Managing campaign endings

I was reading this article on Gnome Stew about keeping your campaign alive during the inevitable breaks you’ll be taking when holidays, life events and other momentum-breaking occurrences happen.

Loss of campaign momentum is a perennial problem. It is typically the result of one or more of the group losing interest in, and energy for, that campaign. If it’s a player, they start becoming harder and harder to schedule in, they stop paying attention in session, and they generally start to make the whole experience feel like a drag. If it’s the GM (and it often is!) they find it harder and harder to motivate themselves to prep and to book the sessions. This invariably gets transmitted to the players, who can tell the GM’s heart isn’t in it. The result is a zombie campaign that nobody is enjoying. To mix my metaphors, such campaigns often suffer death by asphyxiation – without the oxygen of the group’s interest they just wither, and one day nobody books the next session.

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Image by ChaosRampantKaryn

The Stew article presents some great ideas for avoiding momentum loss during a hiatus, chiefly to do with stirring the pot during the break and avoiding shiny distractions that divert you from the campaign. But to some extent this relies on the group still having momentum; nobody will be bothered to take part in between-sessions activity if they aren’t feeling the love.

For me, the way you avoid losing the big Mo is by keeping the campaign within defined boundaries. Nothing can go on forever; we see this in all walks of life, not just gaming. How many times has a TV series overstayed its welcome by one or two seasons, leaving the whole thing feeling tarnished? Well, unlike the TV networks we aren’t in this to make money so there’s no point in keeping going past the point that we’re having fun.

So here’s my suggestion. Plan your campaign in self-contained chunks. 8 weeks seems to be a good number, but YMMV. Choose a period of time where everyone can largely commit to attending sessions, and in which a decent arc of the campaign can be played through. (You may find that things don’t quite go as you expected, and you need a session or two more – that’s fine! Better to exceed your budget slightly than to not have one at all.) Now everyone knows there’s a defined end-point, and everyone is working to reach a satisfactory conclusion in that time-frame. You’ll be more disciplined about your play, focusing on the stuff that really gets you going.

When you get to the end of a campaign chunk, you can pause for reflection. How are we all feeling about the campaign? Is there something else we’d rather be playing right now? Are we keen to continue, and if so what do we want to do in the next chunk? Is there anything we could change to keep the campaign fresh? My group has developed a tradition of going out for dinner once in a while for campaign reflection, and this would be a lovely way to mark the end of each campaign chunk.

Moreover, the end of a chunk gives you the chance to manage transitions and endings more effectively. Does anyone need to step out of the campaign for a bit – maybe someone has had a baby or is going through a busy patch at work? If so, this change will be less likely to break your momentum. Are people looking to try something different? Because you’ve built in a break-point, you’re managing the tendency for campaigns to peter out, and if/when the campaign finally does end it’s more likely to be a nice, satisfying ending that avoids a zombie campaign or death by asphyxiation.

Four types of post-apocalyptic character

Just something I’ve been thinking about. In fictional worlds like those presented in the Survivors, the Road and the Parable of the Talents (to name a few at random), there seem to be four broad character types:

Scavengers. People who are trying to make a living through picking over the bones of the fallen civilisation. They tend to be nomadic because the resources in any given area run out fast. They live hand-to-mouth and, in consequence, can be fairly suspicious of strangers who they may perceive as likely to take what little they have. On the other hand come scavengers might do odd jobs for settled communities they encounter. These people will value portable goods and food the most.

Settlers. People who are trying to make a living in a fixed location, through farming and perhaps trade. These people will value practal skills and re-usable resources (like farmland) most. They may engage in limited trade with other settled communities, if there are any, and may begin to develop the trappings of a fledgling civilisation as a result. They are nevertheless primarily focused on survival.

Predators. People who are trying to make a living through preying on others. Slavers, raiders, groups of armed men who seek to conquer settled communities. These people value strength and weaponry most of all, and are always on the lookout for someone weaker than them to dominate. Ironically their desire to rule could lead to the development of a basic civilisation – they will inevitably seek to dominate or destroy other groups who might threaten them.

Seekers. People who are seeking something more than simple survival. Sometimes they want something quite specific – perhaps they are looking for their lost daughter, for example. Often they are seeking to build something greater than a small farmstead or similar, either through building up infrastructure, trade and alliances, or perhaps through spreading a religion or philosophy. Despite the fact that their eyes are fixed on something more than survival, seekers will often turn out to be the most practically minded of the lot, never content to settle for scratching out a living by hand if they could be ploughing their fields with horses or a tractor.

Am I missing any important categories here?

Racist stereotypes in roleplaying

So, I have been keeping a wary eye on the discussion of Wolsung and with a deep breath I ploughed through the RPGnet discussion of it. Now, I haven’t read Wolsung and I’m not going to get into my opinions on the game. But there were some interesting arguments thrown around on RPGnet that I’d like to talk about here.

