These images will all make sense in the end…
There are times when we all have to make a fresh start. This series is going to examine the process in detail. The table of contents was in part 0.
While there are always going to be things that you will want to bring forward from your previous game, there will be a lot of things that you should not want to carry, and things that you might want to dump even if they could be perpetuated.
Why To Dump
In the course of play, especially over an extended period of time, compromises get made, shortcuts and interpretations put in place just to keep play moving at the time, and in general, baggage builds up. Elves are like this, Dwarves always do that, this is how you resolve one spell affecting another, and so on, this is what that rule means. All this is baggage. Some of it you may want to keep, but some of it is nothing but dead weight, a millstone around your neck as a GM, sapping your energy and enthusiasm and zest for the game; clouding your thinking and confining your creativity.
How can you expect players to be enthusiastic when it’s all too much effort for the GM? Are there better answers to the problems that you dealt with on-the-fly? Are there mistakes that have become canon that you want to erase? Are there new ideas to be thrown into the mix? What parts of the status quo will you want to shake up?
When To Dump
When you’re tired, decisions are suspect. Avoiding mistakes that you will have to live with for the duration of the campaign has to be the priority – but for sure you’ll be far more mentally exhausted afterwards (which is why the next step is all about rejuvenation). Ideally, in fact, you would want to Rejuvenate first and then tackle this task with a clear head, but I find that with the passage of time, positions soften – and you can end up keeping something that you shouldn’t simply because it doesn’t seem so bad anymore. Better to exhaust yourself in the dumping process, when impressions are sharp, and then recover.
The other reason for doing your spring cleaning before you rest is that you have an idea for the new campaign (generated in phase one) and that will build in the back of your head while carrying out the dumping process and recuperating, generating enthusiasm and a growing itch to do something about it. This not only aids the recovery stage, it prevents it from being over-extended; new habits are easily formed, and the creative itch makes an excellent tool for the management of this potential problem.
How to Dump
When judgment is potentially impaired by fatigue, one of the most reliable tools that man has discovered for avoiding mistakes is organization and management of the work that needs to be done. A systematic approach is the solution.
The preliminary step should always be clearing your mind of distractions, and I’ve included below a sub-section addressing this specific need. This should precede each step of the process.
Following the sub-section on Clearing your head, I’ve listed a number of things that you might want to dump, discussing each in some detail – especially the why and how. But, in general, the process is broadly similar across all of them – you review game elements that fit the category in question using simple criteria that don’t require massive judgment calls, listing and scoring each. A strong positive score, and the intent if for the element to remain unchanged, at least for now; a Neutral score means that you are ambivalent about the game element, and should consider it gone unless you find it necessary later in the campaign development/rejuvenation process; and a Negative score means that the element should be scrapped if at all possible, and if it’s not, to take a good hard look at why that can’t be done. It might be necessary to replace it with an alternative approach, or the reason might reveal a hidden assumption that bears reconsideration. You may even want to consult your players, once you have a list of specific questions to put to them.
By breaking the labor into many smaller activities, and then dividing those into still simpler tasks, a systematic approach takes most of the work out of the job.
The System For Review
The system that I have devised is generic and straightforward. It consists of Six Questions (and a revision question in 7th place).
- Why is it there? Good reason, OK reason, Bland reason, Poor Reason, Bad reason? (+2, +1, 0, -1, -2)
- How often does the reason come up? Frequently, Occasionally, Rarely/Never? (2, 1, 0.5)
- Does it do what it needs to? Yes, Somewhat/Sometimes, No? (+1, +0, -2)
- Is it quick and easy to use? Yes, Somewhat, No? (+1, +0, -1)
- Is it free from unwanted consequences? Yes, No but Beneficial ones, Somewhat, No & they aren’t helpful? (+2, +1, -1, -2)
- Is it worth keeping? Yes, Maybe it can be fixed, No? (+2, -1, -2)
- Why is it there? (Revise answer to Question 1 in light of answers to Q2-Q6 and add to previous score).
Needs/Dump Analysis Processing
Processing is fairly straightforward:
- Add up the scores of questions 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7.
- Multiply the total by the scores of question 2.
- On some scrap paper, draw a box. It doesn’t have to be bigger than say 1.5″ x 1.5″, and probably shouldn’t be smaller than half that size.
- Divide the box in half, vertically, then divide each of the resulting boxes vertically again. Do it by eye, it doesn’t need to be exact – don’t get out rulers or anything like that.
- At the bottom of the box, write +4, +2, +0, -2, -4, respectively, under the vertical divisions.
- Divide the boxes into three roughly equal horizontal bands, and divide the middle one in half.
- The best score that you can get is “+20″, so write that next to the top left corner. The worst score you can get is -22, so write “-20/-” at the bottom left corner. Write “+0″ next to the line in the middle.
- Find the score from Q7 across the bottom of the box and make a mark. Then find the score calculated above up the side of the box (just roughly) and make a mark.
- At the intersection point of these coordinates, draw a dot.
- Then compare to the chart below.
But, if you want a simpler alternative, score +1, 0, or -1, for each question except Q1/Q7, then double the total and get an intersection point the same way.
With bit of procedural practice, you can start leaving out all but the first three or so steps from the more complex solution.
Here’s the interpretation chart:
I know that Campaign Mastery has a few visually-impaired readers (using text-to-voice software), so I’ll now explain the table for those who can’t see it. If you’re confident that you understand it, you can skip the rest of the section.
As you can see, there are only four outcomes, each located in a different corner of the chart.
- At the top left we find the area of high need and a good solution to satisfy that need; the verdict is to keep the current solution.
- At the top right, there’s an area low need but a good solution, with a verdict of “Keep” with a question mark. This means to defer the decision until some distance into the development process, when it becomes clear whether or not the need is going to continue at its past levels into the new campaign. This is a “Yes, maybe” verdict.
- At the bottom left, there’s an area of High Need but the solution that has been in place is unsatisfactory. Clearly, you need to dump the old answer and replace it with something new that will answer that need.
Finally, at the bottom right, there is the red zone, the area where you have a poor solution coupled with low need for that solution. In other words, whatever you are considering, it’s far more trouble than it’s worth, and the verdict is to dump it, fairly self-evidently.
