Jun 22, 2015

Rogue Trader: Year one reflections

According to my book-keeping, today marks a full year since I ran the first session of our ongoing Rogue Trader campaign. We were temporarily living in Kannelmäki at the time, and our student flat featured the unusual (for us!) amenity of enough space to seat me and five whole players around a table. We took advantage of this to finally get around to doing something I'd been wanting to get back into for pretty much a decade: run a tabletop role-playing game. This is a long, rambling and essentially pointless blog post on that game. I'm going to try to actually distil some thoughts on role-playing and gamemastering into writing at some point, and this is something like a very rough draft of them.


My first tabletop roleplaying experience was an abortive attempt to start a Cyberpunk 2020 campaign when I was still in school. I must've been twelve or thirteen at the time, and if I recall correctly, we never got further than character creation. I think my character was going to be a cop, which is both prescient and kinda ironic given the things I've ended up doing since. I liked coming up with characters and had been looking forward to playing, so even though it didn't happen, I did end up broadening my interests from the Games Workshop figures to the role-playing game shelves at our gaming store.

Unsurprisingly for a Tolkien fan, I found myself a copy of ICE's Middle-Earth Role Playing, and for some reason I, the youngest person in the bunch, ended up being the gamemaster. We actually played in a basement! I had no idea what I was doing. I departed from a notion that it would be interesting to explore the southern parts of Eriador, probably kicking off from places like Sarn Ford being mentioned in the Lord of the Rings, but I can't quite recall where it was we ended up. The only adventure proper I remember was my players exploring a cave complex and sheltering in a ruined tower outside it, where they were swarmed by mewlips, which MERP rendered as a kind of undead predator, after dark. My players really got into it at the time, and it's the first gamemastering success I remember.

We eventually abandoned Middle-Earth as a setting, probably because it was simply too dear to some of us, and maybe a bit boring for the others. Remember that this is almost a decade before the movies! I got a copy of the Rolemaster Standard System, and got to work putting together a fantasy world of my very own. This wasn't completely new to me: I'd already attempted at least two fantasy novels, both of which I'm pretty sure must have been terrible and are fortunately lost to digital oblivion. In retrospect, being a GM must've appeared at least somewhat natural to me. Having grown up around video, board and card games, and already dabbling in miniature gaming myself, the idea of making up my own game can't have been too far-fetched.

The first campaign I put together was for a couple of my classmates, and to be honest, I remember very little of it. I'm pretty sure one of the characters was a sorcerer, marking my first encounter with the perennial fantasy role-playing problem of the wizard in his salad days. I seem to recall that his fearsome abilities included being able to give people a cold. Another character I remember was a paladin of death; typically understated character concept from a bunch of teenagers! I ended up giving him a walk-on part as an NPC villain in my next project. I mention that in part because my chronology's very hazy, and the fact that a player character from that campaign later appeared as an NPC in the next one is one of the few things I can remember that help me figure out what happened when. I think that was my first Rolemaster campaign; I have absolutely no recollection of what happened, and I don't think it lasted very long. The second one was the one that became epic.


We started out with three players: one of my best friends, and two of his classmates from high school who were new to this whole role-playing game business. We did the traditional thing where we all sat down together to create the characters, and the most experienced player pretty much ran the show. He wanted to play a paladin, so that's what we made him. One of our novice players wanted to pretty much play Conan the Barbarian, so a fighter it was.

At this point, the player running the show strongly suggested to our other novice that it would be really good to have a wizard in the party to heal everyone. Because healing spells fall under the Channeling realm in RMSS, this meant his options were pretty much a Cleric, Druid or Sorcerer. He picked Sorcerer, but again, a first-level Sorcerer was hardly very impressive. The salad days of an RMSS wizard were pretty bleak. He could maybe cast a rudimentary attack spell but risk a catastrophic miscast. You'd try to get him a magic item that held a more useful offensive spell, and some low-level utility spells like healing d10 hit points and suchlike, but playing a wizard in those systems was pretty much about trying to survive until you leveled up a couple of times. Luckily RMSS character creation included a stage where you could pick from a number of training packages, and the sorcerer ended up getting a con man training package. It made the difference between a forgettable wizard character imposed on a reluctant player, and one of the most memorable characters I ever GM'd.

