This past weekend was the first episode of the new series (or season, in the American vernacular) of Doctor Who. Doctor Who is a series that has reinvented itself numerous times, usually when the Doctor regenerates but sometimes even without a change in the lead actor, the series has tried to move in a different direction.
Similarly, I recently read an article on Heroes that got me thinking about my own RPG campaigns. I’ve had a lot of campaigns over the years that, for whatever reason, either didn’t go as planned or deteriorated as time went on, which was a shame if I and the players really loved the original premise. Also, due to the nature of collaborative play (and all roleplaying is, in some sense, “collaborative”), there were many times where I felt that the campaign was going wrong but the players still enjoyed playing their characters.
In such cases I found it preferable to “regenerate” the campaign, taking the elements that worked and incorporating them into a new paradigm that freshens up the campaign and makes it interesting again for those who’ve lost it. Here are a few ways that I’ve used over the years to regenerate a campaign.
Embrace the Change. The TV series Arrow was a very different beast in the beginning than it is now; it was grounded in a more realistic “Nolanverse” with no characters having true superpowers and costumes being downplayed. As time went on, the creators opted for the more popular move of making the series more overtly superheroic, with superpowers and more colorful heroes and villains. This hasn’t really hurt the ratings at all.
Similarly, in my most recent Dungeons & Dragons 5e campaign I opted to create a low-magic world, but in allowing the players to have standard characters and the need to challenge them I’ve been slowly increasing the magical level of the world to match. While some of the players have noticed this, they all are enjoying the campaign as much now as when we started.
Take a Different Direction. Doctor Who was always about traveling through time and space, but in the classic series a bold move was made to exile the Doctor on Earth for a while. While he was still the Doctor, he now worked with a (somewhat) secret military task force to stop alien threats in near-future Earth. Prior to this, “contemporary” adventures were rare. Still, this reinvigorated the show and made it feel fresh in spite of keeping a lot of the same elements.
In my first WitchCraft campaign I was running out of ideas and my players had faced most of the rogues gallery, many of them more than once. One area that I hadn’t played with were the chaos-based adversaries and I focused on one Great Old One (for lack of a better word) that had a plan that required the PC’s old adversaries to work with them against the new threat. Suddenly a largely black and white campaign turned into a grey one that involved an overarching Cthulhu-esque conspiracy.
Recommit to the Original Premise. (Star Trek) Enterprise came out of the gate as a prequel series for the Star Trek franchise but, IMHO, lost that focus almost out of the gate. The Temporal Cold War arc was confusing and arbitrary and the Xindi War just took things into a different direction that also ended up involving time travel. Season Four addressed those issues, tying up the loose ends of previous seasons and moving forward with more of a “this is how the universe you saw in the other series came to be” vibe.
When I was running a 7th Sea campaign, I began with the premise that the players were essentially “Zorro,” being members of a hacienda that was under foreign rule and secretly fighting against them. As I bought more source books I became enamored of the more Cthulhu-esque metaplot and began adding more of those elements to the point where the players started feeling less like swashbuckling heroes and more Call of Cthulhu (or, perhaps more aptly, Delta Green) investigators. When I got feedback that the players weren’t really enjoying the new direction, I dissolved it and let the players get back to playing the original premise, reinforcing the brutality and oppressiveness of the foreign conquerors.
Those are some of the ways that I’ve “regenerated” a campaign without changing characters or ending it. How about you? How have you tried to regenerate a campaign? How well did it work? Is there anything that you wouldn’t do again or is there something that worked exceptionally well? Have you ever lamented ending a campaign because a regeneration might have worked?