Rambling: Shifting expectations – From one-shots to campaigns

Until we started our current D&D game my recent gaming had been orientated towards one-shots or, at most, mini-campaigns. It was only following our most recent session, that it struck me how the switch to a campaign hadn’t resulted in a proper reorientation of my mindset.

The One-Shot

By their very nature, one-shot games are constrained by time. This is especially true for convention games which typically need to fit into a four-hour time slot. Typically that will include not only the actual game but picking characters, explaining the system and introducing the scenario. The format also requires the plot to take a specific shape. Scenes need to be concise and limited to only those that are directly relevant. Characters should be clearly defined, often to the point of exaggeration, to ensure that they are both easy to pick up and are able to shine during the adventure. Even if you are running a prep-lite game you need to be on the ball, responsive and focused. Anything else and you risk going over or having to trim down the game.

The Campaign

Campaigns are the polar opposite and I had thought that shifting to one would have led to a pretty instant shift in my preparations and expectations. On the surface it did. The adventures are now spread over multiple sessions, there is more time to socialise and go over rules and with a more relaxed approach to the plot, I’ve even found that sessions can comfortably run short. We typically end up with closer to three hours of gaming than four thanks to the knowledge that we’ll be picking things up again the next week.

Well of course there’s a difference…

Most people that have read the above are probably thinking that I’m pointing out the obvious and you’d be right, I am. In shifting my point of reference though I’ve been reminded how easy it is to overlook the obvious. The structure of a one-shot vs campaign starter vs mid-campaign session are all different. But with the transition from one format to another how often have I actively thought about those different structures?

How often have I paused and reminded myself of those constraints and what they force me to leave out?

The answer to that is not enough. It’s human nature to take shortcuts, which in the case of adventure prep means going with what you have become used to. When we started The Immortals I knew every session would have a followup and started thinking about multi-session arc and plots. Yet on a session to session basis, I maintained too many approaches that are better suited to a one-shot.

Most obvious – that our first few sessions all concluded with a mini-cliffhanger. On one hand that’s great, it can help maintain engagement but on the other hand, I was found myself leaning on the one-shot beat structure session after session. We’d start by resolving the cliffhanger, rest and recover, explore the new situation and then rapidly build to another point of drama. I was forcing the pace of each session to try and ensure it ended on a high because that was what I’d become used to. I did it without thinking, even though I knew I had time to spare. Even though I knew that we could end on a low or with the characters in the middle of something.

All because I had assumed I would automatically switch my habits back to approaches I’d learned when I was running regular campaigns.

Going forward its clear that I need to pause and reflect more often, not just on the big picture but on the fine details. I’m fairly confident that overall I run a good game but I don’t want to just run a good game, I want to run an amazing one. I’ve got a table full of new players and I want them to come out of the campaign wanting more. I want them to love this hobby as much as I do and that’s not going to happen if I just rely on past experience.

Note: Ok, so this post got away from me and just wouldn’t come together the way I wanted it to. Normally I’d work on it a bit more but the more I do the less I feel like it is going to go anywhere. So here it is, just some rambling thoughts that I hope make at least some sense.

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Your sandbox sucks

Most sandbox games suck. Why? Because all too often the idea of player led, follow what interests you type campaign leads to complacency on behalf of both the GM and the players. GMs feel like because the plot is in the hands of the players they can’t do any prep while players… well players rarely know what motivates them. So the game lurches from one random encounter or fetch quest to another, never adding any depth to the world until the campaign dies from a severe case of the blahs.

I say this from experience. I’ve attempted to run games that have fallen foul of it and I’ve seen it happen almost every time somebody suggests a sandbox. It even happens in video games. For example Skyrim, one of the best-selling open world games ever sucked.

Why?

Because its world was shallow and unconnected. Major quests had almost zero impact on the wider world while the procedurally generated quests made it seem like you might end up being sent to each and every mound of grass to fight the ghost/skeleton/cultist/bear that had stolen the favourite spoon of meaningless NPC #1,234,799. You could be the archmage in one town but a peasant in the next. Plot threads by the dozen but never weaved together into something more.

And because it was open world if you decided not to stop pursuing a quest part way through it would just sit there. Waiting. Tired of the civil war? We’ll just go away for now. Bored of dragons? They’ll wait to complete their plans while you go and explore another loot filled cave just outside town that somehow nobody knew about.

Now apply that to a tabletop RPG. But with even less depth because the GM didn’t want to force their plot on the players so hasn’t added any detail to the world.

It should be the opposite.

