We live in blessed times. There are almost endless games we can partake in, but we certainly are not gifted with endless time. When you factor in actually getting a group together by finding a host, coordinating schedules, arranging a GM, and, ultimately, settling on a game to play, it’s a daunting prospect to be able to sit down and enjoy an RPG. Once you throw in personal tastes for games, finding that “just right” game gets even more difficult.
I know I suffer from the “Oooh, Shiny Syndrome” (OSS from here on out). Others out there do as well, including some folks in one of my RPG groups. Looking around the shelves in my office, I have at least half a dozen games sitting there (*cough* collecting dust *cough*) that I’ve never played. Scanning my collection of purchased PDFs, that number easily grows to thirty (probably more). That’s just core books. This isn’t counting adventures, modules, world books, books of new races/classes/equipment/etc., and other splat books. I’m pretty sure I’m at well over 300 books/PDFs that I’ve purchased over the years that I’ve never brought to the table.
Sure, I’ve read the material. Sometimes I give them a quick skim. Sometimes it’s a more industrious read through. Even though I may have not pulled the raw material into a game session, I’m certain that some nuggets of golden RPG goodness have lodged in my brain and influenced how I’ve run a game or played a character.
Despite having all of this material readily at my fingertips, I’d love to be able to engross myself (either as player or GM) into a wonderful, multi-year campaign with huge character arcs, story events, changes to the world, and fantastic adventures. This typically means one game, one system, (hopefully) one character, and a single world that is the core of the adventure. Because of this, I have to avoid OSS. I also have to get my fellow gamers to avoid OSS. With a new core book hitting the shelf (virtual or physical at the FLGS) pretty much every week, this is increasingly difficult.
OSS can be a great thing because of the never ending exposure to new ideas, new concepts, new themes, and mind-bending play styles. These are all wonderful, but given the scratch that I currently need to itch (a long-term game), I need to squash OSS in myself and others.
There are several causes of OSS, so let’s talk about those and how to reduce the chances of OSS ruining a perfectly good campaign or series of sessions. Usually, when a group (or GM) rapidly flops between systems, it’s because they’re searching for something that’ll make them happy. Unfortunately, these quick changes mean they haven’t found the “just right thing” yet, and this can lead to players becoming disgruntled at having to learn (or even run out and buy) a new system twice a month. Let’s talk about how to keep people happy, shall we?
Game Master Burnout
When a GM hits the brakes on a campaign, setting, or game system, this can lead to a new system being whipped out and OSS rears its ugly head. This isn’t usually because the game system runs poorly (though that’s a valid reason), but because the GM has burned out, run out of pertinent ideas, or just needs a mental break. That’s completely fair. To help the GM avoid burnout, I recommend setting things up from the start with a co-GM. I have a full articleÂ on how to approach this.
If running a campaign with a co-GM isn’t in the books, then let the GM know that it’s perfectly acceptable to “take a week off” from the usual RPG and someone else can run a one-shot (preferably using the same system to avoid triggering OSS). It’s also okay to whip out some of those rarely-played board games we all seem to collect and love, but hardly play. Because most board games don’t do “campaign style” gaming, this can be a great distraction and a break for the GM to allow them to refill their well of creative energies.
Just like with GMs, the players can burnout on their character. Perhaps they’re tired of being the archer in the back, or are tired of being the “healing vending machine” or just want to do something different. When the players get disgruntled with the game and it’s not because of an adversarial GMÂ or other issue, then they could just be bored with their characters. There are a few options to shaking things up.
Allowing some, if not all, of the players to roll up side-arc characters that are still related to the main story arc is a good change of pace. There can even be some prep work done here by the whole group where they have lower level (or even higher level) characters sitting in the wings, ready to be played, for when it’s time for their story to trigger. If you do this, I’d advise that the “main group” and “alt group” have strong ties to one another.
