This entry is part 4 in the series My Biggest Mistakes

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Some expectations are made to be confounded if it’s at all possible. If someone expects a dull and boring campaign, that’s one you don’t want to live up to. If someone expects to get favourable treatment because you owe them money, I’m happy to dissapoint them – and to repay the debt as soon as possible. If someone expects plot trains, I’m only too pleased to derail that expectation.

There are other expectations that you should always try to live up to. That you’ll be interpret the rules fairly and even-handedly, for example, or that you always prepare fully for your game, or that the campaign will be interesting.

Lying somewhere in between these two extremes are a third group of expectations, implied promises that can be broken if you have a good enough reason – and can repair the damage afterwards. For example, your campaign background might suggest that Orcs will be the arch-villains of the campaign, when in fact you intend the PCs to discover relatively early on that there is a conspiracy of demons lurking in the shadows who are the real enemy; the Orcs just happen to be the current catspaws of this conspiracy. This kind of plot twist is fine if the campaign briefing material is written from the perspective that the contents are what is known or believed by the authorities and general public, from whom the PCs will be getting their initial information.

But sometimes, you can go too far. And that’s exactly what happened when I was first setting up the Zenith-3 campaign.

The Campaign

I’ve already described this to some extent in my previous blog post, and don’t want to go over old ground; so I’ll assume you’ve read “Information Overload in the Zenith-3 Campaign” already, and go on from there.

So the basic concept was to mirror the early days of the original campaign, in which the team found themselves out of their depth but gradually wore away at the lurking villain’s advantages; but the aparrant game circumstances were to be quite different. Supposedly, the alternate world in which these novice superheroes would start out would be a relatively “safe” place, in which they could make mistakes without stuffing things up too badly in the long term, and without getting themselves killed.

The Circumstances

In reality, a mole within the ranks of the existing team had covered up facts in an attempt to make the place less interesting to the parent team (because the villain he served was up to no good there and didn’t want the parent team to interfere). This had caused them to misread the place as “reasonably safe for novices” and the PCs would effectively be thrown in at the deep end, and would then be cut off from the parent team, and forced to scramble at first just to hold their own.

It was never my intent to run a 1950s ‘Superboy’ campaign in which the villain of the week would show up, get beaten, and be replaced by someone else the week after, with no lasting consequences to anyone. No, this was to be more “Giffen-Levitz-era Legion-Of-Superheros-like” than 1960s Teen Titans. Or, to phrase it another way, I wasn’t looking to do a ‘trainee superhero spinoff campaign,’ this was to be the PRIMARY superheros campaign, the one in which all the big threats to the universe were to show up.

It is my belief that without a certain level of danger to the characters, there is less emotional involvement by the players; the absence of danger and high-, life-and-death-, stakes produces a game that is more “hero high” than “superheros fighting for truth and justice”.

All these considerations went into making the decision to have the PCs expecting one thing, only to confront them with something entirely different, and entirely more serious.

The Mistake

There is a very subtle and profound distinction between what I decided to do, as described in the previous paragraph, and what I actually did, and therein lies the error, and the subject of this blog post.

It’s the difference between PCs and Players.

Somewhere along the line, I was saying “you will be trainee characters, out of your depth at first, but learning to handle it as the game progresses”, with “you” being shorthand for “Your characters”, while the players were hearing the words and interpreting them literally. That’s not a misjudgement on their part, it’s a failure of communication on my part; with the results that the players were expecting a radically-different style and tone of campaign than the one that I was intending to provide, and could reasonably argue that I had failed to deliver on the implicit promise.

One even commented afterwards that if he had known what the real campaign was going to be like, he would have designed a radically-different character for the game.

It’s also worth noting that to some extent, my decision to place the essential campaign briefing in the mouths of NPCs (as described last time) was inter-related to this problem; First, if it’s an NPC who is giving the PCs incorrect information, I consider that to be something very different to a GM lying to his players (especially if the NPC himself has been misled and doesn’t know what he’s saying to be untrue); and Second, so far as I was concerned, the campaign had started from the very first word (I even had a PC whose design wasn’t ready for play yet shot in the head three times in between in-game ‘briefing sessions’ to ram this point home). I wanted to create the feeling that the PCs had been expecting a summer holiday and were suddenly confronted with ‘Welcome to the real world, ladies and gentlemen’.

Unfortunately, what I succeeded in generating was a situation in which the Players had been expecting a summer holiday and were suddenly confronted with ‘Welcome to the real world!

Recovery

In terms of recovering from this mistake, which I only discovered after the fact, I had two choices: either radically reshape the entire campaign to match the expectations, or hold to my course with a heartfelt me culpa. Well, to be honest, I only had the latter choice.

You see, it was almost a year later that one of my players pointed out to me the communications breakdown. In the meantime, everyone had seemed to be having fun, and so I kept doing exactly what I had intended to do, unaware of the murmurs and rumblings behind the scenes, and behind my back. But even had I known, to be completely candid, I’m not sure I would have done anything differently; I’m not convinced that the other campaign would have sustained interest for all that long, and it certainly didn’t interest me all that much. But at least we could have all cleared the air.

The fallout from this mistake on my part was huge, perhaps even disproportionate. It poisoned the atmosphere of the game to some extent for years to come, and one-by-one all but one of those original players dropped out of the campaign. Because this occurred gradually, other players came in to replace them, and (in some cases), PCs acquired different owners – something I touched on in the last Ask The GMs answer Johnn and I posted, and a subject which I might go into in more detail some other time. While the reasons given by the departing players were all different, it remains my feeling to this day – confirmed in discussion with the players – that marginally-annoying or irritating situations, some of them temporary, were exacurbated by the memories of the original dissapointment. (Two of these players have subsequently returned, though, and one has joined a spinoff campaign).

But recovery remains incomplete; one player (who is still a long-time friend, to whom I can and do talk for hours) can no longer tolerate playing in my campaigns; it all comes flooding back to him when he tries, and he himself expresses surprise at the depth of the bitterness that he experiences when it happens. He has no problem with me playing in his campaigns, or both of us playing in someone else’s game; but he’s allergic to my GMing style. At least we can talk about it, these days.

The campaign somehow survived both this AND the simultanious mistake I described last time, and is now approaching it’s tenth anniversary in its current form; if you also count the original campaign, but not the years when that was shut down, it’s just passed it’s 21st year; and if you go by strict calandar dates, it’s the 28th anniversary that’s just around the corner.

Lessons Learnt

So much of the language that employ in RPGs is nuanced. We all speak of our characters in the First Person at times; we all refer to other characters as “You” now and then. And on most occasions, it’s not a problem; it can even help players get into their character’s headspace.

But I have learned that in terms of placing a campaign background into context for prospective players, it’s better to make your intentions crystal clear, even if it means throwing away the big surprise of your major plot twist. If you expect characters to be designed as though they were to participate in a different type of scenario, and have to adapt on the fly to new situations, tell your players exactly that.

You don’t have to give away all the details, but the campaign premise should be explicit in describing the intended campaign to come. For example, if I had described the campaign premise as “Trainee superheros unsuspectingly cut off from the main team and have to go it alone against threats far more dangerous than anyone was expecting when they set out”, I would have set up a very different expectation – one that would have been met in every game session we’ve played since.

Sure, some of the plot twists would have been anticlimactic, but there would still have been surprises. I would still have made the mistake of overloading the players in the initial briefing, but even though it seems superficially less trivial than the simple miscommunication between GM and players described in this post, recovery from that mistake was fairly straightforward and was virtually complete after the first couple of years; recovering from this mistake is still incomplete, and ongoing, and may never fully occur.

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