Today’s guest article was written by reader Andrew Bell. He’s about to swap places with the GM of a long-running successful campaign, and he’s got some excellent ideas to share about making sure his game is every bit as good — but different, too. Thanks, Andrew!
In a few short weeks, the game in which I currently play is coming to an end after seven years. Loose threads are being tied up, plots are coming to fruition, and the universe needs saving thrice over. Seven years of epic battles and subtle intrigue are behind us. Seven years! How can our next game match that? How can any GM step into that breach without being swamped by the past? Who would be foolish enough to volunteer for such a thankless task?
Look, wisdom was my dump stat, okay?
The transition from one campaign to another is always going to be jarring, but when you are following a long-running, particularly successful campaign then it is that much harder to escape from the previous game’s shadow. What I’m going to talk about here are the ideas I’m hoping to use to make my campaign, Interregnum, stand out. They break down into three simple groups: similarities, differences, and additions.
If It Ain’t Broke…
If you’re picking up the reins after a long-running game -– or you were the long-running GM but are now starting over with a new game –- chances are there was something right about that game. Take the time to watch the GM at work in the closing stages and, perhaps more importantly, watch your fellow players too. (Obviously don’t get so involved in this that you TPK the party one session before the end of the campaign!) Know thy players and cater to their tastes. For me this means:
- Social interaction and intrigue. The group as it stands takes a great deal of satisfaction from untangling the twisted threads of the universe. Interregnum is going to be a short campaign (three months or so), but it will be important that there is a central mystery for them to struggle with. This mystery will form the core of the metaplot (so they’d better not guess it after the first session).
- Combat as a change of pace. As a group we fall more on the social interaction side of the social/combat RPG continuum, but a quick battle every now and again refreshes the mood. I reckon about one combat every other session and a combat heavy session once or twice for the entire three month campaign should be about right.
- Mini-games. We all love a chance to break out into a non-standard mini-game, be it dueling practice or a city siege. Interregnum is going to be short, so one mini-game will suffice to scratch this itch.
As Good as a Rest
Once you’ve worked out what’s important to your group, take everything else about the current campaign and think about how to do the opposite! Make sure you play to your strengths here. There’s no point in doing something you’re no good at just to be different, but there’s still a lot of room to manoeuvre here. For example, looking again at Interregnum, I’m going to be changing:
- Setting and system. We currently play Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 2nd Edition. Interregnum is going to be a Serenity game, so we’re going from grim and perilous swords and sorcery to lighthearted cowboys in space. We could just as easily have gone to Call of Cthulhu, Star Wars, or Apocalypse World and had a similar degree of difference.
- Session and plot structure. As a long-running game in a dangerous setting, we rarely start sessions in media res (when a single lucky goblin can kill you, starting in combat due to GM fiat is not cool) and single-session “missions” are relatively rare. We stop when we run out of time knowing that most plot threads won’t be resolved any time soon. In contrast, I plan on running Interregnum entirely episodically, starting with the action when possible and wrapping (most) things up on the night. That said, like any good series, the metaplot will take place over several episodes, but each of these are intended to function as standalone adventures as well as parts of a whole.
- Social standing. In our current WFRP game, we represent the highest echelons of Imperial society (not that there’s much left of the Empire after that unfortunate incident with the vortex, then the tidal wave, and then the volcano). In Interregnum, the players are going to be down at the heels, wrong side of the law types with barely two credits to rub together. If you don’t want to make your characters scum (or nobles), however, you could change how the world views adventurers. What if they were not seen as saviours to be feted, but bloodthirsty sellswords to be feared and distrusted? Consider how different the reactions are to “Strider” in Bree and to Aragorn in Minas Tirith in Lord of the Rings. Where are your PCs going to fall on that line?
But Wait, There’s More!
Lastly, season well with whatever floats your boat (now there’s a mixed metaphor). Is there something you’ve never done in your current campaign but always fancied doing? Now’s the time! That amazing set-piece from the latest blockbuster? Throw it in! It’s your campaign, don’t be afraid to try new things. If they don’t work, you can always blame the previous game for casting a long shadow. For me, this is going to be:
- Gimmicks. I’ve got a bunch of ideas rattling around my head for ways to make a session memorable, if gimmicky, so I’m going to use them. All of them. Ultimately, the idea is to give each session its own particular flavour without straying too far from the main theme of the setting. As an (intentionally) short campaign following a long one, I can take a more gimmicky approach without worrying that it’s going to get old.
- Thematic notes. And this is how I intend to avoid straying too far with my gimmicks. There are a few cowboy and sci-fi notes that I want to make sure I hit –- the armed hold-up, defending the town until sunrise, and the fancy ball from the cowboy side; the critical equipment failure, the crowded space station, and the mega-corporations on the sci-fi side. I’m going to take advantage of my short campaign run and cram them in, using them to tie together the disparate gimmicks and session based plots into a thematic whole in a way that would be much harder over a longer game. (I can manage almost one thematic note per session, particularly as I will have the odd “two-parter” storyline.)
It Slices AND Dices!
I’m in the situation where I’m taking over from a long-running game, but the ideas I’m suggesting can apply to any situation where you’ve got, or had, an established game. Running a backup game that you don’t want to be overshadowed by the main game, but don’t want to steal its thunder either? Flip the combat/social balance. Campaign crashed and burned? Rescue what worked and alter the rest.
Making a new campaign feel different might seem intimidating, but it’s not hard to do. Just remember to think “What do I need to keep, what can I flip, and what extras will I have?” Similarities, differences, and additions. Simple!