It’s hard to pin down a beginning for Campaign Mastery. The idea had been in development for three or four months before the first article was posted, and had emerged from protracted discussions between Johnn and Myself about the future evolution of Roleplaying Tips, where I had been an occasional – almost semi-regular – contributor for a few years. I told some of that story as introduction to the 500th article not very long ago.
The first article was posted by Johnn as a test on December 18th, 2008. A couple more were developed and posted over the next couple of weeks for four reasons: First, we wanted to get a feel for how long it would take to create and maintain the site; second, we wanted to try and get ourselves into a rhythm before going public; third, we wanted to make sure there were no bugs in our administrative processes; and finally, Johnn thought it important that we actually have a couple of articles available as soon as the site became public to establish the tone and approach that we would be taking.
The site itself went semi-public on the 28th of December, 2008, with no fanfare. The approach was deliberately low-key to give us the chance to work out any bugs before they became catastrophic, and we very much wanted the site to be an ongoing resource that simply had not been noticed before – the sort of discovery that you brag about to your friends. On the 1st or 2nd of January, 2009, we told Google to start indexing the site, and began a program of getting ourselves noticed, starting by tapping into Roleplaying Tip’s existing subscriber base.
By my count, that makes the 5th Anniversary somewhere around… well, Now! Occasions like these tend to be self-indulgent to some extent, and this article makes no pretense of being any different.
From the very beginning, Campaign Mastery reflected the different styles of it’s co-owners. Johnn’s articles tended to be short, tight, the sort of things that would fit on a page or two in a magazine, and very much the sort of thing that he was used to producing and publishing for Roleplaying Tips. My articles aimed for depth and comprehensiveness, the sort of thing that might make a feature article in such a Magazine. Over the next couple of months, we began to absorb elements of each other’s styles, and some unity of style began to emerge.
Right from the start, we exhibited the hallmark duality that has become synonymous with the site, a sort of compromise between a typical GMing Blog and an online Magazine with Blog Structural elements. We always recognized that our chief assets were the experience that we had as GMs – something on the order of 50 years, between us – and our capacity to analyze, encapsulate, and articulate that experience.
So that’s what this article is all about – my experience as a GM. It’s the story of how my life has shaped and been shaped by the hobby – well, part of that rather lengthy story, anyway.
And along the way, I’m hopeful that some the experience and the wisdom that it has engendered will seep into the words, to benefit to other GMs out there.
It’s a story that encapsulates two principles: determination in the face of adversity, and taking every experience that comes your way and folding it back into your gaming expertise.
In The Beginning
I discovered gaming while at University, about mid-way through my first year. This was the first year that the institution had offered a degree in IT, and to be brutally honest, they hadn’t quite figured the curriculum, so they dumped us all into a heap of general science, math, and engineering foundation courses that held little or no relevance to the world of computers.
At the same time, I was dealing – badly – with a failure in my romantic life. While I did my best to put on a brave face and pretend that everything was fine, it destroyed what little enthusiasm I could muster (under the circumstances) for my “studies” – that being exactly what I didn’t do very much of. I was further handicapped by the way that everything in High School had come easily to me, so I was more than a little overconfident. So I was in a state of deep depression, indulging in self-destructive behavior, and blindly certain of my ability to cope with it all.
I had become involved in the university Science-Fiction society, and they were the people who had first introduced me to gaming. I’ve told that part of the story in these pages before, in Bringing on the next generation, Part One: Player Peers, which describes how I was taught to be a good player, and its sequel, Bringing on the next generation, Part Two: Gamemaster Mentors which described my introduction into the world of GMing.
When I was gaming, the weight of my personal problems was lifted from my shoulders, and I finally began to heal as a person, and to make an effort in my studies. But by now, more than half the year was gone, and my renewed enthusiasm was inevitably too little, too late.
Did that mean that I was forced to give up my deep desire to become a computer programmer? Not on your life! It just meant that I needed to find another approach.
While I returned home to await the results of my exams, hoping for the best but fearing the worst, I introduced my family to my new hobby, in particular my two brothers, and that’s also a story that I’ve told before: Gaming With The Family – Lessons from yesteryear.
