The Challenge of Campaigning

The Challenge of Campaigning

Running a successful campaign takes commitment, perseverance, and ruthlessness.

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Unfortunately, in a world when appeasing the shareholders and retaining a profit margin is more important than creating a playable and genuinely good game, all that is going to happen to RPGs is a slow, undignified and expensive death.

Take Final Fantasy. That has been dying since FFVII, but Square Enix know it will still sell, so they keep chugging out blander and blander crap. This, alas, will become the fate of all RPGs until Bioware or Valve start making them.

Boyninja616:
Unfortunately, in a world when appeasing the shareholders and retaining a profit margin is more important than creating a playable and genuinely good game, all that is going to happen to RPGs is a slow, undignified and expensive death.

Take Final Fantasy. That has been dying since FFVII, but Square Enix know it will still sell, so they keep chugging out blander and blander crap. This, alas, will become the fate of all RPGs until Bioware or Valve start making them.

What does this have to do with an article about table-top campaigning? Maybe I missed something here.

aegios187:

Boyninja616:
Unfortunately, in a world when appeasing the shareholders and retaining a profit margin is more important than creating a playable and genuinely good game, all that is going to happen to RPGs is a slow, undignified and expensive death.

Take Final Fantasy. That has been dying since FFVII, but Square Enix know it will still sell, so they keep chugging out blander and blander crap. This, alas, will become the fate of all RPGs until Bioware or Valve start making them.

What does this have to do with an article about table-top campaigning? Maybe I missed something here.

I read the first 2 paragraphs.

Actually the game is much less serious than that, and way easier to run. Hell, my dm has kicked two people out for taking the game seriously in his recent game. If you're not there to have fun, you're doing it wrong.

ItsAPaul:
Actually the game is much less serious than that, and way easier to run. Hell, my dm has kicked two people out for taking the game seriously in his recent game. If you're not there to have fun, you're doing it wrong.

Everyone is there to have fun, but if one person's fun interferes with another person's fun, you have a problem. As a DM I know there have been times when player's outright refuse to continue with a story I have built for them. It's no fun to spend time building a story, only for someone to try to discard it. My idea of fun was running that story and campaign. Theirs was trying to derail anything I created. Ergo there was a problem.

I believe the game should be as serious as the group decides to take it. If you are playing to talk with friends, make jokes ,and quote 8bitDND all night, good for you. If you want a more serious roleplaying experience with and intracate story and believable world, then thats good too. The latter happens to take a little bit of effort.

Always good to see the tabletop articles, rare as they are.
We're a dying breed, but I suppose that's what the previous tabletop generation said too.

I've personally found that the ideal number of players varies considerably between game systems; to say nothing of tone or plot.
I've had games with only two players run extremely effectively. Sometimes a lack of resources and/or abilities can breed creativity.

One thing I've noticed, and this shouldn't come as a surprise, but adding players to a detailed game is far more difficult than adding them to, say, a random LARP.
My friend ran a "by-the-book" campaign (Shadowrun 2nd ed) and he had no problem loading it up with 8 players.

In contrast, I usually design and describe locations pretty much on the fly, but in detail.
Things like vines, garbage bins, passing traffic, or even the type of lighting are important to me (I also use these descriptions to bluff meta-gamers, or sometimes drop hints to the more clever players).

Adding a player to the former sort of campaign is like adding a factor to an equation. It's harder, but manageable.
Adding a player to the latter is like tacking on an exponent, and adding 1 for each player beyond. There eventually reaches a threshold where the number of players become too innately bored that they distract each other and themselves.
It takes a true force of will to keep the game going at that point. Planning and effort are definitely required.

Short version: 4-5 players works for a reason, but beware weight of your own play group.

I've loved these so much.

I enjoyed the plug for his article at the end.

That and the system decides what the active player base should be (which I believe you mentioned in an earlier article). I just miss my White Wolf group of 6-8 actives running for their lives.

10h of preperation for a 5h game? Really? I think that's overkill. Most of the time, I just think about it on my way to work so that's about 2h of preperation for a 6-7h game.

Based on the feedback from my players, the more I plan, the less fun the game is. The more I planned, the more rigid my campaign seems to get and players sense that they lose freedom.

Sure I planned important NPC, setting and a synopsys of the overall story, but that's pretty much it. In the short panning time between session, I plan a short term goal (what I want to show the players this game) and a long term goal (where this game should lead) and that's it. I usually use predetermined character stats from the books or the wiki of the system for most encounters (except the real important ones).

