Musical Dice - An Exercise in Campaign Management


There are advantages and disadvantages to playing a freeform system. DMs have the freedom to create whatever is in their imaginations, to write good stories and focus on character and story, not mechanics. It's nice, for such a system provides an outlet for the creative junk my mind comes up with at random times during the day. But such a freeform system has its disadvantages as well. For starters, have any of you fellow GMs out there ever noticed just how difficult it is to get a campaign started?

For the last three months I have been making futile attempts to get altogether with all four of my PCs to start a game. Schedules just never match: if the elf is free, the gargoyle has voice lessons, if the shape shifter is off work, the mercenary is at a play... the list is endless. This of course wasn't my first problem. Character creation, for example: Background information on all characters must be the basis of all characters and their traits and abilities. This makes the game very enjoyable and makes for a deep story, and I refuse to start the game until I have all players' backgrounds. I try my best to integrate something for each characters background into the story, making it more applicable to each character and deepening the story when it does actually start.

But my first problem with trying desperately to get this story off the ground was locating people. Everyone and their dog's brother wants to start a game of 3rd Edition. You know why? You can just start playing. You get the book out, roll some dice, write down some numbers, and you're ready to go whoop some troll ass. With a system like The Window, character creation is a couple of hours at a minimum and can last two or three days, if not longer. So to get my paltry four PCs created took (lets see... 4x3=12+a week for schedules) about a month. I did wind up with 4 great characters: a gender-swapping scholar, a dragon - summoning, older-than-time-itself elf type thing, a naive, abused, deranged, rich daughter of an aristocrat, and a 6'8" mercenary with Irish liquor handling skills that makes it a habit to carry around a 10 foot by foot and a half sword. Once I have all my characters finished, I have the daunting task of figuring how the hell I'm going to get all of them involved in the story, and then keep them that way. This takes a while, especially with such an eclectic group.

Once I have at least my first session outlined and everyone involved, at least in my mind, I have to get all my PCs in the same spot, at the same time. Recently, my apartment has been a veritable grand central station, all kinds of people in and out constantly. I have had all of my PCs in my apartment at one time or another, just not more than one at any given time, and never for the purpose of roleplaying. This all too familiar phenomenon is what I refer to as "musical dice." A jockeying of players and GMs and schedules through any number of apartments and dorm rooms. Eventually, as apartments and dorm rooms get removed from the game, we might all wind up in the same apartment. This is assuming that one or more of my characters doesn't get left standing up at a football game, recital, or other such foolishness, which they always do. Without fail.

I recently called one of my players on the phone (what a novel idea...) to see when she would be free to start this thing. I found that she was free on the 23rd, three weeks down the road. This illustrates my point. I wasn't happy with having to wait almost another month to get things going, but it was going to have to do. So I called my other three players and lo and behold, they were free on the 23rd as well! This was amazing. I marked it on the calendar (in pencil). But I still didn't have all my characters done yet, I had one PC that hadn't finished and all of my NPCs to deal with. Well, at least now I had three weeks to finish them up before we started. Still, I'm sure that once I get it all ready to go, something will come up with that all-too-important character, delaying the campaign indefinitely yet again. It's enough to make a GM go pick up a copy of RISUS (see The Homebrew Review #2) and start a funny game that lasts a couple of hours and call it good. Give up on all that hard work you've put into creating a really detailed universe and a cool storyline. Abandon all depth and just have fun for an evening.

I once had the pleasure of participating in a three hour game with Philip, a dear friend of mine and gifted GM, in which I woke up under a tree with complete amnesia. I mean, complete -- I had to look at my hands to figure out I was furry. I was about 3 feet tall and had a backpack with a Zippo lighter (described as a silver box that broke in half), matches (sticks painted red at one end), and a phazer (a black box with a red and yellow button that beeped). Of course it took me about a half hour to figure out what I had. It was one of the most rewarding "campaigns" I ever played in. It lasted about 3 or 4 hours, and in that time we (my sloth character, two komodo dragons, also with backpacks, and a fox) fought a giant furry thing not unlike a bear, were the dinner guests of a ghoul, and figured out that we were in a far-future, post-holocaust New York City. The story was simple, yes; but it was fun. And isn't that the whole point of gaming? To have fun?

