Unknown Armies 2:4 Anatomy of a Game Session

It’s been a while since I last posted on this Where I Read …, partly because I’ve been busy doing other stuff, but also because my GMing priorities changed. We ran the character creation session for this game a few months ago, with the intention of getting into a campaign and completing it before Christmas. But then, one of the players, who serves in the Army was told he was being reassigned elsewhere in January, and he had a half-finished D&D 5th Ed e gocampaign that we wanted to complete before he left. So we’ve been playing that (very satisfyingly) and well revisit UA3 after he goes, towards the end of the month. We’ll probably need to look again at the characters, we may have a different mix of players, but it won’t be long before the game starts in ernest.

So its just as well I’m up to chapter four of book two, which it slightly miss-named. It talks about the anatomy of the game session, but actually it is really about the anatomy of a campaign. Indeed its first section is called “The Lifecycle of a Campaign.” Also the following section is some stuff that feels as though it should have been included in chapter three, usful advice about helping the players choose an objective you can work with.

But those niggles aside, I really like this chapter. As Stolze says in his intro, we’ve all improvised our way “along the path of a plot like a rushing river, between the sandbars of digression and the rapids of bad rolls” but when faced this the question “Oh crap, what do I do next?!? […] seeing your answer as a component in a taxonomy that relates it to other possibilities could help you deploy your choices with more efficiency and confidence.”

Campaign: a series of connected game sessions that share characters, starts at point A and ends up somewhere over the horizon after cool people have made interesting choices.

So what is “the lifecycle of a campaign”? Its pretty simple. The first session (no “session zero” for Stolze) is the character phase. Then the campaign alternates between the Antagonist Phase (between sessions) and the Mediation Phase (during sessions).

The antagonist phase is when the GM gets to be oppositional, thinking of ways in which the world wants to upset the players’ plans. (And since my players have decided to end the world  – a modest objective for the first go with the game – by restarting the Mayan Apocalypse Clock (yeah, apparently its an actual thing), I think that, yeah, the whole world does want top upset their plans.) Stolze advises “Think of the worst things, or the most most challenging things, or the most tempting things that your PC might face. What more than anything else is going to make a PC stop and say ‘Woah, maybe I don’t want to persue our objective, not if that is the price!’? Get those ready, but don’t carry that attitude of total antagonism into the actual session.” Instead he advises that in the mediation fan you switch from being the enemy to being a fan of the characters and of the game. You concentrate on making the game run smoothly.

The section on The Antagonist Phase is really useful. As you read it (if you have any experience as a GM) you’ll say “yeah, I kinda knew that” but you never saw it put into words like this. Its so good I just want to copy words out of the book and into this blog. But, while that may be very rock and roll, punk even, its not legal, and I want you to go out there and buy the book and reward Stoltze for all his hard work. So, I’ll paraphrase. The antagonist phase is what many GMs call “Prep”, but its a better name, because you don’t want to be thinking about solutions. You just want to end up with loads “of ideas for events, individuals, and suppurating entities that could make trouble for your PCs.” But he classes them as either distractions or obstacles.

Distractions are targets at one PC, to split them off from the rest of the cabal, and to put them into conflict, either directly or not, with the group’s objectives. This advice is somewhat against the traditional motto “don’t split the party.” Obstacles are simply people or events that get in the way of the group’s next milestone. Obstacles can be physical; psychological (Stozle advises care with these but points out how useful they are in the early stages of the game, when players are testing the limits of their character); logistical; or, mystical of course.  If you need help creating obstacles and distractions, the internet (especially Facebook’s UA fan club and Unnatural Phenomena) is there to help, and eventually, you should have to creat fewer and fewer obstacles and distractions on your own and the PCs will have created a whole bunch through their actions, what Stolze calls “blowback”. Blowback comes with a caveat though: “there’s a fine line to walk between ideas that actions have consequences, and the thought that you will never get ahead, everything turns to rubbish when you touch it, there’s no point in opening the door because the knob will just come off in your hand. You have to validate their triumphs.” Blowback also provides continuity between sessions; reveals clues; reinforces cost; and importantly, feels fair. Perhaps more fair than an obstacle that you have invented. Finally, he covers “opportunities” a reward or shortcuts that the PCs can pursue – things they didn’t even know they needed, but that get them somewhere. Do it when the chips are down (but not too often) and the players will thanks you, but do it when things are going well that the players will wonder whats going on. And in UA, paranoia is good…

In the section on the Mediation Phase, the first thing addressed is pacing. Talking about analysis paralysis, he says that sometimes you just have to step in and say  “so is that the plan?” – don’t do that though when you ca see its a shit plan. I think that sometimes what is perceived as analysis paralysis is actually roleplaying. If everyone is enjoying it, remind them to keep it in character but see how it plays out. It may fill a session satisfactorily, and create some blowback on the way…. There is also advice for when the objective seems too hard, or too close for urgency, or when a PC is feeling left out.

In the final advice on running the campaign, Stolze warns against negating the PC’s ideas – except when you realize that its making another player feel icky, or is entirely outside the scope of the game. Otherwise acceptance is the rule, the more accept, the more blowback the characters will create. Accept it when: the players don’t think an idea you have had seems interesting; and when they chicken out of of an objective of milestone; and they they do lousy things; and whand they change direction unexpectedly. Last of all, there is advice on knowing when to stop. Have they achieved their objectives? Or done something spectacular and hard to top? Or maybe they’ve failed… as he says “there’s no guaranteed happy ending in horror games.”

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