Gameplay

Why Every Campaign Should Plan for an End

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In my opinion, no campaign should begin without an end in mind. This may sound somewhat strange to gamers who are accustomed to playing games that continue on and on. But I think that without a planned ending, the campaign itself becomes weaker.

Prevent Jumping the Shark and GM Burnout

Fonzie literally jumps the shark

Fonzie literally jumps the shark

The party of heroes has just saved the world from the evil sorcerer! What’s next? Well, his apprentice, who is also his girlfriend, vows revenge on the player characters and has a plan just as sinister. And after she’s defeated, it turns out they had a son who wants revenge too. And he had an uncle who wants to destroy the entire universe once and for all. But as a consolation, he decided to resurrect the original big bad. And the resurrected big bad…uh…tries going back in time to prevent all of the heroes accomplishments from happening in the first place.

At some point, an extended campaign is going to either:

  • Jump the shark, in which elevating the stakes of the campaign takes a turn for the underwhelming
  • Lead to GM burnout where the GM has run out of interesting ideas and is no longer sure how to make the game interesting

Comparing to TV shows, Heroes had a phenomenal first season. And then a poor second season and a worse third season, then it got better in the fourth and fifth, but by that point, people had long given up. Imagine if Heroes had been a miniseries ending at the first season? The result would have been a much stronger, and much better remembered, show. Or to use a movie example, wouldn’t The Matrix have been a lot better if they’d just stuck to one movie?

Having an ending in mind prevents these fates from happening. The GM isn’t struggling to up the ante and in danger of running out of new ideas.

Players May Not Keep the Same Schedule

People have changing lives. They may be available on Wednesday nights for a while, but once they graduate from college, get a new job, or have a baby, they may no longer be able to maintain their typical roleplaying game time. And if people need to drop out because of life commitments, your campaign might fall apart. It’s hard to recruit players into an extended campaign that they weren’t around for at the beginning.

By saying up front that a campaign will last for so many months or take about so many sessions, you’re making it easier for players to commit to a game. They can decide for themselves if they’ll be available for the time. If things are getting hectic, they may decide to hang out for another few weeks if they know that the ending is drawing near. This also means that, worst case, if your friend is running a campaign that turns out to be terrible, at least you can push forward to the end that’s coming instead of having to slog through for an indefinite time or drop out.

Avoid the Firefly Phenomenon

Sci-fi fans around the world have shed many tears over the fact that Joss Whedon’s Firefly was canceled after 14 episodes, despite being an original and promising show. This has led to what I call the Firefly Phenomenon where fans of the series lament the fact that the show ended far too soon due to external circumstances and left a lot of great stories on the table. There’s been a number of excellent shows that have suffered a similar fate (my personal favorite being Awake), which could have been so much more, but were canceled early for any number of reasons.

You may have a fantastic campaign in mind, but if your “viewers” (i.e. the players) aren’t able to follow through for whatever reason (which might happen, as explained above), your massive, multi-year campaign will fall apart, possibly resulting in the Firefly Phenomenon. Your players, or you yourself, may have been really excited in the campaign, but if external circumstances might prevent the campaign from lasting so long, planning it to be shorter will be better down the road. And in my experience, it’s really hard to restart a campaign that has ended too early.

Create More Satisfying Arcs

Babylon 5 was a sci-fi television series planned from the start to last 5 seasons. There were planned arcs throughout and events that happened early resulted in a payoff much later. Contrast that to Lost or the revived Battlestar Galactica where things just kept going on and on and people were wondering if the writers really had an end in mind (did the Cylons really have a plan?). If you have an ending in mind at the start, you can have a definite beginning, middle, and end and wind up creating a more satisfying series overall. Not a “what direction are the writers taking us next” situation.

Allow for New Ideas

Contrary to what some D&D/Pathfinder players believe, there are a lot more roleplaying games out there than just Fantasy. If a campaign has an ending, it means that the group can move on to one of those other ideas and try something different for variety. After being supers, you change to spies and after spies you change to space marines. With an indefinite end, you’re playing the same type of character, well, indefinitely. With a definite end, there’s the option of trying something new.

I’ve had great results overall with campaigns with a definite end in mind and I think others would too if they tried it. Let me know what you think in the comments!

Coming next week: The Journeyman GM’s 100th blog post!