The Year In The Snowfields
I also needed to find employment, so a practical approach to both issues was to get a job with an employer who made extensive use of computer technology and work toward promotion and training from within. I found the largest Bank in Australia, and became a Bank Clerk.
This meant relocating to the Snowfields, because my employment was as an additional staff member to cope with the usual winter demands. Cooma is a largish town, but during the winter season it had eight-to-ten times the usual demands in the form of tourists on their way to the ski slopes.
This stint in ‘the gateway to the snowfields’ might have spelt the end of most games. It was certainly the time when I really grew up as a person – as much as I ever have, anyway. I finally was able to put the failed romance behind me, for a start, and I finished coming out of my shell. I had always been shy as a child; I had started emerging from that cocoon through gaming, and camaraderie I found at the Commonwealth Bank completed the job. I would never have had the nerve to speak up through these pages without that experience.
Being eight hours of train travel away from the game would normally spell death to a campaign, but every long weekend I would travel to Sydney and stay with a friend – once every two months or so, on average – plus I was often able to use my Rostered Day Off to create a long weekend where there wasn’t one. Between these factors, I was able to GM roughly once every three weeks or so.
The gaps gave me lots of time to think about the game, and the rules, and the direction of the campaign. I had time to refine the adventures, and was able to prepare lots of game in advance – more than enough for the time available.
It was entirely normal in those days to start at 10AM on the Saturday morning and play through until 3 or 4 or 5 or even 6 AM. It was also entirely normal to play in two, three, or four campaigns in the course of a “day”. You could never be sure of how many hours of play your campaign would get, so it became normal for me to prepare enough game to be able to GM for 13 or 14 hours straight.
It’s not easy doing that. You need to be able to get inside both the players’ and the PCs’ heads, work out how they are likely to react to whatever circumstances you are going to throw at them, and make sure you have enough developments to keep the game interesting. A lot of my GMing style and work ethic, which I also apply to Campaign Mastery, was developed in this period.
My AD&D campaign was not the only one I was involved in at this point; I had joined Ian Mackinder’s Traveller campaign as a Newt, a cowardly, even paranoid species but terrific bookkeepers and accountants. Employing these talents, I was able to convince the Captain of the ship that several of the crew were in two separate factions that were plotting against him, building 16 pages of airtight circumstantial cases against several of the other PCs, and then setting forth a plan that would lead them to fight it out with each other while we watched from the sidelines. [When this conflict became inevitable, Ian ended the campaign (when he could stop laughing long enough) and swore to never, EVER, let me play another Newt in one of his campaigns as long as he lived… ]
When the Winter came to an end, so did my employment. This was not entirely unexpected, nor was it all that unsatisfying in professional terms; I had learned that while a lot of their IT staffing had resulted from promotion from within up until 5 years earlier, this was no longer the case at the Commonwealth Bank. With no prospects for advancement within my chosen career – no prospects even for a start in it – I was ready to move on.
The Beach Year
I was also quite desirous of moving back to the city. One of my players had told me about a set of one-room apartments with shared kitchen, laundry, and bathroom facilities that was extremely affordable. The only vacancy, when I inquired, turned out to be the third-floor (or was it fourth floor?) attic. The roof leaked a little, the pipes in the laundry were full of rust, the hot water in the bathroom was a coin-operated system that dated from World War I (you had to buy “old currency” from the landlord to feed the meter), and the kitchen – which also used the same coins to feed the gas meter – was cockroach-infested. On the other hand, my room was two or three times the size of most of the rooms, the rent was only $10 a fortnight, and I was only 250m away from one of the most famous beaches in the country, Bondi.
I was also able to return to a relatively normal gaming schedule. We still played from 10 AM until 1 or 2 AM the next morning (sometimes later), but we did it every week. Having learned how to plan and prepare long-range within the game, but having effectively unlimited prep time to do so, I now had to learn to compromise with limited prep time. The key development was that I retained the ability that I had developed to make long-range plans within the campaign.
