Running the Unplotted Game

For most GM’s, their battered spiral bound notebook is their best friend.  While I would love to claim that time and innovation has upgraded the techniques and equipment, the reality is that, even in this day and age, I’m still prone to fall back on the same sort of equipment that I relied upon in middle school.  Even now, I cart a pen and college ruled notebook wherever I go, keeping it handy for downtime and whenever inspiration hits me.  Sure, I have the ability to sketch my notes out on an electronic document, but ink and paper remain a whole lot more durable and portable.

Then again, that implies that I take the time to actually use any of these notes when running a game.  Or that I’ve planned out enough of a session to actually run something.  There are a lot of times when I’m just sort of lazy, and I find myself falling back on reflexive GM techniques, where I leave such things as planning out of my toolbox.

Tonight, I ran the first actual session of my carefully planned Star Wars – Edge of the Empire game.  I had no idea what I was going to actually offer up as a confrontation.

Sure, I’ve planned a lot for the game.  I worked up a lot of ideas on game flow, in terms of using the Obligations of the characters as a method to draw the plots and universe around the actions that the crew.  I have planned out why all of the various factions are doing the things that they’re doing, and tried to keep each concern separate from the others, simply to keep from overwhelming everyone concerned.  I’ve tried to put together some measure of synergy for the characters, so they have a reason to keep the crew together and work as a group.  And I’ve sketched out the general points of interest for the sector that the game is going to be set in.

What I haven’t done is figure out which sort of low level plots and intrigues are going to be sprinkled through the first few opening sessions.  There are a couple of reasons for this.

First off, the setting of the game is only marginally well known to my players, even despite the cultural ubiquity of Star Wars in general.  Everyone’s seen the original movies a couple of times, but I’ve removed a lot of the familiar aspects of the setting by placing the game some 4,000 years before what’s covered there.  From there, I’ve made a point to play up the diverse nature of the galaxy and work in the recent history as a backdrop.  Accordingly, it’s going to take a couple of sessions just to familiarize everyone with the key points of what they’ve been dropped into, let alone how their characters are going to interact with it.

Secondly, my players went with as diverse a group of characters as possible, with a troupe of characters to fall back on anyway.  This means that, not only do they need to figure out what makes their character tick and what sort of cultural background they’re coming from, they have to do it three separate times each.  They have a shared background to work from, but all that means is that they’ve already been given a reason to work as a group.  Each character has their own issues to work with, and it’s going to take a little while to get their feet underneath them.

And finally, Edge of the Empire is not exactly a simple system to the new player.  Granted, it’s not a difficult one to learn the basics of, but the synergy of the dice and the ways that the different effects can be used has a fairly solid learning curve that needs to be overcome.  This means that throwing the players into the deep end of the pool is a poor idea, when only the GM has any concept of what the symbols on the dice even mean.  I have the tables from the GM screen to work with as a form of cheat, but for the time being, I’m still trying to figure out which skills govern which actions, even as my players struggle with the concepts.

I’ve got a pretty solid lock on how to assemble dice pools in the first place, so I can relay that to my players without major difficulty, but there’s also a system for evaluating the various environmental factors that can help or hinder actions.  These take the form of different dice, which can also be influenced by innate character talents and the lingering effects of the previous round’s actions.  Once these are dealt with, then it comes down to altering the dice pool through different intervention and using the reserves of Strain (essentially the individual character’s Stress level) to effect different results.  As should be fairly evident, this can get somewhat involved.

The biggest thing, I’m finding, is how to handle the complexity of ‘Success with Complication’ and ‘Failure with Advantage’ within the realm of interpreting the dice.  I’ve seen this sort of mechanic in other systems, to varying degrees, but there are specifically codified rules on how to handle such things in the course of the game.  From what I’ve made sense of the system, it has a certain elegance, but learning how best to invoke the results will take time.  Teaching my players how best to use the system will take even more time.

So with this in mind, I made an informed choice to plan as little as possible for this session.  There is an overarching plot that I’m intending to introduce as the game goes on, but none of that is required for the time being.  Since I still have to teach the nuances of the system, I simply painted the backgrounds of the setting and waited to see what sort of interest the players started to take in what was going on.

This sort of technique has a couple of effects.  By keeping things general, even as I’m throwing in copious amounts of detail, I can let the characters wander around and start to take note of the setting.  This allows the world to take shape for the players and establishes what sort of situation they’re finding themselves in at the outset.  It also allows them to choose which details are important to them, reinforcing their character builds even as they decide what aspects of the characters appeal most to them.

