Saturday, June 26, 2010

Gamer ADD and the Campaign

While it is possible to play a single game, unrelated to any other game events past or future, it is the campaign for which these rules are designed.

--E. Gary Gygax,
Forward [sic] to Volume 1 of OD&D,
1 November 1973
I thought of this quote recently as I looked back on my gaming thoughts of the last couple of months. As you probably noticed, my mind was racing around to a lot of different games, particularly those produced by Chaosium and FGU, and I was beginning to think about the possibility of putting Dwimmermount on hiatus for a while and trying something different. Most gamers are familiar with this behavior; online, it's often called "gamer attention deficit disorder" and it reflects the tendency of many gamers to flit from one game to another with reckless abandon, never staying fixed on a single one for any length of time.

This is a behavior to which I was particularly prone during the 1990s, which, not coincidentally also corresponds to the period during which I was most disenchanted with this hobby. Back then, I took an interest in a new game every couple of weeks or months. Unsurprisingly, I didn't actually play anything for very long, assuming I even got to play at all. I ran various one-shot adventures and several short-lived attempts at campaigns, but none of them ever had any staying power. Now, I wasn't unique in this sort of behavior. Indeed, back then it seemed to be the norm, at least amongst the gamers with whom I had any regular contact. And I sometimes get the sense that this behavior became widespread enough that it's now treated as the norm. That is, most gamers expect to play a different game every few months and the idea of years-long campaigns is viewed with either bafflement or derision, but perhaps I overstate the situation. That's why I thought of this quote by Gygax. If you read OD&D, it's pretty clear that there's an assumption that the game would be used primarily for campaign play rather than for one-shots or a bunch of disconnected adventures here and there. I think many of OD&D's supposed "shortcomings" make much more sense when viewed through this lens, but that's a topic for another day.

Dwimmermount began its life as an experiment, an attempt to wipe the slate clean and approach an old game with fresh eyes. Along the way I've learned a lot of things, but the one lesson that I keep coming back to is how difficult it is to properly understand, evaluate, and appreciate old school gaming outside of the context of a lengthy campaign. And by "lengthy," I don't mean 10 or 12 sessions but many, many more than that. Dwimmermount will have its 43rd session tomorrow and I still consider the campaign quite "young" and not wholly self-sustaining yet (though it's getting there). That's why I'm glad I didn't give in to the urge to interrupt my group's regular sessions with another game or games, even though the siren song of RPGs like RuneQuest or Stormbringer was strong (and still is to a certain extent). In my experience, very few campaigns survive hiatuses and, even those that do generally suffer as a result, their original momentum having been slowed or at least diverted.

None of this is to say that I plan to run Dwimmermount forever. More to the point, I am sure that, for one reason or another, the campaign will inevitably end, as most campaigns do, but I'm in no hurry to see that happen. My players and I are having too much fun and I'm learning a lot from the experience. I don't think that 5+ year-long campaigns with the same group of people were ever the norm, but they used to be something gamers talked about, if only as an ideal. The Dwimmermount campaign is better for my looking on that as an ideal, I can tell you; it's some of the best D&D I've ever played. That's why I plan not to give into gamer ADD when it rears its head again -- even if giving, say, Hawkmoon a whirl would pretty cool ...


  1. We're about 8 sessions into our first Pendragon campaign and, let me tell you, the story is hopping! Its definitely not OD&D; but, the long term story arcs and sense of "in-it-for-the-long-haul" from the players are amazing. I've been in a couple of long campaigns (the longest probably 7-8 years old with regular weekly sessions.) They are stories that stick with you a lifetime.

  2. Great discussion. I think part of the ADHD and lack of single-campaign focus stems from the fact that many of us simply got busy as we got older. A busy schedule made long-term campaign play pretty difficult, if not impossible. There is probably more to it than that, of course, but that seems to have been the case for my group.

    Back in the day, our campaign (the weird hodgepodge and chaotic mess that it was) lasted essentially the entire era of our "first run," about 11 years (1980-1991), albeit changing a great deal as we got older.

