I’m going to start this recap by stating that I’m ditching my usual in character with digression format. This entire post is more or less one big digression, as I felt that very little actually happened in the game. And frankly, I just need to work out what went wrong in my head. My apologies if that makes this less interesting, but it’s my hope that my rambling might be helpful to someone else.
To begin, it should be stated that due to time constraints, we had a shorter than normal play session yesterday. Which is usually fine, cutting out an hour can be done if I have a little time to think about it. But that’s in a normal session. But what happened in this session was far from normal. I’ve mentioned in past posts that my players were really getting into the show behind the game, providing meta commentary on what was happening in the game. Which was really interesting and I was willing to see where it went. Turns out, it went in places that really killed any sort of investment I had in the story I was trying to craft.
Things almost immediately got off to a rocky start. Due to missing last week, we sort of skipped the recap part of the game this session. Which was a mistake, as I had intended for this game to pick up right where it had left off. Instead I had one character in L.A., shooting a music video. Another character had magically jumped to a base and was working on his car. Suddenly I was dealing with a time skip, which I managed to do by having the mother and Molly stay over with Ace. Which worked, but it had killed my first idea, which was the mother was going to tell them that she’d barely gotten away from the commune as it was being attacked. It was my intention to start the session out with some higher stakes and a bang, just to build some excitement.
But players do things you don’t expect and I can hardly fault the players for wanting to explore their characters. Any GM who’s run long enough learns to roll with the punches, and a more low key start was fine. My players rolled with my really fumbled way to bring them together again (bless them for that – it was NOT my best work by far). And so the characters made their way to the surf commune to see what was happening. There was a token amount of investigation, but then the players went on what must have been a 20 minute side digression about the actors playing the characters, and how they went on to do other things in other shows. It was very creative and entertaining, but it once more killed any momentum I had at all.
I was able to sort of pull things back on track by having some Street Thunder thugs attack on motorcycles and RVs, machine guns and chains in hand. I hope that maybe threatening the folks of the commune and the characters would pull folks back in character, but instead the fight ended up being nothing but full on slapstick. There were attacks with weights that were just painted frisbees. When David’s car was attacked, it wasn’t actually his car, it was some beater they had to burn up. And so what I had hoped would ratchet up the tension instead turned into Monty Python and the Bumbling Gangers of Ineptitude.
Now, during this fight I did make an interesting discover. I started tossing out “DvD Commentary Aspects”, and the players really ran with it. Throwing a free weight at a guy was easy because it was actually a painted frisbee. The car wasn’t damaged because it wasn’t actually the real car – it was a stunt car. That part? That part is just a great example of the Fate Fractal in action. The show that was the game was suddenly taking on traits like an actual character. I actually think that you could very easily use the Fate Accelerated rules to stat the actual show up as a character. Just use approaches (or Roles) like Budget, Effects, Actors, Makeup, Crew, and so on. Then you could let the players as a whole use the show character to create advantages for the player characters. It’d be very meta, but it’d work seamlessly.
But, for this game, the commentary only served to kill any sort of tension I’d hope to build. This is the point where the game had jumped so far off the rails that I had kind of just given up. I tried to keep going, but my heart wasn’t really in it. The heroes were harassed by Drake Falconsteele and Detective Dan O. Lord, but then we got on another tangent about how those actors went on to other shows as well. I tried again to bring the game back by having an earthquake start, but even I was starting to describe things in terms of the show (the camera was shaken).
The earthquake opened up a crevasse that had some underground caves. During my prep and thought earlier in the week, this was supposed to be the magic moment (hah!) when the group first encountered something truly supernatural. But the mood for such a reveal just wasn’t any sort of right and instead I just got derailed. Instead of these terrible zombies rising out of the surf, remnants of a long sunken Spanish Galleon, the first thing that popped into my head was a big dragon. Which of course looked cool, as the prop guys were established as being great. But then I figured that was silly, so it ended up being an illusion. Which made no freaking sense. But I had looked at the clock and realized that time was running out due to all of the tangents, and so I had to cut that fight.
The heroes made it through the caverns and to a big chamber with lava. I hadn’t planned for lava at all. It was supposed to be a room quickly filling with sea water. But a player had established that they had some cool lava effects and declared a detail, so I rolled with it. And my big scary cultist who was supposed to be this big mystery about why he knew ace? It wasn’t him, it was some totally old stuntman who had also played three parts in the episode already. I tried insisting that he was in a robe and you couldn’t see him, but was kind of shouted down. And so I pretty much just threw the fight and let the heroes roll over it, as at that point I was just tired of playing along and knew there would be no tension at all.
I think that’s the moment that really broke me for this game. When things get this silly, there’s no coming back from it. You can’t have things get this weird and then try to pretend that this game is anything remotely resembling serious. And to be clear, I was complicit in some of the meta commentary. It was funny and it made me laugh. But it really wasn’t anything like what I had wanted to run when I started this game. I had envisioned a grounded, more low key game. I wanted something close to Simon & Simon or Magnum P.I. But what we ended up with was the Adventures of Bad Acting and Terrible Scripts. Which can be great fun once in a while, but it’s not remotely what holds me attention as a GM.
I am blessed with really damn good players. They’re attentive, they’re always willing to pitch in, and they have creative characters and ideas. You couldn’t ask for a better group of folks to play with. But all of those good qualities can also combine to create a runaway juggernaut of gaming that I can only try to guide. And I know had I actually talked about how this was bothering me earlier, the group would have immediately started to bring things back. But I was curious as to what these changes meant and I wanted to explore a new style game. Only to realize way too late that it’s a style of game that I only enjoy once in a while in a convention style setting. They’re great palette cleansers, but they don’t have enough on them to interest me for more than a session or two.
A big part of me wishes I would have stuck to my guns at the very beginning and insisted that we play the game at the Bad Dudes & Ladies level. I should have stated that I wanted grounded characters and that the Gonzometer was going to be very low. But the players tossed their enthusiasm behind the higher gonzo settings and it’s a foolish GM who ignores what makes his or her players enthusiastic. And so I ran with it, ultimately to the point of making myself uncomfortable and uninterested in the game. But that happens. The only way to figure out if you like something is to give it a good try. And for me, the more gonzo and meta style games just don’t have enough in them to interest me for very long.
I’m very grateful that my group agreed to take part in this playtest and did their best to throw their full attention and enthusiasm into this thing. I knew at least a few of my players were really struggling with Fate and I hope that this helped them understanding. And I really do like the original characters that came out of this game. I think, in another style of game, I’d really enjoy running for them again. It was a great game to visit, but I sure wouldn’t want to live there.
As a final word, the actual system itself is incredible. Shadow of the Century is now definitely in my top 3 variations of Fate and I’ll be grabbing extra copies of this one. Throughout this entire playtest we have very, very few mechanical problems. And those we did have were mostly related to legacy language that just hadn’t been changed in the playtest document. And even if you don’t dig the 80’s, this version of Fate has so much you can steal. Montages, Roles, the idea of “Gonzo Roles” adding extra trappings and effects to skills. I’m particularly interested in taking the final version of Shadow of the Century and tweaking it to run Shadowrun.
I’m grateful that Evil Hat allowed us to play in their under construction sandbox. It was just an awesome experience, even if I didn’t end up digging where the game ended up. And to be clear, any problems I have with this game were the result of situations, not the rules or the group itself. It just turns out that I don’t really like my games to get too meta or silly. But I can’t remember the last time I had so much fun finding out I didn’t enjoy something. So, thanks to the folks at Evil Hat for providing us with so much fun. This has been my favorite and best playtest experience to date.