Sustained Storylines ~ Establishing Buy In First
In a world of short attention spans and the media that caters to them it can be challenging for a gamemaster to establish long term buy in from their players. It's easy to blame this on the players but as in all things the problem, and therefore the solution, often lies closer to home than many are willing to admit. Using the simple writing techniques of series writers from the world of fiction and understanding a bit about the psychology of your players (and yourself) you can set yourself up from the start to establish a campaign with longevity.
"I just don't know guys. I can't put my finger on it but something just isn't working anymore. I don't think I can keep running this campaign anymore."
Ever say that? I have. More times than I'm comfortable with. We all know the feeling of a player telling us they don't want to play in our campaign; it can be crushing. Imagine how our players feel when we tell them we don't want to run something for them. This would usually happen to me a couple of times right after running an epic campaign of length and significance. It took me years to figure out what was going wrong, and once I did I sat back and poured myself a shot of Jameson's and had a laugh. At first I always assumed there was something wrong with the players; that they weren't seeing what I saw in the new campaign idea, that they weren't really into their characters for some reason, that they hadn't given me enough information to work with to make sure that I was running a campaign they actually wanted to play in.
It was me though.
The longest I was able to go without a series of false starts was when I managed to lock in to a run of linked campaigns that all somehow were related. To find my solution I took a look at what made that work as well as it did. First, they all took place in a persistent world that existed and moved and changed whether there were PCs running around in it or not. Second, because the campaigns were all linked in one way or another (related PCs, common NPCs, common theme or tone, etc). Third, and most important, because we all cared deeply about the world and therefore the subject matter. Seeing all of this in retrospect it was easy to make the leap of reasoning that there hadn't been any false starts in between because *there had been no in between*. In it's own unique way it was actually one really long campaign.
Why did this work? Because I didn't think about it at the time.
The first roadblock to running a long sustained campaign storyline is trying to run a long sustained campaign storyline. As an author I was already well aware that a story isn't done when you're finished adding to it; it's done when you're finished removing the parts that don't need to be there. Why I had never applied this train of thought to the campaigns I was starting and then stopping I have no idea. Arrogance? Ignorance? Probably a bit of both. The end result though was that I was trying my hardest ot repeat that same experience. Not the same campaign, but the same emotional experience of having been able to go to the same well over and over and always find the water fresh. A simple fact worth facing is that experiences are singular. They happen and then they're over. They're transient. Fleeting at best.
So instead of mapping out the groundwork for a long term and sustained campaign, I had insted to map out the *potential* for a long term and sustained campaign. My problem was that I didn't know how to do it anymore. The last time I had to do such a thing I was 18 years old. An incredible amount of life shaping water had passed under the bridge between then and when I found myself sitting there with a shot of strong whiskey in one hand and a blank notebook in the other. Every single idea I came up with made me sneer. Every thought...trite. Every notion...limp.
I considered giving up on gaming. I really did. All I had were the ideas I had never found a way to use in the last long stint, and now I hated them all. Never one to just give up I approached the issue from a very different angle. I drank the shot, put the notebook down, and tried to envision what the solution would look like I did indeed know what it was. What I ended up doing was laying down the map for all my future endeavors as a gamemaster...genreless roleplaying.
I know I know...you can't write a genreless story, so how could you run a genreless campaign? Everything fits into a genre somewhere. What I found myself doing was divorcing myself from my traditional views of genre to free myself from their trappings and compromises. I picked up my pen and book again and decided to figure out exactly what it was about *fiction itself* that got my motor running. Leaving out the fixtures of genre and milieu I was able to see what it really was that excited me.
As it turns out, I hate elves.
Further though...as it turns out I hate fantasy itself. Maybe hate is a strong word because "hate" is a word you should only apply to something you would actually plot the death of and carry out the murder. An hour later I looked at the pages in front of me and realized I wanted to kill fantasy, so I must hate it. All the things I liked in fiction itself, free of genre or milieu, were things that were far more prevalent in other forms of fiction than in fantasy. I shared this insight with another gamer friend of mine and he suggested "maybe you just need to run something else, maybe you're burned out on fantasy."
He didn't get it.
When I worked back around to genre and milieu elements, I found that I was still incredibly drawn to the potential within fantasy roleplaying and had a hard time thinking about any long term and sustained storyline in a campaign that took place in any other "genre". I still needed a fantasy setting to tell the stories I wanted to tell with my players...I just could not bear for those stories to be fantasy stories. They had lost all their significance to me on an emotional level. I thought back to my perception that maybe I didn't have enough information from my players to run the campaigns they wanted to play in, back when I was still blaming it on them, and realized they would benefit from this process as well. Despite knowing now that it was mostly me and my lack of buy in, I couldn't ignore that they had all looked a little glazed over as well during the false starts that had come since.
