Friday, May 27, 2016

Nobilis: Dealing with the Yips.

Often, in the course of giving another advice, I realize I should follow my own advice. I tried to talk +Raoul Roulaux, into posting to his blog, and I almost succeeded, but the discussion quickly turned into what was wrong with his GURPS campaign.  As we talked about it, as I offered him advice on how writing in his blog could help him formulate his thoughts, I realized that all of that same advice could apply to me.

See, I haven't run a campaign in over a year.  Part of it is surely the stress of changing career and relationships, but given the amount of time, energy and enthusiasm I can shower Psi-Wars, why can't I afford even the slightest smidge of attention for some previous campaigns that have laid fallow for a time?

My campaigns, even the short ones, tend to be very successful and get a great deal of love, but just as often, I'll abruptly stop running the game for reasons that are hard for me to quantify or explain, like an artist who suddenly flings his brush at a perfectly good painting, throws his arms up and storms out, and given that my players tend to invest heavily, I imagine this can be rather upsetting, so it's a trend I'd like to stop... but knowing that it's a flaw is one reason I am likely reluctant to invest in a campaign at all.  What happens if I conjure up something that delights my players, only to get frustrated and quit?  Easier to not start than to frustrate people.  Which is, at its heart, a good sentiment, but we can have a better solution: Even better to start and not frustrate people by seeing it through to the end, even if it's not the perfect ending.

The last campaign I ran was Nobilis.  If Raoul can blog about why his campaign fell apart and didn't work for him, I can do the same and, perhaps, find a solution that will both allow me to rekindle it (as I've had three players either strongly hint, or outright say, they'd very much like to start again) and ensure that I can see it through to its end.

What follows is the beginning of a journal of my attempt to get the campaign back off the ground, and to understand why my campaigns fail, and how I can prevent that in the future.


Tell Me About Your Campaign!

Jenny Cho
Alright, I'll probably spend the next few posts discussing my campaign detail as I rebuild the courage and attention to make it happen, but let's hit it in brief.

I wanted to explore Nobilis as a sort of Hipster Super-Heroes meet Adventure Time/Regular Show.  I wanted to mingle extreme mythic action with sarcasm, pop-culture references, meta-pop-culture-references with hints of the absurd and surreal.  The heart of it was to have vivid worlds that players would readily recognize, cool action players could connect to, and my own sense of humor (and tendency towards de- and re-construction) under it all as private jokes that some of my friends might actually get.

The campaign was named "The Price of Tea in Vancouver"

As players, I had the aforementioned +Raoul Roulaux as the Power of Adventure, Jimmy as the Power of Glory, Marjolein as the Powr of the Shinies, Michelle as the Power of Thrills, Anne-Marie as the Power of Secrets, and Wouter as the Power of Losers.

After much discussion, we came up with the Tacoma as their Imperator, and a part of the world was built on his spine (including Mount Ranier).  The game was set, appropriately enough for a game featuring hipsters, in Vancouver.

We had two sessions, a single arc called the Gospel of Jenny Cho, the eponymous Jenny Cho, who is looking to get a new job as a barrista, is confronted by her ex-boyfriend, who wishes to win her heart back with tickets to a concert featuring both Aquapunk (whom Jenny has never heard of, but he hadn't expected she would) and Avril Lavigne.  After brushing him off, she arrives to her job interview at Kafka's Coffee, only to have the wall crash in and to find herself snatched up by the monstrous Toyzilla, a ploy by the dread Viscount of Toys, Damien Bogsworth, to destroy (or at least distract) the Powers of the Tacoma while he solidifies his grip on Toyland ("The Socio-Political Discourses of Toyland").  The Powers set about trying to defeat Toyzilla and to rescue Jenny Cho, who is destined to be one of the Anchors of Jack, the Power of Adventure.

(The intent here was to give them an introduction into how the system, and combat worked, and how better to do that than to save a damsel in distress from a dragon?)

The battle culminates in the destruction of Toyzilla, and as it crashes into a warehouse, they discover the body of Abigail Ng, the Power of Tea and one of the powers of Kirin, the Koi Goddess.  The players investigated, only to have their investigation interrupted by Cameron Delacroix (whose dark tidings are brought by the wretched Thomas the Mouse), the secret Excrucian lover of Sebastian St Smythe, the Power of Glory, and Meon, Desecration's Regal (and a Power of Lord Entropy) who is hunting him, and Deadwood, the power of Death, who all start a grand battle-royale, as Meon is convinced the dread Cameron Delacroix has murdered Abigail Ng in an effort to wound Kirin, during which much of the evidence of who, exactly, killed Abigail Ng is greatly obscured.  After a confusing battle where everyone ends up fighting everyone while pretending to fight someone else, Cameron Delacroix is driven away.

