29 Sep 2010

One Campaign Ends

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My flagship game is a bimonthly Sunday campaign. I play host to upwards of ten people as they battle the dark forces picking at dead gods’ bones. Or something like that. The campaign’s done. I’m tired. And I’m ready for something else. Behind the cut, I talk about why this campaign has failed and how I hope to learn from my mistakes.

The Blackthorne Campaign is pretty typical. Dark world in decline, vanishing gods, ties to previous campaigns, quest for the MacGuffin… all the bits and pieces one might expect from a run-of-the-mill D&D campaign. It was serviceable to get us started, to get everyone familiar with the new edition. It did what I needed it to do. But has it been great? My Sunday campaign is a Datsun 310 GX. I want it to be a Nissan 350Z. We’ve been puttering down the road in this four-speed hatchback of a campaign and I know I’m not happy. It’s time to put my creative energy to work and launch something new.

Before I start work on what will be the next campaign, one where my players all become invested, where they stand in my driveway for a half hour after the game talking about what happened (this is always the sign something went right or something went horribly wrong), I think it’s worth exploring the factors that led to the last campaign’s dissolution.


The Sunday campaign stands on the shoulders of nearly every campaign I’ve run since I first learned to play the game. Yep. Madness I know. The connections weren’t always clear and in some cases I’ve gone back and adopted some of the shorter campaigns, folding them into the larger story, but honestly, it has all been one twenty-five year long world-building exercise. Easily one hundred people have explored this world and altered it in their own unique ways. It began when I first learned to play using the red box. My first characters, with Landon as DM, left a lasting mark on my imagination and formed the basis of the fantasy world that would come. In high school, I returned to that world and I kept going back to it again and again. Old characters became the NPCs in the next campaign until the world became so rich, so detailed, it was very much a living, breathing thing.

The culmination of all that work happened not long after I married. We were stomping through 2nd edition and had completed a story to end all campaigns in an exciting five-part conclusion. And then we were done. About six months later, 3rd edition released and I had thought to return to the world once more. Campaign after aborted campaign followed until I eventually hung it up and ran Shackled City until 4th edition launched.

Again, I went back to the old well, moved the timeline forward a thousand years and got to work with an intricate campaign that encouraged the players to uncover just exactly what had happened during this time and why the world was the way it was and also to halt a world-ending threat before it was too late. Yep. A bit trite, but we were all learning the new edition and a simple story structure would let us master the game in short order.

What I found was that the players for whom the history would be interesting were not as invested as I had hoped. Having taken leadership positions during the Shackled City campaign, they opted to pull back and let the other players run the show. These players, generally newer, were less concerned by what had happened over ten years ago and were driven to explore whatever was cooking now. In short, the narrative elements I had hoped would drive the campaign forward never really came into play. This was certainly not the players’ fault. I simply failed to recognize what they wanted and thus didn’t give it to them.

The other complication arose from the nature of the game itself. At first, we were all mastering the game. Story took a back seat to understanding combat’s intricacies. As I mentioned in Reexamining the Dungeon, game night became a crawl through a series of rooms and not much more. This became a habit, one we never quite broke.

Group Size

Once upon a time, I liked huge gaming groups. I wanted eight players in my games. The more players, the more variations on party composition and thus the more interesting it became for me. Maybe it was vanity. Maybe willful ignorance, but I refused to acknowledge how group size was killing my game. It’s simply not possible to give players the time and attention they need when carving up a four-hour game between nine people. Without combat, that’s 26 minutes a player. There isn’t time to let the players explore their characters or pursue their interests in a reasonable manner.

Restarting this campaign isn’t going to resolve party size, but what I can do is tailor the campaign for the larger numbers. I can’t predict when I’ll have nine or ten people or when I’ll have four or five. What I need to do is make sure I’m ready to adapt. If I have a party of nine, I’ll emphasize narrative solutions to game play to ensure proper pacing. If I have a smaller group, we can go back to the more traditional types of experiences.

Uneven Rewards

Let me be upfront here and just say I am not a fan of the game’s economy. As important as magic items are (or were) to Fourth Edition, it’s frustrating beyond belief that there isn’t a simple and straightforward acquisition scheme. Yes, yes, I can just hand them out and not worry about the consequences, but this way leads to madness. A liberal acquisition scheme results in ebony flies, bloodclaw fullblades, and other nonsense that are all wrenches in what ought to be smooth and painless game play. A conservative acquisition scheme, wherein I hand out specific items, just means I have to do more work on my side.

