Rebooting Your Campaign – 7 Tips
From Johnn Four
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #283
Campaigns can suffer from a number of ailments that prevent them from finishing. This is a tragedy because you and your players likely intend to finish the campaigns you start. Each campaign that dies young can eat away at a GM’s confidence or desire to begin anew. Each campaign that fizzles because the GM or the players become bored, uninspired, or burnt out represents a loss in terms of planning, preparation, and unrealized hopes.
One possible solution is to reboot your campaign. Rebooting involves taking a step back, making big changes, and then resuming. This is a disruptive process, but it can save a campaign and gaming groups. Rebooting is a way to get and feel creative once more without having to start over again. I call it rebooting because it’s somewhat like restarting your computer after a crash, application freeze, or bug. You’re not really restarting though. You’re reassessing, fixing what’s not working, and injecting new life into the campaign to renew interest and revitalize the fun.
The key benefit of rebooting versus crumpling it all up into a paper ball and making a shot at the garbage can is you increase your chances of bringing the campaign to a satisfying conclusion. It’s important to finish as many of the campaigns you start as possible. This increases confidence, provides a sense of closure to the players and their characters, takes stories to their important conclusion, and adds value and specialness to campaign beginnings.
Some GMs hit a mental block once a campaign advances to a certain stage. Others have short attention spans and get new ideas that sabotage existing ones in play. Sometimes poor planning (or lack of planning) creates a nest of logic problems and flailing loose ends too difficult to resolve in-game. This drains the desire to play and to GM. Reboot to save your campaign and, possibly, your group.
Write A Summary
What is the current state of affairs in your campaign? Often, a campaign becomes unruly because you lose grasp on what’s going on with too many threads, NPCs, and background considerations in play. You might have too many ideas circulating in your game or in your head, or too many books with pages marked for use.
Another pitfall is losing track of the details. Inconsistency kills campaigns. Players get frustrated when the information they rely upon shifts beneath their feet because the GM forgot, mis-remembered, or didn’t take proper notes.
During a reboot, one part of the solution is to write out the current state of your campaign. Craft a brain dump of what’s happening, what has happened, and what you have planned to happen. Take out paper and pen, or monitor and keyboard, and document what the heck is going on with the PCs, villains, other NPCs, plot arcs and threads, world events, locations, pending treasure, and anything else you think of that’s important.
I recommend focusing on plot threads and story notes. You don’t need to write or re-write NPC backstories, for example, unless you feel unclear about them (though, be sure to note plot threads that they have impacted during past gameplay). You can also avoid documenting encounters, in most cases. If you’re in a rush, keep it simple.
Tip: if you have a lot of ideas and things planned for your campaign, consider restricting your summary to facts and info *known* by your players and their PCs. This will shrink the size of the document and make the task possible for busy GMs. In addition, a primary objective for the reboot might be bringing threads and details back under control, so documenting what information is currently in play will help you re-establish consistency and coherency.
No summary document format is perfect, so pick one that best suits your style. For some, writing is a pain, for others, it’s hard to stop!
- Campaign log. I’ve done this with success many times and highly recommend this approach. Starting with session one, log out everything that’s happened in game sessions to date. This not only creates a permanent story for your group to enjoy for years to come, it also creates a record of what the players and PCs know, helps remind you what the heck has happened, and often inspires you with ideas for tying things together and corralling runaway plot threads.In addition, logging also reveals what you don’t know. If you discover gaps in your memory, then poll your players to help flesh out the log. You might consider sending your finished log to each player anyway, because they might have more details you didn’t know you had forgotten and will bring new perspectives to events.
- Technical document. From the GM’s perspective, you note the 5 w’s and 1 h: who, what, where, when, why, and how. This factual format is good for left-brainers, helps keep things succinct, and establishes the foundation for a good, on-going reference tool.
- Bullets. This is another format I frequently use. I write whatever comes to mind, with each new subject or idea being a new bullet. Once finished, group similar bullets together. If you’re on a computer, you can use copy & paste. If you’re using paper, come up with a labelling system, such as numbers, letters, or highlighter colours, and tag each bullet.Iterate, if you have the time, to refine your organization. For example, you might go through your bullets and group all NPC info together. In the next pass-through, you sort all NPC bullets by individual NPC. Next pass-through, you sort each NPC’s info according to timeline.