As always, though, it’s the fringes that are more difficult and more interesting. And, in this case, more likely to occur.
- High Need, total greater than zero: Keep.
- High Need, total between zero and -7: Further decision required: Keep or replace. Make the decision based on whether or not you can find a better alternative.
- Some need, total score greater than +7: Further decision required: Keep, or Defer Decision to keep after development based on a reassessment of need. Choose between these two alternatives based on the overall impression left from the answers to the questions. Most of the time, the decision should be to defer.
- Some need, total score between 0 and +7: Defer.
- Some need, total score less than zero: Replace.
- Occasional need, total score greater than zero: Defer until after development, then keep or dump according to a reassessment of need.
- Occasional need, total score less than zero: Dump.
- Low need, total score zero or more: Defer until after development, then keep or dump according to a reassessment of need.
- Low need, total score less than zero: Defer until after development, then either Dump, Replace, or Keep according to a completely revised score based on the anticipated future rather than the past.
- That leaves only the 0,0 point, the hardest decision to make. I would defer the decision until mid-development and then perform a completely fresh appraisal based on anticipated future needs, noting how the position has changed. Any increase in total score results in a Keep verdict; any reduction leads to either a Replace or Dump, the first if there is an increase in need, the second if there is not.
So that, in general, is how it’s done. There may be minor variations for specific “baggage” types, but that’s broadly the technique. Before moving to consider the different types of “baggage” that I have identified, though, I want to show you a technique or two for de-stressing and clearing your head of any negatives that will get in the way of assessing them dispassionately.
Clearing Your Head
There are a number of techniques espoused here and there on the net. Some work really well, others not so much; and as usual, the context of dealing with gaming material and situations makes some more suitable than others. The following are a selected sprinkling of the ones that I have found most useful.
- Write the three or four most acute negative emotions that you are feeling on a sheet of paper, filling the paper. Use one, or at most two, words for each. Hold it with both hands by the top, gripping it tightly, writing toward you. Concentrating the feelings named on the words on the page as intensely as you can for thirty seconds or so, then rip the page in half, and then rip it again and again, until you can’t rip it any more. Then dump what’s left in the rubbish. It sounds silly but it can really help – and is even more effective when followed by one of the other techniques described.
- Picture a lake in the mountains in summer. Imagine a cool breeze wafting across you. Feel the sun shining on your face. Lie back on the lake bank on the soft grass (in your mind) and relax. Hold this image in your head for at least two minutes (five is better), blanking out any other thoughts and re-establishing the lake image as often as necessary.
- Grab a book that is outright fun to read, preferably an old favorite. Read it for 20 minutes or so.
- Click on this Google Image Search. Look at each of the images in turn for 10 seconds or so, forcing yourself to smile back if necessary. If one of the images makes you feel especially good, calm, or happy, click on it and get the larger size, saving it to a “feel-good” folder so that you can use it repeatedly.
- Watch a comedy on TV.
- Play a favorite CD – a relaxing one, even if your preferred genre is Death Metal, pick something calming that you can live with.
- This one comes from a meditation website: “Visualize your thoughts and simply watch as they pass by – imagine your distracting thoughts as a train – keep the term “train of thought” in mind. Each time a new thought pops into your head, imagine it as another car on the train – attach it to the train as a carriage or throw it into a freight car, and watch it go away. Take a step back and just watch the train pass. Let it go, and let your thoughts go with it.” Alternatively, imagine your thoughts as butterflies, and watch them fly gently away. Spend 10 minutes on this exercise, increasing to 20 minutes as you get the hang of it, if you find it works for you.
Avoiding The Red Line
Using these either in isolation or in a combination that works for you, it should be possible to relieve the accumulated stresses of the past campaign (and there will be accumulated stresses, no matter how successful that campaign might have been), at least for a time. It’s not a full recovery and rejuvenation – that is still to come – but it will put just enough emotional distance between you and the baggage you’ve accumulated in order to assess and appraise it in an unbiased fashion.
Ha! Yeah, right. Here’s what that paragraph should say: It will calm you in preparation for a series of stressful, difficult, and sometimes angst-ridden decisions that will bring back memories occasionally good but more often embarrassing and painful, so that you don’t go over the red line in the process.
Here’s the way I model the process of stress buildup (refer to the diagram above): We all have four stress tanks (I’ve only depicted the first three of them). The first is farthest right, and it is our short-term stress capacity. The second is shown in the middle, and it’s our medium-term stress capacity. The third is shown on the left, and it’s our capacity to cope with long-term stress. The fourth is not shown and that’s our sanity. For the sake of simplicity, even though it’s not accurate, I’m going to assume that all four have equal capacity.
The tanks don’t refill at the same rate, either – the short-term stress refills with a good night’s sleep and a day off; the middle tank refills with a couple of days R&R; the long-term tank requires weeks without stress to fully refill; and the final tank can take months or years to refill.
Each time a stressful incident occurs, it takes a big chunk out the rightmost tank, and a fraction of that from the tank to the left, and a fraction of that fraction from the tank to the left of that, and so on. If there isn’t enough capacity in the rightmost tank, any shortfall also comes off the tank to the left of it, in effect siphoning capacity from that tank to refill the next tank by just enough to fill the immediate need.
The amount of stress caused by an incident is also increased by the amount previously taken from the tanks in aggregate. When we’re healthy, small incidents are taken in stride. Little by little, the short-term tank gets emptied, until eventually we start dipping into the medium-term tank, producing mental and emotional fatigue. At which point, we usually take a day off, and refill the short-term tank, without doing much for the capacity of the medium-term tank. We cope fine for a while, but those minor incidents take a slightly bigger chunk of our coping capacity as a result of the overall loss.
In a shorter time than before, we again find ourselves tapping the medium-term tank, drawing from across the green line, which still has not refilled from the last time. Eventually, it runs out, and we start drawing across the red line from the third tank, and experiencing Burnout. When that happens, we usually take a week’s vacation, which refills the medium- and short-term tanks and partially restores the burnout tank, but doesn’t completely refill it.
