In January 2023 I crossed off a New Year’s Resolution: I completed a campaign I was running. It seems like a smaller accomplishment, considering that I’ve been gaming off and on for close to 20 years now, and my group is filled with veterans who have run at one point or another. But for me, this is the one time I managed not only to run a game, but had a story arc that was completed and brought to (by most accounts) a satisfying resolution.
There have been failures. Over the years, I have tried to run a variety of things, from Blades in the Dark to Star Wars. I even managed to get a few sessions of Traveller strung together. For a variety of reasons these failed to move past one-shots, never materialized, or just fell apart. This happens. Aaron has written about situations just like it.
So as I look back over the game that did succeed, it’s time to run a post-mortem to know what worked and what didn’t for when I get back in the saddle to run again. You know, after my sanity restores a bit.
The greatest factor I attribute to my success this time was the level of investment from players. Reviewing past attempts, there was some interest but I never quite reached the same intensity and passion that I managed here.
What changed? I had a few advantages that I capitalized on. First, I picked a system that my group was already on board with, Magpie Games’ Masks. The first time the group played had spurred on what would become the High Impact Heroics campaign that Seamus has chronicled. I sunk my hooks in deeper by teasing that the setting would be in the same timeline as that well loved game.
That made for an excellent initial spark of interest, but Masks as a system does an excellent job at forging connections and building a rounded character in a short amount of time. Once players introduced their own stakes, investment came easily. One player in particular wrote a Doomed, which began a ticking clock. With the player invested, and then making connections to other players, those other players became invested as well.
This is where I stumbled onto my single biggest takeaway from the experience: What your players give you to work with tends to work better than anything you’ve made from whole cloth.
Know your style
I have written before about my first experience as a GM. While fun to remember, what I took from that was being really annoyed that I had built parts of an encounter that my players never saw because they went out of their way to cut the Gordian Knot I had created. I viewed it as a disaster: A fun disaster to run, and one my group had fun playing, but it bypassed any plot hooks or recurring notes that I would have wanted to make to the greater plot.
Years later, I laugh at my naivete. This was not a new phenomenon: Players have been wrecking GM plans for pretty much as long as the hobby has existed. I know the instinct that “Railroad GMs” have. When I started, I saw myself as a sculptor looking at a block of stone, seeing a plot inside that I could chisel out. It would be great, except for all the players (Those schmucks).
There’s more than one way to run a campaign. Some people purchase modules, and those modules provide so much depth that players never stray. Some people create detailed hex crawls, designing out content so that no matter where the players go they have a laid out plot to interact with. Some people design encounters and build maps for that session.
I am none of those people. Modules are great (looking at you, Pirates of Drinax), but as I play and run primarily online, I never seemed to get the full utility they offer. I simply could not keep track of all the moving parts, and every modifier, and all the necessary things to keep all the moving parts going. Building what I saw as staged encounters was what frustrated me in the first place. Building and populating every corner my own world? I just did not have the patience for that even at the height of my free time and mental abilities.
So crunchy systems? Out for me.
Do I hate crunchy systems or look down on those who enjoy it? Hell no. I might even join in one if I have experienced players with me and I want to give it a try.
Can I run them well? No. What about rules light games, like those in the Forged in the Dark and Powered by the Apocalypse catalog?
If my analogy for a hex-crawl designer is a sculptor chiseling from a block of marble, then my personal style is a mosaic artist. I start out with a lot of colorful tiles, and I invite my players to bring their own: themes, locations, struggles, rivals, temptations, nemesis, fears, joys, and loved ones, just to name a few.
Then, I watch for a few sessions as these ideas are stressed, cracked, and shattered. And then, I try to arrange them into something interesting with the help of my players. Rather than build a plot, I look at the people and factions the players had interacted with and write out what they would do if the players did not interfere, and generally what they would do if challenged. This way, I had an idea of what could happen, but wouldn’t be blindsided if players went in a completely different direction.
Sometimes I had the rough shape of something in mind and laid out an outline but did my best to not fill it in on my own. Sometimes players saw something interesting and struck out on their own. Sometimes I needed to grab a new idea to stress, or shape an older one to fit. Sometimes, things just don’t fit, but if it’s a piece that I really like, I have a wide open space to feature it elsewhere.More than once I had a plot point or an idea that I liked but never got to use in the session I planned, but I managed to keep it on the back burner and more often than not I liked its final placement better. After all, we collectively decide as a group where the border begins and ends, and how large this thing gets.
To continue the analogy, this was a game where I had the reverse problem of all my other campaigns: I wanted to bring it to an end sooner, but my players kept having pieces they wanted to see in the final work, and it kept getting bigger, and bigger, and bigger. At the end, very few things were how I had planned it at the start, but I couldn’t deny that there was pride and joy in seeing how it finished.
That’s what I can do with a rules light system. That’s my medium. If I can’t do what others can, I know that this is what I can make, and that it is still something good. That was a big hurdle for me to get over.
If there was a single biggest weakness that I still have from this game, it was my ability to structure combat encounters that really challenged my players. It did not help that Masks has a few things that make balance…let’s call it ‘difficult’. One playbook opens up an ability that goes “conflict over” if it hits comparatively early on in the power curve, and that ability derailed a lot of encounters. I never really found a second punch to that.
