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

 

 

 

Writing for Rogue Trader

I’m going to run a Rogue Trader game for my friends soon.  For those who don’t know: Rogue Trader is a role-playing game based in the Warhammer 40k universe.  You are a group of explorers headed into the Koronus Expanse: a part of the Milky Way galaxy far from the Imperium of Man.

You are given a holy Writ of Trade from the Administratum on Holy Terra.  With this Writ, you become an official Rogue Trader and have the influence and clout to represent humanity on the furthest fringes.

My role is the Game Master.  This is only my second time trying to do this with the first being a relative failure.

I have resolved myself to try harder on this one and press through even when its been pissing me off, like it thus far has been.

My current problem is that I hold myself to a high standard of game play.  I’m trying to write stories and missions with complex problems and innovative solutions.  I could write simple “go to place on map and kick serious ass” but that feels so basic.  Maybe its because I’m a starry eyed newbie GM, but I really want to involve my players in what’s going on in the universe.  I want them to feel like they are making a difference.

I want missions to end with them excited but maybe asking themselves questions.  Better yet, asking themselves if they did the right now.  I don’t like perfectly tied up endings.  We’ll see.

I am pretty outspoken against video games and how they tell their stories.  My main thing with most games that I complain about is that “they don’t know why people are still playing.”

I want to keep that in mind.  There will be missions that are fun for me to GM, and there will be missions that are fun for them to play.  I’ve asked my players to let me know what kind of stuff they wanna do just so I can swing into their wheelhouse.

Well the issue is, at this particular moment, only one of my players have chimed in and he gave a detailed idea of what he wants the game to be like.  Which is simultaneously helpful and hard to use.

So I’m writing the opening mission as just a fucking slew of different things.  Mostly to teach everyone the different types of challenges they will encounter, flying their spaceship, fighting in their spaceship, and fighting on the ground.  Exploring cities and exploring planets.  Interacting with the Imperium and the Underworld.

I’m still just trying to figure out a style to write into.  I got to find my voice.  I’m really good at the brainstorming part but pretty shit at the execution.  I’m hoping this helps me develop a muscle so I can become a pretty great GM.

I have to re-acquaint myself with the system.  I remember the broad strokes but this time I want to learn the universe so damn well that I can eventually just free ball missions and interactions.  There is a lot of lore which is to my benefit but its also going to be a problem.

My players have access to all the books and as previously mentioned, I haven’t read all of them back to front.  So they are likely going to try and derail me all the time.  That is there prerogative as players but I sense it might be annoying when I’m trying to craft large strokes of a story and someone wants to argue with me over the wording of an expansion book I’ve never read.

That’s where this is going to be an exercise in being adaptable.  Its already fucking happening.  I’m going to have to learn how to be a freakin’ politician.  When to appeal to my constituents and when to slap their wrist so they know not to fuck with me too much.

Oh my god I have to become my cat.

-DTM