For a while, we’re then fine, or think we are. But stressful incidents are still sucking more of our capacity than they were at the start, so before too long, the above pattern repeats again, and over a period of several years, our third tank slowly empties. When that happens, we experience burnout, and if the drains are not stopped for a period of several weeks, we start drawing on our (hidden) fourth tank, and heading for a nervous breakdown. Eventually, even a quite minor incident can become the straw that breaks the camel’s back – if we even get that far, as physical consequences also occur – coronaries and strokes and the like. And, of course, any health issues, aside from being stressful in and of themselves, can also reduce the size of the tanks!
In other words, the modern trend is to to determine the level of recuperation needed based on our symptoms, without adequately addressing the underlying cause until we’re (hopefully) forced to.
Of course, some activities tend to refill our tanks – starting with the short-term tank, and only when it is at capacity, topping up the others in amounts proportionate to the rate that they natural recover. Gaming, at its best, is one of them. Simply being able to set our real-world problems aside for a while and deal with problems that are intentionally solvable in an exaggeratedly short time frame can be incredibly therapeutic. Even the occasional burst of anger, when warranted, can blow off steam and permit other activities to refill the tank.
Sadly, gaming is not always at it’s best, and what it gives with one hand it can take with the other. Simply running even a successful campaign can have – will have stress-inducing events and periods. In particular, game prep – when it ceases to be fun and becomes work – qualifies. Rules disputes, petty complaints, and even minor personal misdemeanors like one player interrupting another, it all adds up. The more of our longer-term capacities we have used up, the more these events take out of us.
Which brings us to the situation these articles are intended to address. You have either just finished a campaign and need to de-stress, or your current campaign has lost its luster and become more stress-inducing than it is fun. You’re draining your medium- or long-term tanks, and have been for a while – and, typically, you’ve taken only enough time off to recharge your short-term tank before beginning the process of coming up with a new campaign. With the best of intentions, you’ve more or less dived right in – and, in fact, this entire phase of the process is predicated on the recent campaign being fresh in your mind.
And that’s where the mind-clearing activities listed earlier fit in. They are ways to replenish your short-term tank, and even to partially refill your medium-term tank. By performing the combination that works best for you, you maximize your capacity to cope with the task at hand despite the certainty that you will be revisiting sources of stress. Even the categories of baggage have been designed to break the overall chore up into smaller, more easily manageable, tasks.
What to dump: categories of baggage
I’ve divided the baggage to be appraised into eight major categories. One of those has been further split, and one needs to be looked at twice – so the overall process has been broken into ten smaller, more manageable parts.
1. Old Assumptions
It would be incredibly convenient if there was a list of these to work through. There are few greater handicaps to creativity than saddling it with old assumptions that might not be valid, and that can breathe new and interesting life into a campaign.
Assumptions are all about their implications. When you assess them, it’s really the implications that you are deciding, and in particular, the plot opportunities that changing the assumptions opens up.
The hard part is spotting the assumptions in the first place.
That’s why the assumptions step is split in two. There are some assumptions that can be identified directly, and those are what this section is all about. During the course of examining categories 2 to 9, an additional requirement is to identify more subtle assumptions in response to the eternal question of “Why?”. Get used to that question, I’ll have anyone applying this process using it repeatedly – that, and its compliment, “Why Not?”.
But that lies in the future; for now, the subject of discussion are directly-identifiable assumptions. The process itself is quite simple:
- Identify a source;
- Skim that source, looking for the things you always do to leap out at you;
- Each time, ask yourself Why do I always do this?
It really is that simple.
Sources I would recommend are: (1) The player’s core rules (if in a separate volume), or the core rules (if not separate); (2) the player briefing notes from your last campaign; (3) your game notes, especially from the last couple of adventures; and, finally, (4) the last three or four adventures themselves.
This really is quite a comprehensive review, taking into account everything from stat interpretation, through character archetypes/classes, races, adventure structures, the campaign world and overall pattern… you name it. Some of the things that you identify will fit one of the subsequent categories of baggage, just make a note of those and move on for now. Things like rules, and campaign background, for example.
My personal advice would be to go through each source twice – once looking exclusively at “Big Picture” items, and once looking at more detailed questions. Ideally, you don’t want to spend more than 30 minutes on each source – so there isn’t time to re-read the rules, you really do have to skim quickly – but a more practical timescale is an hour, maybe two.
Each time you have identified an item,
- Write it down in a list to give you a head start next time (and in subsequent stages of the current development/re-development process);
- Briefly summarize your answer to the question, “Why?” in writing underneath it;
- Ask yourself “Why not do it differently this time?” & briefly answer that in writing, too;
- Apply the general scoring process described earlier, or the simplified scoring suggested as an alternative;
- Create your needs/dump analysis graph, using the answers already noted;
- Using the chart, decide what you want to do about this particular assumption in your next campaign.
The 3.x player’s handbook is roughly 300 pages long. The Pathfinder core rules are roughly 600 pages. Champions 5th edition is about 400 pages, and the Pulp Hero sourcebook is almost 350 pages. Some games have shorter rules volumes, and some have even more pages than these. If you are going to get through any of these in an hour, you are talking two or three handfuls of seconds per page. Every minute spent actually processing identified assumptions eats into that time-frame, and it probably should take about a minute per item – maybe 2 or 3, the first few times you do it. The reality is that you can’t afford to spend more than about 5 seconds skimming most pages. You want things that leap out at you.
- 300 pages, 5 seconds per page, leaves about 35 minutes in the hour for processing assumptions. You could probably afford an extra second or two per page.
- 400 pages, 5 seconds per page, leaves a little under 27 minutes in the hour.
- 600 pages, 5 seconds per page, leaves just ten minutes, not really enough. 4 seconds a page gives a more reasonable 20 minutes.
Some of the sources recommended won’t be as conveniently organized as the core rules are; that’s fine, they are almost certainly going to be much shorter, allowing you to spend more time per page, overcoming that problem.
Doubling the time spent in this activity per source to two hours lets you go to about 8-10 seconds a page, still leaving more time to actually process any issues you identify, and leaving you with a bit of margin. This is actually verging on too much time, it lets you pick up on minutia that aren’t usually as important as the process makes them seem. Keep it fast; there will be time for putting the jigsaw puzzle together into a big picture later.