Later the player with the paladin decided he'd made a boring character, and we arranged for an appropriately heroic and paladiny death for him. He was replaced by a character modestly described as a dark elf ninja: basically a Drizzt Do'Urden making use of the Rolemaster Martial Arts Companion. Here they are in their Mithril Miniatures glory:

Left, Belial the barbarian; right, Aslach Maedhros the ninja; front and center, Degas the sorcerer con man. They were joined by a whole bunch of other characters at various times in a campaign that lasted several years.

From a gamemaster's perspective, it was a tremendous learning experience. As they got acquainted with the game and the setting, my players went through a series of crises of authority. At first, they were quite happy to go through some adventures I threw at them under the direction of their paladin leader. Eventually the other players started to become impatient with his leadership, and discovered a taste for barroom brawling. I have to admit that the brawling rules in RMSS were kinda fun, and my players enjoyed them so much that I indulged them. At some point this led to the first crisis/epiphany of the campaign: the other players realized they didn't have to do what the most experienced player told them to do. Some chaos did ensue. It was entertaining.

The next crisis/epiphany was when my players realized they didn't have to do what I said, either. When I read about roleplaying in the English-language world, I've always been struck by how adversarial the relationship between players and gamemasters seems. It's very strange to me, as I've always thought of a role-playing game as essentially a collaborative storytelling project, rather than a game with the players on one side and the GM on the other. Our campaign did at one point develop this aspect as well, when my players wanted to probe those limits of role-playing: they tried to figure out what my "plan" was and did their best to derail it. There were two problems with this. Firstly, I'd already gravitated toward a gamemastering style that combined improvising on the spot with a version of Justin Alexander's "don't prep plots" rule, so there was rarely a plan there to derail. Secondly, trying to screw over the GM is pointless, since the GM controls the damn world. As a corollary, screwing over the players is pointless, since you can always do it.

After these various crises, our campaign more or less settled down, and I gradually found a gamemastering style that I was comfortable with. Because we were playing in essentially a throwaway homebrew world, I did get to give my players a bit of a surprise by having the world end. First they got to experience Fimbulwinter, and then the great flood, which they escaped through a magic portal to another world. At this point, we all pretty much knew that the campaign was ending, so we put together a grand finale where the dark elf ninja turned on the rest of the group. The lesson there was that pitting players against other players is awesome, but really tricky to manage.


After that campaign wrapped up, my role-playing activities took a back seat. We did run a couple of small experimental campaigns where I got to try out some different approches to creating group cohesion and some other interesting meta stuff, but none of them really took off. We also tried using the RMSS modern rules, and I contemplated straight up running Cyberpunk 2020, but it didn't come together. I also started going through a rough time in my life, and kind of dropped out of everything.

As I started to recover, running a role-playing game was one objective I set myself, but I was initially stumped by what kind of game to pick. Fantasy is, in a way, everything to me, but my problem with it is that I take it too seriously these days to really run a fantasy role-playing game. I know I'd end up spending years trying to work out exactly what kind of agriculture they practice, how large a surplus population it can maintain and what kind of architecture would their inns represent. In other words, never let me run a fantasy RPG. Also, none of the systems really appealed to me; it seemed like everyone and their dog was running a d20 game, but Dungeons & Dragons always left me a bit cold. Too formalistic for my taste! Then again, I'd never been able to find a modern/cyberpunk game I really liked, especially with the new Shadowrun turning out to be offputtingly awful. Nothing in the science fiction vein really appealed to me, either.

After my RMSS experiences, one of the things that really interested me was group cohesion. I tend to generally see gamemastering as an opportunity to run uneducated social psychology experiments on helpless victims, so obviously I wanted to play around with how players form and operate as groups. In fantasy games, the concept of the adventuring party is so ingrained that it gets pretty much taken for granted: players will expect to be provided with some kind of nominal hook that justifies their characters forming a party, and then they go with it. I ran a brief campaign where I never provided that hook, and the group then disintegrated quite spectacularly. To me, neither of these is approaches is very satisfying.

