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[Transhuman Alternity] Campaign Post-Mortem

Started by James_Nostack, November 27, 2004, 10:30:59 PM

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I am posting this because at some point my campaign went terribly, or not-so-terribly, wrong and I'm wondering what the heck happened.  We had a lot of fun but it isn't what I had in mind to start with.

This is an Actual Play post dedicated not to a single adventure session, but to an entire campaign that's been running for the past 2.5 years and will finish up sometime this Spring.  

Mode of Play Details
* Play was conducted via PBeM for the first 9 months via YahooGroups
* It was then conducted via OpenRPG, a type of IRC game
* The forty IRC sessions occurred roughly bi-weekly
* I typically GM'd for three regular players and one occasional player
* The game in use was Alternity
* The setting adapted Bruce Sterling's Schismatrix Plus

GM's Objectives
In the Spring of 2002 my last roleplaying experience had been as a player in an AD&D game ten years earlier that resulted in a Total Party Kill.  (Never try to startle a minotaur by falling onto its head.)

By 2002, however, I was playing in an IRC-based Alternity game and hating it.  The GM favored a hack-and-slash, almost motiveless style of play; some of the other players got on my nerves; I decided I could do a better job, and decided to run my own game.

This was my first time running an RPG as an adult, and I wanted to do the following:

* Tell an epic story
* Tie in player-character motives whenever possible
* Use a "transhuman" style setting
* Use the game as a "dry run for the future," sort of like the futuristic-bubble-world in Warren Ellis's "Transmetropolitan" comic: players would explore a bizarre, futuristic world and we'd see which transhuman ideas appeal, and don't appeal, to intelligent futurologist types (kind of a psych experiment on my players, in a way)

It didn't quite work out that way.


My players, and their heroes:

* Stilton Nkome (played by J. Clunie) - an urbane techno-scavenger, who earns a living by taking apart failed bits of high technology and fencing them on the black market.  Of the PC's, Stilton has been the most tolerant of freaky ideas--a manifesto is just another marketing tool in his eyes.

* Drake Merriman (played by M. Peoples) - an ex-cop framed by his superiors when he got too close to an organ-smuggling ring.  Drake comes across as apolitical, and unaccustomed to posthuman thought: he generally derides it as nonsense.

* Alfred Fruaht (played by B. Hastil) - a rabblerousing idealist who hopes to establish a utopia where baseline humans, transhumans, and other sentient beings can live in harmony.  Alfred himself has been the victim of brainwashing to forget his former life, when he helped exterminate (almost) everyone on Lone Star Station.  His current utopianism is a subconscious reaction to his earlier career as a monster.

* Raven (played by O. Dallas) - a bloodthirsty cyborg with razor-sharp claws.  He has been on a quest for revenge ever since he escaped the genocide on Lone Star Station, which killed his parents.

GM's Notes
* Two of the players are in their teens; the other two are in their early 30's.

* Their RPG background leans fairly heavy on traditional games like D&D and Storyteller; so did mine, for that matter.  Alternity fits in nicely with these types of games.

* Alfred's player wanted to have committed a genocide; Raven's player wanted to have been the victim of one.  They had no clue about their shared history until the middle of the game.

* All of the players had a shared element in their histories: Alfred's armies attacked Lone Star Station to capture an Alien Artifact.  Raven escaped with it, and sold it to Stilton, who in turn passed it along onto the open market.  Eventually one owner was murdered, and Drake began investigating the thing--leading them to each other.

* All of the players have been fairly tolerant of transhuman ideas--but haven't really embraced them.  They can countenance some cybernetic implants or genetic tweaks, but nobody has uploaded their mind into a computer network.  It's worth noting that most of the players chose "baseline" humans.

* Though the characters generally have strong motivations, they don't have "kickers" per se because I wasn't familiar with the term.


Things Go Awry
When I started planning this campaign, I wanted to have it be almost entirely plotless, at least on my part.  In the novel Schismatrix, Sterling's characters engage in grand schemes of their own volition: one guy decides he's going to terraform Mars.  Another decides to create a brand new society under the icy surface of Europa.  A third decides to conquer an alien species using specially designed pheromones... and discovers that it's not really as easy as he thought.

In other words: these characters dream big, and you could stretch an entire campaign from their daydreams.  This is the kind of thing I wanted from the group: "Hey, let's create an army of self-aware artificial intelligences, and run our own 'virtual country' from a server hidden inside a public restroom," or something.  Weird, crazy, BIG stuff.

Instead, we ended up with a bog-standard traditional sci-fi space opera against a Mad Scientist whose monstrous Henchman is looking for an ultratech McGuffin.  There are femme fatales, space fleet battles, and so on.

It's actually a hell of a lot of fun... but I somehow failed to do what I set out to do.  This isn't a problem, exactly, but I wanted to do something groundbreaking, at least for me, and did not achieve that goal.  (The players did, eventually, set up their own country and draft its ideology, and I'm going to fool around with that a bit in the concluding sessions.)

Most of the problem, of course, is that I didn't really explicitly state my desired mode of play.  But also, I wasn't entirely sure how to encourage traditional-style players from thinking that way.  Early on, the players acquired their very own start-up business, which could be used for any purpose they desired.  I didn't want to force their hand, so I left its nature up for them to decide... and for many months nothing happened there.  It's been a year now, and that particular plot hook never went anywhere: the players couldn't think of anything worth doing.  (This is not due to lack of setting info.)

