2022/07/28

OSR: Behind the Curtain: Session 2 Examination

I'm trying a new series of posts, where I examine my RPG sessions in detail, trying to show how I GM, what rulings I make, and issues that a narrative writeup can conceal. This post won't make much sense if you haven't read the narrative session report.

Session Reports: 1, 2

Session Examinations: 1,

Spoilers below. In the unlikely event that any of my players see this post, skip it. Trust me.

Descriptions of the players and their characters are in the previous post. Player designators use the same letter as the first name of their PC. E.g. [A] is Agnes' player.

I don't know what I'll do if a PC dies. I might have to force the player to choose a name starting with the same letter.


Part 0: Prep

I updated the map of Endon with locations and street names from the previous session.

I expected Jonty to reveal the kidnapping plot to Agnes, at least partially, and try to get her assistance. I expected him to draw Haze into the scheme too.

I thought about the scheme Snedge and Lord Tarrigan-on-Burl were perpetrating, and made suitable in-world contingency plans. Snedge is not a fool. Revealing the full plan, and the motives behind it, would spoil the plot.

The players had hinted at visiting the Shambledrake Manor (outside of Endon) at some point, so I prepped a very lightly sketched scenario and map in case they ditched the whole kidnapping plot or split up. With the Generic Gothic Manor from the Monster Overhaul and Hainsley Hall at hand, I didn't need to do much.

I should have prepared specific plot seeds for Tom, Dr. Hartwell, and Lizzy. I suspected Tom would want to discover more about the mysterious letter, but I neglected to prepare any specific hooks in that direction.

[Dr] let me know that they were going to miss this session, but no major plot points needed be adjusted.

Part 1: Light the Fuse

I briefly summarized the previous session, listing known plots.

I neglected to track time in the previous session. This time, the time tracking sheet was ready.

I started by asking the group which PC was awake first. This is a reliable method for starting a session when the PCs are in separate locations. [J] said that Jonty would have requested a very early knocking-up (being genre aware is handy). 

I could have had Jonty test Constitution to remain operational on a few hours of sleep, but I decided that panic was sufficiently motivating to see them through the day. Players rarely need an incentive to make bad choices.

Jonty set off for the address he'd been given by Snedge. I asked [A] to describe Agnes' neighborhood and apartment.

[J], of course, knew OOC that Jonty was searching for Agnes' apartment, but [A] said Agnes was not an early riser (especially not after a night on the town), so an actual collision was unlikely.

I didn't give [J] much concrete evidence, as Jonty was awake well before the shops opened, and the local baked apple seller didn't know much. The apple-seller assumed Jonty was a debt collector, but Jonty did pay for two day-old baked apples, so perhaps not. Jonty set off for the College, letting me segue into Tom and Haze's morning.


I ran a brief scene with Tom and Haze at Nedalward Hall while checking if they had any plans. I emphasized that other students would probably believe Tom had just inherited a vast fortune. While [T] said that Tom filled Haze in on the mysterious sealed letter, they did not mention any other schemes before class.

 

I jumped over to [A], asking about Agnes' morning plans. Agnes is also a student, so needed to get to the college at some point if she wanted to attend any classes (not mandatory). [A] asked about work, noting the cost of Agnes' apartment and the lack of income. The general cost of living in Endon was discussed. I suggested that [A] buy a newspaper and look for classified ads.

I asked [A] what sort of work Agnes would be looking for. [A] suggested a "bouncer, or a bodyguard", presumably looking at Agne's brawling abilities. The group discussed other options, including a governess or teacher, while pointing out that Agne's age made her difficult to employ. While [A] probably would be happy with any work, I pointed out that Agnes would find some types of work undignified and unthinkable. 

Agnes bought a newspaper and I improvised a few potential jobs. [A] was interested in a night warden position at an orphanage, and considered skipping class to go there immediately I suggested that it was an evening position, and that they might not interview for it first thing in the morning. Agnes headed for the college.

[L] also asked about finding work. I suggested the College or the halls, but [L] didn't bite, so I suggested Lizzy could ask the lawyer, Cheetham, for information. I initially said this to buy time, and as a reminder of Endon's class system, but I realized that Cheetham could be a very relevant plot point in other ways.

