Has a game or campaign ever just left you utterly exhausted? Well, this last set of adventures was as tiring as they were exciting!
As Alfmarches is coming to a close, I’ve been trying to wrap up a few loose ends and threads that I’ve been managing among the GM circle. I was able to tie up the GERBLIN front with some diplomatic shenanigans in Prey to Play. Then given the choice between taking on Durathrax or exploring the Ardens, the players opted to go after the Ardens. They thought that would be safer than facing the Great Devourer.
One thing led to another, and I ended up with twice as many players as I’d normally fit into a game who were interested. To ensure that everyone had a seat, I split the group up into two teams and said “those who survive their first game, will play in the finale.” I wanted to set the precedence early that this would be a dangerous endeavor and that I expected a good portion of them to die in the attempt. Not because I was out to kill them, but because the Arden’s were meant to be a big evil of the campaign and they were invading their home turf.
Over the course of two weeks, I ran all four games for these nine players and only two characters died. I can’t believe it!
You can see in my notes below that I pulled out all the stops. I had Devil Dusts, hundreds of mooks, dark magic, environmental threats, eldritch gods, and evil witches. Plus targets all the way up to 18! How did they survive?!
To answer that, I feel like we have to chalk it up to a combination of good teamwork, savvy play, very powerful abilities/combos, and the blessing of the dice. My players played well and overcame nearly everything I threw at them. There’s no denying it.
But then, why am I so tired? I think it’s because this has been a mental/emotional roller coaster as we pushed through these four very intense games and because I’ve come to terms with a few lessons along the way.
Action Economy is a Big Deal
I typically play with at most 5 players, but half of these games were run with 7. That’s a lot. I don’t understand tables that play with more and I commend every GM that does so. But running a game with so many players means that as a group, there are a lot of actions to go around. They have seven chances to do something. Seven opportunities to attack a big bad. Seven moments where they get to act before I get a chance to respond, in most cases. I became more and more aware of this as the games went on because a limited number of actions is part of the challenge. If you can do seven things but there are 9 things to do, which two do you ignore?
A classic piece of advice from ICRPG is that adding hearts to an enemy doesn’t make them more dangerous. More actions will. This is so true. In the last game, I included a mid-round action for Mother Arden and that made a huge difference. On the flip side though, I realized that in most rounds I was only having the generals do a single action when I had set them up for two. This made them appear much weaker and much less threatening.
I know I struggle to find the balance between short GM turns and GM actions, but these games proved to me that I need to give my bad guys enough actions to challenge players. Yeah, my turns may be a little longer, but that’s the price. If I only get one turn out of seven, I’ve got to go big!
You’ve Got to Let Your Stuff Die
When Alfmarches first started, we weren’t exactly sure where stuff would go, but each GM focused on a FRONT and ran with it. I ended up exploring why King Henryk had gone missing and we found out that the Arden’s, an old cultish family deep in Alfheim lore, were responsible. It was so intense early on as the players sought them out, and faced them in various forms like Mother Arden who was imprisoned in Reaver Fjords, or Brylant who had infiltrated the Keep as a traitor (Man, what a rush when that was revealed). I put a lot of time and effort into the Arden characters and their plot lines. And they met their end…
It was very exciting to see players stand victorious over the villain, but I know I had to resist multiple times on barring the way to their defeat. I realized that that is part of the GMs role. To be okay with your stuff dying even if it’s bittersweet and emotionally challenging.
GM & Player Experience Things Differently, but Don’t Let That Spoil It
This last lesson was probably the biggest contribution to my exhaustion but also the most important for me to learn. You see, as a GM I try to plan exciting and challenging sessions, but I don’t plan solutions. The players are responsible for figuring out how to overcome each challenge. But you can’t help but imagine how things will go during prep.
This means that as GM, I know what’s coming. I know how it works. I know what I’ve imagined as the session draws near. And when it doesn’t go quite the way you might expect, there’s a tendency to feel kind of… flat.
The players cheer, praise, and walk away pumped, and I’d walk away kind of deflated. I wish the villain would have put up a bigger challenge. Kind of lost the tension right there at the end. Etc…
GMs and players experience the game differently even though we’re all sitting at the same table. And that differing experience can spoil what was an exciting and fun game overall. It can suck the fun away and lead very quickly to exhaustion and burn out.
Which is why it was so important for me to learn to change my attitude. Change my perspective. When I found myself feeling a little deflated, I focused in on the stars of the game. The moments that went well. The epic things the players did and try to relive the story we did tell and not the one I imagined it would have been.
I mean in the Arden finale, I imagined that the Eldritch God would reach out and have this big moment in Mother Arden’s throne room. That tentacles would twist everywhere and that there was a desperate struggle to break the crystal in time. Racing against the clock as everyone dropped one by one, driving the tension to the extreme. But that didn’t quite happen.
Instead, the players did something even more epic. They used their wits and abilities to make things easier in one fell swoop. They broke the crystal in just two round. They finished off Mother Arden in a single flash of arcane lightning. They did things that I never could have imagined and that makes for a better story. That’s what makes this hobby so fun as we build the stories together.
But now that the Arden’s are in the history books, it’s time to look forward to the next adventure. What kind of lessons have you learned lately?