The campaign premise was:
The planet of Borlo was a backwater for over 40 years. Then about 3 weeks ago, a citizen found alien ruins-- the first alien ruins to be had in humanities long and lonely search of the stars. Now there is a rush like has not been seen for centuries: men and women are flooding into a formerly barren wasteland in search of wealth.The PC's were planetary marshals given cases to solve, spread out over the planet. They solved two cases, each with multiple stages of finding suspects. They did pretty well, all things considered: of the 9 criminals they chased, one was left with a warning and remained a police informant, three got comparatively light sentencing (all in exchange for names and or testimony), one got away, and four got hit hard.
Things the Players EnjoyedNegotiating with prisoners was a large part of the game, and one the players really seemed to enjoy. A lot of the time you never know if an NPC is going to grab their attention or not, but each time they picked up a batch of crooks, one of them grabbed the attention of the PC's, and they connected with a string of criminals, and actually cared about what happened to them in the end -- even if 'cared' means 'I want to make sure you don't get off with a lite sentence'! A good part of this was how much work they put into figuring out who the NPC was before they ever met them. PC's generally connect with NPC's they remember, and making the goal of the adventure finding someone is a good way to make them memorable.
I insisted that players come up with the questions to ask, rather than just rolling against, say... computer operation and finding out everything they needed to know. This was intentional stylistic choice for a cops game. It really helped to bring the world to life -- players cared about the details, and we had lots of fun extrapolating what WOULD be known in a given science fiction situation. It also helped to keep players involved -- one player usually had the spotlight, but everyone else was thinking of questions they wanted asked. This isn't for every game, but I highly suggest it for a mystery game.
GMing LessonsThis game saw a bit of player drama. And I finally bit the bullet and realized that my job as a GM is NOT about merely presenting adventures, but about balancing personality issues, ensuring that everyone else speaks up, and generally being the social grease. This is not something that I wanted do. I wish I could just play a character called "The world" and present challenges for the players.
I'm glad I bit that bullet. Its helped with the game a lot, and its helped build that camaraderie between players I've always assumed was natural. If you are trying to GM or looking for a GM, you are there as much to help the players get along as you are to present a world. The good news is that gaming culture gives you the tools to make that easy, and it actually hasn't been that much work. It was just essential for me to realize that its my job, no one else will do it, and when you have a grab bag of players off the internet, it needs to be done.
Why didn't I pick this up before? Well, my prior GM experience is either on PbP, which tends to minimize personal issues in favor of the game (typing is much more expensive than talking), or with my relatives. And with the relatives I played with, I'm pretty much the alpha by dint of age and longstanding relationships. And everyone knows each other really well.
I also started keeping track of time this game. It worked really well, added an aspect of management, and helped in organizing NPC actions. I'll probably continue to do it.
The other big lesson was: Play what you want to play. When I started playing on roll20, I intentionally went with 'popular' (meaning common) options with the intent to switch to something I personally wanted more later. I don't think I got more interest with the generic, and I certainly had a lot more. So I'm going to play what I want to play.
This isn't to say that "bad games" don't exist. Many ideas won't be valid, or will require extra out of your players. Before you go ahead and play, make sure its a good idea that will be fun for everyone. but that has very little to do with setting, and more to do with making sure the focus is still on the players and they can have fun. So from now on, I'm saying goodby to generic and playing in whatever setting I please! (which is not to say that players don't get a say. I've been vetting multiple ideas and giving them a choice first).
Things I enjoyedI learned that I get tired of playing in the same setting for too long. Last game I played I was all played out by the end. I still needed to finish the mission, and if you're tired of a game, it can really drag. This time I watched for that effect, and ended the campaign before it got old. This let me do a proper ending, and we had a nice 30 minutes at the end where we talked about what happened to each of the characters after the campaign.
The PC's had lots of decisions, and the combination of "you can do anything" and "you're supposed to be doing this" was fun to watch. They tracked down people out of order, caught me by surprise, and completely missed possibilities. This was entertaining to watch in a way that combat just can't match.
It was also really nice to watch players get immersed in the setting, and understand where they were and what the world was like. I think the key was to make those things matter to the plot.
Last of all, and I'll talk about this in a later post, I ran a game with two minor combats that still remained tense and engaging. I don't enjoy slaughter fests, and I consider doing a non-combat-oriented game in real time with multiple players to be a personal success. Ironically, lives WERE at stake. They just weren't decided by who had fancier gun-play.
Things I Could Have Done BetterWe had a player than kept notes. It was in many cases a life-saver: we'd start each session by reading the notes that he took and that would usually be enough to jog my memory. I could have kept my private notes better. A GM has a lot that he's doing, but in this case, I think we would have had a stronger game if I had kept more than the most minimal of notes. This became very apparent when our note-keeper couldn't make a session, and we had to remember what happened earlier.
I also have come to the conclusion that player knowledge of numbers matters. Secret rolls may be ominous, but there is a strength to declaring exactly what a PC needs in order to succeed or fail. In some ways hidden rolls can make GMing easier, but I'm realizing its a crutch. Game-play is about making decisions, and without information, there is no decision. So I'm going to need to work on that.
In ConclusionI learned a lot, and I enjoyed the campaign. While I pride myself as a setting builder, I'm a newbie GM. I'll soon be putting up info on setting, and a few more thoughts inspired by the campaign.
I hope you can learn from my mistakes.