The initial session put them in Keskarin City, one of the main spaceports of the Emaris System.  Around the space port, a crowded market district sprawled outward, having taken over existing buildings to house the myriad of market stalls that had grown up around the area.  I went into detail about the crowded tables of the individual kiosks that filled the once wide hallways of what may have originally been government buildings or hospitals or transit terminals.  Each merchant vied for attention above the din of the place, a thick stench of bustling crowds mingling with food carts as knots of people moved through the area.

Immediately, the Rodian Survivalist – originally cast as the sniper and scout of the unit, perhaps wrongfully accused of massacring a native village in the last days of the war – began looking for signs of ambush and tactical advantage.  The other two characters were involved in simple barter and looking through the various wares, and the player had seized on the idea of his character’s potential obsession with situational awareness.  Perfect.  I could run him through a couple of basic rolls to start grinding down the edges of our collective inexperience, and in the process, he could get a better handle on what this character arc was going to entail.  The character was concerned with the low lying smog that served to obscure the upper levels of the buildings in the market, and as a scout, he went off to see if the group was in danger.

In his investigations, he started trailing a suspicious Quarren with a blaster rifle that he assumed was likely up to no good.  Eventually, the Quarren led him into an alley and the two of them got into a fight.  In the end, the scout managed to knock out – and subsequently murder – his opponent.  He looted the corpse and escaped back toward the spaceport, barely conscious and heavily wounded.  This is the point where I realize that his reputation as a murdering war criminal may not, in fact, be a case of mistaken identity.

Calling back for help, he alerts the other two characters of his plight, and they move to help him out of harm’s way.  The Selonian Soldier – whose background involves having been the sole survivor of an all Selonian unit that seems to have been massacred on orders from higher up – decides that she’s going to act as rear guard, covering the other characters’ escape as she causes a distraction.  The character does little other than fight, and the player starts to see exactly what shortcomings are inherent in this particular build.

Already the character is coming into better focus, as she’s generally willing to shield her companions from harm by interposing herself instead.  This feeds into the vague elements of death wish and protectiveness that had been vaguely alluded to by the player.  And the lack of subtlety on the character’s part became immediately evident when she found herself unable to get the drop on her opponents.  The ensuing fight gave the opportunity for the player to start making sense of the dice and the way Destiny Points ebbed and flowed, and discrete parts of combat began to fall into place.

The session ended with the Selonian limping away into the crowd after bringing down a half dozen pursuers and causing a large enough distraction that her crew was able to evade notice.  I had started out with the vaguest of ideas in mind – the characters are in a spaceport – and built it up from there.  The Rodian’s interest in suspicious people offered that particular plot up as a direction.  When he murdered the one person of interest, that brought out details in his character and pulled together a new plot for a different character – cover the escape of the first character.

This very basic setup allowed for a decent introduction to the characters and the rules, and the permutations of the character actions can influence further events down the line.  It was never ascertained why the Quarren with the gun was watching the marketplace from a rooftop, but it’s become important now.  And it will have ramifications on what will happen from this point forward.

So while planning out sessions and encounters can help make a great game, a great deal of good can come from being able to run a session without a strictly defined plot, as it can set up better plots down the line.

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Posted on May 3, 2014, in Gaming Philosophy and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Once again, you explain so much of my gaming philosophy in a post about a system I do not use. Working without a plot, but a well defined setting is great. If you get a group of players that are self motivating, then you can build up great stories and set pieces with deep meaning for group and personal experience for the PCs. You get to build the best stories that way. Please keep blogging.

  2. That’s pretty much how I tend to plan campaigns: more reactive and relying on improvisation on my feet. I try to plan more for setting, set-pieces, and the factions/NPCs who do stuff the players react to (and who then react to the stuff the players do, and visa versa, ad infinitum) rather than specific linear plotlines that are easily avoided. After that, the actual game amounts to winding up the players and letting them loose; stuff then happens, which causes the players to do more stuff in response, which leads to a snowball effect of stuff happening.

    The problem I’ve had is when you get a group who… aren’t proactive at all, who just sit around waiting for the plot to be handed to them on a plate, where no amount of hooks or ideas elicit a response. It’s the most mind-numbingly dull experience I’ve ever had as a GM.

  1. Pingback: On the topic of time-worn cliche… | The Games Librarian

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