Monday, December 03, 2007

What Went Wrong

or Why Jeff Got Burnt Out

I'm starting to suspect that I unintentionally set myself up for failure over the course of the last few campaign attempts. Simple common sense indicates that I should have taken a good long break after Wild Times, my 18-month 3.5 campaign. It was a lot of fun but it was also a lot of work. I didn't because I was riding a very good vibe and didn't want to give that sensation up. So I tried soldiering on and the result was a series of half-baked campaigns that had strong moments and weak moments: Sky Pirates of Eberron, Beyond Vinland, and Rebel Scum. I should probably also throw my Home Team superhero outing onto the smoldering pile of relatively recent campaign corpses. Simple exhaustion was clearly a factor at work, but I think other problems also contributed to me taking a time out on GMing.

What made Wild Times work and the others not so much? Let's take each of the others in turn and try to find their weak points.

Home Team: Tried two systems (Heroes Unlimited, Mutants & Masterminds) and wasn't comfortable with either. Building opposition was a chore. I still don't know how to construct effective adventure sessions that emulate superheroics.

Sky Pirates: Building opposition was a chore. None of the published adventures enthused me. The aerial pirate angle was not completely thought through. Part of the group wanted to ignore the hierarchy of shipboard life, the other part wanted to use it as a springboard for inter-party rivalry. Personal issues beyond the scope of the campaign also intruded.

Beyond Vinland: Building opposition was a chore. Adapting a published adventure felt a bit like cheating when I was trying to develop my own setting. Not using published adventures increased the workload considerably and each week I had to choose between working on the next adventure or fleshing out the campaign world.

Rebel Scum: Building opposition was a chore. (See a pattern here?) Lack of familiarity with the non-D&D subsystems. Some difficulty lining up Star Wars style heroics with hack and loot oriented players.

Looking this list over, it feels like I ended up with the worst of both worlds. Heavy systems without the support of modules and such can work just fine, but not necessarily for me. Family commitments all too often trump prep time. Wild Times worked, at least in part, because I let published modules do the heavy lifting for at least the first half of the campaign. The Bandit Kingdoms, my most successful campaign of the 90s, worked because I was running AD&D and by then I could do many of the necessary operations in my head or just fudge it. Even then I ran some published stuff.

So I think going forward I need to look at running games where I rely heavily on product support, such as the string-of-modules-as-campaign model, or else I need to use systems that will not punish me as harshly for GMing on-the-fly. Star Wars Saga Edition is still super-cool in my book, but the product support isn't there the way it is with something like Traveller (which has the advantage of being both well-supported and suitable to seat-of-pants GMing). We had a lot of fun with 3.5, but for it to work for me I need a stack of adventures to serve as a jumping off point. Or I can dump product support and run simpler systems like OD&D, Encounter Critical, or Traveller sans the 3rd Imperium support. Another option in the supported column would be the Plot Point books for Savage Worlds. I have one entry in the series, Andy Hopp's Low Life. It is a true gem. And Savage Worlds is pretty forgiving on improvisational GMing.

So I guess right now I see three categories of games that I could run: Heavy, But Supported; Light and Improvisational; and Light and Supported. Each has its advantages. My current playgroup has been very fond of the whole "game mastery" concept associated with 3.x play. They enjoy optimizing characters and becoming savvy with the combat rules. That suggests Heavy, But Supported would be well-received by the players. Light and Supported might also work, as the exploration-of-setting thing inherent to say, the Spinward Marches, might give them something else to grab hold of and wrestle to the ground. Light and Improvisational would probably be the hardest for the current group, as we've all been trained to think of the mechanics as What We Can Do. To be handed an OD&D fighter with no skills, no feats, no nothing and then be told to go do stuff might cause mental whiplash.

And now, a list:

Heavy, But Supported

3.0/3.5 with string o' modules, such as Dungeon Crawl Classics
3.0/3.5 with Wilderlands and/or Worlds Largest Dungeon
AD&D with string o’ modules
HackMaster w/modules

Light and Improvisational

Encounter Critical
Traveller w/homemade subsector

Light and Supported

OD&D with Verbosh and other musty old JG stuff
Gamma World 1st or 2nd with modules
Boot Hill with modules
Traveller w/3rd Imperium
Encounter Critical w/Asteroid 1618 & stuff
Savage Worlds w/Low Life or other Plot Point adventure
Marvel Superheroes w/modules
Rules Cyclopedia with modules & Gazetteers

The Traveller w/homemade subsector option could actually work as a conversion of the Star Wars campaign. Set the PCs loose in a subsector with the simple charge to "cause trouble for the Empire" and go. But if I was going to go with Trav, I also have a half-baked idea that could work to thematically tie together a string of modules set in the Spinward Marches.