Killer Campaign Management

From Jeremy Brown

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0520

A Brief Word from Johnn

Campaign Planning Issue

Several tips and articles this issue focus on helping you run better campaigns.

Campaigns have always been my preferred method of gaming. I enjoy the continuity tremendously. I enjoy the depth found through repeated interaction and exploration, which I can’t get out of one-offs. I especially enjoy seeing the PCs develop and grow over time.

If you have not tried campaign gaming, I highly recommend it. It has its own, special rewards.

Last issue I asked about your definition of a campaign. Response was huge. I am still catching up on emails (62 to go!), so if I have not replied yet, give me another week or so.

I will compile responses for a future issue. It would have been ideal to feature your thoughts about what makes up a campaign in this issue, but alas, I ran out of time.

More campaign and advice is always welcome, especially single tips. Email me anytime.

Check Out My Combat Time Experiment

I think you will be interested in this. Last session I used my iPad to time each player’s turn during a combat in my Riddleport campaign. I wanted to find out who the time thief was.

I posted the results, plus commentary and a few tips, at Campaign Mastery:

My Group’s Time Thief Revealed

After that post, my blogging partner, Mike Bourke, posted some excellent advice on how to speed up your combats:

Taming The Time Bandits: Some time-saving combat techniques

Dyson’s Dodecahedron Issue 4

Dodecahedron is a great PDF ezine. This month features maps and key to two levels of a dungeon called Erdea Manor. Check it out:

How to Determine the Perfect Length for Your Campaign?

I was inspired to write this article by a problem my wife had when she first started trying her hand at GMing. She didn’t feel she had a good enough story. She wanted to run a long, intricate, and interesting campaign.

Many novice GMs, especially ones who have played in experienced groups, feel they should create an epic story that will wow their friends. Add this need to create a superstory to the difficulty of trying to remember the mechanical issues, and it’s enough to make anyone pull their hair out.

This puts a lot of strain on a new GM and some people quit because “they can’t tell a good story” or “can’t run a long story arc.”

Other than novice GMs, there are a few broad groups of GMs in the world: those who prepare endlessly and extensively, those who wing it, and those who use pre-generated adventures. I fall into the first category primarily. While I can wing game sessions, it is not my preferred method.

Therefore, many of the following points work from a preparation-heavy, story-driven GM style. However, they can also be used to improve the games of others.

Long or Short Campaign?

First examine the pros and cons of running long versus short campaigns.

Pros for the long campaign:

  • More time to develop character goals, complicate plots, and develop character and foe personalities.
  • More time to develop the setting.
  • More opportunities to introduce new elements and ideas.
  • More player involvement in their characters and the campaign world
  • More time to fix mistakes.

However, as with all things, there are the down sides:

  • Long campaigns take more player and GM time.
  • They take more work from players and GM.
  • Players can develop campaign fatigue.
  • GM must create a sense of story and timing that is not always as urgent for shorter campaigns.
  • Harder to sustain.

Shorter campaigns have their own benefits:

  • They often have much simpler storylines.
  • They support a lot of experimentation on both sides of the screen.
  • Players do not feel compelled to create superb characters capable of supporting a lot of long-term goals.
  • While every adventure requires a certain awareness of story and timing of events, shorter campaigns are often easier to GM in this regard.

The benefits come with corresponding issues:

  • Players and GMs are often not as invested in short campaigns.
  • The focus in a short campaign is put squarely on the main action. Sometimes side issues of interest to players become lost in the shuffle
  • Some players feel cheated because they are finally into their character and the campaign ends.
  • A related issue would be characters who start higher than 1st level and cause players to be unhappy they didn’t grow into the character.

What Determines If I Want a Short or Long Campaign?

Consider three things:

  • Story
  • Mechanics
  • The real world

These concerns are not neatly separated, and in some groups, one point or series of points will trump other concerns.

