How To Stop Campaigns From Fizzling Out

Here’s an email from RTP GM Sam about campaigning:

Hi Johnn!

Glad I stumbled upon your stuff over the weekend. I am a gamer from Melbourne, Australia. I’ve been playing RPGs for about 12 years and I’ve been interested in GMing for about 5 years now.

My biggest problem is this: I find creating stories with compelling hooks and logical arcs very difficult. I’ve had a few campaigns fizzle out because I couldn’t keep the players (or myself!) sufficiently engaged in the story.

Thanks for the email, Sam.

Different game masters approach this from different angles. Here’s how I go about it.

Plot vs. Story

My definition of Story is retelling how gameplay turned out in an interesting way. Story happens after.

Plot happens before. Plot is your plan for the game.

I prefer to plan People, Places, Things, and Events. I do not plan player actions or outcomes. I do not plan Story.

Planning what will happen is a grievous trap. It makes your game brittle. It makes you brittle. Planning plot and story means you rely on external factors and things outside your control. If anything goes awry, you’ll have to bring out the plot hammer, which hurts.

The Game Within The Game

If instead you gain clarity within yourself on the key game pieces, how they matter to the PCs, and how they might react to character actions (direct or indirect), you will have built a strong engine that will reward you with lots of ideas, flexibility, player engagement, and deeper satisfaction with your campaigns.

Player Choice = Awesome Feedback For You

When players steer, they’ll take things where they want. This means they’ll be much more enthusiastic and involved. They’ll care more.

This gives you positive feedback that will make you enjoy GMing a lot more.

In most cases, players in this type of milieu will give you compelling hooks because they’ll be chasing what they want to do.

If you prepare game pieces instead of story, you can react well to player decisions, fear not.

You can reuse, reskin, recycle.

You can present obstacles, conflicts, setbacks.

You can offer rewards, incentives, hooks.

You get everything from an adventure without a fragile dictatorial ordering of gameplay that your players will dislike.

Guiding vs. Steering

This is not pure directionless sandbox play. You can still have strong planning guidance with a few well-placed game elements:

  • A theme and a premise big enough to hug the amount of gameplay you want, and inspiring enough for you to embrace your interest throughout.
  • A villain (or any major conflict, but I prefer villains because they can be so dynamic).
  • Characters and players with goals. A rewards checklist.
  • Characters with simple backgrounds that tie them to the setting and offer you gameplay hooks.
  • Clear direction set by you at campaign start. The Offer.

An example of that last point, in my Riddleport and Murder Hobos campaigns I asked my players to stay within the campaign region and to “make that work” for them.

Players want to help you run a great game. My players had no problem agreeing to my request, and they made sure character hooks and character choices followed suit.

Start Small, Grow Big

One last quick tip. Consider running smaller campaigns, or campaigns within campaigns, which I call Seasons. These help keep things at an easier planning and execution level.

For example, envisioning a 24 session Season and planning game elements for that feels a lot more doable than trying to grapple a campaign with no end-point in sight.

This isn’t a complete answer to your problem, Sam, but I think it’s important to take a step back before your next campaign and consider your approach to building campaigns and adventures. Once you’ve decided that, you can then look at specific tactics and techniques.

I think you’d be well-rewarded with my suggested approach. There’s a bit of a learning curve and a moment of taking a leap of faith when you start a session without a preset story to instruct gameplay. But this is definitely a skill-based problem, which means anyone can try it, learn it, and do well at it over time.

RPG Musings from Johnn