Tuesday, October 6, 2009

"Mistakes were made, Senator...."

One of the more difficult things to admit as a referee is when you make a mistake.  We like to think that mistakes are mostly of the "oops, didn't quite mean it that way" variety, but sometimes mistakes can be much bigger than that.

Probably my earliest big mistake came when I was running a Chivalry & Sorcery adventure for a bunch of players at my local game club.  They had encountered a barrow wight, and I ran through the entire encounter without taking into account the serious "fear" ability that the undead creature had.  The party went away with a bunch of loot, and I felt bad about it.  So when I went back to read up for the next adventure, I came across the rule about inflicting fear - and decided to re-run the entire encounter at the next club meeting.  There were howls of protest, but some of them actually went along with it.  Looking back on it 30 years later, I still recall this as a moment that I'm not at all proud of.  Re-running an encounter?  My older self says, "suck it up and learn from it for next time."

Somewhat more recently, I ran a D&D 3rd Edition campaign, with players who were...casual, shall we say, about in-game consequences of their actions.  It all came to a head when the paladin in the party started to bargain with the rogue in the party about how to quietly steal from (and possibly murder) a third player-character.  The player of the paladin seemed shocked that her deity just might have ideas about such dishonorable and ignoble behavior - and the rest of the party seemed as shocked as she was.  That group fell apart for that reason, amongst others.  It made me think carefully before starting a long-term campaign with people whose gaming style I was unfamiliar with.

Not that long ago, I ended up running an espionage game that was supposed to transition into an Infinite Worlds campaign.  We had all gone to see The Bourne Identity, and my players were really pumped up about running spies and doing covert operations.  What I hadn't counted on was the complete disinterest on the part of the players to do any real world research about the organizations their characters worked for (CIA, MI5, the Mossad, etc.).  The mistake I made was then in providing them with NPCs who would feed them information.  Then practically every adventure session started with, "I call home; what do I find out?"

I'd love to be able to say that I've learned enough from all of these experiences (and many others) to have a coherent idea of What It All Means, and How To Improve Your Game in Three Easy Lessons, but it would not be true.  The reality is that I find myself having learned from some of these mistakes and doing a bit better - but that's about it.  Since I just moved, I don't have a regular gaming group right now, so I know I'm a little rusty....

...which means I'm likely to make a mistake or two in the future.  Here's to not rolling a 1 on my next saving throw!


  1. > players to do any real world research

    or read your handouts, or have any interest at all in your lovingly detailed campaign history, cultures, etc. Sigh...

    I'm slowly learning that it's best to start a campaign with little more than a few broad strokes. Filling in the details as play progresses and most importantly based off of and built with the help of players.

  2. "I'm slowly learning that it's best to start a campaign with little more than a few broad strokes."

    Well, while I agree with this concept generally, I think it's been taken to an extreme, which I believe is detrimental. I have two or three specific objections to this way of thinking:

    - Players do a lot of reading and research already. They read rulebooks and other material that is considered important to the game. So if you plan on having an extensive background, it's not unreasonable to ask players to pay attention to that background. Another example might be Call of Cthulhu - lots of players read the fiction, not just the referees.

    - Secondly, I come from a wargaming and miniatures background, in which there is a strong expectation to research the background, since it might prove to be of help during your game sessions. I've noticed that role-players who come to the hobby without any exposure to wargames and miniatures often lack this impetus.

    - Thirdly, spy stuff is cool. Especially if you are going to be playing a spy. So it just seemed odd to me that players wouldn't think to go find out more about the organizations they were working for.

  3. I understand what players get interested in, I play too. It's usually not religions and government and history. Oh god, especially not history.

    They want to know about things they can interact with, especially those things that relate to their goals. And you can assume every players' goals include wealth and the advancement mechanic in the game (experience points, let's say).

    So I actually do write up things like government and history, but I make sure I have enough detail for things they care about. And during the game I'll not even mention the social/history stuff unless they ask. But I will kind of secretly insert it. If they need to go to a temple, they suddenly realize that I have all this information on the temple, its religion, worshippers, beliefs, practices, holy days, etc. just because I don't fumble around or give lame generic information when they ask.

    The richness of the history and cultures comes out in the treasure. If the treasure interests them, then they may want to find out more information. But if you don't have that background already, you won't know to flavor the treasure, and it'll never happen organically.

    It makes the players feel like there is more world in there than they are seeing. It's more comfortable to settle into a fantasy when you can't see the big grey-mist chasms off to the sides. You don't need full detail in those side areas, you just need enough that it bears mild inspection.

  4. 1d30 - Excellent points all around. I agree completely. Goddess knows that Prof. Barker would make us work to find out the things we needed in Tekumel in order to be successful - and that's not a world that you approach lightly.