Thursday, May 26, 2022

It Is Finished

It is done.

After eleven years, we finally wrapped the Crux of Eternity campaign last Saturday, May 21, 2022. If you want to read the session reports, you can find the whole thing at Obsidian Portal.

It's certainly the longest campaign I've ever run in terms of the number of years. Even though there were some significant breaks, I would still estimate the whole campaign at around 800 hours, which is probably about how much we would have played if we played regularly for eleven years. (Assuming roughly once every two weeks at three hours a session.) In contrast: my next-longest campaign is the occasionally-mentioned The Imperial City, which lasted about eight years. We played irregularly, but very often — I expect we were gathering roughly twice a week at the height of that game, so in terms of hours, it likely blew Crux of Eternity out of the water. Rounding out the other completed campaigns are Bread and Circuses at just over two years and False in Some Sense at about a year-and-a-half.

I have talked about the origins of this game elsewhere, but the key points are that we started in May of 2011 in fourth edition, updating to fifth edition in December of 2015. The humble seed of this campaign sprawled into my typical nonsense: an elaborate cultic criminal conspiracy corrupts the heart of the largest city in the region, and it is poised to spread if the player characters can't stop it. I didn't know then at the time that we were going to spend eleven years fighting slavery and delving the dangerous wilds of the Sorrowfell Plains, but here we are.

Since then, that game has spawned many others and has ranged across several different systems: in addition to a couple of one-shots and side stories and budding campaigns, we have explored a tale of escaped gladiators trying to find their way in the world, a conspiracy tale about high-level enchanters doing... something, and a tale about poor wanderers trapped in a land of arctic horror. I'd love to run a proper old-school, open-ended hexcrawl with, say, BECMI or Old-School Essentials one of these days, but most of my players respond way better to concrete objectives, so we keep riding the fine line between new-school and old-school.

(Although I can't tell you how badly I want to run a BECMI campaign that runs all the way from level 1 through the Immortals box set twice until the players ascend past the Immortals tier. A massive undertaking, but one that I imagine would be very fun with a dedicated group.)

While I'm always worried that my players aren't enjoying themselves, they kept returning after eleven years, so I suppose we made something we could all enjoy. They certainly seemed to find the final battle against the Khan of Nightmares dramatic; the umbral blot was a terrifying opponent, and the Khan's personal hound turned half the party to stone before they finally managed to defeat the Khan and take over his Coliseum Morpheuon.

And then they fade into the mists of history to fulfill their own agendas and inevitably return as NPCs in some future game...

The Obligatory After-action Report

This was my first time running fantasy in general or Dungeons & Dragons in particular, and since it lasted over a decade and spawned many spin-offs, I have to assume it was a rousing success.

I have to assume the players were engaged if they stayed with this game for so long. For all my uncertainty, they certainly seemed like it; it wasn't as anarchic as The Imperial City, but every month or two, I would get a message in my inbox from someone who wanted to do something on their own time.

Having played both extensively, I vastly prefer fifth edition to fourth, and ultimately think it's a decent game. (As with most things, it's better than the haters claim it is but not as good as the fanatics seem to think.) It's certainly more suited to the sorts of games I like to run than some other editions, and not as focused on combat as third or fourth edition. If I could have run this entire campaign in fifth edition, it definitely would not have been as linear and structured.

However, I also tend to prefer old-school play to new-school play. As noted above, I wish I could have done more what I did with Of Kith and Kin: start the characters in a town, seed a couple of adventures, and see what direction they go. Some players respond better to that than others, but I preferred the sprawling, open-ended game Crux of Eternity became rather than the plot-driven quest it was at the start.

The game went largely as I expected, for better or worse, although we had a couple of side-quests that took me by surprise. (The battle against Kiaransalee and the Khan of Nightmares were both largely or wholly player-driven activities.) We've also done enough world-building that this game will no doubt spawn several others for as long as I care to run fantasy games and my various gaming groups care to play them.

My only regret is that we didn't have a more open table. We had a handful of guest stars over the years, but I like the energy that new people bring to the table. A possible consideration for future games. (Then again, I'm thinking of eventually following this up with a West Marches-style Blade in the Dark game, so then I can accommodate a truly sprawling number of players.)

