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Gary F.'s Swords of the Serpentine campaign

Stephan Hornick

Community Goblin
Staff member
Platinum WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
Borderland Explorer
I believe it is valuable also for other GMs if we discuss how to improve your GMing.
In addition, I think that there are many good GMs here who can pipe in and add to the discussion / tips.
Thus, I created a separate thread from the orginal request on Dynamic/Prep Lite GMing and the resulting PMs.

@Gary F, please let me summarize what I know so far:

Table: I have still no idea about your players or PCs. The PCs seem to be named Halvar, Lillam, Fiara and Arveial
Swords of the Serpentine (I have to admit that I have no idea about this system yet, apart from your onenote tables)
Setting: I have no concrete idea about your setting yet, but I believe it is medieval fantasy and more of rare magic setting without other races besides humans. It seems to be influenced by 18th century murder in italy flair.
Session 1:
Scene 1 (Roleplay and setting introduction) | The PCs seem to be aboard the merchant vessel The Shining Coin, whose captain is called Otto Barani.​
Scene 2 (Combat) | The Shining Coin is attacked by pirates of the vessesl The Squandered Hope, whose captain is called Precia Cointongue (charming, swashbuckling, sarcastic woman, whose goal is wealth and reputation).​
Scene 3 (Roleplay and mystery) | Corpsetakers arrive, but seem suspicious as they take the corpses of the pirates away, as the canal boat that they are using has stone dust in it and is too heavily built for this job.​
Scene 4 (Roleplay and revelation) | The PCs are at an inn at the docks and the real corpsetakers complain to them that somebody steals their corpses and they ask the PCs to look into this.
Questions regarding PCs:
  • The identity and role of the PCs is very important here to know. Are the PCs mercenaries, merchants, or have they completely different goals?
  • Why are they together?
  • What do they want to achieve?
  • Why are they asked to deal with the fake corpsetakers?
  • Why did they feel inclined to defend the ship as it was attacked? What was their supposed gain? What was their real reward?
Comments regarding the session structure:
  • It seems you began by setting the scene, so where the PCs are and who the captain is, and then there was a sudden combat that surprised the players and PCs alike.
  • Just to point this out: I do not deem this a complication or obstacle, as there seems to be no goal yet. It seems to be just a surprising event that triggers the campaign.
  • I assume that the captain then called for the corpsetakers? Or who did contact whom on this? This seems very important in order to follow the lead.
  • You seem to have increased the tension of the session by the combat, then dropped it after they had won, then increased it again slowly when the PCs got suspicious, and dropped it as the PCs couldn't do anything about it, and then in the end you ended the session by the revelation that there are corpse stealers in town.
  • Although you seem to have tide and ebb of tension, it seems to have circled around roleplay and combat only.
  • You say that it is difficult for you to challenge the players and PCs and rather allow a lot.
  • I think it is difficult for you because the PCs seem to have no goals and motivations and the captain, merchants and pirates seem to have none neither. At least I don't know of any yet. Once you have clear goals and motivations, it is easier for you to challenge these. You can make them hard to accomplish, or only to be accomplished by other tasks or against a trade of assets (you have to pay people, it costs you health, rations, reputation, or you strike a deal, or or or...)
  • Also, I don't see much of a skill challenge at this point. Did the fake corpsetakers have personalities? Did they say anything? Did they actively try to hide who they are and how did they do this? I would suggest that at least one of them comes into a slight conflict with one of the PCs. This is great to remember this foe later and to find out more about them.
  • Very important in mystery / investigation sessions: Did you gave the players the answers or did they come to the realizations themselves? E.g. did you point out that the corpsetakers are suspicious or did the players become suspicious because of things you described? Was it very direct or was it just an allusion under many? Also, did the true corpsetakers suggest that there are fakes out there or did they just point out that there seem to be no corpses anymore? Did the players come up with the idea? Because they should. Only then it is a feeling of accomplishment. You would let them down if you told them.
Questions regarding the story:
  • Was it the PCs role to get the corpses off their ship? How did they do this? Or was it the captain indeed? Then there is a great moment of roleplaying opportunity as the captain realizes what he has done and tries to make amends e.g.
  • What is your true intention of the story since this session?
  • Do you already know who the corpsetakers are? Do you imagine a grand finale with them?
  • Or are they just the beginning to an introduction of a nemesis? (the later Fleshtangler e.g.)
  • Why is this story interesting for you?
  • Why is it interesting for your players?
  • Why is it fitting to the PCs?
  • Which role do you imagine the PCs will play in it?
Let's first stop here. There are 2 more session logs, but I think the beginning is the most important part that colors the rest of the campaign.

Stephan Hornick

Community Goblin
Staff member
Platinum WoA
Wizard of Story
Wizard of Combat
Borderland Explorer
I always fantasize about a living campaign where fronts and loopy planning do most of the work for me, but I'm usually styimied. I have no trouble coming up with plot hook ideas, or identifying places where I could loop, but I just kind of get stuck there. If I can come up with any antagonist responses it's just "attack the players physically" which is sort of dumb. Similarly with fronts or my own adventures, I never can come up with enough obstacles / steps to make an interesting adventure.

I think part of it is a general issue I have where I tend to softball things and scenes - e.g. players ask NPC or Faction to do X, or need to do Y, and I just have them do it. That works fine sometimes but makes for uninteresting play. Any fun movie, book, or whatever the players have obstacles between achieving their goal and their current state. They have to make choices and those have consequences. Even improv games like Blades in the Dark work by constantly generating partial success/obstacles.
I think fronts and loopy planning surely work for your favor. As far as I can see in the other session notes, you have increased the story 10-fold in a matter of 2 sessions. Personally though, and it just may be that you just didn't write it down, I have the impression that it is too much boom on WHAT to present to the players and not enough boom on WHY. I miss the flair, the connectedness of things, but that is surely because of the note format. After all, I didn't experience the adventure as a player would.
If you say that you don't see much variation on what opponents might do, maybe it helps to read other people's session summaries?

Here are some examples from my "Dark Clouds in the West" campaign:
Options and Stakes (sessions 1 to 3)
Beginning a new adventure arc (session 8)
Horror and Foundry (session 12)
On Problem-solving techniques and the PC's individual arcs (general)

And here are two more examples on how to make things challenging from my Splintered Moon adventure:
A muddy fight at a farm (session 1)
The abandoned ruin of Crow's Nest Keep (session 2)