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The Bones in the Soup

This post is a follow-up to my first post on TT, “Every Campaign is an Experiment [1].” By way of The 20′ by 20′ Room [2], I found out about an online gaming magazine I’d never heard of, Places to Go, People to Be [3], and read this nifty article: “Theory 101: The Impossible Thing Before Breakfast [4].”

After a minor implosion in my gaming group based in part on my stiff background expectations for the PCs — and after reading the above article — I decided I wanted to lay out all the cards for my approach to our upcoming campaign. So here they are: the bones that make up this particular soup — and along with them comes a question. If you were about to start a new game, would you want your GM to tell you about this stuff?

For starters, I’m going to be using published adventures almost exclusively. This is going to be a weekly game, which is twice as often as I’ve ever run a game before (!). With my day job, relationship, freelancing and interests outside of gaming, I don’t want to get burned out trying to come up with 100% original material every week.

At the same time, I’m not interested in playing “adventure a week/kill things and take their stuff” D&D, with no deeper underpinnings. I’ll be modifying every adventure to incorporate the following things:

  1. The campaign theme, airship privateers.
  2. PC backgrounds.
  3. The metaplot.

Plus, of course, tweaking them mechanically to suit the party (“Oops, I forgot that you don’t have a cleric!”) — and as I learn what people enjoy the most, tweaking them for style as well. One thing I expect to do from the outset is try and keep the pace pretty quick: lots of action (which fits the setting — Eberron — very well), fairly rapid advancement, and liberal skipping of boring stuff.

The central element of the campaign theme, of course, will be the airship the party starts out on. I’ll have deck plans (in 1″ minis scale) and a full crew of NPCs for the PCs to interact with. The ship also has a history, and secrets for the party to discover — and fairly early on, they’ll wind up in control of the airship.

The metaplot will tie together (and run through) the different adventures, and also help to give things more of a unified feel. It probably won’t be part of every adventure, but if I handle it right it should get more noticeable as the campaign progresses (just as it would in a TV show, or as it did in our recent Stargate SG-4 [5] game).

The PC backgrounds are key, because I want to weave them deeply — and obviously — into the game after a few sessions. Which brings me to the theory bit: based on the above article, this campaign will fall solidly into the “trailblazing” category, but with more player input in the form of elements from their characters’ backgrounds being foregrounded during play.

My last long-running game, the Selgaunt Campaign [6], was a “bass playing” game, with elements of trailblazing (the tower dungeon sections). It was also slow as molasses and sometimes needed more direction, so those are both things I’m looking to avoid this time around. (Don’t get me wrong, though: it was a lot of fun to run, and by and large the players enjoyed it. I just know that there was room for improvement.)

And in part, looking at the Airship Privateers campaign as a trailblazing game is a function of the “only published adventures” approach: by definition, most published adventures (and almost certainly the ones in Dungeon) follow this model. What I find interesting is how handy it is to have a frame of reference for the approach I want to take. I could have explained what using published adventures would mean before I’d read that article — hooks will be clear, and the fun is in how the party handles them — but I didn’t know where that approach fell in relation to others (illusionism, participationism and bass playing).

And there you have it: all of the theory and back burner thinking behind this campaign, just before it gets altered by its contact with the realities of play. I’ll let you know how it goes!

In the meantime, back to my question: as a player, do you want to hear this kind of thing? Or is it akin to movie spoilers, and best avoided? As a GM, have you ever taken this tack — and if so, how did it go?

11 Comments (Open | Close)

11 Comments To "The Bones in the Soup"

#1 Comment By Abulia On July 22, 2005 @ 10:53 am

I’ll be frank (and you can be Sally!) this is why I tend to avoid theory discussions: all talk, no work. When you put that much thought into the hows and whys of a game, even D&D, there’s simply no way to avoid being disappointed. What happens during play will never be as cool as how it played out in your mind.

The big disconnect for me is the “100% new material” every week “problem.” How is that a problem? I’ve never considered creating an adventure a task. Now Stargate was a bit different, where I had to create an adventure every *week* in order to simulate the TV show. D&D is an entirely different beast. I’d have no problem spending a Sunday afternoon crafting a D&D adventure, custom made for the group, that would probably take 3-4 sessions to resolve. That’s another month available to create the *next* adventure. Rinse, repeat.

Published adventures, in my experience, fill two roles: the adventure that you need on the spur-of-the-moment and to mine for ideas (read: steal floorplans/stat blocks). For example, anytime I start any game/campaign, I always use a published adventure before knowing anything about the characters. The character stuff comes later through the natural genesis of the game, again, in my experience.

Do I want to know all this? I really don’t care; I want to play. No amount of work will overcome the problem of not getting together and playing. The most detailed adventure that spans 200 pages of awesome content, dialog, NPCs, and scenic vistas is meaningless *if you never play.* I also contend that complex character background requirements are an excellent de-motivator for a game.

