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Great Campaigns: One Out of Three Ain’t Bad

This guest post by longtime GM and fellow GM-Fu [1] panelist Phil Vecchione [2] grew out of a comment Phil made at the first-ever Treasure Tables meetup [3]. 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.

Get Buy-In

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.

Don’t Over-Invest

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.

Post Mortem

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)

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#1 Comment By Darth Krzysztof On September 21, 2007 @ 6:07 am

Starting with a new group can also be a factor. During my brief college era, I ran a short AD&D 2nd Edition campaign for a group of relative strangers that insisted on playing four male human fighters, and it didn’t last (and not just because of their choice of PCs). My high school friends would have eaten it up, but these guys just weren’t engaged–or engaging.

Once I’d assembled a group of new friends, I ran the same campaign, and it was one to remember.

#2 Comment By VV_GM On September 21, 2007 @ 6:26 am

Good article. I find that by the third session I know if I have to scrap the game or not, so a four session story arc is a great idea for testing out a campaign idea.

Even though I do a lot of improvised GMing now (or maybe because of it) I find it easier to break campaigns down into related blocks of sessions. So I will plan the basic plot out by writing a one page set of notes like the ones below.

Sessions 1-3: Zombies Attack
1 – Initial attack. Players should learn how the zombies fight, weaknesses, and any other zombie rules.
2 – Players learn that the whole city is overrun with zombies. Learn of the military’s barricade at the edge of town.
3 – Players need to reach the barricade and find a way across. Hints (premonitions if PCs have psychic abilities) of the city being leveled by some sort of bomb.

Now I know where the story is going for that block of three sessions. Based on what the players do in the actual game I can tweak it as needed. When those three sessions are up I can asess what the focus of the next block of sessions will be based on what the players had an interest in.

#3 Comment By brcarl On September 21, 2007 @ 7:04 am

I understand with the principle of “kill a non-great campaign before it wastes time,” but I think for many groups (like mine), we’re better off playing a mediocre campaign than the next alternative: nothing at all.

I know a lot of the readers here are much more hard-core and dedicated than our group, so for folks like that I can see the advantage of making a fish-or-cut-bait decision early.

For my group of middle-aged, married-with-kids dads, the game is just as much of an excuse to get away as it is a chance to do some fun RPGing. I’ve just considered the thought, but I would venture that our wives would be somehow less likely to condone our bi-weekly sessions if we were “just playing cards.”

The real clincher for us, though, is the lack of DMing availability. Only a couple of us have both the time and desire to set up and run campaigns. Most of the guys just want to show up and have fun for a few hours. Oddly they’re all very good and demanding role-players, but outside of the session there’s just not much there. I guess it’s because of our busy lives In The Real World.

Otherwise, I think this article makes many good points. Over and over I see encouragement to “keep prep low/small” so as not to waste effort. As a corollary, if you have the time and drive to design a bunch of stuff that might not get used in your current campaign, try to keep from making it so specific that you can’t retool it for another campaign down the road.

#4 Comment By James Jeffers On September 21, 2007 @ 8:02 am

For me, anything less than coming out of a game with that feeling like “I can’t wait to play again!” is not a great game. I don’t need 4 sessions, I need about an hour, maybe less.

I hate senseless, arbitrary mission-mode games. I hate it when the DM/GM/whatever tries to ignore player flags. I especially get nervous when I see the 15,000 word character backgrounds.

So, when I sense a game is not going to live up to better expectations, I won’t hesitate to back out or shut it down. This includes games that I’ve promoted and run. After 1 session I can sense if the players are “into it”.

Words be damned, too. I look at their body language and their energy level. Are they buzzing for more? Are they leaning forward, all cranked up on the possibilities? Are they still hooting and hollering, and licking their knives? Or are they merely satisfied that they weren’t at home that night? If they want to be out of the house, they can go bowling. Me, I want more.

Aim high, amigos.

#5 Comment By James Jeffers On September 21, 2007 @ 8:13 am

Quickly, I also wanted to comment on brcarl’s comment: “I understand with the principle of “kill a non-great campaign before it wastes time,” but I think for many groups (like mine), we’re better off playing a mediocre campaign than the next alternative: nothing at all.”

I used to also feel this way. I’d rather put up with crappy (from my perspective) play, then not actually play at all.

I believed that until I realized the low quality of the games made we wonder each night: “Why am I here?”

It was also adversely affecting my relationship with friends. At that point, I knew I had to withdraw. Either the way were playing had to change or what were playing had to change. They were unwilling to do either. So, to be fair to them and myself, I decided to stop.

