It’s All in the Name

At times I fine I am realizing something slowly. I find a clear problem or a slight imperfection. This is usually followed by few days of trying to figure out an answer, or a way to fix this nagging issue without too much difficulty. However, when I find myself mulling these things over, I am never lucky enough to find a quick fix. Sooner or later, I come up with an answer, usually by realizing how wrong I was originally in the process. I may have had this feeling often enough, but when I feeling while GMing, it is always worse.

Most of the time it is an annoyance, however, I will admit there is a sense of pressure. I am creating a world, a story, and trying to make these two elements mesh. If done correctly, I can achieve what I think a GM is really capable of, transporting players to another world and letting us all have some fun. So, I admit, I often feel the need to strive for my best when creating a campaign, which means I spend a lot longer at the “maybe I can fix this without the group noticing” stage than I should.

However, it has taken me several years behind the GM screen to decide two things. First, sometimes, you cannot fix an issue in a campaign seamlessly. So, the time has come for me to admit… I have made an error in the current campaign I am playing through. It was obvious really, but I did not see it when I started the campaign. You see, I said the ship, the Astrologers Albatross, was much bigger than I think I intended too, and said the crew was made up of 200 sailors. I quickly found a slew of issues with this, some of which I bet you already see. A big crew like that is hard to manage. You have a lot of npcs to track and make come to life. Also, when 200 sailors are standing by, it is a challenge to keep them from doing all the work. Whether the players want 200 souls to back them up in a fight, or realistically 200 sailors would leave them little to do, you have a real obstacle to the gameplay that engages the players and a logical and exciting story. So, with a few games and some research, I confirmed a doubt that had, and reached the stage of looking for a solution. Over a month later, I am admitting here that there is not a solution that will not be a bit obvious. I tried fixing it by slowly shrinking the crew and ship size every time I described or mentioned them, but unsurprisingly, that almost sitcom worthy plan is not getting by my players. They know exactly how many ballistae their very big ship holds, and they are not looking to give them up.

I am going to have to explain the problem. As usual, I should have admitted the error right away. Maybe it would break the illusion of the world briefly, but it would be better than several small issues like that and then the larger one eventually. I have learned that lesson before, but at times, I still think I am clever enough to get away with my mistakes. So, the ship is big, but not that big. It should have a crew of 80, not 200, and far fewer siege weapons. I admit my error! That right there, admitting the mistake, is what a GM needs to do from time to time, and I plan to discuss that more before long.

So, I said I learned two things. The second?  Take notes and review them next time you try something similar. It goes without saying that you need to learn from your mistakes. Heck, I based the name of this blog around that concept. Yea, Twenty Twenty refers to the “hindsight is…” quote, and not because I though other years than 2012 deserved some freaking respect. (I know it should be written 20/20 when referring to visual acuity, but that was not going to fly in a domain name.) The point then is not to learn from your mistakes, because that is so basic a requirement for a GM, or even just a person. Instead, it has to be about remembering the mistakes amid years of creating stories and adventures.

I have written a few mysteries into adventures, and found this to be a challenging task for me to pull off. It requires more that writing mystery story or having watched way to many episodes of police and procedural dramas. (And I have watched a lot.) Unlike these mediums, in D&D, a player is not forced to interpret clues the way you expect or even investigate a crime as every detective on Law and Order does. As a result, I have had to learn with every run through of a mystery I have ever done. I now know if the suspect was never met before they catch him, the party can feel cheated. They spent hours taking notes on every possible suspect, just to find that a crazy wizard they never heard of did it all? They will not be thrilled. If you make a demonic presence a clue, they may think it is a totally different demonic source you forgot they even encountered two sessions back. Or, one of my most impressive failures, if you give them a riddle, have your hints prepared. It was simple to me, just a cryptic riddle, with the first letters of each line spelling out a name, and the word which would open the door. After half an hour, several attempts at giving hints out of character, and numerous incorrect guesses, I broke down and told them the answer. The agreed that while simple once they saw it, what had seemed easy to solve to me would have taken my friends days if not decades to unravel.

I remember this now. Mysteries are tough to get right. With this in my mind, when I start thinking up a mystery, I stop, walk to the computer or my notebook, and look up a few mysteries I have written in adventures. I take a refresher course, Table Top RPG mysteries: History and Theory. If I find myself talking to some of me group, I ask them their thoughts on mysteries we have done. This is one reason I find a post session discussion of how the game went important. Not only do I like laughing at the ridiculous moves or perfect fumbles, but it allows me to learn from the players what they think worked and what could have used some tweaking. At times they tell me what should never be attempted again. Like that miserable riddle. What it comes down to is making you have the means to learn from your mistakes. A session can be complex, with a lot going on. Improvisations in the story, decisions on player actions, dice rolls, forgetting a detail, all these aspects of the game occur during a session and will not be in your pre-game notes.

Now, this sounds like more work for you.  Yet, this can be done without having to write up in-depth post-game breakdowns. I’ll admit this has been is one great advantage of writing the sessions of “To Sail the Southern Seas.” It gives me a reason to do such write ups, though even they could be more detailed. So, I do not advocate after action reports on each session that look like a Royal Commission assembled it. Rather, just take some notes on the obvious points, what worked, where there were issues, and anything you can think of that might help. In the case above, I learned that I should have done more research, or even just thought through the idea of a 200 person crew. So, I’ve jotted down a note to that effect in a file I have under campaign creation. Hopefully, if I do not remember that on my own, that note will remind me not to rush in setting up an environment the players will be spending considerable time in.

So, another lesson learned for myself, and hopefully I am less likely to make that one again. Maybe I am even a bit of a better GM. But that is what GMing comes down to more often than not, having the GM’s twenty/twenty hindsight. Ok, that was a ridiculous line, but I do find it true enough.

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