Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Lost Colonies Returns

If you've read this blog in the past, you may have noticed that I have not posted any session reports on my Lost Colonies campaign for a couple of months. The reason for this is that this summer was an absolute disaster for the purposes of scheduling game time. Several of the folks I play with were out of town, on vacation, etc. and gaming fell by the way side. On the few nights we did get together, we often suffered very bad cases of Gamer ADD and opted for Villains & Vigilantes. [An interesting by-product of this experience: as much a I love V&V, I am at a point in my life where I am no longer much interested in using what time I have for RPGs on anything other than FRPGs, specifically D&D and those retroclones that emulate it.]

Now that summer is coming to close and every one is back in town, we decided to get back to playing the Lost Colonies campaign. Before I post any actual session reports, however, I thought I'd write a post about some of the larger issues that I found interesting about re-starting a campaign and what might be called a cultural conundrum.

The first big problem we all had was just remembering where everybody was, why everybody was doing what they were doing and what everyone was going to do next. We tackled the situation by taking turns telling our own versions of what was going on and asking questions of each other. I didn't try to do this on purpose (though I might the next time I run into a similar situation), it happened organically. Since there were details others remembered that I forgot, I was encouraged to allow as much collaborative remembering as seemed necessary. This went on for close to thirty to forty minutes. I consider it time well spent, in this case.

By the time play began, everyone was getting back into character and things progressed, if not smoothly, then forward far enough to get back into some kind of rhythm. One thing that helped was that we did two sessions in quick succession — less than a week apart. I accidentally created a sense of urgency by ending the first session on a cliffhanger — thus, everybody was eager to get back to it.

When I first started running this campaign, I did so as an experiment — what would happen if you introduced earlier versions of D&D to a bunch of 3.5 players? For the most part, they have all settled on the idea that B/X and its retroclone LL are as much as one needs in order to have a lot of fun sans all the prep time necessary with 3.5 (even if there are aspects of 3.5 that some miss).

I mention this because in running Lost Colonies, there have only been a couple of times that I was aware of a clash of culture between 3.5 play and old-school play. These sessions were one of them. As the two evenings progressed, I came to realize that there was a definite new-school vibe with what I was doing as a Referee.

Super-hero RPGs do not lend themselves to a sand-box style of play. By necessity, they are more plot driven. Even so, they can be run in a mystery/information gathering kind of way. When I ran V&V, I decided to have an overall campaign secret that would be revealed piecemeal over several sessions. Different pieces of the puzzle were available from different NPCs and their lairs. As the players encountered various villains, the information gathered could lead players in a couple of different directions to find another piece of the puzzle. I did this in an attempt to allow players to drive the plot more than my choices as a Referee.

I structured the current adventure for Lost Colonies in a similar manner. I had several different encounter areas that could yield a plethora of information about what was really going on. Depending upon where the players chose to go, how they reacted to these NPCs and how much they trusted the information there were all kinds of different possibilities. At least that was the theory.

In the middle of what I considered to be an interesting, tough but winnable combat, half the party went into what I might describe as a "new school-" or "3.5" mentality. A couple of players hypothesized that they were supposed to be captured — the assumption that this is the action that would further the intended plot. As a result, half of the party gave up trying to win the fight and allowed themselves to be captured. Only two players (the newest D&D player and the one player who came into the hobby with with 2ed) fought to the end. They proved my own assumption about the encounter and were rewarded with freedom.

The adventure had two factions in conflict with each other. One side was definitely evil. The other was alien, but neutral. The evil faction was interested in using the PCs to further their own agenda. The neutral faction was interested in allying with the PCs to eradicate the evil faction.

As each part of the party encountered one of the factions something really surprising happened (and one that I might blame on the "new school" mentality). When everyone managed to get together again, everyone decided that the evil faction was, if not exactly good, trying to accomplish a greater good and the neutral faction was evil and therefore was eliminated.

While wildly entertaining from my perspective, it does leave me in a bit of a conundrum. How much of the "new school" mentality lead to the players accepting the evil faction at their word? How much of that is my own fault? Further, the players have started to craft their own narrative about what they are trying to accomplish by helping the evil faction that radically differs from my own original plans. I happen to like their version quite a bit…and am quite happy to alter my plans to adhere to their expectations with a few of my own twists. The question is: should I?


  1. If you like their version, then why not adapt to it? Giving agency to players is one of the benefits of old-school games. It is somewhat ironic that your players seem to have used that agency to do what they think you intend them to do; if you want to discourage that kind of thinking, you might simply let them know that there is no predetermined master narrative for them to conform to.

  2. I vote with John Harper - if the players suggest (albeit through action rather than direct request) directions that are more appealing, thought-provoking, or sustainability, then go with it.

    As a GM, I try to touch very lightly on plot goals (explore the megadungeon, go on a mission for Mr. X, recover the Locnar, etc.). Engaged players come up with their own tangents, twists, and details--as a GM, I like to reward that engagement by fulfilling some of those expectations (especially when they're more interesting than what I've come up with on my own!).

  3. @John @Erin
    Thanks. I am quite open to the idea and normally do allow my players to move the narrative in interesting ways. What made me hesitant this time around was how my players arrived at their decisions. In many ways, I was a bit discomfited by the process and by the perception that I somehow had a plot that only needed their acquiescence to move forward.

  4. " I was a bit discomfited by the process and by the perception that I somehow had a plot that only needed their acquiescence to move forward."

    I don't know that it's so much a "new school" vs. "old school" problem as one of the GM having a perceived authorial voice as opposed to being a neutral referee, regardless of edition. Plotted adventures were being published back during the 1E era, as I recall, and surely were common by the time of 2E. The expectation was thus created in many players that the GM was "telling a story" and that, at certain points, you had to go on a pre-programmed route to advance that story. The GM had become an "author" and you were playing in his "book."

    My style has always fallen somewhere between sandbox and story as a GM, leaning toward player choice. But I often found myself having to repeat, when faced with a situation like the combat you describe above, that there was no predetermined outcome.

    As for players taking the campaign in unexpected directions, that's one of those "all to the good" moments, I think.

  5. Quite the same as Anthony, when I am a GM, I prefer to leave the sandbox element as a governing one. I just think of a story and some milestones for the players, to not have to improvise TOO much on the main arc. Worked out pretty nice. :)

    call Nigeria