Setting Yourself Up For Failure

Over the 20+ years of my gaming career I noticed something which has led to the premature demise of many campaigns. It usually starts with me getting the impression that my players are not fully invested in the game anymore. They show up, they play their characters, but the enthusiasm for the game seems to be gone. This should encourage me to get them more excited about the game again, BUT it more often than not led to frustration. So I became more sloppy in the preparation of the following sessions which of course leads to less interest from the players. It’s a vicious circle.

Back in the day, I thought getting more feedback from the players would solve this problem. If I knew better what they were interested in, I could make the game more exciting again. But unfortunately players often don’t know what they want, and they have a hard time communicating their wishes in a way that it’s helpful to the GM.

One of the bigger issues I had over the years was that there often was a disconnect between my understanding of the game’s setting and how the players perceived it. I thought I explained everything in detail, but more often than not, there were major misunderstandings. This of course can be pretty frustrating for players and the GM alike. This often happened in cases where I was very familiar with a setting while it was pretty new to the players.

Didn’t I communicate everything correctly?  Were my players not listening, or not reading the notes I prepared for them? Were they even really interested in the game in the first place? As you can imagine being on the verge of depression for a long time didn’t really help things. In the end I took an extended break in the hopes I could return to GMing which my mental batteries recharged and my players thirsting for new adventures.

Unfortunately I am now hesitant to start a new game because I fear I might be setting myself up for failure. I also fear that any new game might fall into the same trap so many games have fallen into. My excitement gets the better of me, while my players are less than enthusiastic and confused about what the game is actually about. The feeling of having let down my players is often so strong that I feel totally paralyzed. In combination with the regular option paralysis common to GMs with too many games in their library this is deadly to any game plans – and it frankly sucks.

So I am looking for some help from my dear readers. I am sure I am not the only one with this issue. How can I get out of this vicious cycle? How can I get my players excited again without setting myself up for failure at the same time. Any advice is highly appreciated!

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.

7 thoughts on “Setting Yourself Up For Failure”

  1. I know this feeling, been there, done that. What I have done is changing my games rules paradigm. i was a heavy simulationist gamer using heavy rules (like Hero Games) and happy with that, but the work needed for preparing a scenario was tremedous and drain a lot of energy from me. Now I use light rules systems: Fudge/Fate, Warrior Rogue Mage ;-), PBTA, Chthulhu Dark.
    When I started a campaign, I tried to be exaustive, this too drain too much energy. And my players have too much background to absorb and having not my global view can not be interested in that seems to be trivial facts.
    Now I use a mindmap and I focus only on that his needed.
    When I start a campaign I negociate with the players the theme and style that I want to instill so with the players we are on the same page.
    I was planning full and long campaigns, now I plan a global objective and I fixed short “seasons” to attain this objective, and at the end of each “season” I ask the players what will be the characters next move. It help me choose the theme/style of the next season.
    Oh and even if I’m not fond of narrativism, it doesn’t mean some narrativism ideas could not be used/stealed, I love PBTA games for that.
    Hope this help you.

  2. I’ve faced similar burnout with my groups. Trying a new genre, setting, or rules system can help, as can returning to old favorites. What did you enjoy about running, and where can you minimize effort?

    I agree that negotiating with your role-players to try to identify what they want can help, but it’s better to observe each of their playing styles to see how to best serve — and challenge — them.

    Talk about your mutual inspirations for playing a particular game. Is everyone a fan of the same books, video games, movies in this genre? Are there any that you don’t have in common? Are there elements of other things that could be inspirational, like samurai films, westerns, and old war movies in Star Wars or naval combat for Star Trek?

    In addition, I’ve recently done more group/coordinated character creation, as well as a few rounds in which the gamers add people, places, or things to provide plot hooks at the start of a campaign. (The other players have a limited number of vetoes, and as Game Master, I can veto anything, but this happens only if ideas conflict with the overall campaign concept.)

    For instance, someone can say that the police are corrupt in the base city, or that a tribe of Goblins isn’t evil but merely misunderstood, or that a cult of the Old Ones has recently moved into a particular area. The usual damsels (or dudes) in distress or villains tied to individual backstories should be used sparingly, but they can be effective.

    This way, the group is more invested in teamwork and the setting from the beginning. Try not to worry about letting everyone down; group storytelling should be a collaborative effort!

    You can also try shorter campaigns, and don’t make every one about saving the world. Also, don’t be afraid to take ownership and say, “This is my game, and here’s where I diverge from the norm.”

    I also agree that it’s better to parcel out information gradually than through “infodumps.” I used to hand out 10 to 20 pages at the start of a campaign; it’s now down to two. This handout includes a description of the tone and major inspirations, a brief timeline of recent events in the setting, a few major locations or Non-Player Characters, and a list allowable character options or sourcebooks.

    It’s safe to assume that most adults these days are too busy or distracted to do much research between sessions, but you should hold players accountable for their own character records and keeping track of major plot threads. You can always gently remind them of the butler’s name, the location of the medical bay, or the potion they picked up last time.

    It’s better for the players and characters to learn by asking questions and exploring. You might have a more thorough outline, but they can learn the name of the local ruler, observe the colors of the sky or a dragon’s scales, and get a sense of a culture from N.P.C.s in sessions rather than all at once. Taking time for descriptions helps immerse everyone.

    If you’re truly excited about something, share that enthusiasm, which can be infectious! Each person has a passion, whether it’s for a certain B-level superhero, a swashbuckling style, or a goofy accented alien. Tap into that, and your group will come back for more! Good luck….

    1. Great advice! Thanks! I especially like the idea of creating/modifying the setting collaboratively. I always wanted to try out Diaspora especially because of this element.

  3. I think something along the lines of how Fate Core (or the Dresden Files RPG) handles the “world/city creation” aspect of things might work for you. No, you don’t need to play Fate/Dresden for this to work. Have your session zero be more about the characters. Have them collaboratively build the world/city/zone/area/whatever you’re going to have them adventure in. This can help them tie into the world more deeply and give them a true investment in the world at large.

    I’d also add that using the Savage Worlds “interlude” system during downtime and travel and such to allow the players to flesh out their characters (or the areas nearby) with a brief bit of storytelling would work well.

    Just some thoughts…. Good luck with your future gaming.

    PS: Just so you know, I’ve hit this as well. Many times. Having the players help build the world with me has really helped in many different systems and settings.

  4. I would suggest not trying to run extended campaigns. If you ran a tight story that ran for just enough sessions to complete the story the chances of maintaining the players full focus is much, much greater. At the end of the adventure don’t bin it but out the game and those characters aside. You can then run something else, a different genre if you want or completely different game, go where ever your desires take you.

    Then at a later date bring out those old characters and run a new adventure for them, but this time hopefully revisiting loved characters.

    Think of it as waiting for Season 2 of a favourite Netflix series.

    Again do a limited self contained adventure for the players and then put the game aside. You can reflect on the game and if the enthusiasm is still there then plan a Season 3 if you feel it is waning then put the game aside for a while.

    You never know, your own players may request a revisit to a particular game.

    This way you get to play a greater variety of games, and we all have games on the shelf we have never got to play. You can work on the principle that it is better to leave your players wanting more then to keep playing after the peak enthusiasm has waned.

    Our group has 3 GMs and we chop and change games rather than playing one campaign to death. I would suggest that you run multiple games back to back but keep them short and contained.

    It is entirely possible that the players do not lose interest in the game or the setting but their own characters.

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