Smiling DeathRun a campaign for long enough, and one of these will happen:

  • Your players will ignore every subtle (and not-so-subtle) hint you throw at them, and do That One Thing that will tank the entire campaign. For whatever reason, the party swallows the Blue Pill, lets the Ringwraiths get the Ring, or vaporizes New Tokyo.
  • Those opponents you created to challenge the party are a bit too challenging, and half the party is dead or dying by the end of the first round. Chalk it up to random chance, GM error, player incompetence, or what you will, but its initials are TPK.

Game over, man. Start a new campaign, or at least start rolling up new characters. Been there, done that, got the scars to prove it.

But wait…

For whatever reason, you want to salvage the campaign. Maybe the players are really getting into their characters. Maybe they’re starting to gel into an effective unit as a party and a group for the first time in well, forever. Maybe you’ve woven the campaign and all of their backstories into a beautifully intricate web that demands to be played out.

Now what? Do you let go of all of that, in the hopes that you’ll find it again amongst the dice and books? Or do you figure out a way to make it work?

Making it work.

To paraphrase any number of famous people, an RPG rulebook is not a suicide pact. No mistake is final, until the GM and group decide that it is final.

First off, raise the possibility with your group of salvaging the campaign – the earlier the better. If you can cut off Armageddon before it happens, you’ve got a better chance of getting away with a minimum of collateral damage.

Next, take ownership of the situation, even if the players or the dice made all the mistakes. Not only are you the most powerful person at the table (in-game), you’re the only one who can decide how to explain it away. Also, it’s much easier for the players to consider the possibility of “that didn’t happen” if they’re not feeling guilty over it happening in the first place. An easy way of taking ownership is asking the players why they did what they just did, and admitting whatever mistakes you made that contributed to that decision.

The delicate task of talking – and listening – to your players is probably going to be the crux of this whole exercise. As GM, use your ability to control the ‘camera’ to ensure that everyone gets their say, and that all of their concerns are recognized. Because some compromise is probable, some concerns will not be met. Keep tempers cool, and control your own emotions and reactions in order to keep the dialogue flowing.

The in-game situation can be explained away by any number of approaches, from a contentious act of fudge, to a clichéd deus ex machina, to a simple but jarring “Okay, that didn’t happen after all.” In my admittedly limited experiences, a simple “that didn’t happen” is easier to swallow than a bad dream or acknowledgment that the party is playing second string to Mr. Machina.

More important than how it happened is how the players feel about the situation, namely if they feel that it sucks all the fun from the game. Some players may misinterpret “We’re not going to trash the campaign for a mistake,” for “Hey! We’ve got a reset button!” This is another place where the GM’s guidance is necessary.

Have you had to rewind time or pull a deus ex machina to save a campaign? Did it work for you? Why or why not? Sound off in the comments, and let us know!

About  Kurt "Telas" Schneider

Kurt Schneider played D&D in 1979 at summer camp, and was hooked. He lives with his wife, daughters, and dog in Austin TX, where he writes stuff, and tries to stay get fit. Look for his rants under the nom de web Telas or TelasTX. Quote: “A game is only as balanced – or as good – as the GM."

21 Responses to Salvaging a Campaign

  1. The “Okay, that didn’t happen,”/reset button works really well in games that are done on the premise of collaborative storytelling. Every writer has gotten pretty far along in one project or another only to suddenly realize that a major element just didn’t make sense. At that point, they have to trash it and start anew. PRGs should be allowed that same leeway, especially early on.
    That approach is a little harder swallow in times where the dice refuse to see the brilliance and greatness of the player’s ideas. It isn’t good to have a feeling that “it’s impossible to fail” creep into the campaign by pretending that the bad luck with the dice didn’t happen. Cleverly disguised Deus ex Machina can work, but it takes finesse.

  2. I have had a point where I probably should have said “Okay that didn’t happen”, but my players were making bad choices so I sort of punished them. Ended up with all but 1 party member being taken prisoner, them escaping, and the party being split for a session. Though if I would have said “Okay that really didn’t happen” when they first got captured, then it probably would have went a bit smoother.

    My issues with campaigns that I start is that my players never seem to put any effort into the game. Some get into it, but most just want to kill monsters and level (to the point of saying, “Can I go to the woods and kill things for xp” and constantly asking if they level every session) Which in turn, burns me out of the campaign to where I don’t even care and end up not preparing. (ultimately ending the game)


    • I have a suggestion: Try switching game systems to one less focused on XP and levels. Make it clear that this is “just a rest, not a test” and it is a bit of fun that is temporary.

      Your players won’t stand a complete break well, so don’t jump into something like FATE (which is a fine system but the culture shock might fragment your group, which sounds a tad “fixated”).

      I’d suggest moving to Savage Worlds with a setting very different to simple Fantasy/Swords and Sorcery. It has XP and levels, but they aren’t the focus of play that they are in D&D-like games.

      For the setting I’d maybe go with Solomon Kane (for which you don’t need any other books than the rulebook) which is set in the 15th/16th century. If your kids must get their high fantasy on, I’d suggest vanilla Savage Worlds using your D&D modules etc for ideas, or maybe the Sundered Skies setting.

