Thursday, September 26, 2019

Lost Tombs postmortem

Let us start with the observation that more campaigns fail than succeed.  If longevity is your measure of success, at least.  I believe my lifetime average of campaigns exceeding 20 sessions has hovered reliably at around 1 out of 3, which makes keeping a campaign going roughly as difficult as hitting a fastball from a pitcher in major league baseball.

On the other hand, running any number of sessions is a success in a world that seems designed to feed us numbing pablum for popular entertainment.  And since so many campaigns flop at session one, even making it to a second session is a bit of an accomplishment.  And to the extent that role-playing games are a sort of folk art/performance art (which I deeply believe, but will not argue today), even an incomplete draft of a work of art has virtue in the making.

None of the above is said by way of excuses for my inability to keep the game going.  If you signed up but didn't get a chance to play, I apologize.  Rather, the first two paragraphs are written for those gamemasters who beat themselves up when a campaign goes to pieces.  You don't have to do that.  Mourn if you need to, think about why it happened, and decide what you're going to do differently next time.

So what went wrong with the Lost Tombs, such that it fizzled out?  I think there were four key factors at work:

Timing - While working on my dissertation I haven't gotten a lot of gaming in.  It reached a point where my wife told me that one of the reasons I was such a psychological mess was that I hadn't run a game in such a long time.  So during a lull in the dissertation process, I through together the campaign concept and started it rolling.  She was right (as she always is): playing again was very helpful in me keeping my overall shit together.  Then whammo!  The chair of my dissertation returned three chapters for further revisions in a single day and I had to focus entirely on that.  The lesson learned here is perhaps an obvious one in retrospect: if I organize a new game to take advantage of a temporary hole in my schedule, it should be a short-term project and not a new ongoing campaign.  Duh.

(By the way, I have a full draft of my dissertation and hope to defend it next month.  I am almost done with this self-inflicted intellectual torture-thon.)

The Sliding Schedule - I thought I was being really clever proposing that the game would run each weekend, but sometimes it would be Friday night, other times it would be Saturday morning/afternoon/evening or Sunday morning/afternoon/evening.  You would not believe the number of times people have said to me in passing "Yeah I would like to play your game, but your 4am start time is ridiculous."  Basically, I wanted to reach those players without giving up all the wonderful people who were available for my last two campaigns.  This is one of those things that works better on paper than in practice, as it turns out the fetid goblin in my skull responsible for keeping my schedules refuses to take seriously a moveable target like that.  On Thursday, I would say to myself "I guess I'm not playing Friday night, as I should have started player recruitment on Wednesday."  That would be the end of my thought.  Then the next day I would say to myself "Whoops. I should have started recruitment yesterday in order to play on Saturday."  Then the next day...

I love having a large list of wonderful people who I get the privilege of playing silly elf games with.  But the sliding play time was a step too far for my brain to manage.  Furthermore, I am wondering if maybe for the next campaign I should have a public list of players and just designate a single player responsible for recruiting the rest of the team.  Just an idea I am kicking around.

Too Many Cute Ideas - This is an absolute rookie mistake and of all the goofs I made this is the one I am slightly embarrassed about.  I had some Very Big Ideas for this campaign.  The one about futurehumans that made it into the player's handout, as did some of the ideas about the relationship between people and the gods.  The big problem is that none of these ideas were in direct service of the players and their PC's dungeon escapades.  In other words, they were a distraction from the main event of the kind of game I like to run.  If I had been blogging regularly, I would have done what I normally do: write a blog post about my idea and hope that some more sophisticated DM can do something with it.

I sometimes use a pro-wrestling analogy when thinking about my DMing style: I am never going to be the Ric Flair of DMs.  I can't pull off that level of flash (read: high concept), so I shoot for being the Arn Anderson of DMs.  For those of you not in the loop, Arn Anderson was, perhaps, the greatest professional wrestler of his generation not to wear a world heavyweight title belt.  He was great in the ring, he was convincing on the mic.  Most importantly, he did a superb job of making the other wrestlers in a match look good.  But he didn't do flashy.  In an era of face-paint and ten thousand dollar sequined robes, he sometimes wore a windbreaker to the ring.  When other wrestlers hooted and hollered and carried on, he would just look into the camera and give the most credible, most articulate "I am going to beat you up" promos.  That's what I want.  I want to be the best DM of players going into dungeons and beating up orcs.  Any new idea has to be in service of that cause, or it just doesn't fit me and my play style.

(Note to fellow wrestling aficionados: I like Ric Flair, too.  He's just doesn't speak to me the way Arn does.)