Being unemployed, I was on a very tight budget at the time. Despite a heavy burden in reference books, campaign materials, and the like – between 30 and 50 kilograms (65-110 lbs) by my estimation – I could either walk to gaming or walk home afterwards, I could not afford to take public transport both ways. I’m no longer sure of the exact distance (that’s the sort of information I have come to rely on the internet to provide – which becomes a problem when the internet is no longer available). My best recollection is that it was a 10-12 km walk (6-7.5 miles), and that it used to take somewhere between three and five hours, which seems about right given the load. I actually used two leather belts to create some straps so that I could carry the load on my back and shoulders, then obtained a backpack that was too small to contain everything, but was large enough to hold the school case that was large enough to hold it all.
It wasn’t very long, in fact, before I had a couple of on-the-side weekday campaigns as well.
After about six months in these almost-beach-side accommodations, I was given a copy of the Champions Rules and my superhero campaign started – a campaign whose descendants are still continuing today.
For 13 weeks, I found part-time work as an assistant to the local council; most of my duties involved walking down every street in the district, checking that the House Numbers met council regulations, in the mornings, while I assisted as a filing clerk in the property development office in the afternoons.
In fact, there were three superhero campaigns set in the same game universe. The first was a purely solitary affair, used to teach myself the rules and create a campaign background for the other two. The second was set in the 1950s and a family of runaway slaves who hid out on Earth for most of the next half-decade. Even though this campaign was still ongoing, it also formed the background to the third campaign, which was set in the early 70s – set (deliberately) one decade prior to the contemporary date. This was because, while we all had different interests at the current time (I refer to my players and myself), we at least had that much foundation in common.
But it’s the second of these campaigns that became significant in terms of life developments, because it eventually resulted in a change of address.
The Lidcombe/Ryde Years
I had found a job working for the owner of a couple of McDonald’s restaurants as a Bookkeeper. The Manager was one of those visionaries who could see the shape of the future a long way in advance, and had foreseen the potential of the personal computer to manage a small business, and wanted to employ someone to create something along the lines of the Accountancy Software that became common about five years later – Quickbooks or MYOB or Attache. What’s more, he didn’t make the mistake so many others did of expecting such software to increase the efficiency of the office-work; it never does, in fact it’s usually more work than a manual process. What it improves is accuracy and management control. However, he seriously underestimated the difficulty of the task and the time-frame expectations that he had were totally unrealistic. Like all of us, he had his flaws, in other words.
Making things worse, the computer that they expected to use was not capable of running MS-DOS (then the most ubiquitous operating system). It had its own OS that most people had never heard of before and which required machine-code programming and not a more modern programming language. If he’d bought ab Apple-II or even a Commodore-64, I would have been able to cope and provide him with something close to what he wanted, but he’d bet on the wrong horse.
Nevertheless, he took me on as a bookkeeper, and as an assistant to the marketing and promotions manager for the company, enabling me to build on the experience that I had acquired during my Bank Service, and I set about making myself indispensable.
As a result, I had money in my pocket and a reliable income, and was open to the invitation when one of the players in that second superhero campaign offered to let me move into their spare bedroom.
Robbie, the player in question, was an incredibly generous guy. He would give a stranger his last dollar, give a hungry friend the last scrap of food in the house. In many ways, he was a child who had never had to grow up. He also had his faults, I’d be the first to admit, but one the whole a lovely human being, and one who shaped my personal philosophies in many ways.
His biggest flaw was that he was totally enthralled with his partner, who was an acute diabetic, and suffered wild mood swings as a result; but she was also manipulative, jealous, and spoiled rotten. She continually exaggerated the effects of her illness to twist Robbie around her finger. At the same time, I think she genuinely cared for him, but saw him as a child who needed to be protected from his own generosity. She always saw my presence in the household as a necessary evil, useful for sharing the household expenses and keeping Robbie amused, but never someone whose feelings or opinions were to be taken into account – and she resented it any time the game took Robbie’s attention away from her.
Around this time, my AD&D campaign wrapped up, and was replaced with a spin-off campaign from my superhero campaign – this was the Project:Vanguard campaign, the direct forebear of the current Zenith-3 campaign. Both were about training, protecting, and developing the next generation of Superheros.
