Sunday, July 24, 2011

Cherry Blossom Rain: Session 2 and the yips

Do you know what the yips are?  It's when someone who's really good at something, usually sports, suddenly loses his touch.  A perfect pitcher suddenly throws homers, a wide receiver suddenly can't catch, and so on.  When I was in highschool, I had the yips really badly in my summer year: I went from one of the best discus throwers on my team to the guy who literally couldn't get a throw out of the ring at a single competition.  It was terrible, and to this day, I don't know what I was doing wrong.

I've found myself wondering if I'd have the yips as a GM lately.  Some of my players will look at me like I'm mad, but the truth is, I'm certain my WoD: Witchcraft game wasn't great, and my WotG game wasn't what I wanted it to be.  I know the techniques, and I can talk the talk, but I find myself wondering if, perhaps, I've lost the ability to walk the walk.  On the one hand, it might be absurdly high expectations: I want all my games to be "great" while greatness is ultimately subjective (Most people will agree when something is bad, or when it's good, but greatness goes a little beyond that, and it's often in the eyes of the beholder), and so when I fail to get a jump up-and-down reaction from my more experienced players, I feel like I'm doing something wrong, when I'm probably not.  So perhaps it's in my head.

Well, if I had the yips, they're gone now.  I hit every note I needed to in this last session, and more than that, I proved to myself that the techniques I've been studying have been paying off.

First, I've felt for some time that if you have sufficient advanced material, that prepping and planning the game itself should be relatively easy.  Now, while I had plenty of time to put this game together, I procrastinated (as I usually do when my focus is elsewhere), and ended up spending 30 minutes right writing out some thoughts I'd had the other night before I zipped off to the game.  Despite my almost complete lack of preparation, I still had a really good game.

The players started off in the Kurosawa Castle, guests of Ren and Lord Kurosawa again.  I reintroduced Sano (rudely), and then brought the characters together.  Hitting the high points:

  • After seeing a doctor for his wounds, Kenta (Raoul) went to train with Yudai and then (spectacularly) lost a duel to Yoshiro, the Senshin Swordmaster.  Sakura (Maartje) also practiced with Yoshiro, but was too busy fluttering her eyelashes at him and blushing to actually fight, and lost twice.  
  • Meanwhile, Yukiko (Desiree) slipped and fell while waking down the hallway and smacked her face against a wall while alone with Ren.  It totally happened! (It did!  Desiree had been cursed by the "Mud Girl" as she keeps calling her (she's noted down in my notes as "the Witch of Jukai"), and so I made her take a "Walking down the hallway" roll, at DX +10, and then used the curse to turn her success into a failure and give her a point of damage).  Naturally, nobody believed her, so Shinji, resident Nice Guy of the Mitsurugi Dragon Guard flew to her defense and was going to challenge Ren before Kenta socked him in the face and told him not to screw up negotiations.  It's good to be Daimyo, I suppose.
  • Yamato (Hugo) negotiated an alliance with Lord Kurosawa in the face of Tsao Bei (evil Chinese diplomat!), who brought Dark Shota and the Executioner with him.  In addition to agreeing to give Lord Kurosawa some important position in the future shogunate, he also arranged to marry someone to his youngest son (Sano).
  • Desiree decided to have a tea ceremony, so obviously everyone had to come.  She got to play dress up (Fashion Sense gives a +1 reaction modifier if you dress yourself or others well, and I required descriptions.  She was more than happy to oblige), and she even made Kyo look really pretty.  At the Tea Ceremony
    • Someone tried to poison Yoshiro, but Ren protected him.
    • Kenta agreed to marry Kyo to Sano, much to her dismay.
    • Yoshiro reacted... passionately to this revelation, leading Sakura to suspect that he was in love with Kyo, must to her dismay (Sakura's dismay, not Kyo, we don't know how Kyo feels about that, she was too busy freaking out about being married off).
    • There was much drama.
  • That night, ninjas attacked!  Fortunately, Kenta, Sakura, and Senshin no Oni (!) showed up to defend him.  Senshin no Oni revealed that Tsao Bei was attempting to grievously wound the swordmaster, knowing that the Senshin would never leave him behind and it would slow down their movement.  He also revealed what he had learned while prowling the city, giving them some clues on where they might find Kimiko.
  • Desiree found the carefully preserved bedroom of Akane, Ren's older sister who was executed for treason against the emperor.  When he discovered her, he wasn't angry, as his servants expected, merely very sad, and asked her to play her samisen for her.  She agreed.
Naturally, I'm leaving out some of the details.  A few important things came out of this session.  First, I've been trying to explain the importance of beauty and elegance in the setting, but this session served as an excellent demonstration of that, with a sudden focus on Desiree's tea ceremony skills, her make-up skills, her fashion sense, and Maartje's calligraphy, and everyone's savoir-faire (only Kenta screwed up his roll).  Second, I wanted this game to very much be an exploration of Japanese culture, and Hugo's demonstration of tea ceremonies for the rest of us did a good job at that. Finally, I've taken Walter's sage advice to heart.  You see, I'm terribly fond of having multiple, interwoven stories and that often involves separate scenes for each character.  This can have wonderful results, but as he once said "Dan, your stories are great to watch, but they're even more fun to interact with."  I made a point of allowing anyone to jump in on anyone else's scene, and the result was that you got crossover much faster while nobody lost their moment in the spotlight.  You could see the multiple threads and interact with them, which I think partially explains the success of the session.

What stuck out to me was the interaction I had with the players.  Normally, you don't see players this invested in characters and storylines until midway through the campaign.  This campaign shows the dividends of my work to make sure that I can have "maximum impact in minimum sessions," and I thought I had failed (it turns out that there's a certain "minimum" players need to grasp what the hell is going on), but clearly, I hadn't.  I can't stuff "the feel" of a full campaign into a single session, but apparently I can reach that point in two.  Raoul argues that it's because I have an all-star cast of players, and that's certainly a contribution.  Raoul himself, for example, has deeply studied my setting and my characters and is highly invested in the game, and Desiree is used to falling into character for one-shot LARPs, but I'd like to think that the work I've put into the setting helped.

Once, during the development of 4e, a D&D designer invited his wife to sit in on a D&D playtest and watch.  He asked her opinion, and she said "It looks like 4 hours of work for 30 minutes of fun."  I've been trying for a long time to improve that ratio, so players don't feel like they have to slog through 4 hours of crap to have a little fun at the end.  After I realized that we'd played for 4 hours and I'd only had 30 minutes of prep, I commented to Bee "I had 4 hours of work that only cost me 30 minutes of work." :)

I think the lessons learned here are clear: Pick your players and match them well to your game.  All the work you do in advance will save you work in the long run, and the fact that I can simply run with little to no prep means I'm not stressed before the session.  Allow PCs to interact with one another, and encourage them to stay in the vicinity of one another so that they can do so.

This is what I wanted from my sessions, and now my players can see where I'm going with it.  And it passed the "player gab" test, since people were apparently chatting about it the next day.  Cherry Blossom Rain has officially taken flight.

Just a shame that Rene and Raymond couldn't be there to see it... on the other hand, they were sold on the game in session 0. :)
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