1. It cannot be racism if the target is a fictional, nonhuman race. This seems pretty obviously false. A blatant racist stereotype against a particular real life group remains just as blatant if you shift it wholesale onto a fictional race (particularly if you make the fictional race resemble the stereotype in question in an extremely identifiable way). Whether you did it on purpose or not is beside the point, though when the resemblance is very strong, people may find it hard to credit that it was accidental.

2. It isn’t racism if it’s about national culture or if national culture is just as important in the game as race. Well, ok, the term “racism” doesn’t apply to national stereotypes. This doesn’t make it better though. Cultural (and NB also religious) stereotypes seem to have somewhere along the line become the acceptable face of bigotry. But, you know, it’s essentially the same deal – painting an entire group with one brush, and a skewed and, uh, stereotyped brush at that. Focusing on the fact that genes aren’t involved is missing the point.

3. It’s ok because it’s an accurate representation of the historical period that the game is modelling (in this case the Victorian age). Well, this is kind of true. It’s true that some people, perhaps the majority, maybe even the vast majority[*] of Westerners in Victorian age held pretty horrendous bigoted views about foreigners. Note, of course, that the game permits you to play non-Westerners, so this argument is pretty much missing the point as well – why should the game be presented exclusively from the Western viewpoint? Indeed, why not select a few admirable exceptions to the (perceived) general bigotry to act as your perspective characters while noting, perhaps in a sidebar, the general prevalence of racism. In other words, why view the entire game through the lens of racism?

4. This leads me to a more difficult question, for me at least. Point 3 about is really an allusion to the fact that many of us like our fantasy worlds to model reality quite closely, warts and all. Now, the point has been made to me that if we’re happy to fill our games with orcs and airships, why do we suddenly insist on realism when it comes to racism? Well, I just don’t think the two things are the same; orcs and airships are essentially background colour, whereas realistic social behaviour is quite fundamental. I’m in the camp that tends to not want to gloss over real-life phenomena like racism. To be clear, my games have not been known for including racist themes or tackling racism – but I’d like to think I could do so, and I’m keen on the idea of games tackling such serious subject matter.

But it’s equally clear that if you’re going to tackle such serious subject matter in a published game, you want to do so in a careful, nuanced and respectful way. You should ideally have taken some serious study on the matter before charging into such murky waters. I’d go so far as to say that you should take this approach even if you aren’t publishing – if you’re just playing in your living room. If in our enthusiasm to be realistic, or to faithfully replicate a historical period (albeit with orcs and airships and so forth) we accept any old attempt at “serious” issues, even done in a cartoonish and badly thought-through way, then we’re pretty much betraying the principle of gritty realism in so doing, and we’ve trivialised the issue in the process.

One last thing. I think part of the reason people get so defensive about this is that they think “if this game is racist and I like it, then I must be racist; I’m not racist so the game can’t be either”. Well, racism isn’t like a disease that you have or don’t. It’s a spectrum of behaviours and cultural themes which permeate the whole of Western society. You are at risk of saying or doing stuff that’s racist if you don’t examine yourself, even if you yourself are not a racist. You can enjoy a game that covers racial themes, even in a ham-fisted way, without being a racist, but you owe it to yourself to give yourself some careful scrutiny before you do so.

[*] I’m really not sufficiently a historian to argue this point, but the idea that all Victorians were raging racists strikes me as also a possible stereotype.

That guy is up to something

When you’re playing a game where there’s no GM throwing plot at you (e.g. Fiasco) or where there is, but they are leaving you, the players, to decide what to focus on (e.g. Apocalypse World) or indeed, where there is but they aren’t creating plot per se at all (any sandbox game), the role of players is different to your traditional GM-as-plot-provider game. And you have to do different things to make those games fun. Things which might even be considered antisocial in another game.

What I’m talking about is having an (in character) agenda. Your character should be up to something. They have at least one thing that they want, and not just in an abstract “fleshing out my character” way, but in a concrete “this is what I’m going to do right now to get it” way.

Fiasco is a perfect example because the entire drama comes from your stupid, short-sighted, out-of-control characters pursuing your goals. The game even forces at least one of you to have a game-generated Need! But it still needs the oomph from the players, the drive that makes the game tick. You can’t be sitting back and fading into the background in a game of Fiasco! Or rather, you can, but you (and the other players) may not have as great a game as a result.

Now I want to be clear here, I’m not saying that you should be constantly pushing your character’s agenda Out Of Character. When it feels like you can’t turn around for character X getting up in your face trying to do their thing, that isn’t fun. Your character is up to something, yes. You, on the other hand, are up to something else – trying to make sure everyone has fun, hopefully.