"Where is all this leading?" you may be asking yourself. Don't worry, I would be wondering the same thing right about now. Before one can discuss how to maintain buy in though, one must discuss how to really achieve it on a deep emotional level to begin with. You can't keep what you don't have.
The initial process is simple because it's not really about what you know, it's about what you do with it afterwards. There's a very bold statement I have to make first, before we get into that actual process of identifying what resonates with you and your players. Take a deep breath now, maybe get a shot like I did. Here it is:
If you're a fantasy gamemaster...stop running fantasy campaigns immediately.
Whatever your "genre" is, replace the word fantasy with that and repeat the above sentence to yourself. Seriously. Do it. Say "I will stop running (insert genre here) campaigns." Now say it again. Do it. Trust me. This is the best thing you will ever say to yourself as a gamemaster. Before you skip to the bottom of the page and start formulating your well crafted response let me explain.
If you are a fanatsy gamemaster and you are running a fantasy campaign you are planting crops in salted earth. "Fantasy" is not a "genre", regardless of what publishing houses want us to think. It's a generalized retail categorization that makes books with dragons and men holding swords on the cover easy to find in the store. "Fantasy" is more a function of milieu than it is a genre. Action is a genre. Adventure is a genre. Mystery is a genre. Horror is a genre. Erotica is a genre. The same goes for all the other invented genres. Science fiction? That's a setting descriptor. Spy? That's a setting descriptor. Steampunk? Not a genre. I don't really care to have the dictionary definition of "genre" waved in my face either, and this for one simple reason; thinking in those terms will not help you identify the core elements of fiction that draw us to what we like at a deeper emotional level. Some things are true no matter what you think or feel, no matter what the dictionary says.
Unless of course you find yourself drawn to men holding swords on a deep emotional level. If that's the case ignore all of this, draw a map of a dungeon, fill it with monsters and treasure, and run your fantasy campaign. None of this is going to help you because you're already doing fine on your own. What's more likely though is that you are drawn to the bold adventure. You're drawn to the archetype inherent in that iconic fantasy hero. All of those things you're drawn to exist in other "genres" though as well, so why box yourself in by running a "fantasy campaign"?
I'm not suggesting you abandon milieu and setting related details that you love. I'm getting to the good part now, I promise. What I'm suggesting is that those things that let you run long and sustained campaigns in the past are infertile now. You've used them up and need to expand your horizons.
So the process is painfully simple. You sit down over dinner, drinks, whatever...and just talk. Talk about gaming. Tlak about all your past campaigns and what worked and what didn't. Talk about this like you're never going to game the same again because after this you won't. Talk about movies. Talk about music. Talk about books. Talk about whatever you want. Don't talk about *what* so much as talk about *why*. Ther is one inevitable...someone says something like, "Yeah man, I just like dwarves. It's that simple."
No it isn't.
There's a reason why. There's always a reason why. Saying something like "yeah, well I just like them" is lazy and hackish and it's a short cut to really thinking.
Doing this with my own players I found out that one of them loves dwarves so much because he loves strong familial bonds, ancestor worship, and stout honorable types that are implacable in the face of disparity. He *loves* fantasy because he *loves* dwarves. The only reason he loves them so much though is because he has a deep seated fascination with Japanese warrior culture. Go figure. The only thing he actually *loves* about fantasy is something that is best represented way far outside of the "genre" he thought he would kill or die for. There were lots of things he didn't like at all about dwarves but he was willing to ignore those things because of the things he loved about them. Now in my new setting there's a nation of strong willed people just like he wants them to be...and no dwarves, because no one else liked them even a little bit.
This should take hours. Transit should stop and everyone should stay over or call a cab as the sun comes up. You should write down as many things as you can on a page for each player. This isn't your standard "player survey" we've all read so much about (and maybe used with mixed success), this is a deep and extended mining of the texture of each of your underlying psychology.
Having done all of that you should have pages of information that look less like "Sally likes campaigns with liches, Bob likes campaigns with gnomes" and more like "Sally is fascinated with death and the dead because..., Bob likes mischief and magic because...". You're going to need a few weeks to ponder over all of this and decide what it means...if you want to do it right. You might go over it quickly and run a fantasy campaign...but that means you did it wrong. In the end the two campaigns, the right one and the wrong one, might turn out looking exactly the same; but the underlying *reason* you're running them will be vastly different. You'll have a deeper understanding of what makes you and your players tick *away* from gaming and as such you can establish a ridiculously strong emotional bond to the campaign.
So now you have this great idea, and it's going to resonate on every level possible with you and your players. So how do you sustain it once it gets under way? Luckily I think I have the answer to that question as well, and I'll provide it tomorrow in part 2. For now it's 1:00am and I have a meeting with my publishing partner about marketing strategies...something for which I have almost *NO* emotional buy in for, but which is important and so I must attend.
Until then, if you find yourself struggling to emotionally connect with your material or if your players are facing that dilemma, ask yourself this very important question:
"What am I pretending not to know?"