Thursday, February 10, 2011

Glorious Failure

Now, for most of this blog I've been crowing about my own successes here. And overall, the campaign has been a tremendous success. My players have said as much.

But it hasn't been all Hollywood Blockbusters and Oscar Awards all around. There have been a great deal of problems in the game. It's easy to celebrate your own successes on a public forum. It's sometimes a bit more difficult to talk about what you did wrong. Especially out in public.

But let's talk about that. My failures in this campaign. I was going to write a single post about the subject, but then I found myself writing pages of text. Clearly, this isn't going to be something I tackle with a single post. So, we'll probably see a series of these throughout the blog.

A Tough Game
The Rogue Trader campaign has easily been the hardest campaign I've run in recent memory. The only other game that gave me this much trouble dates back to '03-'04. Yeah. Seven to eight years ago. I still remember it vividly. And no, that was not any game that I played with the Minions of the Monster Master. With the Minions, we were fortunate enough to knock it out of the park almost every time. (Much love to the Minions, BTW, for mentioning one of our old, great campaigns. They even put up pics!)

But even though I remember the '03-'04 campaign being fraught with mistakes, misfires, and downright failures - I also remember having a really good time, and learning a lot from what went wrong. More than I learned from my more successful campaigns.

Outside Problems
One problem our campaign has faced (and we've been extremely lucky to weather this) is a changing player roster. We lost players. Gained players. Had players come and go. Thought we were going to lose players, but then didn't.

The game started out with the loss of Casey, one of our most energetic and enthusiastic players. Losing a good player is very difficult, especially if that player brings a lot of energy to the table. A player who is like a cheerleader for your campaign is, in my opinion, invaluable. Players like that get everyone excited about the game, and maintain its momentum.

Then, we had another player Nick, who had to leave the game for months at a time due to work. We had another player, Doug, who thought was going to have to leave. To fill his spot, we invited another player, Rob, into the game. And then, it turned out that Doug didn't have to leave.

All of this resulted in a game that eventually got too big. At the top, it had a total of seven players. In my opinion, that's too many for a game like Rogue Trader. Because of the way I'm running it (sort of like Birthright), each character has to command either a sizable group of people, or make key decisions about important parts of the ship. This means that often, the game will focus solely on one character. In a big group, it's very difficult to get that spotlight onto every single person. Also, a game of this kind is going to feature a lot of long periods of political discussion and interplay. In a big group, quieter players can lose out.

I don't know if I would call this a mistake per se, because it was no one's fault, but it was probably one of the biggest problems in our game.

Now, luckily, this continually changing roster of players did not kill our campaign, as it might have with many groups I've been in. I think we can credit that to the fact that our group as a standing, set-in-stone, gaming night. But making game night a regular thing, our campaigns don't tend to die off before the end. As a result, so far, we've completed three different campaigns in about six years. That means that we seen the beginning, middle, and end to three different campaigns.

How the Game is Supposed to be Run?
In my opinion, if you read the adventure in the back of the Rogue Trader core book, or read through Lure of the Expanse, the designers seem to want you to run the game like Star Trek. Even though you command 30,000 or even 100,000 people, you and the command crew are the only ones that really count. So, of course you deploy to the unexplored planet with your Navigator. Of course you enter the ruins with your lead Astropath. Can you run a Rogue Trader game like that successfully? Of course you can. And I think you can do it very well, because the game is designed to support that sort of play.

However, we had already run a game very much like this in our previous campaign in the Iron Kingdoms. I wanted something different. I wanted a game that felt like you were in charge of a dynasty, not just a ship. A game that would be like Battlestar Galactica, but where you don't play Starbuck or play Admiral friggin' Adama.

Now, a game like that can have it's problems. Like T-Bone of the Minions stated, you can end up with a game where all you do is manage people. As T-Bone manages people in his day job, he surely didn't want to do that on game night! So you have to be careful. Another problem that I ran into was that I've never run a game like that. Nor are games of that nature ubiquitous.

At that point, what I wished I had understood was that I was now taking the game in a direction far outside the confines of the rules and how the rules were even organized. Sure, there are things like the Endeavour System or Profit Factor which help create a sense of epic-ness, but there simply aren't (currently) solid rules on mass combat or mass ship combat. There is a small write-up on squad-based combat, but it's very short and unfortunately shallow.

