Tomorrow (as I write this), as usual on the final Friday of the month, I will be deep into prep for the next session of the Adventurer’s Club campaign.
Unlike the usual situation, this won’t be final prep – we usually play that campaign on the first Saturday of the month.
This article will look at the reasons for this discrepancy, and the lessons that have been learned as a result.
The PCs are currently pursuing a Demon through Hell in what was supposed to be an extra-special adventure to commemorate the campaign’s anniversary by taking them someplace that the players would never have expected the campaign to go.
The Last Session
As the last session got underway, the PCs had reached and passed the gates into the Palace Grounds of Hell.
We had previously established that each PC saw a completely different environment that seemed personally calculated to tempt them, interrupted by occasional flashes of a less-welcoming and more traditional Hell that was nevertheless also targeted at each of their characters individually.
It had also been established that their environments, despite the differences, were topologically similar, and that a threat perceived in one “reality” by one PC could affect even those characters who could not see the danger. Distances were not to be relied on, and neither were times of day, or durations experienced.
Father O’Malley, from Boston, wandered through a New England Autumn. Eliza Black experienced Winter in her native Canada, her favorite time of year. Doctor Matthew Hawke found himself in Spring in his native Queensland (Australia). Captain John “Blackjack” Ferguson, another Australian, experienced Summer in the jungles of Asia, the time of year and place where he was most at home. And newest recruit, Steffan Bednarczyk, a tough-as-nails Engineer from Eastern Europe who had fled the rise of Fascism found himself wandering a world in which all man’s progress and creativity had been reduced to rubble and ruin. Each could see all the other PCs, they weren’t alone, but each perceived an entirely separate environment.
The Palace Grounds Sequence
The Palace Grounds sequence had been devised to build on these differences and similarities, establishing that they were “strangers in a strange land” and helping prepare the PCs for entry into the Palace. We were striving for immersion while informing the players of the ground rules while revealing the existence of hidden allies who were hamstrung by protocols and doing their best to work around these restrictions. At the same time, while perpetuating their individual environments, we wanted to show that the gardens weren’t there for the PCs benefit, but for the enjoyment of the ruler of Hell. We wanted to touch on the remnants of his former existence as an Angel and begin hinting at his character and the drives that had led to his downfall. And finally, we wanted to increase the dramatic tension that each experienced.
That’s a lot to achieve in a single game session.
In the pre-Gates sequence, we had been at pains to advance each character’s journey in successive steps – this character, then the next, then the one after that, and so on. This method was conducive to an even sharing of the spotlight, to immediate reactions to events, but not to any single character experiencing immersion in the environment; the mood and flavor of each PC’s journey was constantly being interrupted by that of the next PC in line, which meant that the impact of each journey was diffused. While this was practical for roleplaying, it was incompatible with the goals for the garden sequences.
The plan that went awry
To try and achieve everything, I had devised – and my Co-GM had approved – a radical approach to the sequence. We laid out each character’s journey with a concordance showing where each was within their journey when something occurred, with a carefully-chosen illustration. As each reacted to events within their frame of reference, notes would be made that would be integrated into the next character’s journey, permitting actions and reactions to be assembled one character at a time into a whole journey.
In other words, character #1 would experience their entire journey from A to Z. If, at step G, they had to make their way down a rocky and unstable slope, or decided to draw their weapon, or whatever, when character #2 went through his journey (with his reactions and responses being logged as well), at step G in that sequence, they would see character #1 behaving as though they were climbing down the rocky and unstable slope, or drawing their weapon, or whatever, and could react to both their environment and that action. Character #3 would have the benefit of the their own experiences and the compounded actions of both Characters #1 and #2, and so on. The order in which these experiences were to take place had been carefully selected to build incrementally the whole-party experience.
The whole was to culminate in Captain Ferguson’s journey, in which he would experience not only his own journey, and the actions of the other PCs, but a series of constant interruptions for hints, advice, and insights from those hidden allies.
The practical implementation was to be a series of short narrative paragraphs read mostly by my co-GM while I switched images seamlessly in step with the narrative. My major narrative was to be interrupting Blair’s narration to briefly deliver the Hell-views that interrupted the journey. Here’s an example, formatted in the same way as the adventure, i.e. anything in Bold was a direction to the GMs and not something to be read aloud. The Illustrations had both an absolute number and a within-Character number.
