Fantasy v. Sci-Fi: My GM Preference

I’ve mentioned before on this very blog that I have loaded myself up with stuff to do.  But one thing I don’t think I’ve spoken too much about is that I am a Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition Game Master for my coworkers.  I figured a lot of them might find it fun, and at the very least we can broaden some horizons and introduce my coworkers to another side of myself.

Recruiting players at work was fun.  I had to try and find people who would be in it for the long run, but I also wanted to find people who had never played a tabletop role-playing game.  I wanted to make sure we had both enough boys and girls.  To my surprise I actually encountered a lot of eager candidates.  With players selected, it was time to make a world.

I drafted up a map and a couple cities and dove in hard on development.  As of now we are on holiday break, but we have played approximately fourteen sessions— all about two hours each.

This post isn’t about that game, but I just want to establish that I’ve been running two campaigns for several months now.  The contrast between doing sci-fi versus fantasy has been illuminating for me.  When I have more knowledge and experience I may do a more speculative post on the pluses and minuses for running sci-fi versus fantasy, but this one I just want to talk about what it personally represents to me.

It comes down to choices and consequences.  My style— as I see it— is that I love having a greater theme at play that will require my players to make a choice and deal with a consequence.  I love seeing how my players are going to respond in an imaginary situation.  I do not like clear cut choices.  I am not a huge fan of Good v. Evil.  I love throwing my players into a grey zone and seeing how they decide what to make of it.

What I love about sci-fi is that for me a lot more of the game is about consequences or outcomes, while fantasy seems a lot more about making choices.  And it’s all because in one setting magic exists.

Now obviously you can write either setting to encompass any theme, but in general I feel as though there is a pretty clear divide.  Fantasy is a realm where magic and alignment are massive forces in play and the players must deal with things as they rear their heads.

The peoples are hungry because their crops all wilted.  What do you all do?

We cast “Plant Growth” at a lowly level 3.  It rejuvenates the land and instantly grows much of those lost crops back!  Or we find (or create) a supply of food and extort the starving populace for all of their hard earned gold.

You can essentially orchestrate anything you want since there is powerful magic out there.  You spend more time thinking about the solution because anything is achievable, and the quest is more about whether you want to be good or evil or neither.  Whether or not you get them food is moot since magic will solve the problem, but what you choose the outcome to be is where the game becomes fun.  It’s not a choice of whether or not its possible, but where you stand in the greater scheme.

Sci-Fi is much more difficult because you must solve problems without a wand to wave.  You cannot create from nothing.  The choice that you make to solve the problem often comes with its own consequences that will also need to be dealt with.

There is plenty of food and fuel in most futuristic settings, but now the problems become how they are allocated and utilized.  Great power exists because such power is needed to keep humanity strong in the vast, inky ocean that is space— but people are behind that power.  There is no clear good and evil when there isn’t a great, neutral power like magic to draw upon.  Whether or not the outcome will work out in the end, the players will have to choose— often the lesser of two evils.

The people are hungry because the crops all wilted.  What do you do?

We can help the city recoup their losses by helping re-sow their farms.  But that will take time and we will lose out on other opportunities while we toil on this planet.  Or we could spend a lot of money and bring them food to survive the season.  But that will cost us all of our resources.  Or we can steal food from another planet and bring it all here.  This population will eat while the one we stole from will starve instead.

I’ll reiterate: you absolutely can spin either setting to be about good and evil, or choices and consequences.

Fantasy seems so much less concerned when it comes with choices because you choose the outcome before you begin.  We need to help the people, or we need to slaughter the enemy.  Both are possible, but which is better for us?  Are we good or evil?

Sci-Fi is about the hard choices.  A pirate fleet is coming to raid the frontier cities, but we can only defend one planet since space travel will take too long.  Which colony do we save and which colonies do we doom?

-DTM

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I’m Finally a Game Master

I did it, Emily.  It’s been a long, arduous, frustrating road.  But I did it!  I’m a Game Master!

My first overarching quest is coming to a head!  Not by itself impressive, but what is is that my players are slowly realizing that the scenario is bigger than them— and how important the decisions they have (and will) make will echo in the halls of eternity!

