Cult of the Turtle

Joe Tortuga's musing on life,tech and gaming

Shattered Earth in Play

July 05, 2011

A few months ago, I started a campaign with my Shattered Earth setting.  It was the product of some soul-searching about what makes a game fun for me as a GM, and what makes a game fun for the particular players that I have. As such, the setting is quite different than anything I’ve done before, and the restrictions I’ve put on myself have led for some interesting storytelling.  One thing that appeals to me is that I don’t see just one story here, or one campaign.  There’s more than I can do in this setting than a single game, and that makes me happy.

Constraints are wonderful things, and lead to a burst of creativity.  For SE, I had a few important constraints: I invited a lot of people, from all over, all of whom have fairly conflicting schedules. It was originally going to be an online game (and I could still do this in the future).  It would be easy for someone to be at one session, then never again for weeks when they’d show up for another session.  One of our players who has been regular since she showed up will be dropping in and out, I suspect, as her work schedule changes.

To accommodate this, I made two changes to the way I normally run things.  First, I calculate experience for everyone who was there on a per player basis, then I reward that to everyone.  It means everyone is always the same level, so those who can’t show up don’t fall behind.  To reward the players who are there, and for extraordinary play, I’ve added faction tokens, which can be turned in for favors from factions, or for a bonus for dealing with the faction.

I don’t have concrete mechanics for this yet, but the tokens represent influence with a faction, and that’s not always spent.  I’ll probably require that the players relinquish a token for something big and extraordinary, but that the total represents how the group gets along with them.  It hasn’t been used a lot yet, but we’re still in an introductory part of the adventure, where I’m putting things into play.

The other important thing is that whatever I run has to be done the day we start it.  There can be threads that carry over (and there are a lot of those right now).  But no stopping in the middle of a dungeon, or in the middle of the mystery of the week.  (I reserve the right to have a multi-session murder mystery sometime.)  This way there’s no hand-waving about where a character came from or went to in the middle of the dungeon.

In fact this requirement has largely done away with the large dungeon crawl, which I’ve come to realize is one of the things I have the least patience with as a GM.  They are fun to draw and set up, but they’re a bit of a bore to get through.  There’s no spontaneity to a dungeon — it’s all drawn there on your paper, and while you have plans that surely get wrecked by the party, often that’s not the case.

Instead, what I’ve been doing is borrowed form 4E, where I design encounters.  Those encounters are connected by plot, or a hallway, or whatever. I can make that up that day, out of several plans, and in response to the party.  I can say, “I like that” when someone says something at the table, and change the plot to make that work.  (Sometimes I forget to say “I like that”, but it does happen fairly often.)

A recent article I read talked about making combat go faster, and after timing it the author realized that he as GM was the main time sync, and had gone about trying to fix it.  I thought about that, and for the last couple game sessions, I’ve written all the stats for the main monster groups on a 3x5 card, and pre-rolled initiative in the upper right corner.  The players all have a card too, with their init on it, and I just work through the stack.

The only thing that doesn’t work well is HP counting as the NPC isn’t on a card in front of me when the player attacks, but otherwise it goes much faster.  I only had to consult the rule books twice on our session on Saturday. Once was because I thought I’d written something down on the card wrong (I hadn’t, but I could have been neater) and I don’t remember what the other was about, unfortunately.

The other thing he talked about was having a self-made GM Screen with the rules you need on it.  I don’t use a screen, but I did print out the rules on object damage, since that was a key to the adventure and something I was rusty on.  All in all, we ran 6 combat sessions (one, particularly the last one was incredibly short), but we’ve normally only been able to do 2. I was worried about time, and we were done right on time for dinner, which made me happy.

No one was frustrated, including me, and things went well.  I plan to keep working with this system,expanding on it as I go.  I’ll let you know how it goes.