I wrote this article last summer, after running a session of Demigods at a brand new local game day. The rest of the day had gone really well, so I wanted to examine how this particular session went awry. You can find the original version of this article on my blog here.
The best advice I’ve ever seen people share about RPGs has been to solve problems in a group at the group level, not through the game’s narrative. I’ve vehemently shared examples of this myself, and spread this advice. And yet, I’ve run into a situation where I didn’t heed my own advice. I’m sharing this to help underscore the importance of the advice, and the fact that many times we know what we should do, and then forget what we should be doing in the moment.
Anticipation versus Execution
I was very excited to run Demigods, a PBTA game, at a local convention. It’s very much up my alley. It’s urban fantasy, about people in the modern world that are the children of gods, and are asked to accomplish tasks by their divine parents. A group of these demigods usually don’t work together, but sometimes when they come together to defend an important thing, a Spindle, a Weave forms around them, and they become a group of demigods that works together.
In the group I was running for, I had two of my regulars, another player whose games I have played in a few times, and another person that is a regular of my convention games. I also had a player I had not had in the past.
Overall, the first part of the session went reasonably well, but it got convoluted and difficult for me to run towards the end of the session, and I was looking for a quick way to narratively resolve the entire session so I could call it a night just after the three-hour mark.
Right from the start, it took longer than I would have liked for the players to pick characters. I’ll blame myself a bit for not restricting the number of playbooks that I brought. Demigods has a lot of playbooks, and I printed out all of them as options. I have gotten to the point when I run games like Monster of the Week, where I’ll only run off a limited selection of playbooks for a session, but I was so excited to get this to the table that I hadn’t done it here.
The first indication I should have had that I might have some trouble balancing the group is that everyone else picked their playbook, came up with their divine parent, and was ready to move on to the questions about the Spindle and the Tangles (the connections between characters).
The player I was unfamiliar with picked the Trickster. Then, when I asked them about their divine parent, they wouldn’t say, because “the character changes who they say it is.” I should have had a meta-discussion right here, along these lines:
“It is fine if your character withholds this information from the other characters, but if you, as a player, withholds this from the group, its harder to tell a collaborative story.”
Because it was a convention game, and it had already taken longer that I would have liked to just get playbooks chosen, I let it slide. This also meant that the parts of the playbook where the character details how they feel about their pantheon ended up not being filled out.
There is a series of questions that you ask about what the Spindle is, how the group defended it, what god appreciated the defense, and what god did not.
Someone in the group offered a coffee shop as the Spindle, and almost everyone agreed, except the player playing the Trickster. His comment was “I cannot conceive of why anyone would care about a coffee shop.”
I asked, “do we want to make a different Spindle, or try to explore why everyone would care about this one?”
Another player suggested that the owner of the coffee shop was a sweet older woman that everyone loves and that treats all of them like her own children. This sounded like a good compromise to me. The Trickster player grudgingly agreed.
I did stop and ask for more information here. What didn’t sink in until later is that the Trickster player never offered an alternative, just shot down other people’s ideas. I really should have specifically asked for their inputs.
Later on, when discussing the Spindle, the trickster player said, “I wish we had a more meaningful Spindle, but I guess this is what we’re stuck with.”
At this point, I really should have stopped to have a discussion about this and said:
“It would be nice to have a stronger story for the group’s beginning and their deeper connections to the Spindle, but this is a convention game, we have limited time to get going, and part of participating in a group storytelling experience is to make a character that can tell a story with the group.”
When it came to the gods that the group made happy and angered with the Spindles story, the group decided that Mercury also appreciated the coffee shop, so there were on good terms with him. The opposing deity . . . was Bezos.
I tried to bring up that I wanted more of a general “Corporate Entities Provide Everything I Need” name for the concept of trusting in modern mega-corporations, but nobody really had a good idea for a name like that. I wasn’t thrilled with using “Bezos,” since it was very specific and very on the nose, but its what I went with.
We played out an introductory scene where all of the players detailed their characters. Two characters did a lot of interacting, and tended to be more light-hearted in their depictions of those characters. Two more were more serious, but also conveyed that they both had more of a “we’re part of the group, but we need to be the adults.”
The Trickster player added a lot of details that played up their unique part of the world, and didn’t much tie into either the Spindle or the other players.
Mercury was going to recruit them into pulling a heist on one of Vulcan’s businesses, because Vulcan decided to do business with Bezos. Mercury wanted to “outsource” the job to this group, because none of them had ties to the Greek or Roman pantheons, so he could maintain plausible deniability.
I had an idea for a half-high tech, half-magical heist, where the group deals with Vulcan’s techno-magical items and a few mythological security guards to steal a shipment of high tech delivery drones.
