“Dance With the Game What Brung Ya” – Staying Faithful to Your Tabletop Campaign

When I was in college I had the privilege of enjoying a weekly tabletop RPG night with a group of friends. Every Sunday evening a group of us would get together at the house of a friend who lived in town, break out our dice and character sheets, and we’d play a session of an ongoing tabletop campaign that would last the length of the semester. When I was the GM for the campaign I would spend the week in excited preparation. I’d imagine a villain and come up with their evil schemes, I’d conceive of fun side characters to portray during roleplaying scenes, and I’d wonder what my players would come up with to overcome my traps and puzzles. Only when I knew a campaign was about to come to an end would I start thinking about what it might be like to play a different campaign.

I’m not in college anymore – I’ve now been gone longer than I was there. My RPG buddies no longer live a few feet away from me in a dorm room or even within walking distance. Hours now separate us, work busies our lives, and families have rearranged our priorities. A weekly game is no longer within the realm of possibility for us, so instead we do our best to get together once a month and play a campaign slowly over the course of a year. It’s been a fun way to keep our hobby going, and while we don’t get to play every single month this schedule allows us to maintain our hobby and to continue to enjoy exciting adventures in imaginative worlds.

Lately, though, I’ve noticed an unusual phenomenon in my preparations as a GM. Rarely do I excitedly plan for the next session of our monthly game. I don’t spend my free time thinking of compelling villains or theorizing how my players might avoid a particular trap. Instead I find myself reading the rulebooks for other games. I think about the campaigns I’d like to be running in that system, the characters I would create or the stories that could be told. I think of how I would pitch that game to my friends, convincing them to leave behind the game we are playing in favor of one that I see as more exciting. In the month that passes from session to session, my affection for the current campaign dwindles and I find myself instead focused on the next thing. I’m no longer entangled in a passionate romance with my current campaign – instead, I have a relationship of obligation while I secretly pine for the games I don’t yet have.

Adventure Rules Logo (Cover) 2017
Don’t worry Mom, this is not a metaphor for my actual marriage.

When you’re struggling with tabletop unfaithfulness, it can be helpful to think about what got you to this point in the first place. In all likelihood, you’ll be able to identify some key moments that have led to your desire for a new campaign. For me, this lack of interest in my current game resulted from a few key factors: we’re early in the relationship, there’s been lots of distance, and I met someone else in the interim. Each of these things came together all at once to form a perfect storm of dissatisfaction with my tabletop campaign.

My group and I are playing Dungeon World, a tabletop RPG which has been my favorite game for years. Dungeon World is a great introduction to the Powered by the Apocalypse RPG system, which focuses on narrative primarily but is supported by mechanisms that help to drive that narrative forward. We chose this game out of a set of three that I was interested in running at the time – I pitched a few different ideas to my players and then everyone voted based on the suggestions I made. The vote landed firmly in favor of Dungeon World, so we designed a setting together and then at our next meetup we made characters and played the first session. That first session is the only session of this campaign that we have had so far. Normally, that would make me more excited for a game, not less, but that’s where the next factor comes in: distance.

The first session described above? That game happened back at the end of October. At the time this article has been posted that means it will have been roughly four months since we played the game. The reasons for not having another session have varied – we got the opportunity to review The Wyrd of Stromgard in November, in December the holidays made it impossible to get together, and in January we didn’t have all the players and didn’t want to have the next session with only part of the group at the table. This weekend would have been our next session, but it’s the birthday celebration for two of our players and they’ve said they would rather do other activities this time. By the time we return to this Dungeon World campaign, it will have been half a year since we started, and yet we’ve only actually gotten to experience a single session. This makes it hard to stay attached to the idea, particularly when you factor in that there are so many RPGs I’ve taken an interest in since that time.

This third factor became the nail in the coffin for my attachment to this Dungeon World campaign. I was fortunate to get not one but two new RPG books as birthday gifts: Blades in the Dark and The Burning Wheel. Both of these games are ones I’ve written out here on Adventure Rules as being games I’m highly interested in playing, but getting a copy of the books in my hands hasn’t automatically given me the opportunity to play the games. I’ve also developed a rekindled interest in City of Mist, largely the result of watching a playthrough of Persona 5 and seeing how that game could improve my skills as an MC. I’d love to dive into any of these games with my group, but to do so we’d have to let go of the Dungeon World game that we started lo these four months ago. Right now that doesn’t seem like such a bad idea to me, so it begs the question:

Dungeon World

Is it really important to care about finishing the Dungeon World campaign I already started? This silly breakup metaphor should have less impact when the subject isn’t a relationship with a person. Why not just let that old campaign go the way of the dodo and instead focus on the exciting new games I would rather be playing? There are two main reasons I can think of to stick with the game what brung me.

