Weird session. There were no "We don't have any ideas for what to do!" moments, but there were plenty of the opposite, where one course of action seemed obvious to the players, so they did that without any fun discussion or great investment in the decision.
There also wasn't much theorizing.
I'm not sure whether the sense of obviousness meant that no one felt the need to theorize, or whether a disinclination to theorize led the players to jump at whatever suggestion was made first. My best guess is the latter. The augury cards tend to help (though they didn't in this game), so maybe in the future I should push for that early if there's not much theorizing going around.
Everyone did seem genuinely interested in my NPC portrayals, and learning what each NPC had to tell. But these scenes were followed by, "okay, we go to the next place" instead of any group conversation. The players also did the bare minimum to get the bare minimum info out of each NPC, and didn't push for more. I guess perhaps I made it too easy to get something. If any of the NPCs had been completely unwilling to help no matter the PCs' verbal assurances (and exhortations to help save the village), then maybe the players would have been forced to explore some more dramatically interesting options. Coercion and deception don't need to happen, but it's fun if they're at least considered.
There also wasn't a ton of character-personality color injected into the fiction. Mendez showed his character's soft spot for kids in one scene, Mark showed his character's polite beneficence in another, and that was about it. Perhaps the above-mentioned smooth NPC interactions are to blame -- those scenes are usually where the personalities shine.
I wonder if perhaps I should target PC issues more specifically via NPCs? Tempt them with fame, power, etc., but at a cost? That didn't seem to be the issue here, though, as Phil's ostensibly power-hungry character didn't even ponder grabbing the crazy wisewoman's magic loot. Weird.
The relative lack of character expression also makes me wonder whether my convention character customization process is worth the time it takes. Some players have had great success with it, but is it possible that those folks just came ready to bring the portrayal on their own? So for them the customization is unnecessary, and for others it's insufficient? For now, my best guess is that yeah, the players have to want to do it, but my system does help them to do it more easily. Something to keep an eye on, though.
Is there any way to encourage portrayal in players who aren't initially interested in that? I can't think of a way to reward that via the fiction, and metagame rewards haven't fit into the game in the past. I'm inclined to say "no" to targeting portrayal directly, and focus instead on character-situation interactions that elicit value statements. I wonder how much discovery-style play can also accommodate Dogs in the Vineyard-style morality-test encounters.
I think such encounters should probably fill the same niche as combat: excellent for spice, but not to be overused.
I think personal values are less than half of the usual character-portrayal equation anyway. The rest is largely about the methods used to pursue goals (especially interpersonal ones) and the style with which they're carried out. The intimidating warrior, the suggestive know-it-all, the forthcoming pillar of righteousness, etc.
This is something a lot of games would incentivize by rolling stats in Gruff, Savvy, Noble, etc. But I need to keep that fiction-first. Hmm. Maybe let players define what they're good at, and then list a non-roleplayed feature that aids in that? So the Gruff character is "big and dark-eyed", so when the player roleplays their speech, I factor that look into the NPC's response.
Speaking of spice, perhaps one reason for the low energy in this game was the lack of danger and pressure. There were many conversation scenes before the monster cave, and zero combats. I also never kicked in my Steps of Doom, for two reasons:
1) My usual cue for when to implement a Step is when the players discuss for too long without acting. That never came up, so I never thought of the Steps.
2) I didn't write down the Steps before play, relying instead on my memory of previous sessions of this scenario. So I didn't have them in front of me as a reminder. Nor did I easily remember them in the midst of playing. Oops.
I built this scenario out of bits of three other scenarios with three different Steps of Doom: worsening elemental drain, more monster victims, and a combo of maniac murders and cursed artifact activations. The last time I ran this, at Ubercon, I didn't need any of those. The group latched onto the dates I'd given them, decided that the climax was in 36 hours, and applied the pressure themselves.
The NerdNYC game, on the other hand, had a very nice sequence of toxins and monsters encircling the town, plus a mid-game zombie fight. Probably a better model overall.
In general, it seems to me that urgency leads to more adrenaline, which leads to more participation. Not sure if that was an issue in this session or not.
