Monday, February 28, 2011

Decline and Fall

Over the course of the more than two years I've been running the Dwimmermount campaign, the number of players involved has fluctuated from month to month, with at least three players becoming irregular in their attendance or dropping out entirely, except for occasional "guest appearances." Now, unfortunately, one of the rocks of the campaign, Dordagdonar's player, has moved out of the city and, while he plans to come back into town as often as possible, it's unlikely to be more than once a month, at least for the foreseeable future.

That rather puts a damper on things. I'd originally conceived of the campaign as one where players could drop in or out without doing too much violence to the flow of things and that worked well enough for a while, but, as the campaign barreled on, Dordagdonar became one of the points around which a lot revolved. No one planned it this way, least of all myself, who did everything I could to keep the campaign as "open" and "loose" as possible. But as anyone who's run a campaign for any length of time knows, it's impossible to prevent the way that some characters (and their players) become essential to its continuance. Dordagdonar and his player are examples of such and so, for now anyway, the campaign will move much more slowly than I'd originally imagined it would.

That leaves me with some players left behind and several weekends free each month, so I find myself contemplating the start of another campaign to fill the void. I generally don't like the idea of "mini-campaigns" or "one shots," since I prefer that campaigns decide for themselves how long they run, not the players. So, if I do start up a new campaign to run in the gaps between now-monthly Dwimmermount sessions, there's always the chance that it could become something long-lasting, perhaps even rivaling Dwimmermount's 60+ sessions.

I'm still not sure that I'm even going to do this. I need to confer with my remaining players and see how things unfold. If it does happen, though, I'm tending toward science fiction this time around, perhaps using my Thousand Suns rules. I've become rather fascinated -- maybe "obsessed" is a better word -- with the fall of the Roman Republic and I've begun to think that a space opera set against a similar backdrop might be a lot of fun. I'm not a big fan of most contemporary SF (shocking, I know!), preferring stuff written in the 50s through 70s, a lot of which are set during the reigns of galactic empires. Now, galactic empires are cool, but I think declining galactic republics/federations are just as cool. Indeed, from a roleplaying perspective, I actually think there's a great deal more scope for adventure during the final days of a democracy gone rotten. That's probably why, for all their manifest faults, I still retain a certain liking for the Star Wars prequels. There's so much wrong with those movies, but the overall setting is not one of them.

Anyway, these are just idle thoughts at the moment. All I know for sure is that I'd very much like to keep up a regular RPG campaign of some sort. Without one, all the blather I engage in here rather loses its point and I'm not yet ready to retire my keyboard, much as I'm sure many wish I would. More on this as it develops.

42 comments:

  1. I'm impressed Dwimmermount made it as far as it has; it's a testament to the fun you and your players have had. I've also thoroughly enjoyed the updates and I'll look forward to reading the now-occasional news in the future. (I have to know how some of these plots resolve!)

    As for your science fiction campaign, I think our tastes mirror a bit. Though I've enjoyed later works, my favorites come from the 50s through the 70s, too. In fact, I just finished re-reading Piper's "Uller Uprising" the other day, a fun fictionalization of the Great Mutiny in India. While not a great fan of science fiction games, I'll eagerly look forward to updates about your new campaign.

    Regarding the Roman Republic, I can recommend Adrian Goldsworthy's book on the Punic Wars and his biography of Caesar, as well J. B. Bury's history of Rome, which was a standard when I was in school.

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  2. Why not just run a second group in the same Dwimmermount world?

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  3. James, I feel your pain about losing key players. My own World of Samoth game felt the loss about 3 years in when one player who had developed a complex storyline about her character had to stop playing when her first son was born. She's yet to return to the campaign, some six years later.

    I started with about eight players and I'm down to three, but only one of those has been there since the beginning. If he stopped playing, I'd probably have to stop the campaign, because so much now revolves around his character.

    However, this is a great opportunity for you to try something else, especially after you seem to have been pining to play an SF game for the past year or more.

    I would encourage you not to give up on your Dwimmermount game, though. Even if you only end up playing once a month, it can still be a fun, rich, exciting game. My own campaign is supposed to happen every other week, but with "life" getting in the way, it averages only once a month. We've been playing it for about 10 years now, and everybody still has a great time.