Next to each entry on the list that is generated, I use a simple code to identify the verdict. A tick means “keep”; a question-mark means the decision has been deferred; a hollow circle means that the item – the assumption in this case – needs to be replaced; and an “×”, of course, means “dump”.
None of these verdicts are set in stone; it’s entirely acceptable to retain something that the process suggests replacing or even dumping, if it happens to fit the development of the new campaign. The main point is to identify the things that you want to actively think about during that campaign development.
And remember, each source should be reviewed in a separate session if at all possible. Short bursts of activity should keep you from infringing too heavily in burnout territory, and it’s often easier to find 30 minutes a night than it is to find two or three hours in any one night.
2 & 3. Old Rules
There are two types of rules that need to be reviewed – House Rules and Official Rules. They need to be treated separately because the questions to be answered are quite different, and they are both sufficiently involved questions that the two types should be reviewed in completely separate sessions.
(2.) House Rules
It is to be presumed that you have your house rules compiled into a document of some sort for easy reference – a Wiki counts :) (If not, why not?).
This is actually the purest form of the analysis process, using exactly the questions listed earlier as being the “standard”: Why is the rule in existence? Does it do its’ job? Does it get in the way? Are you happy with it? Are your players complaining about it? etc.
Ultimately, these all boil down to one more fundamental decision: Do you really need this rule?
However, after your initial pass, answering the questions above, doing the analysis and the keep/dump chart, I recommend working through your house rules a second time, focusing on those that you are keeping, and those decisions you have deferred, and considering a different aspect of the rule entirely: what are the in-game implications of the rule? What does it stop characters from doing, what does it require characters to do? How does it affect the way the character interacts with the world around them? Note that these questions refer not to what the rule is supposed to do, these are about the actual effects.
There are three possible answers: “It stops characters from doing [X]”, “it forces characters to do [Y] in order to [Z]”, (alternatively, “it permits characters to do [Z] using [Y]”), or “Nothing”. Often, the answer will be qualified: “It enables Elvish Characters to…” for example.
- If the answer is, “It stops characters from doing [X]”, the question is “Why do you want to stop characters from doing [X]?”, and the answer to the latter question is either a background item for later review, or an assumption that [X] should be prevented, which you have now identified and should go ahead and analyze for necessity.
- If the answer is, “It permits characters to do [Z]”, the question then becomes, “Why do you want characters to be able to do [Z]? Is there something else they could do instead?” Once again, you have identified an assumption that merits examination and review.
- If the answer is “Nothing”, once again you have to question why that rule is present. This usually means that it’s a rule designed to restrict or affect the players, who should never be the subject of game mechanics unless there really is no better option. It’s always preferable to rephrase, rewrite, or replace such rules so that they affect or restrict the characters instead. In fact, the only real justification for this sort of rule is that it is far more playable than any character-based alternative.
Having trouble coming up with an example? In the Zenith-3 game, ad-hoc spellcasting requires players to construct spells using the game system for immediate casting by their character. Every character-based system for trying to determine how long it took the character to design and “construct” such an ad-hoc spell was far too cumbersome to be used in real play – until I came up with the idea of basing it on how long (in real time) it took the player to “design” the spell in game mechanics, modified by the character’s skill. The more complex the spell, the longer it would take the player to design, which meant that it would also take the character longer. Since ad-hoc spells are usually only required in a combat situation, (and when, for some reason, the mage’s existing capabilities aren’t good enough), this is an essential metric – and it also means that ad-hoc versions are primitive versions of what a polished spell would look like.
We’re still discovering ways in which this player-based mechanic is simulating aspects of character behavior that would otherwise need additional rules – or a compromise with a reasonable reality. For example, by recording the details of such ad-hoc spells, it enables the mage to construct a similar ad-hoc spell in less game time, the next time he needs it – he just has to find the old one in his files.
But that’s just a bonus. The main reward is that this approach reduces the table-time spent on ad-hoc spellcasting to the bare minimum, minimizing the disruption to play. One character-based alternative that was tried and hastily discarded was adding half an hour while both the player and I worked flat-out – and the other players sat around twiddling their thumbs.
As a rule of thumb, I used to assume that all previous house rules were rejected when it came to the next campaign, unless proven necessary during campaign development or subsequent play. This approach is better, wasting less time on blind alleys while actively pushing the GM to make the next campaign different from the one that’s just finished.
(3.) Official Rules
Dealing with official rules is both harder and, often, more rewarding. It’s far harder to work out what the purpose of any given rule is, and for every answer you come up with, others will have a dozen alternatives. That means that a far more pragmatic approach is needed. You might even question whether or not you need to review or vary the official rules at all.
I have two reasons why such a review is worthwhile. First, going beyond the strictures of the official rules open whole new worlds of opportunity; but those sort of changes should arise as a result of campaign development, not now. Second, game designers don’t always get it right, and some rules constructs are so badly flawed that they should be revised or tossed out entirely.
And those are what you are looking for. Rules that are clumsy, Rules that take too long to use. Rules that don’t work. Rules with holes.
Are there any game subsystems that you routinely ignore or hand-wave? Are there any that you avoid invoking? Are there any that are too effective, too over the top? Are there any that always cause problems because there are situations that they don’t anticipate? And, finally, are there any rules that combine in undesirable ways with other rules? It’s rare, but it does happen. It happens a lot more frequently when third-party supplements from different providers are added together to form Frankenstein’s monsters that
The best technique is, once again, to go through the rulebooks, especially the player’s handbook (and GM’s guide, if they are separate volumes) together with any third-party supplements that you intend to include in the new campaign (even before you develop that campaign) – there can be some of these, for example the Mythic levels for Pathfinder or the Epic Levels for 3.x.
Because you will need to look at some areas in more detail, expect to spend longer on some pages than you did when considering assumptions. For example, feats in Pathfinder/3.x need to be considered individually, however briefly – even one or two seconds per feat means those pages will take a number of minutes.
An example of the sort of Red flags to look for are any sort of abilities that take effect only when a condition of some sort is in effect, because these can couple with other abilities that alter the likelihood of that condition occurring. Another of the key signals that I watch for is a section of the rules that look unfamiliar. If you’ve used the game system for any length of time, this immediately makes me wonder why I don’t know that section – is there something wrong with it? On the other hand, if you do recognize the rules section, that usually is a good indicator that you are well placed to assess it quickly.