- Index cards. Theme each card and make notes as needed. For example, you might have a card for every NPC, or a card for all NPCs. Use the front and back, and staple cards together if your notes overflow. Use colours for high-level themes, such as NPC info vs. game world info vs. plot info.Index cards are sortable, making them a flexible tool. You can also append notes and cards to cards easily, as well as have several laid out at once for asynchronous notation.
- Post-It Notes. Ditto with Post-Its. If you can find a smooth, portable surface, such as a chunk of cardboard with strips of packing tape covering it, you can lay out all your Post-Its for easy grouping and reorganization.
Once done, you’ll have a document to check your facts as you make changes to ensure you preserve consistency. After time passes, feel free to re-read your document with fresh eyes. If unconfident, you might learn your plots and ideas are better than you thought, or you might get new ideas.
The point of this exercise is to document the current state of your campaign before you change things up. It also gets your undocumented thoughts and ideas out and fixed “on paper” so they stop circling in your head and stressing you. You’ll find that doing this might also help you unknot areas that are giving you problems, resolve unruly plot threads, and start the process of cleaning things up.
Get Player Feedback
Ask your players what they think about your campaign before you make changes. You might be surprised to find that what you think are campaign problems are not problems at all. You also want to avoid changing what your players are enjoying about your game.
Approach each player privately by phone, IM, e-mail, or in- person so you can get honest feedback. Players in group feedback sessions might hold back or be influenced by the others. Feel free to try both – start with group feedback and then get one-on-one feedback.
When asking for feedback, be armed with specific questions. A general request for feedback will get you non-specific comments that won’t help. If you could get any kind of feedback about your campaign, what would it be? Use this blue-sky thinking to create a list of specific questions.
- What do you think about your character?
- What do you think about [NPC]?
- What do you plan to do next? What future plans and ideas does your character have?
- What are your thoughts on the last couple of game sessions?
- If you could change anything about the campaign, what would it be?
- If you could tweak anything about the GMing, what would it be?
Be objective and don’t react to feedback as you receive it (which could be delivered bluntly or might ruffle your feathers). You’re just gathering information at this point.
After the feedback stage is done, take a step back and assess. Decide what things, if any, you want to act on during the reboot.
Resolving unruly, runaway, or complicated plot threads is a great way to reboot. If you have too many plot threads going, you might want to trim a few as well.
- Unruly plot threads. Consider resolving threads that are giving you headaches:
- Require huge amounts of planning
- Lead the PCs too far away from other threads
- Have too many dependencies that have yet to trigger
- Aren’t fun for you or the players
- Break the atmosphere or theme you’re aiming for
- Runaway threads. Similar to unruly threads, this type gives you problems because the scope just keeps getting bigger and bigger to the point where it’s become unwieldy, or because it’s stomping over all your other plans.For example, what began as a quest for the pieces of an artifact in exchange for a sage’s advice has become a cosmic conflict between law and chaos–in your notes, at least. Before all your other threads succumb to this one, you decide to axe it during your reboot.
- Complicated threads. If you wrote out a campaign summary, you might have spotted a thread or two that seemed overly complex. Often, the problem lies in the backstory where A caused B, causing C, which caused D and E, of which E modified A causing F…. Tracking all the events, NPCs, and details has become a major chore. Even worse, you’ve become paralyzed at the game table a few times because one mis- step, one mis-play could result in the thread unravelling. It’s time to resolve this thread!
- Too many threads. It’s fun thinking about upcoming games and pondering how things could turn out. However, the mental gymnastics required to track and interweave a bunch of threads can give you a headache and burn you out. For example, in a fit of inspiration at the start, you decided to make this the best campaign ever by running an overall plot arc that consisted of three independent plot threads. Plus, you vowed to give each PC two personal threads to make the campaign highly individualized. Gulp.
Methods For Resolving Threads
Moving forward, you have a few choices on how to resolve threads you’ve decided to axe. These can be grouped into two main approaches: in-game and background. In-game resolutions are handled with player and character involvement, though that involvement can range from primary to minor. Background resolutions take place outside the group’s control and are easier to execute.
