Lazy Luddite Log

7.1.18

Game Over

I announced my fantasy setting online here and then enthused about a new game set in it here. That game went for over four years and was only recently completed. I have never been in a game that lasted so long and with such stability. We had the same Games Master (GM) in me and the same four players for the entire time (with the occasional guest now-and-then).

I think logistics helped keep the game running. We almost always played at the same share household (in which most of the players lived). We almost always played on a Saturday (daytime). We negotiated dates at which we could all attend which averaged to one long session per month. A more important factor was that everyone was committed to the activity because it was fun. Part of that fun arose from spending time with friends we may have otherwise missed. However a lot of it also came from us enjoying the game itself.

My manner of GMing focuses on story-telling. The problem with this is it can make for a game that is overly directed by the GM. However my players seemed to welcome my structure and it did allow for a lot of leeway. The overall direction of my intended campaign was preserved but there were many player-directed twists and turns along the way. These necessitated me responding with re-routings of my story that were usually better than the original plan.

A story-telling focus had me talking a lot but the others seemed okay with that. I did share some of the work however by getting players to read narrative passages or participate in written dialogue. Everyone seemed to like the play-acting aspect of this.

Most of the talk however was paraphrased or improvised as is usual in role-playing. I was narrator and also (over time) scores of incidental characters (which I loved inventing). I discovered that it was both efficient and interesting to re-use many such non-player characters.

You would think that a role-play game set in the imaginations of its players would lack the limitations of budget imposed on (say) a television serial. However in practice I found that a GM has only so much time and energy to invent new concepts. As such old incidental characters would return to the story as needed. Likewise key locales were re-purposed at different times. There was economy to this but it also had an interesting affect on players. The familiar resonates with us and helps provide a sense of coherence to a long campaign. It also allowed me to put new twists on old concepts and this was sometimes more surprising than a wholly new element.

A favourite re-use of something for me was the Jagged Tooth Keep. This site had originally been visited ‘in the flesh’ by the original characters but then much later the Lost Wanderers (played by the same players) stumbled into a magical simulation of it. Confusion and suspicion ensued. The Jagged Tooth was just one of many concepts for which I made maps, illustrations, descriptions and even chose themed music (Fortress Around Your Heart by Sting). In this way I got to be creative and expand muchly on the content of The Lands.

Gaming definitely expanded the information content of my setting. This included mundane things like describing livestock (small kine and huge fowl are the norm) and local customs (such as a ban on propositioning someone more than three times). However it also resulted in some extraordinary content (such as demonstrating that a string of objects sometimes seen following the Moon were in fact an ancient and magical sky elevator).

With a few glaring exceptions I made my world a small-scale one. In some fantasy settings we see fortresses as tall as modern skyscrapers but I preferred something more modest. Part of this was a desire to anchor the setting in history. Another was to make the few spectacular things all-the-more impressive. And yet another was to make The Lands seem like a cozy world – one worth saving from the enemy forces of my long-term campaign.

My players were presented with a complex story but I also made some effort to incorporate other kinds of gaming too. My players enjoy solving puzzles and so I did what I could to present some. However I lack skill in this area so borrowed concepts liberally from existing games and tales. Once I even purchased a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle that was part of the story but also had to be solved by the players themselves for the characters to succeed.

Another area in which I lack skill is strategy and combat simulation (even using my own ‘home-brew’ rules variations). However we had a number of eventful encounters during the campaign and got better at them over time. The last one involved an Undead Dragon that belched aging at its rivals and which was set in a 'dungeon' based on the current map of Chadstone Shopping Centre (sometimes it saves time to use existing things and any old thing will do).

I found it challenging to make my game challenging. For one thing my story had a relatively optimistic tone to which my players responded well. For another it is difficult for one mind (that of a GM managing however many antagonists) to face four minds each focused on ensuring the safety of four protagonists. I did a few novel things to give the characters bigger challenges. One was for the renowned Lost Wanderers to experience a flash-back game in which they were novices. Another was to give my players some antagonists to temporarily play to get a feel for what life is like for minor villains facing champions.

The key villains of my game were anonymous and distant in nature, impersonal supernatural forces motivated by hunger rather than cruelty. It was necessary to fight them just as it is necessary to respond to a locust swarm. This concept has always interested me but I do feel I could have put more work into also developing personal villains for the heroes to have an enmity with. There were a few non-player characters who could have done this but I never drove this and in the end they all became allies facing a common menace.

A theme of my game was that it is sometimes necessary to unite with those of markedly different morality to ones own. With this and other themes I made the story be the messenger rather than give characters moralizing speeches (as is the trend in much fiction these days). I subverted a characteristic of sword-and-sorcery tales by having a barbarian warrior and an undead lich (literary rivals) work together to hone a future champion of The Lands. This non-player character resented the manipulation once discovered but took on a leadership role of her own volition, did so in her own way and re-positioned her mentors as followers.

Another subversion I enjoyed presenting was that of having a classical fantasy world successfully resist an incursion by forces more at home in cosmic horror. In my teens it seemed odd that Dungeons & Dragons had familiar fantasy races in it (like Elves and Dwarves and Goblins) but also hosted products of a more demented imagination (like Mind Flayers and Beholders). At the time I just assumed the game creators had been indulging in mind-altering substances back in the 70s. I now know that they were influenced by more than just J R R Tolkien and also drew on the shared settings of H P Lovecraft and R E Howard. My campaign can be seen as me expressing a preference for the former over the latter.

Hope was very much a message but so was bravery in the absence of hope. Characters in my fantasy setting assume they have an immortal spirit but the Starborn Invaders (as I called the cosmic horrors) had the ability to consume spirit as if it were energy. The moral challenge then was to resist for the sake of others and for the future even at the risk of personal annihilation. In this sense fantasy characters suddenly faced the kind of danger we face in reality. How they conducted themselves became as significant as any eventual victory or reward.

I got to enact so many schemes that I had been imagining for ages. In particular it was fantastic to show how one can time-travel by fooling history into thinking one belongs in the past. This was done to bring Lost Legions that had vanished in the past into the present to help save the world (in a variation of the old ‘Sleeping Hero’ legend that made an entire community the long-hoped-for saviour and a time-loop into the method that brings them back).

All that gaming has been recorded in whole paragraphs that are interesting to look back over and could in the future form the basis of some fiction writing. I could also now edit and expand the content of my Lands weblog but will have to decide what information should stay secret. And finally I should modify some of my ‘homebrew’ rules with game experience in mind (in particular my clergy and rogues need more heroic moments relative to my warriors and mages).

The Lands was saved in the end but has also been changed. Populations have been disrupted. Balances of power have shifted and new alliances formed. Secrets were exposed and a few more generated. The Lost Wanderers were granted a province to govern while our original party won possession of an ancient and forgotten ‘sky-ship’. There could definitely be more gaming but for now I will give it a rest and get on with other things.

Thanks to my players Varia, Marty, Katrina and Sarah for all that gaming. You are fun-loving, inventive, creative, and as skilled at making peace as at winning wars. Thanks also to occasional guests Josh, Belinda and Cameron for help and extra company. I had a fantastic time.

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