When a Stuffed Animal GMs a Game

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Kobold Enterprise is hosting this month’s blog carnival where they ask about Epic Moments of GMing. As it turns out, I had one just last weekend at WittCon X hosted by the Wittenberg Roleplaying Guild! You see, I was part of a game run by this GM:

Steve the Badger

That’s right, I was part of a game that was GMed by Steve, the adorable stuffed animal mascot and patron deity (long story, described here) of the Wittenberg Roleplaying Guild. Basically, Steve came up with the game and didn’t tell even me about what sort of game he was running. Because he can’t speak, Steve required players to ask him questions about their situation, but of course he knew what sort of questions they might ask and anticipated their responses, giving them answers that fit his storyline.

I should mention that you should pay no attention to the man behind the GM screen who is occasionally rolling dice as part of the Mythic GM Emulator, a tool for creating scenarios on the fly as if a GM was there. You ask questions, roll dice to see the results, and then figure out what the results mean in the context of the situation. From time to time, random events happen that affect the story. But yeah, pay no attention to that man behind the GM screen. Steve planned the whole thing, not me.

The game was very over the top by design. It was used with the Risus system and any sort of character was allowed (we had characters such as a Robot with Heart, an SMG-Wielding Squid, and literally an average John Doe). The tone was designed to be frivolous and the game was only scheduled for one hour, so things got a bit wild as you’ll see.

The first session he ran was definitely the more interesting one. It turns out that Steve’s treasure was actually his girlfriend (none of us knew about her!) who had been kidnapped. She was trapped inside of a well just down the street, but this well had a number of very clever traps including a machine gun and illusion-producing machinery. On the way, the heroes met guild member Andy K. who gave them the sage advice to just beat stuff up in order to save Steve’s girlfriend.

The Man Behind the GM Screen: Time for a random event: Positive NPC. So someone is here to help you.

Player 1: Is he powerful? [Steve shakes head yes]

Player 2: Is he someone we know? Is he in the Roleplaying Guild? [yes]

Player 1: Is he Andy K? [definite yes]

Player 2: [after much laugher] Is he going to join us? [no]

Player 1: Does he have some advice for us?

The Man Behind the GM Screen: [rolls] Increase warfare.

Player 1: So I guess he’s telling us to just beat stuff up! Thanks Andy!

TMNT DonatelloAfter fleeing from the machine guns and dropping into the well, the heroes discovered that although there wasn’t a mutant race down there, there was one mutant: Donatello from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He told them that a crocodile, who was a leader of the mafia, had eaten the other Ninja Turtles and was holding Steve’s girlfriend hostage. So the heroes set off to stop him.

When they arrived, they discovered a crocodile in a pinstripe suit smoking a cigar. John Doe tried to fight him, but unfortunately got swallowed, only to find the other Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles inside!

Player 1: I try and stab him [dice get rolled]

The Man Behind the GM Screen: As you move into stab him, he opens his mouth and completely swallows you. Oh look, doubles on the roll so another random event. [rolls] Another positive NPC. Hmm…

Player 1: Didn’t we establish earlier that the other Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles got eaten?

[Everyone realizes what this means and laughs!]

The Man Behind the GM Screen: Alright, so Steve says that you discover the remaining three Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles inside. Wow, great planning Steve!

While the robot cut up the crocodile’s pinstripe suit and cigar in order to throw him off his game, John Doe tried to convince the Turtles that he was an innocent civilian and they had to rescue him. This gave them enough motivation to help break him out and defeat the croc once and for all. They rescued Steve’s girlfriend and saved the day!

The second session had some interesting moments, such as a whole band of bureaucrats guarding a phylactery containing Steve’s enlightenment. Across the two sessions, I had a lot of fun having a stuffed animal GMing the game and I was surprised at how cohesive his game wound up being. I’m sure that this will be a game that we’ll be talking about for years. Ultimately, an epic GM moment!

Using Time in Games

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Happy New Year! I hope that the holidays went over well for you and that you’re all looking forward to 2013.

This change in the new year has made me think about the passage of time in roleplaying games. In most games I’ve played, it’s generally not come up. In Dungeons & Dragons, for instance, quests may take many days to complete, but we generally don’t keep track of how many they are and don’t conceptualize larger units of time, like weeks, months, or years. Part of this of course is that in most fantasy settings, they aren’t going to be using the same names for days of the week or months and it doesn’t matter whether the year is 349 or 5192. So in order for time to be used in a roleplaying game, it must be meaninfully measured.