- In-Game Resolutions
- Single encounter. With a little planning, you attempt to present a situation where a thread ends in a single encounter. This type of encounter is often climactic in nature, such as a huge battle or a special gathering of numerous NPCs. For example, an evil church has been plotting against the King, and the PCs unexpectedly stumble onto their secret altar room for a boss battle.
- Side plot. You introduce a side plot that has a high potential for ending the thread. For example, you create a cult of assassins who target the villain of an unruly plot for murder. You have them contact the PCs to get their help, perhaps as a distraction or diversion.
- Dilemma. You present the PCs a difficult choice where each option is likely to resolve a thread. They decide which one they’d prefer to tackle. While this takes away the resolution opportunity for one thread, it gives them the choice of preference, maintaining a sense of fairness and control. For example, the PCs are summoned by their patron who tells them he has hired a veteran mercenary company, and they must choose where the company gets deployed.
- Ease up. Fast-track a plot thread by reducing its difficulty. Players enjoy success, and GMs have a tendency to over-challenge their groups anyway, so a thorough routing and quick win changes things up enjoyably. For example, the dungeon concept you had planned just doesn’t fit, so you switch it from a multi- level crawl to a dozen room location.
- Reveal more. You can also fast-track a plot to end it quickly by revealing more story in every encounter. Provide more clues or resolve more issues in each encounter.
- Background Resolutions
- Unexpected consequences. You extrapolate one or more PC actions and derive a plot-ending set of circumstances. This is effective because it will remind PCs they can impact the game world in small and large ways and should encourage them to consider their actions carefully.For example, the PCs sell off their latest treasure haul that included a cursed sword -1. That sword ends up in the hands of an ally who unwittingly uses it in battle and dies. Whether the sword was the cause of death or not, it gives you a good crutch to end the thread with and makes the PCs wonder if they architected their friend’s demise.
- Out of the blue. Without warning, an event occurs that ends the thread. This might be the least satisfying option, but sometimes it’s the best–or only–way. For example, in a violent storm, the villain’s army-bearing fleet foundered, resulting in the villain fleeing and becoming a plot non-entity.
- Villain intervention. Big fish eat little fish. Villains are fair game to other villains. Being evil is not automatically a membership to a fraternity, so it makes sense villains would fight each other as well as the heroes.For example, the minotaur wizard learns the necromancer is buying up all the valuable gems in the area. Gems are essential components for powerful spells, so it makes sense one force would try to establish a monopoly to prevent rivals from casting. The minotaur hires a party of NPC adventurers who succeed at capturing the necromancer.
Tip: Resolve threads as soon as you can before additional complications can arise. If you choose the in-game approach, try to end the thread at the start of the session.
Tip: Think in straight lines. Part of the challenge of ending threads abruptly is resolving the contingencies and dependencies. You likely have a lot of steps and paths in mind between the current state and the end of the plot–that could be part of the problem. Regardless, take a step back, put yourself in the shoes of the villain, NPC(s), or monster that’s driving the plot, and think about what the most basic action would be for them to take to achieve their goals. Try to make this an A to B straight line plan, which will make it easier to resolve quickly and cleanly.
Another way to categorize plot resolution methods is combine, kill, and convert.
- Combine. You join two or more threads together. Perhaps villains team up. Allies spawning threads work together or defect to the side of evil. Maybe a tougher villain appears and puts weaker forces under his control. Guilds might merge, nobles could marry, and countries might sign treaties.
- Kill. You eliminate the driving force behind the thread and remnant threats, complications, and conditions dissipate. For example, a villain flees to a weaker region, an ally defeats him, minions rebel, or he incapacitates himself in an accident.
- Convert (to PCs’ side). Threats against the PCs decide to work with them instead.
Tip: Look for the story. Try to turn events that end a thread into interesting narrative. If you have enough details established, you can provide the PCs news over time, create a storytelling encounter with an NPC, such as a bard, or create clues so that the PCs can piece together what happened for themselves. Do this rather than letting the players know out of character.
Tip: Avoid ending threads that players or characters are enjoying. If you’re struggling with the thread, ask your group for help: ideas, advice, and cooperation.
Kill Off NPCs
Consider killing off troublesome NPCs. These folks have conflicting backstories, problematic threads, irritating personalities, or difficult rules implications.
