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.

Right on brother! ..er sister. Keep the great articles coming.

I've run many games, but for the first time ever, I'm going to be wrapping up a major campaign after a year and a half of real time. I'm both looking forward to it, and scared out of my mind. I'm worried I'll screw it up.

I learned a lot of these same lessons throughout the course of this game and all the previous ones. The next two games I've committed to run will be shorter, simpler, and thematic. I'm going to be keeping the other factors in mind, too... especially the last one. ^^

Disagree on the fate issue. Making what happened fit with what you said would happen is the fodder for some good, good thoughts. And if Delphi can be ambiguous enough...

*shrug* That's true. Maybe I just suck. (c; Really, it didn't work for me at all, though, and all I can do is speak from experience and know that it caused more problems than it provoked thoughts. The only thing it really resulted in was a whole lot of stress after I went to all the trouble of tailoring a really thoughtful prophecy to the group of PCs only to have to pull a revision out of my ass when the one player whose character was the most important to it decided she was sick of that character and wanted to make a new one. NEVER AGAIN. Kudos to you if you can make it work, though.

Gamerchick, I imagine the only real solution that would be satisfying to the gamers and the GM at that point would be one where the PC's have to overcome the fact that their fate now seems predetermined to fail. Overcome the prophecy in such a way that it makes some sort of sense if you look back on it, but not as if that washow it was predestined to be.

I find the ancient prophecy thing a bit boring really, sometimes it seems like a guaranteed success. By being forced into a situation where they seemed doomed to fail because the prophecy can not be achieved, then you might be able to form an equally interesting campaign out of that, an even greater story of success against the odds.

Of course, all the above really depends on how specific the prophecies are. But if you want to REALLY go out on the limb just allow the players, at some great personal cost, to defy fate, to walk against their destiny, to beat the Gods at their own game or be ashed by their vengeance in the attempt.

At the very least it would teach the offending player for screwing with your campaign. ; )

I have DM alot of little games with little firm plots but they can still be fun. Always remember to have a sense of humer ie while exploring a haunted house one player character was firing arrows but kept hitting other pc's so I had one of the characters yank the bow from his hands and tell him to use a sword.

Great article! When I think about it, I am usually highly inclined to determine theme and mood first anyway. I find it difficult to function as a GM without it. Without the unifying elements of theme and mood, it's too easy to rely on plot and railroading to do these things. Not to mention, if you don't have theme and mood, you are pretty much asking your players to intuitively have the same understanding of the game that you do. While some gamers do think of playing a game "right" or "wrong," as works of fiction, RPGs possess a great deal of material that can be interpreted in many ways. Just from saying that, I'm tempted to do a Marxist or Platonic rendition of any of White Wolf's main game lines--or better yet, D&D--just to prove that point.

So, providing a theme and mood goes a long way to making characters who "fit the setting" (a catch-all term that includes both these elements) than trying to replicate these things by shoehorning people into a specific role or story. In addition, I have found that providing theme and mood takes a great deal of burden off my shoulders when I create settings and NPCs, since I have a direction that I want to go in.

As for the prophecy idea, in my game, I don't have a problem with it. I run a Kindred of the East solo chronicle, and I'm using the prophecy bit. I believe I had more success with it because: A) I made the prophecy vague, B) the PC had been, for about 3/4 of the chronicle, just trying to figure out what everything meant, and C) the PC, now aware of what lies ahead, has chosen what he believes this prophecy means (Is it a cause for hope or despair? How do his actions influence this?) and now seeks to fulfill its purpose.

So, the prophecy idea works for me.