Earlier I had tried to put together a cyberpunk campaign for a larger number of players than I'm comfortable with having in a group at one time. My limit tends to be 5 players per group, which I'd more or less stuck to in RM, with the exception of a couple of special occasions. The idea was that all the characters would work for, say, a criminal organization, and would form their own ad hoc groups to do various jobs. The idea was to give the players agency in forming their "party", and having them interact with an organization and with each other. This would have worked great with Shadowrun, which was why I was so disappointed in how disheartening the new edition was.

Then, about a couple of years ago, I came across Rogue Trader, and it was perfect. Not only would the players all be working for the same Rogue Trader family, one of them would actually play the Rogue Trader in charge of the whole operation. I've been playing various GW games for over twenty years now, from Space Marine to Necromunda and Blood Bowl, so I pretty much know the setting by heart as background, but I can't take it so seriously that it would hamper GMing. I was also tremendously lucky to be able to attract a large and diverse group of players, an especial highlight being when one of my best friends agreed to play the Rogue Trader; I knew he'd bring not only an encyclopedic knowledge of the Warhammer 40,000 universe but also an exceptional mind and a unique approach to the role. We started out with a group of five players a year ago; today, there are twelve players involved in the campaign.


Putting together this campaign involved two principal challenges. First of all, I needed to create a framework for the campaign that would be flexible enough to give the players themselves considerable agency in presenting their characters to others and interacting with both other players and the world. At the same time, that framework also had to very clearly create an organization in which every character had a defined role and raison d'être: everyone knows who they're working for and why.

That last part is particularly essential, since from the very beginning the second main challenge was that I was running a campaign for players of vastly different experience and familiarity with the setting, many of whom also didn't know each other at all - in two different languages! In my experience, by far the best way to teach new players role-playing is to get them stuck in, especially if you also have one or two players who are either experienced in general or familiar with your gamemastering style in particular. Even complete novices, if they have any aptitude and interest, will quickly learn by watching, listening and participating. That's why I strongly feel that motivation is the single most important criterion for selecting players for a campaign.

The downside of the learning-by-doing method is that differences in player experience will come to be mirrored in the characters' relations to each other. Whatever the characters and their relative positions in the party or organization, the experienced players will dominate the game. I specifically didn't want that to happen. This is at the root of my opposition to the common method of creating characters in a group: if you sit all the players down around a table to come up with everyone's characters, the experienced players will dominate that process as well. Certainly this was what had happened in my previous long campaign. There's a significant chance that, even if the domination isn't overt, the novices will inevitably look to the more experienced players for an example, and try to create characters that are useful to the group or whatever. Unfortunately a character that's useful to the group won't necessarily be one that the player in question ends up being interested in playing. In general, finding yourself cast in a particular role through a social dynamic at the table rather than your own interests can be very destructive to motivation.

My solution was to create everyone's character completely separately from the others. I gave everyone some general background material on the setting and asked them to look at the rulebook and come up with a character concept. Incidentally, I regard the ability to do this as a fairly good litmus test of player motivation. It's fairly easy for a gamemaster to manage this process by maintaining a dialogue with the players as they do this, seeing to it that you don't end up with a group of, say, five Navigators. I absolutely abhor the idea I've seen in some RPG products where players are left to their own devices for character creation and are only expected to show up at the first session with a character sheet in hand, so I think GMs need to be fully involved in character creation anyway. This also lets you include all kinds of interesting stuff in character backgrounds that the other players will genuinely know nothing about. A real secret is always so much better than a role-played one.

The main benefit of this "character creation in a vacuum" approach is that it gives each player maximum agency in choosing how to present their character to the group. Instead of the other players thinking "oh, here's so-and-so, she's playing the seneschal with the missile launcher", the player herself will get to create the impression their character makes on the group. My hypothesis is that this will make the intra-group dynamic emphasize the characters more than the players, which I also hope will make it easier for less experienced players to get stuck in.

The other hope I had for this method of character creation was that it would lead to group cohesion perhaps developing more slowly, but in a manner that's more organic to the characters and the game, and less a reflection of the players' personalities and relationships. This way we could hopefully avoid the crisis-oriented development of my previous campaign.