It’s been a very long time I have been to a regular “game night.” I’m extremely picky about how and who I throw dice with. But I think my time is valuable and it should be spent in the best possible way. YMMV.

#6 Comment By Frost On September 21, 2007 @ 8:45 am

While I agree that playing in a campaign that isn’t great isn’t, well…great, I don’t think it needs to be killed. I’ve salvaged many a campaign by simply changing the direction it was headed.

I know that not every campaign idea I pitch at my players is going to be a home run, and I’m OK with that

#7 Comment By Bento On September 21, 2007 @ 9:42 am

I rate my current game a six out of ten, but as its my first time with a new group, that’s fine. I’m getting to know what they like and don’t like, but I’m afraid they like combat-heavy adventures I’m not that crazy about.

When I’ve run social-focused encounters they pick at it like a kid with brussel sprouts, but when I serve tactical encounters they wolf it down and ask for more! Several of the players have built combat juggernauts with Charisma and Wisdom as their dump stats. Problem is I stink at tactics (or they are really good).

When my current adventure is over in a few sessions, the players will rate this game higher than I would. I’m thinking of using this to my advantage and running a war-based game next.

#8 Comment By John Arcadian On September 21, 2007 @ 9:48 am

Definitely a good article. I’m not sure that a campaign that isn’t great is necessarily failing, but a lot of the advice about not over investing yourself is great. I think something that we have to remember is that a Game Master is still a player in the game. A player with different responsibilities though. If you don’t think of yourself as the head of the game setting it up, but as a player who helps everyone tell the story and has more control over some areas, then you kind of slip into a different gaming style a little more easily.

#9 Comment By Frank Filz On September 21, 2007 @ 10:54 am

I definitely agree with the points in this article. When I think about my past gaming, for the most part, I have either killed a campaign as “not fun” within a few sessions, or the campaign has lasted at least 6 months. Once or twice I have dragged a dead campaign on for a few more sessions. I’ve also ran lots of “demo” or “one-shot” sessions to try out new games (one, Fantasy Hero launched into a full blown campaign). The fact that I have been doing this for pretty much all of my gaming career is why I have tangled with some of the folks who talk about lots of gamers continuing to play in unfun games.

Now I will grant that there may be occaisional reasons to keep playing an unfun game. Perhaps the social atmosphere is worth it. Or perhaps you feel obligated to stick it out until the current module or story arc is completed. But mostly, if you keep playing past those first few sessions of unfun (campaigns can also be steaming along just fine, and then something happens and the game becomes unfun), you’re really just cheating yourself.

Sometimes an unfunc campaign can be salvaged. If it’s just unfun for one or two players, a change of character may be all that is required. Or perhaps a chat with the GM (or even the whole group). Sometimes a player who is not having fun just has to drop out. Sometimes you have to kick out that one unfun player. But these situations are easily differentiated from a completely unfun campaign.

And James definitely has the right of it, look at body language. Look at energy level. Look at how often players are distracted by out of game conversations, TVs, video games, books, etc.


#10 Comment By Colossus On September 22, 2007 @ 5:53 pm

I take this one step further, as I not only DM, but I also create games & game systems.

I think these tips are great, for game creators & DMs in general. I, like many, have put weeks of effort into games that flopped within days.

One thing I recommend is keeping a portfolio on hand. NPC/Organizational/Political concepts that are easily portable between worlds, as well as rulesets or concepts.

This relates to the point of not overinvesting – if you’re the type to create a hundred NPCs, leaving details open means that if your campaign flops like a pancake, you can draw from those NPCs in the future.

Suffer enough flops & wasted effort, and you learn to keep your effort portable. If the High Fantasy campaign flops on session 3, then maybe you can make some changes and turn the thieves guild into space pirates for your next campaign.

#11 Comment By Martin On September 26, 2007 @ 8:50 am

(James Jeffers) I don’t need 4 sessions, I need about an hour, maybe less.

I fall somewhere between you and brcarl: I’ve tossed campaigns early for good reasons (and bad ones), but my group is also getting older and therefore changing the way we play. It’s a tough balance to strike, but I can definitely see where you’re coming from.

On the flipside, have you ever chucked a game after an hour and regretted it? I’ve found that with campaigns, first impressions aren’t always accurate.

#12 Comment By Erik On October 9, 2007 @ 10:34 am

The first part of this article about the one out of three games flying really reflect my own experience of GM’ing. Though I have never ended a campaign early on, mainly because I have found gaming to, at times, be a very subjective enterprise. I’ve had games as GM where I thought every thing went terribly and then the players turn around and say they loved that session, and vice versa.