Fourth “Empire of Ashes” Session Summary Posted

Another episode of our dark fantasy, Savage Worlds shenanigans has arrived!  It’s not enough that we’ve killed Valix Drogue and everyone who ever knew him in the city.  Now we’re off to find his country manor and kill everyone who ever knew him there as well.  Because that’s just the way we roll.

We’re somewhat beaten to the punch by the demiplane of Ravenloft, as his manor is now surrounded by mists and inhabited by undead.  We fight a witch or something, and a lich or something.  And ghost light pillars and bone piles.  We were unclear on a lot of it.  But Bruce’s session summary is quite entertaining, read it at:

The session kinda went bad and people were grumpy towards the end; there was even a bit of GM/player squabbling.  This is a common enough problem so I’ll talk about it frankly.  Your input on similar situations and potential resolutions is welcome!

Seed Issues

1.  Chuck, our erstwhile GM, runs a good game but has one weakness – description.  When game world descriptions are incomplete or confusing, it hinders the PCs from being clear on what’s going on.  We had a number of encounters where there was pretty much no setup, just minis put onto a tactical map and we’re off to combat.  “Are those goblin minis the zombies again this time?”  Tactical maps and minis can actually be even more confusing than not having them when some of the minis/features are representative of what’s going on and others aren’t, and there’s not a clear explanation of what the party sees.

2.   We have a fairly large group for this game and it can be chaotic anyway with people rambling on about random stuff. Even from the start, there were times where the GM was trying to get a word in edgewise for like 5 minutes while people babbled on loudly about whatever story, movie review, or whatever came to their mind.  (I’m guilty of this one too.)

Now, these two things can both be overcome, until the “death spiral” starts.

The Death Spiral

Here’s what happened.  Confused players got a little disaffected and bored and started paying less attention and being even more disruptive.  People would wander away from the table for long periods or be doing other things.  Our host was running some kind of loud industrial equipment at inopportune times by halfway through the session.  During the final combat, it had gotten so bad it was comical.  Chuck was trying to explain what these ghost light pillar things were, and every time he tried to clarify it the host’s girlfriend would hit “puree” on a food processor located 4 feet from us.  Needless to say, this was obviously wearing upon the GM’s poise.

As we’re gamers, and therefore by definition good Marty McFly conflict avoidance types, we all just let this build up till near the end open arguing broke out between the GM and players about a typical “you’re trying to weasel your way out of a trapped area now that it’s been triggered” thing, which was of course not what was really bothering anyone.

So at the end, things ended normally, but I think with negative aftereffects, with some players less enthused about the campaign and the GM less enthused about doing a lot of work for seemingly less than grateful players.

What To Do?

I’m sure everyone will get over it, most of these guys have been gaming together for a decade or something.  I’m “the new guy” because I’ve only been here for five years.  So this isn’t a crisis of Biblical proportions.  But how do you stop the spirals from happening?

It’s easy to say “nip it in the bud early.”  But no one wants to be a hardass out of the gate, and some amount of game disruptions and/or weak descriptions just happen, you can’t make a federal case out of it when it happens on occassion.  But then you start to feel like interrupting the flow of things to address problems is harder later on.  Once it’s already been going this way, it’s hard for the GM to say halfway through the session, “Look, you guys shut the fuck up and pay attention if you want me to be running this game!”   (Though frankly I would have backed that play.)   How do you get back on track, and “gently?”

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14 responses to “Fourth “Empire of Ashes” Session Summary Posted

  1. Since I’m the captain of the Titanic, I figured I’d chime in.
    Bad Descriptions: The first adventure fully written fluff and box text. Which I hardly got read before shouts of “I kill it!” So moved on to rough notes and improv description. But I admit I need better power of description. I need some description Viagra.
    Yeah, I got to the point of just throwing down mini’s and tiles on this one. That was about all the plot that the group could have handled at that time. I re-did the adventure on the fly. If I couldn’t keep you focused on plot then maybe violence would work.
    As far as getting back on track, once things go wonky during a session just ride it out and start fresh next time and be ready to grab that bitch by throat next time.