If you’re running a sandbox then you need to know so much more about the world or be able to wing it. You need factions and NPCs galore that all have their own motivations and goals before the PCs are even on the scene. Plot hooks should be abundant, to provide PCs more options than they could possibly deal with and when they resolve one then there should be consequences for leaving the others hanging. Take out the gang harassing the neighbourhood? Fantastic, except now little Jimmy’s cough has put left him six feet under because you didn’t get him the medicine he needed in time.

As for the PCs well they should be just as detailed as the world. They need lives and families, wants and needs if they’re going to have some real motivations. They should know why they’re in the world and what’s driving them and it should be established in collaboration with the GM so that they don’t exist in a vacuum.

Do what you want is meaningless if you don’t want for anything.

Engaging from the start…

I ran my first session of D&D 5e this week and despite my issues with the d20 system in general I think my response on twitter summed up the experience:

Why did it feel so good to get back to the role of GM? Partially because I have always preferred it to being a player. I like the role of setting up scenes and watching them play out. I like having to gauge the impact of PC actions on the bigger picture. Most of all I like seeing the response of players as they realise what is going on or come up with a solution I couldn’t have foreseen (as the Happyjacks hosts are fond of saying the GM should create problems, not solutions).

The other reason it felt so good was that I went in with a plan to engage the players and I feel like it worked. I was GMing in what is best described as a community campaign akin to the Adventurers League. There’s a pool of players and GMs but each session will see a different combination of them come together. The big difference though is that there are no parallel sessions of the same adventure. Every session is a unique and self-contained standalone adventure set within the wider campaign world. The starting point for any adventure is the players, they state what their character is investigating or up to and then put a group together.

It’s not the easiest way of doing things. Individual sessions can be a little disjointed with only loose tie-ins to those that came before. For this, my first session, I had to prep an adventure based on brief summaries from one player and the previous GM. Not the easiest of asks, even for an experienced GM. It also had to engage the players in such a way that they would want to follow up on it, to generate enough interest in the events that it could become a plot in its own right.

This meant having a plan – introducing a new faction that could make an immediate impact and that had the potential for being a long-term threat. So in came a heretical cult within the ranks of Lathander that place particular importance on the divide between day and night, for the sun can only rise if it has first set. To establish their importance I put the party in position to witness (and ultimately disrupt) a ritual that had taken place hundreds of years before. It explained why nobody had ever heard of the cult and presented a clear threat to the established status quo in the present.

For me, as the GM, it also presented a way to engage long term with the wider setting as I’ll be able to build up the details of the threat over multiple sessions if and when the players engage with it. Given one of them is already planning a follow-up I’d count it as a success.

RPGaDay August 25th

25th) What is the best way to thank your GM?

Beyond just saying ‘hey I’m really enjoying the game, thanks for running it’ I can think of a few ways. But that really is the best approach.

So what are those other ways?

Well the biggest is simply to be engaged. I can’t speak for other GMs but personally I spent a lot of time on games outside of sessions. Prepping characters, going over notes, working out where the plot might be going (especially as I find I need to regularly adjust my expectations based on player actions). Some of this will be actual hands on, dedicated time while some of it will be idle speculation during odd moments of free time. All together it adds up, I’d estimate that each hour of game time will correspond to an hour of prep. At a minimum.

That’s a lot of engagement with the game, far more than I’d ever ask of the players. What I do appreciate though are players that engage during the session, it makes me feel like all that time was worth it and is appreciated. There are lots of ways you can engage with the game, for example:

Actively engage with the plot, give me an idea of where you want it to go.
Set aside the time to game. If you’re regularly flaking out at the last minute then you’re wasting my time. Flakey gamers are something that really pisses me off. Gaming is an important part of my mental health so it matters to me when you disrupt that.
Make an effort to learn the rules. I don’t expect mastery but I appreciate not having to explain the basic mechanics for the umpteenth time.
Know what your character is capable of. As the GM I’ve got to keep track of a lot of aspects, if you know your PCs abilities it’s one less thing I have to keep in my head.

RPGaDay August 18th

Demon Hunters18th) Which RPG have you played the most in your life?

In terms of total hours it would have to be Torg, I was in a long campaign of it and have run a couple of campaigns of it. Total play time would be around a year and a half of weekly sessions and GMing time would be similar. While I love the setting I’ve slowly drifted away from liking the rules, they are very much a product of their time (early 90’s) which is why I’m stoked for Torg Eternity. The update looks like it has succeeded in keeping the feel of the game while also introducing a more modern approach to many of the mechanics.

As for the one that I just keep going back to then it has to be Demon Hunters from Dead Gentlemen Productions. Again, there has been a new edition recently and while I’ve not played it as much as I’d like it does lean itself more towards my current mechanical inclinations. I can pick up that game with essentially zero notice and throw something together there and then. Plus it is just pure, unadulterated chaotic fun. Perfect for both one shots and a series of short adventures.

