My gaming group recently wrapped up our 1980s Anomaly Adjustment Agency campaign. This was my first non-fantasy campaign since junior high school, and my first modern campaign ever. It ran for 18 months, went places I never expected in-game, and had a few unexpected out-of-game moments. Here are a few of the lessons I learned while preparing and running this campaign.
The three biggest inspirations for the campaign were Larry Correia’s awesome Monster Hunter International books, Reality Blurs’ Agents of Oblivion campaign toolbox (here’s Phil’s review), and 1980s action movies.
How’d it work? Extremely well. The trio of inspiration, framework, and era really played well together.
- Larry Correia is a gamer, and it shows. I particularly like his Gnomes, although I borrowed more ‘look and feel’ than actual details.
- AoO is an excellent framework for a modern or near-future game. From the Resource Management tools to the Campaign Thematic Factors and other crunchy bits, it’s solid.
- The 1980s was a lucky choice. Personal technology (cell phones, computers, etc.) is rare at best, and the tropes are well known. Terrorism and the intensifying Cold War provide a great backdrop. And the music makes a great gaming soundtrack.
- For ‘gamers of a certain age,’ the 1980s is familiar territory. The game often came to a halt as we reminisced fondly about the era we were gaming in. This is a feature, not a bug.
- There were a few hiccups. I should have used AoO’s resource management, and spent more time establishing the Anomalies’ (critters) stats and tactics.
The ‘cornerstone’ of the campaign world is that supernatural beings exist, but that humanity reverts to its baser instincts (fear, paranoia) when the population is aware of them. Secret organizations around the world anonymously combat supernatural beings and allow humanity to prosper in ignorant bliss.
The Anomaly Adjustment Agency is a covert organization established in 1981 by an assertive Reagan Administration (more on politics in a bit) to combat the rising number of supernatural incidents through the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Magic as we know it is virtually non-existent. Particularly talented individuals may perform rare and dangerous rituals, but that’s it.
How’d it work? Excellently. These simple assumptions kept the game balanced and fun, in my opinion.
- Working covertly, the Agents had to personally track down and fight the Anomalies. The players were pretty creative at covering for themselves, and sometimes had to let individuals in on the ruse.
- Being off the books, the Agency was subject to bureaucratic and political influence, sometimes funded by the very creatures they were fighting. This gave me a surprisingly powerful tool with which to direct the campaign.
- The ‘no spells’ aspect works great in a modern campaign, and added to the ‘us vs. them’ tension of humanity against powerful supernatural beings.
- Actual politics were minimized. ‘Nameless’ politicians generally supported or opposed the Agency, and although Reagan (and Gorbachev) did make an appearance towards the end, they were not editorialized.
Adventures varied between Metaplot (or Mytharc as Phil calls it here) and Monster of the Week episodes. Each type usually took multiple sessions to complete.
Prep was rarely more than a few notes and character sheets, and plot arcs were elevator pitch length. I relied heavily on improvisation or the players’ own discussions. I’m not good enough to improvise awesomeness, that’s Patrick’s bailiwick. I just directed traffic to where it seemed fun.
I tried to design an adventure or arc around each character’s background. More than once, I would ask that player for more details, and weave them into the story.
How’d it work? Mixed, but mostly positive. More than once, I had to take a break to reevaluate where the heck we could go from here. GMing on the fly allowed me to roll with a lot of the punches that might collapse a highly structured game (such as ‘accidentally’ blowing up the National Cathedral, or adopting a werewolf pack).
- The varied adventure types worked like a charm. Sometimes I tied a MotW session into the metaplot after the fact.
- My session notes were lacking, and I occasionally relied on a player’s shared notes. Lesson: Minimal prep does not mean minimal note-taking.
- The players were an amazing resource. One of the most memorable sessions was an ambush in a parking garage. The players had all the cool ideas (parking garage, elevator, sprinkler system, creative use of the fire hose, etc.); I just added a twist or two.
- We had a few flat sessions, which I take the blame for. Improv is good, but improv plus a backup plan is better.
- The ‘character-centered’ adventures were solid, although I didn’t get to every player. I will be doing this every campaign from here on out.
This was one of the most enjoyable campaigns I’ve run, and will probably be revisited. If so, I’d make the following changes:
- Move the start date to the mid-80s. The music is better, the styles are more defined, and the tropes are better established. Personal technology is a bit more available, but not ubiquitous.
- Nail down the rules regarding the supernatural critters, particularly their weaknesses. Many of their weaknesses weren’t actually very exploitable, and many of them weren’t as dangerous as they should have been.
- Spend more time on the BBEGs and their plans for World Domination™. The interplay between them could have been really cool, had I developed them a bit more.
- Start the campaign after Never Unprepared is published, which would have resolved many of my planning failures.
- Prevent the Ghoulish TPK and subsequent feast that happened fairly early on, although it did lead to much more powerful character builds.
Any questions or comments from my experiences? Do you sit down after your campaigns and conduct a formal AAR or ‘lessons learned’ session? Sound off in the comments, and let us know!
Image: My backpack, undisclosed location.