Lessons from 2015

Posted: 16 December 2015 in Reflections

"Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth." – Mike Tyson

A break from tradition this year; rather than look at achievements versus predictions, let’s look at what I have learned that is worth sharing. What happened when my carefully-constructed plans encountered reality, especially actual players?

Building a Setting: I started the year thinking I would never again have time to build a setting. It turns out that with the right tools and a modicum of effort, I can build a perfectly adequate setting in less than six months. I’m delighted to be proved wrong. However, as you’ll see, just because I can doesn’t mean I should.

Rules Expansions and Mashups: I added Stars Without Number, Suns of Gold, and the Science Fiction Companion into the Dark Nebula setting. These are fine products, and I recommend them to you, but they expand the game into areas I’m not actually using – world generation, interstellar trade, spaceship combat – and are therefore not necessary for my campaigns; and if it’s not part of the solution, it’s part of the problem because it diverts effort away from the solution.

Turkish works well as a source of names and cultural details which are familiar enough for players to grasp, but alien enough to remind them that they aren’t in Kansas any more. Also, I can use meaningful Turkish words as names for planets, then I don’t need to write anything else down about them as the name tells me what the planet is like. (You can do this with other languages if you prefer.)

Briefing the Players: Two lessons here; firstly, the majority of my players aren’t interested in setting details, so the effort I put into them is wasted. Secondly, I change my mind about what it should be like every few months, which is about as often as we meet to play, so my best move is to tell the players only what they need to know for the current adventure – this is in line with the advice in Ashen Stars that everything is mutable until the players fix it as part of "series continuity". The campaign will eventually collapse under the cumulative weight of those constraints, but it’s rare for one of my campaigns to last more than five years anyway, and at the present frequency of play that is only 20-30 sessions.

Sandboxes: What the players tell me is that they prefer a sandbox, but they haven’t come up with any daring schemes of their own yet; they are perfectly happy with a patron who commissions them for short, unconnected, picaresque adventures. That’s absolutely fine, but it means the effort I put into factions, news bulletins, detailed NPCs and so on was wasted. The lesson is "know your audience"; prepare for the players you actually have.

No Starmap: I think I now understand the mapless approach, if not well enough to articulate it properly just yet. My current thinking is that there actually is a starmap in-game, and the characters spend ages poring over it plotting their ship’s course; but that doesn’t mean the GM or the players need to worry about it. The corollary is that ships travel at the speed of plot, so tracking the campaign date is irrelevant.

The Party Ship: The party’s base of operations should be a ship, not a town or planet. This explains where characters are when their players can’t make a session, provides a ready source of new characters if necessary, and most importantly allows the GM to reboot the setting, in whole or in part, whenever he needs to do so to keep it fresh. Whether it’s a starship, a trireme or a zeppelin depends on the campaign.

You will notice that after a lot of experimentation, I have arrived back at Daring Tales of the Space Lanes. My advice to you is: Start there, or somewhere like it.

And with that, I wish you all a Merry Christmas, and a happy New Year; I’ll see you on the other side, if spared.

  1. kelvingreen says:

    I would love to find out more about the mapless map, when you’ve collated your thoughts on it.

  2. Brass Jester says:

    Totally agree on all of these points, I think the first rule of GM’ing is KNOW YOUR PLAYERS (if you are planning a campaign anyway).
    I have wasted countless hours trying to draw the perfect start map (using grids, hex grids, plain paper etc.) and have finally settled on a straight line of sectors 1-10. Ships can easily travel anywhere in the same sector; more difficult to the next sector and even more difficult to go 2 sectors. There are (usually) 10 systems in a sector plus something unusual (e.g. a wormhole connects sector 2 with sector 8) (this is for DTotSL).
    Calendar: Created one then found the players didn’t really care. In Numenera, if I need to check if Ben is likely to change into a beast I use a real calendar to see when the full moon is likely to occur.
    Sandbox – Until they start coming up with their own plans then the adventures will be situation / patron led. Clichéd I know (but there is a reason why clichés exist and are used.)

    Keep up the blog Andy, I like reading your stuff and write-ups. All the best, Happy Christmas and New Year

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