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Author Topic: The raid on the Bank Nationale de Paris  (Read 6362 times)
contracycle
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Posts: 2807


« on: August 08, 2006, 07:48:27 AM »

The raid on the Bank Nationale de Paris

I have been asked to provide an account of a heavily stylised, storngly directorial game that I have GM'd succesfully, and have selected this particular adventure as an example.  it seems appropriate becuase it was a particular attempt to push the boat out and apply even more control than I would usually; also because this game is widely recognised as one of the players highest points of character portrayal (William, see below).  Specifically in this case, I wanted the adventure to be run against a very strict time (in game) limit  Please note the use of the term "adventure", not "story"

The game
This was a campaign that ran for about a year, a cyberpunk game based on the SJG Cyberpunk setting.  The stock badguys were the NERCC, the National Environmental Resource Conservation Commission, a neo-Fascist government no doubt based on contemporary American conspiracy theories about FEMA.  This was mixed in with some stuff from Cyberpunk 2020 and the Hardwired supplement for that game.  This adventure occurred pretty late in the run, and so the characters were well established in the setting and had a sound working relationship.

The system
I was using a homebrew system that worked loosely as follows: your abilities generate a column on a Marvel Super Heroes (original version) style colour chart, the colours being Red (best), Green (success), Yellow (marginal success) and white (miss/fail).  Different types of tasks could apply either column shifts (quantitative bonus/penalty) or colour shifts (qualitative bonus/penalty).  Some tasks might require particular colours in addition to imposing modifiers.  For combat purposes, the final colour result would determine both if you hit what you were aiming at (or something else) and modify the damage inflicted.  There was no strict round or initiative system in use, that was just handled by narration/fiat.

Characters and Players
The game had had more players earlier on but we had settled down to a smaller group due to real life constrainst, and at this time there were 3 players. 

William, an old friend of mine with whom I have played several times, but this was probably the single longest game I had run with him.  He was playing a hispanic Fixer type who favoured loud shirts, open to the waist to display chest hair and a gold medallion, and who declined any weapon other than his chromed colt python with a marquee of flashing LED's along the barrel, which William explained was the characters penis compensation.  He was the central character of the game and I relied on him heavily; I think Williams GNS preference is Narr because this character displayed the show-stealing behaviour behaviour associated with Narr players in non-Narr games.

Gareth, aka Peb for reasons that need not be discussed.  Peb is another old friend, with whom I have played a great deal, and his character was his stock type, the type we would recognise as Neo from the Matrix - dark glasses, duster and egregious firepower.  He had all the gunbunny mod cons, and was constructed as a sniper/assasin type.  I expect Pebs style is Gamist, and he's never been great on engaging with the subtler aspects of the game or even been heavily into character portrayal.  This was one of the better games in that respect, not least because of the character linking that gave him stuff to deal with that was not purely effectiveness based.

Mark, who played the decker.  Mark was the player I was least familiar with, having met him in a gaming club in London.  His character was a Nomad who was sort of the tribe techie.  I'm not sure what his play style is, and I also think it would be fair to say he was shut out a bit because I was so familiar with the other players that I probably responded to them more.  Anyway this character was not a fighter type although survivably competent.

Background and dynamics
One of the innovations I introduced in this game was firm, non-reciprocal links between the characters.  In this case Williams flamboyant fixer was the hub; he had a longstanding contract for wetwork services with Pebs character in exchange for drugs, which were brought into the city by Marks Nomad in exchange for technical bits-and-bobs that Williams Fixer contacts would supply.  This gave them a relationship that was structured, rather than dependant on mutual emotional backmail, resulting in almost no infighting.  The characters had been through 5 or 6 previous adventures, and had managed to offend to the NERCC to such a degree that they were on top of the governments official and unofficial Wanted lists, and they knew this.  So they needed to get out of the country in hurry, no questions asked.

Scenario origins
As mentioned, this was an even more strongly directed game than I would normally run, and was performed as something of an experiment.  I decided to set myself a fixed time limit which the players would have to deal with, this being specifically 17 minutes of game time.  To this end I constructed a very tight NPC driven scenario in which the characters would have to complete their objectives within in that time Or Else, with my own objective being to see that they did so without obvious intervention.  I wanted to capture the pressure of the clock ticking.

