Ask Angry: Spelljammer, Zelda, and Paper Mario

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Peixe200 asks:

I’m currently running a Spelljammer-based episodic campaign, and I’m worried about how I’ll handle a failed adventure. My premise is that the PCs are travelling through space looking for a legendary artifact. Each adventure, they must visit a planet and find a magic device which shows them the next planet they should visit, and then repeat that process until maybe they find the artifact’s location. This means that if for some reason my players fail an adventure, no matter how many times they succeeded before, the whole campaign ends. And while I don’t want to be a “Sissy GM”, as you’d say, I also don’t want to end the whole campaign just because my players failed on a single adventure. Well, at least not yet. We’re just starting.

Could you please tell me a way I can let my players fail an adventure without failing the campaign, too? And maybe that doesn’t feels too cheap? Thanks in advance for the help.

Yep, you definitely have a problem there Misspelled Pixie. The problem is you’re playing f$%&ing Spelljammer. And the easiest way to fix that is to not play f$&%ing Spelljammer. But I get the feeling you’re not going to listen to me. “But Angry,” I hear you saying, “it’s like Disney’s Treasure Planet! Remember Treasure Planet?” No. No one does. There’s a reason for that. But, look, if you MUST play your GNOMES IN SPAAAACCCEEE! game, that’s fine. I’ll ignore it and just tackle the premise of the game.

Your premise is asking for disaster. And you know it. That’s why you’re asking the question. Because you know, at some point, your idiot players are going to f$&% up an adventure and your game is now stuck in a corner. But what offends me here is that you think that I would identify that concern as making you a “Sissy GM.” Holy s$&%. You know nothing of me my good sir. Let’s review some of what I’ve said when it comes to failure.

First and foremost, I’ve always said “never point your GMing gun at something if you aren’t willing to pull the trigger.” Don’t put the PCs in a life or death situation if you’re not willing to kill a PC. Don’t dangle a hostage over a volcano if you’re not willing drop that hostage into the lava. Don’t threaten to destroy a town if you’re not prepared to replace it with a smoking crater on your campaign map. And don’t risk the end of your entire campaign on the players’ abilities to recover a single artifact unless you’re willing see your entire campaign crash and burn.

Sissy GMing comes when a GM does point their GMing gun at something and then doesn’t have the non-gender-specific gonads necessary to pull the trigger. If you put the PCs in a battle and then you fudge dice and fake the rules to keep them alive when they do everything they can to get themselves killed, that’s Sissy GMing. You defined the stakes but you don’t follow through.

And while I did say it is important to allow the players to fail in a recent Angry Rant because if all they can do is succeed, you’re essentially robbing them of their chance to determine the outcome, I did say it was also important to consider the scope of the failure and decide what levels of failure were okay. Moreover, I said that adventures and campaigns should be constructed so that the players can recover from failure more easily in the beginning than toward the end.

Now, you’re doing some things right, Mispelled Pixie. You’re looking at the premise of your game and saying “I’m pointing my GMing gun directly at the campaign as a consequence for failure in every single adventure and I’m not sure I’m okay with that.” That’s good. You’re thinking about failure in exactly the right way. You’re not just pulling your GMing gun and firing away, damn the consequences.

Now, without too many details, it’s hard for me to figure out how best to advise you from here. So, I’m going to have to make some guesses and hope that in my random ramblings, I manage to spew out something useful. I probably will, what with me being a f$&%ing genius and all, so you’re probably in good hands.

First of all, my question would be “what’s the source of conflict here?” When the party lands on a planet and starts seeking one of the artifacts, what is it that is keeping them from actually being able to just recover the artifact? This is really important. Because it ties back into that Angry Rant I did about failure. When the party “fails” to recover an artifact, what happens? Where does the artifact end up? Is it just behind a locked door that the party can never, ever open? Because that’s dangerous. That ends up in a situation where there is nothing that tells the party they failed and that the adventure is over and they have to retreat and try again. That’s a sucky failure. Because, it means, not only does your campaign die, the players don’t know it’s dead. They just keep banging their heads against a door they can’t open thinking there must be another way.

Me? I would make sure there was some kind of enemy force also seeking the artifacts. The PCs fail when the enemy gets a hold of one of the artifacts. That’s a nice, tangible thing. There’s no question about failure there because the artifact ends up in the wrong hands.

That also means you can play some games with the “artifact compass” effect. For example, if each “artifact” points its way to the next one in the sequence, then, when the enemy gets an artifact, the PCs have a tracking device that will lead them to the enemy. Likewise, if the PCs get an artifact, they are now carrying around a tracking device drawing enemies to them. This could work especially well if the artifacts are only useful to the one person who has them all. So, each group gathers as many artifacts as they can while occasionally making strikes at the other. And finally, once all the artifacts have been claimed, there’s a big climax where the two parties have to have a confrontation to decide who gets them all.

The trouble is if the compass effect is sequential, then all that’s going to happen is a “tag, you’re it” scenario where the party that gets the artifact can go for the next one while all the previous party can do is chase them. Maybe that’s what you want, but that can get old fast.

