Monday, April 01, 2013

April RPG Carnival - GMing for a Ship of Fools

In the spirit of April Fools Day ...

People love when Player Characters do great heroic deeds and win fame and fortune in a well thought out Campaign...

But how about when things horribly so wrong go?! ...and it's all the fault of a thoroughly foolhardy decision by some dang fool Player Characters? Those can either be tragic-fun, or Fun-Fun, Crazy-Fun, or even just plain old OMG-That-Was-So-Totally-NOT-Fun, depending on the circumstances.  The possibilities are endless!   I'm sure we've all been there countless times.  :)

Conversely, sometimes the NPCs fall victim to their own machinations (shocking, ain't it?), too, and are thoroughly outwitted by the Player Characters (ie - "Holy Banana Flakes, Bat-Dude - I never expected them to try that!"). Can happen!   Been there countless times, too.  :p

So, here's the topic question for this month's RPG Carnival:

What is the most memorable experience you have had GMing for your own Ship of Fools?

While you think about your post, or are waiting for the latest entries, you might want to browse through some of the great prior Carnivals at RPG Bloggers Alliance - RPG Carnival and check them out for inspiration.

If you're new to RPG Carnival, the way it works is you post the answer to the Carnival Question on your own Blog, and then post a comment on the here at Elthos RPG with the link to your blog's post.  At the end of the month I will write up a summary of all the posts as a recap and reference for others.

So - have at it mates, and enjoy!  I look forward to reading about all our wondrous misadventures!

Before I go on about my own experiences, I'd love to hear about yours! I'll be posting mine a bit later on towards the end of the month. So carry on, and I'll catch up with you all soon!

Update: April 24, 2013

Ship of fools on a cruel sea, ship of fools sail away from me.
It was later than I thought when I first believed you,
Now I cannot share your laughter, ship of fools.

- Grateful Dead

Seems that my last Campaign was fraught with a special kind of danger. The danger that lurks in the shadows of every Campaign, I suppose. And every time it rears its head it always catches me by surprise. It's the danger of sailing over the edge of the gaming-abyss on the grand old Ship of Fools.

In my case things with the Campaign had been going extremely well for many moons. We started the Elthos RPG Game Test in September of 2011, and I wanted to finish in approximately a year, with two games per month. But we were running long, and I was starting to feel behind schedule. By February of 2013 I wanted to tie things up and call it 'a Campaign'.

Yet, the Captain of the ship (that would be me) had set an arduous course, packing in the following objectives into the game test:

  • Test the Elthos One Die System, with a focus on Experience Gains, and Tactical Combat rules.
  • Test GMing techniques centered on Sandbox gaming and the Spiral Method.
  • Test the Website for usability with the Elthos ODS Rules, and make sure that any issues with the Player Screens (logic, math, display, printouts, etc) are reported and resolved as we go.
  • Produce a readable, entertaining, and reasonably well constructed story with the usual literary conventions of character development, plot resolutions and the standard 'beginning, middle and end' story form, and to this end write up the story in prose form from the taped recordings we made of each game session.
  • Experiment with the boundaries of the Elthos ODS System in terms of handling unexpected events, and alternate genres.
  • Have a wonderful gaming experience for one and all.

Now, as you may already have guessed, that's a LOT of objectives for one game test.  Yeesh.  If I had realized that in the beginning I would not have tried to bite off so much at once.  And yet, for well over a year things were going swimmingly, despite the occasional hiccup as we hashed out rules that didn't seem to be working, or needed clarification. Well, frequent hiccups, but it was ok. My Play Testers were Champions at detecting and helping to resolve Rules issues (thank you!!). And they also happen to be Champion Role Players, each person playing between one and three Characters at a time. Yup. Wow!  Champions!

And yet, towards the end the Captain began floundering around, and the ship began to drift into troubled waters. Maybe I was sea-blind by then. Maybe I had packed on one too many objectives (ya think?). Or maybe I was just getting cranky. Probably a little bit of all-of-the-above. Things started to get rocky in the third-to-last game.  Pretty rocky.