Another innovation in use in this game was the request for "images" from the players.  These were just single frames as out of a movie, and I would then work to incorporate such scenes in the game.  The one that this entire escapade originated from was one of Peb's, an image of "dudes running through smoke, you know, with gas-masks and stuff".  This image was incorporated into the initial penetration of the building (see below).

Further, I had been reading some stuff about helicopters, and had been thinking about the way the VTOLS worked in this setting, and wanted an opportunity to portray some of this manouverability, and therefore the VTOLS feature quite strongly.

Plot
The characters needed a way out of Washington in a hurry.  Williams fixer knew an anonymous hacker who went by the handle of Rain80, whom they thought was pretty reliable.  So he contacted Rain80 who was able to point them to some French Mafia dudes who needed some cleanskins to undertake a highly risky op.  Acting on the principle that probable doom was better than certain doom, they accepted without cavil.

The Mafia had a complicated plan to raid the Bank Nationale de Paris building, for the specific purpose of blowing up a particular server at a particular time such that only one part of a two part transaction would actually be processed.  This was the basis for the strict time limit.  However they intended to use massively excessive firepower in the assualt in order to cover up the specific target of the raid.  Also, because the gendarmerie could be expected to respond pretty swiftly, trying to stage a getaway from the ground floor was a non-starter, and so extraction would be via VTOL, not from the roof but instead from the side of the  building through a bloody great hole they intended to open by firing a cruise missile at the structure.  Seeing as the missile and the pickup were remotely controlled, they would occur at specific moments of the schedule.  The cruise would be fire at T+5 minutes, the server would have to be blown at T+12 minutes, the cruise would arrive at T+15 minutes, and the extraction occur at T+17 minutes.

Action
All sessions of this game began with an establishing helicopter shot.  I would usually set up a suitable track (some PWEI if I recall correctly) and give narration for that time.  This was an excellent device that kinda flagged up the sense of "Are you sitting comfortably children?  Then we'll begin"; i.e entry into the delimited ritual space.  All this was probably influenced by growing up listening to radio plays like Squad Cars.  All paperwork and fiddling had to be resolved before the helicopter shot began.  There was not a great deal of content in these establishing shots, they were just intended to get the juices flowing and reinforce the presence of the game world, and so would be simply descriptions of significant buildings glinting in the morning sun, fog rolling through urban canyon-scapes, that sort thing.

We cut to the characters arriving at a private airfield and being transported by van by taciturn Mafia types to the chateaux of the main man, Yves.  Yves was the only properly developed NPC in this game, and this was the only seen in the session in which there was a significant amount of conversation.  Yves was portrayed as ruthless, confident, and stern.  Nevertheless, Williams extravagant fixer couldn't help but attempt to tweak his beard, but by the time he was done explaining the plan, the players were suitably impressed and didn't want to rock the boat.  They decided he would be a good man to know and that they should keep their noses clean as far as he was concerned.  Also, seeing as he offered them the run of his armoury they had little to negotiate about, although William did manage to squeeze a bit of danger pay out of him.  I then gave them about 30 minutes to sort themselves out and get their act together.  Peb briefly debated doing some scouting of the chateaux, but William and Matt were against the idea and persuaded him otherwise.  Peb instead loaded for bear, specifically taking the opportunity to acquire a wired assualt rifle with underslung grenade launcher, which he had been wanting an opportunity to play with.

The raid
So the virtual set piece began.  The characters were deposited outside the front of ther BNP building and gave a radio signal that they were ready to go.  The entry was to be facilitated by having an attack chopper fly in through the boulevards and blow the living shit out of the front entrance with chain guns and rockets - this is what the produces the "dudes running through smoke" image.  Pulling on gas masks, the characters run forward and make their way through the debris, pleased to have the first layer of security dealt with.

The then went into their usual op routine, with Mark the hacker taking over the lifts and heading upwards.  However I was ready for this, becuase they had done it before,a nd because I wanted to increase the time pressue.  To this end the building had been set up with an isolated control centre, and the defensive decker therein cut power to the lifts, causing them to fall.  However the automatic locking mechanisms arrested the drop and the players cut their way out through the doors.