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  4. Agree with Cole here, why not just drop another group of characters into Dwimmermount? You could even leave the door open for possible "cross-over" games with some characters present from either group.

    I've recently experimented with running odd one-shots for different groups of players set in the same world as my regular campaign, and letting the effects of those one-shots feed back into the regular campaign itself. It's actually been pretty rewarding and another interesting point of "random" impact on the game world, much like using tables. I begin to suspect that back in the day the term "campaign" had little to do with a regular group of players and more to do with a DM who used a consistent setting for all his games.

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  5. I'm going to third Cole's suggestion. You've gotten it pretty fleshed out, and as Rob Conley has advised you in the past settings only get better with successive campaigns in them.

    Obviously you should do what you and your players want, but that's my two coppers.

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  6. James, I've always thought one of the issues I would have with your campaign world is that one group of players has had an overwhelming influence on it's development. You've developed entire concepts of your campaign world based on the playing styles of a handful of characters; aren't you intrigued with what an entirely new group of players would bring to your setting?

    I agree with the above posters; drop another group into the campaign, with an entirely new set of characters/issues/aims, and see what develops. It may really re-energize your creative juices and give you lots of new directions for your world.

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  7. I will differ from the above posters and suggest that if you have time to run a regular weekly game you might as well vary your diet and run a different genre game like (as in your post) science fiction. There's no reason you can't run two campaigns concurrently. There might even be some cross-pollination of ideas between the two.

    Or, as another radical suggestion, why don't you *play* in someone else's campaign, if you can find someone as dedicated as yourself to refereeing.

    Either way, you will get a different perspective which may help your Dwimmermount campaign.

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  8. I'll join the bandwagon and suggest creating other adventuring groups to run through Dwimmermount. You'll get the reward in terms of cross-pollination of adventures creating a greater depth to the campaign. For example one party might get caught up in the events created/realised by the other party. Also, as your game is very player driven, it should be natural that each adventuring party will discover and do different things, extending your campaign in different directions from a one party point of view.

    [Admittedly my view is very biased as this is what I truly think of as a campaign. A shared world in which multiple players simultaneously adventure and which is generally built from the interactions of the players (much more akin to most wargaming campaigns, in that sense).]

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  9. Why not just run a second group in the same Dwimmermount world?

    I could do that, but doing so wouldn't solve the issue of what to do with the players still remaining from the original group. The only reason I'm contemplating a second, different RPG campaign is because not everyone from the initial campaign is unavailable. What do I do with them?

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  10. aren't you intrigued with what an entirely new group of players would bring to your setting?

    Sure, but people seem to be forgetting that not everyone from the original group has dropped out. If they had, then I'd definitely consider just continuing the campaign with a new crew. The difficulty right now is that a key player from the initial group, someone who was always available and whose character was one of the main drivers of the campaign's action, is less available now. Unless I intend to force those who remain to adopt the same monthly schedule, I haven't resolved the issue of what to do with them.

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  11. Or, as another radical suggestion, why don't you *play* in someone else's campaign, if you can find someone as dedicated as yourself to refereeing.

    I'd love to do that, but, right now anyway, I'm not sure how likely an option it is.

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  12. Admittedly my view is very biased as this is what I truly think of as a campaign. A shared world in which multiple players simultaneously adventure and which is generally built from the interactions of the players (much more akin to most wargaming campaigns, in that sense).

    I'm definitely intrigued by this concept, but, truth be told, I'm not sure I could manage such a thing. I have enough trouble arranging regular play with just one group of adult players. Trying to do so with multiple groups strikes me as a logistical nightmare.

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  13. I could do that, but doing so wouldn't solve the issue of what to do with the players still remaining from the original group.

    I should probably have been clearer; I was thinking they could start secondary PCs to adventure with the newcomers. Even if they were still exploring the Mount themselves, I imagine the lower levels have undergone some changes since the early days of the game.

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  14. I should probably have been clearer; I was thinking they could start secondary PCs to adventure with the newcomers. Even if they were still exploring the Mount themselves, I imagine the lower levels have undergone some changes since the early days of the game.

    That could work and I'll certainly make the suggestion. Honestly, though, if I were going to go this route, I'd almost rather it was with entirely new people, because experience has taught me it's hard for players to avoid using their prior knowledge when playing new characters. There are ways around this, mind you, since things have changed in the dungeon since the original group first entered it.

