Alien Menace 2.1 – What went wrong and right

Yesterday’s Alien Menace session was fun, but I think could have been better in a few areas, and they represent some teachable moments for me as I get my GM hat back on.


The concept of the mission started with an idea about a different alien type. Rather than just sectoids, I decided to try and mix it up. That led me to start to sketch things out, which was brainstorming in both directions.

I tried to use my “book of pretentiousness,” but it’s really the wrong tool for the job. After flirting with various methods, I finally downloaded XMind. What I wanted was something that could help me create an adversary map or murder board – something like what you see in Chuck, where you can plunk factions or ideas down, and then connect them.

+Kenneth Hite talks a lot about adversary maps and faction pyramids in Night’s Black Agents, which I raved about in a G+ post and will do so again at length. He also had some advice about plotting a thriller that I tried to follow but didn’t take far enough.

But more on that later.

In any case, I used the Mind Map to do some background planning, and borrowed the Who-What-Where-When-Why-How structure common to fiction and elaborated upon in GURPS Monster Hunters 2 – which is another good reference work to deal with plotting out mysteries, clues, and how to weave a little bit of investigation and discovery into what are otherwise thriller/action-hero genres.

What Went Well

The good news was that my plotline held together well. It was not a linear plot, although of course there was a critical path of “yes, they could do this” that was the backbone. I knew they would fly to the planet where the scout team was lost. I knew more or less that it was an Earthlike world of about 1.2 gravities and that the scout ship had set down intact. I knew they were going to deal with the scout ship, the “structure” where the team disappeared, return to the transport ship, and come home. I also knew that something was going to happen when they got back to earth, and had a series of ideas and some preparation for that.

So all in all, my planning process, facilitated by the mind map software, was good. I was able to ask myself “what might they do?” at every trunk of the planning phase, and I came up with good contingencies and key information to drop off that was available and thought through enough to hold together in most places. Not all, though . . . more later.

The other thing that went well is when the players came up with things that I hadn’t thought of, I mostly let them do it and was able to weave it in well.

Lessons Learned

Not everything went as well as I’d have liked, but there were some take-aways that will help me plan for future events. In no particular order, brainstorming as I go.

Every step should have excitement potential: In my original concept, I wanted the recovery of the drop ship to be fairly trivial in terms of what was obvious. This was fine, but come on . . . the players will always be expecting the GM to mess with them, and so it’s a good thing to play to type a bit. The retrieval would have been perhaps more interesting if there had been something more to it. An angry bit of native fauna, or something contaminated, or a mechanical problem, at least.

Remember the genre: I told the players to make soldiers. And they did, Which was good. But when you make a bunch of guys who solve problems with a hail of bullets, you need to make sure that most problems can be solved with a hail of bullets. If you don’t, then you have gimped the players and basically pulled a bait-and-switch, which is uncool. Especially when, on a 275-point budget, it’s entirely possible to create chracters that can do both investigation and combat, and be competent-to-excellent at both or either.

The players control the pacing: One thing that tends to happen, at least for me, is that I will decide which parts of the adventure should be slow, and which will be bullet-riddled shoot-em-up. That’s all good, to an extent. But sometimes the players will focus laser-like on a place or incident, and if they’re doing a bunch of ‘what if this” and “what if that” when your notes read only “the shuttle is perfectly fine, and can boost to orbit with a few minutes pre-flight” then it might be time for two ninjas with guns to kick in the door. Or if you have some big mystery and invesgitation scene planned, and they wave their hands at it and want to breeze through with a few die rolls, they may be telling you something you should heed. Each little scene should contain a resolution by inquiry, a resolution by violence, or a way to either slow it down or speed it up. based on their preferences. But if I, as GM, dictate pacing, I’m setting myself up for expectations mismatch, and that’s where people start making Monty Python jokes or provoking inter-party strife.

Engage the entire group: I made a couple unforced errors here, largely in service to the previous point. I was trying to force the pacing a few times in both directions. In the dropship recovery scene, I effectively didn’t engage any of the group. Unforgivable to not even ask “what will the freakin’ PCs do?” when they may be there asking questions for tens of minutes of game time.

Engage the group 2: If you’re going to throw combat at the group, even if it’s supposed to be pretty pro-forma or one-sided on the players’ part, make sure you give everyone a chance to do something. In the mission yesterday, I threw only a single slugbeast at the party, which +Peter V. Dell’Orto neutralized in one burst. Granted, the challenge was the expanding cloud of cannibal macrophages (large eaters!), not the gunfight. But I could have easily thrown five to ten of these guys at the players and made a real fight out of it. Even if it were only two or three, with the right kind of forethought, it would have been a very intense scene. I downplayed it too much, I think.

Recon is not Sherlocking: There’s a difference between recon for tactical objectives (a soldierly thing to do) and Sherlocking, which is to determine what the challenge is in the first place. The key to engaging a group of tactically-oriented characters is to make the objectives known, but the methods unknown. “How do we best achieve a known objective” puts agency for decision and action in the players’ hands, where it belongs. “We need to leverage skills no one has to even find out what to do next” is Sherlocking. One of these two things is fine. The other is not. At least given the expectations for this particular game.

