I recently killed my All For One campaign even though there was nothing seriously wrong with it. It was doing ok, but it was not doing great. Overall I would give the campaign a solid C. It was missing that spark. The spark that separates an OK game from a great game. Once I admitted that spark was not there, it was time for it to go. I don’t want to run average campaigns anymore.

Looking For Elhal In All The Wrong Places

Four years ago, I ran the best campaign I have run thus far. It was an Iron Heroes campaign set in a homebrewed world called Elhal. The campaign lasted three years, and was everything I could ever want in a fantasy campaign. Not only was I totally into this game, my players were riveted as well. When we were not at the table playing, we were always talking about it, in person and by email. It was true magic.

Since then, I’ve run a number of other campaigns – some were good, some not so good –  always looking for the next Elhal. I know it’s out there. Elhal was a great campaign, and there will be other great campaigns. There have to be, because if Elhal was the best thing I am going to run, it does not make for a promising future.

So now when I am running a campaign, there is a nagging question that hounds me, “Is this game as good as Elhal?”

Why a C is now a Failing Grade

My gaming time is short. I run my campaign once every three weeks for a 4-5 hour session. I need the downtime between games to have time to prep my game, as well as manage all my other commitments. Because of that, my gaming time is precious to me. If a campaign does not have that spark, that magical quality that was in Elhal, then I don’t want to waste my time on it.

To be fair, our group has a rule: run four sessions, and then we decide if we are going to keep going. Years ago, we decided that four sessions was a fair amount of game time to figure out if the game was fun to play and if the campaign was viable. If the game does not come together in four sessions, the group can request that the GM stop the campaign, and the search is on for another game. No hard feelings.

Pulling The Plug

My All For One game had passed the four session milestone, and everyone agreed to keep going. Around the eighth session I could tell that any vestige of Elhal was nowhere in sight. When we were at the table, the group seemed to be engaged, not fully, more casual. Outside the game, there was nothing: no chatter, no banter, no energy.

Ignoring my instincts and wanting to be patient, I doubled my efforts to get people engaged. I held hangouts on G+ to get feedback and suggestions, and worked hard to integrate them into the game. Then back to the table, and the same smiling but somewhat distant faces. Then more silence.

I think that if you looked at the table play alone, you would have agreed the campaign was average. There was laughing, there was action and drama, and people were paying attention. At the same time, there were no raised voices in excitement, no long term character plans, no in depth role playing. It was quite average.

I realized that I was putting a lot of effort into this game, and getting very little return in terms of increased player engagement and excitement. It was frustrating, and after one of our hangouts one of my players asked me, “Why do you want to run an average game, when the next game could be great?”

He was right. If I was going to invest my time to run something, why not run something great? Run a campaign that everyone is going to be excited to play. A campaign that has everyone talking between games, and dying to get back to the table to play the next session. So the next morning I killed my All For One game and announced that I was running Corporation (again).

That day, there were over 50 emails sent among the group talking about the new campaign. There were another 50 the next day…

Game Master Ahab

There will be some who will say that All For One might have turned around in another few sessions. It’s possible, but I don’t have the time anymore to rehabilitate a sick campaign. My gaming time is short, and it will be some time before things in my life change where I get more time to game. I may never get back to running a weekly game again, so I want to make the best of my gaming time.

Now I sit behind the screen looking at the faces of my players, and looking through my Inbox for emails about the game in search of a sign that this campaign could be the next Elhal. While I try to be optimistic and patient, if I don’t feel that spark, or see the signs of Elhal on the horizon, I am not afraid to put the campaign down.

My next Elhal is out there, I know it. I just have to align the right players, game, and story and it will return to me.

What about you? Have you found your Elhal? How tolerant are you to games that are only average? Do you prefer to try to rescue a troubled game, or do you put it down?