Benefits to knocking off NPCs causing campaign problems are surprised players and refreshed gameplay. Players might meta-game your NPCs, noting which ones are the cruxes of plots (and so have immunity for the time being) and which ones are your favourites (GM pets often get better chances :). A sudden demise or departure can catch your group off- guard. In addition, removal of NPCs thought to have immunity or have the party relying on them shakes the ground a bit, making players excited and interested.
Example methods of NPC removal:
- Death. Try to make it a plot-related event, such as death by villain, death by plot hook, or death by story development. Some genres allow interaction after death (raise dead, undead, channelling with spirits) so the NPC can make a reappearance if needed.
- Journey. The NPC leaves the region. Perhaps he’s fleeing, chasing something, or just moving away.
- Hiding. The NPC has an excellent hiding spot in or outside of the campaign region.
- Promotion. The NPC moves up in his organization’s hierarchy, prompting a relocation or making him inaccessible to the PCs and the campaign.
- Trick. If it’s the NPC’s eleventy eleventh birthday….
If required after campaign reboot, NPCs not killed can return or be discovered. Consider carefully the details of the NPC’s departure so that inquisitive PCs investigating will be treated fairly. It’s bad form if it appears you’re denying PC actions just because you don’t want the NPC found.
Before removal, first check to see if the NPC has any dependencies, such as plot threads or PC needs. If so, you can transfer these to another NPC, often retroactively. For example, if the PCs are relying too heavily on an NPC, but the NPC is the only one with knowledge of a future dungeon location, you can have him unknowingly leave a clue behind or inform another NPC during a night of drunken revelry.
Revitalize Your Villain
Villains are critical campaign elements. Plots, character actions, and fun depend on the quality of your villains. It’s wise to check up on them regularly because campaign development and party decisions influence all aspects of the bad guys.
For example, the group has twice been foiled by the villain, but the PCs are more focused on gathering treasure than thinking about who is blocking them and why. During reboot, it’s time to consider what you can design and implement so the party will develop a good hate for your NPC.
Some things to consider when revitalizing your villain(s):
- Goals. Are the villain’s objectives still relevant? Perhaps the PCs have wandered too far away to interact with them? Reassess your evildoer’s aims and change them accordingly as best you can without ruining continuity or consistency.
- Diabolical plans. Hopefully, your criminal mastermind has some upcoming actions, manipulations, and machinations planned. First check to see if any unassessed plans have triggered and what the results are. For example, you had planned for the villain’s experiment to take three weeks to execute. However, the PCs have taken four weeks to get through a dungeon and the three week mark slipped by. Now is your chance to figure out what happened. Did the experiment succeed, fail, or get delayed?
Next, determine if the villain needs to react to any character actions or campaign developments.
Third, assess the plans for fun factor. For example, the PCs might have advanced further along than anticipated and have been fighting weak humanoids for some time. The villain has been raising a goblin army in secret, but you decide to switch that up to an elemental army to keep challenges fresh and interesting in sessions to come.
- Power. Have the PCs become too powerful, making the villain an easy target? Perhaps the villain has been weakened due to other developments? Though you don’t want to penalize players for good gameplay by arbitrarily buffing your villain mid-campaign, if unrelated circumstances have weakened him, consider giving him more power in one form or another.
- Compelling. To date, you might have been too busy to give the villain much thought, and have been content with GMing his minions with plans to flesh him out when the PCs are strong enough. A reboot is a good time to examine your villain, fill in detail gaps, and make him compelling. It’s also a good time to consider more ways for your bad guy to have an impact on the campaign in the near future. To bring excitement levels back up, you want the PCs to take notice, take offence, and take action.
Treasure imbalance kills campaign enthusiasm. Characters with long-term reward deprivation grow sullen, players with too much reward grow bored. GMs who have overly powerful PCs on their hands get stressed, bored, or frustrated.
Most of the time, the problem is too much loot. Before planning how you’ll re-balance current treasure levels, consider first how the situation got to the point where it is now:
- Published sources. Using published modules is great, but they haven’t been designed with knowledge about your campaign, so the designers might have exceeded the optimum treasure threshold for your unique group of PCs.
