In my last blarg I talked about the storyline I had put together for my recent Earthdawn game. If you haven’t read that blarg yet please do, because otherwise some of the issues or events I’ll be discussing below may not make sense.
First Dawn started well enough, with the characters interacting with the various residents of the kaer. Everyone had the opportunity to show off a bit of their character’s background and motivations (except the ork’s player who couldn’t make it) which I think they all enjoyed. After that the party was gathered together for a ceremony that ended with the kaer doors being opened and the party heading out through the traps to the surface with tokens which were supposed to disable the traps for them.
At the far end of the trapped area, the party was introduced to the obsidiman that was supposed to act as their guide. Centuries ago he had volunteered to enter the kaer and enter the Dreaming through the Scourge to be able to guide its people back to the surface when the time came. The party, being told he was how they would open the kaer doors but thinking he was just a statue/key, had drag him up to the surface with the aid of a disk of True Air which levitated him and allowed him to be floated to the front antechamber. Due to the proximity to the surface awoke while the party was resting, leading to some interesting interaction.
After some discussion with the obsidimen about who he was and then ultimately what to expect outside, the adepts finally opened the front doors to the kaer and saw the destruction the Scourge had caused to the countryside. With that visual the first session ended. In hindsight it was a successful session and had hit all of the goals and themes I had set (with the exception of the missing player).
Everything went downhill from there.
Before session two began I received an email from Thok’s player telling me he wouldn’t be able to play in the campaign. While that was disappointing, the player had a whole lot going on and I didn’t blame him for recognizing he didn’t have the time and admitting it instead of trying to fit too much in to his schedule. So we continued the campaign down one player and up one NPC.
The second session began with the party exiting the kaer. After descriptions of the changed landscape and interactions with the obsidiman regarding what the land looked like before the Scourge, I wanted to finally give the players the chance to try out their characters skills in combat. Seeing as the characters were advanced, I decided to use something that wasn’t quite a push over and could hint that the horrors were still present in the world but not quite as strong. My solution was a small group of tainted ogres (led by a tainted ogre twin) that had been kept alive from before the Scourge by a crystal entity which was severely weakened by the lower magic level.
It was a fairly simple concept but one which caused a couple of problems. The characters had a rough time in the initial encounter with a couple of the ogres, and even though I adjusted the creatures’ stats on the fly they still faired poorly. Part of the result was due to die roll disparity and part was due to the fact that the non-melee characters (which meant everyone but the swordmaster) had fairly low Toughness scores and correspondingly low damage ratings.
Still, the characters defeated the cadaver-ogres and pulled back to rest. The characters correctly deduced the source of the creatures must be in the nearby cave and decided to investigate. As the party leader and a stealthy adept to boot,I called for stealth rolls right away just to emphasis their skill levels and Holthan nearly tripled Eltherin’s result as expected. Holthan’s player picked up on what I was trying to subtly imply about their comparative chances of remaining quiet and in character pointed out how loud the elf was being and reiterated instructions to remain behind, but the elf refused.
As expected Eltherin was detected further inside the cave. When a single ogre came out to investigate Holthan melted into the shadows. After trying unsuccessfully to hide Eltherin decided to stand and shoot the ogre instead of running and wound up getting killed. Holthan was able to make his way back out and share the news and the party fell back to regroup. Since we had an extra NPC, Eltherin’s player took over Thok. As they were recovering I had an animated Eltherin come and have the horror use him to offer the adepts safe passage if they left immediately.
Although the adepts toyed with the idea of leaving, they eventually decided they had to try to destroy the horror that lived so close to their kaer and launched a successful attack that killed the crystal entity. Afterwards the party made a crucial decision – they decided that since they had witnessed horrors still active in the world their mission was complete and they should return to the kaer, inform the council, and reseal themselves in.
And thus, the campaign was quickly sidetracked by the combination of a number of issues.
