Monday, December 03, 2007

What Went Wrong

or Why Jeff Got Burnt Out

I'm starting to suspect that I unintentionally set myself up for failure over the course of the last few campaign attempts. Simple common sense indicates that I should have taken a good long break after Wild Times, my 18-month 3.5 campaign. It was a lot of fun but it was also a lot of work. I didn't because I was riding a very good vibe and didn't want to give that sensation up. So I tried soldiering on and the result was a series of half-baked campaigns that had strong moments and weak moments: Sky Pirates of Eberron, Beyond Vinland, and Rebel Scum. I should probably also throw my Home Team superhero outing onto the smoldering pile of relatively recent campaign corpses. Simple exhaustion was clearly a factor at work, but I think other problems also contributed to me taking a time out on GMing.

What made Wild Times work and the others not so much? Let's take each of the others in turn and try to find their weak points.

Home Team: Tried two systems (Heroes Unlimited, Mutants & Masterminds) and wasn't comfortable with either. Building opposition was a chore. I still don't know how to construct effective adventure sessions that emulate superheroics.

Sky Pirates: Building opposition was a chore. None of the published adventures enthused me. The aerial pirate angle was not completely thought through. Part of the group wanted to ignore the hierarchy of shipboard life, the other part wanted to use it as a springboard for inter-party rivalry. Personal issues beyond the scope of the campaign also intruded.

Beyond Vinland: Building opposition was a chore. Adapting a published adventure felt a bit like cheating when I was trying to develop my own setting. Not using published adventures increased the workload considerably and each week I had to choose between working on the next adventure or fleshing out the campaign world.

Rebel Scum: Building opposition was a chore. (See a pattern here?) Lack of familiarity with the non-D&D subsystems. Some difficulty lining up Star Wars style heroics with hack and loot oriented players.

Looking this list over, it feels like I ended up with the worst of both worlds. Heavy systems without the support of modules and such can work just fine, but not necessarily for me. Family commitments all too often trump prep time. Wild Times worked, at least in part, because I let published modules do the heavy lifting for at least the first half of the campaign. The Bandit Kingdoms, my most successful campaign of the 90s, worked because I was running AD&D and by then I could do many of the necessary operations in my head or just fudge it. Even then I ran some published stuff.

So I think going forward I need to look at running games where I rely heavily on product support, such as the string-of-modules-as-campaign model, or else I need to use systems that will not punish me as harshly for GMing on-the-fly. Star Wars Saga Edition is still super-cool in my book, but the product support isn't there the way it is with something like Traveller (which has the advantage of being both well-supported and suitable to seat-of-pants GMing). We had a lot of fun with 3.5, but for it to work for me I need a stack of adventures to serve as a jumping off point. Or I can dump product support and run simpler systems like OD&D, Encounter Critical, or Traveller sans the 3rd Imperium support. Another option in the supported column would be the Plot Point books for Savage Worlds. I have one entry in the series, Andy Hopp's Low Life. It is a true gem. And Savage Worlds is pretty forgiving on improvisational GMing.

So I guess right now I see three categories of games that I could run: Heavy, But Supported; Light and Improvisational; and Light and Supported. Each has its advantages. My current playgroup has been very fond of the whole "game mastery" concept associated with 3.x play. They enjoy optimizing characters and becoming savvy with the combat rules. That suggests Heavy, But Supported would be well-received by the players. Light and Supported might also work, as the exploration-of-setting thing inherent to say, the Spinward Marches, might give them something else to grab hold of and wrestle to the ground. Light and Improvisational would probably be the hardest for the current group, as we've all been trained to think of the mechanics as What We Can Do. To be handed an OD&D fighter with no skills, no feats, no nothing and then be told to go do stuff might cause mental whiplash.

