Thursday, December 31, 2009

My Year in Gamemastering 2009

Libri Vidicos
By my calculations we've only had two sessions skipped this year for Libri Vidicos, which means we've had 24 sessions this year. We started out this year still a little bit into the first half of their PCs second year at school. While we did finish that game year, the last few sessions have been devoted to some of the sidebar adventure work of the group-- in specific a trip to investigate leads they'd uncovered about Khinsai. That also overlapped with their summer break. What that means is we will be starting Year Three of the game timeline right at the beginning of the year, giving me a nice yardstick to measure real-world time against the game timeline. I know the players might disagree, but ideally, I'd like to be able to do one game year within the span of one real time year give or take a month. That's probably unrealistic- especially since that means that end sessions would hit around the holidays.

At least from where I'm sitting, I'm still really pleased with the game. I'm still nervous about it as I have a lot of plots and details juggling in the air. Each session that goes off strongly surprises me. Like most GM's I tend to focus on the negative about the play after a session and how it could have gone better. I find myself doing that less with LV. Again, in great part this arises from it being the best group of players I've ever run for. That's not a knock on anyone else at all, but this group maintains a high level of trust and interest for each other-- they know each others' characters and enjoy them as much as their own.

We had some great sequences this year. I did a scavenger hunt that ended with a pretty significant shocker of a student NPC death. We had some great bits during the mid-semester break, including Scott's battle with the Hypno Toads. Some great combats-- the battle on the train, the fight on the airship, the showdown with the Queen of Eyes, and others. Some strong revelations about backgrounds-- for Valmont and Sokka and particular, but just about everyone else as well. Some NPCs came more to the forefront, getting more focus while others faded back a little. I'm looking forward to starting Year Three. I'm not introducing entire new years of students as I did last time, since at this point first year students would seem like faceless fodder to them. However, I do have visitors from other schools, so that's a new group of NPCs. Plus I have a new regime on campus with the assassination of the headmaster last year. Plus new instructors, new classes and the showdown between the rival Student Councils.

Count tonight's session, I will have run 29 sessions of Changeling this year. That means they somehow managed to pull three extra sessions out of the deal. We'd only had five sessions in the game before we rolled into this year, so it is mostly a 2009 campaign. There's a lot to like about this campaign-- the backstory from the White Wolf material is strong, I have a lot of great NPCs, I have some distinct arcs for the story in mind, and I like what I've done with the Midwest location. It is a modern game, based on character internal tensions and choices, which can be tough to handle-- making sure to divide between player and character. But overall I'm still very happy with the campaign.

Which isn't to say there haven't been rough spots. In great part I started the campaign to bring in two new players to the group. They seemed fine but that turned out to be an incorrect assessment on my part. I'd been warned by a couple of people about that, but Sherri and I didn't listen to their judgment. The game seemed to be going well but eventually inter-player tensions developed, with one of the players really blowing up at the table. I thought we had that settled, but then in the middle of my own crisis with a mess of things, not least of which was my mother's surgery for cancer, they decided to leave the game in an unpleasant way. There was a strange streak of narcissism I should have picked up on earlier. I think selfishness about play is one of the most destructive elements for a group. I'm not talking about the “Loner” archetype, which can work, but a degree of self-absorption, irritation at others having attention, and willingness to crap on other people's scenes that seems just petty. I hadn't realized how unhappy the other players were really until after those players left. In any case it has made me seriously gunshy about making an effort to bring other players into the group. I'm going to have to be much more careful in the future.

That aside, we had some really great moments in the campaign-- mostly built around character interactions. I've been loose and slow with the development of the big arcs, although the first Campaign Season ended with wrapping up some significant things. That was one trick I tried, using a strong marker to signal the break between “seasons” in the game. More than other campaigns, this one functions like a television series, so I've been trying to use that model. I have some big arcs out there, some medium arcs (season length) and some short ones. I've also been pretty happy about how my Action Cards system has held up when shifted over to another campaign setting. Adapting the Changeling rules over took some work, but I think it has been worth it. There's a transparency to the rules-- in the sense they don't get in the way of play-- that I think is vital to this kind of character centered game.

Third Continent
It took me some time to finally get this campaign up and off the ground. In 2008, when I was finishing off the Scion campaign, I gave the players a list of campaign seeds. I had them vote on them. Strangely (at least from my perspective) the campaign that got the strongest rating and had the least number of negative votes was one returning to the Third Continent fantasy setting where they'd played before. I originally planned to use Storyteller, and then maybe a modified version of GURPS, and then finally decided to use Action Cards after having rammed my head against the wall on design decisions for the other two. I took the risky step of adding dice for damage, which I think has come out pretty well in the context of this kind of high-fantasy campaign. I certainly wouldn't want to do that for other genres however. I also polished the magic system-- it is better but still not the best and added a set of profession tracks to echo classes from Final Fantasy Tactics.

