Around 4 years ago I began running roleplaying games with my friends in AWDE. We played these games online since we lived in different places, using a variety of media. Most of the time we did not play with established systems, and instead I would create or adapt game mechanics as needed.
We ended the last major campaign in January and have been playing a few little things since then. For the Summer Solstice we got together for a weekend of food and activity (hampered only slightly by thunderstorms and haunted cat statues) and we discussed the games we had been playing.
I figured now would be a good time to do a little retrospective and then muse about my ideas and plans for the future. My documentation skills were poor so a lot of dates and details are only from memory, but that’s better than nothing I suppose.
Pebble, March-June 2015
‘Pebble’ was a play-by-email RPG I designed while inspired by Wildbow’s dark urban-fantasy Pact. It had a historical setting and a magic system designed off of Pact’s vague and highly symbolic ‘practice’ and was played individually. I would email a player to work with them and create a character and then I would set them in the world and let them act as they chose.
The intention was for different player characters to interact with each other over time, sometimes as friend and sometimes as foe. I even imagined the fun of keeping secret exactly who was a player and who was not so that they might interact without even knowing it.
Sadly, the game never got that far. Most players got one or two ‘turns’ in before giving up. There are a number of reasons I’ve learned this was the case, which I will discuss later.
One interesting note is that, since this game was played by email, I have every action still recorded. Something I had forgotten about was the effort I put into writing prose for the players. The pace of email meant I could spend plenty of time figuring out how things would play and describing them in loving detail. Check out this exposition one of my NPCs gave a player:
“If you were to ask a carpenter, the practice would be the sum of his knowledge; how to carve along the grain, the timbre of oak and the consistency of cherry. Perhaps you ask a farmer, who could speak for hours about the taste of fertile soil, the times to plant certain crops, the signs of rain or drought. Maybe you ask a courier between the villages, you (sic) knows the path to Pontipride like the back of his hand and who understands which trinkets can ward off the evils of the forest.
“But in the true form, in the abstract, The Practice is our human knowledge about the world and cosmos and how that knowledge is applied to, say, make a room the size of a mansion fit inside a small bank.”
While not perfect, I feel like this represents far more interesting dialog than what I can deliver speaking in real time during a game. The ability for a game’s writing to work like this is something I have been unable to fully forget.
Weaver Dice, August 2015-February 2016
A player favorite and one of the most successful games I have ever run, the Weaver Dice campaign was set in Wildbow’s first webnovel, Worm, named after and utilizing the game system for the setting designed by the story’s author.
This was also the first game we played with regular, weekly meetings over Google Hangouts and Roll20, two tools I have come to love and hate in equal measure but which have proven themselves invaluable in getting these campaigns to work.
One decision I made early on that I thought I would regret but would come to love was to intentionally provide two of the characters with very ‘breakable’ superpowers.
Nuriel, a tinker (meaning someone with a power to create ‘impossible’ technology) created drones with simple AI and was able to use them to automate much of his own workshop.
Stratum, a trump (meaning a power that influences other powers) was able to augment any parahuman’s powers (including his own) with either a major short-term boost or a minor long-term boost.
Obviously, by the halfway point Stratum had boosted his power into the stratosphere and Nuriel was commanding an army of Von Neumann machines.
Luckily, the Wormverse contains scary things that helped me keep the players in check and while I could have pushed harder on consequences, everybody seemed to enjoy the sessions and the sheer scope created tension all on its own.
While Nuriel and Stratum were the major plot-pushers, everyone got their time in the sun and I think this was the most ‘balanced’ campaign I’ve run in terms of each player being engaged.
As a bonus, playing this campaign got most of my friends to read Worm. A constant struggle many fans understand and an annoyance most fans’ friends deal with because of this.
Crumbs, January 2016-December 2016
Crumbs was a little bit insane, honestly. Set in the universe of Pact (fully, instead of merely co-opting the magic system as I did with Pebble) and played weekly, Crumbs followed a circle of magic practitioners (and a non-magic witch hunter) as they navigated a precarious community deep in Amish country.
While it started out on reasonable rails, Crumbs went into the deep end in a disturbingly literal way when one character, Red, became scarily proficient at Abyssal magic (the second most dangerous and toxic form of magic in the setting, and he only selected that one because I refused to let him use the most toxic form of magic out of concern for the rest of the party).
The other players varied in their level of engagement but most of the actual plot was Red getting into and out of danger.
This could have been managed and even used effectively, but the second major issue was that I totally failed to recognize the importance of pacing.
Entire sessions would be filled with the players doing nothing of consequence except building up their arsenals. One session like this every now and then can be a nice reprieve, but when this pattern goes on for a month or longer things can really start to drag.
