The Failure that was Earthdawn: First Dawn

In my last blarg I talked about the storyline I had put together for my recent Earthdawn game. If you haven’t read that blarg yet please do, because otherwise some of the issues or events I’ll be discussing below may not make sense.

First Dawn started well enough, with the characters interacting with the various residents of the kaer. Everyone had the opportunity to show off a bit of their character’s background and motivations (except the ork’s player who couldn’t make it) which I think they all enjoyed. After that the party was gathered together for a ceremony that ended with the kaer doors being opened and the party heading out through the traps to the surface with tokens which were supposed to disable the traps for them.

At the far end of the trapped area, the party was introduced to the obsidiman that was supposed to act as their guide. Centuries ago he had volunteered to enter the kaer and enter the Dreaming through the Scourge to be able to guide its people back to the surface when the time came. The party, being told he was how they would open the kaer doors but thinking he was just a statue/key, had drag him up to the surface with the aid of a disk of True Air which levitated him and allowed him to be floated to the front antechamber. Due to the proximity to the surface awoke while the party was resting, leading to some interesting interaction.

After some discussion with the obsidimen about who he was and then ultimately what to expect outside, the adepts finally opened the front doors to the kaer and saw the destruction the Scourge had caused to the countryside. With that visual the first session ended. In hindsight it was a successful session and had hit all of the goals and themes I had set (with the exception of the missing player).

Everything went downhill from there.

Before session two began I received an email from Thok’s player telling me he wouldn’t be able to play in the campaign. While that was disappointing, the player had a whole lot going on and I didn’t blame him for recognizing he didn’t have the time and admitting it instead of trying to fit too much in to his schedule. So we continued the campaign down one player and up one NPC.

The second session began with the party exiting the kaer. After descriptions of the changed landscape and interactions with the obsidiman regarding what the land looked like before the Scourge, I wanted to finally give the players the chance to try out their characters skills in combat. Seeing as the characters were advanced, I decided to use something that wasn’t quite a push over and could hint that the horrors were still present in the world but not quite as strong. My solution was a small group of tainted ogres (led by a tainted ogre twin) that had been kept alive from before the Scourge by a crystal entity which was severely weakened by the lower magic level.

It was a fairly simple concept but one which caused a couple of problems. The characters had a rough time in the initial encounter with a couple of the ogres, and even though I adjusted the creatures’ stats on the fly they still faired poorly. Part of the result was due to die roll disparity and part was due to the fact that the non-melee characters (which meant everyone but the swordmaster) had fairly low Toughness scores and correspondingly low damage ratings.

Still, the characters defeated the cadaver-ogres and pulled back to rest. The characters correctly deduced the source of the creatures must be in the nearby cave and decided to investigate. As the party leader and a stealthy adept to boot, Holthan said he’d check the cave out and see what he could find. Despite Holthan’s order to stay behind, Eltherin, the elf archer, decided to accompany him. I called for stealth rolls right away just to emphasis their skill levels and Holthan nearly tripled Eltherin’s result as expected. Holthan’s player picked up on what I was trying to subtly imply about their comparative chances of remaining quiet and in character pointed out how loud the elf was being and reiterated instructions to remain behind, but the elf refused.

As expected Eltherin was detected further inside the cave. When a single ogre came out to investigate Holthan melted into the shadows. After trying unsuccessfully to hide Eltherin decided to stand and shoot the ogre instead of running and wound up getting killed. Holthan was able to make his way back out and share the news and the party fell back to regroup. Since we had an extra NPC, Eltherin’s player took over Thok. As they were recovering I had an animated Eltherin come and have the horror use him to offer the adepts safe passage if they left immediately.

Although the adepts toyed with the idea of leaving, they eventually decided they had to try to destroy the horror that lived so close to their kaer and launched a successful attack that killed the crystal entity. Afterwards the party made a crucial decision – they decided that since they had witnessed horrors still active in the world their mission was complete and they should return to the kaer, inform the council, and reseal themselves in.

