Tuesday, November 3, 2020


Just continuing my thoughts on running campaigns.

(especially this time of year) I listen to a lot of sports talk radio, and there's a phrase that gets bandied about a bit: "Sometimes it's not the X's and the O's...sometimes it's the Jimmy's and the Joe's." Two weeks ago the Seahawks got out-coached and out-executed by the Cardinals, losing a game they had about four opportunities to win (I counted). Two days ago, they curb stomped the 49ers because the Seahawks' players...specifically at the QB and receiver position...were flat out better. It's really, really hard to win a game when your roster has been so decimated by injuries and your starting quarterback is so woefully inadequate compared to the opposition guy.

But what does this have to do with campaigns, JB? Are you just trying to needle your rivals to the south? No (though that's part of it, of course). It's just that when people (like me) decry their ability to put together a stunning...or even satisfying...RPG campaign, there's this thought (fear?) that it's just not possible, because they don't have the Jimmy's and the Joe's. That no matter how good your game plan is, no matter how well-prepped you are, no matter how good your world building, it won't matter because the players at your table aren't going to create the right synergy...for whatever reason. You can be the World's Greatest DM/GM but if the players aren't up to snuff, then your campaign's never going to get off the ground.

I know I've felt this way, more or less, for something around 30 years. 30 years! Seriously. And it's not just about oh, these players suck and don't know the rules...it's stuff like "we have different gaming priorities" or "they don't get the theme (or aren't as knowledgable of it)" or "they're just not as excited about this [game] or [setting] as I am" or "we just aren't as compatible as a group (personality-wise)."

And, Why O Why did I feel that way? Because of the gaming group I had for the first near-decade of my youth. My "oldest friends;" my "best friends" (never mind that I've since had many friends who were better and who have lasted longer then those folks)...THEY were the ones with whom "magic happened." The campaigns I've had since my days of yore have never and will never compare to those days...so goes the monologue has long droned in my head.

And, HEY...before anyone starts scribbling a fiery comment to me about how this is all nostalgia and rose-colored glasses and whatnot...let me say, sure, okay, maybe (and I've described this time of gaming in such terms before). MAYBE the monologue is accurate: that was just a time when the right chemistry of people gelled over a set of hardcover books that we rode hard, and those days of my wild and wooly youth will sadly never come again.

But maybe it's not. Maybe it's something different. Maybe it's not just a figment of my imagination but, instead, something that I never considered until the last few days. And maybe it has NOTHING to do with the Jimmy's and Joe's.

In my last post on the subject of running campaigns, I said there was a profound lack of ownership in my earlier campaigns. That is to say, that no one person "owned" the campaign...if anything, it was owned by ALL of us. And I'm serious about that: if I wasn't available as a DM (which happened often enough, for various reasons) someone else would take the reins and run the game. Same world, same characters, different adventures. We had co-DMs in those days and used a shared set of rules (Pro Tip: yet another good reason to run games "By The Book"), so this was totally doable. Likewise, we could run adventures simultaneously in the same world based on situational availability of the players!

Now, listen: of course we had more "free" time for gaming in our youths...kind of. But consider the time aa child has to dedicate -- really dedicate -- to gaming. As a kid, I had school to which I had to "commute" myself (on foot, bike, or bus, easily taking a couple hours in some years). My extracurricular activities (sports, Scouts, church, theater) took up several hours per week, as did my school work load. And the free time I had was hardly my "own;" I was often at the mercy of my family, especially over school breaks and whatnot (family trips and outings, etc.). As I got older and my time became more "mine," I had the extra burden of working part time jobs as well (I entered the workforce around age 14). And my friends had similar shackles. 

[my great fortune was that I was a pretty smart kid, so I could skate throughout school without spending the time "grinding" that some kids did: I aced classes with minimal work as a youngster, and was able to get decent grades when older despite shirking studies and assignments. Of course, I also got into girls and partying as I got older, so something had to give (usually the extra effort that would have allowed me to ace higher level work)...but it was important for me to develop socially, too. And I was unwilling to drop my fantasy gaming. Thank goodness this was before the days of internet ubiquity (and thank goodness also that I could never afford a gaming console...or even a personal computer of my own!)]

The point is, I prioritized gaming in those days...making time for it...in a way that I just haven't done since marriage and family. And while I wouldn't trade my wife and kids, the POINT is that it's not necessarily adulthood that caused those "magic years of yesterday" to disappear. Just having an apartment, a car, and a job (and no classes) would enable far more "gaming freedom" than I ever had as a teenager.

So what happened, then? My later friends as I grew older were simply "not the right chemistry" to become deeply involved in a campaign? I don't think so. We had plenty of chemistry in other ways. They were plenty sharp people. They had enough interest in gaming to show up at the table. And we had more time! That precious commodity that I never seem to have enough of now (and let me tell you, my nine year old complains about HIS lack of free time as much if not more than I do). So what changed?