    It's definitely worth considering.

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  15. I vote for a SF spinoff. I have always had great fondness for "gloomy" end of an era bon-vivant's like Retief, or Flandry. Never been a big Sten fan. The Stainless Steel Rat on the other hand is more like it - although the lack of aliens is distressing. Van Riis leaves me cold.

    But how you could make an adventuring party out of that milieu is a puzzle. Perhaps a Mission Impossible type of group with various masters of disguise, con-artist, cat burgler, pilot, butt-kicking women, star patrol do-gooders, scientific types or what have you?

    A grand space opera with perhaps two or three human empires with aliens throughput but also an alien Confederacy (Groacci?) with human turncoats. One example would be to look at the Raj with the English as the Romans losing power involved in the Great Game (Kipling's KIM) with the competing Confederacy. The opportunities are endless.

    The tone of this kind of campaign might be something different. Good play requires sneakiness and deception - if you draw to much attention you can and will get swatted or at the least fail in the mission. The only issue I can see is that in order to be intelligently sneaky a tonne of information is required. Information that you may have to generate in real time and the temptation would be to railroad the characters into a pre-determined path.

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  17. I know you don't like mini campaigns, but in this case I think it would be good idea. At least until you can find some resolution the next time Dordagdonar's player comes back to town.

    As for any ideas, I would make it something entirely separate from the current campaign and give it a new spin like having all the players run a single class or race( a band of thieves are always good).

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  18. I had a spell last summer where all my players couldn't meet up for a month or so. I took what players showed up and I ran them with new characters in the same world. I chose a section of the world that had only been vaguely conjured up in my mind and barely hinted to the players. The area I selected allowed them to play a couple new races they never had the chance to do so and I tied in a few small details to the main campaign knowledge ... but these players were pretty good at separating player from character knowledge. But, they really enjoyed the extra background they discovered about the past ancient race. Though it didn't really give the main party any extra secret information. I also used it as an opporunity to run one of my favorite modules from back in the day (B4: The Lost City). Except I modified it so the dwellers in the city were a forgotten community of surviving ancients who had decayed mentally from addiction and false idol worship. It worked out well and eventually everyone died from a savage ghoul attack. So it left no loose ends.

    So I think you could easily run the same players through far from where your central campaign is currently occuring and try something a little different. You could try some urban crawls or devious wilderness locales. Perhaps wayward travels stuck on a planet connected to your dungeon.

    But to be honest I have already decided if we run into the situation again we are going to run some other one shot/short adventure arcs in other games. Mainly Call of Cthulhu, which if find very tidy to close up after only a adventure or two.

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  19. No other players available?

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  20. I've recently started up DM'ing again with a couple of the players from old campaign, but using the D&D Cyclopedia from my teenage years as the ruleset. Can you believe I bought it, have kept it all these years ... and never used it until a few weeks ago?

    One session has turned into three and now I'm looking at designing a mega dungeon to turn this into a new campaign. Good stuff!

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  21. Well if you decide to go with a SF campaign and begin regularly posting about it here I'm sure the ripples of that will work their way through the old-school RPG audiences and from there flow into the new-school RPG audiences and we will see a resurgence of "50's-70's inspired scifi RPGs based on declining galactic federations".

    I'm not kidding. Over the past few years I have noticed that the RPG community is very tightly bound online and when one popular source in that web does something it invariably and eventually rolls out to the entire group in some form. It's like an RPG "butterfly effect", when Grognardia flaps it's wings about a SF inspired campaign WoTC releases a 4E version of Knight Hawks. Or, probably more accurately, someone else has already flapped their wings which inspired James to want to move to a SF based campaign and he is continuing the wave.

    To test my theory I'd like to see James start up a new SF campaign and post regularly about it here.

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  22. James, you and I started our respective campaigns about the same time. My Dark Ages is into it's third year and I've seen some serious turnover. I've seen times when we barely played once a month. I've had key players leave due to live where major things they started have since died out.

    What has worked for me is to push on. And admittedly, that's just for me, but here's what's come out of it... with the moving on of those characters allowed me to start fresh new things. The existing players could build on those ideas or branch off into things THEY wanted to do, but perhaps didn't because the natural leaders were taking the group into a different direction.

