I suck at running campaigns

Recently I looked back at my gaming career and I realized that my campaigns usually end up being a mess. More often then not, there’s no real ending to the campaign and the last few sessions are just not as great as the first ones.  Something happens after a couple of sessions which makes me – the GM – lose interest in my own campaign.

One reason is probably that I love to collect roleplaying games. On average I get a new game every month and while I am still running game A I already read game B, while I am leafing through game C I just got. I should focus on a fantasy campaign, but instead my mind is already somewhere else. I always have the urge to try something new which is not really compatible with the idea of running a campaign.

Another problem is probably that most of my groups don’t meet that regularly. If we’re lucky we can play once per month, but even that is not always the case. I guess it’s easier to stay invested in a game if you meet regularly. Alas this is not something I can easily fix.

When I start a new campaign I am usually very excited and I guess part of that excitement may be a problem. I hype myself so much, that the real game can only be a disappointment. Sometimes I realize that the rules I was going to use just don’t fit the theme I had in mind, or I escalated things too quickly, so that after a few sessions the player characters could easily take on gods without breaking a sweat. Ok, the first half of the campaign was extremely epic, but then I don’t know on how to keep things interesting.

Sometimes I fear I am too hard on myself. In most cases my players are perfectly fine with the game, but I am just not happy. I guess this may one of the symptoms of my depression, but that doesn’t mean I have to simply give up. I want everyone on the table have fun and this should include the GM as well. I always wanted to run an epic campaign, but – at least in my opinion – things ended with either me abandoning the campaign at some point or because the game ended in scheduling hell.

I hope that some of you have had this issue before and can give me a few tips on how to change things around. Please share your thoughts below!

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.

11 thoughts on “I suck at running campaigns”

  1. First: You are probably indeed to hard on yourself. Check back with your players often and regularly, and they’ll most likely encourage you to keep going. In my experience, GMs often are much more critical of their games and session than the players.

    Second: Make this your strength and run short campaigns. Don’t plan on the long haul, just a short story arc than can be finished in the time your normally keep to a campaign. Then switch to something else. It will keep things fresh for you, and the players will experience many different settings, rules and stories. I’m sure they’ll like that too.

  2. I sympathize. While I’ve run several successful long-term campaigns of two or more years each, I’ve also had my share of adventuring parties that fell prey to internal strife or fizzled out.

    I agree that a discrete miniseries of, say, four to eight sessions might be easier to sustain. One-shots are a good way to introduce role-player groups to new rules systems and settings, and they can whet their appetite for more. If you’re enthusiastic, chances are the gamers will be too!

    Another thing you can do is to present your group with a few options — “Here are the games I think look interesting; which do you want to try?” Each combination of players, characters, rules, and setting is different, so explore that angle. It’s also a good idea to become pickier, since time, money, and space for new games are finite.

    One-shots and miniseries are also a way to minimize the risk that all the Game Master’s preparation isn’t in vain if the team or story doesn’t gel for whatever reason. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Each session is a new chance to do things the way you’d like!

    I’ve found that after some months of indulging our “gamer ADD,” most of the people in my current groups want to return to longer-term plots where they can develop their characters and experience a world more deeply. Good luck!

  3. I am in the same boat as you are. I regret that I can`t run long campaigns but I think I made my peace with the fact I may only ever run short campaigns or one shots. I firmly try to only think in one shots, and if they are great, maybe continue. With another one shot. At least I try to. Of course the ideal of a long campaign with the epic stories all the other people tell still lingers around. But I have accepted that I am not that guy, and I think that is OK too. As a player in your campaign I understand what you mean with the “Power Escalation”, it is a devious trap, but could be solved by talking to the group I think. You do good as a GM Michael, and your games are great. That is why most players want to continue on and on. And you currently do episodic games that can easily be stopped at any time in Numenera, I think that works well. But if you do not have fun anymore it is of no use of course. If it becomes work the campaign is dead anyway. But then talk about it with us, I think most are understanding and enough would be willing to try something different.

    1. Thanks for your kind words, Marcus. Since you are a player in one of my campaigns it means a lot to me, knowing that you sympathize. Numenera is still fun for me, but I think I took the campaign into a wrong direction. But it’s not beyond the point that it can be fixed. On the other hand, I think an episodic campaign with “Where No Man Has Gone Before” could be a welcome change for a couple of months. And after that we could return to the Ninth World, or start something completely new.

  4. One-shots. If you can’t finish an adventure in one session of play, it’s too long, imnsho.

  5. If you want to run longer campaigns, this is what I’m doing: My campaign worlds are always infinite. Planes, continents, it’s all there. And even if I want to combine two settings, I’ll use Planescape ideas to connect them, bend a little here and there, no problem. Then, players have an effect on the setting, change it. This is cool. It can be a short campaign of six sessions (that’s not what I do, though). The next campaign will be somewhat related. It takes place nearby. A few years in the future. In an alternate plane that involved the old campaign somehow. And that’s how the campaign transcends characters and rules. Use D&D 3.5 for a bunch of characters. Then use Solar System for a bunch of characters. Then use Labyrinth Lord for a bunch of characters. Then move to the Astral Sea. Then play some first level characters doing jobs for the high level characters. Then switch to the high level characters again. And if that gets boring, let’s see about marriage and children. Let’s play them!

  6. I often have a similar experience, with a few exceptions. Also, meeting so infrequently combined with changes in players (once a month for several years means adding and subtracting) makes people forget what the actual objective was.

  7. It takes two or more to tango.

    The only group where I didn’t suck as GM was The FlatEarth, everyone pulled together and we had a blast gaming or not.

  8. For one, “campaign” in the “old sense” seemed to mean “campaign world” rather than “campaign arc” and that’s pretty much still how I run things. Sure, players might become super-important people, but they may just end up being teen-level hacks as well.

    I don’t worry so much about setting up an epic, I have noticed that they always seem to come up anyways in game and that the players themselves drive their own sense of it (so I don’t need to nearly as much as might be thought).

    Let the players adventure – if an epic storyline suggests itself after a few levels then run with it. But otherwise let the story be about them!


  9. I believe we may be clones, given the same symptoms are characteristic of my GMing. One thing to mention though is that you cannot run an ace game without players who will commit to the long-term.

    I find that players are fickle, prone to criticising rather than supporting a “campaign”. With few sessions and people not showing to them all, it’s easy to give in to the next good idea.

Leave a Reply to Che Webster Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.