Episode three, episode three... I had such grand plans for you and then they just kind of fell flat... Every now and again as a GM you have nights where you feel your storytelling falls flat and just isn't up to snuff and this was definitely one...
I spent a lot of time prepping a back up plot, which in hindsight was a terrible waste of time as each time I spoke with players they seemed thoroughly caught on the shipwreck/mole information plot hook I had cast out in the prologue. I also spent some of prep time reading and posting character journals and prologue questions that I should have spent on the game itself. Oh well, on to the commentary!
- The players never quite pushed enough to get Javier's dark secret, but then again I didn't make it too easy as I didn't want it to just be given out. I just might type up Javier's story and post it to the Last Rest blog as an interlude. But at least the company's two sorcerers, Hardwick and Trent, got enough on their Eerie checks to sense the necromantic magic in the bag.
- After a rehash of the prologue and a little extra conversation with Javier the PCs got on with the plot, or at least what little of it there was, starting with boarding Sorina's small sailboat, which was quickly christened by the players as the "S.S. Small Sailboat" which I renamed to "Mica Nava," roughly small ship in Romanian, by GM fiat when I wrote up the summary...
- The sail through a storm challenge was pretty piss-poor. I basically had each of the characters with sailing skills roll a couple times and gave some incredibly weak narration. Definitely going to have to re-read some Moby-Dick: or, The Whale and a few other 19th century sailing narratives before I run my "Left Wing of the Day of Judgement" Dread game as I could tell that my nautical GMing in Reign sank like a stone and I doubt that at any point the PCs felt threatened by the challenge at all.
- Introducing Carson, the new NPC, and the Liberator, the new artifact, went much better, though it may have made the game feel like a "Hinrik" episode, as one player commented. Hopefully the Liberator will prove to be a double-edged sword as it was stolen from one of their main nemeses and it highly recognizable.
- After the completely non-threatening voyage through the storm, the PCs reached the hidden cave, or at least the path up to it where once again the action slowed to a crawl as the players went into full paranoia mode creeping stealthily forward inch by inch trying to guess when the ambush was. It seemed like after going full-bore last session they completely reversed course and went the other way, taking every precaution. Which unfortunately meant that the players were completely willing to strand Hinrik, the least stealthy of the group, far behind on guard duty at the cave entrance while the rest of the company ventured inside.
- Once in the snake goddess shrine, I missed the chance to re-invigorate the game, instead, I let the players chit-chat with Adderic, the snake goddess priest, while I let the NPC theater unveil all the relevant plot points. Namely that the non-violent Snake Goddess cult the players discovered last time had an assassin off-shoot whose devotees were willing to pay the price of eternal damnation to do what they thought was necessary. And also that the NPC was willing to give up the prize of the information taken from the rebellion shipwreck if the PCs went through a lame vision quest. I'm really kicking myself for not having several unreasonable demands for Adderic to make before finally offering the vision quest as something that the PCs could accept.
- The vision quest was the nadir of the session. Originally my plan was to have the ghost of Joachim, who they slaughtered in episode one, appear and taunt each character with a secret or regret from their past, but since I, like a complete fool, had put off finding the secrets until game day, it meant that as the many character journals, requests for maps and prologue questions came in I spent my day doing everything but finding the character secrets that should have been the bloody heart of the episode. So when the time came, instead of have a nice juicy dark secret or regret for each of the six characters, I only had two jotted down so I improvised on the fly. Sometimes I can improvise with the best of them, but not that night... So once again the game slowed to a crawl as I described a scene, pedestal in an endless cavern, which limited player and character options and wrote myself into a corner, a corner that was actually an impossible pedestal in an endless cavern.
- After dragging out the much less menacing without character secrets corpse of their enemy Joachim, and at least having him disappear into Hardwick so that the players will be paranoid about possession, I let the players flounder about hoping they'd have something I could play off of, but once again my lack of preparation kept me from taking advantage of anything. Finally as the night dragged on, I used the lame GM trick of knocking the PCs unconscious and finally giving the scene the mercy killing it so richly deserved.
- Finally it was back to the shrine where the NPC gave them the prize of the night, the information from the shipwrecked rebellion and played more of the "pump the NPC for info" game, even going so far as to "ask" the NPC to give them any items that could help them. Well, I couldn't very well let that opportunity to give the players a "devil's deal", but I couldn't think of a great item to give them right off the top of my head so I gave them a box and had the NPC instruct them not to open it until they were on the ship to basically just give me a chance to come up with something good. I had been thinking some kind of crystal ball that would show the characters just what they wanted to see instead of the truth or would show them the worst case scenario, but then I came up with something much better, a pair of matching hair bracelets whose properties I'll let my players discover in game...
- In my notes I have the themes I wanted to stress as "family/loyalty, the price of things, devotion" and I'm not sure that any of my players could have guessed any of those if you offered them a 100xp bonus incentive.
- All in all the episode was only successful in getting the last pieces of the larger season plot on the board, as now all the major antagonists, allies, factions, artifacts and MacGuffins have all been introduced, whether or not the charcters and players realize it. Now that all the setup is done, I can concentrate on running thrilling episodes and (hopefully) leave meandering snoozefests like the last episode in the past.
- Some take-aways for the next episode...
- Don't let the players/characters set the timeline. While the menace of Lucian and the 23rd Legion motivated them to get to Snakefang Strait as soon as possible, once they were there they went back to taking there time to be as cautious as possible. If I had hinted slightly that there might be pit-traps in the floor, I feel like things might have gotten to the point where the players each pulled out the classic 10' pole and began describing how they carefully checked each square foot of floor before they trusted it.
- Real danger or at least danger that feels real. Neither the sailing through a storm or the poorly narrated "vision quest" felt dangerous to the characters and so they didn't feel dangerous to the players either.
- Give the NPCs something other than the plot to talk about. The players are starting to treat each NPC like an info-dump they can pump for the information they need, possibly because that's been I've been letting the NPCs drift towards. I need to bring the NPCs back to individuals with their own agendas who want to guide the conversation in their own direction instead of just being cardboard cutouts for the PCs to interrogate.
- Run a caper. The next episode needs to bring back excitement and put the PCs on the defensive. The last two episodes the PCs have been deciding where they go and now I think I want to take and put them into a dangerous situation and have them find a way out instead of letting them creep slowly into a (at least potentially) dangerous situation.
- Focus on a single theme. I've been trying to convey multiple themes each episode and it's been getting muddled.
- FINISH PREP WORK BEFORE GAME DAY. This episode could have easily been ten times better than it was if I had gotten all my character secrets researched before game day. I have little control over when my players get character journals back to me, so I need to plan that they'll turn them in at the last moment possible and make sure that I have all my prep work done before game day so that I'm not forced to sacrifice good game prep to take care of last minute player requests.
And lastly, here's a truly terrifying look for the players at some of what they missed last session...