roleplaying games

RPG year in review: Beach to Beach

We’re coming up on the online group’s fifth annual Beach Weekend, where we all decamp to Delaware and spend the weekend playing games. We’re now up to half of the games on the docket being continuation games, which frankly would not be my preference, but it is what it is. This came about from a tradition which started a couple years ago of running kickoff and finale games when everyone was together, in person. In some cases, including for the Interface Zero campaign I have been running, it means that the campaign will start at the Beach, and then end at the Beach, one year later.

This means now is a great time to reflect. I’ve run a game for a year, am ready to stop, and then will have likely about another year before I can run something new. It’s a good opportunity to figure out what I aspire to do with my future games, what will make them the most fun for my players and for me.

Interface Zero was not one of my best. And it didn’t really have anything to do with the system: Interface Zero is the slickest implementation of Savage Worlds I’ve played so far, it’s probably the only Cyberpunk game I’ve played with a correctly balanced hacking system, and the strain/cost mechanic for cybernetics was inspired. The game, in my mind, achieved almost everything that Shadowrun did in half the complexity, and achieved more than Cyberpunk 2020 with no house rules. It really is very good.

The issue comes from the world and the worldbuilding. Once again…not the game as written. I quite like the game’s world, combining corporate power with fragmenting national politics. There’s a lot of detail, it’s internally consistent, and it’s well done. But my players interacted with only a few parts of it. I dove deep into some corporations and into North American politics, but these groups only started to become characters by the end. And now I’m starting to get it.

I did not easily remember how my first game of 2020 went. There were some great moments, but they were character-driven moments. While I tried to impress upon my players the characterizations of groups like Arasaka and Biotechnica, I don’t know how much of that really stuck the first time around.

Second and third time, though…

By the time I ran the Iron City Samurai, my last foray into Cyberpunk 2020 with original characters, everyone knew the setting. They knew what I meant if I said Arasaka, or Militech. They knew core assumptions about flavor, like guns in vending machines and the Body Lotto. The game could jump around a bit more because everyone knew the core characters. So this is one thing that was missing from Interface Zero…but one reason to go back to it later.

Another issue was just an issue of characters. The game was less episodic and at the same time attendance was more sporadic than it ever has been before. This gave me, in reality, one or two protagonists to work with when the game really needed four. For an online group it is what it is, but it’s something I’d like to work on. Future games I really see myself as having no choice but to de-emphasize the characters of players who don’t show up.

So enough of what I don’t want to do or things I want to do better…what do I want to do in my future games? I want to run something where I don’t have to give players a lot of direction. I’m not 100% on what this looks like, but I want the characters in the game to be motivated to do things, and move the story along. I want to react to my players, instead of having them react to me. This is a tall order, but not impossible. I think it would require structuring the opening game in a certain way, and it would certainly require a lot of writing…but it would make some of the game more rewarding for me.

I want to run something bottom-up. The Apocalypse World-style games are all incredible at this, and I want it to go further. The AW game I’m running as backup is great, but I’d like to run one of the games as an honest-to-goodness campaign, complete with consistent attendance. And even if it’s not an AW spin-off, my next game should feature more worldbuilding and a more consistent pace of exploration and discovery of the world around the characters. The city-hopping of IZ just encouraged a superficial gloss over the locations, without very good sense of place.

On the more specific considerations: as I mentioned, I want to run an AW-spinoff as a campaign with my online group. It’s likely to be either The Sprawl or Dungeon World, though I will in no way limit myself to those two. There are other systems I’d like to use as well, though it will all come down to what I’m feeling setting-wise.

On the stretch goal side, especially as the Codex is going to be in print soon, I want to run Burning Wheel. I think it’s an incredibly ambitious game and I am in love with the idea of it. I also think running it online will be somewhere around impossible, and my players will not commit to buying the books themselves, which would essentially be required for the game to work. Still, it is one game I deeply want to play, and hopefully will be able to some time in the future.

These are all things to think about over the next year, when I am running fewer games and hopefully writing more. I feel like my desires as a GM have changed a lot since college, but I’m still trying to figure out the most fulfilling ways to run games. I’m going to continue to read, experiment, and explore, and hopefully be in position to start a high-quality, gratifying game around this time next year.

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