This entry is part 5 in the series My Biggest Mistakes

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There came a time when I had to move out of the city (where my players were), and back to the small town in which I had grown up, for financial reasons.

That would spell the end of most campaigns, but I had willing players and exceptional determination. I would write a scenario each week while saving up for months to be able to afford to visit my old haunts for a single week. I would usually stay with one of my players (who’s still a friend I can count on – Hi, Ian!) for that week, and everyone would come around after work, or even take time off, and in one massive blast of gaming, we would play through the eight or ten scenarios that I had written.

There were many advantages to this arrangement; the spontaneity and ability to react to what the PCs chose to do if it was unexpected may have been compromised, but I compensated by both getting better at predicting what the players would choose to do, and by writing my scenarios in a more open-ended manner, a technique that I still use to this day. In return, I had a more flexible timetable; if I needed an additional couple of days or even an extra week or two to work on a tricky scenario, I could take the time. And therein lay the trap…

The Campaign

Once again, the venue for this mistake was my long-running superhero campaign. At this point, I was down to only 2 or 3 players, which (in its own way) was fortunate, as it made these gaming marathons practical; more players would have made it that much harder to get everyone together for the whole period.

Stephen had two characters in the campaign, a superspeedster (named Swift) and a genius / brick (named Behemoth). Ian’s character was named Backlash, and the number of anecdotes that could be told about these last two characters is virtually endless. Backlash was an energy battery / projector, and was (aparrantly) able to zip through electrical and telephone circuits in energy form (I came up with a more rational description of the power in terms of game physics at a later date).

On the first anniversary of the campaign, the team had taken down the master villain (who I’ve talked about in previous posts), the Mandarin, by finding a parallel world where conquest by the arch-villain would be the lesser of two evils, effectively converting their arch-enemy into a sometime ally. The second anniversary of twice-weekly play had seen the introduction of a spin-off campaign of superpowered trainees who were being mentored by a refugee from another space-time, Ben Grimm (Marvel Comic’s The Thing of the Fantastic Four), who had been dislocated in space-time and aged about 50 years by the journey, and who would be unable to return without possibly aging another 50 years (a risk he was unwilling to take), and had also seen the wedding of Backlash’s sister to The Mandarin. The third anniversary was now approaching, and the players knew that I would have something special in the works, as I liked to acknowledge the anniversaries and special sessions (50th session, 100th, etc) by upping the ante in some dramatic way, as though the game were actually taking place in a comic book somewhere. This was an expectation that I was quite happy to satisfy, and had spent considerable time carefully planning the events that would unfold.

The scenario I had come up with revolved around a trio of paranormals, who turned out to be the descendants of the PCs and ex-PCs of the team, courtesy of a gene bank that had been secretly established by Behemoth, and who had been created in the far future by a band of rebels who were seeking to change the past and prevent the conquest of the Milky Way Galaxy by an oppressive bunch known generically as The Empire. It not only drew apon the history of the campaign, it drew apon its future, it revealed secrets and had multiple plot twists for everyone, and looked like it would be a lot of fun.

The Circumstances

The PCs had known for some time that the Empire were on their way; they, and their arch-enemies, “The Technocracy,” had been meddling in Earth’s affairs for quite a while. The scenario was a complicated and convoluted series of overlapping and entwining plots that eventually simplified down to the existance of a traitor to the planet somewhere on Earth who was setting himself up to be the planetary regent (or better, knowing him) – another refugee from a different space-time, Marvel Comic’s Magneto. But this was a Magneto who had been rejuvenated; he had fought the current super-team’s 1950s antecedants and was, seemingly, killed. In reality, he had survived and spent the last 20+ years in a comfortable semi-retirement, plotting and scheming and preparing and building. The PCs tracked him down to a hidden fortress in the South Pole by momentarily twisting the Earth’s magnetic field to reveal a magnetic “dead spot” which was usually hidden by the natural one that occurred above the south Magnetic Pole.

Penetrating this fortress was to be the high-water mark of the whole anniversary scenario. It had overlapping defences, an intricate three-dimensional maze that perpetually reshaped itself, traps in every room, illustrations and maps and diagrams, and a rubic’s cube with which to simulate the reshaping; every space had been fully detailed, and moments both comic and dramatic inserted along the way. This was to be a dungeon-crawl of superheroic proportions, all designed to wear the PCs down before a face-to-face confrontation with the biggest, baddest dude still operating. I’d spent about 120 hours in preperation for this dungeoncrawl.

I would surmise that you can guess what happened, from what I’ve told you already, in combination with the title of this blog post…

The Mistake

The mistake itself was quite simple, and quite unforgiveable, to be honest: I had somehow contrived to forget what one of my feature players could do. Not just a minor side ability that was rarely used, mind you; but one of the Signature Moves of the character in question.

