Last night's session went quite well, but there were definitely still some problems with it. I put together a somewhat experimental-format session; the majority of the session was a modified downtime while the last quarter presented the plot points of the story arc to the PCs back in "story time" as opposed to downtime.
The last quarter of the session was pretty straightforward. I dropped a high-politics opportunity on two of the PCs who don't often get a chance to work together, and pointed out the political reasons why they might want to involve the other PCs. Unfortunately I was exhausted by the end of session and so I was a little more heavy-handed than I'd meant to be. I had originally planned to give the PCs the opportunity to gain power by taking (or giving away) control of the new, revised Praetorian Guard, and then to drop some of the political implications of that on them slowly. Mostly my players are really politically savvy and came up with aspects of the situation that I hadn't quite thought about (which is why I love handing them these kinds of open-ended situations to play with!). However, in retrospect I also think that I should have let them run with the politics of it for a session or so, and then drop on them that they also had to prevent Alem Brehanu Tesfaye Nigus (a major kind-of-enemy and all-around scary guy) from returning to his power base beyond the Nile. (Nigus's Family is allied with Appius Claudius Martial, the Family who may be losing control of the Praetorian Guard; if their alliance is sufficiently endangered he might head back to his Very Scary Allies to get them to prop up Martial's power.) I think it might have worked better to let them come up with a plan and then halfway through the execution hit them with the consequences. That's okay, though - four of the six PCs are already tightly involved and I've got some other ideas for future complications and issues.
The reason I was so tired by the end of session, though, was because of how the first part of the session was run. We had a few players with remaining downtime stuff to do, but not enough material to run a full second downtime session. Instead, we did a back-and-forth about what happened during the downtime. Basically, I got up and described some things that happened during the downtime, and got the players to simply narrate their responses. I told them they could succeed and fail at their discretion, not mine, but that they should be sure to fail at least once. -g- Basically, instead of playing out these parts of the story, we told them like we'd tell a story (albeit very briefly!). For example, I stated that the Emperor's new war against Parthia had roused suspicion about some of the PCs' loyalties; instead of playing it out, the PCs involved told how they used liberal applications of money supporting the war effort to sway public opinion back in their favor (and screwed themselves financially for some years).
I was quite pleased with how well this went. The players took to being able to decide their own success and failure like ducks to water, which made me really happy. I think they actually had more fun with their failures than their successes! They mostly got the knack of narration, too, though some of them still had trouble deciding what was happening as opposed to asking us what was happening. Next time I'd also like to guide people to use incident rather than generic description to describe what they're doing. It's a lot more convincing to say, "As it becomes clear there'll be civil war, I buy up supplies of tin and raise the price through the roof," than to say, "I make money in war speculation." I was also hoping that the players would do more to initiate plot, especially about NPCs they were concerned with. For example, I told them that I would periodically stop and they could ask me, "What is Nissa doing right now?" or "Why has Pertinax lost all his money?" That didn't really happen, but what it tells me is that next time I should prepare more events relating to NPCs the players care about and fewer relating to history. I was kind of hoping they would help me out on the former, but I see why it might be hard for them to do that and still make in-character decisions. It also went a little too long, but that's easily fixed next time.
It was interesting to hear peoples' reactions to this in the feedback portion of the session. There seemed to be some debate between the two camps of, "I want to do actual role-playing!" and "This was actual role-playing, just using incident instead of conversation!" Personally, I'm more in the latter camp; I don't think that every incident needs to be played out in full for the choices and actions of the character to have an impact on the player's experience of the game. Still, I wouldn't do this every day - though I'm definitely planning ahead for more of this next downtime.
Overall, a good session, despite my pacing problems. It's going to be hard to make this story arc as dramatic as the last one, but I think we can make it fun nevertheless.