Rigging the Dice in Your Favor – Ways to Cheat the Odds and Make a Successful RPG Campaign

You’ve got a game you want to run. You’ve developed a setting, or a campaign, or an adventure, and you’re ready to expose your masterpiece to the world. You have your NPCs fleshed out, your treasure parcels chosen, your encounters planned. But you’re chewing your nails, because you don’t want to have gone through all this work only to have your campaign crash and burn.

I know what you’re going through. I’ve had a number of campaigns that have died before they got too far. It happens for various reasons, some of which are totally beyond your control. I’ve found, however, that you can “rig the dice” in your favor and give yourself better odds of having a long-term campaign that you’ll see through to the end. I must be doing something right…my campaigns tend to last 5+ years.

For this week’s column, I wanted to offer my thoughts. I’d like everyone to have more successful games, and I hope I can help. As always, bear in mind that, while this advice works for me, it may not work for you. As the saying goes, your mileage may vary.

Pick and Choose

This can be a tough one. I hear more people looking for advice on how to find players than almost any other question about putting together a game. But, even if you’re having trouble putting together the number of players you need, I think it’s worth being a little picky about the people you invite to play.

If you’re like me and are fortunate enough to know lots of people who like to play RPGs, then you can pick the players you want to invite to a specific campaign. The players in my Wednesday night “Beer & Pretzels” D&D game are a lot of fun to play with, but I wouldn’t invite most of them to join a really atmosphere intense game like the Call of Cthulhu games I run. I might slowly try them on some Cthulhu games, but, for the most part, I find that those games are best and most memorable when you have a very intense group of people who are willing to buy into the tropes of the horror genre and not break out of that feeling.

I really sweated over the people I invited into my latest D&D game, because I knew it was going to be a very different experience. I hand-picked a lot of people I knew who were really into heavy role-playing. Given that several weeks go by with the dice being barely touched, I’d say I picked the right people. All it would take would be one person who was bored by the role-playing aspect of the game, and the whole thing could come crashing down.

If you don’t know a lot of players, I recommend putting your group together slowly, and being as sure as possible about each one. Try having the prospective players over for a non-RPG activity, like watching a movie or playing boardgames. It probably only takes one or two times getting together to determine whether someone is a person who’ll mix well with your group. If you want to get a strong idea of how they are in RPGs, run a couple of unrelated one-shots. Do they power game, rules lawyer, or poo-poo at your heavy role-players? That’ll probably help you determine if you want them to join your actual campaign.

Switch Hit

If you have the players you want assembled, and they get along and are fun to play with, then you’ve eliminated one of the biggest causes of game break-up. But there’s another potential source of disaster: you!

DM Burnout should be a clinically recognized disorder at this point. I’ve known so many people who’ve run games with grand plans, only to stop long before the ending they’d envisioned. They just hadn’t been able to keep their own interest up. I’ve been subject to it myself at times, often because I ignored my first rule. As an example, I got very excited to run a Deadlands campaign. I collected music for playlists, filled in the gaps in my Deadlands book collection, read incessantly about the wild west, broke out my Dad’s good clay poker chips, found a beanpot to store them in, watched cowboy movies…I was hot to trot!

And then…well…my players kind of ruined my interest in the genre. A couple of them were fantastic, but a couple of them were involved in a weird romantic entanglement, and that really brought the game down. Add to that a player who essentially dominated the game whenever she could, and I found my desire to keep going dying a slow, sad death. I told my players that I was going to stop running the game, and I haven’t been strongly tempted to run a Deadlands game since.

The same thing has happened to me every time I’ve tried to run a Superhero RPG; I’m not sure why. A lot of people have trouble taking that genre seriously, and that affects my desire to keep going.

Let’s say, however, that you’re loving the way the game is going, but you’re just getting incredibly burned out. You don’t want to stop the game, because you have so much invested in it, and everyone’s having a good time, but you need a break. Honestly, in this situation, as sensible as it sounds, the best advice I can give is…take that break!

If you force yourself to keep going, you’re going to start thinking of the game as a hassle rather than as something you’re doing for fun. Ideally, if someone else has a game that they want to run, ask them to step up and be the DM for a while. When you’re ready to get back in the saddle, ask them to wrap things up, at least temporarily, and jump back into your game. Or if you’re all having a great time with the game that let you take a break, then keep playing!

If you don’t have that option, you should still take that break. Why not play boardgames for a while, or get together and watch movies? Or if it comes down to it, just take a hiatus. Either you’ll get the jones to run that game again, or you’ll realize how much you like having that extra night each week, and you won’t go back to running it. Sometimes it’s better to wrap up, even if it’s not the full ending you wanted, rather than let the game become something unenjoyable. (Be sure to save the material you developed, though, because you could always spin that into a later game. The deathknight Carfax Hargrimm from my furry 1st edition D&D game [see below] was later spindled, folded, and mutilated into the very memorable LARP villain Hargrimm Djal in The Isles: Asylum.)

And that brings us to my last piece of advice.

Go Gently into that Good Night

Sometimes, a game has run its course. You may not have gotten to your conclusion where the PCs fight Orcus, but you just can’t imagine playing the rest of your game with this group. Or you’ve totally lost interest in finishing. Or your players are moving away, and you can’t find a time that you can all meet-up on Skype, or whatever. When this happens, the solution may be to just close your campaign binder, say to yourself “Good run”, and start thinking about what’s next.

The game I was playing on Monday nights has pretty much gone this route. Our characters had scored a major victory, defeating a villain who had been causing us issues for several levels and months of gameplay. We knew what the next part of our quest was, but, for some reason, people kept not showing up to games. We never took that next step, because there weren’t enough of us to play. Finally, several of those of us who were playing expressed our unhappiness over this, and our DM admitted he was feeling pretty burned out because of it. We went on hiatus. That was several months ago now. I miss playing my character, and I miss playing with that group, but I’m happy to have my Monday nights back. If the DM contacted me and said we were going to get back to playing, either with that group or with some new players, I’d consider it, but I can’t say for sure I’d agree. Did I mention how much I like having Monday nights free again?

Pouring Out One for the Homies

I will tell you now of a campaign that died a quiet death. About the time TSR was putting out the black cover 2nd Edition books (like Combat & Tactics and Spells & Powers), I had lost interest in running 2nd Edition D&D. I went back and ran a 1st Edition game, populating the world with furries instead of the traditional elves, dwarves, etc. The 1st Edition races became species-classifications. Dwarves, for example, became Earthborn. Someone playing a species of animal that lived underground (rabbits, ferrets, badgers, for example) could take the classification Earthborn. Humans became Domestique…open to any animal that had been domesticated, such as dogs, cats, sheep, etc.
I ran this game for months. It was the first game of mine that Steve played, actually, as he moved to Boston a few months after I started running it.

Eventually, however, I just got tired of it. The things I hadn’t liked about 1st Edition D&D came back to haunt me, and I found I just wasn’t enjoying the directions we’d taken the story. I decided to stop, just as my friend Whitt was making noises about running a Changeling game. Which was great, because that Changeling game spawned my absolute favorite character I’d ever played.

I’m sure many of you either DMed or played a game that you loved that died before its time. What was it like, and why did it die? Would you go back to it if the chance came up? I invite you to tell us a little about it.

About GGG

Andy/GGG is a gay geek guy for sure. He's been playing D&D since he was 10, and he equates reading Tolkien with religion to some degree. He's a writer/developer for a Live Action RPG called The Isles, and he writes a comic called Circles, a gay, furry slice-of-life piece that comes out way too infrequently.

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