Fiasco and other “GMless” (or GM-light) games throw the spotlight onto the players in a way that can be a lot of fun. If you’re pushing your character into action to get what they want, while leaving space for the other players to do that for their characters, you’ll get a lot out of these games.

Plot overload

During a recent playtest I encountered some serious problems with plot overload. At the start of the game I threw too many things at the player group, causing them to become confused, and sucking up far too much time dealing with the chaos. By the end I was trying desperately to draw things back and get the game back under control, but it was pretty much too late and I ran out of time to fix the problem, leading to a damp squib ending.

Point is: it’s easy to assume that the more there is going on, the more enjoyable the game is likely to be. But there’s only so much stuff a group can handle at once. As a GM whether you’re running a planned storyline or a more spontaneous, low-prep game (this was the latter) you need to think about these issues. Figure a group can maybe handle a couple of things at once, in a long-term campaign, but in a one-off or introductory session, you probably don’t even want to make things that complex. One thing at a time is probably enough!

You might be worried about the players having enough to do, and that’s a fair point. Nobody said the problem couldn’t be multi-faceted. But don’t force the players to concentrate on too many threads at once or they’ll lose the plot entirely. At best they’ll be entertained but confused; at worse, you’ll lose their interest altogether.

A Little More Conversation…

What I most want out of role-playing is a really good conversation. A conversation which is meaningful, important and changes something, perhaps the relationship of the characters involved or the perceptions of my character or even the world in some way.

This aspect of gaming (which to me is fundamental) is rarely mentioned in the system books – Apocalypse World gives it more airtime than most, although it only really talks about having rules to regulate conversation, not about how to achieve a good conversation.

But even rarer is a system or piece of GM guidance which expressly supports and nurtures good conversations. Dogs in the Vineyard is arguably a system designed for social interaction/conflicts which should be about having interesting conversations. However I find DiTV ‘s dice mechanics so complicated and dice heavy that it largely sidelines the conversations it is supposed to be supporting.

The idea of mechanics being used to support conversation itself feel controversial to me and I’ll probably come back to it.

What I hadn’t realised is how much this desire to get amazing conversations happening influences my GMing style. It turns out my games are run primarily to encourage and support the interesting conversations between the PCs and NPCs. This manifests in a number of ways:

1. I rarely speed up a conversation to get to the action (in fact often the opposite).

2. I pitch my plots and information dissemination to inspire and sustain conversations.

3. I create NPCs with feelings, emotions and complex motivations, who are capable of sustaining good conversations.

4. I make the time for my NPCs to have serious those one-to-one conversations with the player characters to establish meaningful relationships with them.

5. I prefer to run my sessions one-to-one giving players the feeling they have the luxury of time to just talk.

I had my lightbulb moment in a recent Amber session I ran. The players thought that the focus of the session was the action based rescue of an NPC. The focus of the session for me was the conversations which would naturally occur once the NPC was recovered. I was lucky that this difference in expectation didn’t wreck the game and it could have easily been a disappointment. The actual rescue was quick and easy and took relatively little time. If the players were expecting to enjoy several hours of sneaking around, fighting guards and defeating an end-of-level boss they would have been very disappointed.

I have written many times about the importance of agreed expectations for successful gaming. I had no idea I was consistently breaking my own rules, – bad GM, no cookie.

I was lucky in that my players enjoyed the session regardless (down to my choice of players rather than anything else I expect!) I learned a good lesson though. I’ll be giving much more obvious signposts in future.

Metagaming intelligence

[Due to a cutty pasty error, this post made no sense whatsoever the first time I posted it. Hopefully it makes at least a modicum of sense now, but if not at least you know that’s how I intended it.]

My question for today is, should one attempt to roleplay the intelligence of one’s character? It has been often remarked that when playing a character with a low intelligence score (or whatever the stat is in your system au choix), one finds oneself encountering situations where you, the player, can see a clue/solve a puzzle/make a plan, but (perhaps) the character would not be able to. Some folks say that in this situation you should play dumb.

I’m not so sure. First, it’s relatively unusual for a game to contain a “problem solving” stat. The intellectual stats often include something around memory, academic ability etc. They do sometimes mention “reasoning”. But there are many ways to make an ommelete. Ok, bad analogy, there aren’t that many ways to make an ommelete. Forget the analogy. The point stands though: a character could come up with a brilliant plan because (a) they reasoned it out; (b) they made use of animal cunning/intuition/etc to come up with the plan; (c) they didn’t really know what they were saying and sort of stumbled across the plan; (d) they have some specialist skill which made it appropriate for them to come up with the plan; (e) they were having a moment of uncharacteristic genius… and so on.