What I wished I had done was....

What I Should Have Done
I should have done was understand the game a bit more before running it. And then implemented some solid, defined house rules. Things like house rules for mass combat. Mass ship combat. Things like that.

The reason I say that is that often I've had to do these things sort of on the fly. And while it has worked, the small sub-systems I've come up with have not been consistent. It sort of cheats the players, because they have a hard time knowing what to expect. We'll see how I do implementing these things from here on out.


  1. Food for thought indeed! It's very interesting to hear what problems you've run into when running Rogue Trader. Especially as I would also like to play a more 'large scale' campaign.

    You toucked on epic in an earlier post, have you thought about simply using alternate systems for the larger battles? Ie Battlefleet Gothic for the space battles, maybe with some special attention given to the PC vessel.

  2. Mass-combat rules are being rolled out in Battlefleet Koronus and have been added in the adventure The Frozen Reaches.

    Also, might I suggest checking out the Deathwatch free-rpg-day supplement on the FFG site? It has rules for Hordes which I think you might find useful for retaining that "massive army versus six awesome Explorers" feel.

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  4. @Martin: I'm glad you posted that comment because it prompted me to go ahead and use the Battlefleet Gothic rules in Rogue Trader. I don't know if I would use them for every single fleet battle, because I really like the Rogue Trader ship rules. But we will use the BFG rules in our next session, all due to your prompting.

  5. @Hale: You know, I need to look at the horde rules in Deathwatch again. I remember liking them.

  6. One of the things that has happened in the game I play in that has motived me as a player to try and make the game flee like we have a dynasty at our command rather than a bunch of guys with a ship is the presence of the bigger, more powerful NPC Rogue Traders doing big world shaping things with their Dynasties. Until we have an empire rather than just a ship and a warrant we're always going to flee like the young upstarts playing at being Rogue Traders and not the real deal. It means I'm thinking about political marriages, raising armies to conquer planets, finding governors for the planets we conquer, building a network of spies so we know what everyone else is doing in the expanse etc etc.

  7. @Witchfinder Glad to hear my ramblings actually lead somewhere. I'd love to hear how it plays out!

    My (very rough) ideas on how to combine the games would be to run it as BFG but let the characters do the same kind of actions that are available in RT and then translate them over to BFG. I'm not sure how well the two go together, but it seems workable on the surface.

    Hmm... I really would like to get started with Rogue Trader, but we're still in the middle of WFRP3 and recently created a kind of backup-game in the form of Diaspora. Not enough time, not enough time.

  8. The thing I like about the RT system is that PC abilities can -vastly- affect the effectiveness of their ship. They can double its speed, make it much more accurate, allow it to make more critical hits, etc.

    How that would translate over to BFG...I am not sure.

  9. Yes, having that kind of drastic impact in a game of BFG would probably make the PC vessel a bit too powerful, but couldn't you keep the abilities and but just scale them down a bit?

    Alternatively use the RT rules for everything concerning the PC vessel and simply translate damage inflicted on enemies to BFG scale on a percentage basis.

    Hmm... maybe I should sit down and see if I can come up with a workable system myself. :)

  10. Hey, we tried the BFG rules last night in our game and they worked out great! I'll write up a post about it, but it will be a while coming, unfortunately. I'm a few games behind in my posting.

  11. That's great to hear! And it makes me even more eager to play it. Guess I should start dusting off my old fleets.

    Looking forward to the post!

  12. Thanks for this, WfG! It's good to know that your campaign persists even though there are challenges (and that I am not necessarily in the minority when it comes to stumbling blocks running this game).
    Living in a big metropolitan city like London, we have lots of players flitting in and out. Some only play once before their situation changes, or others go and marry Australian girls and move fifty time zones away. In either case, it can be disruptive to the storyline, to say the least.

    We've also been trying to pad our group's numbers in general, that way if IRL events get in the way of some of the cast being able to attend one week, we can soldier on. The major downside to this, however, is that sometimes everybody shows up, and suddenly you have 8 players around a table, demanding attention!