Less talk, just play.

Nike had it right: Just Do It.

#2 Comment By Martin On July 22, 2005 @ 12:26 pm

(To clarify: Don and I are part of the same gaming group, and he’ll be playing in the Eberron campaign that I talked about it in this post.)

(Don) When you put that much thought into the hows and whys of a game, even D&D, there’s simply no way to avoid being disappointed. What happens during play will never be as cool as how it played out in your mind.

I disagree, although I understand where you’re coming from. If I had an elaborate plan for every detail, including how things would play out, you’re right: inevitable disappointment. But if I think through what I want to try to do, and not do, and why — the theory part — then I’ve got a clearer idea of where I’m headed. I find that handy.

The big disconnect for me is the “100% new material” every week “problem.” How is that a problem? I’ve never considered creating an adventure a task.

It’s enjoyable, but there are two reasons that I find it to be a problem for me. One, it takes me a lot longer than it sounds like it takes you — I envy your talent at that aspect of running a game. Two, I tend to have trouble putting my ideas into a coherent form; I think too much, or not enough, and the result isn’t always pretty. That adds up to more task, less fun — not even considering that there will be times I don’t have any interest in doing it, but will have to since there’s a game that weekend.

I also contend that complex character background requirements are an excellent de-motivator for a game.

Maybe so. I might have a skewed idea of complex — one page, answers to a few questions, and five short descriptions of NPCs doesn’t seem complex to me, particularly not with weeks of time to do it in. Then again, it’s something I enjoy — and obviously not something everyone else enjoys. 😉

Presuming that you, as a GM, wanted detailed backgrounds, how would you go about getting them? I know you’ve mentioned rewards for completion, but what else apart from that?

Less talk, just play.

It sounds like you’re saying I should be running Eberron this weekend, rather than talking about it. For me, this post was partly cathartic — I was in a lousy mood for much of last night, to the point that I was down on gaming (which is very rare!) — and partly a way to address something Jaben brought up: more disclosure. Maybe I’m mis-reading your comment, though.

I’m also running a game because no one else will — that doesn’t mean I’m not excited about it (because I am, as buying chairs, sorting counters and all sorts of other things should indicate!), but it’s a bit different than if I had come to the group and said, “I want to run a game.”

I make no apologies for not wanting to start this campaign in a pissy mood, when waiting a week can alleviate that. 😉

#3 Comment By Abulia On July 25, 2005 @ 12:02 pm

I think it’s worth clarifying that I wasn’t referencing you directly (“let’s play Eberron”), but the fact that it’s terribly easy to get drawn into theory discussion to such an extent that you don’t play. It is possible to spend so much time and effort to craft “the perfect game” that you (the GM) never get around to running it.

It is a well-established fact that there is an entire (the majority?) segment of the RPG buying community that *simply buys games*; they don’t play or run them. They read and talk about them (The Forge, anyone?). They build campaign booklets (between their RC boat hobby), design entire gaming systems, but they don’t play.

My belief is that the only way to generate interest in gaming is not by talking, but by playing. It takes quite a bit for me to cancel a game; canceling a game (or just not playing) kills momentum and causes interest to wane. Want to torpedo a campaign? Find a way to cancel 2-3 sessions (not necessarily in a row) — it’ll dry up on it’s own.

Anyhow, we’re way off topic now, but the gist of my post is that being in a “pissy mood” (hey, you’re entitled!) after nearly 2 months of non-gaming is a dangerous combination. Hence why I offered to run a one-shot.

I’m also running a game because no one else will… Should I be running another game? At what point have I “earned” the right to play?

All good discussion topics!

#4 Comment By Martin On July 25, 2005 @ 12:31 pm

(Don) Should I be running another game? At what point have I “earned” the right to play?

You’re right, we are off topic — but these are good discussion points. I sense a post on the phenomenon of “I GM because no one else well,” which IME is quite common. Good idea! 😉

Thanks for clarifying your comment about “Just Do It” in general vs. Eberron specifically. 🙂

#5 Comment By Nathan P. On July 25, 2005 @ 6:42 pm

I wanna jump in here to say that, in my experience, the more I think and talk about my gaming, the better it gets. Over the last couple months, I’ve been GMing two games (Inspectres and Adventure!), and have been surprised and impressed every session in proportion to the time I’ve spent thinking about the game.

Now, I’ll say that, again in my experience, putting a ton of work into hard prep for a game – statting up villians, preparing locations for events, writing out event flowcharts – does set me up for dissapointment. But GMing with the mindset of “it’s our story” instead of “it’s my story”, and encouraging input from everyone at the table, lets me skip all that.

So I would say that when you say this:

“I’ll be frank (and you can be Sally!) this is why I tend to avoid theory discussions: all talk, no work. When you put that much thought into the hows and whys of a game, even D&D, there’s simply no way to avoid being disappointed. What happens during play will never be as cool as how it played out in your mind.”