Whoo!  I successfully communicated the ideas and themes behind this plot-line in a way where I didn’t need to ham-fist exposition.

My players thus far have made very straightforward decisions based on where they think they are supposed to go.  The problem with that is they do what they think I want them to do; as if the game is scripted and they are just parts in a play.

But in the last session, when faced with a political decision, it forced them to take a step back and realize that there is more to this than simply showing up and rolling dice.

To be frank, I don’t think some of my players enjoy this part.  But this is what I want the campaign to be: choices.  I want my players to find themselves in situations where their actions and choices are going to shape the world around them.

But my worry up until recently is that they wouldn’t care about making an informed choice.  They do care about the game and having fun, but it would be easy for them to be like, “Uh, that one- I don’t care, where is my laserfist.”

<exposition.exe>

The quick version: the players had made it through the Maw into the Koronus Expanse and they moored up at Port Footfall.  They met the rich merchant Zulfikar Raheem.  He has worked with them on a few jobs, but then it starts to become apparent someone is messing with Zulfikar’s affairs.

Zulfikar suspects (and with provided evidence from the players, ascertains) the Kasballica Mission is trying to screw him.  He implores the players to go distract the Kasballica in a gambit to buy him some time.

The Kasballica Mission hires them to do a job; that job was to fuck with Zulfikar’s affairs.

The mission is to go to a mining colony and setup a facility that will break the compact Zulfikar has with a Rogue Trader.  They go to the mining facility and realize that the planet itself is embroiled in its own conundrum.  So the players need to wade through the planets politics while also furthering their own ends.

Then for the first time the players asked themselves what they are doing.  Thus far they have been making whichever decision is presented to them.  But once they started to understand the stakes involved with the planet, and with their various political relationships, they finally started asking questions of themselves.  Not questions like, “Where are we?” but more like, “Why are we doing this?”

They slowly started to question the ins and outs, the benefits and consequences, and that’s when I ascended to a new level of Game Master.  That is when one of my players asked himself, “What is Zulfikar doing?”

I had done it.

It’s the moment I was never sure that would come because it was heavily dependent on my ability to playact a story for them.  Playact it in such a way that the pieces fit together, but might not be presented in order.  And in that session my players began inspecting the pieces and realizing that the picture is far bigger than they thought.

Now to be utterly fair, maybe my players had greater faith in me than myself.  Maybe they had been piecing it together and just making notes until the end.  Usually after sessions I get a lot of, “It’s fun!” and “Campaign is awesome.”

But this was the first session where I began to see them deliberate.  To engage with the story and talk about their investment.  Listening to them make theories and compare evidence.

I will never be able to fully describe the feeling.  I think I have a long way to go to become a GM of legend, but its good to have affirmation that the setting I’ve built is doing its job.

This post comes out on Friday.  The following Saturday I have to run the game again.  I cannot wait to see what happens next.

-DTM

Character: The Lifeblood of Roleplaying

Previously on Seven Degrees of Smudde:

There was a solid disconnect between Acolyte and everyone else.  So I figured the easiest thing to do was quietly retire the naive Acolyte for someone who was more suited to this party and the world.  I’m not really mad at anyone, just stopped having fun trying to make my character fun.

What made me think about this was one of my players approaching me saying that he wasn’t having as much fun with his character in Rogue Trader.  His character was a dark and brooding man with a troubled past.

I was quite surprised at how many of my players decided to play various flavors of “dark and brooding with a troubled past.”  Its a very attractive idea for a character— you can play a mysterious, crass, loner who doesn’t need anybody.  No strengths, only weaknesses hidden deep inside.

Roleplaying games are awesome because you can explore so many different personalities and lifestyles.  The breadth of options available in the theater of your mind is for another post— what I’d like to talk about is characterization versus character.

A thing to note: some people just want to play Dungeons and Dragons for the combat or the exploration.  What I’m about to expound about is only relevant if you want to focus on the roleplaying aspects.  If you just wanna kill dragons and loot dungeons then you can probably ignore this!