Story Considerations

  • Is the story episodic or continuous? Episodic stories work well as shorter games. Continuous format lends itself better to long campaigns.
  • Does the story have only a few climactic points? If so, it’s probably a short campaign.
  • Is the story actually several short but connected stories? If so, it’s probably a long campaign.
  • Is the story intricate enough, or have enough sub-plots and mini-climaxes, so it would be better served by a long campaign?
  • Is the story within your current GM capabilities? If not, I’d say table it, run some short campaigns, then come back to it. It might just be too long or intricate.
  • Are players willing to invest in a long campaign? The players’ characters and their ideas must grow with the campaign. All the players must be willing. Even just one problem character can ruin a long running game, or at least, make it more frustrating.
  • Can the setting sustain a long campaign? There must be enough intrigue, history, personalities, and other details to make the players willing to dig into a setting for an extended period.

Game Mechanics Considerations

Decide on a final power level for your villains and extrapolate the necessary level your players must reach.

This gives a rough estimate of how many adventures are necessary to reach the final showdown.

To do this, you should know at what speed your players generally level. In D&D 3.5, the DMG recommended a mix of encounters that would bring players to their next level in roughly 8-16 encounters. Some groups, like mine, like levelling much faster. Others like slower.

Figure out your levelling rate to aid in this step.

Determine the level of background players must know before the final showdown.

If players must research and gather information in multiple locations and obtain a certain item to defeat the bad guy, this gives you rough power levels (the level of success needed for the checks) and a number of places. Knowing this ahead of time helps you figure out some of the questions above.

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Real World Considerations

Do you and your players have the focus for a long campaign?

Family, jobs, other hobbies (yes, some of us have other hobbies) and other concerns take time away from the game.

If you can only play once a month, it’s perhaps better to run a short game. With so much space between sessions, it’s hard enough remembering what your own character did, let alone what Ardylon the Aged Sage said about Black Setheless. Notes help, but they only go so far.

Are players really excited about the campaign concept?

If they are, that might be a good idea for a long campaign. If only one or two players are excited, a short campaign might be in order. Remember, the GM serves everyone at the table including himself.

Do your players suffer campaign fatigue?

Campaign fatigue is that point, usually in the middle of a campaign arc, where players don’t remember enough of the story or can’t get back into it and they just forge ahead until they’re finally back to something they like or are more familiar with.

If this happens several campaigns running, consider running shorter campaigns or breaking up long campaigns into shorter episodes.

What are the expectations of the group?

A group that plays well together and has a good GM will be willing to invest more time and trust into a long storyline. However, conversely, they’re more willing to experiment with a short campaign. For uncertain or novice GMs, trust your players. They know you’re not the next Gary Gygax-yet.

How much material can you steal?

If you have a number of pre-generated adventures that fit into a campaign arc, then part of your work is done.

If you have ideas, items, spells, monsters, and other material scooped from other products, part of your work is done.

If you have a lot of pre-generated material, long campaigns become more feasible. However, beware of lengthening a campaign to work in one more cool adventure. Pre-generated elements, like any others, should fit with and advance the campaign goals.

Final Thoughts

These tips boil down to one major tip that is of use in many different situations: know yourself and your gaming group.

The best groups learn to trust each other and communicate honestly. If your players like short dungeon crawls followed by looting and pillaging, then all the will in the world will not make a long and drawn out mystery of interest to them.

However, if they trust you to work in short dungeon crawls into that long and drawn out mystery, they will often be willing to attempt it and will sometimes change their style of game.

By the same token, listen to your players and try to throw them a bone as well. If your last three campaigns have made mages the focus of the action, then make a short campaign where the fighter types shine most.

The main thing, whether you run a short or a long campaign, is to realize that the length is mostly determined by your group’s preferences and the demands of the story.

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Reader Tip Request

Killer Players Running Killer PCs

I nearly laughed aloud at work over the “One More Tip: Top 10 Ways to Stop Sounding So Damn Metagamey.” I would love to see some tips on handling metagame scenarios in tactful ways.

My group tends to pour through every source book at their disposal (and one in particular has a mountain) to get every little tweak they can. This inevitably ends up with a 3rd level fighter that can waylay a 6th level barbarian and wizard, in ONE TURN.