I had established that there were 4 pairs of security guards toting SMG's and grenades in the building, and so as soon as the penetration began I began running my "guard sim" in parallel to handling the live action.  One pair immediately headed down to the site of the lift, and two more pairs took up blocking positions higher up the central stalk.

The characters encountered the first pair pretty quickly, and there was quite a scrappy melee in the stairwell.  Peb as the brick was of course leading the way, and was able to put his martial arts abilities and wired reflexes to good use while the other two pretty much cowered on the previous floor.  Once this was over, and while they were sorting themselves out again, I give them the signal indicating the cruise missile was en route.  Mark also looted one of the guards comm sets, and just listened in - however I had been expecting this too, and had the security decker track the headsets logon signal to determine where the characters were.  As a result, the next two pairs of guards hastened to the floor a couple of levels above their location to set up an ambush.  For a while both sides muted their end of the headset connection and listened in.

As they proceeded up the stairwell they suddenly encountered a small hail of grenades hurled from above.  (I like to amp these things up, I see no reason to say "you hear an explosion" when instead I can yell Bang! at the top of my voice and thump the table)  Seeing as they knew the cruise missile was en route, this presented them with a serious problem.  William, whose character was far to macho to deign to wear body armour, sustained a shrapnel wound.  After a brief conference Peb cleared a line of advance by firing the 20mm grenade launcher into the ceiling of the corridor above, and using the chaos of the blast all three rushed the upper floor.  This turned into the biggest firefight of the session, with Peb doing most of the heavy lifting and absorbing a 3-round burst in the chest, saved by his body armour.  Mark managed to get pinned down in a corridor and was saved by his armoured cyberdek, while William was very satisfied to have Pythoned one of the guards in a typical, mad screaming rush.  Peb was affirmed in his status as hardcore badass.

After the ambush the players had another confab and Mark figured out that the headset was giving them away and destroyed it.  Anyway they now had to hotfoot it up the stairs as they were rapidly running out of time, and they still had to get up to the 18th floor to blow the server and then come back down to the 12th for the pickup.  Getting to the 18th, they located the secure command centre and the server room; decising that discretion was the better part of valour, Mark hacked the door to the control centre and they simply lobbed grenades in, killing off the hacker and blowing his cyberdeck, the only bit of bona fide loot in the scenario, to little bits (I told them this after it was over).

The last pair of guards were hanging out higher up, suitably intimidated by the carage and loss of communications.  The characters popped the target server on schedule and took cover to await the cruise.  Once the booming and shaking subsided, they headed down to the 12th floor.  Their pickup, Blue Zero, radioed to say they were en route, so the characters took up a defensive position amid the chaos of shattered desks and ceiling a panels and sundry bits of debris, covering the central stalk.  By this time the last pair of guards ahd made their way to the control room and discovered the devastation.

While the players waited I gave them another mini set-piece, with Blue Zero reporting that things were on hold becuase there was a SAM site on top of the building which had not been accounted for in the plan.  The players literally held their breaths; I told them they saw white missile trails and decoy flares in the sky through the gaping hole in the side of the building.

Shortly Blue Zero reported they had rocketed the SAM and all was clear.  The VTOL came down to the 12th floor and nosed its way in through the debris.  At this point William had a crisis of greed and cast about for something to loot, but the other two talked him out of it quickly enough.  They all scrambled through the mess to the VTOL door; the last pair of guards showed up at the central stalk but were driven off by covering fire from Blue Zero's door gunner.  They escaped up, up and away.

The last element, again totally mine, was a smokey-and-the-bandit style mid-air rendezvous with a C-130 type cargo plane; the VTOL flew into the back door of the C-130 so it could not be identified en route.  They then landed at an abandoned air strip, and the crew blew up the C-130 with the VTOL still inside in order to destroy  the evidence.  The players took the opportunity to chat to the crew, with whom they were mightily impressed.  As William said, its always a pleasure to work with pro's.