I have had a lot of strong opinions on character, appearance, and investment.  Only recently have I found the correct language to really talk about this effectively.  And again— I’m not a professional writer (yet) but I’d like to take a step back and evaluate what makes a character and how people view and understand them.

Characterization is how a character acts and appears outwardly.  Simple as that.  Is a character loud?  Quiet?  Snarky?  Mild mannered?  Are they thin?  Thick?  Athletic?  Portly? Short?  Tall?  Could they be described as angry?  Solemn?  Cordial?

In contrast: character is how a character acts during critical moments.  If the character woke up in a burning apartment building would they: run immediately for the exit, pushing past people?  Go into the apartment next door where their elderly neighbor lives to rescue them?  Pick up a child but keep running?

Its in those revelations that we see real character.  When characterization is similar to character you write a cliché.

The man saunters into the bar.  He’s wearing a leather jacket over some Levi’s.  Fingerless gloves adorn his hands.  He pulls his motorcycle helmet and runs his fingers through his short hair.  He has a scarred face and a permanent scowl.  He grunts in irritation at several people standing in his way.  He steps up to a stranger and sets his helmet on the bar counter.  He orders a shot of whiskey.

“You got my money, bud?” the rider asks.

“I ain’t paying you shit.” the stranger responds.

“I think you will, pal.  You owe me.”

The stranger draws a gun on him.

“Oh boy.  That was a mistake.” the rider says.

He then proceeds to beat the strangers ass.  Punching him right in the jaw and grabbing the hand holding the gun.  He has brass knuckles, but he is an honorable fighter.  Once the man is on the ground groveling, the rider lights up a cigarette, downs his shot of whiskey, and saunters back out into the night.

How predictable was that?  It was boring.  He looked and sounded like a bad mother fucker, so were you super surprised when he was a bad mother fucker?  It was something we’ve seen before.  It was cliché.

Its possible to have characterization and character be similar and write an interesting character, you just need to explore that character deeper.  But think about any character you think of as badass inside and out— they probably have other characteristics that contrast what you expect.  Especially as you begin to understand their development.  Try not to have characters with hard, aligned edges.

He closed the door to his car and began to walk to his apartment.  He slung his bags strap over his shoulder and checks his phone.  Several missed calls from his manager at work.  The server must be down again.  He’ll remote in and fix it after dinner.

He walked past a couple of his neighbors, smiling broadly at them and waving.  He chats a little bit about the weather and exchanges jokes about the sillier neighbors.  He crouches down to scratch a couple puppies behind the ears.  He offers to fix some of the issues the leasing office was having as he talks with the property manager.

He fumbled with his eyes and unlocked the door, entering the air conditioned room.  His girlfriend was there.  She hops up suddenly and goes to help with the bags and the door.  She smiles sweetly at him.

Then he heard the man calling for something from the bathroom.  Calmly, she made to speak.

“He’s just-”

Blood sprayed across the wall when the back of his hand hit her square in the nose.  When she crumpled to the ground he began kicking her in the stomach over and over.

“You.  Fucking.  Bitches.  Are.  All.  The.  Same.” he said, punctuating each word with another kick.

A little more jarring and interesting of a read.  There is something happening there that the reader wants to understand and explore.  The characterization: a mild mannered IT guy, was in contrast to his character, a man who was angry enough at women to beat one before knowing whats happening.

So why do I bring this all up?  Because they are things to consider when you are making a character for a roleplaying game.  Roleplaying games are nothing but choices under pressure, so your character matters so much more than your characterization.

As a player in a roleplaying game, you are equal parts narrator as you are player.  We read stories to learn how the story begins and ends, how a characters arc ends, and to see how everything develops and changes as it goes on.  As a player in an RPG, if you have no character than your character becomes a dull narrator.  Everything is predictable.  We know almost everything about you before you begin.

If you make a character who everyone sees as a dark, brooding, tough guy and then he goes to his room in the castle and broods at the dark in a tough way?

You end up sitting at the table for a while not doing much.  You end up trying to pull character out of characterization and you end up bored because there is nothing left.  You spend all of your time focusing on what your character is like that you forget about who your character is.

