We all make mistakes. Some are trivial – I mean, who really cares in the long run if that critter did d6+1 damage and not d6+2? But I’m talking about bigger mistakes, the kind that matter. I’ve got five of them, and as part of this month’s blog carnival, which we at Campaign Mastery are hosting, I’ll be making posts describing each. This is the first one, where I made a general knowledge mistake that had massive ramifications for the campaign. Ultimately, I was able to make lemonade from lemons in this particular case, ultimately strengthening the campaign – but it could just have easily gone in the other direction and weakened it massively.
In order to understand the circumstances, you need to know some history of the game. This was in the early days of my superhero campaign; Champions II had not yet made its appearance in the game stores. The villain was a would-be world conquerer modelled on the Marvel Comics villain, the Mandarin, but in my game, the character was an alchemist and wizard who had accidentally discovered a form of immortality: after his current host body was killed, any full-blooded chinese male who came into contact with one of the wizard’s arcane devices would be posessed by his spirit, which would then be magically reshaped to match the physical characteristics of the original. Of course, he tried to keep a few in circulation to ensure repeated comebacks.
The character had faced off against the protagonist that I had created to initially teach myself the system in solo play, and then starred in a sequel campaign that I had started for some friends the following weekend, both of which had formed part of the campaign background of the “real” campaign. I had created a detailed backstory in which he was as much victim as villain, but was also responsible for both a rewritten version of the legendary Ghenghis Kahn’s conquest of Asia and near-conquest of Europe (ie the known world) and also for the story of Vlad Tepes and the myths apon which Count Dracula was founded. I very deliberately wanted to infuse the character with some of the nobility of Marvels’ Doctor Doom – the man would have made a Good ruler, but the price to paid for achieving that goal was one that was unconscionable to anyone not ruthlessly driven – in this case, by a profound personal grief relating to the assassination of his wife and child at the hands of a warlord in ancient China that had left him with an impossible-to-overcome chip on his shoulder.
The campaign concept was for him to start out tough enough to trouble the combined might of the PCs, and to be embarked on a quest to gather his personal arcane weaponry and devices. In his second campaign appearance (now part of the campaign history even though it was being run concurrently) he had been able to recover Excalibur, and extract a chip of the sword (which he wore on his forehead), which he used to imbue his own body with the strength and resiliance of the mythic blade through the power of sympathetic magic. So he started with invulnerability, superstrength, teleportation, and flame-based force-fields and related effects. Each time he succeeded in regaining one of his artifacts, he would both reduce his opportunities for a future reincarnation, but would also increase his personal power by adding another “school opf magic” to his repetoire; his power would rise far more quickly than that of the PCs with every early success but these increases would progressively become smaller, enabling the PCs to catch up – eventually. In order to beat him, the players were going to have to think outside the box. It took them 6 months of weekly play, 14+ hours a week, before they achieved anything that could be described as a victory against him, having graduated from irrellevances to inconveniences to irritants in the meantime.
Even while the primary campaign was ongoing, the secondary campaign – whose events were historical so far as the players of the primary campaign were concerned – was also ongoing. Essentially, I was working a full-time job and refereeing for about 30 hours straight, most weekends. This is an exhausting schedule, and it was starting to show.
Why was I so driven to roleplay? It’s not directly relevant, so I’ll simply state that a romance had failed catastrophically a few years earlier I realised later that it never had a snowball’s chance in Hell of success). The fallout was pretty much screwing up my life completely with angst and emotional wreckage, despite superficial appearances to the contrary. In the course of the year that followed (in which I was supposedly studying for a degree in computer science, but wasn’t really trying at all), I discovered RPGs. The experience of being able to step outside my skin and escape my personal calamity for a while gave me the emotional distance to start seeing things in perspective, and that enabled me to start recovering. So I had started to eat, breathe, and sleep RPGs for a while.
By the time of the Mistake that is the subject of this Blog, it had been a couple of years since those events, and I had mostly put the need for that level of involvement behind me. I was genuinely enjoying what I was doing – so I continued to squeeze in as much of it as humanly possible (and then some). Heck, to some extent, I still do!