  2. I wear PANTS!!!

    Ok, I’m guilty of side-tracking the game, but I’m not the only one. Anyway, I take full advantage of hosting the games by disappearing for awhile for a well earned bathroom break, do some laundry (no folding), or I stay in the kitchen/dining room with the game and make/open a snack or clean something or unload the dishwasher. I do this so I don’t go bat-shit insane listening to one of the group’s more patient players ask questions, role-play asking questions, investigate things with a microscope “because the game/gm/module can’t pull a clue to save our sorry asses”, or listen to the same f’in story again, or listen to another unrelated story. I’m not complaining, honest. I love my friends like the brothers I never had despite their odd habits, weird smells, long stories, etc… Ok, they have good habits and good stories too. I’m just reserving the right to do something constructive (laundry, cleaning, making a snack, etc…) when the game gets slow or stuck.
    That said, I usually return to the table to find I don’t know what’s going on and that a saving throw or initiative roll is required. Then I ask a lot of questions. Sorry. I’m not trying to be a dick; it just looks that way.
    I used to be the power gamer… no, no, my character designs sucked even then. I mean I was the guy who had to have ALL of the gm’s attention so I could keep things moving (The way I wanted it to). I’ve since handed over the reins to the other power gamers in our group or to the players who are paying attention or to the player who desperately wants a conversation (any conversation), because I’m trying to reduce my Asshole-footprint (trying for a parallel to carbon-footprint) on the world. I don’t really care if anyone appreciates it, I just did it because its an easy fix, gives others more GM facetime, and makes me feel better… The end result however is a lesser understanding of the game, the encounter, the module, the campaign, etc…
    And after all that, if someone thinks I’m being a weasel, well, too bad. I’m not. I’ve fallen on my sword (not literally) plenty of times in order to maintain a definite aura “I’m not a weasel”. Frak that from now on because it made me feel like a doormat, wasn’t fun, and no one else seemed to give a Frak. I’m still not a weasel, but I’m not going to lie down when I think the GM or another player is making the wrong call.

  3. Oh yeah, I almost forgot. Sorry, Chuck. I realize now that the game started sucking for you the GM early on and probably didn’t get better toward the end. I’ll try to work with you in the future and pay attention.

  4. Like I said via other means. At the end, I was more focused on keeping control of myself rather than the table. You just got brunt of my wrath.

  5. Cool!!!

    And Cool!!! I thought I was the only GM in our group who wanted to pummel the players until bones crunched.

  6. My advice: stop running the games at Chris’ house. :)

  7. My advice to avoid the Death Spiral: Be prepared to condense the descriptor at the front end of a battle into a 15 sec format for people like Chris that run back to the room for the fight. I have a 6 player game that gets hectic too and I find that a brief explanation that lets them know that the penny on the tiles is the bugbear, the quarter is the lich and the piece of tape is a wall solves a lot of problems for those who have been in la-la land for the 5 minutes leading up to the encounter. I also make sure that if the players don’t understand a portion of the map or misinterpret part and make their character act on it, I allow them to take it back since it’s impossible or ridiculous.

    Also, either stop running games at Chris’ house or, Chris, find things to do to be constructive while keeping close enough to the gaming room that you can keep track of roughly what’s going on. Maybe fold that laundry in the room beside the gaming table :)

    I’m a math teacher so I’m used to trying to redirect people who aren’t on track. Since these are your friends, I advise Chuck to just be quiet for a few, even ignoring the player that is trying to get your attention, since they’ll be the one that clues in that you’re not speaking since EVERYONE else is jabbering and they’ll ask people to quiet down and pay attention. I’m that player in a friend’s game and generally I start the session by saying “So… we were Jedi and fighting stormtroopers last week, right?” Everyone who’s talking about their workday blues shut up at that point and we start getting into the game. No one has to argue, no fights break out, we just need to be reminded that we’re not just getting together to bitch about our boss, but instead to slay some dragons.

  8. @Chis “I’m just reserving the right to do something constructive (laundry, cleaning, making a snack, etc…) when the game gets slow or stuck.”

