Strangest thing happen to me this morning, I was reminded that I was DMing a game tonight. I had completely forgotten about our schedule had changed for September. But that was not the strange part the series of feeling I had right after the reminder are what struck me. First I panicked, if I forgot game was tonight I must be unprepared right? Nope, it is shaping up to be a bit of a dungeon crawl, I have monsters all picked out, miniatures are ready, maps are drawn and I have even cleaned the game room. So in a matter of seconds the panic was over and I started to feel a little lost, I am a generally a nervous before game starts when I am DMing. I spend lots of time just looking at what I am going to run and thinking about how it could go horribly wrong or how I have forgotten something or that the players aren’t going to “get it” or something else I haven’t even thought of will happen. I tried to be nervous about the game, I tried to figure out what could go wrong but all I could come up with was this sense that I was completely ready, the story I had was solid and that if anything went wrong I could easily improvise. So if I am not panicked or nervous what am I supposed to do? I decided to analyze the game I am running and figure out what makes it different, hoping to take away lessons for future campaigns.
This game started when are regular DM needed to take a break, be a player and build up some ideas to continue his campaign, I volunteered because I love running shorter campaigns (10-20 sessions). In the few days before this I had been discussing an interesting phenomena with WotC_Trevor. When I make a campaign I tend to make a game that I would like to play in, and then I end up running it. This means that I never get to play in the game I want and the players in my game are unable to play in a game custom made for them. My games are still fun to be in, my players assure me all the time, but they were not tailored to them. This seemed like a chance to make a leap forward in the quality of campaign I was able to provide. So session one of the new game I sat down with about half of the players and asked them what kind if campaign they wanted to play in. We threw a lot of ideas around before we came up with the following descriptors:
Mercenary – The player did not want to be the good guys or the bad guys, they wanted an interesting group with individuals motivated by personal goals and relationships. The strongest example we could think of was Firefly, but really any Joss Whedon would do the job.
Episodic – Tell short interesting stories that resolve, with only a few story lines going at once. I have not done a great job of this so far, I love my complicated stories without set endings, but I have reined it in a little and I think I might be able to improve even more. They are currently dealing with 7 stories. What happened to Robert Piper, Ape Island, The Scarlet Fist (their ship) is possessed, who do we sell these Warforged juggernauts and instant demons to, what do we do with this massive lobster submarine, we need elementals to power our ship so it can fly and a mysterious stranger that is apparently the opponent of the thing possessing the Scarlet Fist.
Low Magic – This was my addition. For a while now I have wanted to run a game about an arms race between nations as magic became a military options, as they started to talk about being pirate/privateers, I felt this was perfect chance. Character creation wise this means that anything that is an at-will is a natural ability of the character, anything that is an encounter/daily/power point power is gear related. The new tech is using elementals as power sources for some-what modern/steam punk/near future devices. Willow has different kinds of shot for her pistol and the telekinetic power to augment them (psion). Surgeon has elemental powered implants that only he can activate (healing word and the like). Minx has a lot of really sharp knives (ranger). Scutter breaks the mold a little, his encounter and at-wills are different ways of swinging his axe but his dailies are different were-sea animals (warden). Lucky just swings an axe (avenger) but he is a shardmind and is starting to get the idea that he might have been created by someone, maybe for something.
Funny – This is where things got interesting. I am not good at comedy, so I went to the experts (the Internet) and read about it. Still couldn’t figure out how to write a funny story, so I cheated (still on the Internet), I looked for things that were funning, things I knew this group found funny and included them as themes and monsters. When a gaggle of Bear-Shark-Octopus rose up from the depths of the ocean, clambered aboard the Scarlet Fist and attacked them I could see that it was working. Since then we have added Ape Island, giant undersea lobster tank and the players got into the act by starting a zombie apocalypse (thankfully just on one island, poor Apes).