---

Now as you can see, this entire exercisae was heavily controlled by me, with major elements like the entire plan and the tension-ratchetting hangups during the extraction being excusively my babies.  But nevrtheless this Worked; the players were excited, eyes bright and voices loud.  They did not feel deprotagonised by the actions of the NPC's, rather they felt affirmed in their roles as badasses among fellow badasses.  There was very little in the way of player interaction with me or each other that was no framed by the mission and the pressue I was imposing upon them.  As such there was very little activity by the players that did not correspond directly with activity by the characters; if anyone wants more specifics please ask.
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contracycle
Member

Posts: 2807


« Reply #1 on: August 08, 2006, 07:55:38 AM »

Sorry, total run-time about 5 hours, including all the preparatory stuff.  Probably about 3 hours in the building all told.
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Paul T
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Posts: 369


« Reply #2 on: August 08, 2006, 10:01:15 AM »

Sounds like a blast.

How did you handle the time limit thing? Was it like: "You want to climb up the stairs? OK, that'll take you two minutes. When you get to the top, you see your watch flashing 14:36, counting down to extraction."

How was the time limit a tactical challenge for the players?

All the best,


Paul
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contracycle
Member

Posts: 2807


« Reply #3 on: August 08, 2006, 11:24:04 AM »

Pebs character had a chip implant that would project a clock over his vision, and the others had more orthodox tools.  I had placed a clock behind the players which I could look at surreptitiously, and I would give them updates if I felt they needed a jog, otherwise they asked from time to time.  I was using the background clock as a real time prompt for game time, so they stayed roughly proportional, and also work towards the game-end deadline.  I did indeed, knock off a couple of minutes here and there as they climbed the stairs and so forth.  So it did not function so much as a tactical challenge as a goad to the flesh, a constant push-push-push to keep them moving.  The only time it became a real issue was at the pickup, when Blue Zero was fixing to leave William behind, and Peb was yelling at William and he was yelling at Peb and I was yelling a countdown at both of them.
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"He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast."
- Leonardo da Vinci
Sydney Freedberg
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« Reply #4 on: August 15, 2006, 11:09:44 AM »

First of all:

YEE HAW!

I mean, that sounded like a remarkably enjoyable session, Gareth. Yeah. Wished I could've been there.

I think this post is worth bookmarking as an example of a style of play that lots of people strive for but rarely achieve. In "Big Model" terms (WARNING: I am not Ron!), I'd suggest what you've got is what Ron Edwards calls "High Concept" Simulationism, complete with a very strong, if not initially obvious, rewards cycle.



1. Your Players' Preferences

I think Williams GNS preference is Narr because this character displayed the show-stealing behaviour behaviour associated with Narr players in non-Narr games...

Obviously, you know the guy and I don't, but whatever he might like in other circumstances, look what you describe him doing in this campaign and in this session particularly:

Quote
He was playing a hispanic Fixer type who favoured loud shirts, open to the waist to display chest hair and a gold medallion, and who declined any weapon other than his chromed colt python with a marquee of flashing LED's along the barrel, which William explained was the characters penis compensation.... William, whose character was far to macho to deign to wear body armour, sustained a shrapnel wound.  ...William was very satisfied to have Pythoned one of the guards in a typical, mad screaming rush...

That all sounds like he's gleefully sacrificing combat effectiveness -- and even, with the "penis compensation" bit, his character's being cool and impressive -- in order to emphasize his character's distinctive personality -- classic "what would it feel like to be this guy?" play, aka Simulationism with a focus on "exploration of character."

I'd further guess that William in real life, out of character, is not a "wild and crazy guy," and that this is a great cathartic release for him; I certainly tend to do that with my tendency to play emotionally expressive and highly aggressive female characters, being a relatively reserved and conflict-averse male myself.

Now Peb:

Quote
Peb is another old friend, with whom I have played a great deal, and his character was his stock type, the type we would recognise as Neo from the Matrix - dark glasses, duster and egregious firepower.  He had all the gunbunny mod cons, and was constructed as a sniper/assasin type.  I expect Pebs style is Gamist, and he's never been great on engaging with the subtler aspects of the game or even been heavily into character portrayal...

Okay, again, you know the guy and I don't, but I want to point to the specifics you mentioned:

Quote
Peb instead loaded for bear, specifically taking the opportunity to acquire a wired assualt rifle with underslung grenade launcher, which he had been wanting an opportunity to play with....This turned into the biggest firefight of the session, with Peb doing most of the heavy lifting and absorbing a 3-round burst in the chest, saved by his body armour...  Peb was affirmed in his status as hardcore badass.