So, instead, you can do the “compass effect” as a sort of “detects any nearby artifacts” effect. But the more artifacts you control, the bigger the detection radius is. The more artifacts you have, the more you can detect. That means that if one group gets ahead of the other in terms of how many artifacts they control, the other group has an incentive to attack rather than keep chasing artifacts.

Alternatively, you can have other means of detecting the artifacts. The “compass effect” is just the easiest way. Maybe they are relics of a lost civilization and searching back through ancient records and following archaeological clues allow the PCs to locate the ruins that are likely to house the artifacts. Maybe there are dozens of potential “ruins” sites the PCs can locate through rumors, research, and exploration, but only seven of them have the ancient artifacts. If the party can follow the artifact sequence, they can bounce from site to site easily. If they miss an artifact, they have to do it the hard way, tracking down sites and making guesses. And the ruins are a pain in the ass to explore. In that case, maybe each artifact could point to the “previous one” AND the “next one” so the party can pick up the trail just by digging up an artifact.

This also works well if you have another party chasing the artifacts. And, if you have enough artifacts, maybe having TWO other forces seeking the artifacts would set up a cool dynamic.

The other thing I would like to know is why anyone is gathering these artifacts. What happens when they are all gathered together? Is there a reason for the good guys and the bad guys to both WANT the artifacts? Don’t do the Ocarina of Time paradox. What’s the Ocarina of Time paradox?

The OoT Paradox is what happened in The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time. The short version is there were three magical gems that would open the way to godlike power. The villain wanted them to gain godlike power. The heroes wanted to prevent that. Each gem was locked away in a place where the villain literally could not get at them. So the absolute best solution was to do nothing. Shut off the game and let the status quo stick around until the villain died of old age. But the heroes, Link and Zelda, decided to gather up the magical gems, thereby removing them from their safe resting places. The moment they did that, the villain moved in, swiped them all, and spent seven years destroying the f$&%ing world as a god.

For a game that handled it much better, look at Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door. Same basic setup: magical artifacts scattered around the world. Villains wanted them to control godlike power. BUT… the difference was that those artifacts sealed the evil godlike power away and the seal was weakening. The artifacts COULD be used to gain control of the power. But they were also needed to reinforce the seal and buy another thousand years without evil godlike power free in the world. The heroes HAD TO gather the artifacts so they could keep the godlike power contained. The villains wanted to control the godlike power. And if no one gathered them all in time, the godlike power would break free and just sort of destroy the world or something. It wasn’t entirely clear, but it was definitely bad.

So, you also want to think ahead to the ending. Why are the heroes gathering the artifacts? Why are the villains? Why can’t either party just destroy one of the artifacts and prevent anyone from ever getting the complete set?

In the end, you’re thinking along the right lines because you’re considering both the success and the failure. But you’ve got to take it to the next level and figure out what winning and losing looks like for everyone.

I hope all of that helps, Misspelled Pixie. Personally, I hope that, in the end, you run this campaign and the artifacts end up destroying the entire Spelljammer universe because f$&% Spelljammer. F$&% it hard.

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4 thoughts on “Ask Angry: Spelljammer, Zelda, and Paper Mario

  1. Thanks again for the help, Angry!

    I really was planning to make the artifacts have a “compass effect” that would work in sequence. Each one would lead to the next until the players reach the last. The artifacts don’t do anything by themselves, but the last would show the location of the final objective of the campaign.

    The final objective is a very powerful relic, which is said to grant its user great knowledge of the past, present and future, and it’s also tied to the origins of the universe. The good guys want it to know more about their world and bring a new age of prosperity to their planet. The bad guys want it to conquer the universe (of course!).

    As always, you gave me great ideas to improve my campaign. I think I’m going to use the “radar” approach. Each artifact points to a nearby planet, but if you have two artifacts close to each other, you can locate two planets and so on, and if you gather a certain ammount of them, you discover the location of the relic. And there will be other groups looking for those artifacts for different reasons. One “evil” group that wants to use the relic to conquer the universe, one “righteous extremist” group that wants the relic to bring order to the universe, maybe even a “killjoy” group that just wants to destroy all artifacts so no one gets the relic. It’s going to be great.

    Oh, and my name isn’t “pixie” misspelled. “Peixe” means “fish” in my native language. But whatever.

    • Heres an Idea: all the artifacts have that compassing ability you mentioned, but then each one does its own thing as well. An example: one artifact is a medalion with a ruby in the center that can be used as a monocle for infrared heatvision type things. And maybe some artifacts are pieces, each piece pointing to the next in sequence, likr normal but eventually you get all the pieces and can put them together to make an item stronger than the adverage artifact from this.

  2. I have come to love your absolute hate for fantasy cross genre. I always thought it was neat till you have explained the error of my ways. I never even played in such a campaign. (Except for this one time in college we played a tecno-fuedal japan, Chung-kuo meets Ninja Scroll thing, but that was only one night.)

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