And now, a list:

Heavy, But Supported

3.0/3.5 with string o' modules, such as Dungeon Crawl Classics
3.0/3.5 with Wilderlands and/or Worlds Largest Dungeon
AD&D with string o’ modules
HackMaster w/modules

Light and Improvisational

Encounter Critical
Traveller w/homemade subsector

Light and Supported

OD&D with Verbosh and other musty old JG stuff
Gamma World 1st or 2nd with modules
Boot Hill with modules
Traveller w/3rd Imperium
Encounter Critical w/Asteroid 1618 & stuff
Savage Worlds w/Low Life or other Plot Point adventure
Marvel Superheroes w/modules
Rules Cyclopedia with modules & Gazetteers

The Traveller w/homemade subsector option could actually work as a conversion of the Star Wars campaign. Set the PCs loose in a subsector with the simple charge to "cause trouble for the Empire" and go. But if I was going to go with Trav, I also have a half-baked idea that could work to thematically tie together a string of modules set in the Spinward Marches.


  1. "Traveller with homebrew subsector" makes Rotwang! a happy GM, if that gives you anything to chew on.

  2. Anonymous12:34 PM

    I'd really be interested in hearing more of your thoughts on Low Life. The idea sounds cool, but I've never been able to find any reviews, etc online to answer the question- "Is it TOO crazy?"

  3. The short answer is "No, just crazy enough." The world is goofy, the characters are weird, but at its fundamentals what you have is a post-apocalytpic setting where oddball PCs go on swords & sorcery style adventures. My gut tells me that once you get past chargen any experienced group will have no trouble figuring out the deal.

  4. To improve the support-level for Risus, I offer the following mini-sourcebook of ready-made foes :)

    Ordinary Guard
    Cliches: Ordinary Guard (2)

    Cliches: Monster (3)

    Big Scary Monster
    Cliches: Big Scary Monster (5)

    --- Optional Advanced Versions

    Big Scary Monster
    Cliches: Big Scary Monster [4]

  5. To be handed an OD&D fighter with no skills, no feats, no nothing and then be told to go do stuff might cause mental whiplash.


    This is where I tend to go wrong with the whippersnappers I play and run D&D with these days. Most of them started on 3E, which as you note, essentially defines the limits of what one is capable of. I on the other hand started with said skill-less, feat-less, limit-less fighter, and always learned to extrapolate from there. These kids, if you don't have the skill, you can't do it... at all. Hell, in games where you have no default use of a skill, you can't even do the simplest things! Like in Rifts; if you don't have the D-Bee Lore skill, you can't identify a D-Bee... even if you've encountered it before! Haven't run into it yet, but I suppose if I need to jump and I don't have the "jump" skill, I'm kinda screwed...

    I've noticed, too, that not only are these players limited in skill-like and feat-like abilities, they also have no "character goals" in mind. 3E spoon-feeds EVERYTHING to these kids, so that without the plot railroad, they have no idea what to do. For example, in my current Outremer 4130 campaign, the characters all were from the Avillonian Isles (Albion or Lyonnesse) and were going to Outremer to "make their fortunes." I dropped them off on the wharf at Caesarea and... they did nothing. The characters literally stood around on the wharf until I had some merchants come up to them to sell them goods and "hand" them some plot hooks. Maybe it's because of the video games and their "Quest Givers" or the whole railroad thing, I dunno. It just drives me nuts.

    I much prefer the sandbox campaign, both running it and playing in it... and yet that style seems to be dying in favor of programmed character-build campaigns. Sigh.

    Well, if I was one of your players, I'd be all for "Cyclopedia D&D, modules, and Gazetteers," as I LOVE Mystara, and it is an awesome sandbox setting. But that's just me, and I'm not one of your players... :(

  6. I suddenly want to run a Risus dungeoneering expedition where the PCs have to use the combat rules for dealing with pits traps, unidentifiable smells, and insanely intricate maze levels.

  7. Anonymous12:53 PM

    Thanks. Low Life is definitely intriguing. As far as I know it's the only game where my character can be a mutant twinkie.

    The savage world plot point books defintiely are a great resource for a GM pressed for time. You can always run the adventures from one using a different system too (something I'm thinking about).

