Man, the Cold War game is kicking my ass. The mechanics have been working just fine, but man it is making me bump up against most of my real weaknesses as a GM. Some of it is no doubt that any night, any time, might not go well. I’m ok with that. Everyone has an off night. But some of it is that I think espionage may be my Achilles heel.
See, the heart of the matter is information. A spy game revolves around information, and as I had no desire to just infodump at the players, I needed to put information into play in a way that actually put it into mind through experience. In the abstract, that’s fine, but in an information-centric game, that’s a lot of data to push down the pipe, and it impacts the play experience.
This last session kind of came to a head. At the culmination of 3 sessions, the players busted up an underground auction of Marktech (technology related to supers), saw a number of players in action, had numerous reveals and move the plot forward, and at the end of the night, I felt like crap. That session felt much more about me revealing plot than about the players than about them, and that’s no way to run a circus, but at the same time I'd be hard pressed to say how to do it differently and still stay within the genre we're shooting for.
Part of the frustration is that I dislike having to say no to players based on something I know about the setting and they don’t, especially when it’s about genre expectations. In a more fast and loose game (my preference) it is easier to roll with player ideas, but when there are hard limiters on tone (such as, specifically, guns are dangerous and your opponents are dangerous because they're smart, not because they're strong) it gets harder. Worse, when I throw up a barrier to something on that basis, I feel like I'm just being that asshole GM saying no because it's not the way I want things to go.
It gets exacerbated by having thematic barriers but no real thematic core. The spy (and crime) stories I enjoy revolve around some sort of actual moral core, usually loyalty (Bond) or some sort of moral limits (Burn Notice) but I shot that in the foot a little bit in the premise - things are sufficiently gray and muddy that there's not a lot of purchase there. The players have brought some core to the table on their own, but it is sometimes better suited to a different kind of game. On some level, I wonder if I would just be better off flipping the lever from espionage to thriller. Thrillers require much less beyond the immediate situation to be engaging, and lord knows that would be easier to run.
Anyway, sorry for the down note, but chewing over this stuff is how I improve.
1 - With one exception - I may need a tweak to make a guy with a drawn gun more dangerous.
2 - This applies to other morally gray games too. Amber, for example, is full of villains, but at least they're a Family