I recently started a modern fantasy campaign set in 1983. My goal was to somewhat emulate the teen movies of the 1980s (rest in peace, John Hughes) with episodic “monster-of-the-week” style adventures. It went very well for the first few adventures, but then something happened. I started to stray.
I’ve always been a fan of long story arcs and conspiracies and, through the introduction of a couple of mysterious government agents, I began pulling the game in that direction. Within a couple of sessions, I’d completely lost the campaign’s original tone. The players will still having fun, but I wasn’t satisfied. I felt like I’d jumped the shark.
It was a problem I’d seen and GMed countless times before. The campaign starts with one set of assumptions and soon drifts into another style, such as a dark horror campaign that turns into a comedy adventure or the grim-and-gritty sword-and-sorcery campaign that becomes overly fantastic. Sometimes the change is welcomed; other times it can prematurely end a campaign.
In my current game, I wanted to get back to my original feel. Here’s what I did.
Make a List
I made a list of all of the elements that were important to me when designing the campaign. I noted which ones had been particularly affected by the campaign’s new direction. I also discarded a couple of elements that, while I’d initially thought would be important, hadn’t quite worked in those first few adventures.
Prep a Standalone
I decided that my next adventure would not carry any of the previous plot threads, especially the ones involving the secret government organization. I knew my players would bite, since I often run campaigns the Carter Way. I ensured that this standalone adventure reinforced those elements that I’d listed.
Ensure that the Players Enjoy It
Sometimes the players actually prefer the new direction and aren’t happy that you’re pulling away from what was making the campaign fun. I didn’t want to cut my nose off to spite my face. In my current case, the players enjoyed the adventure, but I also realized that there were a couple of elements that they enjoyed during the “conspiracy tangent.” I made sure that those elements remained in future plotting.
Don’t Pencil-Whip the Discarded Elements
This might seem odd, but I decided not to quickly wrap up the threads in my “conspiracy tangent.” The reason was that, at this point, a quick ending would seem too artificial and broadcast “epic fail” in bright neon. I’ve just never seen pencil-whipping done well.
By not pencil-whipping, I could keep the discarded elements in the background, teasing the players with bits and pieces in the future, but not letting it overwhelm the tone of the campaign. I do plan to wrap up those threads, but in a way that feels natural for this campaign.
Stay the Course
After that first standalone, I continued to use my slightly-modified elements list to keep the campaign on course. I’m happy to say that it does feel a lot like those first few adventures again. It also feels like the campaign has grown, as I didn’t “erase” the past to save the campaign.
One of the reasons my efforts worked as well as they did is that I caught the problem early, within a few adventures. I’m not sure if I’d have been as successful if I’d let the campaign continue on the “conspiracy tangent” for a few more sessions. One way to combat this would be to have that campaign element list from the outset and use it to judge my adventures from the beginning. Maybe I wouldn’t have strayed in the first place.
I realize this article is a bit specific to one of my campaigns, but I hope that you can take something from my experience. If nothing else, giving yourself the occasional refresher of what elements are important to your campaign will help you keep things on course. While it may seem like obvious advice, experience has taught me that not enough GMs, including myself, take it regularly.