I see this a lot when I watch people make characters.  They say:

“Oh!  I want to play this funny little guy who speaks with an accent and always has a smoking pipe in his mouth!”

“I’m going to play a fighter.  He was an orphan and war took his family from him.  He learned to fight to protect himself.”

“My cleric will be the most possible good in the universe.  She’ll help the needy, and feed the hungry.  Her god is Lawful Good.”

Those are awesome back story ideas, but if you focus only on those events you will quickly lose steam when it comes to interactions.

What I wish I saw more of:

“I want to play a gnome druid who used to be a local folk hero.  But his addiction pushes everyone else away, so he never lets anyone in.  He has to learn to overcome his addiction or risk being alone for the rest of his life.”

“I want to play a firbolg fighter who lost his parents to a bloody war.  The only language he knows is violence, and he’s going to have to learn to trust people and that harming others isn’t always the way.”

“My cleric wants to be a healer, but she learns during her first battle that she is terrified of fighting.  She wants to fight and protect the innocent, but is too paralyzed with fear to go out and do it.  She has to find the courage within her.”

Which sounds more interesting to you?

-DTM

Your GM Screen is More Important Than You

I’m now GMing two campaigns that have made it past their opening missions and will be delving into the world at large.  I have made a significant goof because I’ll never have free time again.

Its great inspiration for a dungeon crawl though.

 

But its fulfilling.  Its fun to write.  This medium is especially rewarding when your players are as into it as you are.  As a GM I really want to try and have my players be immersed, invested, and enabled.  But GM styles are for another post!  Probably sooner than later since I love talking about RP games.

A big part of my work is trying to be prepared for my players, as well as enhance their experience.  I am constantly trying to find new ways to improve the game play and the flow.  When something trips us up, I try and remember it so I can brainstorm how to move past it.  As an example, I do “ratchet battle maps” with tiny grid paper and thumbtacks.  I recently bought a new compliment of colored travel pins, just so everyone can be a different color instead of everyone being the same color with numbers drawn next to them.

I felt that the GM screen I had didn’t have the things I wanted on it.  One of my great investments of the year was commissioning and purchasing a wooden GM screen from our friend Mark.  He’s damned good at wood work.  I designed a GM screen with the ability to change inserts and paid Mark to build it for me.

So now I have it and I produced my own Rogue Trader inserts.  The information I want is now readily at hand.

Since I started GMing Dungeons and Dragons (5th Edition) at Nemo, I have slowly been brainstorming designing my own inserts for that game as well.  Then I started thinking about how interesting and powerful a concept the GM screen really is.

When I have to improvise, or assist a player in their task, my first instinct is to scan my GM screen for the information I need.  If I find it- great!  If I don’t, I make something up.  You should be improvising the story and interactions- not improvising the rules. Hear me out.

I’d guess that I’m approximately 75 – 80% fluent in the rules for Rogue Trader and coming up on that same fluency for DnD.  With that level of knowledge in my brain, its still strange that I look at the GM screen first, but I always do.  Like a spreadsheet “Where’s Waldo” I desperately skim my charts hoping to find the ruling I need.

What used to happen before was I wouldn’t find the information I’d need so I’d change the situation to suit the rules I had placed in front of me.  I could look it all up, but I don’t want to halt the situation so I can figure out if the penalty for juggling while on a motorcycle is -10 or -20.

“Oh wait- you want this to be a team attack?”

I made mention that I like to try and have the game-play be fluid so we don’t have to constantly open rule books and make judgment calls.  I want my players focused on role-playing, not focused on the rules.  This is what I wanted to get the custom GM screen for.  I want to think about the story, not be sitting there going “uhhhhh” while I try and find a ruling or a challenge level.

My GM screen has also quietly influenced which rules I use a lot and which I kind of let fall to the wayside (I find less important).  Narrative time movement as an example.  You go to the building, and I don’t really care how fast you get there in minutes.  My customized GM screen for Rogue Trader has also introduced a lot more elements to my GM style that I think enhances things.  For instance, the official GM screen for Rogue Trader doesn’t have a comprehensive list of the skills.  So I always had to try and recall the skill list when my players were trying to do something.  And I would constantly forget that some skills exist- like Inquiry or Logic- and I started letting players use other skills for that.

