Friday, January 10, 2014

The Reject Pile

Over the years I've tried a lot of different things to make the campaigns better and while I talked about three that worked, see Make it Count for more information, I didn't say anything about what failed. So after a request from the magnificent JD - who writes the fantastic blog, the Disoriented Ranger - I decided to post a few of the more memorable failures.

My Top Five Rejects

1. The Campaign Booklet. Back in '06 I decided that I wanted to run a Dragonlance campaign as close to the second edition boxed set as I could. There was one big problem, none of my players knew anything about that version of Dragonlance. In my exhuberance to bring them into the fold and make them one of us I decided that it would be brillant to make a little booklet. My goal was five or six pages with just enough information to make their lives easier. What I ended up with was a bloated fifty page document that read like a text book only without any of the pretty pictures. Needless to say the campaign failed as there was too high of a buy in. 

2. The Background Worksheet. In the winter of '08 I was getting ready to run a new campaign for a small group of friends and got it into my head that if I wanted this campaign to really run right they had to come in with fully formed characters, whose personalities and histories mattered to them. So I made them do a worksheet with no reward other than personal satisfaction. No one ever took the time to finish it. 

3. The Obsidian Failure. In the spring of '09 I was running for a small group and decided that since I only had three players that we should create a campaign on the Obsidian Portal. I would give experience points to the people who updated the site and I would create a linked wiki that would put everything at their fingertips. After a month of no one making the effort I shut it down as I realized that the problem was with me expecting them to be as committed as I was to the project. 

4. The Mentor Project. Back in '06 I got the brilliant idea that if everyone knew who their mentors were then the campaign would have a greater depth. I had not realized that I. C. Wiener was such a popular mentor . . .

5. The Secret Murderer. In the summer of '07 I ran a mini-campaign where each player was given an envelope with a target to kill written inside. Most of the envelopes had non-player character names inside, but one had a player character's name. The campaign fell to pieces because I told them that one of them was out to get the others. My fault entirely for this failure.

Why They Failed

If you've been reading me for very long at all I'm sure that you've realized that I've gnashed over these failures wondering what I did wrong, and I've long since come to terms with my short comings on each of these projects.

1. The Campaign Booklet failed because I allowed my own exuberance to over ride my reason. I should have limited myself to a small booklet with no more than six pages of text. It should have been an enjoyable and fun read instead of a clinical treatment of the setting.

2. The Background Worksheet failed because it was dull. Instead of asking the questions that made you want to explore your character further it read more like a doctor's form. 

3. The Obsidian Failure was doomed from the start as I didn't listen to my inner voice when it told me that they weren't as on board as they sounded. And looking back on it, it was incredibly clear that Kid Icarus and the Glorious L had too much going on at the time. 

4. The Mentor Project failed not because they had a sense of humor about it, but because I forgot mine. I should have rolled with everything they threw at me, but at the time I was wrapped up in this idea of becoming the perfect Dungeon Master so I wasn't doing either of us justice. I've long since come of that foolishness. 

5. The Secret Murderer failed because I spilled the beans. When I run this again in the summer I'm doing a lot different and I'll tell you more about it when the time is right.


  1. I fell victim to # 3 myself this past year, and for the exact same reasons. One player did actually fiddled about with our campaign site a couple of times, but that was it. Another player never even bothered to go to the OP site and create an account. It's a shame, because OP is a great campaign management tool. But if your players aren't participating too then it's pretty much pointless.

    1. I think that the wiki is so cool too! So it's just a bummer that I'm never able to have a motivated group for that end of things.

      Maybe one day?

  2. Yeah, for me it's number 3 too. And number 1. Sometimes I think the less the players need to invest, the better for all involved. But then it leaves the DM with really all the work and no resonance. On the other hand I have at least one player that has no difficulties with memorizing every freakin 3E rule book he gets his hands on. And I know of one gaming group that writes it's own campaign chronicle online (the players take turns). So it is possible. I often wonder how I could get my players more invested beyond showing up.

    Thanks for sharing those!

    1. What are some of the things that worked for you JD?

    2. Ha, had to think a bit about that one. I believe two things. One is a quote that's almost always connected to Gary Gygax and it says that the first 6 levels (if played through) define a characters personality. The second is something I recognized about two years ago: if you want something to stick, integrate it in the rules. Here is an example:

      The first time I encountered something like this functional in a D&D game system, was in HackMaster. Even in basic mode you had a social status and a family (with some odd results, like being a prince or an orphan, to keep it interesting). If you used the class books, you even could add training time to a characters cv. But what always stayed the most with the characters was the flaws the players picked to get more building points for character creation. I remember a heroic but short sighted knight errant that was afraid of dogs. His servant was shouting him directions when he was jousting :)

      So instead of asking the players for three goals their characters might have (which still is a very good idea ...), I'd try and make this a necessary (but passive) part of the rules that gets triggered anyway at some time in a characters future and leave enough creative space for a player to fill in the blanks if he wants too. But it's only an active role if he wants to invest. I started working on something like that here:

      Lastly I encourage the players to start character creation as early as building their own class (again, only if they want to).

      So if a player wants to go deep and invests a lot, it is very much possible. If he just doesn' care, the system kicks in and produces some results anyway (choosing a class, playing forms the character, the career kicks in at name level, stuff like that).

      This is what worked for me so far. This and giving the characters a good near-death-experience every now and then ;)