You know, we didn’t really plan to take basically a month and a half off, but let’s call it a holiday hiatus. I feel compelled to point out that this accidental break was all on me. Stewart, trusting person that he is, believed me every time I said, “No, don’t post. I just need to polish it a little more and then I’ll be done.” I may have been understating things. But! Now we’re back for 2011 to ramble about more roleplaying related things.
This is the third post in which I’ll discuss the campaign I just finished, Kjemmen. It’ll also be the last one where that’s the explicit purpose. In the first post, I talked about misunderstanding one of the players’ idea about his PC and the problems that arose from that. In the second post, I talked about some larger problems we had getting all the most important plot elements to occur in front of the players and some specifics about what our original plan was for the campaign and what went differently. In this post, I’ll finish up by giving a concrete example of the differences between players’ actual and perceived effect on the game world.
If we had set out to tell a story about a huge conspiracy in which the protagonists were to play an integral role, but the entire shape of which would remain a mystery to the end, I think we nailed it. That is, basically, what we ended up with as the campaign unfolded. There was a fairly substantial differential between the effects of the PCs’ actions and their perception of those effects. Bear with me as I set this up a bit, so you can see enough of the world around the PCs for me to illustrate what they couldn’t see.
The Second Assassination
During the early part of the game, the PCs spent a considerable amount of time investigating an assassination and trying to catch the assassin. This plot thread came to a head when the assassin broke into the noble house hosting the PCs (House Devrak) and shot the Count with a poisoned crossbow bolt from which he fell into a coma.
The Count’s son then came into power and, because he was a jerk, fired the PCs for several petty reasons. The sort of second-in-command made it pretty clear that if the old man woke up (hinting towards the PC with healing skills), he could probably get them their jobs back. As events unfolded, they decided not to worry about healing the Count (he was sort of a jerk, too) and so in a few days time he died and his son inherited control of the house.
There’s a political backdrop to all this that’s important: House Devrak had been the central power in a very tenuous alliance of somewhat smaller noble houses against the much more powerful House Verokha. The leadership and charisma of Count Devrak was basically all that was holding together this alliance of people who really would rather have been killing each other. When the Count died and his son was unable to bring the same force of personality to meetings, they almost immediately and very viciously fell to fighting amongst themselves. This, as you might imagine, was awesome news for House Verokha and, in fact, was why they’d gotten their assassin to go in and kill the people he did.
So the PCs letting the Count die, rather than doing some herbal research, buying some ingredients and riding in like a knight in shining scrubs, had a not-small impact on the local political climate and the players knew enough of what was going on to see that this decision had an impact.
However, if you recall my earlier explanation of the Bigger Plot, you’ll remember that Verokha (referred to in that post as “king”) is being manipulated by the head of the orthodox church in order to create a conflict with maximum bloodshed. So while the players could observe the political fallout of their choice, they couldn’t see the (much more interesting to them) conspiratorial fallout. By having the assassin kill his rival, Verokha had gone off script from what the head of the orthodoxy really wanted. So when the PCs didn’t save Devrak’s life and Verokha’s opposition melted, the head of the orthodoxy didn’t have the big bloody conflict he needed to fuel his god ritual and had to invent and then pivot to Plan B.
Messing with the Big Bad in that kind of way is awesome, but while not being able to see it (in this case because it was all happening in secret far from the PCs) might be realistic, it really isn’t that great. Basically, the players did this big game changing thing and to them it just looked like they happened to sew more chaos into the typically chaotic political climate of Kjemmen.
This kind of thing can be really frustrating to both sides of the table. On their side, of course, the players are feeling like they’re not having that big of an effect on the game world. On the GM’s side, there’s cool stuff going on that the players aren’t able to appreciate. This frustration didn’t ruin the campaign, by any means–everyone still enjoyed themselves–but it’s not the kind of story I think I’d try to tell intentionally. It’s also a sort of slight variation on a phenomenon that I think is actually desirable in a conspiracy-plot campaign. If you can set it up that the players end up learning about the fruits of their meddling after the fact, that can be very rewarding. In my case, I couldn’t really pull that off except in talking about the campaign with the players after it ended.
