I flinched.

So we played Worlds Without Number for about 13 months, twice monthly with some small breaks and one or two large ones; probably 15-20 sessions in all.

The game ended on a logical stopping point: after spending a few sessions somewhat aimlessly (i.e. with no strong goals) wandering around the Maze of the Blue Medusa, the players decided that they wanted one of the Tears of Time, an item that, upon being swallowed, would allow them to undo one event in their past. To acquire one (each) of these, they’d have to find imperishable cloth, because the woman who produced the tears also uncontrollably sped up time in a field near herself, such that clothes would rot off of her, wine would turn to vinegar halfway down her throat, etc. She wanted to be able to feel the richness of cloth against her skin and thus offered the tears to anyone who could find such a thing for her.

The players spent the last three sessions hunting through the weird megadungeon that is the aforementioned Maze (and they did constantly comment about how weird it was, how none of their usual “d&d adventuring knowlege” availed them, which should perhaps have been a feature but also seemed to leave them, as I said, with difficulty coming up with things they wanted to do) and found the cloth and etc.

The real reason the game ended is because I’m leaving the country, though I was pretty tired of running the game by the end and was ready to see it over.

I have never had a game go this long, both in time and in session count; on paper it was the ideal of what I wanted this game to be when I started. I told the players that this was a longer-form game and we could go for as much as a year, although there’d be logical stopping points along the way if and when we wanted to stop.

So what did we do? Mostly, as I’ve said in a previous post, crawl through dungeons that had been sitting on my shelf. A great deal of that worked for us, in terms of moment-to-moment play. What I think made me increasingly tired as the game wore on, what made it work less and less for me, though, was that all of my excitement as I prepared the game–and prepare I did, drawing up maps and creating a world using the procedures in the rulebook–was around this world I’d created and the local, charged situation I’d had the players start in. In the end, very, very little of that had any life in play–ostensibly the PCs were knights in the service of a sort-of mad warlord-duke, with all sorts of consequences to body-mind-soul for disobeying him, and moral consequences for obeying him–but the last five or so months of play were all spent in a megadungeon divorced in space-time from this situation, so we kinda forgot it was even there.

Basically, I flinched. I had a setting and situation I was excited about, and brought it in here and there, but for the bulk of play I slotted in modules that had nothing to do with this. What did I expect play would look like, then? Why did I do this? Fear that the situation would fall flat in play, fear that the situation wouldn’t be handled well by the instrumentation of Worlds Without Number and/or the expectations that using such instrumentation brings (i.e., “we’re playing the crawl”). Those are some answers. Thinking back on it, I actually ran the game entirely because of the comment of one of the players about how excited he was about WWN, and then a couple other people I’d been hoping to play with chimed in and were excited, too. I remember thinking that perhaps if I ran this game and we could coalesce as a group, then afterward I could run something else I was really excited about. I wish I had pinpointed what that was, and just pitched that; and I wish I hadn’t flinched.


9 responses to “I flinched.”

  1. Adventure Sites As Episodes

    I'm kind of having a similar feelings about my D&D 5e game. I'm not using modules but I long ago decided I was going to make the campaign a string of loosely connected adventure sites. They're all in tone and theme but aesthetics is all that ties them together. They really don't impact anything other than their own internal logic.

    I'm becoming increasingly convinced that if you're going to do the "tour of modules" that you have on your shelf, its probably best to treat them as episodes. Pick one and commit to playing just that one.  Maybe even build specific characters for it alone. Even if you want to keep the characters between modules just jump cut to the next of the new modules.  Fill in whatever downtime details you need to justify it.

    Trying to organize things so that one flows naturally into the next or dotting them around so they appear to be a natural part of the world seems like a lot of work for not a lot of gain.  It also may be a skill that I'm just not particularly good at.

    I have a lot adventures lying around I would love to play.  And everytime I pour over them I'm always trying to imagine some greater context they'd all fit into. I'd have played more of them by now if I'd just have picked one I liked and said, "Let's do this" and done it. 

    • The hell of it, or at least a

      The hell of it, or at least a potentially unwelcome concept to mention, is that the converse is often much more functional.

      Meaning, that playing even a very short sequence of disconnected adventure moments, with the barest bit of consistency merely to accord with the fact that we're seeing these characters re-appear, may be strikingly effective in generating larger situations and ultimately a setting. All sorts of things gel: this or that item or concept, images that one may have used briefly, images one discovers online for no good reason, NPCs "ascending" into more proactivity, geographical locations' relative to position to one another …

      Look at that insane non-Glorantha RuneQuest game, which I intended to be a brief taste of bog-standard "fantasy role-playing" through at most three short adventures, barely more than set-pieces, effectively teleporting from one to the next … and ultimately playing through multiple fully-developed cults, local maps, a continent to traverse, a history, a cosmology, many characters all full of ideas and priorities, until I realized we had a Super No-Mistaking-It Setting.

      It doesn't always happen but in my experience it's far more likely to do so this way than via the approach which you have described very well.

    • I never even considered that

      I never even considered that one might start with the module, then hop to another, building the larger world and context through play in that way.

      It had always seemed to me that you have to have the larger world and context in order to best use the modules, or really even use them in a coherent way at all outside of single-session or hermetically-sealed play that starts and stops at the dungeon door. 

      That they might be the focused highlights of these characters' careers, with all the referenced and implied in-between just hinted at in play…! Wow. So simple. 