- Poor choice of enemies. Although I wanted to show the party horrors were still around, I should have done so further into the campaign with weaker enemies. Doing so would have allowed the party to see non-horror opposition then meet horror-backed opposition that was in some ways weaker, meaning manageable by adepts.
- Untimely party death. The world of Earthdawn is dangerous, and I’m always afraid pulling punches will cheapen the experience. Still I won’t kill characters over crappy die rolls, but the elf’s player realized how powerful the enemies were and ignored the opportunity (and urgings from his fellow players) to flee so I let the dice fall where they may.
- Misuse of Earthdawn themes. If you fight a horror, loose a party member, and flee to seek refuge nearby, it’s entirely in genre for a horror to animate the corpse of your former friend and use it to torment and dishearten you. However I did so when the party’s courage was already fading and it just served to help push them to the decision to conclude their mission over and return home, claiming it was far to dangerous out. Bad move on my part.
When the party decided to return the kaer, I couldn’t say I blamed them. Although perhaps not the most heroic of options, it was certainly in-character to judge the world too dangerous after losing a party member just a day out of the kaer. Still as they made this decision I saw my campaign starting to go down the drain. All of the areas I had created for them to explore and the descriptions I wanted to provider weren’t going to see use. Sure it would have been possible for the kaer council to turn the party around and say “go back out, you’re not done” but the ogre encounters wound up lasting through the third session of what was planned to be a six-session campaign. Sending them back out meant either rushing the campaign or greatly expanding it past the idea length so I decided to push the timeline and have the final scenario with the kaer’s denizens being sacrificed as the party returned.
Hindsight being what it is I made a bad choice. Even besides the way the campaign got sidetracked I had become frustrated with how the game was going – I was far from satisfied with the quality of my gamemastering and was angry at myself for not doing better with it. My frustration soon became apathy towards campaign, and some of the final encounters that should have been exciting and filled with entertaining descriptions turned into rather dull die rolls and narrations.
I’m ashamed to say that eventually I looked at the party and expressed my inability to conclude the game on a high note – they were chasing the final big bad through the kaer but I just couldn’t give them the final encounter they deserve. Then for some reason Saultydog asked if I wanted him to take over. Figuring I had nothing to loose I agreed. He handed me his character sheet and I passed him the core book. After taking a few minutes to gather his thoughts and jot down some numbers, S-dog launched into us cornering the elf and having the horror emerge to be dealt with.
There was a difference between Saultydog’s version and mine, though – he was immediately excited and his excitement was contagious. Because S-dog didn’t have any expectations of what should have been, he was able to take a fresh perspective on the current encounter and make it cool on its own. Even I was sucked in and quickly began plotting a way to defeat the horror dramatically without just knocking of hit point after hit point. A running fight, battle-alchemy, and a chase through the kaer finally culminated in dropping the horror in a bottomless pit that was part of one of the traps the party had passed on their initial trip out of the kaer – all scenes we collaboratively built entirely from my initial description of the overgrown kaer when the expedition had returned and Saultydog’s enthusiasm.
After the last encounter we had a post-game discussion. I confessed my frustration and then when asked went through the plot as it was intended to be. The reactions I got from the players assured me that had we gone through the intended story line, it would have been a fantastic game – they loved the encounters, plots, and how they tied into their character backgrounds. But hearing that was bittersweet – while it meant my creation was appreciated, it also meant the difference between teh awesum and teh suk was that great.
As disappointed as I was with the whole First Dawn experience, I did learn a valuable lesson. The Gamemaster’s enthusiasm towards his game is paramount in allowing him to entertain the players successfully. I absolutely should have done one of two things – either realize that while my initial concept was cool a new plot could be just as entertaining and run with it, or break down and meta-game with the players, explaining how their decision to return would derail the campaign and ask what in-game events could help dissuade their characters and get them to change their minds. Instead my stubbornness and reluctance to meta-game combined with my frustration at what should have been killed my enthusiasm and led to substandard gamemastering. It’s a mistake I intend not to repeat… assuming I can convince the group to let me behind the screen again.