have been more aware of that and taken things down a notch (or two). One of the results of that information overload was that they tended to act impulsively. Uncertain about exactly what was going on, they tried to avoid having a real grip on it. Instead they simply acted. That caused some problems. I mentioned moral consequences above, but there are plot consequences as well. One of the most difficult problems in a game is how to hit a player with the fallout stick but manage not to strike the other players. If actions that a player takes ends up endangering the group as a whole, or getting favored NPCs killed, or screwing up what another player's doing, then you shift the burden of policing bad play to the players-- which no one at the table enjoys and can only create friction in the long term. It can also become a deliberate modus operandi on the part of some players, a way of acting out if they don't like what the rest of the group is doing.

*One of my regrets for the campaign was not really bringing the Vampiric politics and court dynamics to the forefront. I did a great deal of work with that, but only lightly touched on them in the course of the game. The plots I had didn't make as much contact with those issues. Given that, I could have spared myself some work. Or I could have shaped the plot differently to bring that in more. Again, the structural problem exacerbated this.

*Finally, there's an elephant in the room in this discussion. Those of you who've managed to get through all of this have seen me hint at some problems with the group dynamic at the table. For some time I wondered if that was a difference between gender approaches to conversation and decision-making. Certainly at the time, I ascribed it to that. I think, on more distant reflection that it is more a reflection of the individual than necessarily arising from gender roles. I do think that society does tend to promote different approaches-- rewarding 'appropriate' ones and punishing others. I'll point to Deborah Tannen's work on this topic. In this case we had a real difference between players who valued consensus building at the table and those who valued unilateral and individual action.

As I said, I originally believed this to be gender-dependent. However more recent campaigns have cured me of that notion. The mixed group in Libri Vidicos plays together as well as any I've ever played with. They respect each other's decisions, they talk just enough to solve the problems, they assign expertise for certain situations to different players, and when one player has the lead, the others listen and enjoy the show. I've also seen in the distant past some really horrible female players-- selfish ones who didn't respect anyone else's actions at the table and who had their feathers ruffled when anyone else seemed to be stepping on their “turf” or NPCs. I actually sat out of a game for a long time because I couldn't handle interacting with one of those players. They eventually quit, and I think a goodly part of that would be a dissatisfaction that the game wasn't centered entirely around them (of course they did this after we spent many sessions dealing with their plots-- so extra shitty).

In any case we had one player who clearly disliked talking about things. They had a general dissatisfaction with things not going their own way, yet couldn't articulate what they wanted. Or if they did articulate them, they changed their mind by the next session. This blew up in both this and another campaign. They shouted and got really shitty with other players when they tried to make plans. There's more to that, but let's leave it at that. Basically what I learned is to be on heightened alert for that kind of play. Consensus building doesn't always fit with the situation, but when the group but one has decided to work in that mode, then the other player needs to respect that. If I notice that, then I need to talk to them. If they become possessive over certain NPCs-- resentful when others interact with them-- that's an early warning sign GMs should be aware of. On the other hand, also good to watch out for players who do slow the game down with too much analysis paralysis. Managing that is a hard trick and likely requires out of game conversations which may be difficult. Watch for games and situations where one player seems to be out or the loop or operating in a different mode. Nd then you have to communicate with the player about that-- or even vice versa, if a game you're playing in seems to be going in a different direction. I've said this before-- look around and see what the other people are getting out of things. If the others are enjoying it then figure out why or why not.

*****

That's it-- I liked the campaign...or else I probably wouldn't have written as much as I did about it. I made some mistakes that I need to watch out for in the future. But I think I'm stronger for having done it.

Vampire Campaign Post-mortem Part One 
Vampire Campaign Post-mortem Part Two 
Vampire Campaign Post-mortem Part Three
Vampire Campaign Post-mortem Part Four
Vampire Campaign Post-mortem Part Five