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PostPosted: Sun Jun 01, 2014 8:32 pm 
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So I just ended my first ever table-top campaign. It was a full game of Iron Kingdoms, going for nearly 8 months, around 15 sessions with seven players (though it started with just one). It's been a bumpy road along the way, but the heroes of the story finally prevailed against the horrors of the void with only one casualty.

Along the way I learnt quite a few valuable lessons though - lessons I hope might help out any other GM that's just at the start of their own campaign. This includes pitfalls and mistakes that didn't work out - as well as things that did.

Just to give a summary of what happened during our campaign and for the context of some of the things that'll be in this 'article' I guess you can call it:

*Summary begin, skip forward 1.25 pages if you want to get to the point of the thread.

The campaign centered around a small town called Davenville in Llael, a small country that was the steampunk equivalent of post WW2-Germany: split by two major powers, one occupied and the other 'free'. The town was firmly in the former. Things started out innocously. A few hunts of dangerous wild beasts, dangerous rebels and internal petty politics slowly began to escalate to include the undead. Then it went off the cliff when the one of the group found the box.

The mysterious box triggered off a gradual shift from Iron Kingdoms to Iron Kingdoms: Call of Cthulhu edition. It was a symptom of debt that was driving people mad, with a whole cult dedicated around a being known as the 'watching one'. It was an entity from the void between voids, straining its way into the player's world. The buildup was gradual, but escalated when the players triggered the game's deathclock (more on that later) three ticks in two sessions.

By that point the town of Davenville was consumed by the Watching One and our would-be heroes had essentially released the apocalypse on the land of Immoren. They fled north, but not before finding a few allies, rescuing them from the jaws of madness and essentially securing a plan to deal with this thing. They would head to find a temple and priestess of the clockwork Goddess - hoping that knowledge and logic would find a way to triumph over chaos and disorder.

They journeyed to the temple, where they summoned an infernal demon - the Immortal and Wise Bird, who gave them a clue on how to defeat this horror. They would need to find the great dreamer Azatoth, fundament of the universe, the dreamer of all dreams. They would need to trade a dream of some sort in exchange to end the nightmare.

The group set off on the journey to Azatoth. Their goal was to find an airship that would take them to the Rift of Lyoss, a long-dead city that had fallen when a bridge to cross between worlds had collapsed. The rift was still there - and indeed, after several close calls they made it through. They discovered inside that they had been doing this cycle - meeting in Davenville, finding the clues, getting to the rift and into the 'glade' - many hundreds or thousands of times so far. All this time they didn't have a solution, till now.

They discovered they had a worthy trade for the Great Dreamer - the box had an egg in it, which held the dreams and hopes of an entire species. Faced with little choice, the players went on till they came to the great dreamer. They argued amongst themselves for a good half hour before finally deciding to give up the Egg - in effect genociding the possibility any 'good' dragons in the Iron Kingdoms universe - but in essence saving every other species in the process. There was no victory at the end - just a sense that they had lost the least.

****Summary end.

My group was seven players at the end, representing a wide array of types of gamers from the Pyromaniac to the metagamer to the quieter and shyer folks. Here are some of the most important lessons I've learnt:

a) There needs to be a balance between prep time and improvisation

This is one of the most important things I learnt through the course of the campaign.

Initially I would only prep a few basic things and we'd have fairly open sessions but with a lot of character bickering and a few places where things would stalled. But as the campaign went onwards my prep time got substantially longer and longer. The sessions became less open ended - but there was a linear set of progressions that prevented the stall points from before. We moved faster through the plot and there were more interesting conversations when things were moving.

Eventually I managed to settle at a balance; I prepped for exactly how long I thought the session was going to last. For a 4 hour session, I prepped 4 hours. 6 for 6 and so forth. If it took longer, I stopped and reconsidered if there was too much material. A good guide was the word count of events in the episode. Every 500 words equates close to 1 hour. 3000 word episodes would be 6 hours of game time.