The first reason is about building a valuable skill: discipline. Self-discipline is the all about the ability to maintain a practice over time or to resist momentary urges in the service of long-term gain. Unfortunately, it’s a skill I don’t seem to have much of lately. I’ve fallen out of an exercise routine as the result of a lack of self-discipline as it relates to time management and sleep. However, discipline has a more direct application to the tabletop problem, and that’s the ability to maintain my focus on a campaign as it continues on and on. Sticking with this Dungeon World campaign could help to build my ability to stick with future campaigns, while giving up might make it easier to give up in the future. This is significant as it relates to the second reason to stick with a campaign: the other people involved.

Imagine being a player in a game where you’ve created an exciting character. You put a lot of thought into the decisions you made, both fictionally and mechanically. You’ve never played a character like this one before and during the first session, you had a blast with this new playstyle. You’re excited to experience more of the campaign with this character at your side, and although the circumstances of life have prevented you from playing, you are eager to return to the campaign and play the character you are so excited for. Suddenly, at your next meeting, the GM declares that he no longer wants to play that game, and now you’ve lost the opportunity to experience this character that you deeply enjoyed creating and playing.

That is why GM discipline is significant for a tabletop campaign. My decision to put down a tabletop isn’t like the decision to put down a single player video game. The latter affects only myself; the former impacts every player in the campaign I’m throwing away. My excitement may have waned but if the excitement of everyone else at the table is still there, then it could be disappointing to them for me to simply say “I don’t want to do this anymore.” This is a tricky trapeze to balance – it is important that the GM enjoys the game too. Running a campaign you hate will likely not be enjoyable for anybody. The key is in identifying when you are drifting from a campaign because it legitimately is not meeting your needs, or when you are really just being envious of experiences you are not getting to have yet.

Tabletop Tuesday 2017

Now that I recognize why I’ve lost interest in my current campaign and I have some ideas of why I might want to stick with it, I can start to think about solutions to the problem. The great thing about this is that I’ve already managed to rekindle my interest in another campaign and I can use the techniques I learned there to potentially have a similar experience with Dungeon World.

Back around the same time we started playing Dungeon World, I was speaking with one of my friends about how I still had so many games I wanted to try out, and how I missed being able to play weekly. This discussion led to the two of us and another friend starting up an online game of Ryuutama. While playing online introduces some challenges to the tabletop experience, it allowed us to try and start a weekly schedule. We hit some rough spots along the way – we chose to restart Ryuutama from the beginning because we weren’t having a positive experience with our first campaign, and then all of the holiday shenanigans that stopped our Dungeon World game impacted this game too. Once the time came to start playing again, I honestly wanted to convince my players to play a different game entirely. Once I gave Ryuutama another chance, I fell in love with it all over again and have been deeply enjoying the last few sessions we have played. So how did I get that excitement back?

The first step was to throw myself into preparation for the game. While my approach to RPG prep has changed a lot over the years, it is still a key part of my process of getting hyped for an upcoming game. Our Ryuutama game is a sandbox game, so rather than coming up with one concrete direction for the next session, I needed to consider lots of possibilities depending on the direction that the characters decided to travel. I went through the monster manual and read descriptions for all kinds of weird creatures, thinking about how their stories could be woven into different locations in the world. I began to see a number of possibilities both for standalone stories and for arcs, and thinking about these possibilities began to increase my excitement for our upcoming session.

The second step – and this is the big one – was to actually play the game. In the months between starting Ryuutama and finally getting back to it, I found myself thinking about all the games I’d rather be playing on a weekly basis. But once we sat down together and finally jumped into that next Ryuutama session, revisiting the characters and the world that we had created so far, I had a blast. While the game was out of sight, it had been out of mind, but the act of playing it again reminded me of what was special about that campaign. In the end, it turned out that all I needed to be excited about the game was to be actively engaged in participating in it. Like exercising, revisiting a tabletop campaign that seems to have lost its luster can seem dull until the moment that you actually dive in. Once you focus on what you are doing, it becomes possible to enjoy the thing you were unexcited about.

Ryuutama Cover

There are plenty of tabletop games in the sea, and it can feel impossible to get around to playing all the ones you want to experience. But I think it is important not to let that feeling stop you from diving fully into the games that you do have available in the moment. When your current campaign starts to feel like a slog because of the new games you want to play, take a moment to identify why you feel that way, think about why sticking with the game what brung ya is important, and then dive into the experience of the campaign. If doing those things doesn’t help, then maybe it really is time to say goodbye – talk to your friends and see if they feel the same way. The key, I think, is to understand the difference between when a game isn’t working and when you’ve simply been distracted by what else is out there. In my experience, if you give the campaign you have a second chance, it won’t take any time at all to remember why you love it.

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