The problem with my group of friends is that we have too many long term campaigns going on, and not enough time to play them all. Got a D20 present, D20 Western, and two D&D 4E campaigns that all have some of the same players, and we only ever seem to focus on one at a time for a couple weeks or so, take a 3 or so week break, and then go back to another campaign, and unfortunately my favorite campaign (D20 present, what can I say? I like guns and tech) is the least touched.

I'm gonna have to talk to my friends about this article, and probably just kill off a campaign or two and really focus on at least bi-weekly sessions for the remaining ones.

Personally, I find describing the campaign as primarily a social gathering to work well. Perhaps it's just because I've got a small group and we'd otherwise not see each other weekly, but it seems to lighten the mood and help people loosen up. Or it could just be that I got lucky with the players; one was the person that GM'd for me for months and got me into the hobby, one is new and having a surprising impact on the story, and the other is eager to exploit the game as early as possible to form what I guess would be an imaginary power-trip.

We're not too far in yet, but there's been no real complications. I'd really like to get some more people in case of someone not being able to make it (as is, I'd think cancelling a session for absence is acceptable), but there's limited appeal here.

So far it seems the best way to prevent people from missing sessions is just to make sure important stuff happens, and that it's the players that control it. In my case, the players have a lot of freedom in the story, and a fair bit happens each session. One unexpected bonous is that while they seem to benefit themselves by doing this, they make mistakes that can/will come back to haunt them all later (some of which I didn't pick up on until the group started realising where they messed up themselves). It's all good fun, and makes the players have a sizeable impact on the story that they'd miss by not turning up.

I like this particular article and appreciate it.

Many of the rules in different games are made specifically for the longer campaigns, for growth and longevity. I don't think it is overstating the case to say most RPG rulesets (most) are written with the Long Campaign as the truest expression of the game.

I will say that most of the really longer term games that I know of are not one weekly schedules. I am involved casually with three other 10+ year old campaigns in addition to my own, and none of run weekly. Bi-weekly, once per three weeks, and monthly are very common for longer term campaigns, at least in my experience, for a number of reasons.
Children, career success, health/fitness, property, and more, these things are priorities in life not to be taken lightly. And did I mention children? Once all of these things are added in, I consider a person lucky to get out once every other week for a game.
Frankly, I also prefer more talented individuals, as well. I have a list as long as may arm for people willing to make weekly time to game; I prefer the extremely talented person who generally has a pretty full plate in the real world. I try to maximize this, and would encourage other GMS who want a game that lasts to look at this. My most active group has 6-10 people at all times, and I have moved 1-2 players per year in or out to increase talent and harmony.
One thing a GM who has a less frequent game has to do is increase between game communication, with wiki work, game upddates, and email communications. But the most important thing to do is to make sure each session is an EVENT, in bold and not to be missed.

Now, apparently my 26 year old Sandbox does not meet with your criterion for success, due to a lack of terminus point. I've had the players of various groups finish chapters or books in the campaing story, but never finished it. So I'll have to live with my lack of success in your eyes.

Ultimately, your article's closing comments about the GM leading by example and leading the charge is unabashed truth. The success of a longer term game is based on the success of the GM. Without the GM providing the foundation, the structure will fail.

Keep up the good work.

I've found that modules have really helped me keep a weekly game going. Their great to use for encounters and dungeon designs and are easy enough to work into my stories.

I do have to disagree with something, though. Running other players' characters shouldn't just be up to the game type, it should mostly be up to the player who's character is being used. I know plenty of roleplayers who really get into their characters and are uncomfortable with someone else controlling them. In my game, I gave 2 options for when someone was absent: let someone else control the character (and get full experience) or we find a reason that the character is gone for a season (and get half experience). The choice was entirely up to the player.

cschraer:

Everyone is there to have fun, but if one person's fun interferes with another person's fun, you have a problem. As a DM I know there have been times when player's outright refuse to continue with a story I have built for them. It's no fun to spend time building a story, only for someone to try to discard it. My idea of fun was running that story and campaign. Theirs was trying to derail anything I created. Ergo there was a problem.

This is called a "railroad" most players do not like them. Be thankful your entire group didn't quit. Most players do not want to be characters in your novel. They want to be characters with agency in a game. There is an earlier article in the "Check for Traps" series about the Agency theory of fun. Yes, there was a problem, it was you.

Have you considered putting the "Check for Traps" into print form as an anthology? I'd buy it, highlight and scribble like hell in the margins. It would be nice to have on the shelf for reference.