I had both open and closed ended preps depending on the campaign. Making a problem, multiple solutions to the problems and thinking as a meta-gamer and seeing how I would avoid a situation entirely and keeping backups. My players sometimes managed to slip through the cracks - but half the time they were close enough to bring back into the plot without it being too strenous since I had been careful with the separation of triggers and plot points.

b) Separation of Triggers and Plot Information

This came from my experience with game/level design in Freespace 2. A Trigger in this case is refers to an entity, NPC, environmental factor or item that triggers the next plot point or advancement. Plot point can be anything, from the main villain becoming visible to a tome or vital piece of information.

I separated the two early on when my players NOPED out of a dungeon, meaning they would have missed out on a lot of important details about their opponents. I realized that they weren't always going to bother to hit the pre-planned triggers...so in essence, I decided that any possible thing could be a trigger. A mad prophet on the streets. A piece of parchment delivered to them. A conversation in the bar. Intelligence reports. Sometimes even dreams could be sources of inspiration or knowledge.

Decoupling the two concepts allowed for a greater freedom of movement in the plot, letting things develop a lot more naturally and especially deal with some of the metagaming at the upper level.

c) How you prep is as important as how much you prep

Most of my prep work was on pen and paper - all my notes were printed out and this added a lot of weight and took up a lot of space in the session. It got especially worse towards the end when my collective notes were almost the size of a small novelette. It became a pain to keep track of, especially when I had all different character sheets and had to scramble for NPC sheets from forever and a day.

The use of a file only helped somewhat, especially as prep time became less and less towards the end. For my next campaign, I am most likely going to go digital. Either through the use of a laptop with a long battery life or an ipad / tablet of some sort. Possibly with the use of roll20 or some other online tools to keep track of plot points, sheets etc in a better manner. That way I dont have a million and one pages on the table I have to keep flipping through.

d) The party will not always want to work together

One of the hardest things I had to face was motivations for trying to keep the party together. We had a very chaotic group of players with a lot of internal strife and pvp. It was bound to happen when we got to 7 players - especially when a few of those players had rivalries elsewhere and conflicting personalities. I tried multiple experiments to keep people together:

(i) Interrupts: At first I basically allowed people with a non-combat initiative that was higher to interrupt the action of anyone else with a lower initiative. We didn't have a charisma stat to base it on so I used the basic initiative stats. This was no perfect and was abused quiet a bit initially. At the end, I clamped it down to one interrupt per person per session.

They could be used at any time by anyone to interrupt the action of another PC. This more or less stopped some of the self-destructive behavior in its tracks and empowered the more stable party members. On the flip side, it also added a bit of vulnerability since even the unstable PCs could interrupt, created a stalemate / cold war situation that surprisingly promoted cohesiveness since trolling opportunities were reduced.

(ii) Dice in hand mean Dice on the table: The general rule I had was that if you have declared an action and have dice in hand, there are no take-backs no matter what. You rolled to see what happened. Occasionally this meant absolute hilarity when people tried to interrupt, rolled, crit failed and ended up doing worse things than what they were trying to stop.

(iii) The End of the World is a great motivator: The best solution I found by far though was the apocalypse scenario and the motive of greater threats that would kill them all if they didn't figure out solutions. While not cohesive naturally, this motivation got the party to at least not kill each other outright (though wow they tried SO MANY TIMES). It isn't a perfect motivator though.

(iv) Give them a boss - preferably one they can't fight and has some measure of power over them. Not having a choice of being able to leave helps a LOT in keeping people together. In this campaign, most were either contracted or were part of a mercenary company. The leader, Vonnel, more or less was 10-15 levels there superior.

Everyone had a reason to work for him and feared or respected him enough to stick to the job even if they were assigned together. Sometimes Vonnel would interfere with disputes to resolve them ICly, offering good ways to tie things up using believe it or not, people management.

e) Buff Gravity!

Seriously, all my players were shouting this at the end of the campaign. "Nerf gravity! Gravity OP!" they shouted!

You see, all but two of my players had gone into strength, prowess or other non-agility related stat-lines. Thusly, when they got to agility / jumping based challenges and terrain...a lot of people flopped. Terribly. The only casualty of the entire game did not die to an aberration but instead when he failed to leap to a platform and fell into a pit of tortured souls that dragged him under. For the second time (he had already failed once before but was pulled out in time).

