Friday, August 7, 2009

Jumping the Orc

Remember that episode of Happy Days where Fonzie jumped over the horde of Uruk-Hai? Me too. It was never the same after that, was it? And as long as we're waxing nostalgic, here's another blast from my "Live and Let Dice" column. This one is from November of 2004 and it's called....


November 3, 2004

A friend of mine was telling me about his D&D campaign. "Yeah, we're up to the 33rd level now," he said.

I boggled. The thirty third level???

"Well, we did start the campaign at 10th level."

I still boggled. I don't think I've ever been in a game of Dungeons & Dragons where we got past ninth level, mainly because I've never been in a game which lasted that long.

This got me to thinking. When do you end a game? When do you know that the campaign has long enough? When has your role-playing game jumped the orc?

Probably the biggest terminator of campaigns is TURNOVER. A couple players leave the group, either from internal friction or scheduling conflicts or discovering girls or whatever and suddenly you have a big hole in your party. With a big enough group, this might not be a problem. "During the night, the Paladin received a vision from his deity telling him he's been transferred to third shift, so he's gone off on a separate quest." Or: "Torgil unexpectedly got turned to stone, so he's going to be a statue until his girlfriend lets him game with us again." Or more subtly, "Suddenly, in the middle of the forest, Gunther got hit by a truck."

Sometimes the hole is difficult to fill. "Okay, we lost our paladin, our half-ogre ranger and our our drow ninja. We still have the halfling and the gnomish cleric. So, who's ready to tackle the Elder Wyrm?" Even the loss of a single player can doom a game, if it's the right player. If, for example, you've built your campaign around a specific character and his quest, you kind of need that character. I once joined a group where, after my second or third game, the GM hosting it left her husband and ran off to another state. That sort of killed the game.

An empty seat in the dining room is pretty easy to spot, but some game-killers are less obvious. The most insidious is BURNOUT; when the GM or the group gets tired of the campaign or the GM just runs out of ideas. Hack & slash games rarely have this problem because the GM can always dig out the Monster Manual and throw more critters at his group; but a more plot-based campaign requires a little more skull work in setting up story and creating interesting NPCs. Even the old reliable dungeon crawl will come to the point where the players say "Awww... not the legion of undead berserker beholders AGAIN!!!"

Related to Burnout, but in a more positive way, we have ATTAINMENT. With Burnout, the GM has run out of ideas. With Attainment, the players have Gone About as Fer as They Kin Go. Characters often have goals, and how they strive to attain these goals provide the GM with a good source of plot material. They could be as simple as "I want go gain enough XP to advance to the next level", or as dramatic as "I want to avenge the death of my brother", or "I want to clear my name of the crime I did not commit", or, as is often the case with my wife's characters, "I want to marry that cute megalomaniac who wants to rule the world!"

Once the players achieve their goals, the GM can try to create new goals to pursue. After all, a half-elf barbarian/druid's reach must exceed his grasp, else what's a heaven for? But the attainment of an important goal can also be used as a good excuse to retire the character or even the game. If you think of the game as a novel, plot your storyline will be the most important event in the characters' lives. That's why sequels so rarely work; it's hard to top a satisfying conclusion to a story.

I once played in a campaign where our group had been duped by an evil NPC named Lord Raldigan Cheese, (actually it was Raldigan Monterey, but we really disliked him so we called him "Lord Cheese"), into unleashing Ultimate Evil into the world. The campaign became a long quest to once again imprison the Evil. Okay. So we did it. We hunted down Lord Cheese, killed him and stuffed the Evil back into its box. Yippee. Then Lord Cheese came back. And we did it again. Then he got better again. By this time the players were about ready to dip the GM himself in fondue.

Looking back on that campaign, I can see that the GM wanted to continue it, but he couldn't think of any threat to top Ultimate Evil. So he had to keep bringing Ultimate Evil back. He would have done better to simply end the campaign the first time we beat the Big Baddie.

When I get to a point where I'm ready to close off a game, I try to steer it towards a big CLIMAX, in which the individual characters meet their goals and the overall goal of the campaign is attained. That way the game has a good bang at the end so you know when to clap. Sometimes this takes some steering. The "Uncanonical X-Pals" campaign I ran recently with my wife Lute navigated at least three major plot climaxes which could have made good stopping points for the game but either it was too soon, or there were too many loose end in the plot to be addressed or something. Then, when I was ready to wrap things up, it took me several more sessions to set up a climactic conflict that would top what had gone on before. It took some doing, but it was a memorable and satisfying conclusion to a fun campaign.

Ideally, when one campaign ends, you like to have ANOTHER IDEA for a game ready to take it's place. This could be a matter of another player wanting to run something, or the GM wants to try a different genre or system as a change of pace, or someone bought a new suppliment or system that he's just dying to try out. If your group has more than one GM, very often you will wind up with more than one campaign running at the same time, with the GM's taking turns whose game the group will play each session. (In one group I used to game with, the first couple hours of each session was spent voting on what game we would play).

Often in a situation like this, the newer, fresher idea will supplant the older campaign. There is nothing wrong with this; Role-playing games grow, mature and fade, to be replaced by new campaigns. It's all part of the Circle of Life.

But on the other hand, there's no rule that says a campaign has to end at a certain point. As long as the GM and the players are enjoying a game, let it ride. Even up to the Thirty-third Level and Beyond.

And if you have any thoughts or remarks about gaming, cartoons or the Fonz, please leave a comment! I live for feedback!

Nil Desparandum!