Last night I ran my regular game of “Savage Heresy” – set in the world of Warhammer 40k, but using the Savage Worlds rules. I run this game via Skype (and lately Vyew) for my friends MW, LM, JR, and my wife SL.
The adventure I am currently running is canned – but I have incorporated it into several of the long term plots that the characters have. One of the things that I have really enjoyed about this campaign is throwing some long-term plots in that just pop up occasionally while the characters are going about their inquisitorial adventures. Commissar Calpurnia Jamadar has her run-ins with the Chaliced Commissariat, Sanctus Machina is involved with the Logicians and the Eldar, poor Capitan Rollando Hernandez had ties to the events in Sepheris Secundus, and the demon blade that was ultimately his undoing, and Arbitrator Aenid Fraal has had some run-ins in the underhives of Hive Sibellus, her old beat.
But I digress – the important thing is that this adventure is canned, and is fraught with all the perils of a canned adventure.
Without wanting to give away too much of the adventure, there are two big hurdles that need to be overcome. The first is that the PCs are thrown into the scenario entirely in media res – they start out waking up someplace that they don’t recognize, with no equipment and no idea what is happening to them. They are cut off from their Inquisitor, and the Inquisition as a whole. Second, they get vague hints as they go on that something really horrible is about to happen where they are, and the clock is ticking. These two problems combine with an issue that I don’t think anyone in the scenario design team thought of (to be discussed in a minute) to make for a real headache for the players, and the GM.
Regarding the first hurdle – there is nothing wrong with the media res technique when used in moderation. If you have long-term PCs that have gotten used to their gear and their authority, it’s a good method for rattling their cages a bit and taking them outside of their characters normal methods. However, in this particular scenario the PCs are pretty much without a clue through the end of the second act of the adventure, and that has led to some of my players feeling frustrated. It’s one thing to play through an evening where you are missing your equipment and not sure what you should be doing other than lying low until you can get off the miserable rock you are on and back to civilization… but it is entirely another thing to go through three sessions in a row feeling like that. I got the distinct feeling on several occasions that my players were feeling discouraged and stupid, as if all the clues were there in front of them (they weren’t) and they were just too dumb to figure out what was going on (I thought they were doing rather well).
It is also hard to pace such things. On several occasions while in discussion of what to do next the PCs came up with really smart and clever ideas that could have led them to vital clues, only to decide a bit later on in the discussion that they should go do something else instead. It was hard for me not to jump in and say “No! Go back and do that first thing you talked about!!!” But it seems to me that when the players bandy about several courses of action, it isn’t for me as GM to tell them to do one or another of those because doing so just exposes the rails of any scenario. In investigative games (and Dark Heresy is certainly an investigative game) there have to be false leads, red herrings, and events that seem unrelated to the investigation but turn out not to be. Otherwise it doesn’t seem like an investigation. At the same time however, no bunch of players is going to come away particularly satisfied by a game session where they spent most of their time confused, frustrated, and at sea about what to do next. This is made even worse by the second hurdle – limited time.
In this scenario the clock is ticking… literally. At a certain point there will be an eclipse, and at that point all heck is going to break loose. However, even when the PCs find out that time is running out, they still don’t know exactly how long they have until very late in the scenario, when a sort of countdown mechanism comes into play. As with the media res hurdle, there’s nothing wrong with limited time in a scenario – it makes players feel pressured to act. Feeling pressured to act is a good thing, particularly in this case where the players feel themselves a bit at sea – it’s tempting to just hunker down, take things slowly, build up resources, and try to avoid the bad guys until you have some carapace armor, a helgun, and some krak grenades on your belt. But there is also a big problem with setting a time limit – which is that it binds you as the GM almost as much as it binds the players. Once you set the countdown going, you have to keep pushing it. If the players have 6 hours to do X, you need to keep reasonable track of time. You also really need to be prepared for PC failure because if you set them a limited time frame and they don’t meet it, you will need to pull the switch and let them deal with the fallout – otherwise the scenario has no credibility. If you want to be a nice GM, you can take a tip from NASA and include some pre-planned holds in your countdown that the players are not aware of. This scenario doesn’t exactly do that, but it does leave the time you actually start the countdown a bit vague.
These two hurdles combined make for a very stressful scenario for players – they know that there is something that they need to do and need to do soon, but they don’t have a clear idea until near the end of Act II of exactly what it is they need to do, nor exactly how long they have to accomplish it, nor what happens if they do not. Once my players hit the point where they actually have things explained to them, well and good and I have no doubt that they will be off on the trail like bloodhounds, ready to do what it takes to save the Imperium once again. But bear in mind that at this point the have played approximately 7 hours of game time without knowing what the hell they are doing, where they are, or what the threat is.
Now comes the third problem, that is made even more horrible (and really screws with suspension of disbelief for the players) because of the other two. Bearing in mind that a) the PCs start out the scenario with no equipment, no money, and no idea where they are, and b) the PCs get the impression early on that they have limited time until something bad happens, imagine the consternation of the party when they find out that c) there is a gigantic festival going on in their location, and virtually everyone who lives there, and quite a few people who have shown up for the occasion, are thronging through the streets of the city making merry, and b) according to the map in the scenario book is approximately 20 kilometers across, and they have to criss-cross it several times, on foot, in order to get the clues that lead to scenario’s climax!
HOLY ANGEVINE, BATMAN!
Now this is not a problem that would be particularly difficult to solve – the scenarios authors could have provided some nice, free public transit system within the city that would allow PCs to go from one place to another rapidly and in comfort (or at least the 40K equivalent). A couple of their potential patrons have sufficient wealth and power to get the PCs some sort of transit (though a Rhino with a dozer blade attached might attract some attention plowing through throngs of partying nobility). They could have put most, if not all of the action in one part of the city, leaving the rest for GMs to flesh out in the future. But this particular item is never addressed in the scenario, which seems a bit strange when you know that the clock is ticking down hours rather than days, and the consequences of failure are rather awful (well, it’s 40K so of course they are awful – but suddenly announcing to the party – “Whoops! Times up, you are all insane, warp cursed, and dead! I did warn you not to stop for lunch… or dinner… or breakfast.” is not likely to make the GM popular, despite how well it holds to the Warhammer 40K theme).
Thankfully, we are now almost beyond the point where the party has to bumble around looking for clues and hoping that they pick the right leads and not the time-wasting dead ends. And of course this adventure is only the beginning of the story arc. My players are great for being so patient. Thanks!
I have lately started using Vyew for my games, which has provided a much-needed visual element. I recommend it to anyone using VOIP for gaming. One of the nice things about the Warhammer 40K setting is that there is a lot of art out there for it, and being able to provide pictures vastly enhances the “feel” of the game. Vyew also allows you to make maps and move individual items around, which lets you run battles with a more tactical feel to them, rather than the “lets just imagine what this looks like”. Being able to see the head tubes, picture where the cover is, and judge ranges for weapons has made the game more dynamic and fun, both for me and (I hope) the players!