Last session, I'd invented the sealed letter on the spot. Tom stole the letter, but it must have been intended for someone. That person might seek out the lawyer. While the exact nature of this mysterious figure (or group) was slowly taking shape in my mind, I knew that they wouldn't risk leaving Cheetham alive. 

Thus, the murder scene, and the Coppers straight out of central casting

Side Note: In convention-driven settings like Endon, it's useful to have a supply of stock characters, voices, and quirks pre-loaded. A broad-accented Constable who mispronounces words will always come in handy, and it defuses the tension of what could otherwise be a deadly scene. PCs resort to violence at the drop of a hat if they're not aware of genre conventions. 

I've also decided that all Constables will have agricultural names (Riley, Barnes, etc.) so I can keep track of existing names and quickly invent new ones.

[L] played Lizzy brilliantly, gathering as much information as possible while "cooperating" with the Coppers. Innocence is a rare and useful defense when a PC gets arrested. By the time the scene was over, Lizzy had her eye on the position of station cook.

Lizzy is well aware of the opportunities for inside information provided by her new job. She is even plotting to get a job as a "Thaumaturgic Crime-Detector", a new position she invented that uses magic to "detect people what have done crimes, and also how they did them."

Source unknown

Part 2: I'm The GM And What I Said, Went

RPGs allow for casual time travel. Events can occur out of order as long as they do not visibly depend on each other.

I switched back to Haze, as [J] seemed eager to discuss the kidnapping plot. [J] can be relied upon to drive a scenario, but in a situation where the group is split up, this can become a liability, as too much spotlight time gets focused on [J]'s schemes. It's easy enough to manage if you anticipate it.

Jonty sent Haze off to find out more about the address on the card. I realized that Haze could, potentially, run into or see Agnes near her apartment, despite the fact that I'd previously said Agnes was at the college. The times lined up. I called for wisdom rolls from both PCs. Agnes spotted Haze and decided to wander over.

I can't remember if I ran a brief scene in the tailor's shop before or after this roll, but in any case, it was just extra setting detail.

Haze realized that "Aggy" was Agnes. I didn't call for a roll; it seemed like an appropriate connection to make, given the coincidence. Haze would have also heard Tom refer to his "Aunt Aggy" on occasion.

Then, on the way back, I realized Haze could run into Lizzy too. I jumped over to Lizzy, and ran a brief filler scene before introducing Haze. By this point, Lizzy had fully ingratiated herself with Constable Riley. I then introduced Haze (who was moving at speed, and therefore did not need a roll to be noticed). Haze managed to avoid being arrested.

Part 3: In Media Res

Players frequently present the GM with unexpected situations that demand immediate improv. "You mentioned the barkeep has a moustache? I ask him about the top three brands of moustache wax in this county." Etc.

With experienced and genre-savvy players, it's possible to flip the script, and drop them in the middle of a scene without any prior description.

It's best to do this sparingly and carefully. It requires the GM to have a very good sense of how the PC would have acted and to make as few assumptions along those lines as possible.

In this case, [H] said, "Haze bursts into Jonty's office and says, 'Tom's Aunt Agnes is the Aggy we have to kidnap and Cheetham the lawyer's been murdered!'".

This sort of haste seemed like an amusing opportunity to resolve another plot thread, so I said that the college porter was also in the office, trying to get dead horse money from a stone (or a mangled metaphor to that effect).

The PCs hustled the porter out and discussed their plans. 

While [H] and [J] were in conference, I briefly discussed Lizzy's new role, hours, and duties, but didn't run a scene at the Copper station as [L] didn't have any dangling inquiries.

Part 4: Jonty Bares All

[J] wisely realized that a long drawn-out soul-baring scene with Tom and Haze wouldn't be particularly interesting to the table, as OOC they were fully aware of his peril. [J] just said that Jonty filled them in. Agnes was another matter.

[A] asked if there was a Dept. of Biomancy at Loxdon College. I said yes. [A] asked if there was money to be made from volunteering for magical experiments, and who to contact about that. Confused, I invented Prof. Tallerand.