(Pic 159 Ferguson 33) showing:
Blair: Often, there is no obvious path to follow, but every alternative is choked with underbrush or rocks too tall to scale. This invisible path now begins to trend steadily downhill. The tinkling sound of falling and splashing water becomes noticeable from up ahead. Captain Ferguson suddenly breaks through a screen of light brush to find himself looking down at (Pic 160 Ferguson 34) a small waterfall which is landing on an angled piece of flat quartz which sings in a thousand tiny chirps, one for each drop, before emptying into a pool of pristine —
Mike interrupts: (Pic 161 Ferguson 35) …pristine devastation, lava spilling down the sides of a cliff, chocked by noxious fumes erupting from red-hot rock. On a distant hilltop, a serpent, or perhaps a dragon? Screams defiance at the heavens in a full-throated roar (Pic 162 Ferguson 36) —
Blair resumes: …of pristine emerald purity. Circling the pool, which is some distance below your current ground level, you come to the stream which feeds the waterfall. Of course, just calling it a stream is like labeling a butterfly as a “pretty insect”. (Pic 163 Ferguson 37) It’s a horizontal waterfall, liquid spiderwebs tumbling over and around mossy green rocks.
Insert concordance notes:
And here’s an extract from the Concordance for those paragraphs…
In theory, it should have worked perfectly.
Have you ever noticed how, whenever someone uses the phase “In theory” in the past tense, it means explicitly that it didn’t work out that way in reality? The session was an almost-total disaster. A near-walkout by one player, a near-walkout by one GM, and a near-collapse of the entire campaign.
The player stuck it out despite evident rising frustration and irritation because he could “see [we] had invested a lot of effort in it” – in other words, out of friendship more than anything else. I nearly walked from the campaign out of anger over an unrelated issue with another of the players – but calmed down somewhat after a couple of weeks. And, if I had walked, I doubt the campaign would have continued for very long.
The Metagame Backstory
There was actually a LOT more effort invested than anyone could realize. All the way back in December 2013, our writing had more-or-less reached the point in the adventure where the PCs now are – with the expectation of this stage of the adventure being played in April or May at the latest. It would have represented about an hour of game play. We had been working on the adventure for about 4 months.
All that was lost when my PC crashed in the process of saving the file, just one impact point in it’s deterioration and ultimate failure. At the time, this adventure was listed as an optional extra add-on to another adventure which was also within the same file and which had taken another four months to prepare.
It ALL had to be re-created, almost from scratch. Which always takes longer. We had the advantage in working on the first adventure of memory, but that had faded by the time we got to the second. It also leaves a lot more time for “clever ideas” (which often don’t turn out to be half as clever as they seem at the time). In the process, inflation occurred because we were trying to keep all the elements and ingredients that had incorporated seamlessly into the first version even though they mostly had to be put back in as separate “bits”.
I averaged one sleepless night per week for the entire period from early January to the end of July trying to get everything done, and searching out the images ran up a total of $150 in excess internet charges – and for someone on a Disability Pension, that’s a lot! On top of that, every spare minute (plus the time supposedly allocated to another of my campaigns) got dedicated to getting it all done.
At least part of my reaction derived from exhaustion, I’m now completely certain.
What went wrong?
The players didn’t react. The characters didn’t interact, except when we had built deliberate bits in. One found the presentation so dull that he almost walked out, as noted earlier. Another PC acted like a sociopath, incapable of any empathy or normal human feeling, because the player felt we were pre-programming his reactions to suit the narrative.
How could things have been improved?
Instead of giving all the “hidden ally” clues to one character, we should have had them either spread amongst all the PCs, or even had them all encounter them together, immersion be damned. Rather than restricting these hidden allies to pre-scripted clues, we should have allowed interaction between them and the PCs. And, critically, none of the narrative ended in a call to action; it just kept going and going.
Who was to blame?
There’s more than enough blame to go around.
I fell in love with one particular, and rather experimental, way of structuring the narrative. There was no fall-back in case it didn’t work.
Part of the function of a co-GM is to throw cold water on the other person’s ideas when they won’t work. Blair either didn’t see the problem coming, or didn’t object strongly enough in the face of my error.
They didn’t interact with their environment, didn’t interact with each other, and just sat there, passively, except when prompted. Only on one or two occasions, when they were pushed into it, did they actually participate. But part of that was because of:
My Co-GM, again
The intent was for a pause at the end of each of the segments or paragraphs for the players to interact with the environment. Instead, he simply took breath and moved on to the next paragraph of narrative. This only got worse when the frustration levels on the other side of the table began to become obvious and he started rushing to try and get through it all. But at least in part, that was because of:
I had completely forgotten the need to prepare the Concordance until we actually arrived at the Game Table. It took about an hour-and-a-half of feverish work while everyone twiddled their thumbs to finish it, even in rudimentary form, and it was far more user-unfriendly than it should have been. But without it, the whole plan would have failed completely. Nevertheless, this was a substantial reason for the “rush”.
The Ultimate Responsibility
The Bottom line is that the buck has to stop with the GMs. We wrote the adventure, decided the format, and – it has to be admitted – got too ambitious, especially in light of the loss of the (much shorter and faster) first draft.