Norm Morrison IV:
Now, apparently my 26 year old Sandbox does not meet with your criterion for success, due to a lack of terminus point. I've had the players of various groups finish chapters or books in the campaing story, but never finished it. So I'll have to live with my lack of success in your eyes.

Norm, it sounds like your campaign would meet anyone's criteria for success! I certainly would not hold up my theoretical advice as evidence against your real-world success. All I can say is that you have my high regard for running a long-term campaign. I hope you continue to kick ass, brother. Thank you for your kind words on the article.

Also, what made you think I expect a campaign to have a terminus point? I don't think that, but I must have said something that made it sound like I do. Please let me know.

wyrdbrew:
Have you considered putting the "Check for Traps" into print form as an anthology? I'd buy it, highlight and scribble like hell in the margins. It would be nice to have on the shelf for reference.

Wow, that's very kind of you to say. I will admit that in my more fanciful moments I've had notions of publishing something like Gygax's old "Master of the Game" book, but for the moment those notions remain mere fancies.

I'm so used to showing my name as LordVreeg that I don't even recognize my own name. This is what I get for using Facebook do things for me.

"I define a successful long-term RPG campaign as a campaign that runs on a regular schedule that allows the players to complete the experience available to them from that game."
That was the quote in question, not that my tongue was not placed firmly on the inside of my cheek when I bemoaned my lack in my first post.

More kind words, BTW. I read a lot of stuff on game theory etc, but rarely have time or reason to respond. And the more mass-market the platform, the less I am moved normally. You have broken that paradigm 3 or 4 times now. Kudos.
( I almost responded on the Meals interview; as I've spent way too much time on expounding on the causal link between JA's associative mechanics and immersion. I just didn't have the time to write the pages it would have ended up...)

wyrdbrew:

cschraer:

Everyone is there to have fun, but if one person's fun interferes with another person's fun, you have a problem. As a DM I know there have been times when player's outright refuse to continue with a story I have built for them. It's no fun to spend time building a story, only for someone to try to discard it. My idea of fun was running that story and campaign. Theirs was trying to derail anything I created. Ergo there was a problem.

This is called a "railroad" most players do not like them. Be thankful your entire group didn't quit. Most players do not want to be characters in your novel. They want to be characters with agency in a game. There is an earlier article in the "Check for Traps" series about the Agency theory of fun. Yes, there was a problem, it was you.

Actually it wasn't a "railroad" game. It was a very open game where the player's were free to choose what they want. The problem would be that a player would establish himself as a greedy mercenary and then refuse to go on any presented quest, ie. the ones I had created for him the day before, that promised treasure. Whatever I built for the group, he would change his character to deny it. The rest of the group was fine, and some even stretched their characters to find reasons to put up with this schizophrenic character.

Norm Morrison IV:
I will say that most of the really longer term games that I know of are not one weekly schedules. I am involved casually with three other 10+ year old campaigns in addition to my own, and none of run weekly. Bi-weekly, once per three weeks, and monthly are very common for longer term campaigns, at least in my experience, for a number of reasons.

I agree--expecting a group of 4-8 adults to meet regularly one night a week (and it almost always has to be Friday, Saturday or Sunday) to sit around the gaming table for 5+ hours, while it would be ideal, is pretty much impossible for me and my friends. We're lucky to get together once a month sometimes.

But otherwise, this article is spot on, Alexander. You've given me a lot to think about as I try to start up my first campaign as a tabletop DM in about a decade.

Atmos Duality:
Always good to see the tabletop articles, rare as they are. We're a dying breed, but I suppose that's what the previous tabletop generation said too.

I think it's very possible the tabletop industry could die off. It faces multiple bugbears including competition from other media, the crisis in publishing overall, and a 40-year-old image problem that's been hard to surmount. But I think the hobby has enough unique appeal that it will still exist as a hobby for some time to come. RPG design will probably become more and more a part-time labour of love and less a full-time profession. Quality and volume of product might suffer as a result. On the other hand, it might rekindle some of the magic of playing in those free-for-all, anything goes first couple of decades of tabletop gaming.

I rather hope the bit about not cancelling a game due to illness is tongue-in-cheek (few gaming sessions are improved by the GM having to dash to the loo every 5 minutes), but in general yes. You only get out what you put in, and that goes for everyone. For my nascent campaign, I've been writing up session summaries for people to read so that hopefully none of us will lose the plot.

