I’m in the relatively early stages of Book 2 of my Pathfinder campaign. So far, the group has uncovered the existence of a war between shadow cults that have been slowly but steadily engulfing the civilized world. After beating back the cult that plans to do the most damage and forming an uneasy alliance with the other one, they’ve been travelling around the kingdom of Elsinore surveying the damage done to other towns and warning those in power about the fight that’s been brought to their doorstep.
The first “book” of the game was a success, I thought. There were a number of great character moments, some truly memorable sessions and the characters ended up quite empowered by their experiences. The second book started off with an intriguing hook that took advantage of one of my player’s shaky schedule — we swapped out his previous character with one that opened up a different aspect of the game and made it easy for the player to miss a game or two if he had to. Thankfully, that wasn’t necessary; and it turns out that the new character has introduced a few interesting wrinkles in the party dynamics.
But the past few games have been misses, which have thrown me into a crisis of confidence. New mysteries aren’t clicking well, encounters expose flaws in my game master abilities and my understanding of the system, and the momentum of the story has suffered because of that. What was meant to be a highlight of the game so far has turned out to be kind of a mire. I’ve written myself into quicksand and I’m struggling to write my way out of it.
Not that I would compare my writing to that of the Lost staff, but I imagine they must have felt like they were in the same situation when people started to complain about the dip in quality between seasons 1 and 2. You can’t keep doing the same thing you’ve been doing, but at the same time the expansion of the mythology isn’t as entertaining as you thought it would be. What do you do in that instance? Do you walk it back? Do you scrap what you’ve planned and find a new way to connect the pieces that have already shown? What can you do to right a story that’s gone off the rails when you can’t go back and retcon easily?
I’m faced with that dilemma. I’m in the middle of a failure with my game, and I’m trying to figure out how to fix it. My players are amazing, down to a man, and I want to provide a story worthy of them. That hasn’t happened for a little while, so it’s time to take a step back and regroup.
This has happened before in other games. Usually what happens is my crisis of confidence gets worse and worse until I freak out and let the game fall apart. I’m sure this admission is a reassuring one to my players, if they’re out there reading this. But this time it feels like things aren’t out of my control; I can still step in and fix this.
It’s all a matter of realizing what works, what doesn’t, what to keep or change or discard. I’ve learned that telling a story through gaming is quite different from just writing it down. Your players are variables who take the story in all kinds of new directions that are often so much better than what you could have come up with on your own. Capitalizing on that is almost never a bad thing; integrating bits and pieces that intrigue your players into the main narrative elevates the character’s stories and the over-arcing plot. If a wrinkle that you’ve introduced lands with a thud, it’s all right to simply, tidily address it and move on.
In my particular case, I think it might be a good idea to simplify and clarify the narrative. Learn what the players and their characters are most interested in and work with that. And for goodness’ sake, learn how to deal with the Pathfinder system so I can either make sure the rules work with the story or at least get them out of the way so I can do what I want to do. One of my biggest mistakes starting out is making the assumption that Pathfinder is almost exactly like D&D 3.5 with a few minor changes. It differs in many surprising ways, and I’d do well to get my hang of the system.
So that’s my project as it concerns the Chronicles of Oak’s Home — simplify the story, make sure the characters (and their players) are re-invested in it, and gain control of a system that I didn’t know as well as I thought I did. Piece of cake, right?
Maybe not. Then again, maybe the problems in the game aren’t as bad as I think they are — I do tend to harsh on my own stuff quite a bit. But it’s not unmanageable, and that’s worth noting here. This is the first time I’ve encountered this problem, took a deep breath, and kept my head. Things aren’t working out the way that I’d like them to. What can I do to course correct? With a cool head, you can bring any ongoing story back from the brink — Lost, Fringe, The Newsroom and Supernatural have all bounced back from weak seasons with some of their strongest work. Those are the shows I’ll look to for inspiration. And maybe Heroes for a lesson on what not to do.