And Now: Some Advice

This game has been marked by me becoming more active in the RPG internet hobby space, and so I see lots of comments, complaints, and critiques about long-running games. (Or trying to organize games in general.) Mainly, prospective Game Masters seem mystified as to how to get a group together and to keep them interested. I find that getting a group is the hardest part, especially if you live somewhere that's a trifle remote, but keeping them around and engaged isn't especially challenging. Trawl hobby spaces, be active, talk to people: the usual stuff you do to make friends in this wide world of ours. Beyond that, contemplate these tips:

  • Don't get discouraged if your player group isn't interested in playing your favorite RPG. Compromise is part of life, and the rules typically aren't as important as the culture at the table. If you build a rapport with your group, you can eventually convince them to play any game you like. But you have to put in the work first to build trust.
  • Be excited. Even if you're, say, a Monsterhearts GM who is stuck running this vanilla fantasy D&D game, put stuff you like into the game. There's plenty of room for queer romance and interpersonal drama even in the hardest sci-fi dogfighting game. I cut my teeth on World of Darkness and fell in love with Unknown Armies, so my D&D games are full of secret societies, Gothic horror monsters, obsessive wizards, moral ambiguity, and de-emphasized combat. There is a lot of room to explore the sort of stuff you like; traditional games usually have room for all sorts of campaigns in them, so there's room for the stuff that excites you.
  • It's pretty easy to challenge high-level D&D characters: give them real stakes, follow through on your threatened consequences, and put them in impossible (but open-ended) situations. The real magic is when players surprise you. (This is good advice for any game, by the way. Most traditional sorts of pen-and-paper RPGs assume characters become more powerful as they age, so there's likely a "high-level" option for your favorite RPG, as long as it isn't too esoteric.)
    • One of the reasons why good published high-level adventures are so rare is because high-level games seem to grow logically out of the consequences of your players' actions. Also, what might be a suitable challenge for one group might be too easy, too boring, or too difficult for another. The variables are so great that it's difficult to predict that sort of thing.
  • Don't punish the players for good ideas. Throwing a bunch of qualifiers at them or making every outcome negative really hurts player morale. Every character choice is a vote for what players want to do and be good at doing in a game, and you shouldn't invalidate that.
  • The players are the stars of the show, and what they choose to do in the game is a vote for what they want to see. If they fall away from certain challenges or characters, don't force them to interact with them. If they hang out with certain NPCs more than others or gravitate toward certain places, encourage them to do so.
    • As an example, I'm not a romance-heavy GM, but my games often include romance because many of the players seem to enjoy exploring it. Give the people what they want.
  • Make the players' choices matter. Good or bad outcomes are less important than agency, and the players are going to remember the puppy they saved or the tavern that was named after them more than the big, epic set piece battle with the Dawning Lord of the Nine Suns. Saving the world isn't half as cool as when the tavern server remembers your drink order.
    • Although you can make saving the world matter when the world reacts to it. If people tearfully thank your players for saving them, or hide them when they're in trouble, then their choices mattered.

Final Thoughts

As I write this, it still hasn't really hit me that it's over. Admittedly, it's not really over for me: I have a session of Of Kith and Kin on Sunday, so my head is still very much in the Sorrowfell Plains.

In a very real way, this blog only exists because of this campaign, so if you've ever enjoyed anything you have read here, you can thank this sprawling epic and the dedicated players who saw it through to the end. I learned a lot from running it, and those lessons will hopefully inform whatever happens next.

I'll hopefully also have more time to curate the blog and write stuff as some of the existing campaigns wind down. That's always the dream, anyway.

Be seeing you.

Thursday, May 19, 2022


I've learned a lot about myself during this ongoing pandemic of ours. For instance, at the beginning of the pandemic, I was in ten role-playing games, and running six of them.

I've learned that you should never, ever do that.

(These days, I'm at a more reasonable six games, and only running five of them. You should never do that, either. I suspect I'd be happiest running two or maybe three.)

I've also learned that I'm not a big fan of running one-shots. They're fun to play, but I find it takes roughly as much work to craft or prepare a one-off game as it does to start a campaign, and then I might as well just run the campaign. (An endless series of one-shots requires roughly the same effort every time, but campaigns have a break-point where what I get out of them vastly exceeds the work I put into them. Plus, most games are complicated enough and many players are addled enough that there isn't really time for character creation and a game session, meaning a one-shot is two sessions, or I have to make the characters, which adds to my planning load.)

Of course, the track record among my circle of friends probably speaks to that. I have a modest number of completed campaigns under my belt, but to date, I have only played in one campaign to completion, and even then the GM scrambled to wrap everything up before he lost interest. Campaigns otherwise usually fall apart, or the GM gets bored, or the character sheets get lost, or whatever.

I vastly prefer to run RPGs than play them. (But you probably guessed that from the content on this blog.)