One of my Players had started issuing the kinds of tactical orders for his Character that sounded suspiciously to me like "Make My Character Victorious - I don't care you you do that.  Just Make It So." Of course that's not a completely fair representation of what happened, but that was overall my impression. In the middle of one of the would-be large scale combats at the climax of the game he declined to even look at his Character on the map-board, and simply gave sweeping orders for him and/or his men to get to places that either they couldn't get due to a lack of movement points. There were maps. There were movement points.  He seemed to expect me to tactically play his Characters for him. And then he wound up being shocked and dismayed after the fact when things didn't go as he imagined they should.  We both grew frustrated.

In a way this was a result of our mode of play, which went back and forth between map-based tactical combat, and descriptive combat throughout the Campaign, depending on the situation, and how much prep time I had been able to muster before the games. But it was also my impression that the Player had come with a plan in his head that did not match the facts on the ground, and simply did not have the wherewithal to go back and make a new plan.  Instead he tried to force his existing plan to work.  It wasn't working.  Since this happened a couple of times in a row we both became frustrated and disheartened. And this threatened to drag the Campaign down in the final crucial moments. He became despondent.  The others followed his lead. It was pretty dreadful.  I became irritable.  It wasn't pretty.

At the time I thought the problem was pretty much his fault, and a matter of his unwillingness to play out the tactical aspect of the combat.   I thought he wanted to conclude the battle descriptively, and in his favor because we all knew that I was edging for the end of the story, and they either figured I planned for them all to die in a massive TPK, or to be rescued by the Chicken-Ex-Machina.   Neither was true.  I was irked. I shouldn't have been.

Fortunately, I managed to pull myself back from the brink and deal with my own problems in the situation like a mature, well-seasoned, and above-sub-average GM and human being.  I asked myself - what am I bringing to the table here that's messing things up for my Players?  And what do I do about it?  I sat myself down and had a good thinking-over.  After a while I realized I had a lot more to do with the problems than I thought at first.   But I had no especially good solutions in mind. 

I went to get help. I summoned the Powers of the IntArWEbz to get in touch with various GMs online, mostly in the wonderful  "G+ Tabletop Role Playing Games". The GMs there listened to my story, and with great insight pointed out where we had gone wrong, and offered sensible and interesting advice to help right the ship. Based on that advice I came up with several new plans for handling the situation in the hopes that the game would not implode and end badly. Tensions were running high, and I thought there was a fairly significant risk of implosion, frankly.  By the end of second to last game we had had an open argument. The storm clouds were gathering over ye old Ship of Fools.

Here is what I posted at the time on Google+, and the wonderful responses I received. Summoning GMs of Google+. Out of that experience I came away with a basket of useful ideas. Among them:

  • Get advice from your fellow travelers by explaining as clearly and with as little bias as possible what the problem is.
  • Sit down with the Players and openly discuss the issues, asking each person how they feel things are going and what recommendations they might have for getting things back on track.
  • Devise a mechanic around the Fate Points concept that could allow the Players to influence the outcome of the game. To that end I concocted a quick and dirty End-Story Mechanic.  While we didn't actually wind up needing to use it specifically in the game, I did use it afterwards for the Epilogue to tie up the various loose ends that we didn't get a chance to cover.  It was very useful to have!
And so, in the spirit of perseverance, and with the determination to conclude the Campaign awesomely, we held the last game. I used a combination of the above methods.  As it happened the game turned out great.  Everyone pulled together and it turned out to become a really fabulous Grand Finale.  And so we glided into port with a gorgeous golden sunset at our backs in the end, and plenty of gaming treasure in our pockets. The game was a complete success, despite the tumultuous nature of the previous two games. Everyone had a really great time, and the end of the story turned out to be all that I could have hoped for.

