Ferrymen Retrospective: End of a Campaign

Part 9 of the Ferrymen series, a long running home campaign adapting Diaspora to Fate Core.

Here’s my dirty little secret: I had a really good 2020.

Obviously I miss my friends, and going to the cinema, and attending gaming conventions. My heart breaks for the many people who’ve lost loved ones and livelihoods during the pandemic.

But I’ve been incredibly, impossibly lucky. I didn’t get ill. My day job transitioned to remote working almost seamlessly. I worked on loads of amazing freelance RPG gigs, mostly Warhammer, my actual childhood dream job. I learned to roleplay online, and played with people so disparately spread that I’d never be able to play with them as regularly in-person.

And I got to finish running Ferrymen, my long-running, hard sci-fi epic run in Fate Core. This was A Big Deal. I’d been running the game monthly (ish) since 2012, by far the longest campaign I have ever run, and will ever run again. Finishing Ferrymen really marked the end of an era, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I’m hugely grateful to all the players who followed me on this journey – as well as everyone who read along with the Ferrymen series as I posted about it online.

As a combined end of year/end of Ferrymen retrospective, I’m honoured to share thoughts and feelings from 4 of Ferrymen’s players, about playing in such a long campaign of Fate Core specifically. Maybe you’ll find their feedback useful if you’re planning to embark on your own Fate campaign. Or maybe you’ll just feel a fraction of the pathos I do, in seeing this series come to an end.

We are…

Michael. Gamesmaster for 87+ sessions.
James. Played Mac (Iron-Willed Consultant) and Jack Slater (Massive and Intimidating Ex-DARTS Commando).
Louis. Played Damian Crest (The Greatest Thief in the Cluster) and Harriet Myer (Former Chief Engineer of the Ferrymen).
Rob. Played Corran Nightro Glyserin (Grizzled Ex-Combat Engineer).
Duncan. Played Luke Jackson (Famed Captain of the Erebus).

Many thanks to Melissa Trender for this incredible image of The Erebus’ crew, Arcs 1 to 3. Support her on Patreon!

CHARACTER GENERATION

Michael:
We started the campaign with character creation in Diaspora, but luckily translating the characters to Fate Core wasn’t so hard – both systems use the same base of aspects, skills and stunts to build a character. A couple of times we used major milestones as an opportunity to re-gen characters from scratch, particularly when there were long periods of downtime between arcs, such as the year spent in prison.

James:
I think that players should not be afraid to have longer aspects, but that every word should be considered. Try to envision a way in which you could rely on that specific word for an invocation or compel. Good aspects cover physical, social, reputational and professional skills, and at each point can have generally positive but also some negative connotations. You also want to engage with the story and give a real sense of who your character is. I find many suggested aspects are too direct and descriptive in ways which do not have enough nuance/engagement with the world. This inherently makes them less interesting and by extension less useful. 

Louis:
The aspects that gave me the most bang for my buck, the most direct involvement time, were the ones that directly tied another character to me. “Corran’s Sober Sponsor”, “I Will Avenge Farlo Star”, “Jack’s Partner in Crime” etc, (you can tell I’m not particularly subtle about them either). Basically, it gave me license to tie myself onto other people’s stories, tag along with players who had a stronger idea about where their characters were going.

Rob:
Stunts are as much a part of defining a character as aspects are. They can lead to many hours of agonising to get exactly the right name and mechanical affect. My advice is to embrace the stunt and do not worry (too much) about how optimum they are for the power of your character. Enjoy the story they enable you to tell about your character and show the person that they are. By the end of the game, Corran had 10 stunts, and I feel that at least half of them were mostly retained as I just liked what they said about his character.

James:
Stunts are my favourite part of Fate and I spent a LOT of time trying to come up with interesting ones. I find that almost all Fate books show a criminal lack of creativity with stunts with many examples relying on “+2 to a skill” or “Use X skill instead of Y skill”. I feel these really fail to show what Fate can do. I really think these kinds of stunts should be expunged and was determined not to have any of them on my character sheet as far as possible.

Michael:
I think the Action Boost and Skill Substitution stunts have their place, most obviously for players who are new to Fate or less confident house rulers. They can also be powerful character choices if you want your character to be good at some, but not all, of a skill’s purview – for example, a low-Empathy sociopath skilled at lie detection, or a martial artist who uses Fight to defend, but not to attack.

James:
To me every stunt should feel impactful and make your character feel a) unique, and b) like a badass. I think I generated some thematic and powerful stunts in Ferrymen because Michael helped link my desire to create mechanically interesting stunts to his interest in creating narratively interesting stunts. There is much more you can do with the system than is often portrayed in terms of rule bending/breaking!