  2. “OSR” and Shorter, Punchier Play

    As I've learned the ins and outs of D&D 5e, I've been thinking more and more that it would be better suited to smaller action-movie like crises.  I've accidentaly made my home campaign one to two thirds larger than it needed it to be. It may ultimately have worked better as the fantasy adventure equivalent of a Marvel movie. I think this may also be true for Worlds Without Number. Maybe not the action-movie part but definitely the immediate problem that resolves in a session or two.

    I don't know anything about Kevin Crawford but his writing strikes me as very sincere.  He has built himself up into a bit of A Brand but I do believe he cares about play being fun. His games are very GM facing but that's because he's very committed to making the GM's job easier.

    In Worlds Without Number he explicitly says this about prep:

    Am I having fun building this? If yes, you can keep going. You need to make sure you cover material you need for your next adventure session, but if you’re having a good time then it’s okay to indulge yourself. If the answer is “no” or “maybe”, however, you need to ask yourself a second question.

    Am I going to need this for the next play session? Will you need this specific content for your next gaming night? Don’t ask yourself if it could be potentially useful, or if it’s something you’ll need in the future. Ask yourself if this piece of work is going to be necessary for what you expect of the very next session of play. If you can’t answer yes with confidence, put it down.

    His whole philosophy is "If prep becomes painful, for God's sake stop!" His books are filled with massive amounts of random charts because he knows that taking a few ingredients, day dreaming about the connections between them and sketching out a *small* map or two is pleny for an evening's entertainment.

    So, I really think Worlds Without Number is not particularly well suited to the endless exporation of mega-structures. I think Crawford's design sensibilities lean toward smaller but more dangerous ane exciting contexts.

  3. This one’s been on my mind

    Partly because of following it here for so long and just now reviewing those posts, partly due the poignancy, partly from recognizing and knowing what you're describing in my own experiences.

    Quite a long while ago, I played a character named Zev Cesare in a game of The Babylon Project, in the context that all of us were avid viewers of Babylon 5 – yes, this was that long ago, during the original run of the show. We played right there on the station during the same period that prior seasons of the show had depicted (during Season 2-ish, as I recall). Fortunately we hit upon several techniques, not in the game book, to address many problems that different members of the group had encountered with fan-favorite settings, especially so close to the source's textual action, and I've written about this game several times about different aspects of what we did.

    But in this case, I'm thinking a bit more about something simpler that we didn't discuss beforehand and therefore can be considered one of the luckiest details: that as fellow viewers, no one of us could be considered the single most expert fan of the show, and that none of us sought to be that person over the others. We liked watching it together (not all together all the time, but to some extent, any majority of us most of the time) and sharing thoughts, and as I mentioned, the show was not concluded and therefore we shared pleasurable ignorance of "what happens" in any larger sense.

    In role-playing terms, that meant that Tom, the GM, was not in the position of bringing us the setting content from the show. We knew the same things, and we all knew there were things that none of us knew. To his credit, Tom embraced this as a feature, such that content brought in as situations in play were appreciated by everyone for the same reasons as he had chosen to include it. So he wasn't under pressure to be pitching it to us to like it, or to be teaching it and attentive to whether we really got it, as a factor or task of play.

    Again, this wasn't planned or probably understood by any of us at the time. I am certain now that what I'm describing was one of the reasons that we really liked playing "this setting," and indeed, situations or aspects of episodes that the show had left open. I think this lesson sank in, over the years, without me quite articulating it or aligning it with other things. 

    I'm thinking now about how this same principle can apply – as I think it does – to play in which only the GM knows the other-textual source material well, or to play in which known setting content is very sketchy at the the start and fills in via ongoing preparations for play, or to play in which setting content isn't known by anyone and fills in via processes in play.

    • In the Symbaroum game I am

      In the Symbaroum game I am the GM for, all the content in the book has been available for each player and their characters. Before play my knowledge had been slightly more robust than the rest of the players, but since then they have delved into some of the background to inform their characters. Often in greater detail than I had. And I think this is fine, good even. Some of this gets incorporated into my own situational and sesion prep. I think it helped that we were all mostly novies in regards to the background and setting. 

    • Hi Ron, I would like to

      Hi Ron, I would like to understand this better. What exactly is the principle you have in mind? Is it that all participants should know the potential setting content equally well?

    • No, Manu, that isn’t what I

      No, Manu, that isn't what I said and I also don't know why you put "should" in there. I'll try one time and then call it.

      No one in that group made the mistake of thinking that Tom was educating us or explaining about the show, just because he was the GM. At the same time, we all also knew that he would be exercising necessary GMing tasks of interpreting and applying show content as he saw it, and how he felt about it.

      Therefore we avoided a common problem and enjoyed play a lot more than we had in the past, in similar situations that drew on "we love it" source material. We didn't get into any content disputes in play, or in conversations about play, based on external socializing or fanwank status. We didn't descend into "how about" or "what about" or "you could do it this way," or worse, cite this or that about the show, as means of affecting or disputing anyone's authoritative input. 

      We all knew Tom wasn't the primary or leading expert on the show's content (because no one was). We were also all enthusiastic about having him GM, simply because he was excited about doing it. The point is to recognize that GMing is not a position of social fan dominance or a special means of transmitting information about the source material, whereas it is a position which combines specific authorities, requires personal interpretation of external source material, and which may include asymmetrical information about what's happening in play.

      That idea applies just as well when the different members of the group have different knowledge-sets about inspirational material, which is why the principle you asked about doesn't apply. The point isn't the equivalency of knowledge, it's the relation of any knowledge to GMing.

      In our group, the fact that we were all equivalent in knowledge helped us understand this point after many years, for all of us, of failing to do so. So please don't confuse our route of understanding the point for the point itself.

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