This post, like my previous one, is sort of a post-mortem on my campaign called Kjemmen. In a sort of continuing theme, I’m going to discuss another thing that continually tripped Stewart and I up while running Kjemmen.
In the first post, I talked about how not understanding Mikejl’s player’s ideas about Mikejl’s personality and drives made it hard to draw him into the events surrounding him. This difficulty was not just localized to him but, to a lesser extent, infected the whole PC group. Given that the players should see everything important, this presented a problem for us. I will try to enumerate the causes.
The Most Decisive PC
Mikejl was often the PC calling the shots. In any social situation, one person will tend to bubble to the top and assume a mantle of leadership. In this group, Mikejl was that person. So our misunderstanding his motivations, paired with the fact that he was the most driving force amongst the PCs–the one most often moving the story forward–meant that if we failed to convince Mikejl that something was interesting, the other PCs often wouldn’t (either try or be able to) convince him to go anyway. Since this issue is the topic of my previous post, I won’t belabor why that happened, but suffice it to say that it did.
In retrospect, we had a few spots in the plot where we assumed that the players would hook up with one NPC or would want to be in one particular place, but we didn’t give enough thought to really making those choices the most attractive ones. This meant that there ended up being important stuff going on in places or near people that they really had no reason to go be at or near. Hearing about things via the rumor mill is sort of lame, and should be relegated to flavorful things or the-world-is-a-living-breathing-place kind of events. Major plots points should have the PCs present at least, and intimately involved ideally. This could probably have been avoided with some more attention ahead of time.
Self Preservation Instinct
After a certain point, it became clear to the PCs that the stuff going on in the city of Kjemmen was Seriously Bad and would involve potential for grievous bodily harm. There were a few times when the PCs knew some important plot thing was going on, but were very reluctant to go anywhere near it because there was a significant risk of terrible things happening to them. This indicates a major win in the department of players feeling like their PCs can die and in making the setting a threatening place full of bad people (a creative goal of mine from the outset), but man did it tend to keep them away from some interesting stuff.
What Should Have Been
Our idea was this: The head of the oldest order of priests (call them the orthodoxy) in Kjemmen was power-hungry. He had discovered a ritual that would allow him to ascend to god-hood, but it required a lot of blood sacrifice. So he told some lackeys that he wanted to start a conspiracy. The lie he told them was that he was tired of the newer orders and the nobility getting uppity and wanted to make them take themselves out. They would orchestrate an alliance between the new orders and some medium-sized noble houses against the most powerful noble house in the city and the orthodoxy. When things came to a fight, the orthodoxy would pull out and let the remaining combatants destroy themselves (which death the head of the orthodoxy would actually use to fuel his god ritual).
Let me clarify something about the nobility before I go on: They were more like mob families than anything else, really. There were constant, low-level turf wars between the houses and constantly-shifting alliances that could never really be relied upon (like Diplomacy!). Over a few generations, one family in particular had gained direct control over about a third of the city and forged alliances such that they had indirect control over about half the city. That family’s historical rival had forged an alliance against this big guy in order to try to stem his growth.
So the head priest’s lackeys went about convincing the most powerful noble in the city that the orthodoxy wanted to make him king. They also infiltrated the younger orders of priests and convinced them they could gain some considerable power by taking out the orthodoxy and their “king” with the help of the rival alliance. The rival alliance was the PC’s original contact point for our layer cake of conspiracies.
The original concept was that the PCs would start out hanging out with the medium-sized nobility and feel like the plot was about this other noble who was making a power grab. The “king” would look like the Big Bad. Eventually, they would discover that something else was going on and that, in fact, the younger orders were making a power grab and the “king” would look like a good guy for trying to stop them. Then they would discover that all the nobility were being manipulated by the orthodoxy and the “king” would seem irrelevant or, anyway, neither bad nor good. And pretty quickly after that, they’d discover that the orthodoxy was being manipulated by their leader and that he was the real Big Bad.