Randomized treasure and a smaller selection should make life easier for me. See, frustration as often as not led to me just handing out item levels. I ceded my stake in reining in the more bizarre items. We talk about wish lists and encourage DMs to draw magic items from them, yet when I look back to previous campaigns the players got what I gave them. Sure, I might give a character a special item and that item back important for story reasons as much as it was for mechanical reasons. It’s time to go back to this model. I’ll be happy to present rare items as we go with the understanding that these items are campaign items. In effect, enhancement bonus inflates every 5 levels. For the rest, the PCs will just get what they get. You know, there’s nothing wrong with a player getting a weapon for which s/he wasn’t optimized. Maybe retraining a few feats to make a flaming longspear +3 work wouldn’t be the end of the world.

Character Management

I experienced something in this campaign for the first time. Something profound and, honestly, awful. I’ve created pre-generated characters for player before. For one-shots and new players, sometimes this is the most expedient option to get started. Weirdly, though, I’ve found myself managing the characters for two veteran players. Two! They don’t make decisions about their characters. They solicit advice from me and other players about what powers they should take and then rely on others to create and maintain their character sheets using character builder. I don’t know what happened here except inertia. This stops. Essentials classes are so damned easy to manage, there’s no reason a player should have to rely on the DM to make good decisions about his/her character. From this point forward, each player is responsible for his or her own characters. Good grief. This is even shameful to type!

Character-Driven Story

My friend Glen, when explaining his reasons for dropping out of my game said something that cut pretty deep. Glen had many complaints  and most of them I couldn’t solve, but the one that struck the hardest was that he said he was tired of the top-down approach. For years and years, I built my campaigns with an idea about where they were going, what would happen, and who the movers and shakers were. Preparedness was never an issue. What this does, however, is infect players with ennui, a sense that their efforts are meaningless, that all they are there to do is participate in a scripted drama where their actions have little to no consequence. I hate being led by the nose as a player and I strive to not do this with my players. Yet at some level, my preparedness and overarching vision have given me the least desirable outcome.

I’ve talked about this in other posts, so I won’t rehash this too much here. I think plot and preparation are important. However, the campaign runs better when the players are driving the car. What I mean here is that the players need to tell me what their characters want to do in the game. What goals, what ambitions drive them. If Joe, who plays Tokie, had told me he wanted to reclaim his clan’s stronghold, I might have built or adapted an adventure to make this happen. If Tom, who plays Kayle, told me Kayle wants to recover the lost manuscript of Badabaskar, I would have made this a major story goal. Player-created adventure hooks promote interest and excitement during the game, far more than “lets go to Dungeon A1-b because it’s what Rob wants us to do.”

So rather than hammer out 15 levels of adventures in a few weeks time, I’m going to sketch a broad story first with key story events occurring once each band (1-5, 6-10, 11-15, and so on). Then, I will get from each player the following information:

1) Where did you come from?

2) Why did you leave?

3) What is the one thing you hope to accomplish?

Armed with this information, I can tailor the campaign to the players’ interests. An expedition to the Forge of Fury may not require a hook at all from me, especially if Joe’s dwarf wants to take back his people’s stronghold from orc squatters.

Accept House Rules

I’m a stickler for the rules. It’s important to my work to use the tech as it is written. House rules only clutter my understanding of the mechanics. When I sit down to write the Complete Lantern, does a lantern shed 10 squares of bright light or 10 squares of bright light and 10 squares of dim light. I need to be free from competing mechanics or at least use them in a limited fashion. Sometimes, there are things that just don’t work or match my sensibilities. For instance, Dwarven Weapon Training is a wretched feat. A fixed +2 bonus to damage rolls and a pile of weapon proficiencies pretty much means no dwarf will ever, ever use a battleaxe when he take this feat and grab an execution axe from Adventurer’s Vault. I know the game well enough to simply remove or alter those elements that don’t work at the table. If I don’t fix the problems, then they become exploitable, and then the game starts breaking down.

Leave my Game Designer Hat at the Door

While my job demands I invent tech for the game and use the tech as it was intended, I need to set aside by work hat and put on my DM hat instead. What I mean here is that at some level I’m deconstructing the play experience to analyze the various elements that make the game work. If a level 7 power delivers 3[W] damage and no downside, I need to accept it exists in the game rather than point out its flaws. If it’s busted I can always change it.