This is an amusing parallel, now that I think about it, to Pact itself. While still loved, Pact is often criticized for its pacing as well: it is fast and violent and somewhat exhausting, giving few occasions for readers to catch their breaths. I’m not sure what to make of this parallel, except that it is indeed amusing.
Had I found Matthew Colville’s YouTube channel during this time, I might have realized that the missing ingredient was orcs.
Another development was the beginning of a character archetype that is the closest I get to a self-insert (and is, in all honesty, probably closer than it should be). Hana the Hendler was originally intended to be mostly a side-character, the merchant with strange powers and a mysterious backstory.
As time went on, though, she became my favorite NPC to play. Her goal was to try to introduce economics to magic, making ‘investments’ of power and helping people ‘cash in’ on what they could do.
She wound up being the sympathetic villain of the endgame, but that endgame was really messy and I don’t think she really got the end she deserved.
I may write up a whole post about mistakes I made at the end of Crumbs some day, but for now the summary is: the players were coerced into fighting Hana and her allies, then accidentally blew up the entire town and themselves with magic. It certainly ended with a ‘bang’, but it was also an unsatisfying and sour note to end on.
Shards, January 2017-January 2019
In a return to the RPGs of my childhood, Shards was a D&D 3.5 campaign set in a universe made of little individual planes connected by portals. I ran this using Roll20 again with weekly meetings (aside from a stretch of a few months in 2018) and it was the longest running campaign yet, stretching out over two years with a sequel somewhere in the works.
Shards had much better pacing than Crumbs and usually featured at least one battle per week to keep things exciting. Unfortunately, around half the party had relatively low interest and, given the complexity of the campaign, quickly became overwhelmed with details and mostly only participated during fights.
Hana returned to this campaign in spirit through Queen Corana Cruador, the hyper-competent and slightly megalomaniacal quest giver and exposition provider for the party.
We also ran a very interesting side-adventure set in the campaign world a decade before the main story featuring each player as a different rogue. This ‘Party of Rogues’ was supposed to be a one-off gimmick that I was pretty unsure about at the start, but rogue is a very versatile class and the party covered a lot of space mechanically.
The real surprise with the Party of Rogues, though, was that two of the players who had mostly been sitting on the sidelines for the main campaign really got into their rogue characters. This taught me a few interesting lessons and may be worth its own post as some point but the key takeaway was that I had overwhelmed the players with plot details and mechanics. In particular, the magic user had too many options available and suffered from near constant choice paralysis.
The 2018 part of the campaign saw Corana lead an offensive war against a major local power and the PCs got recruited as leaders and a strike team. This was the most logistically complex game I’d ever run, as I used population and GDP to estimate the size of the forces involved and their level of training and equipment.
Combat in D&D is offensive-dominant so battles were mostly fast skirmishes using teleporting attackers against underprepared targets and I think this made for fun, if scary, encounters. I probably also softballed things a little too much, though I doubt my players would agree. D&D combat is very lethal but I stuck to throwing the ‘annoying but relatively safe’ specialists at the PCs like enchanters and illusionists. These fights were fun, though, so I don’t feel too upset about limiting the high damage dealers to other fronts.
Shards also ended much better than Crumbs, I think. Although I feel like I could have stuck the landing a little more, there was a climactic fight with an aboleth that had been foreshadowed since near the beginning and a sequel-hook mystery when the entire nation the PCs had been fighting vanished in the middle of the night.
While I don’t love D&D and feel it focuses too much on combat for my tastes, I have to admit that it made a pretty decent system in which to run a game. We plan to return to this setting at some point. Each player gave me a list of things their character will focus on and after a timeskip they will get to see how things resolve.
I always like to experiment with my games and every time I run one I learn new things, but I think to maximize my learning potential I really need to document this stuff better. I have a few ideas for what that might look like and if one of them crystallizes soon I will edit this paragraph to reflect it.
Either way, there are a few big things I want to figure out:
Break out of set weekly meetings; weekly meetings are great for consistency and player engagement, but only for players who can meet at the same time regularly. We’ve run into schedule problems before and they can sometimes keep players out of a campaign simply because they can’t meet at the same time as everyone else. Timezones make this even worse.
Promote strong players to leadership; my view with AWDE was always that we would have a core group and a periphery, right now the campaigns are mostly played by core members with peripheral members joining in occasionally and usually for a limited amount of time. I want to try games that work off of a much larger playerbase (approx. 12) with a core member helping me administer the game.
Better character arcs; so far, usually only one player per campaign gets to experience something that could really be called an ‘arc’. I want this to be better and more thought out and I want to try engaging players explicitly and directly about where they see their character struggles and how that informs the decisions they make in-game.
I have ideas for each of these and hopes to explore those ideas in posts. I guess we’ll see.