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Sunday, March 9, 2014

Why Do So Many RPG Campaigns Fail?

Dude, you threw 4 dragon turtles at them!
I ran my Shadow Pantheon D&D Next game Friday night and it went very well. My goal was to start to get that "d&d feeling" going, and I did it. The key to it, for me, was to have the NPCs come to life. A situation came up where the party dragonborn wanted to use the little hireling as trap bait. The NPC party cleric (the alligator-woman from Dungeon of the Bear) objected and called out the dragonborn on it. The dragonborn backed down.

Later, the party triggered a trap where 5 tons of ball bearings fell on them. The NPC and the PC were both buried, and they helped each other escape. They made up and formed a bond. I immediately sensed that we had achieved something. Lucinda the half-alligator had become something more than writing on paper.

Soon after, the party wizard found a ring that turned him into a vampyre (the 2e ravenloft version, weaker than a normal vampire). He was quite happy with this. He's "found" who his character is, I could tell. Next session, I will have a concerned NPC try to steal the ring and destroy it. The PCs will likely catch her and they'll have to decide what to do with her.

I think then we'll really have the ball rolling. The key will be to continue having the NPCs and the world reacting to the PCs actions in a way that makes sense and makes the world feel real.

Anchovies?! You shall pay for your insolence!
Running a campaign is hard. Heck, running an adventure is hard. I know so many people who will start a game, run it a few times, and then the campaign falls apart. I've noticed that there are a few main reasons for this.

Scheduling Issues: The most common reason that I hear is"scheduling issues". People have stuff to do, they have work, they have kids, that kind of thing. When you are forming a group, make sure everyone can commit. You should always assume at least one player won't make any given session. 

Player Conflicts: This can be really brutal. Some players want to be the star. Some want to lead. Some are passive-aggressive and will undermine the other characters. You have to know your players when you form your group. And you have to be willing to cut ones loose that don't fit the style of game you are going for.

Some players are into "rules". I am not. I want the game to keep moving. If we're not sure about something, I'll just tell them to make some kind of basic roll and we'll look it up later. Some players hate this.

This comes down to your fundamental views on the game. Why do you play D&D? For some people, it is like a video game. You are there to kill the boss guy, and to hit the highest level and get all the cool loot. Other people are there just for the social aspect of it.

Your game: More like this movie than you think
I play D&D to have fun, and to give the players the experience of being the stars of a movie. To put them in a world where they can create history, and their exploits will be felt in games I run in real life years later, told to people they'll never even meet. To me, you "win" D&D when you've created an awesome moment that you can tell other people about. You "win" D&D when you feel something that makes you want to play again.

So for me, I always try to avoid putting certain types of players in my game. That's especially tricky because it can be hard just to find 3 or 4 people who will even agree to play D&D.

What's funny though, is that once you make a new friend at your job or wherever and start telling them D&D stories, they almost always always want to try it. Most people in life have heard of D&D but they have no idea how it's played. Many of them like it once they try it, though there are some who just don't. It's not for everybody, and that's ok. Usually you can pick those people out before you even play with them.

Really Bad Calls: As a DM, you'll make mistakes and bad judgment calls. Just say you're sorry and move on. Way back in high school, I had a player playing a real jerk of a character. He got into it with another PC, and used his character's psionic powers to nearly kill him. In a later session, the player had to leave the game early.

Hat of Stupidity:  Like this, but shorter
The party was on a boat. The character was "unmanned". The rest of the party grabbed this character, tied him to the mast, whipped him, put a hat of stupidity on him and threw him overboard.

Not cool, right? I knew it, but it happened so fast and it was so funny that I figured we'd just deal with it later. I saw the player of the abused character a day or two later and explained what happened, and told him we'd just figure something out. I didn't quite say that I'd rule that it didn't ever actually happen, which I should have.

But the player was quietly enraged. He decided to let the abused character go and to make a new character. And lo, a revenge character was unleashed upon my campaign. I can't blame the guy for being mad.

Burnout: Another common reason for a campaign fizzling is "DM burnout". To me, what this means is that the dungeon master has lost inspiration and probably feels that all this work being put into the game is not giving enough in return.

A general rule of thumb is to never spend more than 3 hours preparing for a 3 hour session. Some DMs will spend months creating their world and the material. And then they run the game, and the players don't pay attention, aren't invested and don't have the reactions that you'd like.What's funny is, many times, it's the sessions that you've barely prepared for that end up being the best.

Part of that is to make sure you check with your players and see what they want out of a campaign, and then include that. Another part of this is as a human being, as time goes on, you come across other cool stuff that inspires you. Maybe for a month, you're totally into running your pirate game. Then, you see some zombie movie and you have the urge to scrap your pirate game and run a zombie thing.

Chris Perkins talked about this in one of his DM Experience columns. His advice, which has worked for me, is to do your best to funnel that stuff into what you're doing now. So in the "pirate" example, that would mean just shipwreck your heroes on a zombie island.

The worst thing about this syndrome is that often, when you tell your players that you want to dump your current campaign, your players get very dismayed. That's when you see that, yes, they really like the game you're running. And now you're telling them that you don't like it.

Castle Greyhawk: You will go blind squinting
A couple of years ago, I got really into the idea of running a Castle Greyhawk campaign. As in, a campaign in Gary Gygax's original mega-dungeon. I spent months digging up any material I could find. I got the 3.5 Expedition to Castle Greyhawk, I got the then-free pdf of the Castle of the Mad Archmage, I read up every article I could find on Gary's campaign. I picked up some of the published demiplane levels like Bottle City and Dungeonland.

My enthusiasm began to wane when I imagined running this. Lots of empty rooms. Lots of rooms containing a goblin with a spoon or some crap. I realized that I'd be bored and my players might be bored, too. So I started taking the "cool" material and making my own levels. I relied heavily on a thread on the D&D forums which was full of page after page of cool traps.

By the time I'd finished level two, I realized a dungeon of nothing but trap rooms would probably annoy my players. They don't really like traps or puzzles.

So I started to read Dungeonland, and frankly I hated it.

My Castle Greyhawk bug was gone completely. I felt fortunate that I hadn't actually run any of it and wasted everyone's time.

Tomorrow I'm going to talk about one of my favorite topics... Love in D&D.

1 comment:

Scrivener of Doom said...

Scheduling issues became such a pain a decade or more ago in my 30s that I started running campaigns with two players each playing two characters. And it really worked out so much better from a scheduling perspective, and it cut down on the interpersonal conflicts as well.

Now it's my preferred way to run a game with the right players.