Creating characters separately also really serves to reinforce one of the key themes of my campaign: information management. Rogue Trader lends itself to this very well, with the rogue trader himself probably privy to a great deal of house secrets, and seneschals and others working for him with their own backgrounds and contacts. I wanted players, especially those in positions of authority, to have to make decisions on what information to share with whom, and to never quite know for sure just who it was they were working with.

One final reason for separate character creation is that it ensures each character can stand on their own, so that in a larger, multi-group campaign like mine, I can move characters between groups. Most of the players in my campaign didn't know each other very well or at all before we started playing, so I didn't even know if they'd get along! I'm happy to say they all have so far, but you never know. For group cohesion purposes, I very much like the Profit Factor system: if nothing else, at least the players have an incentive to stay in the rogue trader's service for access to the family fortune. But even with that, having multiple groups gives your players the opportunity to play with the people they like, and to give different groups different themes, hopefully based on player interests and styles of play - and in our case, language! We ended up starting with an "overt" Finnish-language group led by the rogue trader himself, and a "covert" English-language group led by a seneschal spymaster.


Overall, I've been tremendously happy with how the campaign's gone so far. I feel that my approach to character creation was a success: I have a full dozen interesting characters, and my players seem motivated to play them. My GMing was really rusty to begin with, and still is, but my players have so far come back for more. I think they've all been tremendous, with the more experienced players really role-playing and the less experienced ones exceeding themselves constantly. I'd be willing to go as far as to say that my character creation philosophy also worked in terms of creating a playing environment which the players interacted with, and where the players interacted with each other, primarily through their characters.

I'm particularly grateful to those of my players who've taken on leadership roles in their groups, as their unique leadership styles have really made their mark on the campaign. Above all, I'm tremendously lucky I've managed to find so many smart, skilled and motivated players in general.

Because of my dilettante interest in social psychology, it's been extremely interesting to run a large number of players as separate groups. Each group tends to develop its own ways of doing things, and it's just fascinating how adding and subtracting people changes that. On that note, I'd like to encourage GMs to embrace player absences. Unless your group is smack in the middle of something that that particular character is absolutely vital for, if a player has to cancel at the last minute, just roll with it. Especially in a game like Rogue Trader, where you can easily come up with a whole host of plausible reasons why the character isn't participating in the action just then. Hell, for want of anything better, people get ill in the 41st millenium, too. This can be particularly rewarding if the player in question has a leading role.

Running several groups obviously means less playing time for each group than they'd otherwise have, at least if GM time is a constraint. Here, as I feel in all GMing, the two keys are intelligent prep work and a willing to improvise. If you try to run deep, epic plots for each group and have them intersect in various really clever ways, you'll end up wasting huge amounts of time and it'll never work anyway. If you can design intelligent, dynamic environments and actors, running multiple groups can be hugely rewarding and surprisingly painless. Players certainly become a lot more interested in local news when they know some of it is being generated by other player characters! It's not as much work as you might think, and juggling a complex of several player groups is challenging and loads of fun.


As a postscript: since I'm already pretty familiar with the Warhammer 40,000 universe and Fantasy Flight's Koronus Expanse setting doesn't strike me as particularly interesting, I went elsewhere for my material. I never use published adventures or settings as they are, but I do love reading RPG material as it gets me thinking. GURPS doesn't really interest me as a system, but they've got sourcebooks on the darndest things:

I bought GURPS: Alpha Centauri basically on a lark, and it's really well put together! Basically it integrates Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri into the GURPS system as a setting. Alpha Centauri is one of my favorite video games ever, but I do have to confess it never once occurred to me to run a role-playing game in it. The major shortcoming of GURPS: SMAC is that while it does a good job with the setting, it's really rather thin on the role-playing front. You'd have to have a far more serious love affair with the computer game than I ever did to run a SMAC role-playing campaign just for the joy of adventuring on Planet.

Which got me thinking: if my players wanted to play an Alpha Centauri-themed scifi campaign, what would I do? What I came up with was integrating the other GURPS supplements I've picked up online over the past year.

Here's my campaign pitch:

The Unity has arrived at Alpha Centauri, the crew divided into its various factions, and planetfall has been made. Technology has progressed to the point where at least some of the factions have returned to space, but transcendence is still a ways in the future. Earth, ravaged by nuclear war and the subsequent environmental devastation, has been quiet - until an Earth starship drops out of warp in the Alpha Centauri system.

