Monday, July 11, 2011

[Campaign Analysis] Secrets of Yog-Francisco

Something I'd love to see more of on Ye Olde Blogs are analyses of campaigns, both those that wrap up successfully and those that fall apart. What worked, what didn't. Expectations going in and how those expectations morphed and changed over the course of the campaign. To that end, I'll be posting the very thing whenever a campaign wraps up.

Oh, look - I had a campaign just wrap up yesterday. Talk about good timing!

I've just now dubbed the campaign Secrets of Yog-Francisco. It didn't have that name going in. I know some folks like to name their campaigns right away (and most folks don't name them at all); for the duration it was being run, it was simply "the Cthulhu campaign." It was set in San Francisco from 1923-24 and made extensive use of Secrets of San Francisco and a couple adventures from White Dwarf set in SF.

This campaign marked my first stab at putting a group together over the Internet since 2002. The '02 experiment was, for me, completely unsuccessful, even resulting in my own personal brush with Creepiest Gamer territory. Ironically the group I convened carried on without me for at least a couple years (after they kicked out the Creepy Gamer, of course). Just call me the Gamer Matchmaker, I guess. In all seriousness, they were perfectly okay with playing "tabletop Everquest" - grinding through dungeons and wilderness encounters, killing things and taking their stuff. Not my style, but to each their own. It definitely put me off the idea of gaming with strangers, though.

With the brief exception of 2002 my preference has always been to game with people with whom I am friends or at least good acquaintances with. It tends to cultivate a sense of shared goals for what we all want out of gaming, since we're all by definition sort of "swimming in the same waters" to begin with. I've also almost without exception been the guy who introduces RPGs to others. Whenever I'd put a group together or find a new person joining an existing group it was inevitably an RPG newbie or newbies sitting at the table.

So this campaign represented quite a departure from my usual M.O. on several levels. Not only were these strangers, but about half the group were not just familiar with RPGs, they were actually hobbyists like myself. Another major change of pace for me was the group size: it started with two players but added a new player each session until it topped out at five (and even six on one or two occasions). My high school/college group took years to get up to four players; five was undreamed of and six was just completely ridiculous.

As a result, my preference does tend to run towards smaller groups - I consider three players the ideal balance - but I had a great time running this campaign nonetheless. It's hard to turn people away who want to play, especially if it's a game like Call of Cthulhu; non-D&D campaigns aren't exactly a dime a dozen, especially in a smaller city such as mine.

I really think the secret of success was primarily the fact that I was running a non-D&D campaign. I've alluded to this in recent posts, but it bears repeating: if you're looking to put together a gaming group, it pays to run something a little quirky and off the beaten path. Casting a wide net by running a vanilla D&D campaign (as I did in 2002) pretty much guarantees that you'll get a wide mix of people, which is good for filling seats but also significantly raises the odds of ending up with incompatible aims and goals.

Speaking of aims and goals, the main adjustment I had to make with running a campaign for a larger group was not in the actual running of the game but rather the planning. I suspect there's an inverse relationship between group size and the influence a GM has over the campaign. That is to say, with smaller groups (or solo games), as a GM I have a greater voice in punching up certain themes or recurring NPCs. The larger the group gets, the more autonomy the players can exert. Themes emerge more organically. NPCs, both beloved and despised, tend to emerge organically.

This is not to say these processes don't occur with smaller groups. But I've found, looking back on the just-wrapped campaign, that almost everything emerged organically. At the outset of the campaign, I sat down and made a list of themes, adventures, and NPCs that I wanted to see featured in the campaign. I'd say over 95% of that list went untapped.

Instead of my intention to feature Nyarlathotep, we saw Yog-Sothoth emerge as the central dark force behind many of the campaign events. Recurring themes grew up on their own: ingenues in peril, Pinkerton detectives, sorcerers, and trans-dimensional travel. Although I still prefer smaller groups, I have to say I really enjoyed the organic development that came with the larger group.

What Worked Well
* I have to give myself a pat on the back for pacing. I kept adventures cooking along while seeing each one increase the deadliness bit by bit. The first PC death didn't occur until the penultimate session. Yesterday's grand finale allowed me to pull out all the stops, and we ended with two deaths, one permanent insanity, one PC reduced to a single Sanity point(!) and indefinitely insane, and the only intact PC stranded 85 years in the future in present-day San Francisco (and ready to be dusted off if/when I run a modern-day Cthulhu campaign).
* I think I did a good job with creating a sense of place. There's not much point to setting a campaign in a specific locale if it's indistinguishable from Anytown, USA. Having lived in San Francisco for five years (and the fact that so much of that city has essentially remained unchanged since the Twenties) allowed me to draw upon visceral memories to paint pictures of the city's geography, architecture, public transit, weather, and more. I even have a poster map reproduction of San Francisco in the Twenties that I'd haul out to provide a visual aide at times. If you're running a campaign in the modern era, there's a definite advantage to running a campaign in an area you've lived in and are familiar with.

What Needs Improvement
* About halfway through the campaign I realized that although I was doing a great job with creating a real sense of place, I was seriously lagging on creating a sense of the times. That is, there was little to demonstrate the fact I was running the game in the Twenties other than occasional references to Prohibition. Once I realized this, I started paying more attention to how I was describing NPCs' outfits and other physical props, but I'd be curious to hear others' feedback on how they create a sense of the times with historical games.
* I started the campaign with an omnibus list of "creepy encounters" to throw at the players periodically, intended to keep them off-balance and ratchet up the weirdness factor. I forgot the timeless lesson of The Gazebo: the more something seems like a non-sequitir, the more meaning the players will assign to it. I'll have to work on integrating creepy events into the main narrative or else presenting them in a way that the players can't really follow up or act on them.

All in all, I was tremendously satisfied with how the campaign turned out and the great group that gelled around it. So what's up next? After some discussion over a post-campaign feast, we settled on...Pendragon! Muahaha! This group likes the off-beat games, and for that I am eternally grateful. Even better? I get to be a player this time; Des has volunteered to fill the GM's chair. It'll likely be a brief campaign by Pendragon standards - probably "only" 20 to 40 years of game time...
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