And thus, the campaign was quickly sidetracked by the combination of a number of issues.

  • Poor choice of enemies. Although I wanted to show the party horrors were still around, I should have done so further into the campaign with weaker enemies. Doing so would have allowed the party to see non-horror opposition then meet horror-backed opposition that was in some ways weaker, meaning manageable by adepts.
  • Untimely party death. The world of Earthdawn is dangerous, and I’m always afraid pulling punches will cheapen the experience. Still I won’t kill characters over crappy die rolls, but the elf’s player realized how powerful the enemies were and ignored the opportunity (and urgings from his fellow players) to flee so I let the dice fall where they may.
  • Misuse of Earthdawn themes. If you fight a horror, loose a party member, and flee to seek refuge nearby, it’s entirely in genre for a horror to animate the corpse of your former friend and use it to torment and dishearten you. However I did so when the party’s courage was already fading and it just served to help push them to the decision to conclude their mission over and return home, claiming it was far to dangerous out. Bad move on my part.

When the party decided to return the kaer, I couldn’t say I blamed them. Although perhaps not the most heroic of options, it was certainly in-character to judge the world too dangerous after losing a party member just a day out of the kaer. Still as they made this decision I saw my campaign starting to go down the drain. All of the areas I had created for them to explore and the descriptions I wanted to provider weren’t going to see use. Sure it would have been possible for the kaer council to turn the party around and say “go back out, you’re not done” but the ogre encounters wound up lasting through the third session of what was planned to be a six-session campaign. Sending them back out meant either rushing the campaign or greatly expanding it past the idea length so I decided to push the timeline and have the final scenario with the kaer’s denizens being sacrificed as the party returned.

Hindsight being what it is I made a bad choice. Even besides the way the campaign got sidetracked I had become frustrated with how the game was going – I was far from satisfied with the quality of my gamemastering and was angry at myself for not doing better with it. My frustration soon became apathy towards campaign, and some of the final encounters that should have been exciting and filled with entertaining descriptions turned into rather dull die rolls and narrations.

I’m ashamed to say that eventually I looked at the party and expressed my inability to conclude the game on a high note – they were chasing the final big bad through the kaer but I just couldn’t give them the final encounter they deserve. Then for some reason Saultydog asked if I wanted him to take over. Figuring I had nothing to loose I agreed. He handed me his character sheet and I passed him the core book. After taking a few minutes to gather his thoughts and jot down some numbers, S-dog launched into us cornering the elf and having the horror emerge to be dealt with.

There was a difference between Saultydog’s version and mine, though – he was immediately excited and his excitement was contagious. Because S-dog didn’t have any expectations of what should have been, he was able to take a fresh perspective on the current encounter and make it cool on its own. Even I was sucked in and quickly began plotting a way to defeat the horror dramatically without just knocking of hit point after hit point. A running fight, battle-alchemy, and a chase through the kaer finally culminated in dropping the horror in a bottomless pit that was part of one of the traps the party had passed on their initial trip out of the kaer – all scenes we collaboratively built entirely from my initial description of the overgrown kaer when the expedition had returned and Saultydog’s enthusiasm.

After the last encounter we had a post-game discussion. I confessed my frustration and then when asked went through the plot as it was intended to be. The reactions I got from the players assured me that had we gone through the intended story line, it would have been a fantastic game – they loved the encounters, plots, and how they tied into their character backgrounds. But hearing that was bittersweet – while it meant my creation was appreciated, it also meant the difference between teh awesum and teh suk was that great.

As disappointed as I was with the whole First Dawn experience, I did learn a valuable lesson. The Gamemaster’s enthusiasm towards his game is paramount in allowing him to entertain the players successfully. I absolutely should have done one of two things – either realize that while my initial concept was cool a new plot could be just as entertaining and run with it, or break down and meta-game with the players, explaining how their decision to return would derail the campaign and ask what in-game events could help dissuade their characters and get them to change their minds. Instead my stubbornness and reluctance to meta-game combined with my frustration at what should have been killed my enthusiasm and led to substandard gamemastering. It’s a mistake I intend not to repeat… assuming I can convince the group to let me behind the screen again.