So, anyway, one of the Players asked about the attitude of the Chinese Government toward this supervillain running around the world, while I was concentrating on the history of the villain in question, and I made an off-the-cuff remark that the Emperor Of China considered him a terrorist, a criminal, and a traitor to the Buddhist philosophy, or something along those lines. For a moment, my mind had hiccoughed and the entire Communist Revolution in China had completely escaped my recollection.
My players, of course, immediatly picked up on this, and I was immediatly inundated with questions about who and how and when and why this had taken place, and how it had affected the Korean War, and all sorts of other things that I hadn’t given any thought whatsoever.
It was my philosophy at the time (which I have since relaxed somewhat) that when speaking “ex cathedra”, ie giving the players crucial information about the game world, the GM should never admit to a mistake, or the players will lose faith in everything he says. So I made up on the spot, and inserted into the campaign history, a chapter of the second campaign that had never been played in real life. This was a crucial moment in the credibility of the entire campaign, and it had come about because of a simple slip of the tongue.
If my whole-cloth invented plotline was not completely plausible to the players, the central core of the campaign would collapse, and the campaign could quickly follow. As it spilled out, one impulsive plot twist after another (in fairly generalised form), I was acutely aware of the sensation of digging myself in deeper with every word, of investing my entire credibility as GM in this work of utter fiction. For an experienced GM, this might not have been all that difficult; but at the time, I had only been refereeing for about two-and-a-half years, and was not feeling all that secure in my credentials. In fact, I was as nervous at the time as I have ever been in the big chair!
As it transpired, the notion that the Mandarin’s previous incarnation had succeeded in overthrowing the Communist Chinese Government, only to be defeated through the same sympathetic magic that he had used to give himself his invulnerability when the REST of Excalibur was wielded against him, rang so completely true to the players that when the truth came out (many years later), they were completely surprised. UNTIL, which I had recast as the military arm of the United Nations, had (according to my story) been left with the choice of complete anarchy in the region, or having someone step into, and take over, the administration and bureacracy that the villain had established – and so a new Imperial Dynasty was founded in China. The Vietnam War then became a case of ambitious military types attempting to carve mini-empires out for themselves in defiance of their government.
Through the years that followed, Chinese mythology and philosophy cropped up time and time again. Elements that would have been out of place when set against the background of a Communist Regime were utterly appropriate against a Modern Imperial backdrop. Ressurected Chinese Dragons, the attempted assassination by a mystic assassin of the aging ruler, a Taoist supervillain, and many other such plots, grew out of that simply slip of the tongue. That invented-on-the-spot-story was the first really MAJOR change in world history that the players of the primary campaign experienced, and its success gave me the confidence to make even bigger and more interesting changes in later years. The original story, somewhat embellished, was played out as the big finish to the secondary campaign, and is now considered canonical in the campaign history.
There are lots of lessons to emerge from this little chapter of my roleplaying history. The first is to think before you speak! The second is not to be afraid to admit that you’ve misspoken when you have; but the third is that, before you do so, you should see if there’s any way possible that you can insert backstory into your campaign to explain your slip of the tongue; the richer you can make your campaign background, once play is underway and the characters and immediate circumstances are established, the more groundwork you lay for future years.
I became so adept at making up on the spot both scenarios, and scenario twists to accommodate whatever the players did, that I was (in later years) sometimes accused of running plot trains – when there WAS no plot preplanned! But that’s a subject for another time…
- Blog Carnival: Game Master Mistakes
- My Biggest Mistakes: A slip of the tongue
- My Biggest Mistakes: Information Overload in the Zenith-3 Campaign
- My Biggest Mistakes: Defying Expectations in the Zenith-3 Campaign
- My Biggest Mistakes: Magneto’s Maze – My B.A. Felton Moment
- My Biggest Mistakes: The Woes Of Piety & Magic
- Game Master Mistakes Carnival Roundup