Wednesday, December 11, 2013

[Behind the Screen] DWAiTAS: The Exiles of Time - Season 1 Retrospective

Last night was the 'season one' finale of my Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space campaign, since this was the last week that all of my players would be able to attend Tuesday GUGS before the Christmas break.

Now that I've been running the game for a semester, I felt it was time to have a look back to see what was good, what I need to improve upon, and what I did completely wrong and should never ever do again.

The biggest problem with the campaign this semester was that my story arc for season one ended up focusing on an NPC, rather than the PCs. That was a big mistake on my part, motivated by a variety of factors, but I'm not going to make excuses here, it was a bad call and I know it. Once I realised this, I got to work on trying to write her out of the campaign, but even then, that ended up being the focus of the finale. It's no wonder that at least one of the players felt she was a Mary Sue, because that's what she wound up becoming, much to my own horror. This isn't to say that an NPC can't be the focal point of a campaign arc - I had just played in a campaign which was about our party grooming a young heir to take her birthright as new governor of a province and hopefully avert a war, and it was awesome - but I think it requires a more seasoned GM than myself to make it work.

Another problem - and part of my motivation behind the NPC-focused story arc - is that my portrayal of NPCs is still sorely lacking in depth. In the campaign I had just left, we encountered a supporting cast of NPCs with distinct personalities and motivations, and we became emotionally invested in them, either loving or hating them. I wanted to create NPCs with that kind of external life, but it never quite worked out. My NPCs still felt like cardboard cutouts with little purpose beyond revealing information or complicating the PCs' lives. So, that's something I still need to work on.

I also need to develop a more focused approach to running sessions. A lot of the sessions this semester have felt very haphazard, with players talking over each other or going off on tangents, and there were moments when I almost felt overwhelmed by it all. I don't think it's a problem with the players themselves, since the exact same thing led to my meltdown while running the Spirit of the Century campaign last summer. Other GMs just seem to be better at managing the roleplaying conversation and keeping things focused and on track than I am. I'm not sure what I can do to manage things better, so if there are any GMs out there with some tips on how to remedy this, I'd appreciate the advice a lot.

I'm getting better at establishing initiative order during extended conflict, but I still run pretty rules-light. That's not a bad thing, per se, but the PCs do get away with doing things that they really shouldn't be able to do, and a large part of that is down to me fudging rules in favour of the players. The biggest example is letting PCs use technology that should be far beyond their ken, such as the TARDIS. I'll need to spend some time over the Christmas break reading over the rules again and familiarising myself with them a bit more.

The bottom line is that there was a lot that didn't work in the campaign this semester, but it can't all have been bad, because the players are still up for returning for a second season. So, what did work then?

I found that a more improv approach to session prep worked better than my old method of writing up a bunch of notes for sessions. Back when I was running Stargate, I had time to do that because I only ran once a fortnight, but for a weekly game I had to keep things simple and just came up with a plot, a list of locations, a list of NPCs and stats for the most important NPCs and then ran things on the fly from that. I could probably stand to make my planning a bit more structured, but it's been working okay so far.

I also experimented a little with 'asking questions and building on the answers', a philosophy I picked up from the Apocalypse World school of roleplaying, and it gives the players a bit more freedom to affect the game universe. I may use this tool a bit more in season two.

Also, despite its flaws, this first season of the campaign has set some plots in motion for the next season or two. I have one or two villains I can bring back as foils for the party, and there was a significant threat that wasn't resolved in the season finale.

Looking ahead to season two, I'm going to start working in the PCs' backstories a bit more. There wasn't time this semester, since I needed to establish the status quo first, and it took the first three or four weeks to get PCs backstories worked out, so I'll dedicate more of next season to the PCs' histories and how they relate to the main campaign arc.

Something I'd like to arrange for next semester is a guest GM session or two. Blair has mentioned a couple of different scenarios he could jump in with at some point, possibly even a crossover with his own Star Trek campaign, so I'll see about sorting something out with him. I'd also be interested in inviting Doc to do a session as a guest GM at some point, since the campaign arc I'm running follows on from his own Marvel campaign, but that will depend on whether he can get a week off from James' campaign to do so. It might not happen, but it's something I'd like to try out.

Either for season two or three, I would also like to do some crossover scenarios as well. One that's been specifically requested is a Welcome to Nightvale crossover, and I'm more than happy to work that in somehow; I just need to come up with the right scenario for it. Another request was for Tony Stark to make an appearance, but the player who requested that has left the campaign for the time being.  I would also like to do a crossover with the new Rocket Age RPG from Cubicle 7, which uses the Vortex system which is used for DWAiTAS as well, so it's cross-compatible.

With the introduction of the Temporal Security Agency late in the recent season, I now have a means of introducing drop-in PCs, so I'm going to work on making up a pool of 'playable NPCs' that can be taken from there if a new player needs to join the game on short notice. I'll also try and work in playable NPCs specific to each scenario, which is a practice I started the campaign with, but didn't maintain past session two.

Season one of the campaign has proved to be a bit of a bumpy ride, but hopefully I can build upon the experience to make season two truly awesome for the players. I'll get to work on prep for season two soon.

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