All my players could kill everything I threw at them with precise coordination - but he environment can sometimes be so much of a deadlier opponent. A raging river; earthquakes that send people off of Horses (and breaks their legs, forcing aweful decisions and trauma to the PCs). I'll be definately using a lot more of environmental hazards in my next campaign. From swamps full of horrible gas to other traps, I need to expand my challenge tools significantly.

f) Stick to the system and know your system inside and out

Towards the end of the campaign, I had added a lot of new mechanics, playtesting them in the 'live' environment. My grasp of the rules was not complete enough though that it sometimes ended up clunky and awkward. I was doubting and second-guessing myself frequently on rules. Part of the problem was the similarity (and differences) between the IK rules and Warmachine - and our group had a WM expert who would sometimes confuse matters.

g) Do not be afraid to be firm

When things were looking to break out in possible arguments, do not ever be hesitant in being firm, asking people to leave or mention docking xp if things get heated or if people do not back off and/or calm down. Sometimes it is best to catch this behavior in the bud. Watch carefully on the rivalries between players - there are the fun kind of rivalries and they are the bad kinds. The latter festers something bad if not nipped in the bud.

h) Keep things juggling and moving no matter what

I used a sand-timer to help push along decisions, especially during combat turns. With seven players things were slowly grinding to a halt. Initially I tried having people go together but that didn't work out, so I focused on resolving the combat rolls as fast as I possibly could.

Part of this was done by hiding the targets needed for players to hit, damage, etc. But after a while I gave up on that - giving targets upfront and getting players to roll against them speeded things up significantly and kept the pace moving. It also made it so much more resounding in the sound bites when the GM rolls double sixes to the player's double ones!

i) Keep it to a manageable number of players

Prepping for 4 players is fine. Seven on the other hand can be difficult. It can be even more difficult in just handling them for schedules, plots, giving people enough attention, etc, etc. My next campaign is likely to be just 4-5 players maximum. There are some GMs out there that can handle 10, 20 people. My opinion is start small, focus on a small core group and then slowly expand with your next campaigns.

j) The ends of the arch is the most important

Expanding on point i), an important thing I've stuck to is to have a fixed, yet vague overarching plot to the campaign. I knew vaguely what my ending might be like - there would be the great dreamer and the offering of a dream. I even had the end credits and music choices picked out.

What I didn't have ready was how the players got there and what dream they would offer. That was all them. They discovered the book with the dragon, who had made the box and so forth, which laid the foundation for the next set of clues they'd get (what was this dragon-> why did he do it-> what was the price he paid-> what does the watching one want -> how can we kill the watching one -> what can we give the great dreamer -> what did the dragon put in the box). The trail of crumbs could be as long or as short as you'd like and the structured flow meant you can invent the next clue immediately after the previous session without worrying too much about deviating too far.

More importantly, seed clues from they least suspect that fits the plot. If anything is pre-planned, they'll guess it by a mile. But if you hear the rampant speculation then you know exactly what to avoid and how to twist it around. Sometimes playing into the speculations can make things a ton more interesting - especially when their turned against the players to reveal some more horrific truths.

Its still however, important to have a start and an end point, especially for a short campaign. Though I didn't know how many sessions this campaign could have lasted, because I had my basic plot ending ready I could tie up the clues where they were now, add just the right pieces and then offer a shorter road to the end.

k) Decide how long you want to run for

This is another important thing. I made a plan to run from the end of the Summer to the start of the next one, as I knew the inter-summer period is when you have the most activity. Over the summer, people tend to leave, people move on and so forth. I was also going to lose one of my players permanently (he was moving to the US), so the ending at this time worked perfectly.

Knowing how long to run a campaign for is tricky - but the best possible measure is when the prep starts to become a chore rather than a pleasure. At that point, it means you are starting to become fatigued and it's the best time to start planning to wrap things up, to build up the momentum and use the last bit of inspirations while it's still there - and bringing it to a climactic end before you burn out.

**

That's all I have for now. All I can say is that running a tabletop game was an absolute BLAST. I'm looking forward to whichever campaign I run next. I'm thinking it might be either another IK game or perhaps a homebrew version of Faster Than Light: Advanced Edition.

Either way, thanks to the GRC for introducing me to the tabletop side of roleplaying games - and thanks especially to my players for such a wonderful campaign!


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