The “hows and whys” are referring to hard prep (what are we playing?) and not theory as I understand it (why are we playing? whats fun about our game?)

And, I totally a million percent agree with “Less talk, just play” in the sense that both theory and prep are totally useless if you don’t actually freakin play.

#6 Comment By ScottM On July 26, 2005 @ 12:46 pm

As a player, I would want to hear much of this. The trailblazing warning would be key– though I’d probably translate it as: “I’ll be working from modules, so there’s a definite plot to follow. I’ll bend them to match the group, but please don’t fight the whole adventure concept, or my prep will be ruined.”

I like your “more background” stuff, but I also agree with Don: do, not say. For background, I’d suggest (especially for a D&D like game, where new characters are new to the wider world so often) that you break it down to a few bullet points. They can expand from there as you agree… but if they don’t have a strong enough picture, they don’t get trapped making lots of background for a character who’ll change dramatically in play.

For example, perhaps you can boil it down to something like:
* Describe your relationship with your family in a sentence or two
* Name three NPCs and your relation to them. (This can be very quick and very revealing; do they name assets, conflicted people, or even a nemesis to encounter?)
* In a paragraph, describe how you trained for your class. Try and work acquiring any unusual equipment into your snippet.

Then, as the game progresses and the players get more of a handle on their characters, you can ask them other stuff, like “describe the dream you had last night.” Just introducing stuff in play will give them a chance to say a lot– for example, if there’s a dinner and dancing, have them describe how they dance, how they learned, etc. There’s no skill for it, so they can freeform an answer– hopefully an answer that will illuminate their character.

#7 Comment By Martin On July 26, 2005 @ 2:58 pm

(Scott) The trailblazing warning would be key– though I’d probably translate it as: “I’ll be working from modules, so there’s a definite plot to follow. I’ll bend them to match the group, but please don’t fight the whole adventure concept, or my prep will be ruined.”

That’s a perfect breakdown of what I’m getting it, and it stands alone even if someone hasn’t read the Theory 101 article. Nicely put!

For background, I’d suggest (especially for a D&D like game, where new characters are new to the wider world so often) that you break it down to a few bullet points. They can expand from there as you agree… but if they don’t have a strong enough picture, they don’t get trapped making lots of background for a character who’ll change dramatically in play.

Oooooh, I wish I’d thought of doing it that way — that’s a great compromise between “I need useful info” and “I need a lot of info.” I’d much rather have a bit less, but get the really good stuff, and you’re exactly right about the potential frustration of getting tied to early choices.

Actually, that’s one of the things that I stink at as a player: making good choices in my PC’s background. I tend to either nail down too much, and then not want to play the character that way, or nail down too little and never get a sense for the character at all. Your suggestion addresses that incredibly well — thank you. 🙂

#8 Comment By Abulia On July 27, 2005 @ 12:05 am

It’s worth mentioning that in my last D&D game, metagaming was sooooo horrible (the system promotes it, I don’t blame the players) that I started assigning homework.

This sounds bad, but it was really easy. I did one a week and gave bonus XP for it. It was *never* required.

– What is your character most afraid of?
– You have three wishes: what are they?
– What is your character’s largest regret?

Quickie, self-reflecting bits like that. The responses were easy to do and gave me a lot of information to work with. I was able to build “mini-psychological profiles” of each of the characters.

Mostly, it got players thinking about their characters instead of the stack of books and statistics.

#9 Comment By Martin On July 27, 2005 @ 9:18 am

(Don) This sounds bad, but it was really easy. I did one a week and gave bonus XP for it. It was *never* required.

I don’t think it sounds bad, and your ideas are quite good. 🙂

Inquiring minds want to know: How much bonus XP did you give for this homework? How often did people do it? Did you have players who never did it?

#10 Comment By Abulia On July 28, 2005 @ 12:59 pm

Enough XP to make it worth doing, not too much to overshadow the XP of play. It scaled with level. At low level, around 100 I’d say. I had a new assignment every session (weekly).

Everyone did the homework, even the players who weren’t into the RP and showed up more for the social aspect. The die-hard players gave me more information than the othes, of course.

The players said they missed the homework when my arc of the game ended. =)

#11 Comment By Martin On July 29, 2005 @ 9:05 am

(Don) Everyone did the homework, even the players who weren’t into the RP and showed up more for the social aspect.

That’s surprising (and good!). When I did the same thing with my Selgaunt campaign, I had 6 players to start with, and I did something very similar. I offered a bunch of different (optional) activities they could do during or between games for bonus XP, and advertised that levelling was going to be a bit slower than 3.x standard. I set the award at 50 XP x character level, which scales nicely at 5% of what you need to reach the next level, available every session.

Usually the same couple of folks would do things every session, and there were a couple who rarely did anything. Your homework questions were a lot simpler than some of the things I offered (like doing a PC journal a few paragraphs long), which I think is probably where I went wrong. I like your approach.