The simplest way to do this is to just use the Gregorian Calendar, since that’s what we use today. Some settings have used the Gregorian Calendar, but gave different names to the days of the weeks and the months. The Elder Scrolls calendar did this, as does the calendar in Low Life (although the latter changes the names out of parody). Part of the reason for this is that a different calendar with different numbers of days to the months doesn’t really add much to the game. (However, there have been a lot of efforts of calendar reform in real life to make it simpler and more logical. But aside from changing the Julian Calendar to the Gregorian Calendar, none have been successful. I think the world should switch to the International Fixed Calendar, by the way).

Virtually all civilizations have, at the very least, measured the progression of time by seasons. The progression of time has to result in something changing, such as the weather. How many games have you played where your adventuring party started out in hot summer and ended in frigid winter? If you’re like most groups, not. This is partly a result of the trope that It’s Always Spring because it’s simpler to not factor in weather. But I think it’s a lot of fun to include it. Having the weather be rainy or snowy when it’s not because of Chekov’s Gun makes the world seem more alive, and the likelihood of such weather changing over time in long campaigns can add a lot of depth to the game.

Seasons of course are periodic, as are many other units of time. Historically Ancient Rome had 8 day weeks with the eighth day being a market day where everything is closed, while our modern calendar has 7 day weeks because Jews and Christians worship every seventh day. I could see a setting changing the number of days in a week for reasons such as that. And of course, we mark one year as the number of days that pass before Earth is at the same position in relation to the sun. This of course adds the possibility of annual holidays. When was the last time you celebrated a birthday or holiday in your games? You’re missing out!

In many of my games lately I’ve tried to incorporate time and it’s either been a lot of fun! For starters, I mandate that all players must have birthdays. This is done by randomly rolling a d12 for the month and a d30 for the day (if the month has 31 days and they roll a 30, then they roll odds or evens). The only time I had a birthday come up was when I ran Daring Entertainment‘s War of the Dead campaign. In the middle of the zombie outbreak, the six year old girl they rescued realized that it was her birthday and she just turned seven! There was a lot of celebration by all, even with a couple they met using up the last of their flour and eggs to bake a cake, and it really helped raise morale for the characters after all the horror they had been through with the zombies. It was a fun diversion and the players loved it.

Over the summer, I ran a roleplaying game version of The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall, which unlike the later games had special things happen on certain holidays. For instance during our campaign, the Warrior’s Festival came up, and as a result the player characters could purchase weaponry and training for half price for that day only. One of the players agonized over whether or not to borrow money and buy a weapon at half price or pay for it later at a greater price. I think that the feeling of having the world be more alive was fun as well.

Finally in my current The Last Sons campaign, I’m going full tilt and keeping track of each day that passes. Certain developments in the plot point campaign happen on a certain day (e.g. the national elections) as well as certain holidays. How will the posse be spending Christmas? And the weather is going to change significantly as we get closer to winter. They don’t know about it yet, but there’s also going to be a time limit to the best result of the campaign. Sure you can dawdle around on the Weird West as much as they want, but if they’re not ready on that last day, they’ll miss their shot at making things a whole lot better.

Adding time to your roleplaying games adds a lot of little moments that make the game more enjoyable. It requires a bit more tracking on the GM’s side to pull it off, but I think that it’s worth it in the end.

The Worst Day for a Character Ever

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First off, there are some Last Sons spoilers that would come up in the first two or three sessions.

Several weeks ago, I started up a Last Sons campaign and one of the characters has had probably the worst 24 hours I’ve ever seen a character experience.

His name was Sam “Red Dog” Reese, and he was a Union deserter turned bounty hunter heading to Deadwood, figuring it was a place that he could escape from the Union Army. Moreover, his commanding officer, Col. Brannon was an Enemy (Major) out hunting him down. As a GM, I put on a huge grin and let him play it.

After being ambushed by Sam Bass (the players captured him and planned to turn him in for a reward), the stagecoach driver got a raise on his Repair roll and finished the repairs in two hours, so I put them a bit ahead of schedule of what the PPC says and they arrived at Deadwood shortly before noon. But in the distance, they spotted an entire sea of blue figures swiftly marching towards Deadwood.