    For me, beginning a new, "old school" campaign was not about exploring the game from a more mature perspective, but simply an attempt to recapture the fun and camraderie of the old days (this despite the fact I have more new players than old guard).

    BTW, tonight is Session #42 for my campaign - I've almost caught up to you!

  3. Seems to me that your real obligation is to both yourself and the other actual people actively involved in this Dwimmermount campaign of yours.

    Maybe you don't feel comfortable discussing the details of them and their outlook on the subject (vis-a-vis yours) online, which I can understand, but it still might be a mistake to bring uninformed others like myself into the decision-making process.

    Community is not always a virtue.

  4. On the other hand, there's the "variety is the spice of life" argument. Sometimes a campaign gets in a rut, or perhaps people just want to try something different; changing games is a way refresh and refocus. (Though I tend to think of it as changing genres, not just rules sets within a genre.) But you're right about the dangers of lost momentum, too.

    The longest campaign I ever heard of in my local area was, of all things, a CoC game that ran for around 7 years and covered much of the 20s and the whole of the 30s before players moving away brought it to an end. Given the deadliness of CoC, that impressed me.

  5. I've been playing 3-6 sessions of one game, then moving on to the next, and the next, and so on. We've got a pretty good thing going with our rotating the GMing job, and and it's been absolutely awesome...

    ... but we are all, to varying degrees, starting to hanker for a longer game.

  6. I too suffer from Gamer ADD, but not by choice. My career requires that I travel, lots. On the average, I'm flying to at least two different places per week. I try to keep Tuesday Game night open, but it doesn't always happen.

    Your remark about hiatuses, rings very true for me. Summer is my busiest season, and it is not uncommon for me to have to cancel game night two months running. By the time I get back to it, the momentum is often absent. These days, I'm lucky to have a campaign last six months.

    This was true for me during the 90's as well, but the cause for that was simply semester length. Players came and went as attrition took its toll by people dropping out of college, graduating or transferring elsewhere.

    I'm curious, and these questions are for all, what is the longest campaign you've been involved with, either as a referee or as a player? What system? When? What ended the campaign?

    For me, two years as a DM. The system was 2nd Ed. AD&D: Birthright. The when would be around 1999 start date, till 2001. The ending was more of a real life stoppage. I was in the Air Force in those days and 9/11 sent me to the Middle East. When I returned, the old magic was gone. I think we played WFRP 1st Edition after that.

  7. The longest one I ever ran was a WFRP (1E) campaign, The Enemy Within, in fact. Ran it over four years, I think, about every other week.

  8. None of this is to say that I plan to run Dwimmermount forever.

    Why not? Any time you run a fantasy campaign just pull out Dwimmermount and flesh it out some more. You even have to run the same type of campaign.

    Serious we are talking about a world there there is no way any human DM can simulate or generate all aspect of a campaign world. Look at our own earth for the diversity possible on a world that is roughly 8,000 miles in diameter and 75% water.

    For example a campaign where the party revolves around the thieves guild of the City-State of Adamas (sp?) Or what happened to the Thules in the east or the west. And so on. Whatever fantasy sub genre you think there is a place for in the world you created.

    Sure I am little biased given my history with the Majestic Wilderlands. But if you want depth to a campaign that is well playtested then keep running the same world for a given genre regardless of system.

  9. The 7-8 year campaign alluded to above was in Rolemaster. We ended because a more urgent story started to consume us in a different (Rolemaster) game. This was round about 1997. I did the bulk of the GM duties. The world was a mashup of Middle Earth, Greyhawk and Planescape.

  10. I don't think there's anything wrong with succumbing to a little "ADD" if you've given a campaign a nice little run. And, by "run" I mean, a period of at least 5-6 months (or weekly gaming). When I think of "Gamer ADD" I think of much shorter campaigns - one-shots, or a campaign covering a handful of sessions.

    The campaigns that I've been involved with over the past 10 years have all been "episodic" - usually contained within half a year. And - frankly - I like some variety in my gaming. I have a hard time relating to the concept of running a campaign that over the course of years. (And I don't think my gaming has suffered because of it).

