Wednesday, October 16, 2013

[Behind the Screen] DWAiTAS: Exiles of Time - Keep Calm and Pace Yourself

After a year and a half of saying I’d do it, I finally got around to running Doctor Who last night, despite some performance anxiety leading up to it and having to start later than planned to allow for announcements.

I won’t be giving a full actual play report here, as Luke (who plays Malik) has agreed to write up APs in exchange for bonus advancement/story points for the group. What I’ll be doing here is making commentary on the challenges of GMing the game, and what I can do to deal with them better in the future.

My players enjoyed last night’s game - or at least they said they did - but there were admittedly some problems with it, most of which I believe had the same root cause: problems with pacing.

One of the problems with the most recent series of Doctor Who was that the writers decided not to have any two-parters, which resulted in stories which would have been better served as two-parters being crammed into standalone episodes. This led to those episodes feeling rushed and entire plot elements being glossed over. It’s also been a problem with some of my past GMing experiences, so you’d think I would have learned better from either the show or my own past mistakes by now.

Now, it’s entirely doable to fit a standalone episode’s worth of RP into a single 3-4 hour gaming session. I don’t think that was the problem, per se. The problem was, there was so much stuff in this first scenario that it really needed another session to allow some breathing space.

On paper, Liminus seemed like a great intro scenario. The setting - a limbo-like place between universes, where an assortment of debris from lost timelines or temporal anomalies slowly orbit a black hole in its accretion disc - established the cosmic feel of the campaign that I was aiming for. I also threw in several existing Doctor Who creatures such as the Cybermen, the Daleks and the Reapers, in order to firmly establish that the game was set in the Doctor Who universe.

The problem was, I was too determined to make it fit into one session because I wanted to be able to move onto the next ‘episode’ the following week when our fourth player joins us, because I have an unused scenario that would fit as her intro. Even then, the episode could still have worked as a one-shot. The Cybermen and Daleks might still have appeared as burnt-out husks, bur the only threat the PCs would have had to face were the Reapers, who were feeding off of everything that got dumped in the Liminus. Or, I could just have allowed the ‘episode’ to continue into a second session, and worked out another way to introduce Clara’s character in the second session.

The point is, I rushed things, and because I did that the session felt rather busy, and a lot of stuff - both in terms of rules, and in terms of the story - got glossed over. I need to try and learn patience, slow down a bit, run through the chase mechanics and determining initiative order properly when those situations arise. I also need to get better at describing the environment, because during the chase the players weren't sure where they could run to, so they wound up just turning round to confront the monsters head-on. As a whole, they ended up fighting more often than not, which isn't in the spirit of the game, and that's probably down to me constantly throwing encounters at them as if it were a traditional fighty-stabby roleplaying game. Which it isn't.

In future, I need to just take things a bit easier, not keep hammering the PCs with encounters. I also need to let scenarios run into extra sessions if time is catching up on us, instead of trying to compress things in order to finish on time. It’d be fine to just leave things on a cliffhanger at an appropriate moment, then continue into the next session and segue into the following scenario later, or run some kind of ‘prequel’ or interlude before wrapping up for the night.

Of course, if I’m going to be running scenarios over multiple sessions, I may need to compress the story arc somewhat. I had a rough ‘three season’ arc in mind, but I may have to reduce that significantly. I can’t assume my players will return for a second year - I’m not even sure I’ll be up to running for longer than a year - so I’ll need to bring this game to a satisfying (but potentially open-ended) conclusion after two semesters of play.

Well, I've got a whole year ahead to get the hang of things and work out where it’s all going. Wish me luck!

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