    I'm afraid I still haven't figured out how to employ the Endeavours effectively. From a video game perspective, they make perfect sense. List the achievements, how well they did on each and a the end, tally their accomplishments up, etc. But in practice, I find myself not sure when to set it all up. Obviously if you put all of the different plot devices on there for them to see during play, it gives away some of the plot, so I've been writing them in as I go along. I tried to get my players to use them and write them in, but none of them seem interested. Also, there are some new rules about "background endeavours"; I can see how they would work in concept but as the players aren't directly involved, none of my group seems interested in them, either. They just want to know if the academy has been built, or if the habs have adequate food, etc. They don't care about a little sheet that lists a bunch of admin tasks.

    Anyway, thanks again for the post, it was very insightful.

  13. @Kleuthan: Reading back over your post a second time - it made me think. If I did it all over again, one thing I might consider is to make the Rogue Trader and his/her ship part of a larger dynasty. When the game is first created with the PCs, etc, you of course make your ship. But then, one thing you could do is just say that ship is part of a much larger fleet. It's your one ship, though, which goes out into the stars, explores, etc.

    That way, you could still have some of that epic feel by having the other ships of the PCs' dynasty appear from time to time. And even participate in a conflict or two.

  14. @Jon: The big thing that motivates my players to fill out Endevours is the fact that it boosts their Profit Factor. They started the game with a very low Profit factor, which limited their ability to buy cool stuff. That prompted them to take Profit Factor more seriously.

    Also, when creating an Endeavour, I sit down with the group and we all do it together. I don't rely on the group to fill it out for me. Nor do I fill it out and hand it to them.

    Basically, by filling it out with my group, it creates the outline for an adventure. For example, their first Endeavour was to explore and settle a planet. So we worked out as a group what would needed to be done to accomplish that. Then, all of the objectives within the Endeavour became bullet points for the adventure.

    The procedure would go something like this:
    Me: What do you want to do?
    Them: Wow. We're lost. Too much choice. We need direction.
    Me: Okay, how about Choice A, B, or C?
    Them: We like Choice B.
    Me: Okay. Let's make it an Endeavour. What do you all think would be needed to accomplish this?

    I like Endeavours so much, I could see myself using them in other game systems as well.

  15. Ah, I see, WfG-- a great incentive, and I can see how that would work much more as a mechanic. I think my group just isn't that excited about props as much as I had hoped. The first session, I had printed out a "data slate" and stuck it to some cardboard. Okay, so it wasn't a Weta Workshop grade thing, but I was hoping they would be more interested. Of course, now that we have iPads, the data slate is a bit more of a reality, but we started playing before those appeared.

    So, back to game mechanics: you've told me about the carrot, what about the stick? I was thinking the other day about how most of our group used to play Cthulhu at one point or another-- unfortunately so far I've given myself few opportunities to use the insanity and corruption rules. Granted, they don't work quite the same as CoC, but it would be nice to have some facet of it appear in the game. I was thinking that some of the player's actions should invite corruption, and I should be using the game mechanics a bit more to help reinforce those ideas. You haven't really mentioned them, so I was wondering if you had employed them at all so far?

  16. In Dark Heresy, our game definitely made use of Corruption and Insanity. It's funny. After that, and seeing how much *fun* the PCs who went insane had, in Rogue Trader, we had two players in a race to see how much Insanity they could incur.

    Overall, however, we don't use the Insanity or Corruption rules as much in Rogue Trader because that's not what the game is *about* in my opinion. We certainly have touched on it and we have a player who is racking up the Insanity points like they free pints at the local pub, but overall, not so much.

    I suppose for me, Insanity and Corruption might be dealt with if it makes sense for a particular character. For example, in the Explorator starting to innovate? Maybe invent technology? Etc? That would be one example.

  17. Actually, I was thinking of using them as penalties for evil actions. Like if they decide to take the bribe, kill the sultan or space the crew before scuttling the ship, etc. They've also had dealings with the nefarious underworld types-- boom corruption! And as for insanity, one of the setting cues seemed to be "cthulhu in space" (or perhaps my feverish brain made that up), so any failed willpower checks with really unsettling things might equal some insanity. Maybe I'm thinking too negatively, though.