The session ended with Jenny Cho returned home, only to have her memories wiped by a mysterious woman in red (but not before she had recorded what she needed to into a journal, the first chapter of the Gospel of Jenny Cho), and a call of the Powers of Vancouver to gather to discuss the murder of Abigail Ng, setting up a larger murder mystery that would let us delve into the politics of the Nobilis, the mystery of the Excrucians, adventure in strange pocket-worlds, and the curiosity of who the hell would buy Aquapunk tickets.

Where did it go wrong?

A couple players couldn't make it to the following session, which required me to throw out a bunch of my plans and start from scratch, and I couldn't get things together, and then I got distracted and/or ran away.

Why did it go wrong?  And how can you solve it?

Surprisingly, not in the complexity of the game.  Just digging over my notes is quickening the pace of my heart and making me want to dig more.  I love games with rich and unusual backgrounds and I've restrained myself from telling you much more about it, which suggests that the enthusiasm is still there.

That said, getting myself back into the swing of things will take quite some work.

Personal Pressure

I want my games to succeed.  I tend to have a great deal of energy and vision and I can see what I want it to be, but often reality doesn't match up, even after years and years of studying this particular art.  I want everything to work, and it can be exhausting and stultifying.  Nobilis is a beautiful game, a work of art, but one that's hard to bring across.  Thus, I worked hard to do that, and this caused a problem when I had a...

Player-GM Disconnect

I had a strong disconnect with two of the players, Wouter and Anne-Marie.  They're highly creative personalities that are used to writing their own games, and so their natural inclination is to criticize and rewrite (a sentiment I understand).  They also come from a LARP world which has entirely different demands and designs.  LARP tends to have a gentle GM hand and an emphasis on players creating their own story with one another.

I'm a very traditional GM, with a strong hand (at least initially) and, as a result of my overplanning, a huge world for people to explore.  My preferred way of running a game is to present that world and, once that world has been presented, allow them to explore this.  My approach is a strongly GM-driven approach. I definitely leave room for player interaction, but it comes in a different form.

Furthermore, neither is very pop-culture savvy, which means many of the references and inside jokes are lost on them.  They wouldn't enjoy the game I describe above.  To be fair, a lot of people wouldn't enjoy that game, but most of the players I picked, I picked because I thought they would. I misjudged what these two would enjoy (and they're not people I know very well).

I had struggled with a way to adjsut my game to fit their particular perceptions, but it would be easier and more fun for me to simply accept that what they want is different than what I want to build, and realize there's a GM/Player disconnect, and accept that, letting them go.

Session Planning

I hate session planning.  I can design a world no problem.  I can discuss themes and mechanics until the end of time.  But ask me to plan a session and I choke.

A session turns general concepts into specifics.  Suddenly I have to drill down on what will happen, and what sort of playground they will have.  Suddenly I have to make sure each character is definitively included.  A lot of GMs relax and just improvise as they go, but I'm not a master improviser, and others rely on their players giving a lot of feedback, but I often find that creates a feedback loop where I pay a lot of attention to a few characters and not to others.  A well-planned game will help you remember the quiet players as well as the loud players.

Finally, early sessions require building foundations that the players don't know, especially in that we're building this around a mystery, which means all of those clues need to be there, so what when the players look back, they can see where those were.

Most of the campaign structure was already in place.  Digging over my old notes, I can see quite a lot of it, though I may have lost/failed to record some of it, but I can reconstruct it without too much trouble.

My preferred solution to this would be to just plan a session, which is what I intend to do in the coming weeks, but I'd also like to plan ahead, but that's difficult to do given that players will always ruin well-laid plans.  However, it is possible to design resilient plans: Plans that are unlikely to change, or plans that can adapt to any change.  Examples include push diagrams (like the conspyramid) or NPC charts which are less plans and more designs on how the game could respond to players.  Another is a list of inspirations as to what you could do (Lady Blackbird takes this approach).

Moving Forward 

My actions seem clear:
  • Disinvite the problematic players.  They're not bad people, but in retrospect, my vision and theirs definitely clash.  They cannot enjoy the kind of game I'm constructing.
  • Perhaps invite new players who might fit better.
  • Write up a new session
  • Plan out material that will make the rest of the campaign easy to design sessions for
  • Chill

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