Sam started panicking and decided that the best thing to do was to hide himself in the hotel. So he looked at the map of Deadwood I’d printed out and decided to book a room at the Grand Central Hotel and hid in the room. After a while, he heard a ruckus downstairs and figured he’d check it out. Not only did he see a whole bunch of blue uniforms, but General Custer himself walked into his newly chosen headquarters for his occupation Deadwood. I totally didn’t make that up, the player chose to go to the hotel that The Last Sons said that Custer decided to make his headquarters!

So Sam jumped out the window to avoid being spotted by some people who knew him. At one point though, he did make eye contact with someone in his regiment. He hoped that he wouldn’t report to Col. Brannon.

After meeting with Charlie Bull and laying down for sleep at his house, there was a knock on the door from someone claiming to be an old friend of Sam’s. Charlie Bull told them they hadn’t seen him and turned them away. The posse decided to go out and investigate and got ambushed by a bunch of men from Sam’s old regiment. Colonel Brannon himself wasn’t there. After a midnight duel and a lot of bloodshed in the streets, the posse decided they needed to leave town ASAP before any additional soldiers found Sam.

They went for a few hours into the Black Hills that night and weathered out the storm under a rock crag near some of the pole-men hung up by the Sioux Indians as warnings towards those who violated the mining rules. Sam, unable to sleep, had first watch. During the night he thought that he saw one of the polemen moved. Figuring it wasn’t anything worth waking up his companions for, he went down to investigate. When he got up next to it, the poleman came to life and lashed a rope around his neck before he could scream. He nearly was hanged to death, but with a lucky shot was able to shoot the rope.

The gunshot woke up his Huckster companion, but the third companion (with the Heavy Sleeper Hindrance) was sound asleep. After several rounds of combat against the poleman, it grabbed Sam and attempted to hang him again when one of the players played an adventure card having help from an outside source come to help. So I had a bunch of Union soldiers chasing Sam arrive on the scene.

The Huckster risked firing into melee…and got a Critical Failure, shooting Sam straight in the gut with a raise. Unable to soak his wounds, Sam took three of them and the next round was hanged to death by the pole man. The Union soldiers saw that Sam was dead and headed back to Deadwood to report to Col. Brannon.

But that’s not the end. I fanned out the remaining cards in the action deck and, with just one card to draw, he drew the Joker! So after the party buried poor Sam, he woke up buried alive and discovered that he was a dead man walkin’.

So over the course of 24 hours, Sam, who fled to Deadwood to avoid the Union Army:

  • Arrived at the one city that Custer’s entire force decided to annex on the day it was happening
  • Booked a hotel room at the place Custer decided to use for his headquarters
  • Was spotted by members of his former regiment and had to kill them to keep them from turning him in
  • Had to leave town in the middle of the night during a downpour
  • Got ambushed by a poleman alone
  • Had members of his regiment show up in the middle of his distress
  • Got shotgunned (with a raise) by his commrade
  • Got hanged to death
  • Was buried alive and ultimately became a dead man

I’m sure this will be one of those stories we’ll talk about for years, but man was it a crazy experience! Never have I seen a character have such a horrendous day, all from choices that unwittingly led to trouble!

A Player Talks About One of My Campaigns

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Last week I talked about Arkham Nights on this blog, but as part of our blog exchange, I had a guest post on Scrolls of the Platinum Warlock where I talked about my perspective as a player in one of Andy’s campaigns (also see his perspective as a GM in that same camapaign). This week, we’re switching it around and showing a player’s perspective on one of my campaigns!

In the Summer of 2011, I decided that I wanted to run a Deadlands mini-campaign. Deadlands is famous for having a very rich metaplot and, since Andy’s recently completed Deadlands campaign “Follow the Walkin’ Man” didn’t tap into it that much, I decided it would be a lot of fun to run a short campaign using the (second) biggest metaplot-making adventure in the entire history of Deadlands: The Devil’s Tower trilogy. (The Unity is the biggest metaplot-making adventure, but the time hasn’t come for me to run that one yet).

The Devil’s Tower Trilogy is a series of three adventures published in 1998 for Deadlands Classic, which I updated to Deadlands Reloaded: The Road to Hell, Heart o’ Darkness, and Fortress o’ Fear. You’ll note that in Andy’s recap below, he refers to the trilogy as the “Heart of Darkness” trilogy, which is probably a better name for it as Devil’s Tower isn’t even mentioned until the third scenario. The scenario begins with none other than Dr. Darius Hellstromme himself hiring the posse to track down the mysterious “Heart o’ Darkness” gem that has been stolen from him.