  11. Like most things in life, gaming requires you to make a decision on how you will spend your limited time. Every hour you dedicate to something is an hour that you had to consciously decide not to dedicate to another thing. Playing D&D every weekend might mean giving up playing Runequest, playing in a weekend softball league, or learning some new skill. What you give up and whether or not that makes you happy is ultimately an individual thing, not a universal answer. Some people would be better off enjoying multiple short lived campaigns or not gaming at all, but some people enjoy playing a single campaign exclusively to everything else.

  12. One other way to look at it is to incorporate whatever other game you want into your campaign. That's why the 1e DMG had rules for converting to Boot Hill and Gamma World. Just have the players discover a portal that takes them to whatever alternate universe you want, so your campaign is actually the metaverse of all RPG rules and settings.

    Gary thought of everything ;)

  13. As someone who has never gotten to the 50-session mark (at least I don't think I have) as a DM, I sympathize completely. In some instances it has been I who have shifted the group to another game, at other times someone else. I think my record is about 45 sessions with my mid-90s Dark Sun campaign, maybe in the 30s with Greyhawk back in the 80s - early 90s. Nothing else close to that. It's a rare DM who can hold player interest for as long as you have with Dwimmermount, and that's something to be proud of.

    As an aside, I've GMed Stormbringer a number of times, and it is well worth the effort, if only as a one-off. It's a great system which I wish I had had the opportunity to try as a campaign-length endeavor.. Just haven't found a group that is both familiar enough with the Young Kingdoms to stay interested, and prepared enough for the brutality to keep coming back.

  14. The length of time of a campaign not equal the length of time for a setting.

    You could be have the worst job in the world in regards to living in one location but if you keep using the same setting you will find that it will develop a depth and richness that your players will appreciate.

    There more to it then just keeping the setting going. You need to keep it approachable. Keep aware of how things look to somebody has never adventured in your setting.

    But if you play attention you can make work even if find yourself running a dozen groups over 15 years with no one game lasting more than a handful of sessions.

  15. If I suffer from it it's only because I'm trying to avoid playing Pathfinder or 4E. But it's hard because that's all people want to play these days. Just the idea of using "cards" in a RPG like they do in 4E just sickens me plus all the other crap...

  16. What about alternating weeks? Every other week play the regular campaign, and on off weeks play a different RPG, break out an Avalon Hill game, or even something like ping pong or pool?

  17. The restless spirit of my recently defunct AD&D campaign demands that Dwimmermount continue! Keep the torch burning!

  18. No doubt, campaign play, properly done, provides the richest gaming experience.

    Out of curiosity and because I've never quite caught it on the blog before, What system exactly are you using for Dwimmermount?

  19. Why not? Any time you run a fantasy campaign just pull out Dwimmermount and flesh it out some more. You even have to run the same type of campaign.

    I think you may be misunderstanding me here. I'm talking specifically about the current campaign with the current group of players and the characters they're currently using. I don't expect that that will last forever. It's possible that the campaign setting might get re-used at a later date, after the current campaign is over, but that's a different question. I have lots of experience re-using campaign settings after not having used them; that's not all that unusual. But I have almost never seen a particular campaign -- that is, a series of connected adventures involving a set of specific characters -- start up again successfully after an extended break without losing something in the process.

  20. Maybe you don't feel comfortable discussing the details of them and their outlook on the subject (vis-a-vis yours) online, which I can understand, but it still might be a mistake to bring uninformed others like myself into the decision-making process.

    The only player whose outlook is important here is mine, since it was I alone who was starting to feel the pull of gamer ADD. I'm over it now, so the current campaign is in no danger of ending. I simply thought I'd use my recent experience as a touchstone for a discussion about the importance of lengthy campaigns to appreciating the virtues of OD&D.

  21. What about alternating weeks? Every other week play the regular campaign, and on off weeks play a different RPG, break out an Avalon Hill game, or even something like ping pong or pool?

