Monday, May 01, 2006

Concluding a saga, and starting another

Finished a long stint of GMing yesterday in our Sunday afternoons roleplaying game group. The campaign I've been GMing now -- for more than ten years! -- is called Uncreated, even though the thing which gave it that name is long gone from the game. But calling a campaign Lenny wouldn't work nearly as well!

The premise of Uncreated is designed to be naturally episodic in nature, allowing me to use it to play with genres and settings that I wouldn't want to have a whole campaign in, while still allowing my players to have characters that last long enough to develop and be fully explored. One could liken it to the reasons for the creation of Quantum Leap: "Anthological shows where... every week you have a different play that you put on, just don't get an audience to tune in week after week. Everything is dependent on whatever your story is that week.... But I wanted to do an anthology.... And I thought, if I do a time-travel show with a lead or a pair of leads, the audience will really like them and their relationship; and every week, as I do a different story, the audience will really be tuning in for them."

Originally the intent was to alternate Uncreated with something more epic-scope. This gets a balance of intense arc-driven serious focused play with something that adds more variety. It also means I can use lots of prefab worlds, adventures, scenarios, etc. in Uncreated to buy time to do prep for the other game. That's still the plan, but it's been hard to make it go that way, and I haven't started any epic-scope games in many years, for several reasons:
  • My life's been a lot more full than it used to be, in particular during the last six years while I was working on the process that led me to the dream house I'm now living in. But also with other activities I'm spending time on, like playing in (and coding for) Harshlands, working on home automation, etc.
  • I do a larger percentage of the GMing in my current group than I have in previous groups, so keeping up with the prep for Uncreated uses up more of that limited time than it used to.
  • Some of my time has been spent on side projects like RealTime, RTC, and adventures for them which I've run at cons.
  • A few shifts in focus in Uncreated have made it take longer to do the prep for it than it used to, even when I'm using prefab adventures.
Perhaps in part because of that, Uncreated has been dabbling with more "arc" content. First, we ran the huge Complete Masks of Nyarlathotep adventure, though with a few smaller adventures interspersed between chapters to break up the gloom.

Then we started what came to be called The Demorean Saga, a set of ten linked adventures lifted from the TimeMaster RPG published in the late 80s. These center on an alien race (the Demoreans) trying to change history, and the Time Corps trying to stop them from doing so; for Uncreated I removed the Time Corps and let the PCs do it on their own. More interestingly, and perhaps too ambitiously, I decided that the ten adventures occurred in a different order for the PCs and the Demoreans, so earlier adventures featured Demoreans who knew things the PCs had done that they hadn't even done yet, and I think I pulled that off without any continuity glitches (thanks to some cooperative players).

Finally, I tried to leave the story without a specific resolution. I wanted what you often see in adventure fiction: the first few acts of the story are marked by the PCs reacting to NPCs and circumstances, but the final act is driven by the PCs deciding what to do and how to do it, then carrying out that plan. I was hoping to have to improvise a whole set of challenges around the plan the PCs came up with, and above all, to not decide ahead of time what that plan would be.

This is very tricky to do. I have to put a bunch of possibilities out there that the PCs might pick up and put together into a plan. Forming those possibilities too far comes too close to me coming up with the plan and then giving it to them in pieces, which defeats the purpose. Making them too vague means the players never get traction on the idea and just stay reactive, not proactive. Worse yet, I wanted to be sure that whatever they came up with, they couldn't do it too early and make me waste a bunch of adventures, nor too late, so that the last adventure came to an end and I had nothing and neither did they.

In the end, the final solution was, in fact, based on things that had been set up gradually over the course of the whole ten adventure saga, but it was more reactive than I had originally hoped. It may also have come off a little anticlimactic. We were hurrying to finish within the session since an earlier encounter took longer than expected, and the final plan involved doing a few things way outside the bounds of the characters' skills, requiring spending of gobs of plot points to arrange the coincidences of being able to make it work anyway, and then the final result happened where the PCs couldn't even see it and know it worked (to avoid being caught up in the explosion).

On the other hand, in the movie it'd work great, very visually climactic. The PCs fiddling with the antimatter drive on a huge time-travelling submersible watercraft they took out of Avalon just as Excalibur was being thrown into it after King Arthur died at the Battle of Mons Badon. Converting the craft into a bomb, knowing if they'd screwed up they might blow up themselves and the entire Earth. Now picture a huge chamber a mile across lined with pulsing energy and ductwork and coils and iron gratings and deep shafts. A time machine big enough to swallow a submarine appears in this chamber, piloted by the tied-up, but now conscious, arch-nemesis of the characters, strapped into the seats. The Demoreans stare in surprise at the ship's arrival as the "pilot" works free of his bonds and frantically tries to poke at the controls... too late. The ship tears itself open in an explosion so great it ruptures the protective shell around the mini-black-hole at the heart of the complex. Pull back to watch a large explosion brightening a corner of a world turning slowly in space, as if an entire island had been vaporized... and then the black hole, no longer shielded, begins to devour the planet from within, the world folding in on itself and crumbling as it is converted into a massive X-ray jet.

The next adventure will be another arc of related episodes, this time set in the fantasy world Kulthea, also known as ShadowWorld, as published by Iron Crown Enterprises. But I'm not ready to run it yet, and thankfully, I don't have to. First, we have a two-week SF one-shot followed by the beginning of some In Nomine (not sure if that'll be a campaign or not), both run by litlfrog. Then we get back to my wife's game, Foulspawner's Legacy, set in Hârn.

By the time that's done, I hope to be all prepped for this Uncreated Kulthean story-cycle and already working on my epic-scale campaign to be, a swords-and-sorcery (sort of) game called Bloodweavers that I've been batting around for years.


Siobhan said...

I think the impression of it being anticlimactic is just because we're used to not having to rely so heavily on plot points and dice rolls to make our final resolutions.

However, on looking at it carefully, I think it was just fine. Afterall, if we hadn't been hoarding those plot points (and I think we were all pretty much out of them by the end), we couldn't have finished it. And sometimes movies *have* a lot of improbable things come together, that's why we care about those stories. :)

No one wants to see the movie about the horse that Seabiscuit beat. :)

Siobhan Again said...

How many plot points do you think Seabiscuit spent? ;)

litlfrog said...

So now you get to be a stranded space colonist, an angel of Trade, and a reformed thief. A player is you! I'm glad you get a break from GMing duties for a while. It's a tough balance to keep.