You live and learn, eh? Apparently the lessons took some time sinking in, since the next campaign, titled Verikosto (roughly translates as Vendetta or Blood Feud), ended up repeating many of the mistakes I’d made when running Varjosuot. Verikosto had a strong back plot about a tightly knit group of soldiers in the wake of a great war. Having been on the loosing side, the soldiers were now landless and homeless, fighting a guerrilla action against foreign occupiers. This campaign was heavily influenced by the excellent western The Outlaw Josey Wales, and to a lesser extent, Paul Verhoeven’s Flesh + Blood.
My main stumbling block was, again, the rules themselves. I realized early on in this campaign, that since D20 has rules for pretty much everything, the players are going to feel short-changed if I use my storyteller’s fiat to bulldoze any kind of on-the-spot rulings. This is something that GM’s using the Storyteller rules do all the time, since a) the rules aren’t that comprehensive, b) the rules and the designer’s intent of the game itself places such a strong emphasis on the story. Furthermore, in order to run anything “off the cuff” using a D20-system, I’d have to be extremely proficient in the use of the game’s mechanics, especially if (as in my case) the players are also system experts, who will point out faulty rulings and raise protests. Despite what some people (you know who you are) have to say on the issue, in my opinion the 3.5 rules system defaults to a playing style that empowers the players and penalizes a GM who takes too many liberties, even if for the sake of the narrative. This meant that I had to change my approach to GM’ing if I were to continue using the d20-system. The Storyteller style narrative approach, to which I had grown accustomed, simply wasn’t working out with a primarily gamistic (and to a much lesser extent simulationistic) game system. Don’t get me wrong; despite its many faults, I really like the d20-system. Its just, well, pretty much completely different from the games I had been running for the past five or six years. Verikosto had great characters, some nice plot elements, and a lot of atmosphere, but in the end I had to chalk this one up as a failure, for pretty much the same reasons as Varjosuot. The Lesson, however, had started taking root, which would lead to, hopefully, more successful campaigns.
As so many other Finnish role-players, I first came into contact with anything D&D-related when Protocol Productions released their rather controversial Finnish translation of the so called Red Box Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set. A friend of mine had bought it, but he’d never played it himself, so he sold the box to me. I read it, tried to recruit players (my parents and my little sister), failed miserably, and ended up selling the box when I joined a friend’s Runequest campaign. I guess that particular box must have been jinxed.
It took about fifteen years until I actually had a chance to play any D&D. This was the 3.5 edition of the game run by a friend who’s to this day a regular in pretty much all my games. The game seemed very rules-heavy, which in my opinion at that time didn’t really match the character driven storyline the GM was running. I don’t think the system itself was at fault for this. Rather it was a case of expectations not being met. You see, at that time I was heavily into White Wolf’s World of Darkness games, and these games are really all about story, whereas 3.5 seemed to be pretty much all about mechanics. It took a few trials and errors campaign-wise until I managed to grasp this rather fundamental difference in approach. More on this later.
So, my second point of contact with the game had also been less than a success. It took a few years more for me to actually get around to running a 3.5-campaign of my own. The campaign was titled Varjosuot (The Shadow Marshes). It was set in the (at that time) new campaign world Eberron, a high fantasy world rich in magic and magical technology. My main inspiration for the campaign was the Dragon Below trilogy of novels. I actually stole pretty much all of the major NPC:s and the main plot line from those books. The opening session was lifted whole cloth from the first novel. I soon realized that I was still doing it wrong. The story was strong, and rather whitewolf ‘esque in its implementation. The player characters were rich, having both depth and width. So far so good. My main stumbling blocks were the actual game mechanics, which didn’t support a wide-sweeping dramatic narrative at all. Instead, the scenes intended as swashbuckling heroic action were being reduced to combat rounds, five foot steps and rules arguments. In addition, I had completely overestimated the player character’s capabilities. They were getting slaughtered by the hordes of orcs and aberrations I was throwing at them. The character’s clearly weren’t heroic enough for my storyline. And my game mechanics know-how was clearly not up to the task of actually running the game in such a manner that would enable me to concentrate on the IMNSHO meat and potatoes of any kind of good game mastering, that is, the characters and the story itself. I really liked the setting and the characters of Varjosuot, but eventually I decided to cancel the campaign. Oh well, you live and learn.