Musical dice is not fun. PC chasing is not fun. And designing a great long-term campaign that you can't play for lack of participation is very not fun.

Long-term campaigns are fun if you can manage one, but don't underestimate the entertainment potential of the self-contained, one evening, humorous (or not) game. All too often we find that the hard work we put in a great and vast world is just not practical to play because of scheduling and become so frazzled that we just give up. RISUS is marketed as the system "for those nights when your brain is too tired for exacting detail." And that's what it is; you can get a game started in 10 minutes. All you need is some character ideas (rough and vague at best is fine) and some people to play them. It allows you to get a small game started... and finished. But you don't even need RISUS to do that.

If you are a GM frustrated by your own game of "musical dice," get part of your group together for a "one night stand;" a short, one-evening game of complete mayhem, just to have some fun. And with any luck you can get a game in that intimately detailed labor of love universe of yours started sometime soon. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some people to go have fun with...

Right you are. But like one night stands of a different caliber, there's little in the way of fufillment. In my gaming life, it has gotten to the point that I have not played in a steady game since 98, and even then the time was puncuated with one nights and the like. In fact, we even developed the "You wake up in a bar..." series, a winged, free form adventure that had to start off with that sentance. And from where I'm sitting, the one night has lost its charm. Ironically, the one nights I tend to play of late are theoretical extensions of old campagins.

Anyway, here's what has become my problem. I play a one shot, and I have fun. However, I am left awash in potential. In this pilot adventure, future plot lines leap out, the ways the characters are bulit to develop fall obvious. I can see what point I want to bulid that guy to, I can see what sort of challenges that girl will face, I, in short, end up designing a long term game every time I play a short term adventure.

I see the potential, and how it is bound to be squandered, and that makes me rather irritated. The nookie is as good as its ever been, but you still wake up cold the next morning. You're not on this side of things, I know. Just reminding you that there is this side to get to.

Sadly, too true and too common, I imagine. Its almost a curse for role-players who enjoy character creation, to play one-shots because there ARE so many opportunties available from what happened in one night - same for referees. But sometimes we have to go to the lowest common denominator - currently the game I'm in is stalled because the players won't band together - not that they refuse to, but they have no reason to - they all want to accomplish their own goals. The only other thing that would entice them out of this would be a dungeon crawl, which would get them to travel as a party, simply because thats their indoctrination (mm, we're adventuring, exploring ruins, we travel in a party...) - otherwise, they don't seem to be able to, or don't want to, develop characters who have a goal, motivation, or tie to the 'party'...

The referee (though I give him credit for encouraging independent player motives and activities, like establishing their own bases, etc) gives broad potentials (groups of hobgoblins outside of town, mythical village south) but no central hook or objective, since he wants them to develop their own personal goals and motivations, which they seem quite happy NOT to do - so they basically sit there and manage the affairs of their own inn, or go out and wander around looking for plants, even though they WANT to adventure.

If the referee hits them over the head with a small plot (hmm, the arena here allows you to register creatures and pit them against each other and wager on the fights), the players will usually take the bait if the hook is a one-off and won't be a hassle - they'll go out, usually only half the party, for a few days to find and beat a monster into submission, then bring it back and put it in the area, then go back to twiddling their thumbs.

So here you see the options are One-Shots (I have been considering homebrews like Squeam, Two-Fisted Tales or even my own), but the players LIKE Warhammer, and the referee desperately wants to play too, but I can't and don't want to run the game the same way he has been because I don't think it encourages true PARTY mindset and its quite honestly too much to keep track of each set of buildings, followers and intrigues for EACH character, since ALL their free time can be assigned to doing nothing but developing personal plots, rather than a central one - this is why after about 6 gaming sessions, I netted a whopping total of 35 experience with my halfling pit-fighter and when I finally decided to just jump back into fighting with him to get more experience, the wyvern bit his arm off and he died from blood loss.

So there are worse things than seeing missed potential in a one-off, take my word for it.