We've done around a dozen sessions of this campaign, I believe. I started them out as youths, with little development and then destroyed their home village-- as I warned them I would do. We then took up five years later with the group being drawn together once again with the goal of finding a way to destroy those who had destroyed them. It is an interesting group-- with a mix of players driven by character interaction, plot and table play goals. That's often hard to manage. We have more combat in this game than I usually do which can be hard. But we've also had some great moments-- in particular Candy's various Plum Wine incidents, Ori's cheerfulness, Raythe's dive and Zot's lowlife hunt. My goal for the next part of the campaign arc will be to develop more on the HeroQuest and gods side of things-- each character is the last bearer of their particular divinity and they are shaping that figure through their actions and adventures.

White Mountain, Black River
I believe we've done eight sessions so far of this wulin-themed fantasy campaign. We have three regular players and two sit in players for when they can come in from out of town. I've tried to deliberately structure my plans so that the sessions with the smaller group are focused on general development, NPC interaction, and development of resources with a few incidents thrown in. They when we have extra players we can pull up a particular episode or directed story which can be run to ground in that session alone.

I'd have to say the session with both fighting the Hopping Vampires and the tournament contests was the highlight for me. We had a nice mix of things happening there and got quite a bit in. But I've also really enjoyed the slow character developments and connections which have been going on. I've got some threads for each of the players' “flaws” that I hope to bring into play over time. Like the wulin/wushu television series, I see this game as an extended soap opera interspersed with investigations and combat.

I did a pretty hefty homebrew for this campaign, drawing on the Storyteller system to put into play the Crouching Adjective, Hidden Noun martial arts mechanics I'd worked up some time back. I find it a strange switch to move from running rules light games to more crunchy ones. I like what I've done with the mechanics, but I also see the limits of it pretty clearly. Mechanics are fun, but what helps a good group play well is better. So this will probably be the last game I run using Storyteller or any high-crunch system. The exceptions will be for one shot or short-run games; superheroes (in which case I'll use Mutants & Masterminds); or if I do another arc of the Scion campaign. For everything else I'm going to use Action Cards, HeroQuest 2e, Gumshoe, or an equally rules lite set of mechanics. And Sherri will likely hold me to that.

Lyceum Aegis
I ran (I think) five sessions of this pick up game for my niece and Sherri. It is still ongoing and I hope to get another session in over her holiday break. It uses a school setting, drawing a little on Mage: the Ascension, Persona, and the Orphans of Chaos series. We've only been able to play this infrequently, but I do have a lot of details I've built into the game. I need to start playing out some of the story arcs more strongly soon-- I've hinted at a couple of them already.

I also ran only one session of the Arkham Harbor all-girls supers game. Schedules really haven't permitted us to do more than that which is too bad. I ran a quick one-shot horror game which was the spiritual successor to the All-Flesh Space game I've run at conventions. It went over pretty well-- with the various PC deaths being dramatic and horrible.

What's Missing?
The most glaring absence from this list is, of course, my Dragonblooded Exalted campaign set in Crux. We have one player who hasn't been able to make it and she's really core to the campaign play. Normally I'd run with a single player missing, but she serves as the heart and engine of the group. The players agreed that not having her there would feel wrong. That's really too bad as I love that campaign, as do many of the players. I'd like to get back there, but at this point, I'm not certain we can. If it happens in 2010, that would be great otherwise I think I simply have to write it up as an unfinished story which just kills me.

In Conclusion
So, in total, by my count, I ran 80 sessions in 2009.


  1. "Like most GM's I tend to focus on the negative about the play after a session and how it could have gone better."

    This really surprised me. You're the last GM that I would expect to do this. It's something that I do after every single session when I'm running, but I thought it came from a lack of GMing experience (which you most certainly don't have).

  2. I think of Edige as the Billy Martin (NY Yankees manager) or Erwin Rommel of GMing. A conceptual innovater who keeps pushing forward. Minus the alcoholism or the boss who needs fragging. Anyhow, constant improvement means a ruthless search for your own weaknesses.

    At a high level, this means throwing out old ideas of good and bad when they don't prove useful. I enjoy this blog and talking with Edige about gaming because a lot of my old ideas do get trashed.

  3. I'd say most of my worrying about mistakes now comes in a few flavors:

    1) Plot details or foreshadowing I'd meant to throw in that I forgot about or didn't get to.
    2) Slower pacing at the table than I'd have preferred-- not getting to significant break point or dragging out a story longer than it needed to be.
    3) Missed opportunities for stories or interactions.
    4) Combat taking too long.
    5) Not giving everyone enough time at the table.

    I'll give an example from this last Changeling session on New Year's Eve. I had a section with a combat against a foe that I imagined as a little bit of a sidebar. That ended up taking up more of the session space than I wanted. I could have streamlined the lead up a little more. But I also missed an opportunity later on in the session.

    They had Christmas Day and off the cuff I had some of the other Changelings call Will's character up for a poker game. It was kind of a "boy's night" for him. I had some other bits for Sherri and Sharon, but not as much or as rich as that-- lots of NPC interaction.

    What I ought to have done was have two parallel incidents to that-- with the other two also invited to like events. Each player could have had some interactions with a small group of NPCs and I could have built some nice parallelism and also illustrate the kinds of groups likely to interact with the different NPCs. That's something I'll play out probably next session, but the chance to have that dramatic parallel front and center was lost in that moment.

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