October 17, 2011

DM Commentary

This adventure started with a casual decision I made in the middle of writing the Grail Quest adventure. In the crystal cavern hidden behind the Grail Tower (aka The Tower of the Lovelorn Knight), there was a Hall of Many Doors, with a pit at the end. On a whim, I decided to have you find a set of ancient bones, and strange cards bearing names like "James St. John" and "Isaac MacAllister". It was intended as just a way of making you, as players, go "WTF?!?".

However, having done that, I felt like I'd written myself into a corner. I couldn't stop wondering how your characters had gotten into a pit that was (a) clearly in a different universe than yours, and (b) apparently at a different point of history. And had they really died there? Was that the end of their story? I wanted to revisit these characters again, but I felt like I couldn't without answering those questions.

Taking more than a little inspiration from the Jet Li movie, "The One" (which, to be honest, I didn't even like all that much), I came up with the concept of multiple universes, with doubles of each of you in them, and someone trying to get them to kill you so they could gain your powers. This had the added attraction of letting me play around with a variety of different settings, including fulfilling my long-held desire to give Scott a taste of his own Ravenloft medicine. And I pretty quickly came up with the idea of the anime universe, which I though could be a real hoot, especially after we started playing 4E and I decided to create pseudo-4E characters with custom powers just for that universe.

So going in, I was very excited about this adventure. Now that it's all over, I have to say that I'm a bit disappointed in how it all played out. That's a comment on me as the DM/author, not on how any of you played it.

First of all, I over-wrote it. One thing I learned a long time ago is that the secret to a successful adventure (at least for my definition of "successful") is to have a basic framework for the plot and then give you all well-rounded characters with your own motivations and flaws, and let you go to town. However, in this case I found myself getting into the story way too much, and treating it more like I was writing a novel than sketching out an adventure. I was too into the details, dialogue, etc. and not leaving enough to you. In addition, the overall structure of the adventure, which required you to transit from universe to universe, created a structure that was way more linear than I prefer, with far fewer options for you as players (unless I wanted to truly flesh out each and every universe, which I didn't have time or energy enough for).

This showed up right away, when I lost control of the flow on the very first night. I never, EVER considered that your reaction to Harry's murder would be to do everything in your power to AVOID getting together! I'd written the whole first chapter assuming that you'd all feel a need to figure out who had killed Harry (to see if they were also a threat to you), and would all gather together to head to Costa Rica to play detective. Instead, your immediate reaction was to scatter to the four winds and impose radio silence!

Let me emphasize - I'm not saying you played it "wrong". You did what was natural to your characters as you live them. They really are YOUR characters, not mine. I just hadn't anticipated this reaction, and wasn't prepared for it. It's really no different than Joe's decision in the original adventure to leave the group and return to Chicago. I never expected THAT, either! However, the way I'd written that adventure was more open-ended, and there were plenty of things Joe could be doing in Chicago at the same time the rest of you were buying real estate in LA (also off the map!).

Ultimately I had to throw together some hasty ambushes to convince you to huddle up, and had to have Joe's Qabbal contacts feed you critical information (like the fact that Harry's murder had apparently been committed by some of you). This worked, but felt forced (at least to me). And, as you saw from the final confrontation, if Twynillios & co. had really cornered any of you in isolation, you would not have survived (as it was, I gave Jerry and Chuck some wild magic help to get them out of what would otherwise have been certain death).

Once you started hopping universes, the linear structure really started to feel limiting (again, to me). It had too much of a standard dungeon-crawl feel to it ("Open the door. Kill what's inside. Open the next door..."). I realized that I had committed myself to too many different universes to really be able to spend much time working on any one of them, so most of them felt a bit rushed to me.

Having said all that, there were things that I felt worked well. To me, the Ravenloft section worked best. Part of that might be because Ravenloft is a pretty well-defined place already, and it also has the convenient mechanism of the Mist to keep you on task. However, I felt the whose circus experience was good, and you all seemed to get into the idea of figuring out what happened to little Jane's parents. And your time as freaks was (I thought) a lot of fun. Then at the end, you had a pair of moral dilemmas to deal with: what to do with Jane and what to do with the other freaks. The freaks you left to starve in their cages (you could have restored them to their original bodies and set them free), but Jane you took with you to the bright and happy world of the Cthulu mythos.

I also had fun as we started to go into the pseudo-4E characters in the Star Wars and Anime universes. It was fun to change things up a bit, and give you all new powers to experiment with. The Anime world was especially fun for me, both inventing the powers for your characters and watching you play with them. Again though, I felt I fell into what I've complained about in 4E, i.e. having everything be too combat focused and not enough role playing.

One thing I didn't do consistently that I think would have added more of a fun factor was the use of wild magic. The idea was that Harry's death had weakened the forces that bind the multiverse together (per Merlin's explanation). As a result, magical spells that draw on those forces don't always work as you'd expect. I created a spreadsheet that would randomly select from a set of wild magic effects based on the probability of anomalies (which would go up as more alter-egos (or characters) died before their gates were locked down). Unfortunately, I needed to remember to use that spreadsheet any time anyone cast a spell, and I frequently forgot. In particular, in the final encounter with Twynillios, when spells were flying like crazy, I totally forgot about it. There were some really interesting effects you never got to experience!

So all in all, I don't think this was one of my better efforts, but I don't think it was a total bust, either. It was definitely fun to revisit these characters, and I hope we're not done with them (although I have nothing in mind at the moment).

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