The Forthcoming Session & the rest of the adventure
The player who came close to walking out was so unhappy with the way things had gone that he told us, in quite impassioned manner, that if the next section of the adventure was going to be the same, to tell him; he would rather stay home than experience more of the same.
But, by then, we could already tell that it had been a colossal train-wreck. I had already decided that whatever we were going to do next time, it was NOT going to be more of the same – no matter what had to be done to the adventure to make it salvageable. What’s more, I could see exactly how to restructure what we did have planned to solve the problem. The first step was to throw away more than 10,000 words and most of the 89 images – about 75% of which were originals, which had been far more time-intensive to prepare than simply finding and downloading photos from the internet. In essence, the last 6 weeks work had to be junked.
Lest that player feel guilty about it, I want to emphasize that even if he had not made the request described at the start of this section, We would have done this anyway, as our reaction to the total failure of the overambitious plan that we had experienced.
The original plan
Without giving too much away, the plan was to separate the PCs for the final leg of the journey to the Palace (each journey had stopped as soon as it came into sight). In the course of this final leg – expected to be about half the next session – they would see various impossible things and lose track of everyone else at some point, all calculated to make it uncertain who – if anyone – had been replaced by a demonic impersonator, while giving everyone cause to suspect same. This was what we had been building toward throughout the session of the train-wreck. The PCs would then gain entrance to the palace; we had enough material prepared to complete the session with various roleplayed encounters with NPCs inside.
The revised plan
Instead, we are going to fast-track the PCs to the Palace, using a single paragraph each to tell the story of their approach, and only hinting at the paranoid aspects of the situation. This should take no more than five or ten minutes of game time. We then have the half-session of already-prepped interaction with the NPCs present. This throws the timing of the rest of the adventure out, but we are going to compress some aspects of it and expand others. We also have a far more action-oriented conclusion to the adventure in mind than we had under the original plan – trying to get the whole thing to fit neatly into this session and one to follow, rather than finishing mid-afternoon, is what I meant by “throwing the timing out”. In many ways, the result should be a far more player-friendly conclusion.
So why no game session in October?
The week after the train-wreck, I was required to remain on Standby to appear in Court as a witness. That meant that no prep was possible. Which was probably a good thing, in hindsight, because it gave me time to start calming down and the lack of activity gave me a chance`to recharge my batteries. The week after that, I accidentally left my phone off the hook – and then had to do some emergency shopping after my TV decided to fry its control circuits. So, no prep was possible.
Under any other circumstances, neither of these would have been fatal to the next session even if both occurred together, because we would be working not on the next session (which, under the original plan, was virtually ready-to-go).
Even with the revised plan, if one of these two things had not happened, there would have been enough time to prep enough material to get us through the October session, based on how much we got done last week and this week.
But the triple-whammy left us one week short of being ready-to-run, with no opportunity to make up the shortfall. And that’s why we canceled the next game session.
The lessons learned
I’ve always maintained that you learn more from failure after an honest attempt than from success without effort. This isn’t the first Mea Culpa that I’ve had to make, and it won’t be the last. In order to improve as a GM, you have to push the envelope every now and then, and sometimes that means things will go horribly wrong. And, that you can learn from other people’s mistakes.
Aside from an arguably-deserved infusion of humility, I’ve identified ten lessons that can be learned from this sequence of events.
1. Narrative Triggers
Mulling over what had taken place had a definite impact on the series on Narrative that I was already writing. If it seemed like I was emphasizing the need for narrative to end on an interaction trigger, it was as a direct result of these experiences. I don’t care if the trigger requires a PC to have a conversation, enter combat, adjust a control panel, solve a problem, make a decision, or whistle dixie, the end of a passage of narrative HAS to trigger SOME sort of PC action or interaction.
2. Experimental Triggers
Without experiments, nothing gets learned. So I am all in favor of trying a different approach every now and then, especially if the GMs stock solutions are inadequate to the campaign and plot needs. But, when you DO try something experimental, have some way of recognizing early on if it isn’t working.
3. Backup Plans
…and if the experiment is failing, have some way of bailing out of it and transitioning to a backup plan. It took only about 20 minutes play to realize that things were going out-of-whack, but because we had left ourselves no alternative, we could do nothing but watch the train derail while clinging to it for grim death.
Find some way of objectively considering how ambitious you are being with your experiments. In this case, I lost perspective on what was reasonable, and became enamored of one possible solution to the plot needs. I had a Co-GM who usually pulls me up when this happens, and I do the same for him; what wasn’t in place was a pause to reflect on whether or not we were betting the farm. We weren’t – quite – but a consciously-objective review of the plan, simply because it was radical, ambitious, and untested should have been mandatory. It wasn’t – but it will be, in the future.