  8. I suddenly want to run a Risus dungeoneering expedition where the PCs have to use the combat rules for dealing with pits traps, unidentifiable smells, and insanely intricate maze levels.

    We did that for a sewer recently in mine (not all of it, but some of it) :)

    Of course, that's also the sewer where one PC lost a battle of dueling folksongs and had his ego wounded for weeks ...

  9. And to James Mishler, I can only say:




  10. If you go 3.x way, do have a look at Paizo's Pathfinder series. It's a 'campaign in a few mags' complete with nicely done fluff, new monsters in every book and definitively friendly to some DM-fiddling under it's hood.

    The current one (#3 of 5 out) starts with insanely fun goblins and then goes completely S7ven and 'the Hills have Eyes' on the players.

    My 2 cents...

  11. Anonymous1:42 PM

    Only use Paizo products, if your players are mostly tactically reactive and don´t mind giving up most non-character-build related strategic choices.

  12. Jeff...

    Have you looked into the Savaged World of Solomon Kane yet?

    It's a big book of Savage Worlds goodness with a Solomon Kane-type plot point campaign and the rules included. All you need is that one book.

    As it stands, the new Explorer's Edition of SW is available and it is only $10.

    I suggest this because I know you are a big fan of Robert Howard and his Conan stories.

    Just some thoughts.

    peace... Dave

  13. Anonymous2:13 PM


    Maybe you should consider Castle Whiterock (Dungeon Crawl Classic #51) - the new megadungeon adventure they've just put out. Unlike the world's largest dungeon, this one goes down as the levels increase, like any self-respecting dungeon should.

    PS I've been reading your blog for quite a while now, but this is my first post. Had I not been in a self-imposed D&D exile from 1993 until last year, we may have crossed paths in Champaign, where I was in grad school from 1997 to 2002......

  14. Anonymous3:17 PM


    Here is a way to do heavy but supported- For this example I will use the Wilderlands.

    Take a region, not too big, get your stack of modules.

    Divide the region in 6mi hexes. 6 is good because they are 7mi point to point, 6mi side to side, and 3.5 miles on the side. Number your hexes. Get a binder. If you are using a published world, make a note of what is in each hex according to the source for that world. For each of those hexes make a sheet that lists whats in that hex.

    Get your stack of 3.5 modules. Go through each module and put the main dungeon or event thing on the map in places that make sense. If one module has an unamed goblin town of similar size, make those the same town. Evertime something shows up in a hex, make a sheet for that hex.

    Cities are interesting. If a city is unmapped and you have a great city supplement you want to use, import the important people from the campaigns descrtiption to the supplement, make them people who are differnt levels or factions of the same govt. Let you imagination run wild with the ideas about how they could be connected.

    map the hex the players start in on a more detailed scale. Detail the 6 hexes around that, noting dungeon locations etc.

    Now you are ready to go. If you have done your job right, you should have thousands of hooks laying around, and all the players have to do is really decide which way to walk.

    Did this with the FR silver marches area around silverymoon. Modules were sunless citadel, forge of fury, Tomb of abysthor, Keep on the Borderlands, Heart of Nightfang spire, and a ton more I can't remember right now. Everything had hit points no matter which way the players went.

  15. Everything had hit points no matter which way the players went.

    Dude, that's beautiful.

  16. Get back to basics. Mystara. the land is as rich as anything currently out there. the mechanics and stats should be burned in your brain after all these years. when you rediscover your muse thn branch on but but for now go back to the start and try a different approach. start a campaign in a part of Mystara you've never visited (Hollow world maybe). basic D&D and 2nd edition AD&D are like my favorite pair of sweats, they may be old and out of fashion but they are as comfortable as can be.

  17. Anonymous4:31 PM

    Jeff, one alternative for Heavy & Supported would be Megatraveller. It's crunchy and there's a crapload of published modules out there. They're probably included in the MT CD-ROM that Marc Miller is selling for $35.