    I have no doubt you have as vibrant and possibility-filled of a world as anyone does - I bet there's a lot of riches to be mined. I know that I discovered the same as my players turned over. That's something I learned from reading about Greyhawk and Blackmoor and Tekumel. The players were important, yes... but the life of the world moved on, even with the loss of "key players". It kept rolling and the life that Gary and Dave and the Professor put into those settings kept it going.

    I hope whichever route you take, you continue to get what you want to get out of it, but I kinda hope you keep up with Dwimmermount. I hope you take the opportunity to take it in directions that you've considered.

    Ironically, one of the places you designed for Dwimmermount (I believe you designed your dungeon from FO#1 for your campaign) is also a key location in my campaign. If you can imagine a cork in the bottle of Chaos, that is what your little monastery represents in my campaign.

    The cork's about to pop though...

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  23. That should have read: I've had key players leave due to REAL LIFE where major things they started have since died out.

    The disadvantage of thinking faster than I can type...

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  24. Obviously you should play a Thousand Suns game. If your rules are any good then why in Christ's name wouldn't you use them? They're yours, they presumably reflect a playstyle you're interested in, they seem to fit the themes of your fascination/obsession. And if you're revising the game at present then further playtesting is, er, an obligation - no?

    On the other hand, if you're interested in running a spacegoing SF game, have you considered Diaspora, Stars Without Number, or even something gonzo-new, like Starblazer Adventures (which certainly fits your particular nostalgia-mould)?

    Or for that matter, a B&W sci-fi serial game using Primetime Adventures, which skips all the mechanical stuff and goes straight to very specific genre-modeling, with built-in provisions for character variability and variable-length stories?

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  25. I think tapping into Roman history for the framework of a sci-fi game has a ton of potential. Long term it even sets up options for other campaigns set in other periods of "history" based off of Rome - the "Prequel" set during the Punic Wars with some alien power, a sequel set during a succession crisis (Year of Four Emperors) - the options are rich and plentiful.

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  26. I hesitate to say much. I'm not much of a fantasy RPG gamer. I do it with my boys under the philosophy that the family that plays together, stays together. That's where their interest is. Personally, I wish it was around wargaming. I don't care for fantasy as a general rule. I care for sci-fi even less. I come to this site out of nostalgia, and because I absolutely adore your take on certain subjects. You out-historian most historians I know. Still, I've learned a lot about the whole RPG world, fantasy lit., and the history of the gaming genre on this blog. I even bought the Dying Earth for my boys last Christmas.

    What strikes me is that, from the earliest months, the blog seemed centered around ODD, or D&D in general, with other topics more or less orbiting that hub of interest. But in recent months, perhaps the last year or so, the interest has clearly shifted. Less and less has focused on D&D, and more and more has focused on things like sci-fi RPGs, other RPGs, other approaches to the game, other genres. Not that D&D went out the window. But at least from my POV, the shift in interest was happening.

    I actually thought to myself 'I wonder when he's just going to change and do some other RPG genre'. I even imagined it to be sci-fi, given the emphasis on that in recent months. Nothing wrong with it! I just was hit by this since I've noticed the shift and actually imagined this could happen in the near future. So for my half cent, your passions seem to have shifted since the blustery days of March, 2008. I imagine that will, and probably should, determine your choices.

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  27. How do you run a sci-fi sandbox game? I seem to remember being able to do it when I was 12, with some kind of Fighting Fantasy based rules. And I could run published WEG Star Wars adventures ok. But I could never really work out how to run a long-term Traveller campaign. Without XP charts, levelling up, dungeons to adventure in, it seems so hard to know what the PCs are supposed to *do*. I did like playing Elite on my Spectrum 48K, but classic Traveller doesn't have much of a ship combat system. Does Thousand Suns solve this conundrum?

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  28. Run a new campaign using the Terminal Space!
    (it's rather a joke)

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  29. I love reading your session reports, and as you say, the game's the thing. Keep playing man, and writing of it!

    My humble suggestion would be to add 1 or more players to your current group. Or if you are lucky enough to have a friendly game store, or comic shop or whatever, you could move your game, with its current roster, to that venue for a bit, and attract some new players. Alternatively, reschedule your game to Encounters Wednesday and offer an alternative to the status quo, whilst tweaking the nose of the current holders of the game.

