A campaign failure mode

General Uncharted Worlds and tangential matters discussion
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BlckKnght
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A campaign failure mode

Post by BlckKnght » Wed Feb 06, 2019 7:44 pm

Hey everybody. I'm a fairly inexperienced player of UW, but I wanted to describe something I've now seen two and a half times in the campaigns I've been in. This is the gradual collapse of the game as players get overwhelmed by worldbuilding and quit to play D&D or something else that's less demanding.

I'm not coming at this from a GM's perspective exactly, as I've not tried my hand at GMing, but since I've seen this happen to two different GMs now in almost exactly the same way, I thought I'd bring it up and see if more experienced players and GMs had any ideas I could pass along to the GMs (or use myself if I do try running my own game). Now, both of these games were made up of random internet folks who signed up from Roll20, so I suspect a lot of the issues could be avoided with more committed players (e.g. a group of real world friends).

The issue started in session 0, where a huge amount of the group's time was spent on defining the factions in the world. Many of the players didn't really know what was going on, it seemed, and so it was very awkward when they were asked questions by the GM about what the factions should be. There's a lot of stuff to nail down, like what kinds of alien species make up the faction, and how the factions interrelate, so these discussions always took a long time. This was often overlapped by a discussion about what we wanted our group to be doing, as we were building our characters and discussing things like our workspaces. I found it to be quite easy to build a single character (the rules at the start of chapter 7 are pretty clear), but it was much trickier for everyone to figure out how we should be building a cohesive group of characters. In one of the games we tried using the "Group Career" rules from FBH, but it was still a bit awkward (what does it really mean for our "ship" to be a scoundrel when none of our characters are?).

This lead to the big problem each of my groups has run into at the very start of session 1. The very first thing that happens at the start of a jump point is for the GM to ask the players a bunch of additional questions as they're setting the scene. Unfortunately, these questions lead some of the less PbtA-savvy players think just means we're doing more world-building and debate, after having had a full session of that for session 0. In one of our games, we literally had a player quit in a huff 10 minutes into session 1, and another player (at the start of our second mission) was also frustrated by doing more world-building rather than getting into any action.

Now, I've not actually read the GM rules in great detail, so it may be that my GMs were not doing things as well as they should have. Perhaps they could have set the stage for their questions better than they did, so that it was clear that they were only interested in the details needed to throw us right into action. That's certainly what happened once we got past the questions and got the missions going. But every time we started a new jump point and got prompted, there was a very large risk of a long world-building discussion kicking off a gain and taking a hour. The players who weren't really into it got bored, and often quit afterwards (leading to a whole new spiral of world- and party-building discussion as we tried to bring new players in for the next session).

Has anybody else suffered from this kind of campaign failure mode? Is it just a failure to recruit players who will want to be involved in the world-building, or is there something the GMs could have done better to handle characters who aren't really as comfortable as they should be with narrative control?

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SGomes
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Re: A campaign failure mode

Post by SGomes » Wed Feb 06, 2019 11:58 pm

Word of warning: Don't take my opinion as gospel. As you can see from the ongoing postmortem, I still have a lot to learn about my own game :P

The way I've come to run PbtA (and thus the way I wrote UW) is with "prompted contributions". When used judiciously, the GM can also find entertainment and discovery in the game they are running.

Firstly, the whole "Session 0" is a bit tricky. I'm not a fan, honestly. The reason I push for Jump Points that start in media res is that all the setup is 100% not necessary to run a game. Player defined factions is about as far as I would go, and even then, only the most basic, broad strokes. What we're playing with here are tropes, expectations, and references to popular media. It's a Galactic Navy. That's it. That's all you need to know. Maybe it'll turn out they're space Nazis. Or maybe they're the good guys. Or maybe they're corrupt. Start with tropes and assumptions, and discover the rest during play.

Same goes for the "cohesive group". That's why we start in the middle of the action. We make the assumption that there's a good reason these people are working together, and work out from there, discovering the rest during play. Maybe there are relationships that can be explored and revealed during a Cramped Quarters.

As for Prompting (establishing the facts of a situation): All Prompts are meant to be answered on the spot from the character's perspective, without backseat coaching. It's meant to elicit a snap decision, to get the player to just get into the story without overthinking things. Prompting should be judicious; I usually only have one prompt per player per session (maybe two, if they stump me or I see an opportunity).

