Lessons From A Completed Campaign
It's been my experience that role-playing campaigns are, quite often, entirely too transitory. Players put tremendous amounts of time, thought, and creativity into their characters, and GMs put even more energy and effort into constructing their campaigns. Sadly, campaigns that actually run all the way to their natural ending point are few and far between. Those that do, then, will invariably stick out in gamers' minds as important events in their gaming careers.
It's been my experience that role-playing campaigns are, quite often, entirely too transitory. Players put tremendous amounts of time, thought, and creativity into their characters, and GMs put even more energy and effort into constructing their campaigns. Unfortunately, the concerns of real life all too often have a way of intervening on the time we devote to gaming. Players lose interest, conflicts arise that lead to group instability, and the obligations of work, school, friends, and family make it no longer feasible for the game to continue, making it difficult for the ideas of players and GMs alike to ever become fully realized. Sadly, campaigns that actually run all the way to their natural ending point are few and far between. Those that do, then, will invariably stick out in gamers' minds as important events in their gaming careers.
As a GM, I recently passed this milestone when I completed my first campaign. Like any other first experience, it was uneven, and there are a lot of experiments that didn't work out and things I won't be doing again in the next campaign I run. But it was a very lucrative learning experience, and when the time came to write this article I decided to share some of the things it taught me, as much for my own benefit as for the possibility of helping other GMs who might be in a similar position. So, without further ado, I bring you these lessons that were taught to me by the completion of my first campaign. (As always, if you, the readers, have learned lessons of your own from completing campaigns, I'd love for you to share them after you finish reading this article.)
- Before beginning, I will know the theme and mood of my campaign and the direction I want it to take. I will introduce the major plot on or near Day One and stick to it throughout the campaign, peppering the storyline with brief "one-shot" sessions to change things up when it looks like the players are getting tired or bored. I will also keep at least a vague idea of the climax in mind at all times.
- Three words: simplicity, simplicity, simplicity. Both the characters' mission and the villain's master plan should be as streamlined as possible. Nothing that happens will happen without a reason, and the story must justify anything the players or the antagonists do. This makes my life much easier by minimizing the number of disgruntled PCs I have to deal with as well as the number of plot holes I need to fill. If, while planning, I get the inkling that something is becoming too complicated, my intuition is probably right.
- I will attempt to make my stories follow Chekhov's rule of drama (that is, if there is a gun on the mantlepiece in Act I, it should be fired by the end of Act III). With the exception of the aforementioned one-shot sessions, pretty much everything that the characters do should connect into the main storyline in some way. Players have a way of latching on to the weirdest things and deeming them interesting, and if everything is related that effectively disarms the possibility of the players getting so far away from the main plot that I can never direct them back to it.
- Similarly, I will cut down on the number of plots I impose directly on the players and allow my campaigns to become more character-driven. Most plot hooks should come from within rather than without; that is, they should tie into the backgrounds and the lives of the characters instead of having no relation whatsoever to their past, present, or future until someone else forces them to care about it. Ideally, I should match the goal of the campaign to the personalities, interests, skills, and individual goals of the characters, so that the two become one and the players end up serving my nefarious purposes without even knowing so, all the while believing they had a choice in the matter.
- However, I will also realize that players need direction. I will try to be relatively clear on the sort of things I expect from them, since they can't read my mind, and will make sure to throw them a bone when they need it. If the characters ever end up standing around in a random town in awkward silence because they have absolutely no idea of what to do next, I will know that I have failed and will do everything in my power to provide them with a plot hook at the earliest possible opportunity rather than just waiting for them to figure things out on their own.
- Never again will I make use of prophecy, destiny, fate, or any other foreshadowing techniques that require a certain group of characters to do a certain thing in order to fulfill what has been foretold. Not only do players resent having to behave in a certain way just because some crusty old seer says so, if characters die or players get tired of them and decide to switch it makes things much too complicated for me as I try to retroactively change "what will come to pass" to fit the upheaval in the plot. If I absolutely must introduce these devices, I will make it clear that they are meant to be taken as suggestions for future courses of action, not requirements or plans set in stone.
- I will know when to stop. No matter how interesting I find a certain plot or idea, if my players are not responding to it I will do the mature thing and not subject them to it. Similarly, I will not allow my campaign to drag on past its natural ending point. If the game has been going on for a long time and I have good ideas for a replacement, I will seriously consider wrapping things up at the next big climax and trying something different. It's better to end things too soon, when the campaign is still exciting every week and players are reluctant to let go of the characters they've played for so long and grown to love, than to let things grind to a halt because of waning interest due to an inability to accept change.
- Most importantly, I will have fun and not allow my campaign to become yet another source of stress in my life. If I work by only one guiding principle, it will be to do what is most enjoyable, both for myself and for the players, because that's why we started doing this in the first place.