This guest post by longtime GM and fellow GM-Fu  panelist Phil Vecchione  grew out of a comment Phil made at the first-ever Treasure Tables meetup . Knowing that Phil is a great GM, hearing his success ratio was a light bulb moment for me — I suddenly felt a lot better about the campaigns I’d bombed, and a lot more confident about myself as a GM.
I figured there’d be plenty of GMs who could benefit from that same experience, and Phil was generous enough to turn his comment into a post that’s packed with excellent advice. Enjoy — and thank you, Phil!
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After 20+ years of being a GM, I average one great campaign to every two to three that I run. When I say great, I mean a campaign that my players find exciting and memorable and that lasts at least one calendar year. The rest die for any number of reasons: they are sometimes boring or flat, the mechanics are too difficult, the players lose interest, I lose interest, etc.
Why is not every campaign a great campaign?
No matter how long you have GMed and how great a campaign idea sounds in your head, when it hits the table it has to survive your players. Your great idea for a campaign may be one of the most innovative breakthroughs in roleplaying history, but if your players don’t get it or don’t like it, it won’t last four sessions. Unfortunately, there is no magic formula for making a great campaign, but there are some things you can do to improve your odds.
Before you run off and spend a month crafting a campaign setting, take some time to get your players on board by talking to them about your idea. See if anyone is interested in playing that kind of game, and don’t be offended if people do not like it. If you can, revise your idea based on feedback, but know when an idea is not going to fly, and either shelve it or discard it.
Now that your players are interested in your idea, don’t spend months working up a campaign setting complete with 100s of NPCs, town names, and maps. Instead, take some time to get notes down for all the important things that your players will encounter in the first few sessions. If the campaign flops, then you did not waste time writing extra material. If the campaign is a hit, then you can take what you have and expand upon it.
I once ran a Mutants & Masterminds game for which I wrote about 200 pages of notes, including the history of the U.S. from World War II through the modern day, technology, laws, and major NPCs. It took about two months to write, and the campaign lasted only nine sessions. It was not a complete failure, but there was far more work put into creating the world than playing in it.
Come Out Swinging
Your best chance for having a great campaign is to get your players hooked in the first four sessions. Up to this point, your campaign has been supported by your own energies, as you have thought up the idea, sketched out the campaign world, and written the first few sessions. Your energy may start to wane.
What you need is an influx of fresh energy, the kind that comes from players who are excited. Your first few sessions need to capture your players’ attention while showing off some of the unique elements of your campaign world, and then leave them wanting more.
The best way to do that is to craft an initial story arc that is no more than four sessions long, is personal to the characters, and showcases the unique elements of your campaign world. Your first instinct may be to craft an epic or sweeping campaign arc, but a complex story arc is best done with good pacing and a drawn out story, both of which are scarce commodities this early in your campaign.
Craft a short arc that can be the prelude to a larger arc, and make it easy to complete in four sessions. The players will have an immediate objective they can pursue, and you will have a chance to introduce them to the campaign world.
Cut Your Losses
In four sessions, most GMs knows if a campaign is going to be great or not.
If it is going to be great, then ramp up your campaign-building efforts and kick off your epic campaign arc. You have held your ideas in check, and conserved your resources long enough. Dig in and start putting all that detail you originally wanted to into your campaign world. You’ve earned it.
If it is not going to be great, then stop playing. Players are often too nice to GMs and will not admit if a campaign has tanked or not. Rather, they will come to the game and try to play what you have telling you things are going well. Trust your instincts. You’ll know if your campaign is dying. Don’t feel bad about ending it. Ending a dying campaign just means you can start the cycle again with a new one.
When a campaign dies, you may want to just forget about it and move on, but don’t pass up the chance to improve your ability to create and launch a campaign. Take some time to analyze what went wrong. Ask your players for input, even if it is only to confirm your hunches. Then look at what worked and what did not work. Learn from those mistakes.
For every failed campaign I have, I can name one or two major reasons that led to its demise. In the M&M game described above, the major factor that killed the campaign was that I wrote the background for the campaign in a way that drained all the fun out of being a superhero.
The characters were good, the story was good, but the campaign world I created was not conducive to playing a superhero game. My take-home lesson from that was that a campaign should reflect the spirit of the genre and the rules of the game system.
All GMs strive to run great campaigns. It is a tricky endeavor that is infused with part of the heart and soul of the GM. While not every campaign will be great, if you don’t over-invest, work hard to excite your players, and know when to drop a dying campaign, your odds of getting to that great campaign will certainly rise. Sometimes you have to break some eggs to make a great omelet.
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(I’ll be in Michigan from Thursday, September 20th through Monday, September 24th. As always, I’ve cued up a post for every day that I’ll be gone, but I probably won’t be able to respond to comments or emails. Have fun, and I’ll see you on Tuesday! — Martin)