I initially wrote this up to practice analyzing my play sessions, especially since it was the best session I'd had in a while. Conclusion: I really like solving challenges and don't so much like spinning my wheels in "just roleplaying" scenes.
Symphony of Steel Prequel
While I was home for the summer, I got to play with my old group again. The GM has been at it for years and years; I think he cut his teeth on Red Box D&D. He's been our primary GM for several years, although since we're in college we only get to play together during breaks. We've mostly played AD&D 2nd ed or D&D 3.x together. Our usual campaign, Symphony of Steel, is epic-level D&D 3.5. We started what was going to be a mini-campaign that's a prequel to the usual one. The world is based on Shadowrun, which is why both D&D 3.5 and D20 Modern rules are being used. D20 Modern is more heavily represented, but several characters (including all PCs) were created using D&D rules.
I picked a character unlike my usual characters. For one, he's more interesting to play tactically since he's not pure support with area-of-effect buffs. (While area-of-effect buffs are really cool and effective, they can get kind of boring after ~30 levels.) For another, he's less intellectual, more outgoing (he actually likes clubbing, OMG) and is not effectively asexual/oblivious. (i.e., not me in a hat) I'm generally not interested in "mushy stuff" when I play, and I make this clear by playing characters who don't think about romance at all. But I'd decided to base this character on one I'd written a story about, which necessitated a different play style. I think this was important because the contrast made me feel like I had a license to experiment. The GM and one of the players later said that they really liked how the character turned out.
I surprised everyone else by having my character actually pursue one of the female NPCs, putting him in competition with two of the male NPCs. And it really did feel like a competition, which I thought was new and interesting. I'll admit that part of the reason was that we were discussing over dinner who the female NPC would end up with, and the GM said it was a toss up between the two other NPCs. I immediately thought "But I should be in the running too!"
I got to use some mild Director Stance (mostly in the form of "It would be really cool if X happened") which the GM picked up and elaborated on. e.g. I decided to make breakfast for the NPC my character likes, and said that I would like it if the other two guys who like her had the same idea. I was imagining three fairly similar breakfast offerings. The GM picked up on that and had the other two, who could both cook, come in with different breakfasts -- I'd come up with a Continental breakfast, another guy did a traditional Japanese breakfast, and the third guy did something with pastries, which are his specialty.
Some other fun riffing off each other. I think the instances I remember best were between players and the GM, rather than between players only. The GM's a good comedian and improviser and is very good at not dropping the ball.
The GM improvised rules for some short games of basketball, using initiative rolls for turn order, attack rolls for throwing the ball and Reflex saves for catching it. I thought this was much more interesting than "just roleplaying it".
Several combat sequences with a stronger-than-usual emphasis on tactics and strategy, especially dividing PCs and NPCs into effective groups to achieve multiple objectives.
An After-Action-Report sequence where each of us was asked to analyze our tactics from the last mission. I thought this was really cool. In most of our games, we haven't done that much tactics-y stuff, and what we have done has mostly been intuitive. I liked having to actually analyze why I did what I did and how it could have gone wrong. I don't think the other two players liked it very much, though. They're much less into strategy and tactics than I am and, basically, aren't used to thinking that way. One of them had made a particularly bad decision during the mission (she took a large risk to gain a small advantage, and the risk didn't pay off). I think she felt like the GM was deliberately embarassing her by dwelling on it. The other player had done pretty much the right thing by whittling down the enemy, but didn't realize it was the right thing and couldn't articulate why it had been the right thing. (I didn't catch on immediately either, but when the GM started talking about slowly eating away at the enemy, I was like, "Dude, I know the term for that. Attrition!")
I thought of a fun combination of two spell effects that's available at low levels and can be really effective. (For the curious, Faerie Fire gives the victim a glowing outline and negates any Concealment bonuses. Various smoke effects give Concealment bonuses when being targeted through the smoke. Put them together, and you have enemies you can target who can't target you back.)
Lots of mushy scenes with the other two player characters and their respective boyfriends. I personally found them boring, which I usually do. The other players like them a lot. The scenes I felt were too static and largely involved rehashing facts about their relationship, backstories, or in-game events.
There were loooong segments of "just roleplaying". There were amusing bits, but I started itching for actual combat. Apparently, the other two players found the "just roleplaying" sequences more interesting (and possibly less stressful) than the combat sequences.
There was a training mission scenario with an encounter table. My main problem was that I felt encounters were too frequent and too low-level. D20 combat isn't very fast, so I would have preferred higher payoffs for the amount of time spent. Eventually the GM started skimming over the encounters, and then he fast-forwarded to the end of the scenario, which had a boss battle. Later, he told me that he was kind of disappointed at the reaction. He'd *intended* for it to be a milk-run, easy and somewhat tedious.
The boss battle in said scenario. It involved several enemies who were much tougher than any we'd faced previously. The description leading up to the battle, and the first round or so, made me think, "Geez, there's no way we can do this! What's he thinking?!" Then it turned out that one of the NPCs had five enchanted bullets that could kill the enemies in one hit. Basically, I felt like it wasn't playing fair to outclass us and then add a deus ex machina to make it fair again. I may have been wrong with my estimate of the difficulty, but it still gave me a bad feeling.