Tuesday, June 8, 2010

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

Continuing my analysis of a recent short-run Star Wars campaign using our homebrew system, Action Cards.

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

Mechanically, the campaign lasted seven sessions. We had six players, with one session with only five players and one session with only four. The sessions lasted between three and four hours, leaning to the lower end of that (due to pizza waiting time). We had three big set-piece fights with figures and scenics I'd put together (Battle in the Sith Temple, Siege in the Cloning Facility, and the Final Bridge Confrontation). We also had a number of smaller, abstract conflicts, a couple of chase sequences, and a Starship Blockade run.

Before the first session I had sent out electronic files with the Picks, Force Powers, Rules Summary and a character sheet. So players came into the session with some idea of what was going to happen. They'd all had some chance to think about what kind of character they wanted. I was pretty sure by that point I would only have two Jedi characters, which I thought would give a decent balance. I let them go through and make their respective picks first-- so that they'd know what they needed when they went to the card drafting. I also used a classic GM device-- tell players you're going to only be giving them X points to start, and then give them a little more at the beginning to encourage goodwill (even though the latter number was your original intent).

The card drafting worked, but with the problem that one of the six players missed this creation session-- meaning they would end up with cards no one else had chosen. In any case I shuffled the 36 category-result cards, dealt them out as evenly as I could and then had the usual take one, pass to the left until everyone had six. For positive unique cards I split those into two large sets and divided the table in two-- allowing each player to take one from each set. Players who picked last in that got first pick for the single negative unique cards. I'd provided prepared card backers and protectors, so players only had to put into those drafted cards and we were almost ready to go. I left players with a blank unique card which I allowed them to design later. Everyone got three abilities and we got rolling. The whole process took about 45 minutes-- which I don't think is too bad for a first attempt. I'm sure I could reduce that time on another attempt. Something I didn't do: I'd planned to have players record their drafted card numbers on their sheets, but I never followed up on that.

In play, I also dropped a few things I'd developed for this version of Action Cards. I added the mechanic players could suffer two kinds of damage results: either an increase to their wound level and/or an ability being temporarily knocked out. I wanted to provide a little more detail to the damage system and allow the GM to apply damage without constantly gutting the players. To balance the new possible damage effects, I reduced the penalty for higher wound levels. I thought this would raise the stakes in combat without directly increasing lethality.

In practice I ended up ignoring this except for the first session. I think it is a sound mechanic, but two things fight against when I actually run. First, I'm so used to dealing solely in wound levels that when we get into the speed of a combat scene, I tend to forget this mechanic. I focus on maintaining the pace. I don't think I necessarily drop it because it slows things down, but more that fall into my comfortable and familiar approach. Second, the fights-- even the set piece ones-- generally go fast and most results for the players boil down to Defended (Yeah!) or took damage (A Significant Moment!). The later will only happen a handful of times in a combat scene. If we had more combat or if the system had players taking more hits (due to the balance of offense vs. defense) then we'd need more granularity. As it is I don't think I've really tested this mechanic.

The other mechanic I had fuzziness with revolves around defining Abilities in the game. I'd hoped to unify things by having abilities and meta-abilities. Abilities simply give a redraw for related actions. Meta-abilities allow a player to do something unique (like fly, resist damage or have a particular piece of equipment) and give a redraw. The latter costs twice what the former does. In the case of the Star Wars game, that meant two picks rather than one (with two picks being the standard experience given out at the end of the session). But as we played, I started fudging things a little. I suspect I'm going to go back to a two part split-- which I effectively have here with Skills (granting redraws and being able to be defined broadly) and Abilities (doing something out of the ordinary). To use the example given in HeroQuest 2e: a person with the Strong Skill would get a redraw with feats of strength, while a person with the Strong ability would be considered to have an abnormal range of strength-- but would still have to make a pull for those tests. Both things would cost the same.

As I mentioned in the objectives section, I wanted to provide more choices earlier on in the game. I think that worked pretty well-- at least from my perspective. At several junction points (after the raid on the Hutt Freighter, after the Sith Temple, after the running of the blockade) I think the players ended up with several equally valid choices of next step. I could have easily seen them going down another path and changing the game. I suspect the only really fixed idea I had in my head was an eventual confrontation with the Decimators and their travel to Secret Base connected to Ward's character, Rilos. As it was, the Decimator ended up getting held off-screen until the final scene, which was something I hadn't imagined at first. As well, fir a few sessions I figured the group wouldn't get to Rilos' base before the Big Finish of the campaign. I started to think about how that might serve as a crucial scene in the second "film" (ala Luke going to Dagobah). I will say that the set of choices did get slightly more limited after the fourth session, but until that point I think it still could have been a very different story.

As a note about how much things had the potential to shift, I should point out that the answer to Ward's background came to me pretty late. Ahead of the game I knew I wanted him to be a clone of Anakin Skywalker and I knew that we'd have a scene turning on his discovery of that, probably at the base where he was cloned, but other than that I hadn't figured everything out. It wasn't until a couple of sessions before they actually went there that I finally put the pieces together. I'd established a right hand man called Artificer Quartz for the Grand Mof of the Crimson Empire. I knew that person was the Decimator leader. But suddenly I realized that it could be a twin for Ward's character-- putting some skin in the game for him on that story line. I plotted out some of the details for how that could be and took a couple of "Lucas Jumps" in logic that people hopefully wouldn't look too hard at. Then I realized that it actually had to be a female since that's how Luke and Leia were-- since there was some prophecy about a set twins (boy and girl) setting the force to balance or something.

I'll try and be brief here since I've gone overly long already. I'd consider this a strong success- especially since I started it just as I'd quit smoking. That I was able to pull it off in the middle of that is a small miracle.

I enjoyed running it and it gave me some greater confidence about how Action cards can work with a variety of settings. I was a little nervous about the stripped down approach I was taking, both in terms of mechanics and story knowledge, but it worked. The drafting system I wanted to test worked fine and can be tuned even more tightly. The group was split evenly between veteran players and those who had not tried Action Cards or had seen a distinctly different version. Everyone seemed to take to it pretty well. I think a good sign is that we have a couple of other GMs in the group working on versions of the Action Cards. I can say pretty definitively that I will be running a sequel campaign to this one.

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