- Too generous. You want the players to have fun, so you lavish them with rewards. This might have backfired, though, if things are too easy now for the PCs or if the players have become inured to good treasure. Alternatively, your prices might be too low or item availability too common.
- Greedy. Perhaps the PCs are at fault by nickel and diming you? Every last rusty sword, monster body part, and piece of information gets sold and it’s unexpectedly all added up to large sums. Greedy might be the wrong word, as this can be smart play in some campaigns, but the result is the same–an imbalance.
- Too easy. If foes are easy to beat, the PCs aren’t motivated to use all the resources at their disposal. Consequently, potion inventories build, item charges go unused, and bank account balances rise. Be careful about this analysis, you don’t want to overcompensate and make the campaign after reboot frustratingly difficult.
- Awareness. Another reason might be forgetful players. During big battles and challenging roleplay encounters, the group makes things far more difficult for themselves by not utilizing their treasure-based options. For example, the PCs often end up fighting NPCs they could have tricked with their hat of disguise or potions of charm person.
As for solutions, the best is to game it out. Use encounters and NPCs to deplete characters of their items and wealth. If performed with fairness, consistency, and style, this approach can be its own reward.
Maggs: Look at the way those “adventurers” swagger around the village. It ain’t right, you know.
Barm: They act like they own the place! Someone ought to take ’em down a peg.
Maggs: That tall, skinny one is loaded with stuff that would bring a pretty penny at Boris’s by the river.
Barm: The one in the armour too. Someone ought to steal that stuff–they ain’t usin’ it.
Maggs: Hee hee. That would serve ’em right. Their nose are so high in the air it would be easy too!
[Maggs and Barm look at each other and start to grin, which soon turns into backslapping laughter. Rubbing their hands gleefully, they gather their tools and head over to stakeout the PCs’ room at inn….]
- Planning. Read the module or your notes ahead of time. Consider making a spreadsheet or list of loot as you read (which can be re-used as your group treasure key for future identifications and appraisals). Calculate totals at the end, and examine the total haul. Trim as you see fit.
- If in doubt, hold it back. There’s almost always opportunity to give PCs more treasure in the future. You can often lump it into a stage boss’s horde. If you’re not sure whether your campaign is ready for 10,000 gold pieces or that helm of telepathy, hold it back until you have time to consider the consequences. The players won’t know the difference, and a few stingy encounters in a row will build up the anticipation for a good reward–hopefully at a time when you’re prepared and comfortable with doling it out.
- Use it or lose it. If foes don’t use the resources at their disposal, they’ll have no use for them when they’re dead (in most cases :). Be sure your NPCs use those potions, wands, and ammunition. Also, consider trapping treasure locations so that incautious PCs are denied their reward. For example, an evil NPC can’t stand the thought of his horde falling into the hands of his enemies, so he’s trapped his vault with a self-destruct device.
- Use it or lose it II. If the PCs don’t use it, try to motivate them use it or try to take it away using in-game elements such as thieves, jealous rivals, grudge matches, challenges and duels, NPC cons and tricks.Avoid monsters or NPCs with abilities to arbitrarily destroy items, such as rust monsters or magic sucking critters. If you must use this method, try to give the party ample warning, clues, and choice. For example, you might decide to substitute a rust monster for the giant lizard that’s guarding the upcoming dungeon entrance, and then have rumours and stories come in about a metal eating creature, or have local animals and villagers fall mysteriously sick (due to poisoning from rust seeping into the water supply).
- Home base. Encourage the PCs to have a home base that they are motivated to build, improve, fix, upgrade, or fortify. Grant them a piece of land, have them inherit an old mansion or tower, or hint that the dungeon they just cleaned out could be made quite cozy.
- Cursed items. Consider adding cursed items to treasure hauls. This makes PCs more cautious about wielding treasure without investigation, and can help deplete treasure stores, offset treasure-based abilities, and generate new challenges.
Rebooting gives you a chance to assess the party’s current magic items, monetary levels, and reward enhanced capabilities. If there’s an opportunity to learn from past mistakes, now is a good time to figure out what they were and implement changes. If you need to re-balance the party, try to make a game of it, and don’t worry about restoring things all at once–you have unlimited encounters and plots to try and reset treasure levels again.
