Friday, January 03, 2014

Revisiting Ethrus

So with a lot of changes going on at work and in life in general, I let pretty much everything get away from me at the end of last year. And one of the things I let get away was Christmas shopping. So it was pretty embarrassing when I ended up getting some really awesome gifts for Christmas and had nothing to give in return.

One of those gifts was a book put together by efamar, a member of our gaming group. She had taken a bunch of materials from our Atlantis game--notes to and from the game master, synopses of gaming sessions, our song parody lyrics and other ephemera related to the campaign--and assembled them into one companion volume. We all spent quite a bit of time at the Christmas party looking through the book and enjoying the memories.

So I decided to put together something similar for our follow-up campaign, a sword-and-planet fantasy set on the world of Ethrus Prime.  However, as far as I knew, no one had made synopsis notes for that campaign the way naamah did for Atlantis. So I've been listening to the recordings of the campaign and was surprised to remember that the game almost ended prematurely.

The game ran for 61 weekly sessions, but along about weeks 14-16, frustration was setting in. We got caught up in a mystery with way too many elements and red herrings, so we had a lot of trouble deciding what to do and then how to do it. And layered on top of that frustration was the fact that we were in a unique world created just for this campaign, so it seemed that every time we would lay out a tentative course of action, the GM would shoot it down, saying something like, "That's not the way this culture works."

It came to a head in week 16, in which we were asked to kill a certain very powerful person, who lived in a citadel. We needed to come up with a plan to get into his palace to do the deed, but every idea we floated to get inside was met with, "No that won't work. He's a very powerful man in a very cut-throat society, so they have set things up to avoid precisely this kind of thing."

Which I can appreciate in a "Rules for Evil Overlords" sense, but it doesn't help the story any. We finally come up with a plan to get one of the group inside, but of course, it goes wrong, and so we're faced with no choice but a frontal assault to rescue him, which looks doomed to fail. At which point, the GM says something about an "ill-considered attack" on the fortress, and on the recording, you can hear all the energy go out of the group.

Because while the attack may be ill-considered, in the sense that it's almost certain to fail, it's not because we're rushing in without thinking. We've just spent around two hours at the table, trying to get some kind of clue to how to accomplish this mission, only to be cock-blocked at every turn. Frontal assault may be a supremely bad plan, but at this point, it feels like the only plan left.

And in a larger sense,  I think we were frustrated because we were lost. We came up with a group of uniquely broken characters, which created a really interesting group dynamic, but left us without the kind of long-term goals that can be easily broken down into concrete steps. So we're flailing in the dark at this point, looking for the story path.

On the recording, people are talking about rolling up new characters, and doing a kind of post-mortem even before we've started the assault. The GM says he never expected us to take on this mission, but the players feel as if they had no other real choices. Everyone sounds resigned to the disaster ahead, and more importantly, no one sounds as if they're having any fun.

And then the GM mentions a sandstorm approaching. It a pretty obvious deus ex machina, but it gives us a fingerhold against which we can plan the assault and maybe get out of it alive. Suddenly, there's hope, and with hope comes energy and player involvement again. And somehow, the entire thing turns around so that we're able to run for 45 more weeks instead of giving up right there. It was a great save by the GM.

So looking back at both Atlantis and Ethrus and still planning on launching a new campaign of my own in the near future, I started thinking about why Atlantis seemed like such a unique experience, and I have a few thoughts that I'll go into next time.


Anonymous said...

This is why I can't bear to listen to those old sessions, I just hear all the ways I fucked everything up, or almost fucked everything up. I was so exhausted from the worldbuilding that I didn't have anything left for the game.

TheyStoleFrazier'sBrain said...

Yeah, but you got it back, and we ended up having a great time later.