RPGaDay August 13th

13th) Describe a game experience that changed how you play.

I actually have a few examples for this one but I want to focus on one, which served to codify my opinions on running convention games. The UK Student Nationals is a convention that brings together student societies from across the country for a mix of RPGs, wargames, LARP and boardgames. I went a number of times but one in particular sticks in my head for how bad one of the games was.

The convention works in that you pick categories then play two long games, one each day with the same group but different GMs. You never quite know what you’re getting, the particular year in question I’d signed up for scifi and the Saturday game was a bit of a disaster. Not horror story dickish GM disaster but a sequence of small errors that just compounded one another. The game was close to six hours long, under half way through I was building dice towers and the only reason I didn’t walk out was because I was going to be playing with the same people the very next day.

The signs were there from the start, the GM was late (not too unusual given the combo of students and drinking) and hadn’t finished the character sheets. Not one. So there went 15-20 minutes as he filled in the missing details. In the end my character turned out to be a smuggler / con-artist, with 20+ skills to his name (the game was in Hero system, I’ve no idea if this many skills was normal).

The opening to the game wasn’t much better. We were on a space station (yay) in the middle of some galactic civil war but none of us knew each other (boo). There’s bombing and we all get rounded up as suspects. Ok I think, maybe this is the central plot, that we’re all innocent and have to escape so we can prove that fact. Nope, we’re quickly cleared of the charges and then asked to work together as security for a delegation aiming to negotiate a truce.

Seriously?

So we head off on this space ship as the security team, a group of characters that don’t know one another and who were recently suspects in a major attack. Then there’s a murder, a threat from an emerging AI and an attack by a splinter group who have embedded themselves in the ships crew. A trainwreck, but a couple of things quickly become clear. The first is that both the characters and the adventure were based on a previous campaign the GM had run and the second is that only one of the characters was going to be central to the plot, the rest of us were just along for the ride.

The real kicker though? From that long list of skills I used only three or four. Total. In around 6 hours of play.

That game really changed how I looked at convention play and the extra responsibilities GMs have when running games. One of these days I might write out the mental checklist I’ve put together for convention games, the aspects that I personally think are important.

Suffice to say that was the last time I played at the Nationals. Every subsequent year I attended I did so as a GM, fully prepped and determined to run as good a game as I could.

RPGaDay 2017 7th August

7th) What was your most impactful RPG session?

Once again another difficult question to answer as while I can think of numerous impactful games many of those came from looking back after a campaign and seeing how the story arcs had come together. I could mention my first campaign of Torg which saw my bitter ex-cop descend into darkness to become the very thing that had broken him in the first place. Or I could talk about the excellent Smallville campaign by Stephen of Step into RPGs where my ordinary, boring and completely un-powered sidekick character ended up having to step up because those who should have been saving the day were too distracted with their own messy relationships (seriously, Smallville is amazing and such an underrated system). Or I might discuss my introduction to Legend of the Five Rings where my samurai went from having everything he could have dreamed of to a tragic tale worthy of the pillow books of Rokugan.

But those are campaigns and the question was session. Which goes to a game where I was GM rather than players. A Demon Hunters adventure where the players decided to metaphorically turn left instead of right. We hadn’t even started the adventure but were in what was the transition period from the previous mission. One PC was recuperating, having recently been turned into a vampire. The rest decided they wanted to get flowers for her and being a rookie GM I made an offhand comment that that section of the Warehouse (an interdimensional essentially infinite storage space) had been declared off limits for some reason or another. I’d been trying to redirect them back to the job at hand (I’d yet to come across the idea of “Yes and…”), instead they ventured off into the unknown assuming the comment was a plot hook.

We’d not even started the adventure and they’d already managed to break it. I was flummoxed. I could handle players getting creative in solving puzzles or side stepping encounters but bypassing the entire adventure? That was new and from the look on my face they knew how much they’d thrown me.

So I did the only thing that was fair, I literally screwed up my notes, admitted how much they’d evaded my prep and called a 10 minute beer break. Looking back I can’t remember the details of what I’d planned but I can tell you that the adventure we ended up with was far more creative and entertaining. It eventually led to the Chapter imploding in on itself with the vampire PC giving in to her hunger for blood and turning not one but two of the other characters after having been attacked. We ended on an epic fade out with the Chapter fighting amongst themselves in a grand library while trying to rules lawyer their way out of a Demonic contract.

It was amazing and taught me a lot of vital lessons about GMing.