Just like the old commercials, I ask, how many times has this happened to you? You’re playing in a great campaign. You’ve got amazing character development. There’s vibrant NPC’s, an amazing world setting possibly with the characters involved at a level of politics and nations. Then, the GM announces he/she’s tired of running that campaign and wants to start something new. Worse, the campaign devolves into a PC killer game designed to end it by force.

Just wrongly rubs the rhubarb, doesn’t it? Sometimes GM’s do burn out on a particular setting. It does happen, but just as often if not moreso, a GM simply loses the ability to handle high-level characters. Is it inexperience, a lack of resources to help GM’s manage such campaigns, or a combination of the two?

My personal belief is it’s both. But I think if those GM’s just did a little homework, they could maintain those campaigns for as long as they needed. I’ll offer a comparison study of cases in point.

I was playing in a Fantasy GURPS campaign, set in Yrth. Our group started as lowly 100 point characters, mercenaries for hire. We worked our way up through some amazing scenarios. I count this as one of my favorite campaigns to play in and one of my all time favorite characters was in it (a _smart_ reptile man warrior). We started out with the usual low level adventures, became semi-famous and then fought in a multi-nation war. There was even a twist that involved our “death” and “return” at a later date to fix things that had gone south. It was an amazingly good campaign.

After that, we had another mini-campaign with the same characters revolving around a purchased ship and our becoming pirates. Although this was as fun as the original, this is when one could tell the wheels were coming off the cart. The game devolved. First we didn’t play as much, because the GM was having trouble coming up with “what next?” kind of ideas. Then when we did play it was rolling like mad to not be killed by the next big bad guy that came down the pike. Everyone was trying to kill us and it turned into a high-level hack ‘n slash.

This was not isolated. The same GM, and I consider this person a long-time close friend, couldn’t figure his way out of that with a similarly brilliant GURPS Supers game. It went about the same way. Once the denoument of his original campaign had been reached, he was out of ideas; at least ones equivalent to the original. Therein was the flaw in his running of games.

Not to toot my own horn, but I had an equally long-term campaign I ran as GM in GDW’s Dark Conspiracy game. This game evolved over seven or eight years. My player group changed a little bit, and with it the characters changed. By the end of the campaign, I think perhaps one original character was still in the group, but most of the original players were. And we stopped due to issues unrelated to the quality of the campaign (life issues – the worst kind).

This campaign started as many do. A group of players was brought together with purpose (government agents and recruits to investigate and fight a looming dark unnatural threat) and grew from there. There were the typical beginning adventures, but some oddly “advanced” adventures which seemed to give away big plot elements early on. It led to a bit of a jumble (which in that game is encouraged) in the player’s comprehension of what their characters were up against. A flowing narrative kept the world around them evolving and frankly getting worse. However, their efforts had noticeable and pronounced effects on how the story would proceed.

Over the course of this, there was a move/counter-move subtext. For every success the characters enjoyed, an equally strong reaction was brought by their opponents. This had the effect of every so often redefining the setting, the characters (the ones that survived) and their short-term goals. Long-term goals were much vaguer, because they could so easily be disrupted by simple development through play.

There was an over-arching plot, one that might have even had an eventual conclusion that didn’t involve every character dieing. In fact, although many characters did die, they died because the players wanted to try different character types or because some peripheral players would drop out. It added richness and believability to the story line without the game becoming nothing but a character killer. Even Mulder & Scully didn’t last forever.

I never had a problem in running this game with fretting that characters had become too powerful or that they might have accumulated too many goodies. There was always something to challenge them, something new or old adversaries with a new take on them. So how did I do it when I’ve watched so many other campaigns around me fail to keep player interest in t he same way? I’ll write about that in my next post. Until then, ponder on this and what it would mean for your campaign.