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No More Average Campaigns

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?

14 Comments (Open | Close)

14 Comments To "No More Average Campaigns"

#1 Comment By netlich On March 30, 2012 @ 4:21 am

heh…I agree with you and then I also disagree.

I understand you. I get the feeling. I am having it no with my campaign I was really psyched for and yet does not want to get off the ground.

But here are my comments:

a) Do not let Elhal overshadow your next attempts. You should not try to compare them with it. Like you do not compare your girlfriends with your first love…Big recipe for disaster. Each one should have its own up and downs but if for everyone you find yourself saying “is it my next Elhal” maybe subconsciously you will not allow your self that DM inspirational mode, that creativity that comes naturally to us and takes a carefully thought out and planned encounter and gives it that OOMPH that makes players go mad at the table.

b) Always look to the other factors (which you probably have form what I gather form your writings but it is not explicitly written here). Real Life has a tendency to affect these things. Make sure you identify a dry spell of non-commitment to the campaign because of external factors because that may mean that as soon as the external factor is overcome or ignored the campaign will pick up again.

c) The same as b) but for your players. Not sure if you have the same people over and over but there are times where you have to evaluate them too. My original group of 25 years is now disbanded, we mainly reminiscent of our great campaigns and might get together for a quickie or they might show up for guest appearances in my new groups but for now they are not in the mindset for dedicated campaigns.

Other than that I totally agree with you. And I do not blame you for dropping an “average” campaign to try your hands at making an other epic.

#2 Comment By DNAphil On March 30, 2012 @ 6:43 am

@netlich Thanks for the comments.

Its hard to not look for those characteristics that made Elhal great in the game you are playing. Understanding that they can never be another Elhal, I have found the characteristics I want in a game, and it is those characteristics that I am looking for.

RL is always a challenge, which I why my main indicator for how a game is going is the response at the table. If the game is engaging enough, then for a few hours everyone will forget RL and the game will be the focus. If the game can’t overcome that (in general) then I am worried about it.

In setting up my new Corporation campaign, I asked people what they wanted to get out of the game at the table and away from the table, and got a range of answers from those that want to do some stuff between games to those that dont have the time. So this time around, I am going to work with each player at some level to help deliver what they want from the game, and not use a one-size-fits-all approach.

Thanks again for the comment.

#3 Comment By hattymchappy On March 30, 2012 @ 7:02 am

Unfortunately my Elhal was as a player in my first ever RPG playing experience. It was a Ptolus campaign that I played in 6 years ago. It was a weekly game and everyone involved was always excited about the next session.

I started GMing myself shortly after the Ptolus campaign ended. Our group has had lots of fun since Ptolus, but nothing has ever come close to that campaign.

As far as average games go, we try our best to turn them around to good ones. Only on rare occasions have we ended a game because it sucked. Maybe we’re just more tolerant of average games, though. Who knows.

#4 Comment By 77IM On March 30, 2012 @ 9:45 am

“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.”

I’m curious whether this was true during Elhal, as well? Real Life stresses and pacing issues can dramatically affect a gaming group; I wonder if at least part of the magic of Elhal was extrinsic.

#5 Comment By DNAphil On March 30, 2012 @ 10:30 am

@77IM – For Elhal we started every 2 weeks but then moved to every 3, after my first child was born. What we did have in Elhal that helped, and is not as possible any more, was that we had a pretty extensive Email flurry going between games. All of us were in a place where we could email frequently (at work and at home). That helped in bridging the gap between sessions.

#6 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On March 30, 2012 @ 10:42 am

Let me ask this:
How much of a factor for the success of Ehlal was the connection between mechanics and setting? Was Iron Heroes — d20 fighters against a cruel world — a perfect match?
Is it possible All for One needed a better match from the rules? Had you considered converting the game to another system in an attempt to salvage the story?
The reason I ask: At the time IH was new. It was a fresh — if sometimes daunting adaption of the d20 rules. Was it possible that part of the love of Elhal was the “freshness” of the rules, that a new ruleset gave you and the players a sense of “discovery” of the rules? I think we all have fond memories of our earliest games — and I think much of that is because the game was fresh and new, and the sense of discovery was very much there.

#7 Comment By clight101 On March 31, 2012 @ 11:34 am

I’ve been having a similar problem. I have a campaign that is still on going, 3+ years now, and we have a great time playing it but two of the players moved about a 3 hour drive away. We only get together about once ever couple of months to play. It’s still great but I run other games for other groups these days too and always seem to be comparing it to this game.

I’ve had a couple of flop games. A bi weekly Dresden Files game that was fun but didn’t have the spark. A once a monthish Eberron game I put a ton of work into but just isn’t working, and a Temple of Elemental Evil campaign I run weekly on Thursday nights.

The most enjoyable game by far is the Thursday night game. It’s got that spark at the table where all the players are invested, chatting, engaged in the story, and having a blast. A couple of times I was having a rough day at work and wasn’t feeling like GMing but after the session started I just got energized and afterwards felt great. Maybe it was that GMing high this site talked about not to long ago. I still can’t figure out why this game is going so much better than some of my others. In any case I’m sure you’ll get a game going where it will resonate with as much enjoyment as your Elhal game. Good GM’s always find their whale.