    I have to say, this is kinda selfish mentality. No, seriously. The /constructive/ thing to do when the game is getting slow or stuck is to try and fix the game, not turn your back on it and ignore it an therefor contribute to the downward spiral of apathy that starts to effect everyone. It’s really easy to dismiss your impact here, but one distracted/away player can easily cascade into another,r then another… nothing tells someone it’s okay to not be involved like another player not being involved. “No need to pay attention, Chris isn’t even here yet…”

    I’ve been in a group that has had players that got up and took showers in the middle of the game, opened up their laptops to “just check one thing”, did their bills, did their freelance proofing work and watched sports “only when it wasn’t effecting anyone cause I’m not involved”. And each time, it effects the group. My group of 10+ years more or less disintegrated over some table side behavior a couple of years back. Lots of passive aggressive behaviors, lots of ignoring your impact on others… it got messy when the passive suddenly became much less so. The group never actually recovered, and the group I play with now is a much different than it was back then (smaller, and different people). I’m not saying it will happen to your group, but don’t assume it won’t just cause you are friends that played together for long periods of time.

  9. Now, now, the point here is not to pile on Chris. Everyone is game-disruptive from time to time, and many of the other players including myself were guilty of major non-game-related sidetracking. The question is, how do you address issues that arise in the context of the game session?

    Some ideas…
    All the players should try to encourage each other to stay on track. And sometimes people in our group do. But again, we have a good share of the passive-aggressive gamer syndrome, and a lot of time that “encouragement” is often just people acting freaky. Speaking directly is often better, but how do you do that without sounding harsh (and usually groups that handle things passive-aggressively are sensitive to someone openly saying “Hey man, you should probably be paying attention” or “Hey man, can you back up and describe this scene to us again from the beginning?”)? Are there good constructive techniques here?

    I know there are many, many gaming groups that have a largely passive-aggressive social demeanor, so don’t pretend we’re the only ones!

    I have done things in other games like having clear delineations between break time and play time. Had one campaign where we’d do 50 minutes of game and then 10 minutes of getting food, dump-taking, talking about Babylon 5, making phone calls, etc. every hour on the hour. But different groups are more or less “deep into it,” and this group is definitely more casual/social and less IC roleplay. I think we could have a better clear “start point,” though, sometimes (with our other GM too) it’s not clear when social time is over and we’re really launching back into play.

  10. Personally, I have no problems with the venue. Heck, we’ve gamed in other places and the same events have occurred.
    And despite doing various house chores, Chris is actually one of the attentive ones.

  11. I hate to admit it, but the DM’s guide for 4E has some things about delegating roles to your players in an effort to get/keep them involved. Something as simple as getting Malcolm to keep track of initiative values and Tara (the power-gamer) to keep one finger in the PHB to look up obscure rules for both the DM and the players. It might be a way to keep people connected to the game.

    See? No Chris bashing involved in this post :)

  12. @Steve – Usually I don’t like “gimmicky” solutions but now that you mention it, the shape of the table is making the card-based initiative system a colossal pain in the ass. The GM and players are tossing playing cards at each other over 6′ of table. Maybe someone in the middle of the table being on dealer duty would help that and give them something to do.

    In Savage Worlds, though, there’s a lot less “bookkeeping” to do (after you’ve played it once, there is no rule-looking-up to do, for instance) so really that’s the only outsourcable monkey work. We do have a guy on session summary duty, but it doesn’t stop him from nodding off at the table from time to time. (When reading this session summary, you might ask why I kept singing James Bond theme songs and dancing suggestively at the session scribe – two reasons; one, my own perverse entertainment, but two, keeping him awake.)

  13. On the Savage Worlds card-based init system. Good concept. Made hairy at our table because of its length; cards get tossed way on down and it’s not always easy to see them all to know who’s next (between food items and battlemats).

    One basic critique – the suite order is the bridge order, not the poker order. That’s pretty femme.

    One advanced comment – boy, it would be nice if the cards were used for more. Like if you could build a poker-style hand over the course of the combat, or combo up with teammates, or something. Right now it’s basically a replacement for “roll for init” with the Jokers thrown in for a little spice. Seems underwhelming for the cost of adding a whole new resolution mechanic to the dice.

  14. With the number of players and the short attention spans, just about any initiative system is going to be cumbersome. “Hey, you it’s your turn.” Actually, I like the cards. It’s easier than most systems to keep up with. And the tossing of cards, heck, just a little bit more fun at the table. It’s livable.

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