One of the delightful things about [A] is that there's no indication of where any line of inquiry will lead, but it nearly always leads somewhere relevant. [A] isn't off on a time-wasting tangent. There's method. It might not be particularly deep or profound, but it will lead to something interesting.

I thought that [A] wanted Agnes to volunteer, either for youth (remembering the possibility of a job as a bouncer), power (for more brawling), or general chaos (knowing [A]). 

What I didn't anticipate - in fact, what nobody at the table anticipated - was that [A] wanted Agnes to sell the orphans under her potential charge to the college. It's definitely plausible, in-setting, and it's a superb use of the tools Agnes can access, but it's also selling orphans for medical experiments.

Jonty intercepted Agnes before her interview and did a superb speech. I was fully expecting Agnes to suggest something, but, in a brilliant move, she just walked away. Experienced players typically find reasons to collide or stick together, but [A] subverted that.

The interview at the orphanage seemed like a formality, so I skipped to the middle of the conversation. Agnes decided to resolve any disputes with the orphans through a combination of violence and confusion.

 

I realized that I needed some plausible scene to fill the time between the late afternoon and evening. Prof. Tallerand would probably conduct inquiries of his own, and, given Jonty's peculiar reputation, get him involved. NPCs are not static video-game prompts.They have motives. They can scheme too. This is a bit of fuzzy narrative logic, but I did want at least one other PC to get an in-character inkling of Agnes' orphans-for-cash plot.

IC, Jonty still has no idea what's going on with Agnes. Nobody does. But he is very, very worried. Jonty might even believe that Agnes killed Cheetham and/or Uriah Shambledrake

William Hogarth


Part 5: In The Papers

I wanted to include a newspaper reporter in this session to give the PCs a chance to make terrible mistakes in print, and to introduce a potentially helpful (but probably not) recurring NPC in Angelica Hartwell. The magic auto-scribing pen was a nice way to remind the players of the existence of minor magic items.

Giving the PCs a chance to talk about their exploits is always fun. It lets them think out loud, speculate, and brainstorm new schemes. Lizzy, buoyed by her new job and flattered by the attention, gave away all sorts of information. Haze, Tom, and Jonty tried to keep out of it.

Meanwhile, [A] invented Alice the maid out of whole cloth, saying (as far as I can remember), "Does the orphanage have any girls who were not adopted but stayed around to be trained in service, and who fear authority figures?" And yes, that seemed plausible. Enter Alice. Agnes, again, with a degree of unstated genre-awareness and a pocket full of silver, convinced Alice to go to the kidnapping voluntarily.

While Agnes did brief Alice on Lord Tarrigan-on-Burl's nature, even quoting some of her letters to him, I think [A] was reasonably certain nothing good would happen to Alice. 

The other players realized that [A]'s intervention would probably throw a wrench into their scheme, but they had no way of knowing in-character, and even then, would have probably decided to improvise.

Part 6: Housebreaking

Finally, I had most of the group together in one place. I didn't mind not giving [A] any further scenes, as the chaos Agnes had unleashed would be sufficiently entertaining to watch. 

The burglary was fairly standard RPG stuff. A few rolls, the players realizing they had no relevant skills or tools midway through, etc.

Jonty made clever use of the smart chain item once again, but this time its time limit (1 hour in 24) was very relevant, as he activated it just after 11:00.

[A] insisted Agnes would have rigged up a burglar alarm, and described the brick-and-string system. I normally don't allow this sort of retroactive prep, but it was in-genre, mild, and not critical to the plot.


Part 7: A Plan After Midnight

Snedge was very confused when Jonty and "Aggy" (actually Lizzy) arrived.

Lizzy was also a confused. While Jonty had bared his soul to all the other PCs, he'd somehow neglected to tell Lizzy why they had to do all of this. She's just very good-natured and happy to help with what she assumed was dire peril.

Snedge had, of course, seen Lizzy in the Unicorn Arms, and remembered her face extremely well. She had cast inebriate on him. Wearing a different dress did not make her a different person.