Interestingly, the most damage done to players was done by themselves or each other. Masks is a game of teenage angst with people learning to control their powers. One particular sparring session got massively out of hand and not only was this the most damage these two players took, I was able to show a real consequence: the room, a secret hideout, was damaged by the fallout of the fight.
In the end though, the real benefit I got from player vs player conflict was not how much they wailed on each other. It was that the more they came into conflict with each other and themselves, the more the players delved into their characters. Three players wound up in a love triangle. One player saw their character deal with their parent as the underlying villain of the setting and had to grapple with constant overtures to join in. An uplifted bear dealt with where he came from and found that he had more humanity than most (not to mention divinity!).
As I mentioned before, this was the longest campaign I’ve run. It was also the one with the largest group of people. Previous attempts had been smaller groups and shorter campaigns, and this time I ran into a problem I hadn’t had before: getting enough attention to each player.
This is something I didn’t quite nail. I had previously been annoyed by this as a player, and got a considerably stronger understanding of the challenge when it was my turn in the seat. As I think about it, I don’t recall any campaign where attention was divided among players on a perfectly even basis. Some of this is personality: some players want to take the lead or charge ahead and that means that they get to be first into the fire (for good or ill) and see consequences quicker than others. Some players write themselves in or lean into the plot so that events that the GM included them into it more.
These are, emphatically, not bad things. Players experiencing consequences (good and bad) for their actions and being included is what fuels player investment and continuing to build the in-game universe. These are things that I tried to encourage.
But not everyone plays that way. Some players like personal struggles that aren’t necessarily plot bearing. Not everyone wants to charge directly into the fire. These are perfectly valid ways to play as well, and the GM does like them (Or at least I did). That said they are not as integral to the story as a whole, and it takes effort to keep them involved. If a player is not coming to you asking for a storyline it is easy to have it get lost in the sauce. So players, seriously, we aren’t trying to pass you over. Talk to us. Let the GM know. They might not realize that they’ve been neglecting you.
I don’t think I got it perfect, but it’s something I understand better now.
Endings are notoriously hard to land in stories. How do you plan something that ties things to a satisfying conclusion, with all players getting something to hang their hat on, all while tying up the majority of loose threads or showing how they continue in a way that doesn’t feel like a cop out.
I’ll let you know if I find out because, um…
I kind of didn’t.
Plan it, that is. I had a final encounter planned, but as players began to pull out their trump cards I realized that nothing I had was going to pose a serious challenge. My ending was, in retrospect, a synthesis of my earlier points. By then I knew things that were making characters buy in. I had pieces of a previous encounter that had been bypassed. I knew that the most dramatic confrontations were when the PCs were brought into conflict with each other. This was a moment when all characters could have a spotlight shine on them.
So my Big Bad, thoroughly defeated, offered them each a shard of a “godhood” that he had collected.
To our Doomed, plagued by becoming increasingly infected with the nanotechnology keeping them alive he offered the heart of a living machine, the hope that they could stabilize and live out a full life, something that had been considered impossible.
To our Protege, the overachiever who never thought of herself as good enough, he offered ascendency of unlimited ancient and eldritch knowledge. After all, if you could know everything and choose not to…could you have done everything you could?
To our Reformed, who lived every day with the knowledge that she had hurt people, he offered the chance to see the dead, to perhaps make right her mistakes.
To our Transformed, he offered a purified version of the power that had been stolen from him, with the promise of becoming the true embodiment of a primal spirit he had intended to be,
To our Star, who had felt spurned by the team, he offered the literal power of Hellfire, to be a pure embodiment of power that no one could ever ignore again.
To his daughter, the Scion, he offered his base and operations, knowing that if she took it she would have taken up his gift.
And for the first time in a while, my party paused. Of course they worked out a way to multiple happy endings, but for a lot of the players, they enjoyed one final temptation of power. In the end, the Dropout Class of Phoenix Academy has chosen this hollowed out villain base as their own headquarters, searching out and identifying mantles of power and storing them in what was a villain’s trophy room. Some have gone their own way, but are always invited in for a team up (with inevitable crossover issues).
And the villain going down a little too easy? Well, a theme throughout the game had been splits: Morgan of the previous High Impact Heroics had made a cameo, one PC that briefly showed up but never returned was a Joined, a previous villain had his soul split in two by our current nemesis, with the consciousness of his good half being an angel on the shoulder to a friendly NPC. What the players caught and imprisoned was the Big Bad at his worst: arrogant, manipulative, utterly callous to his daughter’s feelings and unable to resist endless and unnecessary twists of the knife.
The last scene pans out with a minor henchman NPC having a hand on his shoulder. The heroes were filling up that old trophy room quite nicely after all. For those who chose a mantle, it was settling in nicely. After all, it was far easier to immerse yourself in an old power than to shrug it off and start from the beginning. The panel pans out to see a young man in a version of the nemesis’ armor.
It was almost time for school. Almost time to return to Phoenix Academy.
So I learned a lot and, by the end, I was completely tapped out. I was looking forward to a nice long break without planning any sort of game.
I made it less than a month.
GM’s disease is a sickness and it is terminal.
I hope to see you all soon.