I’ve added my own list and now I use a wider breadth of skills that lets my players feel like their skill upgrades are more useful.  I’ve added the rule blocks for ship morale.  I’ve added the rules block for NPC disposition and information recall.  I’m sure for my players the experience rapidly shifted.  I have a lot more role-play and interaction rules directly in front of me, which I use to make my players make more nuanced choices.

I highly recommend you get a customizable GM screen if you run a campaign.  Think carefully on how you want your campaign played and structure your GM screen that way.  And you don’t even have to get a fancy hard wood one!  Customizable sleeve and white board screens exist.

I want to reiterate this sentence.

“What used to happen before was I wouldn’t find the information I’d need so I’d change the situation to suit the rules I had placed in front of me.”

I don’t think you should ever make an improvisational adjustment to a core scene or beat simply because you have the rules for shooting in front of you instead of negotiation.  You have carefully crafted your beats, scenes, and acts to have specific effects- changing them at the last second undoes all of your work and potentially fucks your story line up.

As an example:

“Your players walk into a bar to meet a man whom has information on the local port administrator whom is skimming tolls.  The players recognize the man and the very first thing that Soldier does is point a gun at him and threaten him.  Well- as the GM you were prepared for a negotiation, not intimidation.  So what do you do?  Glancing at your GM screen, you don’t readily see anything that helps you- but you do see the rules for grappling.  You think: ‘this really pisses the Man off, so he’s gonna retaliate with a grapple and a knife to the mans throat!  It’ll make a point of don’t fuck with me!’  Your NPC grabs the player, but then the rest of the players kill him.  Your whole scene went to shit because you had to improvise, you picked a convenient ruling not the correct one, and now everything is much harder because the NPC with the information died.”

“That ruined my mastah plan.”

The flavor of your campaign isn’t solely a vision in your mind or a glint in your eye.  Structure and story matter the most, but remember- in your moments where you are caught off guard by the situation, just remember where your eyes fall first and put the information you want there.  You want your improvisation to be supported by the rules, not have your improvisation affected by them.

And don’t put the grapple rules next to the NPC disposition chart.

-DTM

Writers Block?!

“I don’t believe in writers block.  Do plumbers get plumbers block?”

— Django Wexler

So writing has been my new big hobby.  I am now running two campaigns and write in one of two blogs each week.  I am slowly drafting a real book or novella.  I am in the middle of Story by Robert McKee, a book about crafting story and making the most of your words.

I was bound to encounter this writers block I kept hearing about.  And its proving a difficult thing to overcome!  Specifically I’m encountering this with the Rogue Trader campaign.  I have a ton of content written up already and is just waiting for me to flesh out, but the last story arc of the campaign is eluding me.  I’ve work-shopped it a couple times, and the ideas are pretty alright, but I’m having quite a time trying to fill out interesting and unique quests.

Past posts I’ve made have put forward the strong ideas I have about narrative and goals in story writing.  My goals for the Rogue Trader campaign are to have a campaign that my players have a vested interest in, and I always want it to be actionable by the players.  The moment that I run a campaign and I’ve talked for more than five minutes I feel like I’ve failed.  Its a role playing game, and I never want to have my players become bored listening to me talk.

I want to keep my players engaged, and much like a video game, I keep trying to play to their innate desires as characters and players.  Players want to have fun and do things while their characters can have fun, emotional arcs through the story.  My players with few exceptions give me very little to work on that front.  I’ve asked them for more to work with and I’ve begun role-playing exercises meant to try and make them think about their characters in complex ways.  However, this has availed me very little.

I press on though, and that’s suitable.  I feel like I’ve blown through all of my unique ideas though.  The remaining ideas I have for quests don’t align or link up to form grand, overarching ideas.  It feels mishmashed and I hate it.  The quests I want to write have interconnecting threads, themes, and motivations that make sense and are possible.