Why none of the PCs realized that Snedge would recognize Lizzy is mysterious to me. I could have mentioned it, but decided that it was plausible that Jonty's panic would carry the group along with the scheme despite its obvious flaw... or flaws... It's possible that in a session with less time pressure, someone would have noticed the issue, or possibly not

In any case, from Snedge's point of view, everything had gone more-or-less according to plan  before the PCs turned up. "Aggy" (actually Alice) had arrived. Snedge hadn't expected Jonty to send the actual Agnes, or didn't know who she was. If Jonty found the stones to pull off the kidnapping, so much the better. If not, and he sent a poor confused woman in alone instead (as he'd apparently done), Jonty would still be framed.

The second "Aggy", and Jonty in person, was very odd, but still convenient. Snedge ducked out, altered the Coppers as planned, and vanished into the night.

I'd decided that Snedge would have planned for Jonty to be present, and have knocked him out (wand of sleep) to get rid of Aggy. He'd wake up just in time to be arrested. Since Jonty didn't turn up with the original Aggy, and Snedge didn't fancy his chances in a wizard duel with Lizzy, he just left, locking the door as a backup plan. He'd already planted the textbook (signed, with a forged card the PCs haven't found yet) and cut the rungs on the roof ladder.

Little discoveries like this make recurring enemies memorable.

I'd planned for the 4 most probable scenarios in the event Jonty (and co.) were caught in the trap, both from as a GM and from Snedge's point of view.

1. Violence. Unlikely, but they might be able to brawl their way through a handful of Coppers and escape out the front door. Snedge would bet on Jonty failing or getting caught, and then move to scenario 3.

2. Escape to the roof. Snedge ensured this was difficult, but escape does not nessesarily foil his plans. Otherwise, he'd have put a lot more effort into capturing Jonty or ensuring he turned up with the kidnap victim.

3. Arrest and Confession. Plays right into Snedge's larger scheme (unspecified for the time being).

4. Escape by means unknown. Depending on the kidnap plan, this could be a teleport spell, a bomb, a rocket, or a bicycle built for two. Best to improvise as the plan develops. Snede can't move against factors he cannot predict.

Snedge is cunning and prepared for betrayal, but the easiest way to avoid having a plan go awry is to have a very open-ended plan.

 Thanks to the smart chain, the PCs were able to escape to the roof. Unfortunately, the session had to end on a cliffhanger, with the group still split. We'll see how it resolves next session.

Final Notes

I didn't give Tom enough spotlight time this session. It was an oversight, but also steered based on the kidnapping plot. I'm sure he'll get lots of focus in the next session.

Sessions where the PCs are fully split up require the GM to think quickly and jump from scene to scene. Brevity is important. Most of the players are spectators, and they didn't turn up just to watch someone else play D&D.

Tips for A Session Where The PCs Split Up: 

  • Jump forward and back in the timeline if you think you can get away with it.
  • Start some scenes in the middle, if their outcome is trivial, predictable, or mostly risk-free. You don't need to describe every NPC, every room, or every encounter in a game like this. Make the players improvise too.
  • Try to give everyone equal time.
  • Experienced players will try to get their PCs to meet up on sensible pretexts if the group gets split. 
  • Jump quickly between players. You want to give everyone the impression that they are equally involved. If a player starts a tangent, you may need to gently cut them off.
  • Try to get PCs together, but don't force it. 
  • Encourage PCs to set meetings for future times or locations, then move on to other PCs.
  • Track time carefully and push it along relentlessly.
The large map at the centre of the table helped focus the group. It turned Endon into a real physical space. The players could visualize streets, alleys, distances, and events without relying on a sketched set of nodes or a completely verbal set of relationships. Maps are important.

Questions?

Ask away.

2 comments:

  1. Super insightful again, thank you. A great read showcasing the different possible facets of this game. We play much more with a wargaming mentality I suppose. No judgement, just an observation! I am curious, would you say that you/your group has always tended towards the above style of play or would you say that this shows considerably distance from your origins?

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    1. I think a number of this group's members get their wargaming kicks from actual wargames (or board games and video games with similar restrictions/benefits), and lean more into scheming when RPGs are an option. Hard to scheme properly in a game with fully fixed boundaries and systems.

      Though this sort of thing is not how this group always play by any means.

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