    Leaving aside the fact that the threat of gamer ADD has passed and I'm more gung-ho about the current campaign than ever, an alternating week schedule would be untenable for my group, seeing as, in practice, our "weekly" game only meets biweekly as it is. Real life demands regularly interfere with our ability to meet every week without fail, so throwing another game or a regular break in between sessions of Dwimmermount would disrupt the flow of things greatly.

  22. JD,

    Dwimmermount began as a LBB-only D&D campaign. I slowly added bits of the supplements to it, then switched to Swords & Wizardry. I grew disenchanted with S&W (mostly because of the saving throw mechanic and the terms of its license for publication), and I switched to Labyrinth Lord + parts of the Advanced Edition Companion, which is what I use currently.

    So, while it's perfectly accurate to say I use LL, it's a heavily modified LL that borrows a lot from OD&D + Supplements and my own house rules.

  23. Re: GM with gamer ADD

    I like the spice of life as much as anybody, but I have to say that a GM who's restless when nobody else is... argh. I've had plenty of GMs who'd talk up a new campaign, we'd all get interested, we'd play one or two sessions and be working up a fun story with our chars... and then, pff. The GM would decide it wasn't working for him, and we'd play a bunch of beer and pretzel games, and then he'd talk up a new campaign and setting and gaming system, and then pff again. We were barely allowed to get our feet wet.

    So I think it's great that you were patient with your game and worked through your ADD.

  24. For what its worth, it is not insurmountable to keep a lengthy campaign going. One of my best involved a core group of 6 players, multiple characters each. We played a different rpg each week (3 D&D (different worlds), 2 Marvel/DC Super Heroes (different timelines), 1 Star Trek, and 1 Call of Cthulhu) averaging 6 to 10 hours a session. It kept everyone on their toes and no one got bored.

    It ran for 8 years, during which time other players joined in and then left (it had up to 20 players at one point). I even tied all of the campaigns together at one point in a vast multi-universal way, involving crossovers. The players themselves didn't realize it for two years, after which they began noticing pieces of the puzzle fitting together. It didn't start out that way, but through players' actions in the different games it just fell together.

    Years after, I began the D&D campaign realm again with mostly new players. Much of the history and adventures of my previous group really added to the atmosphere and ease at which I presented the world. My new players felt the world had a real "solidness" & believability. One of the most precious moments was when a bunch of NPC children were play-acting near the town square. They were playfully recreating the "big climatic scene" of my last campaign. A few of the original players were gob smacked. The newer players, not knowing these events had been played years before, were entertained as well.

    I think the game calls for more than one-shot adventures, every now and then. It does depend on the group and how much real-time you can devote to it. But, when you can do it, it is worth it.


  25. To me campaigns don't end prematurely they end when the players (not the GM) do not want to play the campaign any longer. Sometimes players mask this as "wanting to try a new game" because usually the GM is sooo heavily invested in his world the players don't want to insult him by suggesting it end. Sometimes the GM will "want to try a new game" when he senses the players are growing tired of his campaign and does not want to admit it. The years long campaign was just an artifact of gaming groups having nothing else to do, not the natural state of the game.

    The natural state of the game is just like a good story. It needs a beginning, a middle, and (most importantly) an END. If a GM embraces this outline and communicates to the players where they are in the story (part 1 of six, part 2 of 3...) players can mark progress and know that whether they like the campaign or not it will END at the specified time and a NEW one will start. Once players know WHEN the campaign will end they can enjoy the ride until it is over.

    It's the never ending GM spun bore fests that kill campaigns, not gamer ADD. There I said it for your players any GMs that are out there. Now take this advice to heart. Your players don't want to hurt your feelings. Give them an adventure that starts and ends and is fun along the way and they will stick with you and your game. Trust me, I've been GMing the same group of friends since 1985 with no interruptions and we only have played D&D. Not coincidentally we are sticking with 3.5/PFRPG. Why? Because you can't tell decent stories with 4th edition. Odd that way that worked out, huh?

