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 article 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 GM 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.
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!