Parting Shot

Lessons learned does not imply a failed game. I think the players had fun, but I also think more entertainment could have been had with a bit more attention to more formulaic plot options. Sure, use the mind map to create a plotline flowchart, scenario map, or incident web. But then, take each node and ask yourself what will the character’s do? Do you have something to engage the Scout’s Danger Sense? No? Bzzzzt! Thanks for playing. Do you have a long-distance target for the sniper, or at least something to take large-caliber single shots at? Hrm. Something with intelligent reactions that ducks when you shoot at it? Well, the guy with the suppressive-fire weapon could be more engaged. And for God sakes, let the On the Edge medic sprint across an entirely hazardous combat zone to rescue an injured companion at least once.

Don’t throw in depth Sherlocking at a bunch of thugs when you told them to make a bunch of thugs. This is not Dungeon Fantasy where you expect the players to round out a series of niches such as scout, front-line fighter, magical buff-monster, healer/undead foil. Where no-mana zones, insubstantial foes, super thick armor or ultra-nimble dodge monkeys (perhaps literally) force all sorts of solutions to problems. from investigation to punching them hard in the face. The genre assumptions there say “if you miss a niche, the GM is free to punish you,” more or less. When the GM’s directives lean towards “everyone’s a Knight, Scout, or Swashbuckler,” but you throw in a puzzle that can only be solved by a Wizard?

Party foul.

I don’t think I stepped over that line, but the plot seemed to be hurtling towards that, and the players, all experienced RPGers and authors, sensed it. In fact, the next thing that was going to happen was a fairly obvious clue (and likely this will happen offline betfore the next game) that would give the team an objective they can follow, or failing self-direction, an obvious mission that their Patron can give them: You guys turfed up something interesting. Here are your objectives. Go shoot something.

4 thoughts on “Alien Menace 2.1 – What went wrong and right

  1. Re players=pacing:
    I've seen this a lot as well, typified by when the PCs walk into a tavern, and the GM asks what they're doing—it's either, "You get drinks, go to bed, and the sun rises the next day," or the GM starts listing off the menu items and RPs the bar-wench asking for drink orders. Awkward, when you want the one but get the other. I asked the GM one day how we could "signal" which one we wanted, and he said (essentially) that if we were to say something along the lines of, "Unless something interesting happens, I'm going to sleep until morning," he takes that as a signal to fast-forward unless he has something planned.
    Re Engage 1
    There are situations I've encountered as GM when modeling something "cinematically dramatic" where this can't really be helped, like a typical "shipwreck" scene—really nothing to do there but describe the mayhem and make a couple of dodge rolls. My (untested) answer to that, after the fact, was to make sure something else is going on at the same time, using the mayhem to set the difficulty.
    Re Engage 2
    I really like the "niche suggestions" in the MH/Action series for making sure everyone has some spotlight time.

  2. I lucked out with Agency 17; the three guys who are still chugging away are entirely on board with investigations, conspiracies and a series of unanswered questions and secrets to pick through. That said, when you sell a 'Super Spy' campaign or similar, there's a lot of ground that covers, much like 'Alien Response Task Force' can also encompass many different styles of play.

    The fact that you're quickly picking up on character designs not meshing with the types of challenges you are throwing at them this soon is a good sign. When I made that mistake in a previous campaign it went unrealized for too long and ultimately doomed the campaign.

    1. My players aren't shy. While they have not said "this sucks," they have let me know in more-polite terms that the challenges that I appeared to be telegraphing do not mesh well with the types of characters I told them to build. This is a true statement, but we didn't get to the hard turn that turned it back into "go hunt and kill the bad guys" type stuff during play, so it still looks like bait-and-switch.

  3. I think there's two (maybe three) things:

    1) Player expectations- we were told that this was mostly going to be about shooting aliens. We're kind of jn that head space, but clues and mysterious happenings popping up are pulling some of us into a "investigative mystery" mode.

    1a) Character Proficiency- while none of us are primarily investigators, I think most of us DO have some competencies that would allow us to do investigating of oddness.

    2) Suspenders of Disbelief- BUT, while we may be okay at following up on-site clues, when it comes down to unlocking the mysteries of some alien conspiracy, why the hell would the trigger pullers on the pointy end of the spear of a large organization with lots of resources be the ones doing the investigating?

    I don't think the solutions to these are primarily on your end. I think maybe we all need to sit down and agree that while it's fine for our trigger pullers to speculate, we shouldn't feel any need to personally unravel the mystery, and view our PCs role to be primarily going to places, shooting aliens, and bringing back information for the techies/eggheads to analyze and interpret it for us. I think they players' mystery instincts are kicking in, and maybe we just neex to relax, don't worry about not having Forensics-18, and pick up all the weird crap and haul it back to base so a bjncha PhDs can make obsessive noises and excitedly spew forth the next plot point/target.

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