Note that even when Peb does what could have been a classic "max my effectiveness" move, his reason is actually to "play with" the coolest possible weapon -- and in fact there's very little mention of tactical optimization on his part at all. Instead, he strikes me as being very into asserting and enjoying the distinctiveness of his character, in this case the "badass in black" archetype. Sim "Exploration of Character" again, I'd suggest.



2. Color and Setting over Tactics

You've got some very cool bits of "this is what it feels like to be really there!" stuff in here:

Quote
All sessions of this game began with an establishing helicopter shot......I see no reason to say "you hear an explosion" when instead I can yell Bang! at the top of my voice and thump the table...Peb was yelling at William and he was yelling at Peb and I was yelling a countdown at both of them.

More subtly, you've put a lot of investment into figuring out "how things would really work" and portraying them in the game:

Quote
I had been reading some stuff about helicopters, and had been thinking about the way the VTOLS worked in this setting, and wanted an opportunity to portray some of this manouverability, and therefore the VTOLS feature quite strongly.

Quote
[The players] then went into their usual op routine, with Mark the hacker taking over the lifts and heading upwards.  However I was ready for this....

Quote
there were 4 pairs of security guards toting SMG's and grenades in the building, and so as soon as the penetration began I began running my "guard sim" in parallel to handling the live action.  One pair immediately headed down to the site of the lift, and two more pairs took up blocking positions higher up the central stalk....

Now, this isn't necessarily Simulationist "you are there!": This could be Gamist "whose tactics win?" -- except that a critical moment, you clearly favored Sim over Gam here, and the players were with you all the way:

Quote
there was a SAM site on top of the building which had not been accounted for in the plan.  The players literally held their breaths; I told them they saw white missile trails and decoy flares in the sky through the gaping hole in the side of the building. Shortly Blue Zero reported they had rocketed the SAM and all was clear....

You see where this would drive a Gamist player crazy? "Okay, you've fought your way through and adapted to all my tactics, but guess what, here's a problem you can't deal with! Wait for some NPCs to deal with it!" If Peb had been in fact a hardcore Gamist, he'd have ripped your head off at this point in sheer frustration. This could have been a game-breaking moment, when you and your players looked at each other in mutual bafflement.

But in fact your players were not only cool with it -- in fact, very excited about it, "literally [holding] their breath" -- it sounds like they didn't even suggest, "Oh, we'll take the SAM site out from the ground." In other words, when a Gamist priority -- "the players must win or lose against all tactical challenges by their own merits" -- conflicted with a Simulationist one -- "the players must experience what it would be really like in this world, including situations where they are helpless, dependent on allies, or facing circumstances beyond their control" -- everyone was totally onboard to prioritize Sim. And if you had taken the Gamist route, making the SAM site one more tactical challenge for the players, they'd have missed out on the Simulationist fun of nail-biting while they waited to see if their support forces could come through or not -- a challenge that real-life tac ops teams have faced in Iraq, in Vietnam, heck, probably in Ancient Greece.


3. Reward System

Now, clearly, everyone loved this session:

Quote
the players were excited, eyes bright and voices loud.  They did not feel deprotagonised by the actions of the NPC's, rather they felt affirmed in their roles as badasses among fellow badasses.

Again, I'd argue that's clearly "Simulationist" exploration, focusing on Exploration of Character ("I am a badass!") with Color and Setting in support, and perfectly happy that key decisions were made for them by NPCs (which would drive a Narrativist or Gamist crazy, since they're in in for the choices).

But Ron Edwards would say, look, none of this means crap if it just sort of happened -- what really counts is whether you had a "reward system," some formal or informal way of taking what everyone liked and reinforcing it so it would happen again.

And you did:

Quote
Another innovation in use in this game was the request for "images" from the players.  These were just single frames as out of a movie, and I would then work to incorporate such scenes in the game.  The one that this entire escapade originated from was one of Peb's, an image of "dudes running through smoke, you know, with gas-masks and stuff".  This image was incorporated into the initial penetration of the building...