    Or, even better, I hope you find what you really want to do most. Its your precious time after all.

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  30. Did you already play the binding glue right out of Thousand Suns? If not, I'd vote for that too (though I'm not one of your players, who might actually have a voice here). I even suspect you could run a "slave escape from the planet of the Eld" game or something similar, and keep the possibilities open for a Dwimmermount crossover.

    ...I'm also not sure how you sandbox an SF game, which is why my trav games always ended up being mission based. The presence of a map with a thousand suns on it pretty much demands that you create some kind of selection criteria that are going to be the real architecture of the game.

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  31. Elite on the 48k Spectrum... what a game that was!

    An RPG could definitely work based around that. Once you've landed at a space station, the bartering, intrigue and roleplaying begins...

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  32. Without XP charts, levelling up, dungeons to adventure in, it seems so hard to know what the PCs are supposed to *do*.

    Did you ever see Firefly? Creator Joss Whedon once described it as Star Wars, if Han Solo had never picked up Luke and Obi-Wan, and had instead flown around the galaxy doing smuggling jobs and causing/avoiding trouble. That's a fantastic SF campaign frame: find a ship, find a crew, find a job, keep flying.

    The important thing is that things happen in the sandbox whether or not the PCs make them happen - 'swept up in events' is of course a perfectly valid motor for an RPG campaign, notwithstanding some gamers' nostalgic fetish for worlds in which nothing ever really happens, even onscreen.

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  33. No other players available?

    I'm in the process of looking into this. It's still too early to say how things will turn out, but I am looking into that option.

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  34. Or, probably more accurately, someone else has already flapped their wings which inspired James to want to move to a SF based campaign and he is continuing the wave.

    It's possible I've been influenced by others on this score, but, if so, I can't recall who it might have been. More likely, it's simply the fact that, as I've always said, SF is my "natural" genre and I periodically feel the urge to indulge it. The possibility of a hiatus in the Dwimmermount campaign might be give me some scope for that. Or not.

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  35. I kinda hope you keep up with Dwimmermount.

    I don't think there's any danger I won't continue with it. Dordagadonar's player fully intends to be in the city more often eventually; it's just a matter of when. I'm too fond of the campaign to let it fade away forever.

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  36. How do you run a sci-fi sandbox game?

    Never played Traveller? That's more or less my model for a sandbox SF game: PCs have a ship and need money and go wherever they think provides the best source of income and I wing the rest. That's more or less what I've always done with my SF campaigns, unless they had a different premise, as in Star Trek, for example.

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  37. But in recent months, perhaps the last year or so, the interest has clearly shifted. Less and less has focused on D&D, and more and more has focused on things like sci-fi RPGs, other RPGs, other approaches to the game, other genres.

    I hope I can be forgiven for broadening my scope after three years and nearly 2000 posts. I'm as firm a believer as anyone in the near-infinite fun to be had with just those three little brown books, but there is a limit to what I can continue to say about them, especially when there are so many more venues to do so than there were in 2008.

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  38. No forgiveness needed! Just an observation, and why I wasn't surprised to see this new turn of events being batted around.

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  39. Wally:
    "Did you ever see Firefly?"

    I watched the pilot ep, which didn't grab me. But I did see the movie years later, which was better. Still the Western themes seemed ridiculously overdone to me - you can do a Western in space without literal 19th century costumery, 6-shooter guns, and cows!

    Maybe I'm not an SF sandboxer. I have this fantasy that someday I'll GM or play a real space opera, Flash Gordon/Buck Rogers type stuff.

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  40. James:
    "Never played Traveller?"

    I've GM'd a moderate amount of Traveller: The New Era, but it was all mission-based, not sandbox.

    I guess from what you say, with classic Traveller the thing to do is put the pursuit of money front & centre at all times. Perhaps rather than a bank charging a very low interest rate on the starship mortgage, some alien loan sharks with exotic torture devices could motivate the PCs better? >:)

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  41. James, have you read Walter Jon Williams' Dread Empire's Fall books? Newer books, but written by a veteran SF writer (and history buff) who apprenticed with the old guard:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Praxis

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  42. James, have you read Walter Jon Williams' Dread Empire's Fall books?

    I have and I enjoyed them greatly. Williams is a very under-rated writer in my opinion. His Drake Majistral books, for example, are great fun.

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