When your campaign has jumped the shark

Sometimes I get the feeling that my love for epic stories has got the best of me. And usually when I push my roleplaying campaigns to epic extremes I shortly thereafter notice that my campaign has jumped the shark. Usually jumping the shark denotes the point where an TV shows’ audience starts to lose interest in the show, usually after the plot veers off in absurd storylines. The same can happen with roleplaying campaigns.

In D&D this usually happened to me when I was to generous with the treasure I handed out as a DM. I remember one campaign when I allowed half-celestials and half-dragon player characters, something I usually avoid. Especially when I thought it would be a cool idea to grant the half-celestial paladin a pair of vorpal swords things went downhill. But probably things had been going downhill for quite some while already. The campaign was quite epic but from a certain moment I knew that I lost control of the campaign.  And a few sessions after that we decided to let the campaign end.

In the Ad Astra campaign I started recently my love for epic campaigns led me to introduce an “ancient enemy” (details haven’t been revealed to the players yet) and even an old ally of the Elohim fairly early in the campaign. Now I am struggling from keeping the campaign jumping the shark. When I created the campaign I planned to keep everything about the Elohim and why they disappeared and what caused them to grant some humans psionic abilities a secret. But when I actually started running the campaign I thought it would be cool to make the secrets of an ancient past the theme of the actual campaign. And now I am actually regretting that I didn’t start a bit slower this time. Luckily for me, my players still are enjoying the game…

So, what can you do to save a campaign that has already jumped the shark or is close to doing so. In the second case, you can try to make sure it doesn’t reach that state. In the first case a lot depends on your group. If you believe you’ve broken the campaign but your players are still comfortable with how everything turned out and as long as they are having fun, things are not as bad.

In any other case, you should think about what went wrong. It probably doesn’t hurt to talk with your players and ask them what they think. Sometimes your players have the ideas that will help to get your campaign back on track. And sometimes it’s better to bring the campaign to an end instead of prolonging the life until neither players nor GM enjoy the game anymore.

So, what are your thoughts on that matter? Have you run or played in campaigns that “jumped the shark” and how did you handle the situation?

Michael Wolf is a German games designer and enthusiast best known for his English language role-playing games blog, Stargazer's World, and for creating the free rules-light medieval fantasy adventure game Warrior, Rogue & Mage. He has also worked as an English translator on the German-language Dungeonslayers role-playing game and was part of its editorial team. In addition to his work on Warrior, Rogue & Mage and Dungeonslayers, he has created several self-published games and also performed layout services and published other independent role-playing games such as A Wanderer's Romance, Badass, and the Wyrm System derivative Resolute, Adventurer & Genius, all released through his imprint Stargazer Games. Professionally, he works as a video technician and information technologies specialist. Stargazer's World was started by Michael in August 2008.

6 thoughts on “When your campaign has jumped the shark”

  1. Back in the AD&D 1st Ed days a sure sign of jumping the shark was when you pulled out the Deities and Demigods book and used it like a monster manual. Or "good" characters had homes in the Nine Hells. Anything so über-munchkin it defied the logic of the game when the campaign started. Of course this is now one of the conceits of D&D 4 and even Basic D&D via the Immortals rules.

    As rules go? Well 2nd Ed JTS when the Skills and Powers books came out. D&D 3.x did it when you needed the Rules Compendium book; you know a book to tell what other books to look in. I don't think 1st Ed ever did it, though you could argue that the Survival Guides came close.

    What I think is true for any game: When characters become worse than the monster they are supposed to be fighting it’s time to retire.
    .-= Timothy S. Brannan´s last blog ..Desert Elves & Orcs =-.

  2. One of the early games i ran with a group of friends in high school jumped the shark on the first game night. I thought it would be interesting to let one of the players be a lich… he would be in disguise, acting as somewhat of a voldermort character. His powers hadn't fully come back yet after being nearly destroyed so he was supposed to use the players to get his strength back and the big reveal at the end of the campaign would be that his character was evil from the start and has been using them to his own dark ends. This was a tragic failure. The person in question, my best friend since i was 4, decided to plant necrotic cysts in the bodies of all his allies on the first game session; someone woke up, he killed all of them. It didn't make much sense to me, because originally he was excited about the concept, but i think he went too power crazy. We ended up just starting over the next session with something a bit more traditional.

    So, what i got from this… never, even if you think they can handle it, let a 15 year old play the "secret badguy". Things never work out the way you plan them.
    .-= Shinobicow´s last blog ..Druid Tech Part 2 =-.

  3. I find a good way to ensure campaigns don't jump the shark (or at least die from abandonment) is to have the players come up with a "Retirement goal" early on. Somethat that when they have enough gold, have slain enough dragons and no one is immediatly menacing them, they can settle down.

    And if in 3 years after a few more games they want to revist the heroes of old, well slap down a few years onto the character ages and off you go.
    .-= Zzarchov´s last blog ..Fresh steak from one of gaming's sacred cows =-.

  4. As a European gamer it's always interesting to see how things are done across the ponds. D&D was never such a huge and all encompassing system in Europe as it seems to have been in the US so naturally we Old Worlders have different takes on things. I have never seen a campaign jump the shark because of power levels in characters (mainly because European games are usually un-leveled), only after a campaign has finished after many months of intensive playing. Everyone is sad to let go of the fun and the GM tries to do a part II, which usually never works out well. Hence, the new campaign quickly jumps the shark and people just quietly accepts that it is over with.
    .-= Robert´s last blog ..A Paper Craft Castle On the Ocean =-.

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