I'd call this a low-key but rather elegant reward system. (I'm presuming that if someone came up with a lame-ass "image" request, you wouldn't do it, or you'd do it in passing in a session focused on other stuff as a minor element). The players imagine cool bad-ass stuff for their characters to do, and if you, the GM, think it's cool enough, you incorporate it into the game, with more and more emphasis depending on how cool you think it is -- up to and including building an entire adventure, this one, around one such image!

This is a really excellent technique, I think -- a Simulationist cousin to the Narrativist  "next week on..." in Prime Time Adventures.


In short: This is is Simulationism done right.
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contracycle
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« Reply #5 on: August 24, 2006, 02:19:46 AM »

I hiope this won't be construed as thread necromancy as I have problems that prevent me posting soemtimes and have not been able to respond to this yet.

The game was indeed Sim, that was the express and much-discussed contract to which we we working.  And by this point it had been running for some months and everything ran pretty cleanly.  Earlier there had been a player that had demands I could not accomodate, that is, she insisted on being a shapechanger in every game, and despite agreeing to play "realasitically" in a no-magic world still tried to wheedle this sort of thing out of me.  I couldn't accomodate her, of course.

I caution against seeing the use of images as a reward system because the players were not aware of it as such.  They have never been keen on "homework for games" and so my efforts to get contributions from them have persistently failed, and this was soemthing I could do quickly, without much effort on their part, and without making promises.  It was a list I compiled early on (during character creation) and pondered along side my notes when I was writing the next episode.  Now obviously, I asked for it becuase I wanted to give 'em what they wanted, and so they were indeed rewarded in some sense, but it was not any kind of measurable or conscious achievement, and they would generally not be aware of the incorporation of an image unless I told them after the fact that it had been extracted from the list.
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #6 on: August 24, 2006, 04:08:51 AM »

It's cool, Gareth. I got distracted by GenCon and missed commenting, even though I wanted to. Then Sydney scooped me on content.

One point I do want to make, very intently, is that "awareness" is not at all important for a reward system. Especially not a reward system. I agree that the images begins as a piece of Ephemera, but it does look to me as if it played a reward role "up the line" of the Big Model.

Also, you mentioned that you started with a bigger group which was whittled down by real-life constraints. Do you think there was anything else involved? A game like you're describing has always seemed to me to work best with 3-5 people total, and social/creative groupings have a way of reducing or expanding to their optimal group size without anyone ever saying (or realizing) so.

Best, Ron
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contracycle
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Posts: 2807


« Reply #7 on: August 24, 2006, 04:55:48 AM »

I think it is true to say the images wwere rewarding, but it would have been difficult to say WHAT they were rewarding.  Really they were rewarding participation, rather than a specific act.

The size of the game is something I am quite concscious of, I regard the optimimum size as 5 one of which is the GM.  This game started quite a bit larger than that, with 7 players at one point as I recall.  This was becuase it was to an extent the merger of two groups, inasmuch as I was GMing for the first time for some Londoners, with whom I had been playing in a games club, while bringing in a couple of old timers who had just arrived in the UK.

Some of it was simply attritional - a couple got pregnant, got married, moved etc.  Others were affected by graduating from the university whose club it had been, and finding work etc.  The woman who wanted to be a shapechanger had a close friend and excellent player who seemed to have have similar interests but was prepared to be more accomodating, and I was sorry to see him go but he left when she did.  These concerns were openly discussed, and there was no apparent bad blood, but her/their express position was that a RPG was necessarily something in which you could play any character you want, and they were not happy.  Relations tailed off, exacerbated by the fact they had to travel some distance; the costs outweighed the rewards.

I was slightly concerned with only having 3, as I rely on player-on-player interaction bulking out the play time.  The majority of the game (campaign) was done with 4 or 5 players.  Anyway, in the case of the shapechangers, there were clear differences of interest, and certainly some personal dynamics that were not visible to me.  But none of it had deteriorated to open unpleasantness.  It is also possible/probable, as I have mentioned, that I was more atttentive to the players with whom I was more familiar, and who were more familiar with me and sort of interventions and contributions I would approve of. 
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"He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast."
- Leonardo da Vinci
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