  26. James, on an unrelated note I love love love your Chaucer quote!

  27. Grendelwulf - very cool stories...that is the kind of campaign(s) I'd love to be in as player or DM.

  28. I'm still a little uncertain about what a campaign is.

    But I have almost never seen a particular campaign -- that is, a series of connected adventures involving a set of specific characters

    That sounds kind of like Dragonlance. So I know I'm missing something.

    Characters die, characters choose to pursue "unconnected" adventures. Do these events mark the end of a campaign?

    To try to answer my own question through speculation about Dwimmermount-- I see the remnants of the Thulians or Termaxians as on-going adversaries for your players, and maybe at some point major open conflict will erupt and, the resolution will make any future events seem anti-climatic? I know you probably can't answer that for many reasons. I notice hints of other, more dangerous adversaries-- but maybe introducing of series of deeper darker powers leads to dulling, one-dimensional one-upmanship and the demonweb pits?

    In my own campaign-setting, I've let a lot of major plot lines drop-- but I've managed to convince myself that I pick them up again later.

  29. I am with you that long term play is the most rewarding play. Even more - in my experience you need a few sessions of getting accustomed to the characters, the setting, and the overall feel of the campaign. For me, the "sweet spot" just starts around session 6 or 8.
    That's the reason why I can't get a lot out of convention gaming.

    I'm curious, and these questions are for all, what is the longest campaign you've been involved with, either as a referee or as a player? What system? When? What ended the campaign?

    I am glad that I GMed even two of those mythical 5 year long campaigns (with mostly the same players and characters):

    Dragonlance, using AD&D1 that morphed to an AD&D/RQ fusion (gradually switching from the AC system to RQ's attack/parry, hp to hp/fatique, Vancian spells to an Ars Magica like spell point building block system, and adding d20-roll under skills).

    The game short-circiuted right in the final session, inside the palace at Neraka! The players (and probably even me) had started losing interest during the five build-up sessions, and the heroic finale was more like a tedious bore. The ridiculous map layout in the final module was the last straw. Mid-finale we called it a quit.

    (5 of the initial players were present in the final session. During the campaign one player had dropped out, and another one had entered and left a few years later. )

    DL overlapped with another 5 year campaign with only 1 player participating in both:

    Fenriswolf, using the German EPT-inspired old school game, Midgard.
    This was a beginner-friendly campaign held at the FLGS, after hours at saturdays. It was both an ongoing campaign and an intro game. There were 4 core players and 2 spots for newbies every session. The input by so many different gamers was amazing (even if it led to inconsistent behaviour of the 2 characters assigned to the newbies).

    The campaign ended when I felt I knew my setting far too well. I wasn't able to surprise myself anymore.
    "Familiarity breeds contempt."

    (4 of the initial players were present at the end. 1 had dropped out in the fourth year. 2 had entered the group as replacements, shortening the free spots to 1 in the final year.)

    Before and after that I GMed a few 1 year campaigns (AD&D1, AD&D2, different homebrews), one 2 year campaign (an AD&D revival with the Dragonlance group) and lots of 1-to-6-shots.

    If I would plan to start another long running game again I'd also aim for a four year run - ending it when everyone is still invested in the characters and the setting.

    I grew disenchanted with S&W (mostly because of the saving throw mechanic and the terms of its license for publication)

    Did you blog about that - especially your trouble with the license?

  30. The longest campaign I played in ran from 2003-2007. It was an amazing four years of every Saturday night gaming. Everyone since then has compared their other RPG experiences to that game. It'll be talked about forever amongst the people that shared in it. And I hope that the same happens for your Dwimmermount campaign. Cheers and keep posting the session recaps!

  31. I'm still a little uncertain about what a campaign is.

    As I typically use the term, a "campaign" is a series of adventures, some connected, some not, involving the same group of characters. A single setting can support multiple campaigns, either simultaneously or successively.

  32. James, on an unrelated note I love love love your Chaucer quote!

    Thanks, but, as you can see from the link, I can't take credit for it. :)

  33. Interesting that you should post this up. After running my own campaign for 60+ sessions, I'm ready for something new and different now and will be moving my gamer group onto a new game when next we reconvene.