Something About the Dungeons - For over a decade now I have been working off of something I call the Collage Theory of Dungeon Design.  In short: I steal levels that other people have already published and you mash them together.  My job becomes building interesting connections between these levels, and, occasionally, erasing the evidence that I'm using a well-known dungeon level.  The Dungeons of Dundagel in the Wessex campaign included levels from the Temple of Elemental Evil, for example, and no one caught on because A) I rotated the maps 90 degrees and B) I swapped out a few key, recognizable encounters for ones that better fit the campaign setting.  And as far as I know, no one has identified the singular publication that nearly every level of the Vaults of Vyzor comes from.

For a long time I found stitching together and editing other people's dungeons to be much more fun than sitting down and making/stocking my own dungeon maps.  But this time I just wasn't feeling it.  I still don't know what the exact issue was.  Did I choose the wrong levels?  I've used some fairly crummy levels in the past with no problem.  Heck, one time I had to add a staircase to a level in the middle of a session because the published map hadn't bothered to include one.  But I just wasn't grooving on these dungeon levels.  Maybe I'm over the whole collage concept and need to come up with a different approach.  Either way, the dungeons themselves, my absolute favorite part of running Dungeons & Dragons, were noticeably less fun than usual.

So there you have.  What I am pretty sure are the key contributing factors to the collapse in my enthusiasm for this particular campaign.  Again, apologies to all concerned.  Let the record show that at no time was the issue the players.  They were all fun people who I would gladly sling dice with again should opportunity arise.

I bet you weren't expecting an Arn Anderson tribute in the middle of a campaign autopsy.  Well, neither was I.


  1. What makes you conclude it was a failure at all? It sounds like you and many friends had a good time playing it over many sessions. We all had fun reading about it.

    1. Everything stops tho. I would love to play with you on the next campaign and I bet a ton of other folks would too.

    2. Sure, everything stops. But it was designed as an ongoing affair and my last two ongoing D&D campaigns were 50+ sessions, so that's where I was seeing the bar. The point of this point was not to lament that it ended early or to denigrate any fun anyone had. I had a lot of fun. But I think I owed people an explanation why it stopped and it is useful to analyze these things.

    3. Very fair. A 50 session campaign is quite clearly a success.

  2. Thanks Jeff, ha anyway "Lost Tombs" was the first time I ran a character since re-booting my campaigns in 2005 (I DM'ed all the time). Pluses for me as a result of, but outside the "Lost Tombs": You introduced me to B/X (was an AD&D in youth) whereupon I convinced local group to switch from 5e to Advanced Labyrinth Lord, and We are rotating DMs in a shared world so I get to play a character too!

    So, Negatives were that damn you had a lot of players you tried to accommodate (over 40 signed up the first day?). Probably would have been better to add PCs through the old-school attrition - When 1 PC dies another is added in - good effort for trying to get everyone an opportunity. (The times didn't bother me because my day job is litigation trickster so unless I have court I pretty much am up and down whenever I want.)

    Positives I really liked the 2-hour sessions and the "consequences" for not getting out of the dungeon/woods before dark. (Reminds me I think M.A.R. Barker had a similar mechanic where if you didn't get out of the dungeon by session's end he rolled a die with various horrible results.) Also, the in-game cosmology was just beginning to gel as PCs accumulated our "Freak Out" points and encounters progressed from the blue-beetle dudes to sacrifices and demons.

    And it was my pleasure to meet you Jeff, thanks for your time and effort! :~)

  3. Good to hear from you Jeff, and glad the scheduling issues weren't because of anything too crazy.

    Hope your dissertation rocks their socks

  4. Man, "The Jobber DM" is a blog waiting to happen.

  5. Thanks for taking the time to write a postmortem.
    : )

  6. "Heck, one time I had to add a staircase to a level in the middle of a session because the published map hadn't bothered to include one."

    Hey now, that stairway was very clearly marked in my imagination! If you can't read the designer's mind, that's not my problem. ;)

  7. I've only played in one of you games once (Garycon IV - eagerly awaiting your triumphant return there once you're no longer ABD) but if I recall you're a little flashier than the redoubtable Arn Anderson. Not Ric Flair (but what DM can reach those heights?) but maybe a Daniel Bryan or both Hardy Boyz (I'm thinking their last DYI stuff before they left Impact). A little more on topic I've had a couple campaigns sort of fizzle but I've also seen a lot of ebb and flow where a campaingn that seems gone somehow comes back to life. It's hard if the DM isn't feeling it though. I really like that idea about designating a player to organize the game times. In your particular situation I think you could really do something with that since in the online world you aren't worried about who's house you are going to and you have designed things so that no character is indispensable - two things that can really cause scheduling issues.

  8. Work gets in the way of so much fun...
    Anyway, it was great to get a session in, and I suspected life had reared its ugly head. So no worries, get all doctor-fied, and when things quiet down, hopefully we'll see you at the (virtual) table, again!