This piece of advice is a bit risky, but changing up the characters’ equipment can be done to shift the power levels around. This can be done via a carefully placed artifact or two, but I’ve also seen it expertly done where a major item within the group goes missing, is stolen, somehow falls into the hands of the arch enemy, etc.. This cranks up the motivation for the players as a group to fetch (or quest to replace) the item and return the status quo. I’ve also dropped the especially nasty Mordenkainen’s Disjunction (also called Mage’ Disjunction in non-WotC material) on higher level groups to effectively scramble their equipment and power level. This could have easily backfired with upset players, but instead, they went on a rage-fueled rampage against the sorry fellow that dropped the spell on them. Fresh motivations for the characters can lead to renewed interest by the players.
Co-Build the World
If you get the players invested in the world from the get go, this can help keep their interest levels high. Same thing with the GM. Instead of whipping out Faerun, Krynn, Athas, Golarian, or any other number of existing worlds, create a world (or part of a world) in an interactive session between the GM and players. With ideas sprinkled in by everyone involved, they come to care about the world and NPCs and locations because they helped create them.
I actually call this “session negative one” because the act of creating the world should come before “session zero” where the players’ characters are created. In Session -1, the GM comes to the table with some ideas and guidelines for the creation and then it becomes like a typical Hollywood writers’ room where every idea is at least considered and discussed before addition or rejection. This is a powerful session, but it can take quite some time. I highly recommend setting aside 5-6 hours (with a few breaks in there) for creating the rough sketch of the world.
If you need some pointers on world building, I have this article, and Matt has a great collaborative world building article.
Identifying the Itch and Using the Right Scratch
As I mentioned above, sometimes OSS can come as a result of having an itch to scratch, but you don’t quite know what it is. This can lead to jumping between systems while looking for the one that tries to scratch that itch. Fortunately, a little introspection and drilling down into what you want can help prevent OSS. Here’s an example:
The GM in my weekly group wanted something “epic,” so he picked Traveller. He pictured epic space battles, running fights with blasters, and other fantastic space opera goodness. Unfortunately, our characters (through the randomness of character generation) didn’t quite land enough cash or ship-shares to get to do any of that. There were also a few missteps here and there that led to a “blah” type game which led to the campaign that lasted a single session.
Up next, he drilled down a little bit and found that what he really wanted was to tell some heroic stories, preferably in the high fantasy genre. I proposed my home brew fantasy RPG with some tweaks to up the magic content. Ultimately, that was turned down because, at its heart, my fantasy RPG is a bit more crunchy than the player was comfortable with. That’s a fair assessment.
He, in turn, proposed we play Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea because he felt that would give us the feel we wanted from the game. The result? I don’t know yet. Our session zero for the game is (in theory) happening tomorrow night as this article is being published. We’ll see how it goes.
Total Party Kill
Need I say more? Sometimes a GM, situation, crazy dice, poor decisions, or a deadly system can lead to a total party kill. This is a bummer. Probably one of the biggest bummers unless the TPK was truly epic in scale. This can lead to the players (and sometimes the GM) becoming disgruntled with the system. Perhaps their dislike of the system is completely valid because the game system is too lethal. I’ve seen that. Most experienced gamers have.
Before a TPK runs headlong into another case of OSS, make sure it’s the system that caused the event, not something else. Perhaps some “mock battles” should be run to test the waters on if the game mechanics truly are that dangerous. If this is the case, and it doesn’t jive with the group’s style of gaming, then perhaps it’s time for a new system.
How Do You Avoid OSS?
Now that I’ve rambled on for about 1600 words, I’d love to know how you identify OSS and how you avoid it. Alternately, do you avoid it at all? Does your group embrace OSS to get a taste of different gaming from different systems? That’s perfectly fair. I’m interested to know what folks do with (or about) OSS out there. Let us Gnomes know!
This article feels weirdly like it is a bunch of good advice about resisting burnout disguised as alleged reasons/ways to avoid OSS?
I mean, very fundamentally, there is nothing incompatible about buying a bunch of new games and playing a long term game in one system. All you have to do is focus on one game, right?