LEARNING HOW TO PLAY IN A LONG CAMPAIGN

Duncan:
Long campaigns are definitely my jam. I’d much rather play in one sixty-session game than in ten six-session games – variety is great and all, but I like to really get to know a character and that takes time. So an 87-session eight-year extravaganza was very special indeed!

Rob:
“Can I tag this stunt?” “What is the difference between a situation aspect and a boost?” You would have thought after eight years of a Fate game that all players would be beyond asking these kinds of questions. I can attest that I am living proof that that is not the case. I have always been the player in the party who goes quiet in complex discussions around mechanics and what would be fair technical terms for a concession or a compel. I am aware that this is something that, at times, drove my other players to distraction and I am lucky I have a hugely tolerant and patient GM; rules mechanics are just something that I have always struggled with in games of all kinds.

Michael:
I learned plenty about GMing Fate over time. A common early mistake was misjudging the severity of compels, such that players came to view them as punishments rather than opportunities. Several sessions in the first few arcs were derailed entirely by a single mischievous compel, and some players adapted by paying off compels more readily than accepting them. By the end of the campaign, I was far more likely to withdraw compels entirely than expect players to pay them off. Given the vitality of free-flowing fate points to the game’s ludonarrative economy, it’s almost always more important for GMs to negotiate compels than enforce their original vision. Collaboratively workshopping character aspects, so that players get the compels they want in play, is even better.

Louis:
I have always considered myself a much better GM of Fate then player. I was the player who probably changed his aspects the least across 80 sessions of games, who struggled quite a bit with deciding how to best represent how I felt about a character within 5 aspects, and who did not have the technical mind to create interesting stunts. Instead of delving into those mechanics, I turned my focus to other characters’ story arcs, and working out how best to participate in them. It helped greatly with finding a voice and a place for my character. My character became an accumulation of actions and reactions from those scenes not centred on me directly. And weirdly, when I do not HAVE to do anything specifically to advance a narrative thread, but I CHOSE to do so, I discovered a wealth of personal characteristics and stories, ideologies and tendencies that struck me directly and unavoidably.

Michael:
No roleplaying system is ever designed for long, 50+ session campaigns. For all the allure of the campaign-epic, in practice they are niche experiences in a niche hobby. Far more start than will ever be finished, and with the tight deadlines of game production being what they are, playtesting long campaigns before release is beyond the resources of nearly any game company. In Fate’s case, the default rules for character advancement provided late-campaign PCs with such a massive hoard of refresh that they quickly ran out of ways to spend fate points, and with more stunts on their sheet than they could possibly remember. Working out new ways for players to invest their refresh is a worthy consideration for any long-running Fate campaign’s GM.

Another Melissa Trender classic! Commissioned to commemorate our 50th session, on the most hostile note possible.

CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT

James:
Fate rewards long term character development better than any other system I have encountered because it mimics the ebb and flow of personal development. Unlike most other systems, these things change depending on who your character is at the current point in time, and you don’t simply “add more skills to the list” as you would in most RPGs. One of the most interesting dimensions of Fate to me is that generally you have to lose something to gain something.

Louis:
Learning about my character was more spontaneous than planned. I’m not always able to analyse why my character does what they do, but I try to live through their emotions (WHO SHOUTED ROLEPLAY AS THERAPY, AT THE BACK THERE, I HEAR YOU!) and try to maintain some logical reactions from one scene to the next. My character was supporting all these people, so they must have cared about the group in a familial sense. Maybe these people are the only ones they care about?

Duncan:
We instituted a house rule on minor milestones that said you get everything the book says, plus you can switch an aspect for free. We had found that the other options tended to get picked more, and characters kept the same aspects for session after session. Once we instituted that rule, I tried to change an aspect every session if I could think of something – as a result, Luke Jackson felt more alive, he changed as the world around him changed, and we got to see more sides of him. 

Michael:
Most Fate players focus their minor milestones on getting better at skills their character exhibited in the previous session. This group surprised me by instead picking up abilities that they thought would be useful in the next session, so they were always maximally equipped for the next challenge. It’s a risky strategy. The group’s greatest defeat came when, after several sessions of reducing physical skills for social advantage, they were ambushed with two sessions of back-to-back fight scenes. That’s how the party ended up in prison!

Rob:
My character went on quite a character arc over the course of eighty plus sessions, and moved a long way away from the man that he had been. By the end of the game, this formerly hateful, angry, and bitter character had become a decent, impassioned and “healed” person. One of the key ways that I think I was able to chart this long and hard journey was through using stunts to define his key traits.

James:
The best way to come up with stunts is to think about anything you want your character to narratively do then bend the rules to make it happen in a way that matches the narrative. For example, my character wanted to play like a traditional tank. To do so I wanted him to be able to defend others so I had a stunt that meant I could take 2 attacks aimed at people in the same zone as me per conflict. My character was also fast and violent, so I developed a stunt meaning that he could move a zone for free at any time then provide active opposition to an enemy action in the same zone by effectively rugby tackling them. My character was a military leader, so to represent his ability to train people, he could trigger minor milestones mid-session so they could move skills or change aspects/stunts. This was an excellent mechanical reflection of a thing I wanted to do narratively.