I don’t want to fill in the blanks with meaningless filler just to navigate towards something I want to do.  Tools like that cheapen the effect I’m going for.

I hate NPC’s that have emotions or motivations that translate to “convenient for the GM.”  Having combat encounters for the sake of keeping the players entertained is almost always a poor idea, at least in Rogue Trader.  If I have a hive gang attack because they are looking to score some cash, the players will assume that they must’ve been sent by somebody.

I can’t really elaborate on the questline I need to flesh out because one to two of my players read this and it would be wiiiiiiiiild spoilers.  I have some cool moments I want to navigate through and I don’t want to rob them of the experience.

There are a number of things I’ve read about doing to try and clear my problem but it doesn’t feel like it works.

  • Keep writing anyway.  Stuck on one part?  Write another until the problem clears itself up!

My issue is that my next big hurdle is campaign order and structure.  Which quests happen in which order.  Since I don’t even know what the individual quests hold, I can’t even do placeholders!  Maybe I’m over thinking it?

  • Back up and try something else.  Write a bunch of scenarios and see which one is the best!

This has failed me.  All the scenarios I write feel like they lose something personal and begin to feel like filler.  If a scene or an act doesn’t have a premise and a meaningful conclusion I feel like its pointless.  Now I get as a role-playing game these things can be fun because the players make it their own but all I keep coming up with is “Go to location.  Do the thing.  Return.”

But its Rogue Trader so I need to try and write things in such a way that the players don’t fly away out of boredom or blow it all to hell.  This is why Dark Heresy is the #1 Warhammer 40k system: there are no fucking spaceships.

  • Don’t try and jump in and write.  Make the outline, then the draft, then write it.

I love this one, and its how I actually usually write my quests.  This is what I’ve been currently trying but since I’m stuck with even the core idea of the quest line I still feel stuck, even when I begin to list out segments and settings.

On top of all of this: the campaign is continually marching on.  I can’t take a month to work on it since my players expect to play every other Saturday.  And if I take a month off to work on it, something else will fill that RPG void and I’ll lose my platform to run my campaign.

I acknowledge that I’m probably wildly overthinking this.  My difficult has always been brainstorming and coming up with ideas.  I’ve never felt deeply creative.  Many of my friends are an endless font of inspiration and ideas, but I feel like I struggle to even come up with set pieces.

My players are finally on the trail of the story at large.  I’m hoping this is the event that kicks my brain into gear.  I usually produce good work at the eleventh hour.  I learned this in college- all nighters were my bread and butter.  I don’t want to work that way, but we will certainly see what happens.

-DTM

Total Party Kill: How Did We Get Here?

This past Saturday I had to kill all of my players.

I was very worried because it was going to suck.  They had gone to a planet the previous session and then they were beset by a colossal creature from the clouds.  The Creature on Rain.

It was a perfect storm of unpreparedness, bad rolls, poor choices, and differing priorities.

As always: from the top.

When I had unleashed my party on the Koronus Expanse several of the players had interest in just sailing out into the infinite void and finding amazing things.  No matter how I explained it they never quite figured out that they can just sail into the void and discover systems.  So instead they took to information gathering: looking for rumors and discoveries that they could go and plunder.

As the GM I pointed out some “well known” planets.  These planets have legends surrounding them.  One was Burnscour, a planet just impossibly chock-full of shit that will kill you.  The expansion known as the Koronus Bestiary talks about vicious xenos creatures you can encounter, and a good chunk come from this single death world.

Another I posited was the planet Rain.  It used to have a settlement on it, but eventually a message was received from the planet.  I abridged the message to: “they are coming.  They are coming from the Rain.”   The planets colonies and population all vanished.  The book itself gives one paragraph as to what happened, enough to get a proper GM going.

I took what I found and created a monster fit to kill everyone who ever came to the planet.

The players weren’t exactly chomping at the bit to go, but they definitely made the comment that they want to eventually.

Back to the players.  Every time they were on Port Footfall, the character Zarko would search for information regarding alien worlds with valuable artifacts.  Befitting of his backstory, I would start to seed in some hooks.