You don’t have to exclusively play one game to go in depth. I mean, there was a while in the mid-200Xs when I was a player in a d20 Star Wars campaign, a player in a homebrew diceless Star Wars PBeM (which died too soon, alas, but because PBeMs take a fantastic amount of time to run, not because anyone was tired of it), and running my own diceless Star Wars campaign with a completely different set of homebrew rules. (Plus going to gaming cons where there was no Star Wars gaming going on.) The different games didn’t detract from each other in any way except time.
Of course, now that I’m a parent, I have basically no time to game… that’s the big obstacle stopping me from getting deeply into a wonderful campaign. (Well, I am deeply into a wonderful PBeM! But that’s so slow…)
Okay, so the hilarious two months later follow on to this comment is that in June, my 9yo demanded I run him a Star Wars d20 campaign. So now child care and gaming are combined instead of fighting against each other!
Of course, I’m scrambling to figure how to run a d20 style game, because I haven’t run any games of this style since, oh, 1987 or so.
Ha! To be honest, I only noticed this article because of the new episode of the Gnome Stew podcast, which is a follow-up to it.
Good luck with getting the new game up and running. I’ve never played or run either of the d20 Star Wars games. Will you be using the first one or the Saga version?
Revised edition of pre-Saga d20 game. Already had three sessions, with one other 9yo joining us after the first. They are both super-excited about it. (And I think we’re going to have a bonus session with my boy and my niece playing over the weekend, probably with all different characters.)
The nice thing about having 25+ years experience running diceless Amber is that when you’re baffled by an over abundance of rules, you’re very comfortable just winging it. 🙂
But I still really need to get a better handle on how to smoothly bring opposition I didn’t have the opportunity to write up in advance into the game. Right now I’m usually just pretending something in the back of the rulebook is something else. (“You’ve got an R5 unit? Well, that’s… umm…” reads R2 specs and pretends.)
Keep things simple. If you’re both learning the rules, start with the basics and incorporate the more subtle rules as they come up. Don’t infodump the full ruleset on both of you.
As an example: I was teaching some experienced and some fresh role players to Pathfinder. It’s well-known to be rules heavy and crunchy. Just part of the game. However, I started everyone off at 1st level and made sure they knew what their powers, abilities, feats, spells, etc. allowed them to do. I didn’t introduce the rules of flank, aid another, taking 10, taking 20, and so on until the situation came up. I also didn’t use those things (like flank) against them even if I could until they were aware of the rule. Only fair, right?
You’ll obviously need to know the rules better than your child because you’re running the game and teaching them. Just take those little bites of the rules until the whole elephant is eaten.
Good luck with the game and congrats on forming up the next generation of gamer!
PS: It’s better, especially with children, to follow the “yes, and” method of allowing actions. Check out my article on this topic for more details: https://gnomestew.com/game-mastering/gming-advice/yes-and-no-but/
Coming to this article a bit late, but one thing I’ve realized would help me avoid burnout, but possibly not OSS, is running shorter adventures that only take three it four sessions to complete. That way, you’re not stuck in the same setting it storyline for the next year or so.
One problem I have is that I’m currently running two different groups through the same campaign (Curse of Strahd). While it’s fascinating to see how differently they’re turning out, it kind of doubles down on the feeling that I’m stuck in the same thing for a long time.
One way I’ve noticed I can help to indulge in OSS is to run one-shots at local conventions. I can usually get a group together beforehand to help me playtest, too, which is nice.
However, I don’t think OSS is anything I’ll ever divest myself of. I came to roleplaying games pretty late in life, so I feel like I have to make up for lost time. For example, I always wanted to play the WEG Star Wars RPG back when it was still new, but I never found a group. Now FFG has reprinted it, and I’m itching to run it. (I also rather like FFG’s own Star Wars game, and if I could only figure out how to somehow run both at once…)
Running shorter sets of sessions to tell a complete story is certainly one adjustment to make to avoid OSS… or to embrace it! If you and your group are cool with changing things up frequently, there’s no problem with that at all. Rule #1 of all games: Have fun! Even if you’re “doing it wrong” but still having fun, then you’re definitely doing it RIGHT.
Enjoy your games!