I resolved this by limiting book choices, but this is only one example of many.

How do you prevent (or get the most out of) metagaming?

– Sean

Readers, do you have any advice for Sean? Email me at [email protected]

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Simple Three Tier System Unblocks Your Campaign Planning

From Michael Beck

(Read the original German version at Spielleiten)

In the military, one distinguishes between different levels of decisions, called strategy, tactics, and logistics. I don’t want to delve deep into this issue, since I’m no expert in this field. But a short and rough explanation will help understanding the following tip.

Logistics are tiny planning steps. For example, changing the position of a squad. The goal of a logistic decision is always concrete and clear.

One uses logistics to achieve some tactical goal, which is a bit more for the long run and has larger consequences. For example, an organized attack of a combat unit at a certain target. The goal of tactics is a more abstract – to meet the goals of logistics. Hence, to accomplish a tactic, one has to serve several logistical issues.

A strategy lies on top of tactics. Its goals are abstract and long-ranging. For accomplishing the goal of a strategy, several tactical decisions have to be made. An example for a strategy could be involving the enemy into fights at two fronts to weaken him. Let us call the goal of a strategy the operational goal for the moment.

Following is advice on how to utilize this concept of different decision levels as a GM to prepare game sessions. What are the logistics, tactics, and strategies of a GM and her operational goal? How much time should one spend for his planning steps? Can one detect or avoid railroading with these?

Logistics for GMs

How does logistics look for a GM? The shortest-run decisions to make during preparation time are what is happening in a certain plotline.

So, a logistic decision is defining the next step in one single plotline. This could be encountering an NPC, a battle with a monster, or a puzzle.

As GM, you have good control over the situation and can do detailed preparations, such as drawing a map or inventing an NPC.

Here, you can and should spend the most of your preparation time (take a look at Johnn’s Loopy Session Planning, he is describing their exactly this thing ).

After identifying your plotlines, you may notice you do not have many, possibly even just one. This is a strong sign of railroading your group. We will see in a minute how this constrains your tactical options as a GM.

Tactics for GMs

Tactics are more long-run and have more abstract goals. So the next level above one plotline is the adventure. Tactical decisions define the course of adventures. We think about:

  • How to handle the different plotlines
  • Which ones we continue or end
  • How to splice two plotlines together
  • When to start new ones

All these are tactical decisions. As GM you should spend some time on these issues:

  • How many plotlines do I want in parallel?
  • How long should they run, when do they start and end?
  • What purpose and which atmosphere do they contain?
  • Should they lead to the goal of the adventure or distract the players from it?

Creating a flow chart would be an example of multiple tactical decision making. The tactical options you have is strongly bound to the number of plotlines you have.

In the extreme case of one plotline, you just have a limited repertoire of decisions:

  • When to start?
  • When to end?
  • What is its goal and its atmosphere?

We already said that having just one plotline is a sign of railroading. Now we see another sign of railroading: limited tactical options.

Strategy for GMs

The next narrative level on top of the adventure is the campaign. Strategies work on the campaign level of campaigns and the operational goal is the campaign’s goal.

Instead of handling plotlines, we are now managing adventures. In its core, a strategy defines the course of a campaign by setting the number of adventures it contains, together with their type and functions.

Here, we are working on a high level of abstraction. So I recommend not spending too much planning for campaigns. You should plan down to the level of logistics to fully sort things out. This is not only a huge amount of work, it is in parts even impossible, since you are not playing alone.

Investing a lot of time here is like trying to build a house by first understanding quantum mechanics. It says: No plan survives contact with the enemy.

This does not have to hold for your strategy. By keeping the planning of your campaign on a high abstraction level, you keep it flexible and more durable against disturbances caused by players at the tactical and logistical layers.

Closing Remarks

We see we can apply the concepts of strategy, tactics and logistics for preparing our games. But we see also that the different layers need each other!

For accomplishing our strategy, we need tactics, and for these we need logistics.