You might be able to spot some fragile junctures already. One of the biggest was that we expected the PCs to transition from one set of noble houses to the “other side”. We envisioned a sort of low point akin to the end of The Empire Strikes Back where their bosses threw them out and they had nowhere to turn. We expected that would sort of drive them into the arms of the “king”. Instead, they felt so defenseless and threatened by anyone with power, they managed to make a big, personal enemy of the “king”. And allying with him was basically our only route to getting in front of them the clues about the orthodoxy’s manipulation of the nobility.
Also, once they reached the point of seeing the younger orders’ power grab, which was about resurrecting the dead, evil god that all the priests worshiped, they decided being involved in a plot regarding that would be worse than an asbestos bath. This is a sane decision, and in a city which was supposed to be full of evil people (as influenced by the afore mentioned dead, evil god), having a randomly selected group of three decide they’re not the everything-on-the-line hero sort makes a lot of sense. But “and then we’ll hide in a basement and pray for a quick death” is really boring to roleplay… or really depressing.
In my next post, I plan to talk about what ended up happening after all and how it wasn’t as terrible as all my “fail” blog post titles might imply. For now, though, you can learn from some of the things that were less than optimal in my latest campaign. Robustness in planning to get central details in front of the players’ eyes is, I think, the biggest lesson I learned from all this. If we had had more than one way to bring the orthodoxy-run layer of the conspiracy to light, that transition in the story would have felt a lot more smooth.
This is likely to be only the first in a handful of posts about a campaign of mine that just wrapped up called Kjemmen. It’s been a few weeks now and I’ve had time to mull over what went well and what didn’t and to talk to most of the players about their thoughts. The first thing I want to bring up is a mistake Stewart and I made before the campaign even started.
One of our players was creating a PC named Mikejl. He was to be the last scion of a noble house that was no more. His father had basically squandered everything and left the family indebted to another, larger noble house (the Devraks). This meant that Mikejl was effectively raised as a high-profile servant within House Devrak, but he hated it and them and especially the son, Likhander Devrak. One of the biggest driving forces in Mikejl’s story would be his hate of the Devraks and his goal of reattaining a noble title.
When it came time to flesh that idea out, Stewart had this idea of Mikejl wanting to regain the past glory of his family and hating the Devraks so much that he wanted to do it at their expense. Specifically, he had the idea that Mikejl hated Likhander so much that he’d want anything Likhander owned (or wanted) simply to take it away from Likhander. In this model, Likhander would be about the same age as Mikejl (about 27) and they would have this history of Likhander getting everything that Mikejl felt he deserved.
The player, though, didn’t like this idea so much. He explained to us this idea where Likhander is slightly younger than Mikejl (about 22) and much more bratty. There were some other things in there that we didn’t understand, so we tried to get him to explain again. And here’s the mistake: When the second explanation failed, we shrugged and said, “It’s his PC, we’ll go with his idea.”
Now, to be clear: the mistake was not going with the player’s idea. That’s solid and I don’t regret that one iota. The mistake is shrugging and agreeing to a player’s idea without understanding it. This was the central motivator for this PC and we failed to realize that not understanding it would make us unable to either predict his reactions to events or to put things he would find interesting next to important Plot Things. And this played out very quickly in the campaign: Mikejl ignored entirely things we thought he would find interesting and rewarding. We found it very difficult to entice him into plot events because we didn’t know what was motivating him.
After playing the campaign for roughly 2 years, I now know that the major motivator for Mikejl was power. Just about every action he took or decision he made was in order to increase his control over something; the current situation, his life, some asset, etc. This idea is no less good than Stewart’s idea and if we’d insisted on understanding it going in, we would have been able to use different stimuli to push and pull Mikejl into the events around him. I should say at this point, Mikejl’s player had a fun time and ended up being embroiled in the story just fine, so this wasn’t a game breaker by any means. It did, however, introduce some rough spots in the plot that Stewart and I had to furiously invent Plan B for.
The real lesson here is nothing new if you’ve been reading this blog much: Create your PCs with your players so that if you had to, you could step in and play the character in someone else’s game. Somehow, Stewart and I let ourselves loose sight of it, so let this serve as a reminder of how easy it is to get distracted. Especially when you’re almost ready to start and you’re excited to get going, it pays not to rush things and make sure your idea of what’s motivating your PCs is the same as the player’s idea.