Session Notes, "Edge Of The World," Session 3

“Edge of the World,”  Session #3: Escape From Queenston

Want to see the GMGenie method in action? This post is a “how it went in my head vs. how it went on game night” rundown of a session from my latest campaign – click here for the complete series. Watch for new Monday posts about my prep tools, ad-lib techniques, and mistakes.
Breaking the Stagmate
…That’s one of my own words.  It’s when the players talk about a plot element so much that it becomes a feedback loop where they end up talking about it for way longer than their characters probably would.  And it’s not really a stalemate because that would be where they can’t make a move.  This is where the action has stagnated because no-one will make a move.  So Stagmate.

Anyway.  We open with the party standing on the dock, just like we left off, wondering how to get on board the Elusive now that there are two big Order of Osiris galleons moored on either side of her. 

They start kicking a lot of ideas around – too many to think that they’d realistically stand in the open talking that long – so I decided to give them a shove.  I roleplayed MacDuff a little.  While everyone was talking, he’s taken the maps out of his pack and found that they’ve fused into a single parchment.  They’re now giving off an aura that Sylvienne can sense without even trying – probably the same kind of energy that attracted the necromancer-thieves to MacDuff’s shop in the first place.  So the party decides that they’re too detectable here and they better make a move.

…I mean, they should have thought that they were too detectable just standing there in the open for so long, but they didn’t.  So I prompted them, and we got an added plot device out of it.   The downside is, of course, that I had to remember to do something with it later.

Stealing the ship: critical failure
The party decided the best course of action would be to run right on board and try to sail away.  Of course, everything the players do shows you something about what they want out of the game, but I think this is particularly true with their unreasonable or unrealistic actions, since these have to be thins the players really want to do.  Noted: more ridiculous daredevil assaults.

The party lays low while Bo sneaks aboard the enemy galleons to lay powder trains in their magazines.  He critical-fails the second one, so I ruled that the explosion still happened, just immediately – alerting all their enemies what was up.  Bo also lost his clothes.

Stealing the ship: the battle
The others have already stealthily climbed aboard.  The Order sends some hideous Dog Things on board and the crew cleverly dispatches them.

This was an instance where I realized it’s more important to have a combat encounter match the genre for it to be realistically hard.   Bo said, “I use my knowledge of ships to slash a rope near me – and inevitably whatever weight it’s connected to hauls me up into the rigging while at the same time smashing the enemy I was fighting with.”  Was it giving away too much to let him resolve all this with a simple Acrobatics roll?  No, I was rewarding a player – if no for good roleplay, per se, for understanding the genre of the story and bringing it into gameplay.

Our proverb for whether an action will work became: “because that’s how it works in pirate movies.”

Dealing with “Action-Scene Slowdown”
Last week we had a problem with an action scene that took all night.  Tonight I decided to try a new theory of rounds. 

I declared the standing rule that combat encounters were going to be three rounds (or “phases”) only – whatever the PCs did in the first phase of the scene would be resolved by a single roll, same with the second phase, and the third phase.  So:

Phase 1) get on board/rig the enemy ships to blow
Phase 2) pull out of port
Phase 3) escape the harbor.

This plan had to be modified though, because in phase 2 they got attacked and we had to do a small action scene within it:

…Phase 2) pull out of port
Phase 2.a) Dog Things leap aboard and attack
Phase 2.b) New situation arises according to what PCs did
Phase 2.c) The PCs either clear off the Dog Things or they get slowed down enough that the galleons are on them, and they’ve failed phase 2, making phase 3 much harder.

There’s probably a way to flowchart what’s at stake for each phase, without railroading the players’ options.  For now, I just re-evaluate what the stakes are after each roll changes the situation.

One last thin: the way this affected roleplay was interesting.  For them it meant scaling a lot more action into one roll.  For me, it meant giving much bigger consequences to each roll.  Ultimately this made their actions more creative and action-advancing, and it made my rulings more high-stakes and exciting.

Resolution to “Russel’s Map” the cartographer’s information
When they went back and examined those maps, I told them more…

When the parchments fused – obviously they were originally parts of a larger whole – more details appeared in the writing.  The additional details allowed MacDuff to recognize it for what it was – a map of the coastline of Lasthaven.

Now, this was impressive, but didn’t help them navigate to Lasthaven since it lies across a dimensional barrier.  However.  One of the things that also appeared was the emblem of the Mad Captain – notated so as to indicate he’d made a landing.

