Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Campaign Postmortem: Star Wars: The Darkening Rift (Part One)

So I have a few things to get to rpg-wise, but I thought I'd begin with a post-mortem on the recent Star Wars campaign I ran (a campaign summary here). I should also note the really, really nice gesture one of the players, Ward, made. He built me a light-saber as thanks for running the game. A really, really nice replica light-saber. I mean, holy cow nice.

I'd been thinking about a couple of the limitations of the Action Cards system. AC has a major drawback in that while players can pick up the mechanics relatively easily, actually building a character requires a degree of investment in time and material resources. Putting together your character takes at least an hour, if not more, even for the easiest version of the rules. Players have to assign results, spend points on abilities and develop unique cards. And there's the physical investment of a play deck with protectors and so on. Players might be hesitant to do that for just a session or even a short series of sessions. In some ways the player ownership and investment that the game strives for comes back to bite me in the ass.

At some point it occurred to me that these problems might be solved with a card draft mechanic. In a standard deck, players share 13 of the 24 cards (seven fixed resolution cards and six special cards) meaning that only eleven cards would actually have to be drafted. I'll come back in a bit to how I actually handled and built that (The Planning Section). For the character sheet I wanted to keep things pretty simple. We'd have space for the two variable resources: wounds and drama points. In addition space for “Abilities” (repulls like skills in standard Action Cards) or “meta-abilities” (repulls with a talent) and then Picks, which I'll also come back to.

I decided I wanted to do this as a short-run experiment, a mini-series of about 6 or so sessions. That would be long enough to make the time investment worth it and give me room to tell a full-fledged story. But I would also need something which players could slide into easily.

For that I picked a Star Wars campaign. I had a couple of other reasons as well. First, I knew one of the players (Ward) loved Star Wars and had tried to get into a game with a new group. When he'd arrived it had turned out to be a cross-genre pastiche (i.e. “I want to be a Klingon Jedi”). One of players decided to run a Space Pornographer. In any case, he'd been hugely disappointed by that. I'd had the same experience a couple of times and so thought it would be good give him a positive experience.

But the other reason I wanted to do Star Wars was kind of a dare on my part. To begin with, I think some players react negatively to historical games because they assume they'll have to know the history or be at a disadvantage or just corrected in that 'Comic Book Guy' way. (That's not to discount a dislike of certain historical periods-- I wouldn't play a Civil War or a Vikings game, those don't appeal). The same may apply to some fictional settings with deep backgrounds. For example, I wouldn't run a Forgotten realms game, a published rpg setting with too much depth and breadth of material. I would also have a hard time with aspects a Star Trek, Dune, or Wheel of Time game. There's too much information--the universe has expanded so much that I'd be nervous. The same has always applied to my thinking about Star Wars. But I wondered if I couldn't get past that by simply stripping out all of the supplemental stuff and avoiding any published rpg materials. I'd just take the movies as canon and anything else I would deal with as the fancy suited me. In this case the basic stereotypes would apply but everything else would be up for grabs. Mind you I had a pretty good group I'd be running for-- not hung up on canon, despite a couple of them being pretty familiar with the material.

I may be jumping ahead here to the planning section, but I also decided that I wanted to try a slightly different approach with my episode plotting. Still smarting from a misplaced accusation of railroading, I wanted to make sure that I maintained options in this game. That's difficult because a limited series of games tends to natural imply a fairly linear narrative. For the six-episode Mutants & Masterminds game and the longer Scion game I ran I really began with a distinct opening and closing scene in my head. The question lay in how to move from point A to point B while providing options. I don't think either of those games felt pre-destined or without player control. But I wanted to make sure that players felt they had choices despite the game being short run.

To that end I worked out a couple of compromise solutions. On the one hand, I decided that each of the starting sessions would provide the players with several clear and apparently equally valid choices about where to move to next. Those choices would narrow the range of future options slightly, driving the game in a different direction or along a fairly distinct narrative path. As the game rolled along, the choice of direction would inevitably narrow. The tone and success of those choices would be affected by smaller play choices as well, leaving freedom. But there would come a point when the players would be on a particular track rolling ahead of its own momentum. Early on I had a couple of very different courses the players could have followed which would have resulted in a different “film” as I'd come to think of it. In the beginning they could have come into contact with the Decimators much earlier, setting that up as a very different kind of conflict. On the other hand, they could also have followed up on the Hutt angle, which would have led to a different set of results. I'll come back to the success of that objective when I talk about the execution of the game.

I knew I wanted to consider these six (or so) sessions as unified, but in a different way from my other games. Generally I think of most campaigns as having a TV show episodic structure (like Buffy) with one offs but a general thematic to the season; as having a novel-like chapter format (like Harry Potter) with more character interactions, background development and a slow constantly building meta-threat; or like a comic book series (like The Avengers) with discrete episodes, a few two-parters, then a big multi-parter event that closes out a volume of the book and changes the status quo. In this case I wanted to see the campaign as one long movie, with linked scenes and rising stakes. That would mean that even though players would have choice, each scene would definitely have importance later on-- meaning that player choices to do something ought to have a real and strong impact-- even if they're just doing some minor thing, it ought to come back (“If you introduce a gun...” etc.). I also decided that I wouldn't know what kind of Star Wars movie it would be: would it be heroic? would it be tragic? Would it be a darker post-modern take on the genre? Would it be satire or homage? I'd planned on letting the players choices as we went along shape that-- and I'd make that explicit to them.

Still to Come:

Star Wars Darkening Rift Post-Mortem Part One
Star Wars Darkening Rift Post-Mortem Part Two

Star Wars Darkening Rift Post-Mortem Part Three


  1. An excellent post. I'm looking forward to the upcoming continuations of it. I think the postmortem will provide some real helpful tips as I continue making plans for my next game (which will use Action Cards).

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