On the other side, logistics makes no sense if they do not have the purpose of achieving a certain tactical step. And, tactics have purpose in making a strategic step.

If your plotlines and adventures seem dry and aimless, this is probably you are not spending thoughts on the higher layer.

If you have a nice idea for an adventure or a campaign, but are struggling on how to play it out, it’s time to go one level deeper and start planning there.

Hopefully this decision-stack helps you in your planning and preparations. It helps me a lot.

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How to Reduce Combat in Your Games – 6 Easy Ways

From Mark of the Pixie

If you want less combat, try these tricks.

Use fewer monsters

PCs can only fight if there are people or things to fight. I know a few GMs who throw in monsters as a delaying tactic, to slow the game down. Don’t do this if you want to reduce combat.

Reduce combats to a single skill check

Killing the guards at the door requires exactly the same number of rolls from the party as sneaking past them, and gets exactly as much screen time.

This greatly reduces the emphasis on combat. It is also much faster.

Is beating up some random guards in a round by round fashion that important to the story? Go to full combat for important fights, but also go to “combat-style skill-checks” for important non-combat tasks.

Diffusing a nuclear bomb can be done as a series of lock picking, demolitions, science, and hacking rolls much the same as combat. Can you penetrate the defenses (hit it) enough (to get to 0 hit point) to stop it before it goes boom (killing you)? It can be just as thrilling and intense as combat.

Provide other options and show NPCs using these new options

If you want a new behavior, you need to show them what you mean. Have an NPC surrender before combat and start negotiating? Have them escort a diplomat, who shows them some tricks?

Do not make combat more deadly or increase consequences for fights

For example, avoid bleeding, festering wounds, and so on.

These things are fine if they are what you want, but they do not reduce combat. They make it faster and bloodier. It may take less time, but it becomes more of a focus.

More deadly combat encourages people to strike first (because it is likely to also be strikes last). More consequences encourage people to fight to the death (Machiavelli’s “do not injure when you can kill” rule). Neither reduces focus on combat.

Make other stuff fun

I have players who still laugh about a session I ran ten years ago when they cooked a meal. No combat, but lots of laughs and in character roleplay, plenty of skill checks, even a divine intervention. You don’t need combat to have fun. Look for ways to tease out the fun in mundane or new situations.

Make combat matter

There are a few things I would die for. Not many. But damn, they are important to me. Any fight where an NPC is going to die at a PC’s sword – that NPC had better damn well believe in what they are doing.

A gaunt lion who will starve if they don’t kill soon, one who growls with hunger and drools at the smell of blood, is going to make combat a lot more intense than a generic 4HD lion.

A guard who begs for mercy while still defending himself or one who stands on honor and says, “you shall not pass lest it be through my blood” are both better than a 2nd level fighter.

Just ask, why is this NPC willing to die here? If you can’t answer it, drop the combat. Then once you have your reason, show it to the PCs. The guy might be trying to kill a PC because the PC killed his sister. He doesn’t need to say that up front, but his passion and hatred should be clear. By making combat more intense, you make it mean more to the PCs and that makes it more satisfying. That means you don’t need as much to get your fix.

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Managing Player Expectations for Smoother Games

In the GM Mastery Yahoo! group, Randal recently asked, “How do you deal with player expectations? And more importantly, how do you prevent the game from failing as a result of not meeting those expectations?”

Some great discussion ensued that included numerous points of views and GMing styles. I thought you might find snippets of this conversation interesting, and help you reflect a bit on your own GMing ways.

From Travis

To manage means to be in charge of, responsible for, to administer and regulate, maintain control or influence over. I do not manage player expectations. I collaborate with players to have fun so their expectations are met by our mutual efforts toward the goal of having a good time.

My approach is to ask players what their expectations are, before the game or campaign starts. I lay out my expectations. If those expectations are compatible or compromises can be worked out, then we have a game. If not, then we don’t.

My time is valuable to me. I’m unwilling to spend it doing something I’m not going to enjoy. Players have no more right to dictate to me how I have to have fun than I have a right to dictate the same to them.