So, this map, which was inserted into the game by a player, ended up telling them what they needed to know.  To recap the plot-relevance of Russell’s Map as my ideas about it evolved:
·      The party has a map, I want it to enable them to get somewhere they’re interested in.
·      They can’t decide where they’re interested in going (seeking out the Mad Captain and attempting to follow the route Balboa took are both suggested) so I rule that the map is unreadable without an expert.
·      The party rustles up an expert.
·      By this time they’ve been talking more about the Mad Captain than about following Balboa.
·      Expert-information appears on it to reveal that the Mad Captain has been where they want to go and is therefore the option they “should” pursue.  (In the meantime, the map has done something magical that makes it a liability (twist!) and serves to kick them into gear)

Rewriting an NPC’s plot arc to have him come in anyway
At this point, the party had only had one conversation with Simon Pors – and that was just a waste of a good NPC.  Trying to sneak onto the ship might have included hiding out at Simon’s or ask him to help out, but they just blasted their way out.   So after the escape, I told them they found him tied and gagged in the cabin.  It seems he had been overseeing the loading of the party’s supplies and been taken hostage – told them his place had been shut down for helping them, too.  NPC the group likes x  personal vendetta against the party’s main enemy, check.

Summoned to the Captain’s Cabin
With their local troubles out of the way for the moment, the party is called to the captain’s cabin to plan their next move.
I discovered that “the captain calls a meeting” is a great way to facilitate player discussion; there’s a nominal leader, everyone has a voice, and unlike most times in an rpg, the characters are doing exactly what the players are doing (discussing something around a table) so the roleplay tends to be more focused.

Convenient NPC Info
The PCs were talking about chasing down the Mad Captain, but obviously didn’t know any way to go about it.

One of them said he’d heard a legend about a man at the edge of civilized waters, who knew how to find the Mad Captain.  I’ve come to recognize this kind of thing as a player making a suggestion to me about what kind of plot arc to write next.  So I responded with Simon Pors, who knew the backstory to the legend.

Pors demystified it a little, saying that the man was called Jacob Jones, and claimed to have been a sailor on the Mad Captain’s vessel, the Jester’s Throe.  Everyone knews the Mad Captain’s just a fairy tale/ghost story, so Jones was locked up in the notorious madhouse on (and here was my quick ad-lib that somehow they took kind of seriuosly) Shudder Island.  …and ever since then, the horror stories about Shudder have multiplied, as if reality itself is going mad there.

I find that making connections like this is a great use for NPCs – and you’ll see it in movies, too; the supporting characters don’t have the skills to frontline the aciton and change the world, but they often know where the main characters need to go next.  Similarly, it’s like NPCs have access to the GM’s knowledge, on a need-to-know basis – except it’s when the PCs need to know, and once they need to know it, it’s something that NPC has known about all along.

 Making plans, telling stories
Then Savio went into a reverie and told the crew how he had once been an inmate on Shudder Island.  This was not part of his stated backstory – it was just a plot connection he thought would be interesting and went for it.  I allowed it because the story itself was pretty cool, and being able to contribute to the gameworld is one of the things that player is really there for.  

You surrender a lot of control when you let a player create something in your gameworld.  But it makes your job very simple: the group’s focused on a location/idea they all like, and you only have to implement it.   Savio's story provided a lot of detail about what the island is like (that doors and walls constantly shift, as if the building itself is insane) – detail I'd build on in my prep.  A few other players mentioned ghost stories their PCs had “heard” about Shudder, so that put even more detail on the table.  So this week I prepped using notes on everything the players had said, so I could be sure to hit the “this is everything I hoped for!” angle, and created a lot of twists of my own to make sure there were still a lot of surprises.  All around very exciting, because our next session was going to be in a location we all created together!

Streetwise at Sea
The party then sailed around to various ports, looking for information about Shudder Island.   This at first seemed like there should be roleplay at each new city, maybe some random encounters on the way to each – but I realized that sea travel is just a common part of this genre and therefore not important in itself.  We just glossed over the actual travel so I could tell them some bullet point info of what they found out.  Whenever they wanted to take this in the direction of NPC-interaction, we were able to morph seamlessly from me dramatically reading my bullte points and us talking it through with someone who’d been there/seen it.