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When a Campaign Drifts, Return to Dock

Have you ever started running a campaign and discovered that, for one reason or another, it’s no longer the game you wanted it to be?

I’m not talking about games that your players take in unexpected directions — those rock. I’m thinking of the ones that somehow drift into bad territory, becoming boring, disappointing your players or otherwise not living up to expectations.

I’ve run at least two: one that veered off course after a few sessions, but was still fairly fun (and ended due to out-of-game considerations), and one that died after the first session due to my own mistakes (it was awful).

What they had in common, though, was that both of them could have been salvaged — if I’d only put on my pink shirt [1], sat down with my players and said, “You know, this isn’t turning out so well — and it’s my fault. I’d like to go back to what I thought would make this an awesome game, and give it another shot. If it’s still no good, we’ll call it — but if you’re up for another session or two, I’d like to see if I can pull it out.”

The boat was adrift, but I’m sure I could have brought it back to the dock — and even if that still didn’t do the trick, at least I would have tried. Based on my experience, the moral of the story is not to give up on games that go astray. See what your players think, listen to suggestions if they provide them, do a little brainstorming about how to start rocking again, and get to it.

And if you need a hand, don’t hesitate to stop by our GMing forums [2] — we’ll be happy to help.

(I got back from GenCon last night — details to follow! I’ve got a lot of catching up to do, so I may not be around much today. TT should be back to normal tomorrow. — Martin

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#1 Comment By gospog On August 20, 2007 @ 5:36 am

“If it’s still no good, we’ll call it — but if you’re up for another session or two, I’d like to see if I can pull it out.”

If I may offer an alternate way to phrase this:
“I’d like to see if WE can pull it out.”

It’s not a crime to ask for help, even for the GM. If the game is going well, it’s easy to congratulate the group. But when a game goes bad, it’s all too easy to heap the lion’s share of blame on the GM.

RPGs are a team sport. 😉


#2 Comment By John Arcadian On August 20, 2007 @ 6:58 am

My current game is drifting like this due to an influx of players and other commitments for time. I’m trying to run a fairly tight fantasy military theme game. Kind of like the A-team/special ops in the warring states era. It went pretty good for a while, but there are problems with players attitudes towards it, issues with having too many people in the group, and issues with time commitments. It has kind of morphed to a different type of game, still fun but not what I was aiming for.

My solution is to split the group based on who wants what from the game. Some of the players are more interested in following the story and keeping to the theme that we set out in the social contract. Others are just interested in dungeon crawl, chaos filled, being the heroes/anti-heroes type of fun. Since I want to preserve what we originally set out to do I am going to get the key players in their own group, and then start up another whenever we have free whoever shows up plays gaming night that is just for having fun for the other group.

#3 Comment By stupidranger On August 20, 2007 @ 7:52 pm

Not only is it hard to be the DM in a drifted campaign, it’s hard to be a player. I’ve been involved in one campaign that drifted; we were all lost and confused and did not understand what goal we were trying to achieve. Fortunately, our DM realized the trouble and we ended things on a good note.

I think the important thing is to remember that just because the campaign didn’t turn out the way you wanted, it doesn’t mean it was a bad story line.

#4 Comment By Martin On August 21, 2007 @ 7:21 am

gospog: Good point — rescuing a drifting campaign is definitely a team effort. I guess what I was going for is that if I as the GM feel I screwed something up to set it adrift, it’s primarily my responsibility to get it back on course.

John: That sounds like a good solution — you’re lucky to have a large enough group to make it viable.

stupidranger: Another takeaway, at least for me, is that just because a campaign drifts, that doesn’t mean you’re a bad GM.