Most of the rules you will be able to give a passing grade to without even generating a full analysis; if no red flags present themselves, just move on. Only if something causes concern should it be listed and subjected to the full analytic process in order to decide what to do about that potential or known issue. For most of the rules that you are considering, therefore, only a second or two should be enough to decide whether or not to look at it more closely; and this is what makes the Official Rules review practical. Even so, don’t be surprised if you need something closer to 10 seconds just to clear a page that holds no concerns; this stage can be easily twice as lengthy as the assumptions stage. Plan accordingly.
Fortunately, rulebooks are usually broken up into chapters, and there will be some chapters that you can skip completely. This is not the time to go into the flavor text that accompanies different archetypes or races, for example, unless you are reminded of some conflict between that flavor text and the interpretation into game mechanics.
4. Old Rulings
Existing in a quasi-official state somewhere between “real” rules that have been put in writing and the GM deciding things on the spot are Game Rulings. These are undocumented house rules and interpretations of official rules, and sometimes a sign of laziness, adopting an ad-hoc solution when something more substantial is really warranted. Equally, it can be a sign that of a sprawling campaign that has presented a wide range of circumstances, which have resulted in a number of rulings that only apply in certain circumstances – so a lengthy collection of such rulings is not necessarily a bad thing!
The big problem is that these are usually not written down anywhere, although occasionally one will be incorporated into an adventure by the GM (showing that he has anticipated the need for one and devised a solution in advance).
In fact, that’s the best way to bring these rulings to mind: going through old adventures and reminiscing about the important passages of play – important from the perspective of the GM needing to make an ad-hoc ruling.
In the “Assumptions” part of the dumping process, the last few adventures were singled out for attention, simply because these are going to be the freshest in memory. In this stage, the focus will largely be on those same adventures, for the same reasons, but every adventure from the past campaign that exists in any written form should be revisited. And, anytime you find thoughts like “Where did it go wrong?” start intruding, stop and clear your head once again using the exercises listed. While this is an important question, it’s counter-productive right now; it will still be too fresh to really gain any perspective, and you won’t reach meaningful answers.
The process of evaluating these is not all that dissimilar to those of other rulings, but there is a difference in the interpretations of verdicts: “Keep” and “Replace” now mean different things, and “Defer” is not an option as it stands. Only “Dump” is unchanged.
- Keep: Write the ruling up as an actual house rule.
- Replace: This indicates that you need an actual house rule, but the ruling isn’t it.
- Defer: Make some quick notes that can be used to create an actual house rule if necessary, then list that “virtual house rule” for review post-development – when the decision will be to either finish the job and “keep” the actual rule, or to “dump” it for good. There is a difficult balance to be struck; every second of time spent on making these notes might be time wasted, or might count two- or three-to-one in time saved later on, or might even be detrimental, costing the GM time if the notes aren’t clear enough. So the principle is to make the intention clear, and make a note of how you will achieve that target, without actually doing any of the work involved; this offers the best compromise.
5. Old Interpretations
These are even harder to identify and root out. Interpretations in this context has to mean something other than rules, and other than rulings, and those are the first things that come to mind when you hear the term. It is not, however, what I had in mind when I chose the term. No, this is about flavor text in the rulebooks and in the way that you habitually describe scenes, settings, etc.
Once again, the source material is the players handbook and your old adventures. In both cases, the first question to be asked about each item is “How would you describe this?”, the second is “Why do it that way?” and the third is “How else might it be done?”
This step is about rooting out habits that have become entrenched and identifying areas where the GM has become lazy – usually because other matters of higher priority have occupied his attention. There is no need for a formal evaluation; this is all about GM awareness. Instead, at the end of the process, try to synopsize into a single paragraph the things that you want to keep about your style, and the things that you want to change because they have you trapped in a rut.
Keep this, and each time you work on the new campaign, each time you work on an adventure for it, each time you are about to GM a game session, re-read it. Annotate it or revise it if you wish.
The effect of this simple activity is profound and even astonishing. These are things that it is unbelievably easy to lose track of, if you aren’t reminded of them. In time, your subconscious will come to associate these paragraphs as a Mantra to put you into “GMing mode” – but a GMing Mode in which you are aware of the things that are good about your style, and the things that you want to change. They keep these self-improvements on your radar, while still being able to evolve with your abilities as a GM.
And, by falling half-way through the baggage dump process, producing this document also provides a welcome change from doing the same thing all the time.
6. Old Background
These ‘resolutions’ also provide a vital perspective when assessing your old campaign’s background. This part of the baggage-dump process is much easier when creating a new campaign as compared to the problems of refreshing an ongoing campaign. In fact, the differences seem so marked that it might be well to deal with the two separately. And yet, as you will see, they aren’t as different as they first appear.
Old Background, existing campaign
I’m going to describe how to deal with this situation using manual techniques and trust that people can find an electronic equivalent if that’s their preference.
You will need a hardcopy of the campaign background, and two different colored highlighters. Line by line, if necessary, word by word, use one color to highlight things that have been definitely established in the campaign, another for things that have been implied or hinted at but not yet verified. That means that anything not highlighted at all has not yet been revealed in the campaign.
Let’s now put that into context.
- Anything in white is so unexciting that the campaign needs rejuvenating. Dump it.
- Anything in color #1 can’t be changed – or can it? I’ll get back to that.
- Anything in color #2 has been hinted at but not yet verified. It can be changed so long as it stays consistent with those hints – and, assuming that at least some of those hints can be written off as deliberate deceptions, sometimes even when it doesn’t.
- But that technique is better reserved for sprucing up those “can’t be changed” items as it provides a back-door by which some or all can be changed!
So there it is: Create a new and exciting background and then figure out how much of it you can make look like the old background. You won’t be able to change everything, but you should be able to replace/dump enough to completely turn the tired old campaign on its head.
The task can be made even easier if you can identify the Nexus Points in your background. These are pivotal or hinge events that define the time-period that follow for multiple races/groups/nations, the “Big History” moments that determine the shape of the era to follow.