Also: one of my original objectives was to explore some of the social and philosophical ramifications of transhuman ideology... but that never actually happened.  I reverted into James Bond technothriller mode, where the heroes unravel the monthly doomsday plot, thwart the villain, and stay one step ahead of the local law enforcement.  I simply didn't have a clue about how to run a game with those kinds of themes.

(With that said, any suggestions on how to run such a game would be appreciated.)

Plot summaries of various adventures to follow, if necessary.


Hi James,

Welcome to the Forge!

Frankly, because IRC is so damn restricting, I'm impressed that you all have played so many sessions and had fun doing it.  I think this is a great success!

QuoteMost of the problem, of course, is that I didn't really explicitly state my desired mode of play.

Yup.  I think you've answered your own question.  You wanted a game where player character's created bizarre plots and the player's took the initiative to drive those plots.  If you didn't communicate this adequately, you would end up with something else.

The fundimental first step of any rpg is to establish among the players a shared vision of what play will be.  This has to be a group negotiation and discussion - part of the social contract, if you will.  Two factors appear here: what do the players want to play? and how much are they willing to drive play?  You would need agreement on both.  This may mean leaving out players who just aren't interested; luring a player into play they aren't interested in is like herding a cat.

Now consider that you had a lot to work against:

- players who (I would guess) were conditioned by years of play.
- a game system not well-suited to what you had in mind.
- IRC, a highly restrictve communication channel.

I would guess that you wanted to get a message across, to counteract the player's expectations from their previous rpg experiences, but you had to do it without reading body language or using spontaneous unrestricted discussion to explore things, and finally, unsupported by the character design section of the game or the reward system of the game.

The solution, then, is to have the initiatial discussion, and later reinforcing discussions, preferably in person, be thorough and inclusive of everybody. and choose a system that better supports your (the groups) agreed collective purpose.  If you must play IRC, turn up the amps on your message and set aside regular bull sessions for exploring _how_ to play. Also, consider net phone and camera useage to widen the channel for your discussion.

Finally, aside from choosing a game system that better supports PCs with grand schemes, also consider seeking a game that works well on IRC - you might search the Forge for comments on the Code of Unaris.

Hope that helps.
- Alan

A Writer's Blog:


Thanks Alan!  Personally I don't find IRC that troublesome; it's worlds better than pure e-mail or pure forum games.  We generally have a 10 minute warm-up and cool-down session to bookend the game where people can discuss, gripe, and react to things, plus a supplemental e-mail group for meta-game discussion.  It seems to work all right for us.

I think you're probably right: although I don't think an explicit social contract is always necessary, the game I hoped to run was supposed to be unusual and I should have stressed that.

The players have generally been pretty good about rolling with weird ideas, so the fault is mostly mine.  When they didn't take the initiative, I somewhat foolishly rushed ahead with the first plot that came to mind, and we've been coping with that for quite a while.

Even that wouldn't have been so bad, if I could have found a way to weave the broader themes into the action-adventure plot, but generally that's been hit or miss.

Would something like "Sorcerer" or "Apprentice" work for a transhuman game?


What's wrong with Alternity for a trans human game?


Quote from: greedo1379What's wrong with Alternity for a trans human game?

Absolutely nothing!  But it all depends on the kind of game you want to run, and perhaps your skills as a GM.  Alternity is set up with the goal of simulating sci-fi adventure stories, from Star Wars to The X Files, and does a commendable job.

What Alternity does not do is provide thematic guidance to play.  If you want to play a game that answers questions like, "What does it mean to be human?" or "What does Progress really mean, anyway?" the game itself isn't set up to confront such issues directly.  All thematic content would have to be supplied by the participants.

This isn't a bad thing!  Some participants don't want to deal with that stuff, and that's fair.  But some groups might want to explore Big Thematic B.S.  Even then, a system like Alternity doesn't handicap you: a creative bunch of participants could steer play in the desired direction, even without explicit rules or hamfisted advice.  

Yet that requires the group to (a) have a conscious understanding of what they want, (b) to realize the system itself can't assist with that particular problem, and (c) develop sufficient storytelling skills to compensate.

I flubbed all three of those conditons, and so my game doesn't have the thematic focus that lured me into the project.  Instead of something thoughtful like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I've got James Bond-meets-Futurama, which is a joy in its own way but not what I had intended.


Hmmm...  I think I understand.  (Although maybe not, lets see)

It sounds like you wanted either the background of the game or the mechanics of the game to lead you to the question "What does it mean to be human?" or something similar.  I never played Alternity but as I understand it, its basically D&D in space.  So the mechanics to lead you to that sort of question aren't really there.  As I understood it, Alternity was basically "backgroundless" as well (it was built to be used for any sort of sci fi type setting).  So you couldn't depend on the background to help you there unless you choose background that would do it.  And you said you didn't really.  (Not trying to rub salt or anything, just retracing what you said to make sure I understand)

Are we trying to figure out what you can do next time to get the game you want?

I am more familiar with D&D style games where the thematic content is provided by the players and GM rather than any game mechanics.  When I think of the question "What does it mean to be human?" and sci fi I think of the Hollywood "I, Robot".  I think one of the easiest and most overused (cliched) tricks to get players thinking about this question is to have a sort of caste society where the lower caste isn't considered human.  You could have had the cyborg discriminated against for being less than human.  Or things like this.  I know this probably seems like an obvious way to handle the situation but just to throw an idea out there.


Yes guy, Alternity wasn't made to do the kind of stories you want to do.  Few SF games, even the Star Wars games really empower players to accomplish BIG things..  You really need to take a look at this thread, which is discussing something along these lines:
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