I did. I changed...over time, over years, I've become unwilling to share, less inclined to collaborate. When I run a campaign...any type of campaign (not just D&D)...I hold the reins in an iron grip. 

To be clear, that doesn't mean I have a "my way or the highway" attitude at the table. The activity is still role-playing, and I'm not into running railroads, nor in saying "no" to the players. I solicit feedback from players and incorporate it as I see fit (again, this is my controlling attitude), but I've given on requests for using miniatures (in B/X!) or allowed players to pursue harebrained (and not-so-harebrained) schemes, whether for navigating adventure obstacles or developing and customizing their characters.

But ALL of it has been per my consideration. I get the final say so. It's been my game, not our game. And regardless of whether or not that's been understated or demonstrated viciously (I don't think it has) or even spoken aloud, I think that attitude is still palpable...I think it still permeates the game being played. There are more than likely signals and cues being given (verbal or not) that have demonstrated my stance on the matter. 

This is different from how I ran campaigns in the first few years of my gaming career. And while there's a myriad of reasons explaining how this evolution occurred, I think the more interesting tidbit to examine is what the result of this change has been:

Exhaustion. Fatigue. Dissatisfaction. Resentment. For ME!

Lacking heavy player investment (due to lack of ownership) results in ME having to supply all the "juice" to energize and run the campaign. With no vested interest, there's no impetus or enthusiasm for players to even show up to the game (figuratively and sometimes literally)...instead I am placed in a position where I need to coax and cajole and entertain like a dancing monkey, coming up with more and more cool things to drive interest, when it should be the game itself that drives players to the table

I've been fortunate that I've got some depths of "cool ideas" to draw upon (smart guy, right), but always, eventually, I end up drying up, like a puddle in the sun. Even if I don't run out of ideas, I run out of energy and enthusiasm for my own game. Even when the players purport to be enjoying the game...and who knows if they really do? They may simply have nothing better to do that evening and that's the only reason they're showing up: something different.

I think...I THINK that when the players are invested in the campaign, when the campaign is shared, then the players have a reason to bring some juice to the party. When the onus is not completely on a single person (i.e. the Game "Master") the players have more interest in seeing how their co-creation turns out...and want to share in that unfolding vision. They stay engaged, they bring ideas, they force the GM to run the game with the same energy because if the GM won't do it then the players are quite willing to take and run the campaign themselves without the GM.

Note: the key word in that last phrase is "willing." It's rare that I've seen or heard of a group who are able to pull off such a feat (at least long term...I know of a couple, though neither involved myself). But that attitude, that FIRE is what has been missing from the players at my own table for a long, long time. And I think that the reason it's been missing is because I am the one that quenched it, with my unwillingness to share the "burden" of my campaigns.

The reasons for wanting to retain "sole ownership" of my campaigns are unimportant. What IS important is that having Absolute Control doesn't (I don't think) make for a better experience. The evidence suggests that it's antithetical to a "better" gaming experience. 

I'm going to have to figure out some ways to apply these thoughts.

[and regarding election campaigns, I have only this to say: good luck to my country. I'm praying for you]


  1. I've learned to not beat myself up to much about prepping for a game session I'm going to run, or the game world I'm trying to share. Don't get me wrong... I prep a lot, but I'm not so invested in my own expectations about how the game will run, how far into my prepared material we'll get, or if the party will throw me for a loop and take us "out of bounds". At the same time, I also don't worry to much about being terribly attentive to whether the players are having fun, or if I'm feeding their characters enough development moments.
    Instead, I usually focus on game flow, and I cherish those few moments when I can throw in a small piece that grows my campaign world. My players don't need to read pages of background to get the feel of my campaign world. A good intro to start the session, a few NPC dialog encounters, etc. A little goes a long way. I'll often send out a game recap email to the players which let's me fill in any "campaign world" info gaps that maybe didn't come across well during game play.
    Anyways, my main point is that you can have a vision, and a campaign world view you want to share, but not stress about it too much during game play. The players are going to experience it from their own perspective anyway, so no sense in trying to force things.
    As far as High School / College nostalgia, and like minded players go... really I can play a game with almost anyone using the DM attitude described above. Most players are glad to be gaming, and play styles will often align if the players are having fun and "stick around" for the campaign. But it is adult relationships... much different than when we were younger.