Even worse, since I had forgotten about it, I had forgotten to have the villain prepare for it.

Backlash stuck his fingers into the first wall socket they came to, zipped through the base completely unmolested, popped out of the security monitor directly in front of an arrogantly casual Magneto and popped him one on his unprotected puss before the Villain knew what had hit him! And then got a critical hit, while pushing his attack for all he was worth, and succeeded in achieving a KO with his surprise punch!! And then, as a coup-de-grace, fired his electrical blast at the controls and fried the PDP-11 mainframe that was running the villain’s defences, allowing the others to simply stroll in!!!

Recovery

I’d like to say that I recovered gamely, and soldiered on.

I can’t.

I’d like to claim that I took it in my stride and delivered a great game, and to some extent I can – but doing so had to wait for about ten minutes of which I have absolutely no memory, I was so stunned by this turn of events. I think Ian tried to offer some sort of explanation for his character’s thinking, and I seem to have a vague impression of high-fives and people wishing they had a camera… but I was just sitting there, my mind reeling, my jaw dropped, and my eyes like dinnerplates.

I can say that it’s the only time that I’ve ever been so completely taken by surprise! It wasn’t a mistake that you tend to forget.

When I (eventually) recovered, Ian apologised for ruining all my hard work, as sincerely as he could through the *incredibly* wide grin that he couldn’t entirely supress for the next 24 hours (and which he still recalls fondly from time to time even today, 25 years later). He then suggested that we might want to call it a day – we had been playing since 9AM and it was now 3:22PM – so that I could completely re-jig my plans for the rest of the scenario.

Fortunately (for my reputation), I didn’t need to. I had always expected the Heroes to win the fight eventually, I just expected them to have to work a little harder to achieve it! The open-planning approach that I had employed allowed me to get back on the GMing horse almost immediatly, and my habit of having more material prepped than we usually had time to play through meant that the game could go on.

This became a pivotal moment in the entire campaign over the next 6 years of play. I started by admitting the blindingly obvious – that I had been caught out, well and truly, and that Ian had earned fully his victory dance. Then I played my masterstroke: since it fitted with the character’s personality and history, I made the decision that my blind spot had in fact been The Villain’s blind spot. The PCs took the information they needed on the rendezvous point where the Imperial Invasion Fleet was waiting for the Villain’s signal, left a rather insulting message on his computer, tied him up in his own silk bedsheets, and went out to save the day.

In later years, a strange sort of corrospondance would be struck up between another character, Tempest, and Magneto. The villain would write up fanciful plans for world conquest and email them to Tempest, who would point out all the reasons why it wouldn’t work… always keeping an extra flaw up his sleeve in case the plan was ever dusted off and put into action for real.

Eventually, Magneto was convinced that world-conquering was a lot harder than it looked, and not worth the effort, and became an undercover operative for the team in the leadup to Ragnerok within the ranks of another villainous organisation, and then a full member of the team. Only when a couple of Houses of Demon brought the 4th Reich (Germany) and 5th Reich (South America) to power in the post-Ragnerok campaign world did he ‘revert’ to his more villainous ways – understandable, given his Jewish origins and history. He’s still a “Hero”, but now he’s a Vigilante – and he took several members of the team roster (NPCs) with him when he left.

Lessons Learnt

Before ANY scenario is considered complete these days, I mentally review what the PCs can do and whether or not the scenario can cope with it. That’s lesson number one, and that’s why I’ve never been so completely surprised since.

Number Two lesson is to try and justify your mistakes – and everyone makes them – in terms of a character’s flaws; maintaining consistant characterisation is always more beneficial to the campaign than scrambling to cover your ass, or having a scenario blow up in your face because of a basic oversight.

Lesson number Three was a confirmation of the basic scenario design approach that I have used ever since, and which consists of six basic rules:

  • 1. Keep characterisation and capabilities consistant;
  • 2. NPCs learn from the past just like PCs;
  • 3. NPCs prepare as well as they can, given their intelligence, time available, and resources;
  • 4. NPC plots get the PCs in trouble;
  • 5. If there’s one solution to any given mess the PCs get into, there will be a second, and a third, and probably a fourth, fifth and sixth. So don’t waste time preparing for any of them, beyond making sure that there is at least one; instead, detail the villains and their plans and so on and do what they do when their plans go awry: make it up as you go.
  • 6. Superintelligent characters will always pick the best choice available to them, based on what they know; so make sure that events always make whatever choice they make, the best one available to them. Use an INT roll if necessary – and then fudge outcomes appropriately.

One thing’s for sure: the players will never forget the third anniversary scenario of the Champions Campaign! Which was kind of what I was trying to achieve, I guess…

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