I ran my first Firefly campaign in the autumn of 2007, dubbed, simply enough, “Across The Black”. After finding my feet with a few other once-offs and participation in other RPG’s, I felt the time was right to indulge my creative instincts more fully. Well sort of, anyway.
A campaign is a longer story, told over multiple sessions, generally involving a larger goal for a party, character development and progression, all that sort of thing. It’s inherently more difficult than a bunch of once-offs because you’re trying to string a narrative together in a long-term sense, but easier in so far as your players will have an even greater vested interest in the story with their own characters lasting a much longer time.
Unfortunately, I must admit that I can barely remember much of “Across The Black”. My notes and character sheets vanished years ago, and the online forum where I put up story bits and other info ceased to exists in 2012, and not even the Wayback Machine can help me there. Instead, I have only bits and pieces of my own fragile memory to go on.
It revolved around a Firefly class ship of course, for my own ease and the players’. I believe Orpheus was the name, with an occasionally naer do well crew of creepy Alliance veterans, common criminals and the odd heroic type. Things started out simply enough, as I fell back on one of the “official” adventures, dubbed “Out In The Black”.
Official adventures can be hit and miss. Sometimes, if written carefully, they can be outstanding experiences, but too often I’ve found them stifling and unimaginative, trapping GM’s and players in a mire of bad plot and railroaded action. I went with an official adventure first because I still didn’t trust my own skills all that much yet, and figured that it would be good to have something to prop up by nascent Gming know-how for the time being.
“Out In The Black” is the story of a crew travelling to a dingy little mining planet, transporting comet ice, only to get sucked up in various problems being experienced there, all revolving around a wild west-esque “school marm” who is, in point of act, everyone’s favourite con artist Saffron. Quests for hidden treasure abound, along with psychopathic sheriffs, runaway carriages, Shakespearean drunks and crooked union elections. It’s a really fun mix of shooty action and verbal confrontations, double-dealing and thrilling heroics. I was also able to insert some of my own stuff too, like the “Deadly Enemy” of my crews Captain, a chosen trait during character generation, turning up in the middle of the adventure for a botched showdown: the captain heroically telling his nemesis “This is between you and me, leave my crew out of this”, a pre-arranged signal for the entire crew to shoot the man he was speaking to.
The crew ultimately got out of the adventure with their heads held high, avoiding the cursed treasure and the deadly pathogen it carried. Bully for them, but that meant that I had to strike out on my own and come up with my own plots.
The result was a mismatch of ideas and narrative, essentially a series of once-off sessions with a small underlying current running through them. The crew was hired on by a famous crime lord named Griffith, who became one of my favourite recurring creations, a sort of Don Corleone type: ruthless in business, but comparatively benign and loving in his personal life, his daughter and son-in-law being fairly big characters as well. I had plans for far-reaching stories involving those three, but ultimately it never really worked out: as a I learned, players want to go off and do their own thing, not sit around watching the GM narrate the family drama of NPC’s. Griffith became just the set-up guy at the start of sessions, telling the crew what job he wanted them to do, and that was essentially it.
The odd heist here, an official duel there, encountering Reavers one time: “Across The Black” was like a greatest hits of what Firefly had to offer, but eventually went off the rails as I approached the “mid-season finale”, the campaign based on the college timetable and soon going into hiatus for the Christmas/exam break. It was then that I busted out the really big guns, introducing a secret society called “the Sentinels” for the crew to go up against us, a sort of Firefly Illuminati with fingers in every pie, directing galactic affairs fro the shadows. Unfortunately, it was all sort of rushed and shallow, and the party didn’t respond to my efforts as well as I had hoped, and also didn’t react all that much when I attempted to tie things into the larger universe by setting that mid-season finale at the same time as Serenity and it’s Miranda broadwave. I was learning the lesson again: GM grandstanding and dramatic moments are all well and good, but it needs to always come back to your actual party. If it doesn’t really have a dramatic, tangible impact on them, they won’t get it.
But it was a fateful choice for me none the less, as it left my campaign out in the void, beyond what the TV show and the movie has established, in a universe I could alter and change around as I saw fit, free from the constraints of existing canon. And boy would I, in time.
“Across The Black” stuttered to a close amid timetable conflicts and player changes, and eventually I even surrendered GM control to somebody else, taking over as the captain character when that player could no longer continue. There was never an ending, things just sort of trailed off with the Sentinels and the post-Miranda chaos left unexplored and unresolved, as much a result of my lack of long-term planning as anything else. I vaguely recall planning a big shoot-out scene involving Griffith, his family and some tragic deaths for a possible finale, but I never got that far. It is something I regretted as soon as it became clear that I wouldn’t be able to finish the game at all – summer came and that was that – and that definitely influenced me in future games, as I decided that my next campaign would involve a new crew, but be set in the same narrative space: a sequel of sorts. And that was when things got crazy.
If I was to pinpoint three crucial things I learned about Gming from “Across The Black”, they would be simply:
Official adventures are a useful crutch, but can only take you so far if you want to be a great GM.
Be wary of planning dramatic angles and arcs that don’t involve your party as much as they can.
Campaigns have to have a beginning, a middle and an end, like any story.