Thursday, February 3, 2011

History of a DM, part 3

I was thoroughly disheartened by the way the Betland campaign ended. It was several years before another campaign idea took firm root in my mind. By this time 3rd edition D&D was out and I had run across yet another crowd of new players interested in learning about the game.

I now considered myself warned. In previous games I'd failed to balance my new creations with the overall rules and content, overestimated the party's belief in the lethality of the world and underestimated their capriciousness. If they were going to get themselves captured or killed, I'd at least be able to tell myself the warning signs were there.

I decided to use a mix of custom and canned content for adventures. I like building my own adventures (though it's a big time commitment, particularly if you have kids of your own). I started with some ideas that had first formed in my head during a trip to Japan. I wanted to use some of my impressions of Shinto and the localization of beliefs found in Japan without it being fully Japanese or Asian in flavor. It's not that I don't like the Asian theme, but I wanted to make something different, to challenge players to find a niche in what was a strange new world. I didn't want to give them an easy out; "Oh I get it! This is Japan. I'll play a ninja." That leads to assumptions, to boredom, inattention and ultimately the death of the game.

After working on the basic concept of the campaign for a good six months, I was ready. This world was a post-apocalyptic wasteland, ravaged by the forces of Chaos long ago (I decided that the failure of the party in the Betland campaign allowed the Cthoi plan to succeed, inundating the planet with raging tides of chaotic energy). Small sanctuaries of stability allowed civilization - and religion - to rebuild and rediscover itself. Gods were now localized entities, present and active in the lives of their worshippers, supported and in some cases guided by the actions of the faithful, and vital to the preservation of life. Travel between these zones of stability was possible and lucrative for those with the ability to forge a path through the rapidly evolving landscape (thank you Horizon Walker!), but the term exploration took on a new meaning.

I had a big group, and a nice mix of new players and veteran gamers. The first few games were a lot of fun, and the group shifted and expanded to include around 10 semi-regular players. As individual players dropped out due to relocations, personal differences (I am a mean DM and rules are rules!) and other unalterable facts of life. The campaign is still active, though we play only once a month (and less during the summer and holidays). After 7 years the current players have achieved a respectably high level and have finally bought into the main plot line of the campaign!

I should mention at this point that most of the players that I've had the pleasure of running games for are either new to RPGs or new to D&D/Pathfinder. Noobs are the lifeblood of these games. Veteran players and DMs spend their entire lives trying to rediscover the excitement that they felt when they first started learning how to play. The learning is part of the hook.

When you sit down to create a new campaign, one of the things you have to ask yourself is "How does this campaign/design cause the players - and myself - to learn?" Learning is interesting, exciting, and sometimes quite painful. It's all fine and good to sit down and play a boxed campaign setting - these boxed campaigns provide a good lingua franca upon which players from diverse groups can get together and still have a reasonable understanding what's going on with the game and with each other- but my experience tells me that the richest games are those where the players participate in the creation of that world and its history in some way.

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