In today’s article I’m going to tackle a few things; namely why I cancelled my most recent D&D campaign. I decided to take some time to reflect on what it was about my previous campaign wasn’t doing it for me, and how I could help other GMs in crafting a campaign setting to avoid burnout, specifically by tailoring the narrative and gameplay to work with your GM habits.
I am honestly ashamed to admit that I cancelled my last D&D campaign. Most campaigns sputter out or just sort of end, but I usually pride myself on providing satisfying conclusions to my campaigns. Something just wasn’t working for me anymore, and in the vein of “Know thyself”, I decided to figure out why so that I don’t run into those problems again. I was dreading prepping for sessions, and the idea of trying to progress the story’s overarching narrative was very intimidating for me. I felt like I had no idea where to go and no tools to help me.
After I broke the news to my players, I thought back on my successful campaigns and what about them kept me invested. I usually don’t run D&D – I have much more experience and success running science-fiction games than fantasy one. I first tried to look at the differences in the genre to see if that might be a contributing factor.
A few things popped out to me. Planet-hopping in a sci-fi setting means you can set adventures in a variety of biomes, with the players encountering different tech levels and cultures. You might have one adventure set on a jungle world inhabited by stone-age tribes, and set another on a refinery facility that hovers in the sulfur clouds above an active volcano. What I realized from this is that I like variety in terrains and biomes and for the environment to sometimes be a threat – but not always. Whereas the D&D campaign I was just running was set in a desert, which proved interesting for a bit, but I think I grew bored of it.
Every so often you want to change up a temperate region with, say, a fetid swamp, or an arctic glacier. I want to be able to send my players into a blistering wasteland one week, and then have them swashbuckling onboard pirate galleys the next. However, the mechanics that make those environments a fun challenge – such as extreme temperatures, storms, and the threat of tropical disease – become boring and irritating if used too much. Locales inhospitable to life such as a desert are fun for a one-off adventure but aren’t sustainable for long-term campaigns because you have to keep justifying encounters, which is difficult if the terrain is so hostile. So, in crafting a new setting, I need to give players a mode of transport that gets them to a new locale. Perhaps a vehicle?
Well, that opens another can of worms. Maps were also a big issue for me in my last campaign. I don’t enjoy making maps. That might sound shocking coming from a GM, but it holds no interest for me. I love the tactical side of moving enemies on a map, but the map-making itself holds no appeal to me. I’d much rather use one of the beautiful maps than many D&D content creators illustrate for use by the RPG community. And those maps aren’t made with vehicular combat scale in mind – and if I were to try and make a vehicle-scale map myself, it would be even more of a nightmare than if I tried to make a standard-scale map, which I already wouldn’t enjoy doing. What’s more, if you have a vehicle, you spend a lot less time in the nasty environment in question and the terrain hazards become trivialized because you have lots of ways to get around or shield yourself from them.
Ergo, the best method of shuttling your players from biome to biome without actually giving them something that trivializes the environment would be a portal. So, we want some kind of campaign built around portal-hopping to new regions. Interesting, and definitely different to what I’m used to running. But why are the players going to these different places?
Last time I also found myself struggling to progress the story arc. I either wasn’t sure what direction to take the plot in, or I had an idea and it didn’t match up with the players’ power level (either being too high or too low). For this time around perhaps I don’t want to have to think about an arc – maybe I want each adventurer to be mostly contained, with only the characters themselves connecting them. Sort of an “adventure-of-the-week” kind of thing. Looking back on my sci-fi games, this tracks with what I’m used to running – a mission-of-the-week storytelling system, with perhaps a few villains getting multi-mission arcs before being dealt with, and perhaps a few of those villains are connected by a Big Bad who the players defeat in the campaign finale.
This type of structure lends itself well to a Sandbox-style game. However, in a Sandbox game players provide their own progression (a lesson I’ve learned from prior experience as well), so how do we motivate them?
When all else fails, loot and magic items. Magic items provide a form of progression outside of XP which players can use to feel like they accomplished something even if they didn’t level up at the end of a session. So, we construct the new campaign around a gameplay loop where characters go out and gather resources (which are guarded by monsters, for some reason – we will get to that later), and return to convert those resources into magic items.
This also gives us inspiration for our players’ “home base”. In prior games I’ve had that home base be a starship, a space station, or a planetary colony – somewhere where the players feel as though their adventures are actively making a difference to improve the lives of the people living there. If this is also the place where the players are turning in their quest rewards in return for magic items, the most obvious answer is some kind of dwarven city, with portals leading out to other parts of the world and even other planes. The problem is, manufacturing magic items takes a long time, but we want players to be able to return to the city and get their rewards instantly. Why not just have the items pre-manufactured and give them to the players in return for going on adventures? Well, because the whole point of the portals is to send the players out to get the resources for the magic items, and also because having them lying around ahead of time means players could just try to steal them beforehand and avoid the quests altogether!
To accelerate the manufacturing process of magic items, perhaps we say that the dwarves have constructed magical forges inside of which local time is accelerated, meaning work that would take weeks or months can be completed in hours or days. To avoid the dwarves themselves coming out of the forges with huge chunks of their lifespan burned up, the forges are worked by magical automatons (perhaps a warforged-esque race available to player characters?). And maybe our resources that the players go out questing for are in some way used to power these time forges.
So why are these resources guarded by monsters? Maybe they’re fragments of a god of entropy (hence the time acceleration factor) and as such evil creatures are naturally drawn to them.
So there we have it. The campaign’s home base city relies on its manufacturing of magic items for the local economy, and we can easily tie the players characters into that trade via both magic item rewards and also cuts of the forges’ profits. We’ve created a mechanism by which we can send the players all over the world, and even to other worlds, meaning we have limitless options for creating memorable dungeons and encounters. What’s funny is that, on paper, this setting doesn’t seem like the kind I would initially be interested in. But perhaps it’s not about what your story is, but how you’re telling it, that matters.