Apr 12 2012

When the Dice Hit the Mat

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Well it looks like my new campaign is going to start this weekend. I spent most of last weekend working up the first scenario (hanging out at the in-laws’ place with no internet to speak of makes for lots of focused time with a notebook and pen), and having received the campaign “handbook” the players are tossing character ideas around (so far 2/4 on halflings, which is strangely appropriate).

I mentioned before that this game isn’t like the others I’ve done recently, but is a “dig in, make lots of lore and background, go heavy on plot” type of game. This is fine and dandy as a mental exercise when putting the background together, but at some point it all has to become “real” and the character party has to inhabit the world. When the dice hit the mat, will all that pre-work make it awesome, or will the whole thing just go thud?

By a peculiar coincidence, Gnome Stew once again posts a blog entry that meshes up with the issues at hand nicely, this time about “Campaign Greatness.”

Some campaigns are not that good, some are fine, and some are ones we never forget. In my last article I talked about my Elhal campaign, and how it was one of the great ones. In a discussion on G+ (btw, Circle +Gnome Stew), some Plussers asked me what made Elhal so great. So I did some soul searching, as well as asked some of my players and we came up with some factors that not only made Elhal great, but could make any game achieve greatness.

Why Did It Work?

On the surface there is nothing about Elhal that was different from a hundred other fantasy stories. What then made it stand out? Here are some of the conclusions my players and I came up with:

Clear Sense of Purpose – From the initial pitch for the campaign, it was clear that the goal of the campaign was to de-throne the Demon King. Other things would happen along the way, but everyone knew where the game was going. This purpose was a beacon for the players. No matter what was going on, they knew what they were working towards.

Epic Feel – Elhal was an epic story, and thus it was clear that the fate of humanity was at stake. Likewise, it was clear that the characters were not just adventurers but people of purpose. That was conveyed through the tone of the game especially in the way NPC’s regarded the players.

Characters Tied To the Setting – The players did a great job of making characters who were tied directly into the setting. There were no Weirdos and no lone wolves. One character was the son of one of the Kings who fell to the Demon King, the other was the grandson of the King’s assassin. The third initially had a mysterious background with hints of the divine, but I would add some elements to that and fully embed him into the core of the game.

Say “Yes, And…” – There was a lot of saying Yes on my part. I worked very hard not to stifle any of the players enthusiasm, so when a player asked for something, I tried very hard to make that happen within the game, and the characters would have to earn the thing they wanted. When the players said that they would need a base of operations to mount their rebellion, I worked up an arc that would lead them to liberating a city under a terrible curse.

Outside Communication – The players were so excited that discussions of the game would spill into email between sessions. These discussions were almost always in first person and often represented in depth discussions about the situations the characters faced. Those metagame moments reinforced the game and added great depth to the campaign, and growth to the characters.

These are all elements that I’ve looked at with this game. Not all of them directly apply yet– there isn’t a single obvious “Demon King” for the players to rally against at this stage for instance, aside from an obvious Sauron-esque[1] Lord of Darkness too remote and powerful to be confronted directly any time soon.

The “Weirdos” points vs. “Say ‘Yes And…'” is an interesting balance that needs to be juggled. (And the linked article about the Weirdo Card is a very interesting one as well.) The players need to be able to create characters and situations that will interest them in order to get (and stay) invested in the game, but those things have to be woven into the setting and campaign in a way that works. Figuring out what to do when you are trying for a string quartet and half the players bring kazoos is part of the Gamemaster gig.

One thing I’m thinking of doing on that score is implementing a “Goals” and “Wishlists” system once the campaign has a good start. The “Goals” part (lifted from the old WEG Ghostbusters RPG) would be fairly simple: each character has a broad goal they wish to accomplish, and each session they get an XP bonus if they achieve it. Using the Lord of the Rings characters as examples, Aragorn might have a goal of “Lead Well,” Pippin would have a goal of “Get Into Trouble” or something similar, and Sam Gamgee would have a goal of “Serve Frodo.”

The “Wishlists” is even more straightforward: the players get together periodically and give me a list of things they’d like in upcoming sessions, both as a group and individually. Party wishes might be things like “a party mentor” or “to fight a dragon,” whereas individual wishes could be anything from “a magic spear” to “an NPC romance.”

Since the character creation process has been a bit more curtailed for this game than it usually is for my games, and there are limited options for things like buying gear upgrades over time, the idea is that these things will give players some extra control over the long-term story to compensate.

-The Gneech

[1] Strictly speaking, more Morgoth-esque, actually. Point is: definitely not an immediate concern.

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