Friday, February 12, 2010

WFRP:Shallya's Light, a big long essay, discussing combat and adventures

I have finished running my very first WFRP campaign. So, thoughts and feelings?

This campaign lasted a long time in genesis. I was actually going to run it the previous academic year, but ran out of time and decided to delay. It went through a lot of iterations, initially starting as a mystery with the high priest of Shallya being the villain, and trying to delay the players as long as possible by sending them on pointless quests, and against her enemies. Sadly the betrayal by leader theme was a bit of a common one for wfrp, and I decided that as a twist it wouldn't be terribly good.

I needed a way to link my adventurers to several ideas I had- intrigue in the noble quarters, dealing with criminals, a rogue group of Shallyans. Initially the quest could have been more open, and possibly should have been, but I was attached to some of the ideas and needed something to tie them together.

A macguffin was an obvious choice. To my mind adventures can be crafted in several ways-

A mystery that requires revelation. This will involve the players interrogating the enemy, trying to get to the heart of some plot. Its often a bit more open for the players, and can be awesome. It requires a lot of effort for the gm, however- the mystery cannot be too obvious or the players will feel no succour at having solved it, but if its too hard the players will stall, which is absolutely no fun.

A quest for a macguffin. This is actually fairly broad. The macguffin doesn't have to be one thing, and is great at driving plot. The quest for it can actually be as open or as railroaded as one would like.

So the book, leading to the grail, was crafted. By having several factions interested in it- the rogue Shallyans for obvious reasons, the criminals for financial, and Tzeentch mainly to lure the players to it, this neatly pulled all the threads together, and encouraged the players to follow through. The natural lead meant I didn't have to railroad too much. The mercenaries following the players was the most major part of railroading, and I could arguably have just had the book taken from the players, but its a classic trope to have the heroes get the macguffin only to lose it minutes later (I suspect this campaign was unconciously and sometimes very consiously inspired by Indiana Jones).

There were some issues I had with my design here. I rushed too many sessions. I had a point I wanted to get the players to get to, and made things too easy for them to get there- this was notable in the noble's quarters, which really could have lasted a little longer. The final combat with the Tzeentch could have been a bit better also, with a couple more cultists to help the leader. If I'd been more relaxed about where the players needed to get to I think it would have made for better sessions. Combat is something I had a big issue with. It needs to be set up carefully to be interesting. The best examples were the attack on a gang, where there were multiple antagonists at different points, and different approaches for the players, and the final combat. Many of the other combats just didn't work, however. WFRP is not a terribly exciting combat system, and making them interesting is hard work.

The combats that didn't work where generally against one type of enemy with an objective to engage in close combat with the players. This is a fairly dull objective, and denies player choice- no matter what the players do they're probably going to be all in combat within a few rounds, and be stuck in the cycle of aim and attack that combat ends up as.

To improve combats, one either needs- multiple enemies with different types of attacks, at the most simple this can just be ranged and melee. The terrain should be interesting enough to present tactical choices to the players- cover for them or the enemy to use, items that might be used to disrupt the enemy, high and low ground. I think if the enemy is just going to be melee, ideally they might have interesting objectives. The fight against the beastmen would have been a lot more interesting if their principle goal had been to kill the weakened shallyan, which would have made a reasonable amount of sense anyway (the nurgle cultists had persuaded beastmen to attack). This would have forced both the enemies and players to fight differently, and added tension- while the players were never going to lose the fight, they might have lost the sister, making some portions of the rest of the campaign harder.

I need to think more about combat in rpgs- often they're an after thought, but in systems that don't give many combat options one really needs to work hard to make sure that combat remains exciting.

The final session went pretty well. The players were given lots of choice as to what do in the city. I possibly shouldn't have given them the hint about Beatrix, but the way the conversation was going I was worried they wouldn't think to enlist other npcs help. The remaining possible support was the palace, which was about to be assaulted by a great unclean one, and Morris, who would have been an interesting source of help. I shouldn't have attacked the players with the nurglings, as it was an utterly pointless distraction, but I felt i needed to demonstrate the desperate state of the city.

The players found their way in to the temple well, but did alert the people in the main altar room, allowing them to wait in ambush. If they'd manage to take down the cultist silently the enemy would have been caught by surprise.

The final fight was reasonably balanced. Martha was a monster, with 3 magic, two attacks a toughness of 6 and 16 wounds, but the other combatants were not as powerful. The plague bearers, despite effectively ambushing the party, lasted too long. This was partially my fault for underplaying Maria- she had more tactical options than she used. I really don't like having npcs along with the party because I forget about them and don't use them properly, but the party persuaded her to come along with reasonable logic. This was another reason to try and off her before they got to the room! Still, while it did go on too long, I think the actual combat was reasonably interesting, even if my players did manage to prove astonishingly inept throughout.

All in all my take away lessons from this campaign is to not neglect prep time for any aspect of a session, and to make sure not to rush a session unecessarily. It can almost always be split in two.

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