Before play, I wrote a few notes down. They were intended as ways for me to know what to aim toward in the fiction at a given stage of the scenario, with a few example methods of how. It was not usable at a glance. Some of that was due to my bunched-up writing. Some of it was the fact that "what to aim toward" didn't seem to follow the straight 1-2-3-done progression I'd anticipated; rather, something like 1-2-1-2-1-1-3-1 might be more realistic (and thus harder). But it might be worth another try with a better and more readable reference. Here's what I wrote:
1) PCs eager to do next interaction
2) PCs have a theory to test
3) PCs have a plan to fix the problem
add a supernatural sign, a weird manifestation of some aprt of the problem in action
reveal part of the truth about a person, place, object or event (PPOE)
- idle mention: fact without obvious relevance; PC questions then reveal relevance
- suspicion or accusation
- defense of some behavior or person
- signs of use: when, what, by whom (tracks, broken branches, hot/cold, odors, flora, fauna)
- repeat a signature (e.g. a supernatural sign) already connected to a PPOE
I had a lot of energy, and Mendez was all about creative problem-solving, so the overall game wasn't bad. I got the impression that Mark and Kathleen, while clearly not having a fantastic time, also weren't disappointed. I felt a little bad for Phil, who probably would have had more fun playing one of the many story games going on at the con instead. Still, he was a good sport, and gave me some nice post-game feedback. I think the most disappointed person was me, because I know how much better the game can be. Still, there were some highlights:
The scenario included a big monster that hopelessly outclassed the PCs. Mendez created an infinite loop to trap it, by drawing a teleport rune right under its own target location.
The group decided that the manor lord was responsible. My plan had been that he was actually just another victim of the curse, but their theory was just as plausible and would make for a nice climactic combat. "So be it!" I said in my head. Unfortunately, convention security told us to hurry up and finish the game so poker players could take over the room, so I had to ditch the combat. I was worried that it'd be lame to have them merely slice the demonic tapestry with a sword to save the day; fortunately, Kathleen remembered her horn of acid (which I'd forgotten about) and dissolved it.
There was also a cool moment where Mendez used his crystal rod to hit a mysterious blank spot on a magical device with a sunbeam. In an ongoing campaign, I probably would have had to nix "sunlight = detector", but for a one-shot it seemed harmless, so I went with a faint image (of the correct number to write into the blank space) appearing in the glare.
The new chart of "what you need to roll on 2d6 to succeed on which narrated difficulty level (e.g. "slightly tricky", "extremely hard") had mixed results.
On the plus side, it was satisfying for everyone to know instantly, as the dice rolled to a stop, what happened in the fiction.
On the downside, after one use, Mark made a later attempt by asking me, "What's the difficulty?" instead of via the fiction (e.g. "How hard does it seem like it'd be?"). This also prompted me to give him an answer, instead of saying, "You have no idea," which might have been more appropriate given his task (brew a potion to bring clarity and tranquility to a crazy woman). Then he rolled for the brewing, meaning we knew he'd failed before the fictional narration of the woman sipping the potion and nothing happening. I should have narrated, "She sips it... you wait for a few minutes..." and then called for the roll -- something I almost always do when someone isn't grabbing dice and asking me for difficulty levels.
No part of this is impossible to overcome. I can encode key phrases to request difficulty levels, I can write GM instructions to think about moments of revelation, etc. But man, why make the first priority (focus on fiction, not system) take more work to accommodate the second priority (instant clarity on what a roll signifies)? If I do use this system, with key phrases and GM instructions etc., it'll be because I don't trust other GMs to do what I usually do by default. Which is valid in a lot of cases; I'll have to think more about whether this is one of them.
1) talk 1st farmer
2) talk pacing priest
3) talk vanished kid's mom
4) talk scared kid
5) talk crazy woman
6) FFW get directions to sane priest
7) talk sane priest (wanted proof of trustworthiness, but I told them of imperial writ & that sufficed)
8) talk crazy woman & sane priest
9) approach secret clearing, study glyph 2
10) talk cultist
11) study glyph 1 / talk cultist
12) solve wizard door
13) explore cave
14) retrieve goop, experiment with runes, set trap, trap monster
15) study magic altar
16) talk guards
17) study lord, destroy tapestry