  18. As a counterpoint--use the system, don't let it use you. I've DMed 3.x for 7 years now, and while I occassionally use modules, I frequently wing it. I find 3.x very forgiving so long as you know the parameters. No system spoonfeed apathy among players. It is part of the DMs role to coach new players and create cool stories. If the system seems like a lot of work, screw it. Wing it. I'm doing a Mutants and Masterminds-based game (in addition to the weekly D&D chores) and I haven't made the stats for any NPCs in weeks. My player's haven't complained becuase the combat is cool and the results fair. Just rock the players, keep them guessing and enjoy watching them dance!

  19. James Mishler, I dont mean to be rude. But I feel sorry for you to have to deal with a group like that. My 3.5 group I play in is totally not like that. The barbarian I play totally sucks at use rope and appraise. But it doesnt keep him from doing them. (And thinking hes doing a good job!)

    As Chatty DM mentioned the Paizo Pathfinder series has been really good.

    I also recently have started looking through and directly gaffing stuff from the free adventures on the WotC site. Theres some good stuff there. Adventures written by some big names. Monte Cook directly comes to mind.

    My campaign I'm starting is a mish mash of Pathfinder stuff, free adventures from WotC site, combined with my own maddness. Its gonna be awesome. (Even if I do say so myself.)

  20. Anonymous6:58 PM

    Let me be the third or 4th person on this thread to recommend the paizo adventure paths for D&D 3.5. I'm running Savage Tide right now, and I'm loving it. Its steeped in details, yet gives you plenty of free rein to write in your own stuff whenever you want.


  21. Speaking of heavy-but-supported, the last great AD&D campaign I ever enjoyed as a player was when my buddy Dan decided he'd just run us through a selected pile of favorite adventures from Dungeon magazine. He selected adventures based on simple criteria: the shorter ones (so we could have more episodic adventures, with a more constant sense of resolution and achievement), unusual settings (for excuses to go underwater, etc) and with an eye out for covering each of the character-classes equally, in terms of opportunity to shine.

    It was a braindead campaign, with no sense of anything but adventure, and the raw pleasure of leveling up. Beautiful, just beautiful. And this was an AD&D2 run in a part of my gaming life when I'd allegedly "sworn off" AD&D, due to never feeling the love for AD&D2. Felt it then, thanks to a DM that understood :)

  22. Anonymous6:34 AM

    I was pondering something last night. I think there's a connection between the kind of thing James Mishler is talking about- "today's" gamers lacking imagination and initiative and the link Jeff recently posted to the literary inspirations for D&D.

    Ask yourself this question:

    Of the young kids playing D&D today, how many of them have read ANY of those books?

    Now this isn't directed specifically at kids playing D&D. My non-scientific personal experience tells me that kids today simply don't read for fun. I mean out of a book not off the computer screen. If Wizards released a list of inspirational sources for D&D 4.0 it might look something like this:

    Legend of Zelda
    Final Fantasy
    Mortal Kombat
    World of Warcraft
    and lots of other games that are too cool and new for me to know about

    The point is video games and books are very different media. Video games for the most part- do spoon feed players. Books require a greater commitment and use of the imagination. This isn't a rant against video games. I like video games. But I like rpgs too, and I don't want my rpgs to be video games in a book- which is the direction things seem to be going with D&D.

    Anyways, so after I pondered all of this, I pondered a few other things:

    -I'm married
    -I have a kid
    -I'm sitting around pondering how messed up young gamers are and how great it was "back in the day"

    I'm officially a crotchedy old gamer guy.

    At 27.

    Have a great day!

  23. This is totally off topic but I think you codgers (I'm 34 myself) are selling kids, especially young geeks, way too short.

    We grew up with the Commodore 64, the NES and the early releases of Bards Tale and Final Fantasy...

    Yet we all managed to become tabletop RPG fans. Heck some of us play Wow with our players and yet they still manage to show up at the game...

    The act of playing around a table, of solving problems in ways no computer can currently offer, the thrill of flipping pages for a rule or pulling one over the GM/DM will grab new players.