Image by ~d-lindzee

Ok, fine. But say your character is in a game where there are stats for animal cunning, intuition and so forth, you don’t have a relevant specialist skill, and you’ve had so many great ideas recently that you’re pushing your “moment of uncharacteristic genius” quota for the year. What then? Well, I still think there’s nothing inherently wrong with saying, out of character, “it would be a really great idea if we did X… my character would never come up with that plan of course”. The other players are then free to decide on the basis of their character’s wonderful stats that they came up with the idea instead. Or if none of you can come up with an excuse to have such a plan in character, then you can all enjoy the delightful piquancy of the moment as you stumble into disaster yet again. Heh.

Some people will say that this is meta-gaming, or that it means you’re a bad roleplayer. Whatever. Unless you’re playing some super-immersive game, we’re all here to have fun, and it’s reasonable to look for excuses to come up with an awesome plan rather than find reasons not to. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like it when people break character at inappropriate moments, moments of tension or high drama, but the rest of the time, screw it.

Of course, the trouble is, while the above makes perfect sense, I’m playing this hardcore immersive roleplayer, so I just have to keep quiet. Sigh.

Choose your own adventurer

A long time ago (for verily I am a long way behind on my podcasts), Happy Jack’s were discussing the idea of creating pregenerated characters for one-offs but providing a list of disadvantages to choose from for each character. You get a pre-genned character but you can give it a bit of customisation. This got me thinking – why even stop there? You can give each character options for powers, skills, whatever. You could even give them options for backgrounds. Choose between a rival who is trying to kill you, a secret you can never speak of, or a long-lost sibling believed dead. The GM could then hand you an index card with more detail about your chosen option. It would mean the GM couldn’t rely on any individual background detail coming up, but it gives you a bit more ownership over your character. And the unused backgrounds could easily be saved for the next one-off, so you aren’t wasting too much effort.

One-offs can very easily be just railroaded experiences, you’re handed a character and away you go. I’ve got nothing against that – but this seems to be a really simple way to replicate some of the fun of character gen without sucking up so much time that you no longer have time to play the game.

Since drafting this article, I gave the idea a try as part of a one-off Dogs In the Vineyard game I ran for a con. Dogs traditionally lets you gen your own characters, but given that I didn’t have a lot of time, I decided to just create the characters in advance. But I didn’t want people to be stuck with whatever I gave them so each character had two alternate sets of traits, which I chose to illustrate possible backgrounds for those characters. (For example one of the characters could either be the guy who grew up in the big bad city and pulled himself up by his bootstraps, or the guy whose parents expected too much of him and he rebelled and went off to do something different from what they wanted.)

It worked pretty well, and I’d definitely do it again. It hardly added any time to my prep, and equally it added almost no time to the game compared to just handing out fixed characters.

Johari’s window

Ok, apologies in advance to management experts, because I am about to abuse a well-loved management metaphor until it is hardly recognisable anymore.

Johari’s window is a neat metaphor for learning and feedback. Picture a window divided into four quadrants. The top-left quadrant is things that I know about me, that you also know – public knowledge about me. The bottom left is stuff¬† I know about myself that you don’t know – my secrets, things I could reveal to you in future. The top right quadrant covers information about me that you know but that I am unaware of – this is important for management theory because it’s the space in which feedback can happen. The bottom right isn’t seen as especially important for management theory and it isn’t important for this post either. It’s the domain of things about me that nobody knows. Maybe there some great insight that can be gleaned there, but if there is, I (rather appropriately) don’t know what it is.


Image by Brent O'Connor

Incidentally, I have no idea who Johari is either. Whatever. [Edit: Googling around, because I just *had* to know, I see it’s actually called “A Johari Window”, so probably Johari is some kind of acronym and not a person at all. I shall persist in imagining I never discovered this.]

So, what does all this have to do with gaming? The answer is that you can use it for character generation. When you create your character, draw a window and write stuff in each quandrant.

The¬† bottom-left and top-right corners are for unresolved questions about your character. Who was that masked man? Who killed your father? What is the meaning of your birthmark? Why can’t you remember anything from the night of the 21st, and what happened on that night? Are you going to save humanity, or destroy it? But which quadrant you put each question in tells you whether this is a Dark Secret type of question – one you’re handing to the GM to answer, which might have an answer that you don’t like (top right quadrant), or one you’re going to answer yourself, at a dramatically appropriate time (bottom left quadrant). I suggest that by using Johari’s window, we can signal to the GM what questions are for her to answer, and which questions we want to keep for ourselves. Maybe you could even put some questions in the bottom right – these would be open to anyone to try and answer.

The top-left corner of the window has a use, too. Put things in there that are known at the start of the game. (Known to you as players, that is – maybe not to your characters.) By putting stuff in there you’re saying to the GM “this stuff is off limits”. If I say that my character is the son of a noble jedi knight, and put that in the top left corner, then the GM should not reveal partway in that the knight in question is actually Darth Vader. That would have been a cool plotline, but by putting my heritage in the top left I’m telling the GM to stay away from it. Break the top-left window pane at your peril.