The characters are heroic – The character had to be special. I thought a lot about Joss Whedon’s characters and finally about the A-team. Each character has something they can do, Hannibal’s plans always work, Face can talk his way out of just about anything, BA can fix or break anything and Murdock can pilot a Twinkie in space if it is required. So as people were making their characters I sat with them and we talked about the power that was not on their character sheet. An area of expertise that was generally outside the game elements that they I could ensure they would have a measure of success every time engaged in it. Examples are better at explaining this than me.
Willow Piper: She is Sir Captain Robert Piper’s heir and captain of the Scarlet Fist, a notorious pirate vessel, and even though she is a slight 17 year old girl she commands respect from leaders of nations.
Scutter: Long time first mate of the Scarlet Fist, its crew follows his orders without second guessing. When the crew follows them into combat Scutter commands them.
Minx: She gets away with anything a pirate cat girl would get away with. She sleeps while everyone works, she almost always wins when gambling and get bonuses to hit when she jumps off of stuff in combat.
Those were the first batch, they are pretty good but I took the concept a little further with the characters that were introduced later. Not only did they get a power, the session that they joined the group was all about their character. When Surgeon joined, the crew helped him retrieve some important medical supplies from the monsters that wiped out his last crew. When Lucky joined the group actually received him as pay for a mission, they also received enough money to buy 20 ships and a small island. There was no doubt who these characters were and the value they brought by the end of introductions.
Surgeon: Surgeon can command elementals that have been placed into machines to power them. Surgeon is also a party animal and never ever has trouble finding wine, women and song.
Lucky: Lucky is very lucky, he finds a lot of secret doors, avoids traps, finds money laying around and the story generally twist so even his failures have some value (this is surprisingly easy now that everyone at the table is making suggestions).
One of the good habits I have as a DM is stopping and looking around the table to see if everyone is engaged fairly regularly. If someone is not engaged I shine the spotlight on their character and generally they reengage. These “other powers” are a great tool for this. If I look up and see that Lucky’s player is starting to disengage Lucky stumbles on to a clue, a pile of money or whatever, he is drawn back in and the plot is moved forward.
Interesting NPCs – There are other crew on the Scarlet Fist and each of them is an interesting character. It takes me a long time to create a really interesting character so I just stole them or used an archetype.
Anchor: Warforged deep sea diver and loyal companion to the Pipers. Anchor is the character I would have played if I had been a player instead of a DM. I am usually hesitant to do that but it happened this time anyway.
Loud Guy: Jay of Jay and Silent Bob. This guy is mostly useless and loud except on occasion I use him to suggest solutions when the players get stuck on something.
Quiet Guy: Silent Bob. This guy is a precognitive ninja that almost never talks. Anytime the players ask him to do something he shows them that he has already done it.
Lucan: Cypher from the Matrix. They know by the way this guy acts that he will betray them someday but they also know he work for someone and they want to know who.
The Twins: Two attractive twin brothers that can move in perfect concert. They make the perfect toy/foil for Minx and add to the feeling that there is magic in the world but that it is not very accessible.
Water Genasi Deck Hand: The story goes that this kid was fished up with a load of tuna and he just stayed with the ship. The crew has noticed him talking to the ship on occasion and is now questioning him about the possession of the Scarlet Fist.
I mentioned this blog at lunch with two of my players and they immediately insisted that I talk about loud guy and quiet guy, they also realized that they did not know the characters names, they never asked.
Players and DM own the world – This was also something that I pushed for. The players are allowed to say something like “The witch doctor of the Galistra island is an expert at ship possession, we should go see her, maybe she can help.” And it is true. Of course she will probably ask for some sort of payment some other kind of complication. I generally allow for this type of investment during character creation where it is easy to control but then back off of it at the table for fear of abuse. So far it has not been abused and has been a lot of fun.
Now that the game has grown a bit I would describe it as an over the top, popular media inspired pirate romp in a magic industrial revolution world.
So guess what I have figured out so far is, if the players have created the world that they are playing in they naturally engage and I don’t have to worry that they may not find it interesting because they made it and they know best what they want.
I have become convinced that you can’t over engage your players and would like to hear your ideas on engaging players, so I can steal them.