The fact that you’re changing history while keeping the old history as a front usually means that you are inserting one or more conspiracies. Get comfortable with that. Conspiracies rarely do something without a reason, however misguided it might be, and however distorted their perception of reality. The reason for the conspiracy is going to become the new Nexus Point behind the most significant alterations to history; get the reason, and you’ll know who did it, what they hoped to gain, and what they have been doing since.
The X-files mistake
Whatever you do, make sure that you avoid the X-files mistake of making everything one big conspiracy. Assume that what the PCs have been told is the “official” version of history, which is full of mistakes, assumptions, and deliberate falsehoods. There are lots of people who lie for all sorts of reasons, especially on the record. Take the PCs through the looking glass. not into never-never land.
The Key Person
I can offer one further hint. Quite often, an awful lot can be explained by the simple mechanism of making one key individual not who or what he seemed. The most legendary figure in history was just a front man? That works. A noble ruler was a lecher and a drunkard – but was so beloved that revealing the truth would have sparked a civil war? Then maintain the fiction for as long as you can – which just happens to be “not very long from now.” Look for one figure who is central to the things you want to change; change that individual, and let the sleigh ride begin!
Old Background, new campaign
With a new campaign, you have only the limitations of your imagination, and the constraints of the rules, to confine you – at least in theory. In practice, coating all of that is the marshmallow restrictions of your habitual background elements. Some of those may have been challenged in preceding sections, but most of them will be lurking in the back of your mind, still.
Are your Dwarves always stuck dwelling underground by preference? Why not make them masters of the air, living in cities suspended from great airships, from which the “mine” filaments and veins of pure metal that float through the sky? Turns your whole concept of Dwarves on it’s head, doesn’t it?
Do your elves always hang around in forests? With the Dwarves gone, why not move the Elves underground into a pellucidar – and have them disguise their comings and goings through the construction of “Potemkin villages” in those forest locations?
Do your drow always emerge from an Elvish Civil War? Why not have the divide begin over some other, uniquely Elven, form of contest – a live poetry-writing contest, for example? With one group accused of cheating? Or perhaps have the divide yet to occur, with the Drow a subversive secret society and sometime domestic-terrorist organization, as I have in my Shards Of Divinity campaign? Or perhaps the whole divide is simply a political subterfuge to drive wedges between the other races preparatory for subjugation by a (secretly-united) Elven Master-Race? Or invert things so that the Drow have become the good guys (but out of practice at it) while the Elves have been corrupted into extremists for whom any end justifies any means – as I have in the current Fumanor campaigns? Or make them Arthurian Nobles under assault from the Zentradi, as one group going by that name are in the Zenith-3 campaign?
One critical analysis of The Lord Of The Rings attempts to equate the various races with national governments in the middle ages – and another with various combatants during World War II. The Elves are usually French, the Orcs are Germans/Barbarian Tribes… While I don’t agree with any of this interpretation, why not take the idea and mix it up a bit? The Elves are tall, fair-haired Scandinavians; Orcs are Mongols; Dwarves are Italian, or perhaps the German tribes living amongst the leafy canopy, which has been transmuted into rock…
Before you can come up with any of these ideas, you need to distance yourself from what has been before. A simplistic suggestion would be to simply do the exact opposite of whatever you did last time, but that assumes there are only two answers, and the above is intended to show that this isn’t the case, and would, in any event, mean that the campaign after next will be exactly the same basic background as the one you’ve just used.
It was while considering this problem that the “keep / replace / dump” approach that I have recommended was developed. The theory is that if something worked, you don’t necessarily have to change it (unless later prompted to do so by development of the campaign concept); only what didn’t work that well needs to necessarily be replaced, that putting the things you keep into a new context is enough to transform them, and that when players get tired of something, it will stop working. Thus, an evolutionary mechanism for campaigns.
That initial concept has, itself, evolved somewhat in the course of writing this article, into something even more significant. The key questions now are,
- Do you think you have fully explored the implications of whatever you had in place?
- Is background element [X[ becoming predictable?
- Are your players still interested in background element [X]?
- Are adventure ideas still being inspired by background element [X]?
- Are YOU still interested in background element [X]?
Only if your answers are an unqualified “No – No – Yes – Yes – Yes” can you say that the background element is still “Working”. Failure in any one of these categories indicates that its’ time to replace the background element in question, and do something different next time around – or, at the very least, to defer the decision until development of the campaign, when you can see if – like the oft-mooted meeting between an irresistible force and an immovable object – there will be a number of interesting byproducts from putting the old ideas into a new context.
What is a “background element”? I’d hope that the term was reasonably self-explanatory, but I’m afraid it might not be. So, just in case, here’s a working definition.
A “background element” is an essential concept or idea that has been used to construct the campaign background. It can include anything from an interpretation of a race, or a class, or the political structure of the game, or questions about what is considered moral, or the simplest answer to “What is magic?” or “What are the Gods?”.
It takes a lot of reading and effort to extract the background elements from a written campaign background. If you follow the advice offered in “One word at a time: How I (usually) write a Blog Post“, which describes a process that I also use for creating adventures and campaign backgrounds, however, you will have started with a list of campaign elements and then used a paragraph to describe each and the impact that it has, and so can avoid all that hard work and simply work off your list of background elements from the last campaign.
As a general rule of thumb, it can be assumed that there’s one background element in each paragraph of your campaign background. Sometimes there will be less, and sometimes more, but the average will be reasonably close. Each table counts as a paragraph as well. And each one needs to be assessed, so this can take some time. Plan accordingly.
No Written Background?
Oh dear, that’s awkward, isn’t it? Some GMs like to simply take the standard sources and invent twists on it as they go, in whatever direction the PCs have decided to explore. Nothing wrong with that approach, but it does rather lock you into that way of doing things, and makes it that much harder to rid yourself of habitual elements and create something new.
Never fear, I’m here to help! I’m afraid that you will pay for that lack of formal prep with additional work now, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles.
Pretend that you’re writing a letter to another GM, and you want to describe your campaign to him. Start with a single paragraph half a page at most. Then a brief (3-4 line, max) summary of who the major PCs have been, from throughout the campaign. Make sure to mention race and class, if those are important. This should more-or-less fill the first page. Make the page size whatever it needs to be in order to get it to fit, and – if you have to – reduce the font size a little.
