Friday, March 31, 2023

Fear of Ruination

As my House of Worms campaign starts its ninth year, I've regularly found myself wondering, "How long can I keep this going?" House of Worms is, by a long shot, the longest continual campaign I've ever refereed and I'd like to keep it going for as long as possible. This campaign is regular source of satisfaction and joy for me and, I hope, for the players as well. These feelings are almost certainly why I so often worry that I'm on the verge of ruining it through poor judgment or some misstep on my part. I worry that, despite all evidence to the contrary, that the campaign isn't nearly as sturdy or resilient as it appears to be and that it could all come crashing down in an instant if I'm not careful.

To many of you reading this, that probably sounds irrationally anxious and you're probably correct in thinking this, but please allow me to explain where I am coming from. From its inception in March 2015, the House of Worms campaign has been very player-driven. After its initial kick-off, I rarely presented the players with "adventures," as they're usually understood. Instead, I strove to present a variety of situations and opportunities within the world of Tékumel that the players, through their characters, could either pursue or not, as they desired. Further, if the players wanted to pursue other opportunities, ones I'd not immediately considered, that was fine too. Truth be told, I prefer it when the players do most of the heavy lifting for the campaign, because I am by nature a lazy referee. Plus, it's been my experience that allowing the players to do their own thing is one of the keys to campaign longevity.

Over the past eight years, House of Worms has chugged along very smoothly, flitting from one situation to the next according to the interest of the players. Sometimes, the players have had clear and obvious goals, such as return home after a magical mishap hurled them far away, but most of their goals over the years have been much more open-ended and elusive. One of the advantages of this is that it's given me lots of opportunities to show different parts of Tékumel to them through play. I feel that's where a rich and detailed setting really pays off. 

Though the players and their interests are the main drivers of the campaign, that doesn't mean I don't have ideas of my own, ideas that I'm interested in exploring through play. A good example of this concerns the nature of the gods of Tékumel, including their natures and purposes with regards to lesser beings. Looking back over the course of the last eight years, I now recognize that this has been an important underlying element of it, with multiple instances of divine invention, encounters with computer "gods", and deity-centered mysteries informing the course of its action. Overall, I think this element has not only helped keep everyone interest but has also helped to make the House of Worms feel distinct from other fantasy campaigns I've refereed. There's a sense that the characters are slowly unraveling some of the bigger mysteries of Tékumel, which is heady stuff.

And that's precisely the source of my occasional worries. Over the course of the campaign, I've given quite some thought to these questions and have come to some tentative conclusions. At any given moment, I'm happy with them. Indeed, I often find them genuinely clever and compelling – to me, if no one else. These conclusions inform my approach to the characters' actions; they're part of the slowly emerging truths of Tékumel. So far, the players have responded well to them, but there's a part of me that worries, "Have I gone too far? Have I ruined this campaign that we've all enjoyed for nearly a decade?" 

My anxiety is based, in large part, on the fact that, as I reveal more and the characters come to understand more, I am changing the setting in various ways, or at least changing the players' perspective on it. A few sessions ago, one of the players commented that, in light of new things his character had learned, that character would have to re-evaluate what he believes and wants to do. The player didn't say this ruefully – far from it, in fact. Nevertheless, there was a sense that the character had lost some of his innocence; he could no longer look at Tékumel as he once knew it. This was definitely a moment of growth for the character, but it is also signaled that the campaign had rounded a particular corner and there was no going back.

Have any other referees felt similarly about their campaigns? Have you ever felt that you'd introduce something into a campaign that had changed things in such a way that you worried it might do lasting violence to the campaign? Or is this just another of my overthinking of things? 


  1. How long are your sessions? And how heavy on roleplay? Nine years are still impressive!

    I've concluded in January a campaign of 75(circa) 5-hour-sessons. It was huge and I've felt this dread feeling all the time! But I think that this is a very good thing: a bit of "impostor syndrome" is healthy, and helps the DM staying on tracks.

    1. Since we play online, our weekly sessions are two hours in length (any longer and I find I tend to lose focus). Most sessions are quite heavy on roleplay. One player commented that it's quite common for us to go weeks, if not months, before we even roll dice.

  2. I been running my Majestic Wilderlands since 1980. The basic rule of thumb is

    Life goes on.

    Which is also the key principle on how I decide things unfold (outside of what the PC experience) for the setting as whole.

    Unlike yours generally my campaign last for a year or two and then it moves on to another group to doing their thing. But I keep what happened as part of the background for the next. So changes often substantial build up over time.

    For example circa 1985, the City-State of the Invincible Overlord was the place to be and the Viridistan, City-State of the World Emperor was the evil city that nobody wanted to visit. Now the situation is completely reversed with with Viridistan and it's ruling council the place to be and City-State of the Invincible Overlord under the rule of the Overlord Divolic, a Myrmidon (evil Paladin) of Set, the evil city that nobody wanted to visit until the last campaign.

    And players have found yes things are darker in a CSIO under the rule of Divolic but also that life goes on and there is still adventure to be had and PCs can still thrive without being evil shits.

    So if the players discover mystery that there are one or more "computer gods" then you have a setting where at least one person (or group) know the "truth" but the rest of the setting, life will go on. Change will ripple out from the group acting on what they discovered.

    However even if they had the reach of one of history's great philosophers or prophets, the change they cause will not be instant and play out across generation. Because the "truth" they reveal will still contend with established religions and cultures.

    Hope this helps and don't sweat it. Just plot however you normally do taking in account what the current crop of PCs have and have not done.

    1. Your session has been meeting regularly for 43 years?? I don't have enough hats to take off to that.

    2. LOL no! Rather I ran dozens of campaigns with dozens of players keeping track what they accomplished to use as background for the next campaign in the same setting.

      I do have two friends that there were there since early on but they played many many different characters over the years.

  3. My usual experience with open campaigns is that they end when the PCs outgrow the setting, and/or the rules system. D&D 5e level 20 PCs with umpteen Epic Boons are basically gods, and little still offers a challenge. Campaigns can also end with the defeat of the ultimate villain, so for a true sandbox I tend to avoid including such.
    A few years ago I started a 5e campaign with intentionally slower advancement, currently there are three PC groups with PCs in the 5-10 range. I tweaked XP etc a bit so PCs wouldn't outgrow the setting too fast. Recently I've started running Dragonbane which is BRP based and seems to have more potential for indefinite play than D&D does.

  4. If you're worried about introducing something that "ruins" the campaign, you might set up something along with it that is contradictory. If the players don't like the change, you have a way of undoing it, or at least creating some ambiguity about what is true, and have them investigate it further if they want.