5. If players tune out
If your players tune out what you’re saying, what you’re putting in front of them, that should be a sure sign that whatever it is that you are doing is not working. Time for an immediate emergency rethink. And, if no alternatives come to mind, tell them straight that you don’t think what you have prepared is working the way it was intended, but you haven’t been able to think of a practical alternative other than pressing on with it. This will hopefully de-stress situations and prevent train-wrecks. It might even encourage your players to try that little bit harder to make it work, at least somewhat, for their own entertainment.
6. Experiment small-scale
Try to keep your experiments small-scale, at least until you’ve established that they work. We’ve had several opportunities to try the approach that failed in recent adventures, if only for a few minutes. Some of those opportunities were lost because the radical approach that failed had not yet been thought of, but there were still three or four scenes in the previous adventure where we could have tried it out before we were committed. As implied earlier, it would not have been too difficult to fix, simply by moderating our ambitions for the act. Which I estimate would have cut it’s length in half – further minimizing any remaining problems to a more acceptable level.
7. Speak up early and strongly if necessary
This actually refers to events in three ways, only two of which have been mentioned so far.
Secondly, Blair could have spoken up about the dangers of the approach being taken when I had lost perspective – but he was swayed by wanting to avoid confrontation, and by my evident passion for the approach.
Thirdly, I could have spoken up about the perceived problem with his delivery on the day – but I also wanted to avoid a confrontation, and furthermore had my hands full because of the semi-shoddy concordance I had put together in haste. And the last thing I wanted to admit (even to myself) was that after all that delay, play wasn’t proceeding according to plan. So nothing was said, and then it was too late to say anything. I should have called a break and spoken to him privately to remind him of the need to engage the players; what was written was meant to be a starting point, not a whole unto itself.
But Firstly (in chronological sequence): The “To The Gates” sequence was enough like the “Palace Grounds” that the player who was most upset could have spoken up sooner. It might not have changed the train-wreck – preparations were well-advanced at that point – but even knowing that he was that unhappy with the approach taken would have suggested that we ease up the focus on his character, and that could have led us to the solution identified earlier. But he didn’t want a confrontation, either. Like I said, there’s more than enough blame to go around.
Sometimes, you have to speak up. Do it politely and respectfully, but make sure that you are heard. It won’t, and shouldn’t, always change things, but saying nothing certainly won’t.
8. Remember the Campaign Core
The core premise of a Pulp campaign is, or should be, Action-Adventure. This adventure wasn’t.
Now, campaigns can’t be monotone, and sometimes a variation is needed; but these decisions should always be made knowingly. The fact that it took less than 30 seconds thought to figure out how to solve the problems in terms of the next session, and make it more action-adventure in the process, says to me that this adventure wasn’t close enough to the core of what the campaign was supposed to be about.
Fortunately, the next adventure is VERY action-adventure :)
9. Don’t throw out the baby
I was chastised but not upset by the request to be left out of the next part if it was going to be more of the same. Both Blair and I had seen the train-wreck as it developed before our eyes, and realized that the player was justified in what he had said. But in losing all enthusiasm for the campaign, however briefly, I was throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Fortunately, events conspired to give me space before I said or did anything.
I’m still angered by the situation that led me to that point. What I don’t know is how much the train-wreck itself played into it – so I’ve taken a deep breath and I’m giving the person responsible the benefit of the doubt. And, because I haven’t spoken to them about it, and don’t intend to until that question is resolved and I know what I’m talking about, I’m being very careful not to identify who it was, and not to let it influence me.
10. The Four-to-one threshold
This is a guideline that I’ve used before, to good effect. It should take no longer than four times as long to write something to a standard that’s ready for play, as an absolute maximum. If you exceed that, you had better have a good reason, like needing to extend the campaign background. And I include preparing graphics and props in that time-frame.
That the prep for the train-wreck session was taking between eight and twelve times the anticipated play time should have been a warning that there was not enough scope for player interaction with the plot. It should take NO MORE than four afternoons to prepare an afternoon’s play FROM SCRATCH – or less. And “Less” should occur more frequently than hitting that maximum.
The goal should be between two-to-one and three-to-one. Less than two-to-one generally means that you haven’t put enough thought and detail into the plot or its delivery (though there can be exceptions when building on past work). But anything more than four times is a near-infallible sign that something’s wrong – another warning that I had managed to overlook, blinded by my zeal for the scene structure that I was erecting.
I stand by the principle that GMs need to challenge themselves in order to improve, and that you learn more from honest attempts that fail than half-hearted attempts that succeed. When the existing solutions don’t seem to work, your only options are to change your requirements or seek a new, experimental solution. Not all these experiments will work – but I’ll be more aware in future of the potential for such failure, and the need to make them fail-safe to a minimum standard of playability.
I can only apologize to the players for the failings last time around on behalf of Blair and myself, and seek to move on from there.