Most importantly, I think I've learned what my ultimate, Platonic ideal of a campaign would be.

Serious, Stupid, Spooky

You need the mix of all three in roughly equal proportion. To keep things interesting, the tone needs to drift over time. Perhaps an example will explain what I mean. My ultimate game would go something like this:

The player characters are trapped in a town during a zombie outbreak. (Did they arrive during the outbreak? Were they in town and the dead rose? It probably doesn't matter, although the latter makes more sense.) It's the standard zombie setup familiar to Romero fans and Resident Evil players: the town is under quarantine, zombies are wandering the streets, easy escape is unlikely, and help isn't coming. The zombies are scary: there are a lot of them, they never sleep, and maybe there are a few variants and mutants here and there. Even if the players are hardened horror fans, you can still overawe them through numbers and graphic description. [Spooky]

There are a lot of residents, and they all need help. And you can meaningfully help them, should you choose to do so. (What I mean by this: while choosing to help someone in the middle of a natural disaster is a difficult choice, it shouldn't backfire. You probably only get one guy in the opening act who is secretly nursing a zombie bite, and you don't get any tricks like "the PCs escort the NPCs to the safe haven but it's full of zombies and everyone dies." Your choices should be difficult, but meaningful.) People need food and escort to safe havens, disparate family members want to be reunited. Not everyone is going to survive, and the player characters will likely fumble their plans a couple of times, but the meat of the scenario is the tense character drama as the player characters interact with NPCs and argue with each other. [Serious]

Also, for some reason, there's a talking dog. The dog is helpful, but is mostly there for comic relief and so I can do a silly voice in an otherwise grim scenario. Apart from being able to talk, the dog isn't supernatural in any meaningful way. He can probably do a couple of useful things if asked like find lost objects or sniff out zombies a block away. The PCs probably think the talking dog is weird at first, but they probably grow to love him. [Stupid]

Then we boil the frog. Change the parameters of the test over several sessions until the campaign looks like this:

The player characters are pretty inured to the zombies now, so you tend to play them for dark comedy more than anything else. A zombie wrapped in a chain link fence who can't get free. One pinned under a car, snapping its jaws at the PCs' approach in the most amusing way possible. They don't stop being a threat, exactly, but you start playing up the slapstick elements. Zombies make weird noises designed to disarm the tension. [Stupid]

Of course, zombies aren't the real threat anymore. It's the people. (Maybe it always was.) It's been A Week™ for everyone in town: a week of raw terror and shattered nerves. Nobody has had a hot bath in that time, or a hot meal. Tensions are high. People are starting to get desperate and make bad decisions. And most importantly, the player characters aren't doing enough. As the campaign continues, the townsfolk become angry at them. You're the most capable people here. Why haven't you solved this yet? It probably doesn't take too long before some townsfolk reach the only logical conclusion: the "heroes" engineered this crisis. They're manipulating us. The torches and pitchforks emerge soon thereafter. [Spooky]

Towards the climax of the adventure, the talking dog dies. It's probably very heroic. The dog's body is recoverable. [Serious]

I could never run this as described, of course. Most of the elements I enjoy are things that emerge naturally over the course of a campaign. I like to be surprised.

It's a collaborative medium, and determining too much in advance spoils the fun. Even if I'm running an "adventure path" for real '90s-style traditionalists, the path is just an outline. If the players go somewhere else, that's fine. The surprise keeps me as an engaged player, too.

But the above scenario describes all the things I like in the course of a campaign. There should be something dramatic and sad, a tragedy the player characters can possibly prevent or solve or just watch unfold as they pursue their personal interests. Vampire: The Masquerade drew me into this hobby, and it still represents a lot of the things I like in stories and RPGs. If possible, I like to include a nerve-wracking and horrific threat. (I also lump thrillers in with horror, so sometimes the "spooky" element is simply the hidden: a mysterious serial killer, a lurking mastermind, an "ally" who knows too much.) And finally, I like there to be something a little dumb and fun to act as a release valve when the other elements are too much. Something with a silly voice, or some harmless eccentric as a bit of local color. My Unknown Armies games include a handful of scary wizards among a sea of obsessive (but ultimately friendly) weirdos. My arcane thriller about a secret wizard cabal has a ninja turtle in it.

While I can't usually plan the twist, those sorts of things happen naturally. Characters introduced as bits of color become important, central characters. The mood shifts as the player characters become more competent and their investment in the world changes. Things that were once threatening become mundane as greater or hidden threats emerge.

You know, the usual stuff.

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