Wednesday, May 7, 2014

That's a lot of water

In the 33 years that I have been roleplaying, I have run some great campaigns.  My college Autoduel game from the late 1980s is the one I usually point to when I want to highlight my greatest achievement, but certainly I have some less distant successes as well.  My recent Savage Mars game would have to rank pretty high on the list.  The first big Legend of the Five Rings campaign I ran circa 2000 which ran nearly 80 sessions and had the players begging on Friday night to play again on Saturday and Sunday would have to be in the discussion as well.  When everything clicks in a game, it can be a magical experience.

For every one of those transcendent games, however, there is a failure (or three) as counterbalance.  Some games fizzle out due to scheduling problems, or apathy.  In others, some critical portion of the group finds that they do not like the rules, or the genre.  I have even had a couple of TPK instances over the years.  I like to think that I know my limitations and do not take on games where my game mastering skills or interests will be the cause of the problem.  Consequently, the number of truly massive campaign failures over the years that I was wholly responsible for are thankfully small.

And then there is GURPS Riverworld.

There are not a lot of pictures from the game online, but the
 cover art  for this book was among the best Steve
Jackson Games ever produced.

I began a GURPS Riverworld campaign for the Bowling Green Mafia crew about fifteen years ago.  I lasted two sessions.  Two miserable, horrible, awful, terrible sessions.  They were scar-you-for-life bad.  Looking back on the situation, I have to concede that virtually the entire blame rests on my shoulders, too.  The game was bad because I misread the players and did not provide the group the sort of campaign that they would be successful in. 

Riverworld is a game adaption of a series of novels by Philip Jose Farmer, one of my favorite authors.  The premise is very high concept.  One morning, every person who ever lived is reborn at the same time on a seemingly endless river valley.  In the books, the principle characters set out to explore the river, some with the intent of finding the source and discovering who created the Riverworld and why.  Farmer mixes an eclectic group of historical and fictional characters into one of the most satisfying sci-fi series I have ever read.

The implications for a role-playing game are pretty impressive as well. Characters can come from any time and place and mix with other players of equally unique background.  Ever wanted to see Napoleon and Salvador Dali have a conversation (and who hasn't?)?  On the great river, there is nothing preventing such a thing. In fact, the central thesis of both the book and the game encourage just these sorts of encounters.

In such a game world, almost anything is possible.  And that, my friends is where I went wrong.  I let the players create characters from any place and time.  Most of them were forgettable although I do remember Eric Lindgren playing a neanderthal man pretty convincingly.  But once the characters were created and I set up the initial scene including who and what were around them, I let the players loose to do whatever they wanted.  My theory at the time was that I would just react to whatever they did.  What they did, however, was virtually nothing.

For many years I have been of the belief that having too much choice is as bad (and sometimes worse) than having no choice at all.  Watching my players in this game made this readily apparent to me. When the players were confronted with being able to take virtually any action they so chose, it completely paralyzed them into inaction.  There were certainly things to interact with, but they couldn't decide which ones to interact with and in what order.  A decisive player might have chosen a direction and struck out to see what happened.  This group, in this situation, however, was uncertain how to proceed and thus did not.

The inaction, however, was my fault.  I presumed a greater knowledge of history on the player's part than they possessed. I have since learned to presume (at least until I learn otherwise) that no one knows a damn thing about history.  This serves me well, more often than not.  Since they didn't know much about the various groups around them, they had an insufficient frame of reference.  Also, when the players did not have an action in mind, I COULD have forced the pace by having one of the various plot threads act against them.  My original thought was to present the playground and let them choose which toy to play with. The biggest mistake was not making one of the toys go and play with them until they decided what to do.

Fortunately, I have learned from this failure, both for this specific game and as a game master in general.  I have never had a repeat of this particular problem.  Fifteen years or so later, I think things have changed enough to give this world another try.  Riverworld has a ton of potential and I think my current pool of players would likely thrive in a campaign that allows for such depth of character creation. The river is there to explore, there are empires to build or topple, and mysteries to solve.  And this time, I will make sure that the environment is far too active for the players to do nothing. 



  1. David Simmons took us to Riverworld once......Perhaps the trouble is Riverworld..

  2. I considered that. But I actually ran a fun couple of sessions of Riverworld when I lived in Louisiana. Nothing approaching a full fledged campaign, mind you, but enough to see that it can be done. That is why I think it was my approach that was flawed, and not the setting. The idea that you can play a character from virtually any era seems like it would be a no brainer for the role playing groups I run with.