Q’Rith Season One

23:15 Thu 13 Jan 2011
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Last night I and my players finished the first story arc in my first roleplaying campaign in 15 years. I’m very happy to have done it, and will run the second arc later this year. I want to review what worked and what didn’t in the first arc.

The Plot

I’m discussing this from the players’ point of view, am not revealing anything they don’t know, and leaving out an awful lot of details.

The PCs were in the Imperial capital, Anaq’rest, while the Empire was at war with the island nation of Shegu. They found themselves working for a merchant and politician, Arlana Redsen, attempting to gather dirt on another merchant and politician, Garard Karkinian. Karkinian turned out to be a local criminal kingpin, and a significantly more powerful person than Redsen. The PCs clashed with some of his gang early on, killing quite a few of them, which hindered significantly their ability to quietly collect information on Karkinian. Nevertheless, they were able to discover that he was attempting some major smuggling operation, and discovered that he had arranged to smuggle a Shegan noble into the city. Suspecting espionage, they alerted Redsen, who alerted the Imperial Army, who arrested Karkinian and the Shegan. However, Karkinian had political protection from a Prefect of the city, Ahino Wulan, who explained the situation away by claiming that the Shegan was an important information source who Wulan had smuggled into the capital because Wulan didn’t trust the Imperial Army to keep such a source a secret. Nevertheless, Redsen was able to turn her provision of the information to the Army into a powerful bargaining chip, and thus no longer had any need of the PCs’ services.

The PCs were approached by the Army’s main espionage service, informed that they’d just made a number of well-connected political enemies, and offered work and transport out of the city, which they accepted, ending the first arc and laying the groundwork for the start of the second arc.


  • Clear direction. Roleplaying is a game, and a key aspect of what makes games compelling is that players get feedback about how well they’re doing. In this story arc, however, my commitment to realism and my aversion to all-knowing NPCs meant that often the players simply didn’t know what to do, or how to make progress, or in some cases what had already gone wrong. They also didn’t always feel that they had the necessary tools to succeed. Challenging players is good, but I think that I allowed the player frustration level to climb too high a number of times over the sessions.
  • Difficulty. This is directly connected to the previous point. I set the bar for figuring things out a little too high also. The arc didn’t involve puzzles in the classic RPG sense, but did require the players to find their way around a relatively complicated social and political situation, one in which a number of subtleties were significant. Some of those subtleties needed to be more obvious than they were.
  • Pacing. The above points combined to result in the PCs often taking a long time to make decisions, which makes sense given that they were in a situation both delicate and dangerous, and that they lacked solid information with which to inform their choices. Unfortunately, lengthy decision-making processes slow the game down a great deal, and I was unable to figure out how to effectively speed things up, which is why it took something like 13 sessions to cover a mere 5 days of in-game time. It’s not easy to find the right balance between allowing enough time to properly consider and allowing too much time for second-guessing.
  • Sticking to the plan. This is comparatively minor, but the session-opening approach I laid out in How I Start an RPG Session was a good one, and yet I simply failed to adhere to it over the last several sessions. That is something I definitely intend to return to in the next arc.
  • NPC variety. I’m actually conflicted on this one; the players felt that almost all of the NPCs were hard-bitten noir types, although some of the important NPCs were not—but they weren’t the ones the PCs interacted with as much. So I’m concerned that there was too much of a sense of “sameness” for the various NPCs, despite my knowing quite well what their varied motives and personalities were. On the other hand, the NPCs in question were all tough city-dwellers involved in rather tough enterprises, and it suits them and the world for them to have a noir-like aspect. Difficult, and I need to investigate possible tricks I can use to make NPCs stand out from each other (tough when you don’t use props, costumes, or physical movement to portray different characters).


  • The setting. I put a lot of work into Anaq’rest, and I think it paid off. I think the players got a strong feeling that it was a well-realized and realistic city, one with its own flavor and with a deep and complex life of its own.
  • Planning. I had a branching plan for how the arc would go, and while it took longer and wandered further than I anticipated, that plan was entirely able to accommodate this.
  • Improvisation. In my younger GMing days, I always considered this a strength, and I think it still is, especially when aided by good planning and a detailed setting. I was able to handle the various unexpected directions the players went in quite well, and reacted in ways that made sense within the world (which is critically important).
  • “Off-screen” verisimilitude. By “off-screen” I mean things that happened away from the PCs. I think the players could only have been dimly aware of this, but in fact I did a good job of making the NPCs react to events only with the information they would have had access to, and of having reactions to PC actions chain together in realistic ways.
  • Character creation. I had a major hand in creating all of the player characters, and their backgrounds shaped the player experience as much as anything else. I did well in making them interesting and in making them fit (or not fit) with the situation they found themselves in in ways that provided motivation and tension.

Differences in the Next Story Arc

The second story arc was always going to be quite different, and here are some of the ways it will be:

  • It will have shorter, more clearly defined missions.
  • These missions will have objectives that are very explicitly stated.
  • It will not be entirely (or perhaps even mostly) city-based.
  • It will involve more combat.
  • Because it will have shorter, self-contained missions, there will be less chance of any of the PCs getting into trouble in ways that mean their skills and strengths are difficult to bring to bear for the rest of the arc—a failing in my plot construction for the first arc.

Overall it’s been great, if demanding, and while I’m going to enjoy taking a break, I’m also really looking forward to seeing how the next arc goes…

One Response to “Q’Rith Season One”

  1. Jeff Fry Says:

    As someone who was fortunate enough to play in this campaign, I don’t really disagree with any of the particulars here, but I think that a few key successes aren’t mentioned, and think that the campaign as a whole was a much bigger success than you articulated here.

    1. You touch on it in character creation, but I’d highlight that (a) our characters and (b) what happened *mattered* to us very quickly, and to an unusual degree.
    2. You list difficulty as a weakness, and I’d agree…but I’d also list it as a strength. We were flummoxed perhaps a bit too much, and I do have the sense that you underestimated the difficulty we’d have in gaining certain insights, but it was a really interesting challenge to play in such a complex, nuanced world where the choices had major consequences and the way forward wasn’t obvious.
    3. In terms of difficulty, scope, ambition, this was a very different sort of role playing game than most I’ve played. Many aspects were experimental, and not all of the experiments panned out, but the net effect of the experimentation was a uniquely fresh gaming experience — one I look forward to continuing.

    Nicely done!

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