    And what's really cool about 4e is that it can be ignored... 3.x, or Rules Cyclopedia, or oD&D or whatever system you play will be supported by a few geeks running a blog or a forum somewhere...

    Said geeks who may turn out to be 14 year olds who found their father's stash of AD&D/Traveler/Fantasy Trip books....


  24. wulfgar, I think you're selling kids these days short. One of the books I'm reading right now is Reading Matters: What The Research Reveals about Reading, Libraries and Community. The research pretty clearly indicates that kids (and adults) are reading more than ever. And have you been inside a children's book department recently? It's chock full of wizards and dragons and pirates and knights and stuff. So maybe the kids aren't reading Jack Vance, but they are reading J.K. Rowling.

  25. This is totally off topic but I think you codgers (I'm 34 myself) are selling kids, especially young geeks, way too short.

    Only some of them. My own current campaign group is all younger gamers (every one of them a Warcraft junkie, etc) and while they definitely exhibited all the symptoms James Mishler pointed out at first (when we met, they were pen-and-paper newbies) that lasted only about 2-3 sessions. With good GMing and a patient group, they come around and begin exploring the potential of the different gaming-form (it was just a matter, for me, of adjusting my own approach to suit). But that initial clash of expectations can be genuinely jarring. Still, all's well that ends well, and my "newbies" are now gaming veterans of, like, two whole years :) (and in that spread of time, they've already experienced about 10 different RPGs from all stages of the hobby's history).

    One of the newer groups I've gamed with also includes a teenaged kid, and he rocks. Liveliest roleplayer at the table :)

    We grew up with the Commodore 64, the NES and the early releases of Bards Tale and Final Fantasy...

    I didn't; nobody in my trailer park could afford consumer-electronic hoo-ha :) We only had one gamer in our whole high school group in the 80s that had a computer, and that wasn't until later on.

    I do remember seeing Bard's Tale at a guy's house once, though, and of course I've played it since then (about three years ago, and yes I mean the original, DosBox be praised).

    The act of playing around a table, of solving problems in ways no computer can currently offer, the thrill of flipping pages for a rule or pulling one over the GM/DM will grab new players.

    Absolutely, yes. I teach new gamers all the time, and this remains consistently true.

  26. With good GMing and a patient group, they come around and begin exploring the potential of the different gaming-form.

    This is a very good point, however, it depends greatly on the age of the players and their prior experience with gaming.

    Back when 3E first came out (2000 to 2002) I ran a game for a group of 8 to 16 year olds who had never played before. While their preconceived notions were, as mentioned, very video game oriented, they were young enough and inexperienced enough to learn differently, and eventually took to the "pro-active character" style of gaming readily.

    Today, though, I keep running into gamers in their early 20's who started around the same time as that game, but did not have an older gamer to show them the "classic" style of gaming. They were self-taught from the books and from their own video game experience; and now, as the old saying goes, you can't teach an old dog new tricks...

    It's quite frustrating, really. They are utterly incurious about learning to game "the old way," feeling that as their way is "new," it must be superior. And when I try to run my game in the old style, they are simply lost, or actively dislike the way the game runs... frustrating in the extreme.

    A good example of this can be seen in the DM of the Rings and subsequent Chainmail Bikini webcomics ( Casey, the DM in the games depicted in the webcomics, is obviously an old-style gamer (taken to extremes) while Josh (the character who played Legolas/xXKillStealr69Xx) is similarly a new-style gamer (though to my experience the caricature of Josh is not as far from reality as that of Casey). The rest of the players represent a spectrum of the styles and sub-styles from the Grognard (Chuck) and the Thespian (Marcus) to the Gamer Grrl (Ivy, who was absent in DM of the Rings).

    Er, anyway,

  27. Tas the old saying goes, you can't teach an old dog new tricks...

    I suspect that's far truer than you know ;)

  28. It's quite frustrating, really. They are utterly incurious about learning to game "the old way,"

    Good god. If that's the way you're presenting it, who can blame them?