Enter another player, Brute Wang, had helped the player look around for rumors, maps, or coordinates.  Over the course of a couple sessions Brute rolled well enough to forge a map that led to Rain.  Not by name, just by location.  Rain is a pretty infamous and feared location in the Koronus Expanse, and with the help of an NPC Chaotic was easily able to glean the coordinates.

Eventually Chaotic planted this map on a hooker.  The hooker eventually encountered the Rogue Trader in the party and gave him the map, who he then gave the map the Zarko.  They both rolled to see if the map was legit, failed spectacularly, and the map was deemed trustworthy.

They took the map to their Navigator who said he could take them there.  I prompted everyone to roll Common Lore: Koronus Expanse.  The coordinates are fairly well regarded since no one returns.

Not a single players who could have learned that lore by now bothered to take it.  I guess they were all concerned with getting their stats higher.

So they went to Rain.  And the very moment they entered the Warp to travel there I knew I was going to have to kill them.

Kill-Them-All

They arrived at the planet, gave it a cursory scan, and landed near three abandoned research posts.  They had all been torn apart during a previous attack as everyone tried to flee.  The players reactivated three vox communication arrays and the final message was relayed as an S.O.S.

“They are coming.  They are coming from the Rain.”

In between relaying that message and the attack itself I had to prepare for the next session.  A session where they would all die unless they were tremendously lucky.

I wanted it to be drawn out.  I wanted to evoke hopelessness and futility.  I definitely did not want this to be fun.

I can’t say too much about the Creature, but it vastly overwhelmed them.  It had the ability to send out smaller versions of itself.  They manifested as flyers, or the slower husk forms that were humanoid in appearance.  The players promptly made a break for it, but their ship was low enough in orbit to be sensed by the Creature.  Half the party made it back to the ship and blitzed for the command deck.  They all started individually being pulled down and suffocated- with the pilot and the navigator finally succumbing near the deck itself.

The second half of the party made it onto the ship but were overwhelmed by the smaller creatures that spawned.  They all died.  Zarko was the final one to succumb.

I had them all one by one turn their character sheets face down.  I wanted to have a discussion.  A talk about what they are doing and how they ended up here.  The party isn’t working together.  There are no discussions.  Half of my players just sit idly by while the other half makes decisions for them.  Decisions that got them killed.

Granted some of my players aren’t present all the time, but as the GM it did not look to me like this party should even still be together.  I had wrongly guessed that I could unite them with a rescue job when we started, but none of my players seem to have made any effort to really learn or interact with other characters.   Hell, one of the players had forged the damn map.

I’m sure that if I voiced this to the players many would protest, but talking about your characters as players is not the same as characters talking with other characters.  I falsely believed that we could have a party where there was no established leadership, but it was brought up that it was likely needed.  I had thought my players would be willing to speak up, deliberate, plan, and work together.  They don’t do this that often.  I have a couple of serious roleplayers, a couple of wannabe-power gamers, and couple people who are just there to hang out.

They lack self preservation, aren’t taking skills they could be using, and are presently aware that they are just numbers on a page.  I’m not going to sit down and chide them for playing how they want to play but they dove in headfirst into a TPK without research or preparation.

They asked no one on port whether they recognized this map.  They failed their checks yes, but even if I say “the map looks legit” doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do more research.  That’s where the “its a game” aspect comes into my players minds.  They don’t need to research.  Its a game so self preservation is worried about when its needed.

I’m debating having a structured conversation about this with them.  I think having all died once will make them take more deliberate steps with things.  We shall see.  Hopefully the TPK is a shake up and gives them a banner to unite under.

I ended up saving them.  One of their NPC’s had unparalleled connection with the Warp and used her own life force to push the Creature’s daemonic consciousness away.  She ended up dying as the cost of bailing them out.

-DTM

“We’re done. We’re ready for whatever…”

That was said to me by some of my players last session.

Maybe not verbatim but definitely that meaning.  They were done doing stuff and were ready for whatever I had in store.

This really disheartened me.  And in some ways it confused me.