For an RPG to work, it has to be a collaborative effort with buy-in from all participants. Sometimes that means the players have to trust the GM and the direction where the GM is going with the game. Sometimes that means some or all parties are going to flub. You forgive each other, figure out the problem, and move on.

If I have agreed to meet a certain set of expectations, and I fail to meet those expectations, then that is my fault. There has to be trust and good communication. If players trust their GM to listen to their concerns and take action to address them, then these things can be fixed.

I can work toward improving my failures in future sessions, provided players are willing to communicate with me what those failures are and come back for the next session.

I make sure the content of my fix is agreeable to the players. They are able to make choices that give them agency for their characters, and we collaborate to make the fixes work.

If my players and I are able to do that, then most any issue can be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.

If my players are failing to meet an expectation they have direct agency over, well then, that is their own fault. It isn’t up to me to make decisions for their characters. If they want to resolve more situations without violence, then they need to make the effort to resolve situations without violence. Asking questions before they start shooting would be a start.

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From Telas

Managing the players’ expectations merely means making sure the players are all on the same page. The GM should not tell the players what to do or expect, but he should manage the Bridgopoly-avoiding conversation that should be held at the start of each game, since he’s the one who’s going to be doing most of the world building.

Another way to put it would be to establish or set the proper expectations, but those also imply that the GM is in charge of the players’ expectations.

A good GM makes sure everyone finds enough common ground to game on.

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From Mark of the Pixie

I use the old teacher trick of having players explain things back to me in their own words. This highlights any problems fast.

A useful trick if you are trying to change the style of roleplaying is to change system. Or just add a new home rule or two for this campaign. This stops players doing the, “It’s a d20 game, I play it like all the other d20 games.” It forces them to say, “This is Campaign X, I play it like this….”

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From Soylent Green

Talking to the players isn’t bad, but I just find it’s not effective or accurate. Watching your players in action gives you a much better picture of what they really enjoy.

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From Randal

I’ve found most people don’t know what they want, and thus can’t talk about it. One of my players was happy playing anything as long as he was the hero and the center of attention for some major part of the game. He would never be able to articulate that without a psychologist explaining it to him (and even then would not admit it).

I’ve had players start with one expectation and then find they were wrong.

But most of us know what we don’t like, so make your voice be heard.

I joined a D&D group, and from the get-go another player and I said, “We don’t like attacks of opportunity.” We made our case and the GM agreed to throw them out. It made for much more cinematic and quick combat, and no one seemed to be annoyed at the omission (well one guy did, but he was a power-gamer and was later kicked from the group).

I’ve had GMs that followed spell components to the letter. I refuse to play spell casters in those games. Having learned this, I expressed my distaste. The GM refused to budge so I refused to play a spell caster. It limited my choices, but I knew ahead of time that I would not like playing a mage in his game. Problem averted, expectations managed.

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From Travis

If a DM wants to run a dungeon crawl game and his players don’t, then that DM should get different players. If I want to play blues and you want to play heavy metal, then maybe we should be in different bands.

If the DM wants to play with a particular group of players then, yes, the DM should coordinate and collaborate with those players to run a game that everyone finds acceptable. If what a DM wants to do is tied closer to a type of game they want to run, then they should find players that want to play that game.

I have a successful game and I reserve the right to be absolutely inflexible about how I run it and what the content of the game will be.

I am clear about that up front before a player joins the group. The player can either play or not.

We have been running a campaign for over a year, and my players are willing to drive more than 20 miles up some steep hills, through snow and sleet out into the boonies, to play at my table. My lack of flexibility appears not to be a problem for my group of players. Others have come to the table and not liked my game and they left. This does not bother me, at all.

There is research that shows human beings are poor at affective forecasting. We are not good at forecasting how we will feel about something. Daniel Gilbert from Harvard has done research and written several papers and books about this.

We tend to focus on individual events and not on what goes on in the periphery.

