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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