Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Three Knows

Last Sunday, my group finished our Firefly RPG campaign. In over 20 years of role-playing games, this is the first campaign I finished completely. Granted, it was only seven adventures spanning just four months, but still, this is the longest consecutive streak of playing one RPG in my life. Even when I first got into roleplaying, at the age of six, we threw in a game of Star Frontier, GURPS, or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles here and there.

To my recollection, we only broke away from Firefly once, to play a one-shot of Shadowrun. Otherwise, we got together every two weeks, for four months, knocking out one episode of Firefly after another. I consider this a big achievement, for me.

Not having completed a campaign was a monkey on my back for a long time. I have played literally hundreds of role-playing games at this point, and never once took one through the whole campaign experience. Sure, there have been numerous attempts at campaigns, but they all previously ended in failure, many of them sputtering to a quiet death just three, two, or even one adventure in.

What changed? What worked now that didn't work in years past? When people ask me how to run a good role-playing game (or when I wonder to myself about how to do the best game possible), I always come back to the three knows: know your players, know yourself, and know your game.

First, and arguably most important, is know your players. They were passionate about their characters, passionate about the game, and urged me to keep going. Their genuine enthusiasm...not just with the game, but with enjoying each other's company...gave me a strong, deep pool of motivation throughout the campaign's length. That pool went a little shallow towards the end, but there was more than enough to provide a satisfying finale. Knowing what they were looking forward to, and knowing what direction they wanted to take their characters in, always served as a compass for me when designing the next adventure.

Then comes know yourself. I was keenly aware of my gamer ADD the entire time we played our campaign. Rather than fight it or resist it, I embraced it and channeled it into the campaign itself. That's why every one of our adventures had different mechanics or "gimmicks;" I wanted every adventure to feel like something new, fresh, and different, without losing the consistency of a campaign. The challenge of building adventures around concepts rather than plotlines was a fun challenge for me. That I had great players who had three-dimensional characters helped, too; it freed me to focus on concept and trust that the details would emerge through character interaction, history, and play.

Of course, it's also great to have an RPG that can accomodate such unconvetional play, so that's where know your game comes in. Cortex Plus is one of the most flexible, fast-paced, and fun RPG systems I have ever played. The mechanics were loose enough that I could graft strange ideas...like meta-game play, concurrent adventures, and backwards time structures...into play, but there was enough grit there to still feel like we were playing a game, rather than some dirty hippie "let's tell an interactive story!" drum circle thing. I'm taking a few months off to let some of my friends run campaigns without any conflicting schedules (not to mention focus on my graduate thesis), but when I return, the temptation to just stick with Cortex Plus for these reasons is very strong.

Alas, I most-likely will not do that. When I run my next campaign (and I must do this again; going back to just one-shots feels so hollow now, you know?) I want to experiment with tighter structure. My chief complaint about the Firefly campaign was how I often felt like the entire damn game was just one bad day away from being a listless, directionless mess. The meta-adventure, "The Fourth Wall," was an idea I came up with less than a single day before the session. The adventure before that, "Hillfolk," depended on collaborative scene collection from the players, and they didn't sign on to run this kind of stuff, so obviously it turned into our weakest episode. I don't want that stress or mess in my next campaign. So what I want to do is take a published, established adventure...something big and beautiful, like one of the many Call of Cthulhu campaign-level adventures, or those awesome, hardcover adventure books from Fantasy Flight's Star Wars games...and stick to that structure, freeing my mind to study the rules, describe great scenes, and interact more with my players and their characters. On days where the motivation isn't there, I can just "stick to the script" and run the game straight. On days where I want to do something more wild, I can branch off the book and perhaps even create a sub-plot spinoff tangent, returning to the original campaign when that motivation dies out.

But, thanks to fantastic players and the silver lining of experience that comes with age, I know that whatever I run, whenever I run it, with this group, it's going to be awesome. 




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