End of My Spy Campaign

Hello everyone! It’s been a while!

So sorry I never posted back in my old topics; my PC died, and took me a bit to get a new one. Plus, I wasn’t really in the mood to talk for a bit. But I’ve decided to share what happened, if for a sense of closure if nothing else.

So, my old game “Spy Hunt” (You can find it here) ended rather abruptly in the very next session after the one I posted about, but it ended in one of the most disastrous situations I’ve ever experienced. REALLY bad end.

And it was all my fault.

I won’t get into the details of what happened too much, as it’s unimportant. All I’ll say is that I accidentally revealed a detail that pretty much gave the entire game away. And it was one I should’ve realized would have, as well. I wanted to give my players a bit extra for doing well, but I gave them too much.

Because of that, not only were the characters I made completely screwed over, but things I’d planned to take several sessions were suddenly going to have to happen in one or two. And they weren’t things I’d planned by that point. Further, my PCs were in a very vulnerable situation - they had only JUST started to come together as a party, and any reveals would lead to them fighting and killing each other. But reveals were now suddenly inevitable thanks to my screw up.

And this pretty much spelled the doom of my campaign, as I had to explain to my players: with the twin disaster of my spies revealed early AND my PC party being torn asunder completely, there was no longer a “through line” for me to grab onto. If it’d been one or the other, I could’ve recovered - Spies dead? Fine, the party has a new threat overseas (as I’d planned). Party torn apart? OK, a new party is created to deal with the spies. This mess, though, was too much. Coupled with the fact that my plans had been utterly ruined by my own stupidity, and it pretty much soured me on the whole thing.

Was especialy bitter for me, as I’d never really been super enthused by GMing in the beginning, but was finally starting to warm up to it when this happened. It’s one of the most humiliating experiences I’ve ever had in tabletop gaming, and I doubt I’ll be interested in trying again for years, if ever. I almost suspect that I’d rather not play then GM at this point.

It’s not all doom and gloom, fortunately, or else I wouldn’t be posting this: two of my players are interested in trying their own hand at GMing some Burning Wheel thanks to their experiences, one of whom is brand new to TTRPGs in general (one-shots this time instead of full campaigns). And they’re even pulling in other new players who are interested by their stories of my game. And they won’t stop bringing it up when I’m around. So the campaign left a really good impression on my players, despite its bad ending.

They’ve asked for my help on getting started, which I am happy to provide: so long as I’m not running the game, I’m still fine with providing assistance. And BW is still my favorite game system; it was my fault it burned down, not the game’s.

As for lessons to take away, I’ve got a few:

  1. I was playing with fire by allowing the party to be as “split” as it was for as long as I did. It was loads of fun, but I should have tied the group together much sooner to prevent this situation from coming up.

  2. I should have stuck more rigidly to the hints I was planning on giving them at the time, good play or no. In a balancing act like what I was doing, one stray remark or clue can shine light on far more then one would like.

  3. Another thing that would’ve helped would’ve been to have some events that tie characters to core Beliefs and primary allies of the PCs. I was starting to do that, but I probably should’ve started a LOT sooner, and more aggressively. It might not have been as fun or felt as natural, but it could’ve prevented the fragmentation at the end.

So yeah, that’s all this is for. I would’ve posted this in the old topics, but they’re locked now, so I’m creating this one specifically to wrap it all up.

Thank you to everyone who assisted me with my game over the months I played, and may your future games go better then mine did!

1 Like

It is tricky because a group of several smart players can equally sometimes utterly miss something that seems blatantly obvious to the GM, so if you aren’t at least slightly generous with information when the players are pushing in the right direction then they can think they’ve hit a dead end and head off in an entirely wrong direction.

2 Likes

Something I’ve found extremely helpful in games where mystery is a core feature is recognizing that the things you have written down aren’t real. The only things that are true about your game and its world are the things you and your players have said. It’s a hard thing to internalize, but has gotten me out of situations where I feel like I’ve ruined what I’d planned, and allowed the story to bloom into something better than what had originally been planned. Another example would be when the players want to investigate something or have a theory, and it’s really good, but not what you had planned. You can just choose to make them right or wrong depending on what makes a better play experience.

The thing that’s probably made the biggest difference for my experience with playing tabletop games is the Luxton Technique. It’s primarily designed as a safety and accessibility tool, but the power to just talk to the people you’re playing with honestly and explain when something in the game is impacting your ability to have fun is amazing. Because the point of RPGs is to have fun with your friends, not to accurately describe a world that exists. Everything in the game is fictional, so it’s fine to retcon or subvert what is written or what is demanded by the mechanics, if it serves the experience of play. I’ve had a good number of scenes go a way that just made nobody happy, whether its bad narration on my part, or a regrettable or out of character decision by a player.

Sorry if this is rambly or unhelpful to your specific situation, but these are principles that have greatly improved my experience with games generally, and allowed me to play games that are more intense than I would be able to otherwise.

2 Likes

No, it’s fine. This is good information to post.

I’ve been open to my players from the beginning about everything possible, up to and including my dislike of GMing - the only reason I was even doing so this time is because the players said they wanted to try Burning Wheel, several of them were new to TTPRGs, and at least one of them said they would only try a TTRPG with me at the helm (long story, not relevant). I’m not about to deny someone the joy of table top gaming, and the opportunity to introduce a group of people to BW was too good to pass up.

For this instance, though, by the time I’d even realized what had happened, 90% of everything I’d prepared was blown apart and the narrative was now heading in a direction that would cause the party to completely self-destruct. Unfortunately, there was no way to reconcile this without forcing things in a big way: if it was a choice between rewriting the plot OR rewriting characters, we could’ve survived and struggled through - I and several in the group are experienced gamers, so we’ve been in those situations before. But when you ask for both the plot AND the characters to be rewritten…what’s left to hang onto from before? There’s no longer any through-line at all; the campaign may as well have ended and a new one started. And considering the brown note it ended on, is it really worth continuing? Why not just end it and do something else that doesn’t have the baggage attached?

I didn’t want to disappoint my players, so I considered every option I could come up with to keep it going, from a time skip to a Deux Ex Machina to a complete tonal shift to just declaring it all fake, but they all just felt like cheap cop-outs that invalidated the players’ choices and deductions up to that point. Over MY mistake, no less. I even spoke with the players about the issue after running out of ideas and asked if a retcon would work, but we decided that too much had been spilled and I had no real backup even if we backed out. It’d take me weeks to recover from what had been spilled, and that’s about as long as it’d take to make a whole new game anyway. And I wasn’t about to try winging the entire spy campaign, as there’s no way I could handle all of that just in my head. And on top of all of this, I was pretty much despondent over ruining the fun for everyone, too.

So, in the end, we were forced to conclude that there wasn’t really a way forward. Not one that was satisfactory, anyway. That’s when I revealed the last bits I had left.

That sucks. Sometimes that’s the way things go though. I’m glad your group are still excited to play and that you’ve gotten some constructive takeaways. Best of luck with your future games!

2 Likes