This past Saturday was a late one.
Starting just a little after 7:00pm, the Gray Owls embarked on their fourth chapter in the world of Io-Firma, continuing to explore and augment their experiences in the terraced city of Stormwrack. They took care of business, had meaningful conversations, powerful investigations, and deep exploration. It was 1:00am before they even engaged in a fight. As such, at the close of the session, it was 3:20am.
Not the longest session I've ever run here. That honor still belongs to the early Knight Owls of Season 1 for 21+ (session close at 5:25am, woof). And the length is not the point of this post, but it helps grant perspective when considering what it takes to have a session like that: one that doesn't serve a Three Act Structure, like most Knight Owls sessions.
Gray Owls is special in its construction. The world is dangerous, deadly, and difficult; the players know this going in. They are also allowed to play any kind of character that could fit in this world - they don't have to be heroes. In most cases, they're not. They're just people trying to find their way through, one small step at a time. Some struggle with inner demons, others with outer ones, and all with trust and companionship. That last element is the most organic of any team in any campaign I've ever run. They don't trust each other - they have no reason to - which makes the moments where they stick up for one another, or disagree, or insult, or instigate all the more potent and invested. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is supremely important to any successful campaign.
These characters aren't the heroes, but they are the protagonists of this story, and this story is a constantly evolving weave of each of their individual stories as they crash, clash, and move together. Saturday was a weave, then a minor explosion, as the intentions of one member spilled over and against the intentions of others. Such a clash of ideals, views, and actions was dangerous, but compelling in magnificent ways. The impact was raw, and difficult to swallow, but the group fell together, finding some semblance of a truce before ending the evening.
Without caring about one's character or the characters of others, this clash might have dissolved a party. This is a good group of players who understand the difference between this fantasy world and our own, and are completely content with everyone's secrets, agendas, and plans, even when they go against the majority. Such player investment in everyone's secrets - not in knowing them, but in their existence - demonstrates an excited level of trust between players; yes, their secrets might become extremely dangerous, detrimental, or downright terrifying to the group as a whole, but everyone loves the fact that they exist.
Secrets are what makes this world tick, and everyone is invested in seeing them slowly revealed through action (or inaction), and only when the times are right. Although, after this last clash, that time might be sooner than we think...
It fills me with joy that knows no end when not only players show an interest in how my world works, but when they add to its lore with their own stories, and work to find their own niche inside the atmosphere; find a way to make their character "fit" inside the world. In such a setting where secrets can get you killed, having players not only embrace this idea and respect it, but also add upon it, then ACT upon these elements, makes the world believable. It breathes life into the dynamics of this city, legitimizing everything about it. Its life, its people, its economics, its classicism, its magic, its business, and its law.
This is a two-way buy-in for the world at large, and investment in the world is only undermined when players create and pursue characters that would not fit inside the scope of world and clash with the expectations of it...but this is not a game breaker (more on that below). ;)
When you care about the story, either your own or others, you sometimes begin to covet that story, becoming frightened of what might happen if you push too far, wander too long, or say too much. True, there are consequences to dumb actions, but one should not be afraid to experiment with their characters. Take them down difficult paths, make difficult decisions, and see how the dice roll.
There's also a lot to be said about stacking the odds in your favor. Strategy goes a long way in supporting the wild card in the group, and allowing space to experiment. All that being said, remember: not all experiments work, and most have consequences.
Growth and Relationships
Remember how I said that characters that are built outside of the frame of the story can undermine it if they're not careful. While that can be true, it only remains true if the player-character in question does not grow. If they remain in a position where they refuse the world, its possible relationships, connections, and forces, then they will either die or be left behind. However, if they enter the world like a fish out of water and LEARN and grow and change to adapt the world to their arc, then they embark on a compelling and dynamic journey. It's okay to start out of the box, as long as you allow your character to EVOLVE and change as they are exposed to more of the world.
Relationships are the true core of any tabletop experience. Between players, between characters, between enemies, and allies. In Gray Owls especially, this is felt in big ways when it comes to companionship, family, acceptance, and loneliness. They make distinct discoveries that drive their paths in new and interesting ways: the realization that they are not alone, or perhaps they always were, or that the thing they're fighting for is something they already have, or that vengeance has consumed them, or that they have more brothers and sisters in this fight than they thought. It is the connections that we build between characters that binds us to this world, no matter how tumultuous, difficult, or mercurial they can be.
And that is a true investment in this world and the next. Always be aware of the relationships you cultivate, the ones you keep, for all leave an impression.
See you at the table.
Game On! Director, musician, music teacher, game designer, and professional game master. In short, I'M A BIG NERD.