    To teach you must learn. If you don't respect their approach as much as you want them to expect yours, you'll continue to fail. It sounds like you have virtually no respect for all the things they have to teach you.

  29. Good god. If that's the way you're presenting it, who can blame them?

    Gah, no. We play *all the time* in the "modern" style. You have to understand, I am speaking from three and a half years of frustration of playing with them in that "modern" style and trying now and again to introduce elements of "old" style and being fought tooth and nail on every point.

    I've run games for younger groups for, well, since I started playing back in '81, and I've *never* had this kind of problem. Admittedly, I have been generalizing; maybe it is something in the local gaming culture, rather than in this specific generation of games. But the few older gamers who have played in my games have enjoyed the old-style elements; but, like me, eventually they just give it up in the face of unrelenting spite on the part of the younger players...

  30. Anonymous12:18 PM

    It seems like your biggest issue with all of the game systems you've tried is building opposition. I find this to be a chore with most game systems, too. Even when I play D&D, which I'm really familiar with, it can take hours to throw together the elements of a really good encounter. For me, the solution has been to use more pre-published stuff.

    You also mentioned that that you liked Star Wars Saga Edition, but were disappointed with the lack of support. I've found a lot of fan sites that have done really good conversions of canonical Star Wars stuff to the new edition. A bit of searching on the web should help you out there. Also, WotC is putting together an adventure path for Saga, and they're putting all the adventures on their website for free. The first one just came out last week, and it seems pretty cool. Worth looking into at least.

    - astute1

  31. Thanks for the tip on the Saga adventure path, astute1!

  32. Jeff: When you setup Home Team, I wondered why you weren't using Marvel Super Heroes.

    I told Dave this a while back, and I'll tell you. Use the systems you know like the back of your hand, make up the rest, and when a player complains about something is when your encounter check just found something.

    I'm a big MegaTraveller fan, and I know you'll NOT like the combat system. So stick with the CT stuff. Or go look at the Mongoose Traveller open playtest draft (it's not bad). Make a random subsector with the old books, hand everyone a copy of the latest playtest draft, and after a session, post the results to the Mongoose forums.

    Or, Go Mystara + Cyclopedia. That's a world we both know and love.

    And I like that suggestion from aaron w -- you could use that with the cyclopedia easy. Even better, and an idea that will appeal to you, use the map from the D&D Cartoon world, and drop in modules to flavor and taste.

  33. Despite my players having fun with my Majestic Wilderlands I always berated myself for not writing things up more throughly. But after writing Badabaskor all I can say to full writeup is OMFG. It bad enough that I am willing to spend 20 hours on one of my major maps.

    As much as I love the system the main reason I keep using GURPS because I have 18 years worth of NPCs stuffed in my folders. If I just picked it up I would be in trouble.

    And to tell the truth, much of my Majestic Wilderland campaigns consisted of slightly reworked adventures. So don't feel bad about using published adventures.

    For example my own recent came used

    1) The 1 on 1 adventure the Star of Olindar

    2) The exterior of Fana a gargun (orc) complex from Harn combined with my map from the 2nd level of Citadel of Fire (the goblin caves)

    3) DCC 12 The Blackguard's Revenge

    All of with the plot reworked to fit the Majestic Wilderlands.

    I have a file box of modules that I have collected over the years that are I found that are easy to modify the plot. This includes stuff from the early 80's The explosion of material from the 3.X OGL was a real boon in this regard.

    Frankly I think companies like SJ Games miss the boat in the lack of adventure for their main RPG lines. That while traditional publishing may not be the most profitable surely some genius could come up with a way of getting adventure into the hands of their players yet preserve their rights.

    Imagine how much easier Ars Magica, GURPS, or Runequest would be to play with two dozen ready to run adventures available.

  34. Anonymous1:19 AM

    If I were in your group, I'd "vote" for:

    OD&D (w/Judges Guild or Homebrew)
    Gamma World

    Secondary Picks:
    Boot Hill
    Savage Worlds