Fire With All Canons
This tip comes from Martin Ralya’s Treasure Tables blog for GMs: Treasure Tables: Lead With the Cool Stuff.
We all have good ideas that bring evil chuckles and steepled fingers, but we also have a tendency to save them for some indeterminate time in the future.
Martin sums it up nicely in his blog:
“If you leave your cool ideas sitting on the shelf, so to speak, one of two things is going to happen: you’ll slowly lose interest in whatever you first found so inspiring about them; or you’ll simply never reach the ‘right time’ to use them at all.”
Your reboot is the perfect time to pull out your best ideas and fire with all canons.
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Readers’ Tips Of The Week
Do It Yourself Cavern
From Francois Beausoleil
In response to Dr. Nik’s tips from Issue #282, I’d like to add the following. I DM a D&D 3.5e game, and I wanted to have a climactic battle in full 3D. I started with a 4×4 ft. plank of plywood and glued pieces of cardboard to it. My overall plan was for a cavern with a central pillar. I carved into boxes to make special places where the PCs could be ambushed and for other situations.
Then, it was back to kindergarten–I took flour and water, mixed it up, and started applying newspaper to make real terrain–instant Papier-mache. I ended up with a strange cavern, at scale, where my players would have a great time.
When we did play the game, I can tell you my players were very impressed. As Dr. Nik said, a tape measure and some lengths of strings were all that we needed. We used the strings to delimit areas of effects.
Cool GM Tool: PocketMod
From Rich Taylor
Here’s something I recently found that I think would be really useful for a GM of any system.
I don’t have a laptop, and I run my games away from my computer. But I have learned the importance of taking notes when I run games. I also tend to misplace my notebooks because I am constantly trying to use them “efficiently.”
A PocketMod is a single piece of paper, printed on and folded to become a small eight page booklet.
I can do some pre-game setup by putting up a pre-game checklist, track days on the calendar, have a few pages for taking notes, and make the back cover another checklist that I can use the next day to make a list of things I have to remember to do for the next game session.
I’ve only been using these for a week, but I’ve already found it to be very, very useful.
Another Forum Gaming Site
Hey Johnn! I’m the co-admin of Lacerta role playing, a rapidly growing forum RP site with a lot of single-thread RPGs and the freedom for members to post more. We have two URLs:
Pre-Combat Terrain Considerations
From The Riftalope
Paying attention to terrain is important not only in combat but in regular travel play. The influence of Carl in our early game club days has affected all the GMs that have come from those days. They paint bigger pictures when we talk as characters. We don’t just banter, clearly hearing each other from horseback. The dice are constantly rolled by the GM and high winds or passing around a tree can throw off what was said into misheard jumbles. Hearing wrong can make for fun roleplay or give clues.
Moods can also be told in setting, such as an NPC squire tracking along on the bottom of hill while everyone else is in line tells you just how hard he’s taking a romantic rejection.
Consider the PCs reaction after smelling good food in the distance or catching the smell of a fire before coming to a burnt out farm. The lay of the land may only let a few of the players be affected by scent at a time. When you camp on a hillside with woods at your back and a field before you, the air at sunset usually comes from the forest. Cooking now won’t draw animals from a direction you can’t see. Spotting wolves on a field gives you time to raise the fire and gather horses.
This kind of non-combat scene can paint the mood and the breaking of it into pre-combat positioning. You can spring a pre-made camp combat map or diorama on your troupe. If terrain is used often, you’ll have players thinking where they bed down for camp.
Correction: Ogre Ambush (D&D 3.5)
From Arne Schmidt
Sorry to be a nitpicker, but the Ogre Ambush tip in issue #282 is problematic from a rules standpoint:
- Ogres can’t have Improved Trip and Weapon Focus (Flail) because Improved Trip has a prerequisite of Int 13 and ogres have an Int of 6. Also, Improved Trip has a prerequisite of Combat Expertise that would have to be the ogre’s other feat since they only get two. So, no Improved Trip and Weapon Focus (flail) unless these are advanced, super-intelligent ogres who also have Combat Expertise.
- You can’t trip on the Attack of Opportunity provoked by standing up. The target is prone when the Attack of Opportunity takes place and so tripping them has no effect and does not prevent them from standing up. This is specifically stated in the D&D 3.5 FAQ.