“I would feel bad if my character died.” We might discount that the character’s death could be a blaze of glory worthy of song and story. We might discount that I now get to play a different character that might be even more cool than the character I’m playing now. So this is one reason why I collaborate and coordinate player expectations and do not manage them. Those expectations might change because the player didn’t forecast that the stuff he thought was going to be not fun was actually extremely fun or vice versa.

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How-To Game Master Books

In addition to doing this newsletter, I have written several GMing books to inspire your games and make GMing easier and more fun:

NPC Essentials

Critically acclaimed and multiple award-winning guide to crafting, roleplaying, and GMing three dimensional NPCs for any game system and genre. This book will make a difference to your GMing.

Free preview:

Filling the Empty Chair

How to find great gamers fast and easy online with my list of the best gamer registries and player finder websites. Recruit offline quickly with 28 new and easy ideas to find gamers in your local area. And attract the best players with my tips and advice on how to create the right kind of ads.

Inns, Taverns, and Restaurants

How to design, map, and GM fresh encounters for RPG’s most popular locales. Includes campaign and NPC advice, plus several generators and tables:

Adventure Essentials: Holidays

Advice and tips for designing compelling holidays that not only expand your game world but provide endless natural encounter, adventure, and campaign hooks.

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One More Tip

Avoid This Game Session Waster Like the Plague

From Johnn

No plan survives the first round. So why let your players waste time planning long and complex situations?

It is probably not news to you that PC plans fail often during the first round of combat. I believe there are several reasons for that:

Incomplete Information

GMs know all the secrets, so it is easy to look at things from the inside and determine the best course of action.

Players, though, look at things from the outside, with partial information. They will forget things between sessions. They will miss clues. They will draw the wrong conclusions.

Player plans often fail because they only have partial information.

The Cult of the Individual

The game is run through individual actions, on a turn-by- turn basis. Group plans disintegrate when individuals make autonomous actions.

Sure, everybody agrees on what to do. But twenty minutes later it is finally the mage’s turn and the GM looks him in the eye demanding a declaration of action. Can the player remember the plan? Does the plan still seem viable? Did the others follow the plan? Does the mage still want to follow the plan?

Even though players share the same table, they run their PCs entirely in their own skulls. Planning, teamwork, and coordination is tough! It takes work. It is far easier to go solo.

And initiative systems create a game structure that further enhances and rewards individual action. It is my turn, then your turn – it’s not _our_ turn.

Some groups do well at this. Most devolve into individualism, supported by the game rules and GM.

This individualism is not a bad thing. It is how I GM, and how almost all my groups have worked. Just recognize this dynamic for what it is, and play to its strengths.

Spotlight Frenzy

Which brings us to the third reason plans fail. Who can resist temptation for heroics?

Sure, everybody agrees to their role in the upcoming fight. But when that shiny light beams down and everybody is looking at you, waiting for you to act, it is nigh impossible to want to do something boring, like delay until the all-clear sign.

Further, you might have been waiting minutes to act, and you will wait minutes to act again after your turn. Are you going to waste that on waiting for a signal? That is boring.

It is human nature for players to ditch the plan and act independently, to make the most of their precious minutes each round to do something fun, interesting, and un-boring.

Interrupt and Offer Wisdom

There are many more reasons plans fail than those three. So next time your group starts making a plan, advise them to just plan for the first couple of rounds. You will save them a lot of time and effort.

Players tend to disagree most during planning stints. People think differently. So you can also save the group internal trouble by advising they cut planning short.

Having a plan for entering a conflict is super. And smart. But there is no need to plan much beyond that, because things will deviate anyway, and the planning becomes moot.

An Alternate Solution

If your group still holds onto the idea that planning is dear, then offer them a compromise that actually works in their favor. Let them plan the first round or two. Then start play.

Play three rounds and stop to let them plan some more. Put a time limit on the planning, say three minutes.

Then play another three round rounds, and stop again for three minutes of planning.

Tinker with these numbers as you see fit, but the end result will actually be less misspent planning, and more game play.

A caveat. If your group plans successfully, toss this tip out. Otherwise, advise players to focus on the short term in any given situation and then get on with the game.