After about six months, we found ourselves adopting another stray puppy into the household. A friend, and player from my third superhero campaign, simply showed up on our doorstep one day, seeking refuge from his abusive father. He wanted a piece of carpet to occupy for the weekend, he got a roof over his head; both Robbie and Trish insisted that he move in, right now, and would accept no argument in opposition. Technically, Peter wasn’t yet old enough to leave home, but he moved in anyway.
Given his character, Robbie’s insistence that Peter stay with us was not surprising, and I had learned that part of my own character (in part) from his example, but – given my earlier description – you might be surprised at Trish’s immediate agreement. It took a long time for the truth of that to come out; she had three reasons for her decision. First, she knew Robbie well enough to know that he would insist, and – because Robbie himself had been physically abused by his father – this was one of the few times when he would have stood up to her if she had insisted. Second, she wasn’t an inherently bad person – so long as she got what she wanted. And third, she hoped that Peter would keep me busy, so that I could not steal as much of Robbie’s attention from her.
In any event, Peter began to share my room. It didn’t take much longer for us to discover that the half-house wasn’t quite big enough for the four of us – but that between us, we could probably afford a larger place elsewhere.
And so we moved – for the first time, into a house with the lease and utilities all in Trish’s name. She was pregnant at the time, which eventually became significant. Around this time, my employers made the decision to let me go, since the original purpose for which I had been employed had never been possible.
Within three days, they were back on the phone, asking me if I wanted to continue with them on a casual basis. It didn’t take long for this to become regular part-time employment – at casual pay rates, which normally meant that I was bringing home almost as much pay for fewer working hours. But it was enough to unsettle Trish’s confidence in my continuing ability to pay my way. Adding stress to that situation was that she and Peter had a real knock-down drag-out argument which led to him leaving, and that Trish and Robbie were starting to experience marital difficulties, the stress of the pregnancy and the financial burdens it entailed contributing to the situation. With the birth impending, Trish finally convinced Robbie to ask me to move out to make room for the Baby – on virtually no notice. She let the lease expire and moved back in with her parents; Robbie was absolutely shattered and I only saw him a time or two more.
The Lewisham Year
Maybe I should have seen it coming, but the whole situation took me by surprise, too. To make things worse, the casual work began to dry up and become more and more unreliable, also unexpectedly.
When you have few options, you take whatever you can get. In this case, Kevin, an old friend from the University Science Fiction Society stopped by at Games – unlike a lot of people in the US, most of my gaming has been in public, as I discussed in my article The Arcane Implications of Seating at the Game Table – and he happened to have a friend (also a passing acquaintance of mine) who happened to have a room available. He didn’t need to rent out the space, and didn’t really want the company – but Mike was a good guy and decided to give me a chance and see how it worked out.
Around this time, my life began to get very busy with various activities outside gaming. Social life, doing art for Kevin’s APA, and an increased level of obligation to Centrelink, the government agency which handles unemployment benefits and job-searching within Australia.. Between all these outside activities, I found that I had very little time left for game prep. Because this was reasonably close to his drive to-and-from Gaming, I was able to get a lift in. In effect, I had gone from low prep time to virtually no prep time; this was when I started developing my techniques for zero-prep GMing, such as those described in By The Seat Of Your Pants: Adventures On the Fly.
The Nyngan Interruption – Phase 1
I had always been a graphic artist of sorts, but by now I was starting to get reasonably good at it, and had been without work for some time. My Aunt and Uncle decided to back me and see if I could make a career of it. They offered to build me a Granny Flat in the back yard of their home, where I could live rent-free while I tried to get a graphic arts business off the ground. The only catch was that the back yard was back in my home town – a place that I recently told everyone about as part of the October Blog Carnival in Location, Location, Location: Nyngan. I didn’t have very long to decide, but I didn’t need very long – everything except my gaming had more or less stalled over the last six months, I was going nowhere where I was, and I knew it.
I gave it a fair shot. I did a couple of adverts for pay, I got a number of pieces in the Aussiecon II World Science Fiction convention and began to develop a fan following, I improved my techniques, and even had a commission or two.