(Incidentally, I totally second the anthology proposal - I ended up printing out several of the columns for reference while planning a session on the train the other weekend.)

Falseprophet, I get where you are coming from regarding the challenge of organizing a group; and perhaps I have a skewed perspective on this because I work in such a geek-friendly environment.

So, with that caveat aside, I do see people regularly and successfully able to set aside one evening to play WoW, play intramural athletics, and so on, and positioning it in that light has been useful to me in getting people to commit to play. Note that I generally run with 5-7 players, and end up with 4-5 each session, so it's about an 80% attendance rate.

We always come up with off the cuff "vaguely in-character" rationalizations for why certain character weren't present and suddenly appear when their player isn't there/arrives late.

By "we" I actually mean "our DM" though, and he's the sort of guy who will openly mock us while we're playing, so explaining character absences tends to be another opportunity for him to take a crack at us - depending on which character wasn't there, he'll explain that they actually were there the whole time, but were so completely ineffective that they accomplished nothing noteworthy (an all too likely scenario with us when we are present, unfortunately), or that they're off drunk somewhere and have just staggered over to join us (the preferred explanation for why our dwarven fighter goes missing from time to time).

We've managed to keep this campaign running for 2 years now so far!

Gildan Bladeborn:
We always come up with off the cuff "vaguely in-character" rationalizations for why certain character weren't present and suddenly appear when their player isn't there/arrives late.

By "we" I actually mean "our DM" though, and he's the sort of guy who will openly mock us while we're playing, so explaining character absences tends to be another opportunity for him to take a crack at us - depending on which character wasn't there, he'll explain that they actually were there the whole time, but were so completely ineffective that they accomplished nothing noteworthy (an all too likely scenario with us when we are present, unfortunately), or that they're off drunk somewhere and have just staggered over to join us (the preferred explanation for why our dwarven fighter goes missing from time to time).

We've managed to keep this campaign running for 2 years now so far!

2 years and going strong (or so it sounds) is the operative fact. Good Job.

I never quite know how to deal with missing players.

In my DnD campaign with five players, I usually let games go on when 3 players are present and play the missing characters in the background myself. Never making big decisions but still, it bothers me to take over their characters (the characters are usually in the wilderness, traveling or in a dungeon, so there's no simple excuse why they wouldn't be with their comrades).

It's easier in my CoC campaign, when someone can't make it, I usually say something along the lines of Player X's character is quite swamped in deadlines/ ill at home/ avoiding suspicion by staying in home. This is easier for me, but the players of this group like to stay complete.

Yeah, sometimes I cancel sessions and it bothers me and sometimes I let the session continue with fewer players and it bothers me.

Gildan, two years and going is awesome! /salute

In my last campaign, I had what turned out to be a popular solution to absent players, though I actually made it initially as a joke.
If a player wasn't there, then their character had been struck by the dreaded, uncurable sleeping sickness. They would simply fall unconscious and the party would have to deal with this handicap or find someplace safe to stash them (which created new fun moments when they rejoined the following week and the party was far away or otherwise occupied). It sounds harsh, but in fact added a great dimension to the game and I think made the party look out for one another more than they might otherwise have.
It also gave an extra incentive to people to show up. Sometimes bad things happened to unconscious players--and this didn't always involve hp loss or theft. But it was a good group who took it in stride and added this opportunity for character building into their character and into our campaign.

I also gave bonus xp to anyone who wrote a character diary entry for a session. This was a great way to keep the players personally involved in the story as well as keep everyone reminded of what had gone on. In addition, it was a great way for everyone to expand on their session RP because the entries were often quite personal in perspective, giving us all glimpses into someone's character (in and out of game).

This is very much an article for the older RPG audiance. We dont run a game on a regular basis because as students with part time jobs its just impossible to guarentee any kind of regular schedule as often things like work shifts or lack of money can prevent people from getting to the game. Its not much fun if the GM decides to run his game every tuesday night when you are working.

On the other hand we have the advantage of seeing each other on a more regular basis (if not all at once) and keep our interest by discussing things and resolving things outside of game time.

My Dark Heresy game started as a bi-weekly session when all of our University timetables ended up having Wednesdays off. Since then it has become an irregular even happening whenever we have the chance although we are still playing. Normally I have just arranged the game for when everyone is available although I didn't call it off when someone was ill.

Kaihlik

Archon, you know I've got mad props for your GMing theory (your advice on gp-to-xp ratios made many White Sandbox players very happy) and I love hearing Greg talk about his experience in your games (do I correctly guess you're using the Rudimentary Resurrection Tables from the Judges' Guild Ready Ref Sheets?)