  2. My english is a work in progress. So i apologize from the start.
    I used to think about the quality of the players and how they lack of ...(fill it with any word). Then i realized that this make me frustrated and doom my games.
    So i quit to care about players and to expect something from them. I just run the campaign because i like to be the DM and make all the stuff in the process (stock the dungeon, emergent world building, etc.). The prep and development is a hobby in itself to me. This attitude make me started the longest game i ever run. Just 4 years ago. I'm 35 years old, two kids, wife, job. Playing D&D since 1997.
    In the last 4 years (the actual time of my definitive campaign) players come and go. I beggin with original, then BX and now AD&D minus weapon x ac. I have 3-6 regular players plus 4 esporadics (my family and friends, older gamers, newbies, normies). The game is always on the menu.
    If they have something to share and add, good. If they don't, whatever.
    Is my dungeon, my wilderness, my city. And i'm glad to spread the word and incorporate every session (until with newbies) in the development of the campaign.

    1. All that makes sense, AFW.

    2. I hope you find a way to enjoy your next game. Reading your last 2 posts i see my self thinking about the same issues no long time ago.

  3. I went to a high school with 2,200 students (Canada, grades 10-12); a third of them in my own grade. The classes were mostly options, so that while some people did share the same classes, on average about 20 people in each class I took were unique; ten classes a year, that's 200 people a year, give or take. Counted over three years, I shared three months of air with at least half my high school grade. Add to that the clubs, the sports, drama, chance occurrences in the hall, meeting acquaintences of friends ... by the time I graduated I recognized all 743 people of my grade 12 class. Every one.

    That's an enormous pool of people to relate to constantly: it assures that we're going to find compatibility with some segment of those people, on a level we never will again in the rest of our lives.

    It isn't how much time we had together, but what sort of time. Work associates and friends, we're working; it's five minutes here and there, saying hello when we come in, sometimes an office party ... there might be one or two friends you share every lunch hour with. But those people in high school: we had hundreds of hours to sit around during classes, spares, before school, after school, dances, weekend parties -- and the kind of parties you don't see in office jobs (but you do see with restaurant jobs ... except that everyone has enough money to get blotto or really high).

    You see what I'm getting at. In school, you had a spectacular advantage of selection bias that hasn't been available to you since. Your friends WERE closer because you could cherry pick them from hundreds of people who could be tossed aside in favour of the best options. You could afford to spend friends too, since there were always new people and every year brings a flock of new ones.

    University isn't like that. You get on with your classes and you hardly see anyone you happen to take a class with (and everyone concentrates in class). As I say, work isn't like that. Family definitely isn't like that. It's a one-in-a-life opportunity ... and it goes away so fast when its over.

  4. You're too hard on yourself JB. Just blame the players, they most likely ARE the problem anyway... ;)

  5. I have exactly the same feelings when it comes to my first roleplaying group — nothing could match these first two or three years between 1995 and 1997. But the difference is, we weren't sharing. Not the campaign, bah! not even the rules. I would run WEG Star Wars, the guy next door would run WFRP, the other guy — Cyberpunk 2020. Still, we had so much fun that after 25 years I still occasionaly try to hop that train, only to discover the disappointments you mention: lack of chemistry, different concepts of roleplaying, etc. And I think the reason it worked so well back then and doesn't work since is we were teenagers, and as such — malleable. We had very little in the terms of preconceptions, biases, comfort zones. We were ready to experiment, but also hadn't had a slightest problem with taking critique into account — and every new thing we tried was fresh and breathtaking (this one summer we went camping without our rulebooks and pencils and accidentaly discovered what's nowadays called Free Kriegspiel Revolution). Back then I didn't know what kind of game I want to run, so I'd try many different things, which led to a delicious, if unfocused, romp. Nowadays I know what kind of game I want to run, but there are simply no players willing to accept my vision wholesale, because they themselves know what game they'd like to play. Maybe if I would run a game for teenagers? In 4-5 years my kids will be the right age, we'll see what happens.

    P.S. I tried to introduce AD&D to my first group, but these were the 90s and it was Europe, so after skimming the books they responded with a firm 'NO WAY', ridiculing the archaic concepts of levels, hit points, AC and memorizing spells. :D

  6. Though I'll admit that the first few years of my gaming experiences 81 to 86 we're without a doubt the best AD&D,I have been lucky to find a club recently that does tick all the boxes. This is down to two key elements: the DM is a genius and his buy in to his campaigns are never less than 100% and the fact we have six players who just love to game. We all turn up each week and thrive on the social aspects and even though we're playing online currently due to lockdown we still all try to enjoy the game for what it is and the world it's set in. Nostalgia can be a bitch, but we get nostalgic about games from only four years ago now!

    1. Yeah. I've had a chance to rethink this post since I wrote it.

      Right now, I'm guessing that if I actually threw down a gauntlet, I could drum up a group of rally passionate 1E players who'd love to give "buy in" to the game. That wasn't true in the 1990s or 2000s.

      One of these days, when the pandemic is over, I hope to give it a try.