Duncan:
If a stunt isn’t working out, drop it – you may find yourself revisiting the idea later with a fresh approach. Earlier in the campaign I made up a stunt that would let my character heal his own mental consequences by narrating an entry to his Captain’s Log – it sounded cool but I’m not sure I ever ended up using it. But later in the campaign, I took a stunt that allowed me to place free invokes on any one aspect by doing a short narration at the start of each session (in-world it was a broadcast to the galactic resistance from our place of hiding). It soon became a table favourite, let me move the spotlight around a bit, and was extremely self-indulgent!

Rob:
Just looking at my final character sheet there are multiple stunts that I cannot remember the last time they were used, at least with enough regularity to justify their refresh cost on a pure cost/benefit analysis. I do not regret keeping them for one minute. Blunt, Verging on Direct was a rarely used social conflict stunt that could force enemies to suffer mental consequences. A defining part of Corran was his direct and forceful personality and this tracked it perfectly; it combined perfectly with To The Point (a long standing aspect which replaced the even longer lasting No Time For Bullshit) to capture a key part of who Corran was. Similarly, Words That Wound and The Pompey Technique were other social conflict stunts that were as much there to show who Corran was as to have a regular mechanical impact.

The Battle of the Beacon, the last great space conflict of our campaign.

MAKING THE GAME OUR OWN

Michael:
Fate is a brilliantly intuitive and satisfying system to hack for. Without ever deviating from the core resolution mechanics of Fate – four actions, four outcomes – I was able to present new rules modules sequentially for space combat, boarding actions, factional conflict, hacking, and NPC followers. Not only did it diversify character options for refresh expenditure, it kept the system fresh, preventing players from losing interest after 8 years of mechanical repetition. Best of all, it traced the development of new themes and conflict theatres through the storyline, both driving and responding to the most exciting narrative developments.

Duncan:
An approach I’d strongly recommend is to not keep information secret. It works so much better to err on the side of openness. Sure, our characters may not know that this NPC we just met Hates the Consultancy, but I prefer a game where I can choose to spend a fate point and drop into early discussions that we’re The Cluster’s Most Wanted, so we know where they’re coming from. It brings aspects into play in a tangible way, let’s the GM lean into the character they’ve come up with, and helps players make more tactical choices of how to use their resources.

Louis:
Another way I benefited from tying my character to other players was justifying my presence in a lot of scenes by default. As a GM I like to say that everyone is always able to pop in roleplay scenes unless they specifically do not want to…

Michael:
Elastic participation! I’m a fan of this approach too.

Louis:
…But I understand that specifically excluding characters from scenes has narrative weight and sometimes feels more real. It is often me who needed convincing at the beginning that I needed to be at specific scenes because I was afraid I would detract from the spotlight on other characters, and pull too much onto myself. Actively writing someone else’s PC into my aspects really helped me get over that. I have an aspect that says narratively I care about this person, so they would have me around for this meeting. I do not have to say much if I do not want to, but I am a part of this action, even if tangentially.

Duncan:
Fate works better if everyone, players and GM, are seeing it as a truly collaborative story. Early on, a lot of us players were being true to our characters first and foremost – they are, after all, the one thing over which we have near total control. But this can lead to stubbornness, digging in over something your character “would never do” in a way that starts to block the flow of the story – resist this urge! Be willing to bend your character a bit to facilitate the story, and you may find yourself with a more interesting character as a result – and playing in a more satisfying game.

Michael:
More than any system I’ve played, Fate’s ruleset is not complete until it arrives at the table. Should a “gather information” roll be resolved as a Create Advantage or Overcome action? What should be considered a reasonable aspect invocation? How do you decide whether a new stunt is balanced? The rulebook doesn’t have easy answers to these questions – by design of course. Each gaming group’s ruleset is unique, fine-tuned for play by mutual agreement of What Seems Fair. It’s a system that taught me to divulge my GM authority with confidence, and to respect the wisdom of Table Consensus.

Duncan:
Central to this is communication – the logical end-point for advice about almost any topic. Communicate with the other players and the GM. After an arc is over, meet up and chat about what went well and what could improve. Set out your boundaries, respect the boundaries set by others, and revisit them over time. Work together – in any game, but in Fate especially, you all have a responsibility for each other’s enjoyment of the game.

Thanks again to the crew of The Erebus/Praetorian/Toryama/Starcrest/Elpis for sharing your thoughts, and following me out into the Black Sea.

Our final conflict, The Secret Summit. RIP Corran.

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