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Getting Back on Course

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 [1].  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.

Final Thoughts

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. 


12 Comments (Open | Close)

12 Comments To "Getting Back on Course"

#1 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On August 7, 2009 @ 8:01 am

What I take from this is the use of campaign elements to define the campaign.

Can you give us some example elements (they don’t have to be from this campaign in particular)?

#2 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On August 7, 2009 @ 8:50 am

Sure, I’ll make it easy and use the current campaign (set in a fictional NJ shore town):

– Investigative episodic adventure featuring a monster of the week.

– The PCs are the only ones capable of dealing with the threat (no large paranormal support network)

– An 80s college setting; subplots should revolve around the usual 80s college stuff (modified during summer, when adventures should enhance the beach atmosphere)

– An 80s set piece – the adventure should prominently feature a place that evokes the 80s (e.g. a video arcade)

– Sprinkle in 80s culture (Cold War, Reagan, yuppies, current popular media, early console games, ninjas, corporate culture, 1e AD&D)

My “conspiracy tangent” violated this. Adventures were becoming too interconnected, the paranormal support network grew, and the 80s college feel was muted.

#3 Comment By Scott Martin On August 7, 2009 @ 9:47 am

I like the idea of a written list; your specific examples really make it pop. It’s not quite an “adventure cookbook”, but following it will make sure it all has the same feel.

I think I’ll borrow this idea whenever I stray from the endless campaign default. Thanks!

#4 Comment By Tony Graham On August 7, 2009 @ 10:32 am

I’ve both run and played in games that went seriously off course. There is a strong tendency to stay on the train as it gathers momentum, speeding toward the washed-out bridge. This is a great method to hit the switch early and get back on track.

I really like your idea to use the element list as a foundation document for a campaign. “When in doubt, go back to the beginning.” I suspect this could solve many a continuing plot dilemma.

Excellent tactic – but 80s arcade setting? The probabilities for the game soundtrack is going to haunt my morning… 🙂

#5 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On August 7, 2009 @ 10:41 am

Cue “Axel F Theme” in 3… 2… 1…

#6 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On August 7, 2009 @ 11:10 am

For music I’m not a stickler for 1983; any 80s tune is fine. Here’re some examples for your haunting pleasure:

“Never Surrender” – Campaign theme song
“You Can Do Magic” – Love theme between a PC and NPC
“Pac-Man Fever” – used during my homage to “The Last Starfighter” and “Bishop of Battle” adventure
“Girls Just Want to Have Fun” – an NPC theme
“Back in Time” – used during a time-travel adventure
“Obsession” – used during an appropriate adventure
“Eye of the Tiger” – prepping for battle music

There are more, but I think I’m about to lose my Gnomie license and GM street cred!

#7 Comment By Dire Emu On August 7, 2009 @ 1:00 pm

This is a great topic. On a related note, any advice for how to get a campaign back on track when you as the DM paint yourself into a pretty nasty corner plot-wise?

I’m at the point where it seems the only solution will come on a pink fluffy cloud.

#8 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On August 7, 2009 @ 1:55 pm

@dire emu – I’d need a bit more info on that particular corner.

#9 Comment By Dire Emu On August 7, 2009 @ 1:59 pm


Well the real issue is that I seem to have worked my players into a situation that they either are not, or at believe they are not, able to overcome. I have tried to offer several options but none of them has seemed to motivate the players and I think I may have them feeling a bit overwhelmed by the metaplot.

#10 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On August 7, 2009 @ 7:41 pm

@dire emu – What happens if they fail to overcome it?

Also, can you put the situation on hold for now?

If you’d rather continue this in private, we can discuss your particular situation in more detail.

#11 Comment By Dire Emu On August 7, 2009 @ 7:44 pm


Feel free to contact me off the forum, if you’d like. I don’t want to clutter the blog with a lengthy discussion of my own personal campaign issues.


#12 Comment By manodogs On August 10, 2009 @ 11:26 am

Good article, Walt!

Whenever I’m designing a game, I make notes in a checklist much like you have here, so I go into the game with my points already in place, but (like everyone), I stray from time to time – not to mention the fact that I make so many notes over the course of both designing and playing a game, it’s often difficult to find the right notes when I need them.

However, if everyone is enjoying the game, I actually do something of the opposite from what you outline here:

Instead of steering the game back toward *my* original intentions, I try to work my points into whatever style/direction the game has taken. This, of course, is dependent on whether or not everyone is enjoying the game and there are no other issues, etc.

I need to explain that my notes are literally whatever crosses my mind concerning the game – images, concepts, similar sources/inspirations (“Fire & Ice, Conan: Destroyer” is an actual note from a game I was putting together at some point – fans will note the two movies have a similar feel, tone, and even plot) – so they are a lot looser than the checklist you provide for example here.

All this talk of 1980’s college campuses and monsters makes me want to break-out the old Call of Cthulhu books and boxsets! Whatever materials I have in there (and there’s a LOT – that and Cyberpunk were our favorite games through highschool [I graduated in 1992]) would certainly fit the time period, though CoC is far more “doom and gloom”