Say No

There’s so much discussion about saying yes in RPGs as a way to foster creativity and great game play, but there’s very little discussion about how to deal with the tough challenges to the play experience. I know my friend SRM tackled this in “Save My Game” and I’ve mentioned this elsewhere before myself, but when something hits the table that is utter junk, it may be in the best interest of everyone involved to just correct it before it turns into a problem. For example, a player in one of my games brought in an avenger to replace his drow rogue who went on sabbatical. He opted to fight with the falchion (+3 prof, 2d4 damage, high crit) and then took a feat that lets him to treat a 1 or 2 on a damage die roll as a 3. You can imagine my nerd rage when he made his first attack. With a damage range of 6-8 per [W] and for one feat, I almost blew my top. He effectively turned a longsword into a high crit brutal 5 weapon. Straight off, I told the player he needed to swap out the weapon’s damage die from 2d4 to d8 + 1 or pick a different weapon. I eventually backed off from it when I saw the player was upset. I was crapping on the player’s fun. In making a ruling and then retreating from it, I messed up.

When I see bullshit I need to call it. What I don’t need to do is call it in the middle of the game. Instead, I need to pull the player aside after and then explain my concerns. It may be that the player has a reason for taking those mechanics or maybe the player misunderstood the rules. It might also be an instance where the player doesn’t realize the combination is all twinkified. An open, frank discussion can solve these problems and keep everyone smiling.

Final Thoughts

These are the “proudest nails” in my Sunday campaign and they paint a rather grim picture. I’m no novice when it comes to running games, however, as I mentioned above, inertia creates unfortunate behavior patterns on both sides of the screen. A wise person would tell me to stop. To just shelve the Sunday game altogether. But I’m not willing to go this far. Sunday night is important to me as it’s often the only time I get to see certain friends and it is usually the all-star game. My hope, going forward, is that we’ll be able to live up to that night’s promise.

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10 Responses to “One Campaign Ends”

  1. Chris Vasko says:

    Awesome, and a great point! I am learning how to be a DM, and am afraid dungeon crawls become too boring, and never made it far in a 3.5 game cause everyone grew bored too easily. But I love your three questions, and I have my game tomorrow night… the players shall have home work!

  2. Tim Jensen says:

    Maybe the solution is to take a break from D&D. Pick up 3-5 really different RPGs — the further from D&D the better — and play some one-shots or short series for a few months. When you and your players come back to the main game, the group will have a refreshed perspective and freedom from inertia.

  3. Rook says:

    >>For example, a player in one of my games brought in an avenger to replace his drow rogue who went on sabbatical. He opted to fight with the falchion (+3 prof, 2d4 damage, high crit) and then took a feat that lets him to treat a 1 or 2 on a damage die roll as a 3.<<


    *Darkfire on Rob*

    Please now Rob, don't be so coy. We've been friends since you were in high school. You are certainly allowed to call me by name in public.

    I won't go into the particulars on this, as we have discussed it to death in person and in one or two sessions will be a moot point.

    What I am here to say tonite, after just having left your basement is that I agree there have been many potholes along the road in our games over the years, but they are far outweighed by the good times we have all had. The proof lies in he fact that a gaming group that started 18 years ago has sprung into a large group of extremly loyal and devout friends who have grown to share our lives, marriages, births of children, divorces, heart attacks, and all manner of ups and downs.

    I think that what we have forgotten, all of us on Sunday nights, and the group in general, is that it's just about having fun. Nothing more complicated than that. The inertia you speak of, yeah it's there. I saw even tonite some things that I am pretty sure had nothing to do with having fun. And these things I saw arose I think out of the fact that we just don't talk out how we feel about the game. To each other's face I mean, not in covert e-mails and furtive discussions in smokey bars.

    I am very proud to hae been in every one of your campaigns since we met 18 years ago, and I hope that I have brought more to the experience of you and my other friends at the table than brutal five high crit long swords and ebony flies buzzing around that one light that threatens my eyesight four times a month.

    My advice to any and everyone who plays this or any other rpg or frankly does anything else in life is this: If you are not having fun, then don't do it. For the most part, I usually have fun. Even when I am updating minotaurs for my friends, I really don't mind if it means they are sitting next to me having fun too. I can take the hit. I also don't like to have my fun impede on he fun of my friends at the table either. Even when running controversial, murderous, fly-riding drow I try to keep the internal regulator on. Hence, the sabbatical.

    I'm looking forward to the new run on Sunday nights. The reasons you cite for the end of the current run are valid, and I can find no fault with them. I have said this in reply to other blogs here, and to your face: It's time to tell some stories, ones we tell as a group, both player and DM not as two seperate entities.

    I'm looking forward to some wonderful stories.

    *Cloud of Darkness*


  4. Malcastra says:

    Fresh perspective from a n00b.