An intrepid inventor on post-apocalyptic Earth has invented faster-than-light drive - if you like, his name is Zefram Cochrane. Humanity has entered a new era, and the first faster-than-light expeditions to nearby stars have met alien civilizations. We're definitely not alone any more; in fact, Earth - and Alpha Centauri - find themselves in the middle of a complicated web of alien factions, trade routes and diplomatic maneuvers.

The various factions of Alpha Centauri recognize that they need to be in on this action. They acquire warp drive technology and combine their forces to build Alpha Centauri's first starship. Its mission is to find out about the new interstellar reality around them, and see what opportunities there might be for Chiron to get its collective foot in the door and maintain her independence from a recovering Old Earth. The crew of the starship is drawn from the best and the brightest of Chiron's factions: your player characters.

I'd run the campaign as a sort of cross between original series / Next Generation Star Trek and Rogue Trader, making full use of the GURPS Far Trader and Pocket Empires supplements. The players would be the command crew of the starship, tasked with going out into the unknown to represent Alpha Centauri's civilizations to the wider galaxy in whatever way they see fit: exploration, combat, diplomatic intrigue, trade - whatever grabs the players' interest. The backstory on Alpha Centauri can be customized to suit the group, or even conform to an actual game of SMAC. How did they get warp technology - did the Morgans buy it? Hive spies or Data Angels steal it? The University figured it out on their own?

Not interested in theology? Maybe this happened earlier:

More GURPS stuff can always be thrown in. I picked up the GURPS New Sun supplement, based on Gene Wolfe's stories, off a sale at my local gaming store; it could be adapted into a nearer-future post-apocalyptic Earth if you really wanted to throw players a curveball. As I already alluded to, particularly enterprising gamemasters might want to set the whole thing in the Star Trek universe: the Unity was launched some time before World War III, and most of Earth is either locked in the postatomic horror, or being ravaged by the Eugenics Wars. Maybe in this timeline, the disastrous first contact with the Klingons is made by a ship from Alpha Centauri!

For bonus points, throw in some Elite 2: Frontier references. I know I couldn't run a spacefaring game in the solar neighborhood without at least a few.

I have no intention of running a campaign like this any time soon; I have a very satisfying Rogue Trader game to get through first! But this is what I'd do with GURPS: SMAC. To be honest, I've only skimmed through most of my GURPS stuff; I hope to be able to give them more of my attention later this year, so hopefully I'll be returning to them here. I absolutely love the idea of GURPS: being able to integrate all these different fictional universes across a single game system is like my teenage geeky self's dream come true. The more I think about it, the more I like this notion of the Alpha Centauri colonists returning to space for proto-Star Trek adventures.


So, if there's a conclusion to this, I suppose it's that when planning a campaign, do take an extra moment to think about how to do things like character creation or group cohesion in a way that reinforces the themes of your campaign, and how much agency they give each player. I had some goals I wanted to meet, and I think they worked out okay. A different campaign with different goals would handle things differently. But in short, I feel that the way you set up your campaign matters a lot.

Overall, running a proper, old-fashioned tabletop pen-and-paper roleplaying campaign has been a tremendously rewarding experience that has considerably increased my quality of life. I wholeheartedly recommend taking part in at least one tabletop campaign in your life. It'll be worth it.

For those of you unfortunate enough to find yourself GMing like me: reflect. That's what I've been trying to do in this huge mess of a blog post. I'll try to create some more readable posts on specific issues in the future. Until then, I've got a huge bunch of players to shepherd closer to the edge of the galaxy!


Memeist said...

First I'd like to thank you for GMing - it's nice to be able to participate your games although I do wonder if I am good enough roleplayer to play my characters part. The control of information certainly seems to play important part and it's been quite difficult for me as it seems to run counter to my intuitions of sharing information.

As for playing SMAC in rpg style - sure! If you still want me to participate your games that is. It's a wonderful world for intrigue and all things that seem to make rpgs go around.

Michael Halila said...

It's been a tremendous privilege to have you participate in my campaign, not least because you're one of the best roleplayers I've ever had the pleasure of GMing for. Whenever I start my next campaign after this one, you'll be more than welcome.