However, there's something important to consider: Some players simply do not enjoy collaborating or contributing. They want to play a tabletop rpg the same way they play a video game: everything exists already, and they get to experience it. They are used to be the ones asking a question and expecting the GM to answer. They're not used to being asked to fill in details, and the idea that something is not known breaks the immersion for them. For these kinds of players, the GM needs to take a more active role, defining most of the world by themselves, hiding the fact that almost everything is undefined until the narrative waveform collapses, and only lightly prompting the player for their character's point of view or opinions.

BlckKnght
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Re: A campaign failure mode

Post by BlckKnght » Thu Feb 07, 2019 5:21 pm

SGomes wrote:
Wed Feb 06, 2019 11:58 pm
The way I've come to run PbtA (and thus the way I wrote UW) is with "prompted contributions". When used judiciously, the GM can also find entertainment and discovery in the game they are running.
I should probably have been more clear that the problem with prompting I saw was much more with the prompts that come at the very start of a jump point, rather than ones that the GM uses later in the game. I actually quite like the latter sort of prompting, especially as UW is much more explicit about it than other PbtA games, where it's often a possibility (e.g. "Ask provocative questions and build on the answers" from AW), but not one that the GM is pushed very strongly to use (UW is the only game I've played where the player being prompted is mentioned as an outcome on a 7-9 from some moves, for instance).
Firstly, the whole "Session 0" is a bit tricky. I'm not a fan, honestly. The reason I push for Jump Points that start in media res is that all the setup is 100% not necessary to run a game. Player defined factions is about as far as I would go, and even then, only the most basic, broad strokes. What we're playing with here are tropes, expectations, and references to popular media. It's a Galactic Navy. That's it. That's all you need to know. Maybe it'll turn out they're space Nazis. Or maybe they're the good guys. Or maybe they're corrupt. Start with tropes and assumptions, and discover the rest during play.

Same goes for the "cohesive group". That's why we start in the middle of the action. We make the assumption that there's a good reason these people are working together, and work out from there, discovering the rest during play. Maybe there are relationships that can be explored and revealed during a Cramped Quarters.
It's definitely possible that my GMs have been trying to nail down too much stuff before we go into play. But I sort of worry that if you just jump straight into the game without making any effort to define the team and the PCs roles within it, you risk running into issues with things like "who's the pilot of our ship" (oops, none of us have any Mettle, we're all going to die). Is every PC a hacker? (Actually, that might be neat if the group went for it deliberately, but stumbling in to it could instead wind up with some players feeling like their character is not as special as they'd hoped, as everybody else is treading on their toes.)

There's also a lot of trickiness, I think, to getting everybody on the same page regarding the tropes of a setting. If a group is aiming for a hard-science game, but one player wants to be a Chosen, how do they work it out without a bunch of discussion first? This one involves me, as I'm the Chosen and I joined an in-progress game where they'd decided to change their initial stance towards the supernatural to be more hard-science (but the GM forgot to remove the "supernatural stuff is common" part of their LFG advertisement). We've eventually agreed to just wave our hands and say "nanites" when it comes to my powers, but took a lot of discussion and back and forth about the world building to get there. An easier option might have been to just say "no" to my character concept, but they liked it despite it not really matching their setting so far.
However, there's something important to consider: Some players simply do not enjoy collaborating or contributing. They want to play a tabletop rpg the same way they play a video game: everything exists already, and they get to experience it. They are used to be the ones asking a question and expecting the GM to answer. They're not used to being asked to fill in details, and the idea that something is not known breaks the immersion for them. For these kinds of players, the GM needs to take a more active role, defining most of the world by themselves, hiding the fact that almost everything is undefined until the narrative waveform collapses, and only lightly prompting the player for their character's point of view or opinions.
Yeah, I definitely do think that PbtA games are not for all players. The idea of playing to find out what happens is really neat if you get it, but it can be very scary if you're expecting a more D&D style game. I think the greater issue with it is not so much that not everyone wants to contribute, but that if you have a mixed group of people who do and don't want to engage, nobody ends up happy. But that may just be RPG group dynamics, and not anything specific to UW or PbtA (you can have the same sort of conflict with a D&D party where half the characters are stealthy and the other half are in heavy armor, for instance).

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