    I’ve encountered some of the same problems with my campaign, and I always return to the fundamental rule of fun. I’m a very new DM (6 months now!) and am ever striving to learn more and become a better story teller. But while I provide the framework, its THEIR story. Our current adventure spawned from an argument our players had over whether to kill a cave bear (Beastmaster of Melora vs. Cleric of Erathis) and now the ranger has to go to a Meloran monastery to seek forgiveness, which comes in the form of a relic. Another player said he eventually wants to fight Strahd, so I’m boning up on all things Ravenloft so that I can make that happen (Q4 2011 can’t get here quick enough.) In the meantime, he’s getting an adventure that will provide that hook for the eventual sojourn to Barovia. So yes, it’s my world, but they’re building it.

    Whenever my players (all relative novices as well) find some weakness in the game mechanics and exploit it to deal waaaay too much damage, I just throw harder monsters at them (with great power…) and its taught them a bit of humility. Saying “yes” to them has made them feel empowered, and have fun with the game, while behind the screen I’m tweaking (still within the rules) to fix what they’ve “broken”. I hand them items all the time, but they’re items that are useful, they don’t necessarily need to retrain for, and fit into the story because they’ve been made to fit.

    Perhaps I’ve not got the level of game you have (they just hit 4th) but I think my lack of experience (or rather naivete) as well as investment of time has made this a much more rewarding experience for everyone. Of course, I do spend a LOT of time on my campaigns, but it’s because I want to be well-prepared, as well as exercise my creativity. And that’s easy to do since my players are my muse.

    Unfortunately, you’ve got a considerable disadvantage since your creativity is your livelihood. But, the flipside is that your creativity is your livelihood, an envious position for a goodly portion of mankind. If you’re going back for a fresh start, maybe you can spend some time playing rather than DMing? If these guys have been in your crew for so long, at least one could be trusted to take a turn at the helm while you spend Sunday evenings relaxing. The grass is always greener on the other side of the screen.

  5. Dan says:

    @ Tim – Problem with swapping to another game or two as a ‘break’… when you have your group of buddies who play for 4-5 hours 1 time every 2 weeks… learning and getting into a new game is worse than drudging through a bad portion of a game we all know and love.

    @ Rob – You don’t even use a ‘screen’…. but you SHOULD!

    @ Rook – I think you and I should take over Robs world for a mini-campaign… oh wait we did that once and still has yet to recover…

  6. Aaron Hoes says:

    Great article Robert. I agree with all the concepts of what you are saying here, but I would also be careful to not judge game elements that you feel are overpowered too quickly or harshly. The example of this that caught my eye was your section “Say No”. At first glance this player’s attack sounds really good but if you do some analysis, is it really so good that it will disrupt the game? I wouldn’t compare the falchion to the longsword because you’re comparing a one-hander to a two-hander, so the falchion should be doing more damage. Then if you think about the alternative you offered, you will see the player’s damage roll is 6-8 (average 7) versus the option of the DM’s damage roll would be 4-9 (average 6.5). This means you are making a special ruling against the player just to lower his average damage roll by a half of a point. I think DM’s should make sure they take the time to consider a situation carefully before they make a ruling. Once they are sure, they should stick with it, like you said. But if you stick to your guns when you have made a bad choice, players will resent it.

  7. Aaron Hoes says:

    Oops, I was too quick with my poor math skills. I was looking at median when I meant to figure the averages. When figured correctly, this should mean that a 2d4 roll, with 1′s and 2′s treated as a 3, should average 6.5. While a 1d8+1 roll, with 1′s and 2′s treated as a 3, should average 5.875. More of a difference than I first thought, but still less than 1 point. Still, the player could get pretty close to the same results by using a 1d12 or 2d6 weapon without being seen as twinking, and he wouldn’t even have to waste a feat on it.

  8. robertjschwalb says:

    Aaron, you’re absolutely spot on. And, that was ultimately why I just let it go. (And I said longsword out of habit. Shame on me.) In any event, my issue is more with multi-damage die weapons and the weirdness that results when they interact with the feat in question or brutal.

  9. Adam says:

    All I’ve got to say is that I want to see a P-Diddy style shrimping boat in the next game. Tho if you can fit it into Savage Tides, that’s cool too.

  10. Alphastream says:

    Anyone playing the game a long time should try to keep things fresh. Running the same campaign world all those years? Wow! Playing other RPGs is important, but also breaking out of the mold can work. Maybe the campaign needs to be drastically different for a time. Maybe a different setting, maybe a different layer of rules that changes things (I once shook up Dark Sun with a highlander-styled progression where you take powers from certain NPCs instead of normal leveling), maybe a different tack on the game (such as a very player-driven Sandbox system).

    And, in part, you probably also could use a challenge. We can get so good at something that we get bad at it. Some of my best speeches have been given when I was nervous, and some of my best adventures written under real pressure. The familiar can hinder.

    Regardless, these are good times. It can be a real gift to realize a change is in order.

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