Drawing on my experience from the Bank Years, I knew that the move didn’t have to mean the end of my games. Because it was farther away, travel would take longer and be more expensive, so instead of averaging a game session every 3 weeks, it was every six to eight weeks – but I was able to stay in Sydney for the best part of a week. With gaming happening every day or night for three-to-five days at a time, we achieved the same average amount of play as if I had been in Sydney the whole time.
In fact, my guideline was still to write one adventure for each of my campaigns per week that passed – plus to have one or two extras up my sleeve in case the players didn’t take as long as expected. This pushed my skills in planning and anticipating the PCs to the very limit. I would not have dared try it if I had not had the previous experience in doing so – or, if I had, it would have ended in disaster.
After about 6 months, it had become clear that while I had attracted a number of fans of my art, I wasn’t attracting anywhere near enough commercial prospects to make the business viable. But something else had happened that was going to be relevant to everyone reading this: I had discovered a love of not just reading, but of writing, especially the writing of game products and reference material. In addition to the many adventures and associated NPCs that I was preparing, I wrote the first draft of my campaign background in a mere three days (using a manual typewriter) (and then spent another week preparing illustrations for it) – including a thirty-odd page explanation of the campaign physics which is still referred to, today – and the charter and bylaws of the superhero organization in about a week (because it was fiddly and technical). My campaigns would never be the same again – and if the first step towards Campaign Mastery was my becoming a GM, this was a definite second step!
The Nyngan Interruption – Phase 2
Having decided that Nyngan could not support a full-time graphic artist, even one who did not have to pay rent and had most of his meals catered free, the question was what to do next. The city was clearly where all the employment opportunities were going to be – and I still had not given up on the idea of getting into what was now being referred to as I.T.
Moving would not be cheap; I would need finances to sustain me while I looked for work and searched out affordable accommodations. This residence would need to be near Public Transport (increasing the rental). Saving up enough money would require two years or more under unemployment benefits, or perhaps three months if I found work.
And so, through a government program, I became a Field Assistant for the State Department of Agriculture, working on a study of the effects of bush-fire and the use of Fire and Herbicides as a means of clearing weeds. Ideally, I would have had a driver’s license, but candidates were few thin on the ground; I was one of only two applicants, and neither of us were ideal for the position. It was a close-run thing but my previous experience as a clerk was just enough to tip the balance in my favor.
Because this was specified from the very beginning as a 6-month temporary contract, I was able to structure my budget from the very beginning to achieve my ultimate goals. I was forced to cut back on the Gaming Trips in the meantime, but I knew this was going to be strictly temporary – and I had Christmas and Easter in the middle of this employment stint, which could still be used for the purpose, so there was only a small cutback in the end. Even better, I was able to use Rostered Days Off and take a day without pay to bridge the gap between Christmas and New Years, giving me almost a week-and-a-half at the Gaming Table.
I actually used another RDO and my accumulated annual leave, when the time came, to travel to Sydney in search of Work; my belongings would follow when I had accommodations. I had, once again some careful plans using a Sydney Telephone Directory, listing several institutions who were (a) likely to hire & train new recruits, and (b) who had separate IT departments. I approached the first two of these the day I arrived, and while one did nothing but hand me an application form (and warn that they did not have many vacancies), the other was sufficiently impressed by the initiative and determination that I had shown to both interview me and recruit me on the same day. Training was to commence in three weeks, when they had accumulated enough recruits to fill a class.
With an accumulated reserve of cash to use as a deposit, and a certain income, I actually found it very easy to locate a two-bedroom split-level apartment that met all my needs – that took another week. I moved in a week later, and two days after that, my furniture and belongings arrived in Sydney. The Wandering GM was back in town, and he was there to stay! The date was December 1985, and four years of instability were about to be replaced with years of stability and progress, with only occasional intervals of anarchy…
As you can tell from the length of this piece, I’m slowly getting on top of the Laptop’s over-exuberance. It only took about twice as long to write as usual! Part two (if I get it finished in time) will wrap up this nostalgic look back at how everything has been leading to… Campaign Mastery!