During my last post I talked about how they finished the first quest and they were free to roam the Koronus Expanse.  And I was really excited about this because it means I didn’t have to railroad them.  I didn’t have to explicitly control what they do.

I wanted them to feel slightly underpowered in the beginning.  I gave each of them a boon (kinda like a wish) and they each got some totally bitching archeotech (analogous to magical items) equipment.  So now they are powerful, they are much richer, with a spaceship that they had to work together to protect.

It also meant that I could slow down the missions and take more time to write them since my players have the option of fucking off around the Koronus Expanse.  I prepared a lot of star systems to explore so that there were real things they could encounter.

I wrote missions and populated a job board for them with options.  Quests they could take to represent people coming to the party and looking for explorers to hire.

I prepared a lot for the first session of freedom in the Expanse.  We sat down and I presented them with their badass equipment.  I was eager to see what they wanted to do.  After most of an hour they all sort of just looked at me.

“We’re ready for whatever.”

I-

What?

You can do whatever you want?  I’m taking my hands of the wheel for the first time.  Does no one have anything they want to do?  I think in the moment my façade broke and my exasperation showed.  Not a single player in seven had something they wanted to pursue.  The players talk a lot but I was hoping this was the moment that character building moments and events could take place.

After I prompted them they finally decided on a mission.  But I’ve been thinking about that moment all week.

Maybe the issue is that the world is too big?  The ‘blue sky’ problem definitely comes up.  When someone comes up to you and says, “You can do whatever you want!” you get far more intimidated and stumped than when someone says, “Choose A or B.”

A bit of it must be that the people aren’t familiar with the Universe.  And there isn’t shit I can do about that.  The lore is all available but I’m not going to demand that they read it all.

Also the fact that its a sci-fi universe is more difficult as well.  Dungeons and Dragons should just be called “Familiar and Safe Tolkien Fantasy Tropes.”  Its way easier to function in DnD campaign because its much smaller in scope.  A sci fi universe typically involves spaceships and galaxies.  You don’t have magic to rely on, you have to get clever with your thinking and how you use technology.

Part of the opening missions was teaching them about the various things that can be done.  How to information gather, negotiate, evaluate stuff.  I was hoping that would carry over but maybe they thought the only reason we were doing this was for a specific events.  I suppose I can still be explicit about what needs to be done but I want to put currency back in the players hands by pitting them against interesting challenges.  If I write the challenge and then prompt them on how to beat it its less satisfying for them.

I think in my effort to teach everyone first and let them free second I’ve accidentally set up a standard of “you don’t need to do anything because its all preordained.”

On another level I think that some of the players aren’t really fully invested.  No one asked me to run a campaign because they wanted one.  I decided to run one and asked who wanted to play.  And that distinction is important.

Ellis is going to run a Dungeons and Dragons 5.0 campaign and some players seem to be much more excited.  They are really diving into the rule books and looking at how their character is going to develop.  This is a campaign that people asked Ellis to do, so they are far more excited.

This isn’t a bad thing but I think my Rogue Trader campaign isn’t necessarily a huge deal.  Saturdays (when we play) isn’t necessarily “we play Rogue Trader on Saturdays” as much as it is “we all hang out on Saturday and play Rogue Trader.”  It seems the same when its written but the difference is that for some of my players they don’t care if we play or not.  Hanging out is what we do on Saturdays.  They don’t look forward to playing Rogue Trader, they look forward to hanging out.

Hell, one of my players brought board games to play when he came to session on Saturday “in case we didn’t play.”

In the end we have fun and that’s what I prioritize.  I have fun and I think most of my players do.  Their personal engagement might not align with mine but in a group of seven players its probably hard for all of them to be on the same page.  Writing for Rogue Trader has been a fun and unique challenge.  Learning to manage my players and expectations will just be a new challenge.

And don’t get me wrong, some of my players get really invested in certain scenarios and that’s so much fun for me to write for.  Its a mixed bag but hopefully with time everything will be sculpted into a deep, rich campaign.

I just wasn’t ready for, “We’re done.  We’re ready for whatever…”

-DTM