Today I'm going to talk about my biggest campaign mistake to date.
Premise - Pathfinder system, Fantasy setting.
Characters have amnesia, over the course of their adventures they uncover who they were, what they can do, and choose to forge a new path or renew their old goals. This was Pathfinder, so largely GM-led plots/stories with no Source the table/Ask the players for overall goal or scene elements (none of us had heard of that stuff at the time).
What worked - Players enjoyed uncovering the past of their characters, at first.
They enjoyed waking up as goo on a table and sliding into empty bodies in the room, and fighting their way to freedom.
What happened - Over time players became frustrated with some of their skills, feats & spells chosen for them, based on a background decided by the GM.
I should point out, I chose things I figured they would like by their previous characters and computer games they enjoyed.
What went wrong - This was Pathfinder. They whinged and agonised over class-race-feat build combinations and were very unhappy they did not design them from the start, and could not tweak them at every level.
Since the characters did not know each other, they didn't care about each other either. There was no team comradery and little social interaction.
What we can learn...
- Players have to be on board at the start. They don't have to know every detail of every major event, but they need a solid grasp of the premise and most likely directions.
- Choose the system for the plot. I can see the premise working well in a Liminal, Monster of the Week or even Trophy, but less so D&D, Pathfinder or Shadowrun.
- Players' lack of control would have been lessened if I sourced the table/asked the players to help detail individual scenes, but I didn't know about that technique at the time.
- The degree of memory loss could have been less, for example they could have forgotten anything from night time in the last year, instead of 3 years of their life.
- Choose the system for the GM. My GM style was always more focused on story than system, and my frustration with the crunch focus of Pathfinder was growing. I wanted Classes, Monsters & Items to be more customisable with what fit in the story, but not by adding a ton of splat books.
A decade ago I ran a campaign we called "Last Fleet". I started with a basic idea: a fantasy riff on Battlestar Galactica-- more the original than the modern. We began with a Microscope session where players built the history of a world, starting with it’s shattering and separation into isolated sphere containing floating islands. Swashbucklers of the Seven Skies was one of my touchstones for this.
Players then crafted backgrounds for the peoples they wanted their character to come from, using the “What My XXX Told Me…” formula from Glorantha. For system we used our house game, Action Cards, a card-driven rpg with some Fate elements. Players started with a basic idea for their character’s profession and I wrote up powers based on those ideas. As we played I generated new stunts, items, and abilities based on where they saw their character going-- giving them several hard choices because they couldn’t have everything.
Session one started with a bang, with a host of vessels fleeing a world-destroying big bad. The fleet came under siege as they attempted to breach the barrier surrounding their world. The session’s play determined which peoples survived, what resources they had, and in what shape they were. The first arc of the story was about the transit through the wildspace between the world fragment spheres-- a place which made them ill and had its own perils. The second arc was about them finding another sphere, entering it, and discovering the peoples and politics of a new land. The final third was about them fighting the oppressive forces on both sides and realizing what they needed to do to restore the world to its previous whole state.
It was a great campaign, spanning three years I think. It’s probably in my top five of campaigns I’ve run. It wasn’t the longest, but in many ways it was the most directed and coherent. It also showed the power of Microscope in creating cool, playable material. All the PCs had great arcs where they grew and changed, evolving into very different people than they’d originally concieved. The late game had a nice balance between adventures in the greater world and stories within the community.
It was also, I won’t lie, a lot of work. Every couple of sessions I had to design new character options. The on-the-fly development also meant that the balance wasn’t always the greatest-- I had a hard time telling what represented a decent combat threat vs. an overwhelming one. I also a lot of plots spinning-- tensions and conspiracies within the players’ community, decisions over resources, two different enemy empires plus a returning big bad.
The final session involved, essentially, the PCs realizing they had to blow up the broken world in a particular way to restore things. They had great arguments about that-- uncertainties what things would look like in the future. But we had a massive final battle which allowed them to deal a final blow to all of the foes who pursued them. They blew up the world and found themselves in an echo of their community, now in a world reassembled and whole. And there I stopped.
And here’s the problem. I had steered the game to its ending, run an awesome climactic scene, and wrapped everything up with a bow. And I was done.
But the players weren’t. I’d run myself ragged with this world, but the players had also invested in it. I didn’t give that the weight I should have. I gave a brief closing scene and then moved on. I’d done that in lots of campaigns, even in several multiple-year ones. Give them a great finale, stick the landing, and fade to black. My justification was that by closing things out there, players could imagine whatever future they wanted. They could keep their own head canon.
That’s weak sauce.
A while after the game the players hinted at wanting something to close out their stories, but I put them off. By the time I’d come around at all to the idea, that iron had cooled. It wouldn’t be until a few years later that I’d encounter rpg epilogues-- used as a consistent, regular part of your games. While I’d seen it at Games on Demand, it was Rich Rogers who showed me how potent these could be at the table. Now I always use them-- in one-shots, short-campaigns, and longer games. When you finish give players the chance to narrate something about their future-- to write their own final scene.
I regret my choice with Last Fleet-- and the untold, unfinished stories of those characters. It’s a knot which will never be tied. I did those PCs and players a disservice.