5 thoughts on “The Failure that was Earthdawn: First Dawn”

  1. The reason I asked whether you wanted me to take over was because you looked and sounded so drained. I don’t remember your exact words, but you definately expressed a lack of desire to continue. I hope I didn’t step on your toes too much. I also felt bad since I think I was the main source of the derailment. My aim was to give you something to have fun with considering how frustrated you were.

    In retrospect, it was really silly of the PCs to have played it the way we did. Next time I’ll trust the GM a little more and push on rather than go home and hide.

  2. It’s good that you see where things got a little less than fun, from at least your perspective. I think that your usual style of GMing is “me vs. them.” Now that is a pretty broad statement, but, you focus a lot on bringing fair, yet challenging conflicts/waylays/etc. to make the players look good.

    The problem does not lie in this style, so much as your expectations of the actions through the challenges and the results. I think much of the time you expect realistic actions where the player might be …more fast and loose. Especially in a 6-session arc.

    Well okay, the problem does lie a little in the style because of the amount of work you set up that may never come to the game’s light. I would be pretty upset too if I created this master plan of doom, only for the characters to never even get there.

    I would highly suggest breaking out of your GM comfort zone and trying something like Mythic GM Emulator where not much is foreseen. Something a little more random to the GM.

    Finally, I do want to comment on the nature of Earthdawn. To be blunt, you play it more similarly to Call of Cthulu than Exalted, where I would argue Earthdawn has the themes of both. I think you are very comfortable with “early” level (as compared to epic level) gameplay, so that might be another GM box to break out of.

  3. Thanks for the feedback so far.

    Sautly, you didn’t step on my toes at all in the last session. You added the not-suck that the game was missing up until that point which was definitely a good thing. I don’t know if I’d go so far to say you were the main source of derailment, though. It’s true you could have chosen to push on, but I could have been a lot less overwhelming with reasons not to. And I’m sure if I had been willing to meta-game and discuss where the campaign was going with everyone then people would have worked with me but I didn’t. There’s plenty of blame to go around. 🙂

    Rav is pretty accurate with his description of my style though I’m not sure I agree with the label. “Me vs. them” implies wanting to beat the players, where I want the world to challenge them but I don’t necessarily want to beat them. I just want them to work to win so they can take pride in their accomplishments. I do need to try to remember that sometimes players should win easily, too.

    I’m definitely trying to work myself out of my comfort zone but my problem is I’m not great at coming up with events on the fly so I tend to plot everything out before hand. I don’t know if the Mythic GM Emulator is the answer but I do want to try to run a more shared-narrative style game – perhaps something like Shadows of Yesterday’s Bringing Down the Pain mechanic.

    I think my next campaign is going to be another short-lived one where I provide a setup and an initial “here’s what the characters are doing” and let them run from there. Maybe a conspiracy or investigation game where I can have the end in mind (not that it might not change as the game progresses) but the players could follow any number of paths to reach the conclusion. Either that or a Shadowrun mission-style game – here’s a place you have to go and do something, now you decide how you do it. Either of these setups would allow me to work on improvisation within a framework, and that is the first step I need to take towards a more improvisational style of gamemastering.

  4. Wow. I gotta say I’m impressed that it really looks like you have a grasp on just what the problems were and what could be done about it.

    I don’t expect you’ll have these problems again, especially if you open up to your players earlier (as you suggested) and remember that they’re your buds and they’re there for the same reason as you! To have fun! ;-}

  5. If only putting the ideas into practice wasn’t so much harder than talking about them after the fact… 🙂

    All I can do is keep at it and one of these days I’ll run a game that doesn’t suck.

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