Then the Trickster player chimed in, in character:
“A heist is so boring. Couldn’t we do something more interesting.”
I should have taken this as the Trickster saying something in character. Or, I should have had a meta-discussion about if the player was disappointed versus the character. Instead, I added a complication. Mercury gave the group an hourglass that he stole from Chronos, and told them they could, instead, make sure the plans for the drones never got made in the first place.
The Verdant’s player, whose character was broke and unemployed, made a joke about betting on sports teams. Everyone got ready to travel to the past. They said they activated the device. Then the Trickster’s player said, “I went and purchased a sports almanac to bet on things before we left.” But in the scene, it was pretty clear they had the meeting, and then just left.
I thought the following would be fun, but it just made things confusing, and I should have just said that the session was already getting a little unfocused. Instead, I said that there were two versions of the group in the past, one where the Trickster did what he said he did, and the other where they just went straight back in time.
The group decided to split into two groups. One went to the muse that inspired the plans to be drawn up, to convince her not to inspire the engineer. The other went to an engineering convention to talk to the engineer to get him to not make the plans for the delivery drones for Vulcan to sell to Bezos.
Then, the Trickster player decided to head to his bookie to place bets on various sporting events.
At this point, I should have just said, in a meta-contextual manner:
“I’m okay with running two different locations, but I don’t really want to add a third location, especially not one that’s not related to the main narrative. Can we get everyone back to one of the two locations?”
Instead, I tried to “fix” the situation by introducing “time wraiths” that appeared by all of the PCs, trying to “negate” them so that the timeline would reset. In my head, this would drive everyone to check back in with each other and have them all regroup. It did not, and I should have known better.
Additionally, the Trickster character tried to pick the pocket of the time wraith that was after him. Even though I described it as a vaguely humanoid-shaped entity made of collapsing time and space. When I clarified the description, he said he still wanted to pick its pocket, and then got upset when he took harm from touching the thing made of anti-time that had just told him that it was here to negate him.
One thing that I think I did handle the way I should have was also a matter that was starting to wear away at my patience. Instead of describing his actions, and then letting me mention if that triggered a move, the Trickster player was rolling dice and then telling me his outcome before he even mentioned what his character was doing.
I had explained the game briefly at the beginning, but everyone present had said that they were familiar with PBTA games before. The Trickster player had even mentioned various things about Masks and other PBTA games. We were all on board with “you have to say what you are doing to trigger a move, and the GM/Fates tell you if a move is called for.”
Not only did he roll dice and tell me what his outcomes were before I called for a move, he also kept rolling dice randomly through the session.
I finally stopped and said, “please don’t roll the dice until I tell you a move is called for. Tell me what you are doing, and I’ll tell you if it is a move, and then you can roll dice.”
ResolutionsÂ We stopped to check in that the whole group was okay with how the story was going, if the captain’s player was okay with his character dying, and making sure that the group was on board with extra elements being added.Â
One of my regulars was getting frustrated with the plot not advancing, and didn’t particularly like the time wraiths. I was trying to bounce between all three scenes, and had to tell the Trickster player to not keep going when I was cutting to another scene. Eventually, I had Mercury, in the past, call them all together and ask what the hell was going on.
I wanted to come up with some kind of resolution, so I sent all of them to a penthouse where the future version of the Trickster had amassed a ton of wealth and power using the hourglass to travel through time, and the group confronted him.
I did get an amusing scene where the Trickster held a gun to his own head to threaten his future self. In the end, the Warrior slapped the Trickster down and grabbed the hourglass out of his hand. They met back up with Mercury, and went back to the present.
Mercury, in the present, told them that instead of stealing the drones or stopping the plans, he just went into business with Vulcan, but had to give him a huge cut of the profits as an apology. I thought this would have been a decent resolution, but the Trickster then grabbed the time device and decided to have more time hijinks.
At which point, I described everything flashing to a featureless white nothingness, with the rest of the demigods and Mercury the only beings in existence. Mercury looked at the group and asked, “do you suppose someone else will fix this, eventually?”
And that’s where we ended.
- I should have had the discussion about making a character that fits the narrative early on
- I should have had the discussion about dice rolling sooner
- I should have had a discussion about regrouping for the main storyline instead of fixing in narratively
- I should have clarified that the player felt a certain way, instead of assuming that the character was expressing the player’s desires
What’s more frustrating about this whole situation is that in the morning’s Rapscallion game, we had a player that left the party, essentially became the antagonist, and had their character killed, and the whole session went really well. We stopped to check in that the whole group was okay with how the story was going, if the captain’s player was okay with his character dying, and making sure that the group was on board with extra elements being added.
I just failed to apply those same techniques to this Demigods session, possibly because other player behaviors were getting under my skin and I let that cloud my judgment about the best way to resolve situations.