Session Notes, "Edge Of The World," Session 1: Starting A Campaign

Operating on the theory that my prep-tools, in game techniques, and mistakes will be helpful to somebody, this is a “how it went in my head vs. how it went on game night” rundown of a session from my current campaign. I plan to run more of these every Monday through September. Thursday posts will still be the “hands on” stuff.

Click here for a page containing the complete series.

Campaign background 
Edge Of The World is a Pirates x Mythology setting with mid-fantasy elements. Pretty much a mashup of swashbuckling, gods, satyrs, gunpowder, clockwork, elves, dwarves, and cat-girl belly dancers. We created it for one group member’s campaign several years back, of which this campaign is a resurrection – which has its own set of problems but has been very rewarding overall.

Most everyone who helped create this world was back in town for a while (and the original GM was literally in Australia, tee hee), so I figured it would be a good time to lead a trip back there.

Prepping Tool: Start With Structure
After I’d made a big picture outline with my own pirate-campaign ideas, and hosted a proto-session where I polled the group for theirs, I made a basic outline for the first play session.

  • Individual roleplay scenes where a mysterious messenger delivers each PC a letter from their old captain. 
  • The party meets up in Tortuga (which exists at the center of the pirate trade in every universe, obviously) to discuss the quest and decide where to go first. 
    • Lots of info-NPCs in Tortuga for them to consult during plan-making 
    • Lots of plot hooks in Tortuga for side-plots and secretly-important plot threads they can get wrapped up in.
    • Keep up my sleeve in case they’re moving slow: plot twist where the danger comes to them
  • On to the next location – if they haven’t chosen one lead by now, I’ll push one harder than the others.
Note this is not scripting. This is preparing in case they didn’t get much initiative going – which can be a big concern in first sessions. I was willing to throw this outline away, of course, if the players decided to go somewhere I didn’t expect.

Crafting Scenes: Individual Character Openings
I asked each player what his character was doing when he received the letter (The players had received an actual copy of this letter as an invitation to the proto, so they already knew what it said), then I ad-libbed a form for his “messenger” to take. (They didn’t know yet that all the messengers were the goddess Calypso, who was personally interested in the captain’s quest.)

Then we’d ad-lib a short scene. I knew I wanted this message delivery to shake up the characters’ lives, so I just played off whatever they gave me. Sylvienne (get to know the cast here) was enjoying life as respectable scholar, so Calypso became a mischievous pickpocket. Bo was enjoying two tavern wenches at once, so Calypso became his broom-wielding landlady. Habakkuk was rock-bottom drunk in an alley, so Calypso became a kindly old lady who helped him get back on his feet. And Savio was impressing girls with his tall tales, so Calypso became ultimate challenge – a gorgeous broad who’s unimpressed by his stories.

This techniques successfully got the players engaged and gave everybody a chance in the spotlight – plus a chance to “make” the GM participate in a scene they’d created.  (see a cool video about this technique here by Robert J. Freemantle)


MISTAKE: I didn’t give our new player (PC: Karn) one of these scenes because, as a new character, he wouldn’t have received the letter. But since he was a new player joining an established group, I should have made extra effort to integrate him with the group and his character with the party. Ultimately that integration was never solidly made, and my oversight here was certainly part of the issue.


GM Power Tool: Description 
Now for a scene I had created: Tortuga, the city of doubloons. The heart and stock exchange of the thriving black market. The smuggler’s paradise. A place where the only law is that of competing pirate cartels. In Tortuga, everything is for sale: slaves, spices, potions, contraptions. There are mercenaries, fortune tellers, cartographers, entertainers, and wizards for hire.

This kind of description is awesome for encouraging player creativity. It makes the place feel real, and gives the players plot elements they could pursue, even though, it’s really nothing but notes.

Letting Players Add to Canon
After describing Tortuga, I put them at a table in a tavern. They jumped into roleplay: reminiscing with each other, order food, puzzling about the letter.

In the letter their old captain, Eleazar Balboa, claimed to be writing from beyond the grave. He said he’d been onto something big before he died – and that he needed them to pick him up from Lasthaven (the Neptunian afterlife) so they could continue the quest together.

I expected them to ask an NPC (maybe a fortuneteller or a wizard) whether there’s a way to Lasthaven. Instead, someone suggested they follow Balboa’s actual course – after all, there were rumors of strange omens in the direction he had last gone (the player made this up – and I allowed it to become canon). Another said there was a legend about a pirate, the ‘mad captain,’ who could supposedly sail anywhere – even beyond the normal rules of time and space (ditto – because these ideas add hooks and color, and don't’ necessarily advantage the players much, I allowed them).

And here I had worried that my letter had forced too much of a storyline on them! Instead, giving them a strong central idea inspired them to contribute their own ideas about how they wanted to pursue it.

GM Technique: Introducing a New PC
I had our new group member’s PC, the Fair Lady, burst into the tavern waving a similar letter, demanding to know which of these “lubbers” was her “fiance’s” old shipmates. So in addition to the surprise that the newcomer was playing a girl, the group was surprised that Balboa even had a fiancĂ©. She confidently took over the meeting and informed them that she’d be leading the expedition. After all, Balboa’s ship, the Elusive, had come to her, unmanned, which she took to be an omen (again, making up canon)

This memorable entrance instantly defined this character’s role in the group.
  