One thing I like about the trilogy is that it’s a good tour of the Weird West. The posse travels from the steel and ghost-rock powered City o’ Gloom (Salt Lake City) in the Mormon nation of Deseret to the Free and Holy City of Lost Angels in the famine-stricken Great Maze to the high plains featuring the eponymous Devil’s Tower in the wide open plains of Wyoming (which is a real-world location). Along the way they meet three of the four “big players” in the Deadlands universe: Dr. Darius Hellstromme, Rev. Ezekiah Grimme, and the mysterious Stone. Fun fact: despite being on the cover of the original Deadlands rulebook, the character of Stone was not introduced until this trilogy of scenarios.

This mini-campaign was one of my favorites because it was all about the heroes facing the impossible. Even though I set them up as Legendary level characters, every player had two PCs that died by the end (except Andy who miraculously kept the same character alive until the end of the campaign!) In the end, there was a hard-won victory, but there was definitely a cost to preventing Hell on Earth (and yes, there is a relationship between this trilogy and the Deadlands sequel setting).

And now without further ado, I turn you over to one of my players for his recounting of the mini-campaign:

A Player’s Perspective

As part of our ongoing cross-blog extravaganza, the Journeyman GM—Will Herrmann—and I have been taking a look atour experiences in one another’s campaigns. Last time, we palavered about his experiences in my “Shadows of the Cold War” game. This time around, I’ll let you in on what it’s like to be in one of Will’s games, particularly his Deadlands “Heart of Darkness” trilogy.

When Will pitched his game to Guild-at-large, I was already stoked. I had just finished running a Deadlands campaign—something of a crossover between standard Deadlands and the mythology created in Stephen King’s Dark Tower saga. My campaign had a few miscues and we lost a few players, which made life hectic, but overall I was incredibly pleased with how the game turned out and I was eager to play in the world that I had so recently started reading about. Will had not only introduced me to Deadlands, but to Savage Worlds as a system, so I knew I was in for a treat.

I’ll say one thing for Will as a GM—while he doesn’t have the fearsome reputation I seem to have gained in my years of tormenting players, Will challenges players with the best of them! Even with Legendary-tier heroes around the table, Will wasn’t afraid to pull out the big guns and let them strut their stuff! One of our first confrontations in the game was against Los Diablos: the Devil’s Own Herd of stampeding hell-cattle. These fiendish bovines took out no less than three of our five posse members, with only my hexslinging fencer and a huckster surviving!

Los Diablos

This rigor carried through the full campaign, with intensely difficult fight scenes and equally difficult challenges in role-play. While the original “Heart of Darkness” trilogy brought several rough elements to the table, Will was ready to not only convert those elements, but toss in the occasional curveball to keep us on our toes. That’s not to say we didn’t respond in kind, of course! I’m sure Will didn’t expect us to reduce Rock Island Prison to a smoking crater, or to slice an enchanted cutlass through the skull of a certain cannibalistic reverend!

One of Will’s other strengths lies in his ability to efficiently and descriptively narrate a hectic action scene. Like myself, Will tends to favor the “set piece” fight scene over the standard dungeon-crawling sloughs of old-school gaming. In our climactic battle with Grimme, for example, numerous factions and monsters roamed the interior of the Cathedral of Lost Angels, each with varied stats and abilities. Will navigated this chaotic sea with ease, making for a fast-paced, thrilling encounter that absolutely made that session.

I do carry one badge of honor from Will’s “Heart of Darkness” game—my fencer was the only character who survived the entire game without dying! My wife’s “scrapper” fell to Los Diablos, as did our mad scientist. Our huckster died of tuberculosis and never realized it, coming back as a Harrowed in his sleep. Even our enigmatic Agent, wielding a hellfire-spouting carbine, died while in a duel with a certain undead gunslinger. However, Ramon Perez Francisco Villa-Nueva defied the odds, escaping certain death with the Heart of Darkness in hand!

While he’s off in Minnesota for the time being, I’m really hoping that Will manages to make it back for WittCon X. Gaming with him has always been a great privilege, and I’m looking forward to more opportunities to sling dice with the Journeyman GM!

[Will’s Note: Yes, I do plan on coming back to Wittenberg for WittCon X!]

If you’re interested in seeing how this campaign went (minor spoilers within), check out some of my other blog posts about my experiences running The Devil’s Tower trilogy:

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