We're coming from different places here, though. For me the no-player-commitment campaign I'm part of with New York Red Box are more successful - more fun, more unexpected and creatively exciting - than than the weekly campaigns Greg & I played in previously with a static player group.

Is this because NYC, and to a lesser extent Vancouver Red Box, are so crammed with gamers who are already linked up through healthy networks like nerdNYC that we can get away with things that wouldn't work elsewhere?

Is it because you prioritize things like being able to develop the stories of a stable cast of characters, and get to know & adapt to what the individual players in your group like? These are things I definitely have to eschew; sometimes I have 15 players at the table, sometimes four, and can't do lots of the traditional DM advice.

Tavis Allison:
Archon, you know I've got mad props for your GMing theory (your advice on gp-to-xp ratios made many White Sandbox players very happy) and I love hearing Greg talk about his experience in your games (do I correctly guess you're using the Rudimentary Resurrection Tables from the Judges' Guild Ready Ref Sheets?)

We're coming from different places here, though. For me the no-player-commitment campaign I'm part of with New York Red Box are more successful - more fun, more unexpected and creatively exciting - than than the weekly campaigns Greg & I played in previously with a static player group.

Is this because NYC, and to a lesser extent Vancouver Red Box, are so crammed with gamers who are already linked up through healthy networks like nerdNYC that we can get away with things that wouldn't work elsewhere?

Is it because you prioritize things like being able to develop the stories of a stable cast of characters, and get to know & adapt to what the individual players in your group like? These are things I definitely have to eschew; sometimes I have 15 players at the table, sometimes four, and can't do lots of the traditional DM advice.

Boy, this cuts through a lot of layers, and quickly.
(Not to mention the ready ref sheets from JG! )'

Most rulesets for RPGs, and every version of D&D (especially after O), has been written for the campaign ideal, when looked at from that direction. Not always with the same intensity, not always using the same paradigms, but that stable group that runs with a group of developing PCs has always been the highway these rules were meant to drive on.

One thing that 'official' and 'current' rulesets do is create the ability to play in tourney or revolving style games, as the expectations are consistent. I love to hear that you've taken the dynamic energy of it and run with it.

Norm, I talk about the dynamic energy of not knowing who'll be at each session over here. It's definitely a different aesthetic; the dungeon and campaign world becomes the focus of the development when PCs drop into and out of it, while having the same group of characters allows you to make their personal development the focus.

You could say that each version of D&D has tended to facilitate the focus on PCs' character arcs by making them more likely to survive. In New York Red Box's Glantri campaign especially, where PCs start at first level, who'll be in the party each session is unpredictable not just because of scheduling but also because of a strikingly high death rate.

Certainly, the impetus to develop the AD&D rules was to have a Hoyle's standard that let players go from one tourney to another and have consistent expectations about how things work. I think Gygax's glory was that he failed at this so magnificiently, while by doing it so efficiently 4E demonstrates why it might not have been desirable in the first place.

However, the rules aren't the only source of consistent expectations. At NYRB we've just started a 1978-edition Gamma World game with rotating DMs, and just about everything you want to do requires a lot of creative interpretation of its cryptic rules. I think it'll work for us because, while players drop in and out, most are part of a larger play culture in which we've learned ways to decide stuff on the fly that we're content with.

I don't agree with the majority of this article because frankly I think it is misleading advice. D&D is a game that has been known to be played "on the fly," quoting Gygax himself. I know Gygax has said a LOT of things about his game, and the amount of media attention given to him by gamers was incredible, so obviously this could be a contrary statement, but that's not my point. I agree with both lomlylithruldor and Lawless Squirrel's comments: that the game is in fact a social gathering (it's never any fun otherwise) and that 10 hrs of of DM prep work isn't necessary, especially if you're playing a weekly game where everything is fresh in your mind. If you do too much prep-work (which, when you're obsessive, like a lot of us gamers, is really easy to do) you wind up disappointing yourself, railroading w/o realizing it and frustrated that what you prepared wasn't even encountered by your players. I'm surprised the Escapist allowed this article to be published. Is it just because the rest of your articles have been good (which they have) and they decided to not even look at this? We have enough problems with the advent of 4E and all of its meticulously unnecessary statistics and reading material than to be encouraged to prepare for 10 hrs a week when it takes at least an hour to run an encounter. That means about 2 hrs prep time per encounter. Doesn't quite make sense to me.

 

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