So the lesson I got out of it all is that sometimes games don't really go so well for a variety of possible reasons, but don't give up! Get advice. Get honest feedback from your Players. Be willing to take responsibility if the situation is due to your own failings, and do your best to right your wrongs where you can.  After all, as GM, it is you who is the Captain of the Ship, whether it be a Star Destroyer or the proverbial Ship of Fools.

You can find the completed story here, in case you are ever interested in reading it. 


I feel that we actually achieved the Literary Story objective with this game test, so I hope people will read it and enjoy it, not only as an example of Actual Play, but as a genuinely interesting and entertaining story in its own right.


shortymonster said...

I'm currently going something a bit painful at the moment, but don't want to put it n the blog until its resolved, as a few of my players read it. A quick summary is to be found as I discuss my problem with the lovely people at UK Role Players.

vbwyrde said...

I hear ya. I had a very similar issue recently. And it was a bit of a bear to resolve, but in the end everything worked out great. Very similar circumstances as well. What I did was work with the players, explained something about my expectations for their doing the appropriate amount of tactical planning and after two games of rough patches things finally coalesced and everything turned out great.

I'm looking forward to hearing how things turn out - and yup, that would be a good Ship of Fools reply. Keep us posted. :)

Unknown said...

Here's my contribution. Making lemonade out of lemons.

vbwyrde said...

Great! Submission #1 from Asparagus Jumpsuit Blog. I look forward to reading this! Thanks! :)

Mike said...

Campaign Mastery's contribution to the blog carnival is now online: Refloating The Shipwreck: When Players Make A Mistake. Enjoy!

Seth Drebitko said...

Kobold Enterprises contribution this month is: Oh Gods!

yosimoshe said...

The Bleeding Scroll's contribution this month:

vbwyrde said...

Thank you Mike at CampaignMastery, for your amazingly thorough and well stated doctrine on the ins and outs (and everything in between) of handling Player and GM mistakes! Wow! Very worthwhile reading! Great ideas!

And thank you as well Seth at KoboldEnterprise for another outstanding contribution. Your description of how things went down on your Ship of Fools was entertaining as heck. Thanks!

And thank you kindly, too Yosimoshe at Bleeding Scrolls...
Very sad and funny, but I do kind of see the Barbarian's point. "No Pay, No Live." Seems legit, sort of, maybe. :p Ahhh, such is life on the Ship of Fools, though, isn't it? Thanks for the post!

Lowell Francis said...

A last minute entry

vbwyrde said...

Thanks for the last minute entry there Lowell. Yup! Seems like the Ship of Fools sails on many seas. And just as lopsided, tilted and lilting as everywhere else. At least we know, we're not the only ones.

As for the recap of entries... there were not as many as usual for this topic, but the entries we got were all very interesting, amusing, and informative.

Shortymonster linked us to a forum on his topic of "Keeping the Players Alive in Spite of Themselves!" ... that thread went pretty far, and a lot of great points are made.

Unknown over at AsparagusJumpsuit demonstrates how his Ship of Fools managed to turn negatives into positives in "You Can Lead Players to Water, But…" or what to do when one player tries to make himself Captain of the Ship of Fools.

Mike at Campaign Master gave us the most thorough analysis of Player and GM mistakes, and what to do about them, imaginable. It's incredibly thorough, comprehensive, and ... wow! Great advice!

Seth at Kobold Enterprises gave us an example of the Ship of Fools wallowing adrift on becalmed waters.

Yosimoshe at Bleeding Scroll contributed "When Players Go Wrong", a concise example of what happens when one player suddenly rams the Ship of Fools aground onto the rocks.

And lastly, Lowell at Age of Ravens sent along a tale of two players who managed to make life on the Ship of Fools a lot less fun that it should have been.

And such is life when sailing on the stormy seas, amid the chaos and hell of outrageous fortune - only to be sunk without a trace to the bottom of the briny deep with the others on your Ship of Fools.

Thanks everyone for your contributions!