Friday, March 27, 2015

Eleven Pillars Post-Mortem: Play on Target Ep. 39

We try something new for this episode of Play on Target. Sam offers up one of his concluded campaigns, "The Eleven Pillars," and we dissect it. It isn’t exactly workshopping, but more a chance to see the choices made by another GM and their results. I dug it because I got to see under the hood. We looked his prep, his mechanics, his decisions- and got to question him about how those operated. We’re hoping to do this kind of exploration every once in a while- with each of us eventually putting one of our campaigns under the microscope. I’m debating  whether to present a campaign that worked or one with deep problems and player conflicts.

If you enjoy this kind of material, I also recommend you check out The Zantabulous Zorceror of Zo. That’s a solid Oz-like game using the PDQ (Prose Descriptive Quality) system. But, and I hate to say this, even better than the game is the author's outline of his own campaign. He discusses what he did and why. That’s interspersed with reactions from his players. It’s like the best commentary track ever for a campaign. I’ve also written up a few campaign post-mortems, not nearly as awesome as that: City of Ocean (Modern, Unknown Armies-Inspired), The Darkening Rift (Star Wars), Bloodlines (Mutants & Masterminds), Loosing Las Vegas (Scion: Hero), and Aftermagic Chicago (Vampire the Masquerade). 

BTW you have to admire the guts of going in to start a new campaign populated entirely by people you haven’t run for and actually give them an 8-hour session. I’m not sure I could do that, or at least not sure I wouldn’t come home and collapse. Sam talks about the challenge of figuring out what different players want from a game- one of the key elements of GMing. He managed to do that on the fly and offer a responsive campaign.

That ties into something I read this week. I got my copy of John Wick’s Play Dirty 2. It’s good- particularly the post-mortem of his Changeling the Lost campaign. He talks about a technique he crafted for 7th Sea. If you’ve read that you may have heard of it, but this was my first exposure. He breaks down campaigns into a set of activities: Action, Intrigue, Mystery, and Romance (and Military & Exploration for some games). During character creation, each player breaks down their interest in each of these areas by percentage. So Sherri might go Action 10%, Intrigue 30%, Mystery 40%, and Romance 20%. That gives the GM a rough scale and big investments (lack thereof) point to key issues. But Wick also suggests tying rewards and incentives to these areas. Handing out points, drama tokens, or some other kind of reward when players work within their favored areas. It reminds me a little of Keys from The Shadow of Yesterday- and you could probably combine the two.

Now, this system wouldn’t have worked for Sam since he dove right into the game. But it’s a nice tool for those running for new (or old) players, and break between CC & play.

Sam mentions his “notebook” for the Ranger as a major prop he constructed. I wish we’d circled back more to that: how it was used, how well it worked, was there anything he’d have done differently with it? I had some success with a similar handout for my Changeling the Lost campaign, but I also learned a couple of lessons. You can see my big write-up on that here, The Wayward Notebook. In particular, I should have had multiple copies ready. I also probably should have broken it up into pieces, making the discovery a reward and avoiding the info dump problem. And I should have realized that because I’d gotten the inspiration to do this from a cool but flawed prop I’d seen another GM use.

A few sessions into a Hunter the Reckoning campaign, we discovered a cassette tape. When we played it, we realized it had come from another, more experienced Hunter. That confirmed for us that our experience wasn’t entirely madness or unique, which shifted the campaign. But more importantly, the GM actually played the audio for us at the table. It gave an overview of the various threats facing our stomping ground. While evocative, it slowed the pace down heavily because it dragged on for 25 minutes or so. We had to sit there and take notes, which broke the mood. As well, the GM didn’t have a transcript for the recording. We didn’t get that until a half-dozen sessions later. Having had that happen to me as a player, I should have been focused on usability. Instead I fell into many of those mistakes with my prop.

Sam makes a great point in his discussion of time and the passage of it between campaigns. In short, he hits a tough decision about how far to move the game world forward. I’ve struggled with that in my ongoing campaign world, run significantly since ’87. The problem lies in wanting to allow enough time to pass for significant events while maintaining continuity. In Sam’s case he wanted some radical changes- to societies, to structures, and to memories of the past. He came against the typical fantasy trope of long-lived peoples (Dwarves, Elves). In order to eliminate direct experience of the “old world” the timeline had to jump forward far enough to encompass more than one generation.

I’ve jumped my campaign world forward several times. In most cases, the shift involved years or perhaps even a couple of decades. Barring a cataclysmic event, that passage of time allowed mostly for political changes, shifts in ideologies, and some new advancements or revolutions. Like many GMs, I kept that small because I wanted a direct continuity. Players could go places they recalled, interact with institutions they knew, and generally operate with some mastery. As importantly, old NPCs and PCs could be brought back in as a touchstone. Their presence could lend weight to a situation. Or the group could see how the story went for those characters.

When I made a radical jump forward like Sam, I fretted and worried over it. I didn’t think I could take back such a move. But we’d had a gap between plays in the setting, so I had the opportunity. I added more steampunk elements, excised parts I wasn’t happy with, and broke up some established forces. When the players finally met someone from a previous campaign, it came as shock and changed up some of the events’ meaning. But I pushed things forward only three centuries. And even then I kept many things intact…more than they ought to have been. But my attachment kept me from the boldness of Sam’s shift in the Eleven Pillars campaign.

Side-Note: I’ve been elbow-deep in Post-Apocalyptic games, so I’m acutely aware of how important this is to those settings. If designers want a world radically changed- full of mutated beasts, vast new societies, and weird established traditions- they have to posit a large gap between the Collapse and the Present. Of course, the further they go away from that, the less important the past becomes. That’s what makes the most recent Gamma World’s “reality storm” pretty brilliant. It bakes mutability into the setting (even more than Rifts). 

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