On the second page, paste a copy of the first, and change the font color to something else that’s still legible, but easily distinguished from the default black on white. Taking each sentence in isolation, expand on it, explaining it, and adding mention of any related ideas that were parachuted into the old campaign. Use any campaign notes or adventures as prods to your memory if necessary. Simply write “standard interpretation of [X]” if it’s something that never got changed from the official source. This will take multiple pages. Build up a synopsis of the campaign in this fashion.
In theory, each sentence in this expanded version will discuss a single background element. In practice, some may contain two, and others may simply explain an already identified background element, so some interpretation will still be necessary – but what you have built up will be at least as useful a starting point as a properly-written set of campaign briefing materials.
My preferred technique is to start with a copy of the campaign background that I can deconstruct. As I process each paragraph, or sentence, or whatever, I change the text color to something very unobtrusive like aqua or yellow or silver. You can see at a glance where you’re up to when you start each session – because you won’t get through it all in a single sitting.
Now is the time to start making notes for your next campaign’s background, by setting up a series of headings – one for each of the major archetypes/character classes, and one for each of the major races/species that a PC can derive from, or perhaps key types of organization or nations in a mono-racial campaign – into a blank document for “background ideas”, ready for populating.
- If your verdict is to Keep the background element, write it into the appropriate space in the “background ideas” document.
- If your verdict is to Defer the decision, write it into the appropriate space with a leading question mark in Bold so that it stands out.
- If the verdict is to Replace the item, write it into the appropriate space in a different color, such as Red, with a bold leading X to indicate that this is what you are NOT going to do.
- If the verdict is to Dump the item, place a leading Dash in the section to indicate that you need to come up with a new idea under that heading, and instead of transferring the old background element, make a note about what was wrong with the old idea. Again, this is what you are specifically going to try to avoid the next time around.
When you’ve finished with your campaign background, quickly skim any adventures you have details or notes on, looking specifically for occasions when the PCs went “off-script” and you had to invent something on-the-fly (or between game sessions) in order to cope, or where some fundamental idea changed. If you’re very unlucky, there will be a couple of these per adventure, but most of the time, even a free-wheeling campaign will have only one per.
Subject them all to the same treatment, and you will leave behind the things that you don’t want to repeat.
7. Old Attitude
Because gaming is social endeavor, we are all affected by what happens around the table by virtue of the human being associated with it – whether that’s you, responsible for something unpopular with the players, or one of them having done something that you disliked. Since you are contemplating playing with the same people again, it’s fair to assume that no irreparable damage has been done to your personal relations, and you may even have cleared the air over these issues already. Nevertheless, a little of that emotional bruising can linger, slowly poisoning the new campaign. It’s better for your friendships and your game to ensure that everyone has put any such baggage behind them.
For a change, there’s no analysis involved, no appraisal under the keep / dump model.
Instead, there’s a three-step solution.
Step One: Have a social occasion to mark the ending of the old campaign, or to celebrate the commencement of work on the new one. It doesn’t matter if it’s a party or a wake; what you need is an excuse for everyone to reminisce about the old campaign, what went right and what didn’t, some of the fun moments and some of the mistakes made. It’s important that this be a social occasion and not a series of interviews or an impersonal questionnaire or anything like that; you will be dragging up events that may still engender strong opinions and resentments, and you need a way to take the sting out of them. You’ve been working through your own baggage throughout this process, and by this point in time should be less emotionally invested in the past, enabling you to take criticism with a smile and work at defusing any other hostile emotions that may arise amongst your players.
Step Two: Have everyone play a game that pits you against each other. Civilization. Risk. Poker. It doesn’t matter what it is, so long as it affords everyone the chance to let off any remaining steam. So make it a game everyone can enjoy.
Step Three (the hardest one): play some sort of game that requires cooperation. There aren’t a lot of these out there, to be honest – that’s one of the things that makes RPGs unique. So play an RPG – but rotate characters and the GM’s position every five minutes. The objective: for you all to have fun. Don’t take it seriously, go for the comedic and silly and the fun. Some players may not want to GM – come up with a way for them to buy their way out of it. They give up a slice of cake or something. Oh, and make sure that it’s a genre completely unrelated to either the past game or the next one planned. The goal is to reestablish that everyone is on the same side.
8. Old PCs
The applicability of this aspect of baggage is reasonably obvious when you’re talking about a new campaign, but not so clear when your goal is to revitalize an existing campaign; but this is nevertheless a relevant aspect of both. I think, once again, that it might be clearer to discuss them separately.
Old PCs, New Campaign
I’ll deal with the more straightforward question first.
When you start a new campaign, the players will normally construct new PCs – the occasional sequel campaign (see my 2-part article on the subject: Part 1, Part 2) – notwithstanding).
Often, GMs fall into the trap of designing their new campaign to fix what was wrong but is not going to be relevant from the old campaign. It’s happened to me, and I’m sure that it’s happened to you, too. I first began to overcome that tendency by making it a policy to ask players to design characters that were substantially different from their old ones for the new campaign. Of course, if a player really only wants to play Elves, or Clerics, or whatever, you can’t and shouldn’t stop them from doing so, but even a little encouragement to explore something new has a profound effect on the psychology of the GM; instead of a subconscious expectation that the PCs will be the same, with the same rules problems, same internal relationships, same personality and behaviors, the GM is expecting things to be different – and will design accordingly.
Getting the players to create different characters is actually liberating for the GM, because key parts of the game world will no longer need to accommodate pieces to come out of a fixed and known mold.
Now, while the ideas for the new campaign are still very preliminary, is the right time to explore with each player what his preliminary ideas are – what sort of character does he want, what sort of involvement in the adventures does he want for that character, etc. It should be understood that the GM is not promising to accommodate these desires; you are simply finding out what the development directions are going to be. Both sides should expect everything to evolve from these initial positions as the new campaign and characters take shape, and as play begins.
Of course, it should be obvious why this step follows the previous one, which is designed to liberate both Players and GM from the emotional baggage of the old campaign.
Once again, there is no approvals process for this step, there’s nothing to approve or reject; this is all about resetting mindsets.