#8 Comment By XonImmortal On March 31, 2012 @ 12:25 pm

If you can’t sum up the driving force behind the setting, in a compelling way, then it’s only going to be average (at best). Here’s some examples:

“Kergammon had a Golden Age, where magic and technology combined in wondrous ways… and the day the magic fell out of the sky, forever fractured, that Age was lost. All through the trials and tribulations, the people of Kergammon look back to that age for inspiration, and forward with optimism.”


“Gianquen has never had a Golden Age. The non-human/non-elven races pulled themselves up by sheer tenacity, yes, but every step forward has been marred by the looming spectre of slavery. Elven politics and human aggression threaten the meager freedoms the other races have secured for themselves. They march grimly into the future, like prisoners heading for the gallows.”

Look for the unique, make it strange, and revel in it. Players don’t want the same old world, they want something new and exciting to explore.

#9 Comment By Patrick Benson On March 31, 2012 @ 2:54 pm

I love this article! Just wanted to say that. 🙂

#10 Comment By John Robey On April 1, 2012 @ 9:39 am

Just a heads-up, I really enjoyed this piece and referenced it in a recent blog entry of my own. Thanks! Good luck with your campaign.

#11 Comment By Razputin On April 3, 2012 @ 4:26 am

I have to start commenting here… I love reading Gnome Stew! Incredibly useful for a starting GM like myself.
My greatest game was my very first as a player. It ran 7 years using my dads homemade system, and it was incredible. We played once a month or so for a long, long time and every weekend we played was a blast.

Sadly the campaign came to an end, granted it was at a fitting end. But because I was out in the middle of nowhere finding gamers was hard so I was unable to game for several years. Moved to a big city and met my new friends, we have played several campaigns after the initial, yet not one has had the same magic as my dad game.

So in my first game all the characters already feel like the remakes just under a different veil. One player is always a snarky, sneaky jerk concerned for himself. The other is always a timid, fleshy nerd/mage/druid. I have only one player who changes between his toons… And there feels like NO character development.

I WANT this game to be a blast for them as well as me.
So I’m still looking for MY created Elhal.

#12 Comment By RoberiusRex On April 6, 2012 @ 9:46 pm

I have been dealing with this very issue lately. My players are having fun, which is the most important thing to me. But the game and the story are not up to my standards; the excitement is subpar. Most of the problem is with me – I haven’t been creating compelling stories or RP-ing opportunities lately; rather, I’ve been trying to pull the game together at the last minute. So last week I challenged myself to either give the game the love it needs, or retire it and move on to something else. It’s really encouraging to hear that I’m not alone. Thanks.

#13 Comment By Miri Daisuke ManyNamed On June 12, 2012 @ 12:16 pm

My Elhal… was forever ago. It wasn’t a tabletop game. Actually, it was a long-running RP on a kids’ site that just so hapened to have a roleplaying chat board set up for people.

It was fantasy. It started as just another random RP. It turned into a (usually) once-weekly fantasy campaign of awesome.

Sure, the characters were totally cliche, the setting just got weirder as it went on, the group was the most out-there thing ever, and the plots were ridiculous. But we had a blast.

Everyone took turns playing villains – we got through I think three arcs before it fell apart due to IRL drama. It was roughly analogous to swapping GMs, except in a shared world where the GMs were also party members.

My turn at ‘running the show’ was probably the reason I started GMing in the first place, now that I think about it, though my parents’ 80s gaming stories probably had something to do with it. aEvery time I roleplay, be it tabletop style with rules or just narrative chat RP, I remember “The Two-Year RolePlay” and the friends that shared it with me. It had ups and downs, but the ups were far more fantastic than the downs could ever have been, and it’s stuck witht he players (the few that I’ve managed to re-contact, anyway) to this day – something like five or six years later.

It was the greatest.

#14 Comment By Nathan Hicks On October 20, 2013 @ 6:31 am

My Elhal was earlier this year, and it was a Burning Wheel game called Revenge of the Countess of Fire. It initially started off very poorly and, after 4 sessions that were mostly horrendous, I called for a soft reboot of the story. The proceeding game was only 8 sessions long, but it hit a very weird level of magic 5 sessions in that I”m still having a hard time understanding. It was a very strange narrative that didn’t make sense all the way up until the end. But, after a few conversations with some of my friends, here’s what I’ve got:

1) Have an intriguing opening situation that you want your players to deal with. “Y’all find a sword and a stone. Whoever picks up the sword is controlled by whomever picks up the stone, and whoever picks up the stone hears the voice of an ancient evil known as The One in the Deep, who wants to help you get rid of all your problems…”

2) When in doubt make it personal to the player characters. What’s the point of going after the duke when you can go after one of the player characters’ parents instead?

3)When you’re no longer able to throw awesome situations at your players, STOP. Revenge of the Countess of Fire only lasted 8 sessions and, now that I look back on it, I’m so darn happy that it did. The hook was resolved, and the players agreed that we were all done. A session longer and it probably would have been ruined.

Anyway, that’s just what I’ve found from that game.