Ad-Lib Technique: Catching Player Curveballs
By now, the players had taken over the story. Then the Fair Lady added yet another player-created plot element to the mix. In addition to her letter, she said, she had received a map that no-one could make any sense of. Again, the player had made this up – but this time it made things a little difficult for me.

The problem was I wanted this map to be significant, but I also didn’t want to decide for them which course of action they should follow – whether to follow Balboa’s course or to seek the mad captain – by having the map point toward one or the other. I thought they should decide that for themselves, based on which option they liked more.

So I decided that the map should stay unreadable for a while – and by the time they managed to read it or find someone who could, it would add important information to whichever option they liked more at the moment. (In honor of the player who threw me this curveball, I dub this GM technique “Russell’s Map” – an item that helps the party toward one course of action after they decide to take that course of action.)

Pacing Tool: Don't Let Them Stand Still Too Long - Bring The Danger To Them
Enough talk. I felt it was time for me to make a move. They emerged from making their plans in the Elusive’s cabin, and they found officials from one of the pirate cartels (the Red Flag, aka the Order of Osiris) waving a search warrant. They had magically detected the presence of “contraband” on the ship (the mysterious enchnated map – see how I incorporated that into the story right away?) and were demanding to come aboard.

Bo promptly swung down from the rigging and sliced through all the ropes holding them to the dock. I had a brief internal argument with Mr. Realism, but then they were sailing jauntily away. Because that’s the kind of thing pirates should be able to do.

This was a juicy twist because they had suddenly become fugitives from a powerful organization. I had the red flaggers cast a homing mark onto the ship before it got out of range.

Hazard: Speed Bump
As they pulled off, the Fair Lady had yanked the nearest official on board (player asked if the official could please be far enough up the plank to do this, and I said yes).

They were betting he was after their mysterious map, and hoped he could tell them something about it. But they ended up just arguing about what to do with him, and, after throwing his magical instruments overboard, tied him to something buoyant and dumped him over too.

The whole thing was kind of pointless, except as an opportunity for the characters to roleplay and sort out some kind of command hierarchy.

GM Mistake: Failing To Push The Envelope = Lame
I could have had the Red Flaggers catch up in the harbor and done a ship battle – all as a result of Bo’s recklessness. In retrospect, I should have used that trick to interrupt the party's argument.

But I just had the goddess Calypso blow their ship supernaturally fast out of the harbor. Was this a cheap fix? In one way, no – the players were primarily interested in getting to the next place and seeking out some plot info at this point, so I thought I’d avoid a lengthy combat encounter. But in another way yes – because I didn’t make it spectacular. I should have described the Red Flags bearing down on them, let them scramble around deck readying gunns, then suddenly have the sails puff out, the masts start creaking, spray start exploding over the bows as the ship is driven to her limits. That would have been good… as it was, they knew there was something more than just GM intervention going on, but it was also kind of forgettable.

Ad-Lib Technique: Let Players Decide Next Location
They had taken off without any supplies and were now wanted by one of the trade guilds. One of the players said, “I know a man who will help us, on the nearby island of Queenston.” Brilliant.

He didn’t give any details on this character, and I realized it’s my job to put dressing on the bones of the players’ “what to do next” ideas – just like they’re putting dressing on my campaign concept. So I pulled my favorite NPC ever, Simon Pors.

They landed on Queenston and stopped in to ask Simon if there were any good cartographers in the area. He pointed them to one that specialized in antiques.

Technique: Transplanting the NPCs
I’d had plenty of cartographers/fortunetellers/scholars/magicians in Tortuga to answer all the party’s questions (which way to go, any clues about the map, etc.), but the party had just left! The solution? Move those same NPCs to Queenston.

Remember, this isn’t a video game where items and characters exist in one place which the player has to find. If the players don’t find a plot element in one location, then, effectively, it never existed there. Move it somewhere else, and they’ll just think they came to the right place!

BUT, so it wouldn’t feel like a “back where we started,” moment, I ramped up the stakes in Queenston.

GM Technique: Rack Up The Stakes, and End With a Cliffhanger
They arrive at the cartographer’s shop, only to find it ransacked and old MacDuff the cartographer half-unconscious. They had the map out already and after a little confusion, MacDuff explains that the thieves had just taken a collector’s item... that looked just like the players' map!

Had there been another map like theirs before?  No - even their map hadn't existed until Russell made it up!  So what's one way to make a player-created element be unpredictable and surprising?  Make it part of a set - and make bad guys that are after it.

Overall Notes
This session was strongly dependent on player-created ideas – which was delightful for a first session. Next week I plan to hit them with crunchier situations – put them more into the “react” role.

What I did right: the players came into it knowing the main idea of the campaign: helping an old friend by going to the edge of the world.

Things I need to do better at: encouraging players to address their plans to each other, not to me, because I’m not a referee or a chaperone, passing approval on every move they make. Rather, they’re collectively Player 1, and I’m Player 2; every time they make a move, I make a move.