Old PCs, Revitalized Campaign
The PCs and players carry just as much baggage forward from the old campaign as the GM does in this situation. Compromises may have been made in character construction on the basis of a set of expectations that were never fulfilled as the campaign evolved through actual play, for example.
The freedom that comes with new characters is so useful to the GM in breaking bonds with the past that it is always worth considering “revitalizing” the PCs. Besides, you’re going to be doing this with the major NPCs, so why shouldn’t the players have the same opportunity?
In campaigns with low levels of continuity, it may in fact be possible to completely replace the PCs with characters of roughly equivalent level/character points to the old ones, or to any other level that GM feels is appropriate. Sometimes I’ve gone with characters of half the levels, sometimes with new first- or second-level characters, and sometimes with unchanged levels. In one instance, I even offered the option of starting selected characters one level higher – with a reduction in XP earned until the others caught up.
If continuity is strong, the approach must be different. In such cases, I start with a discussion between myself and the player about two things: (1) What is the one thing the player would change about his character if he could construct it from scratch; and (2) What is the one thing that most irks or hamstrings me, as GM, about the character as it stands. From these discussions, a consensus should soon appear as to the preferred approach to the handling of the character in the re-invigorated campaign. The GM can make is explicitly clear how much freedom he is giving the player to rebuild his character, and what he expects from the resulting PC, and the player knows it as well.
This is also the time to point out any House Rules or Character Class/Race details that are going to be explicitly altered in the new campaign, and are of relevance to the PC, to the player of that PC, so that the character can be redesigned accordingly. Which also affords that player the opportunity to provide his input on those changes.
Another question that the GM should discuss with each player is the question of a front-of-curtain change vs a behind-the-curtain change.
- In a front-of-curtain change, the old characters and rules will still be “the way things are” when the campaign restarts, right up to some singular event that will change everything and everyone over to the new in suitably-spectacular fashion.
- In a behind-the-curtain change, there is no Big Event – the campaign simply restarts with the new conditions and characters as though it had always been that way.
It’s important to settle this question at this point in the process because a “Big Event” affords scope to change even some of those “unchangeable” campaign background elements. This decision tells the GM how far he can go in rewriting the campaign background and back-story; it defines how much of the old campaign needs to be perpetuated into the new, and whether the change has to be seamless or can tolerate a certain amount of discontinuity.
9. Old NPCs
NPCs should be an outgrowth of the intersection between where they come from (campaign background & formative events), the pre-set parameters of class and race, and their role within the plot. Any or all of the above are subject to change in any sort of campaign reboot. Equally, this is yet another case when thinking about a new campaign of needing to identify patterns and determining whether or not to change those patterns.
Do you always provide the PCs with a Mentor, a-la Splinter from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? Then have that Mentor killed in game session #1. And have this death turn out to be a fabrication, making the Mentor the secretive arch-villain who seems to know the PCs every move.
Who are your main villains? Do they always seem to have the same motivation, or a motivation drawn from a limited set? Go looking for something new.
I once came up with a D&D campaign – it never got a name, and was never played – in which the central villain was a Good Man and well-known Hero of the past who had been cursed to have every good deed twist to evil, while making him nigh-immortal; he could only be killed by an enemy, and he had killed all his enemies except the one who cursed him. The best thing that the character could do was nothing, but that was something he was constitutionally unable to do; he couldn’t help himself, whenever he saw injustice or inequality or other evil, he had to try to intervene. There were a lot of unanswered questions that I never got around to solving, like why he hid his identity, and why he tried to keep himself alive (early thoughts on the latter were that he refused to die until he had made restitution to everyone harmed by his curse), and so on.
Are all your sages the same? Are your mad scientist cookie-cutter models? Is every Paladin a holier-than-thou stickler for the exact letter of the law?
Go through your old adventures, looking for such stereotypes – and then decide whether or not they should stay that way.
Remember that all most people know of a character (the PCs included) are their reputation; and that even if the real character differs from that, they can actively seek to perpetuate that image. That means that even characters that the PCs think they know quite well can suddenly sprout hidden layers – with predefined circumstances that will bring those layers to the fore. Add to that the potential for changing circumstances that on their own are enough to change ally to enemy and enemy to friend, and the NPC makeovers are complete.
Except of course that you probably have more experience now than you did when you created many of these characters – so even the characters that are to remain “unchanged” can, and should, get a spruce-up. Not necessarily to make them more effective, or more powerful, but just to make them more interesting and rounded.
It might be going to far to say that every NPC should be re-conceptualized and rebuilt. But not by very much; the question that needs to be answered is really whether or not these changes will be overt or beneath an established public mask.
10. Old Assumptions Redux
Throughout the preceding steps, you should have been discovering and noting assumptions that you missed in your initial sweep. Everything from “Dwarves are short” through “Elves are good with bows” to “Mages cast spells” and “Demons are evil”.
There are a lot more of these assumptions that you are probably going to keep, but the decision to do so should be yours, and reflective of the campaign that you are creating/recreating, not something that happens by default.
And so, the Baggage Dump process ends where it began – by challenging the assumptions that you’ve been making and deciding whether or not they are justified – this time – in staying part of your campaign.
Because that’s the ultimate objective: to define the campaign, and refit everything around that central definition.
What to keep – for now
After all this “justify your existence” challenging of campaign elements, it should be noted that some things in the old campaign were probably fun, and might just be worth preserving. What to keep is anything that made the PCs cool in the eyes of their players – refer The Acceptable Favoritism: 34 ‘Rules’ to make your players’ PCs their favorites for ideas on what to look for – and anything that everyone commented favorably on during the player debrief / emotional baggage dump.
You want to keep the things they liked until they are absolutely, positively, and definitively proven to be incompatible with your plans for the new campaign.
But, be aware that overuse can sap the fun from anything. These “Saved by the fun factor” ingredients won’t last forever – and the day the laughter dies might come before the end of the campaign. Each such item needs to be carefully assessed from that perspective.
Having detoxed from the last campaign – whether it was a success, a failure, or something in between – It’s time to start rejuvenating both you and your campaign-creation agenda. And that’s something I’ll take up in Phase 3 – which will hopefulyl be a short article!