      The body count with Savage Worlds can be impressive without tying XP rewards to ears collected, satisfying the adrenaline junkies without rewarding them disproportionately.

      And if a character gets killed, making a new one does not take much more than five minutes for a newbie, less for an experienced hand. Start new characters at 0 XP (double their rewards with respect to the majority of the party and they will soon level up if this is “an issue”, though doing so plays into the very problem you are trying to address).

      A disparate level-set in a party isn’t the game-killer in Savage Worlds that it is in other systems though, because the wound system is different, not tied to experience. Characters get better at what they do, but don’t automatically become harder to kill.

    • Thanks for the suggestion. I’d never really though of getting out of 3.x with this group (we are currently using Pathfinder, which I have a lot of the source material. But maybe playing that with a different group would make more sense.

      I’m actually a player in a Savage Worlds game and so far I’ve had a lot of fun. Plus with Savage Worlds being how it is, I can still use a lot of my Pathfinder material, and still use the mechanics of Savage Worlds. 😀

      • I have had the same problem with EXP grubbers. We also play Pathfinder. My solution was to stop giving EXP. Crazy right?! The inspiration came while playing adventure paths. Characters were leveling faster than the modules could keep up. They would go into every room and slay every monster they could get their swords on. At some point I just decide to allow leveling when it made sense within the story arc. WOW did it help the game on a number of levels. The EXP issue disappeared, but more importantly, the game moved faster because players were more willing to leave a “dungeon” without searching for every ounce of EXP. Also I could add any side adventurers that I wanted because the “extra” EXP did not create character levels disproportionate to the adventure path. To my utter surprise the players accepted the change without so much as a peep.

        • That’s pretty much what I’ve been doing with my Pathfinder game. I keep track of XP on my end, but the players know that leveling generally comes between ‘parts’ of the game’s overall story.

          I think handing out XP each session can create too much of a power-leveling mentality that can easily overwhelm the narrative of the game in the race to get the next shiny notation on the character sheet.

      • Well, you asked how we would handle the situation with THAT group.

        Switching groups would fix everything without any other changes.

  3. Walt Ciechanowski

    Several possibilities

    1. “Oops, I goofed.” This is still the best option and would have saved a couple of fun campaigns for me.

    2. The Psychic. If your game has a psychic, you can have the incident be an extended vision of the future (this could also work as a deity’s gift). This worked well in a Mutants and Masterminds campaign where a precog PC used a hero point to retcon an ugly scene.

    3. The parallel universe. Yes, it happened, but on World A. Things are a little different over here on World B. For added fun you can let players make changes to their PCs to reflect a different world. “Hey, didn’t you used to be a Half-Elf ranger?” “In this world, mom was raised by Orcs and I’m a Half-Orc barbarian now.”

  4. I like the take ownership point–that’s something I’ve overlooked, and it’s made resets go over poorly in the past. If the GM takes ownership and says it’s settled then it should be… instead of leaving the players to carp over “who was the bonehead that forced the reset?”, and “isn’t this unfair?”.

  5. As a DM I understand the need to salvage the situation, but as a player I’d feel cheated. The ability to lose the game is an important ingredient in any RPG.

    That said, I’ve salvaged campaigns several times, but I never let the players know. To me it robs the game of any challenge. If I can’t save the group on the sly then I let them die.

  6. Yep. I had a player once start talking about the party’s current plans while another was talking to some of the BBEG’s henchmen. After trying to step in twice with “So, you’re going to talk about that WHILE there’s NPC’s around?” and the offender passing it off as a joke, I just went with it and derailed plan A.
    Fortunately, I had a secondary plot I’d been weaving around and came up with an excuse to get the players out of town while the BBEG’s army leveled the heroes’ support bases.
    I can’t elaborate on how things have worked out, but the players seem happier out in the wilds where they can pretty much kill random NPCs with reckless abandon and I’m happier with them not able to destroy my brilliant plots for a few more months.

  7. I had an opportunity to do a retcon or deus ex machina in my long running 3.5 game. The PCs, knowing the folks in front of them had taken down an iron golem, walked into an ambush and all but one ended up wracked and captured. I considered doing a retcon but felt the party had totally walked into the situation eyes open. Before doing the retcon I paused and pulled a player who is a great GM out of the game to solicit advice. In the end, I punted and turned it over to the players who unanimously chose to start something new. We ran another session or two with new characters and folded the group not long after. Not a ringing endorsement of my DMing prowess.

  8. In the very first game of my Pathfinder/Eberron game, the PCs defeated the villain which I had intended to be a recurring character. It was nothing they did wrong, in fact they played it smart AND got lucky with their rolls.

    Not sure how to save my ideas for the game and be fair to them, I flat out said to them, “Okay guys, you got her, but I had intended for her to escape.” They were the ones that suggested she was taken prisoner instead of killed and later escaped.

    Not exactly a full ret-con, but I think it’s proof that it sometimes can’t hurt to talk to the players about the game on a meta level.

  9. One time I ran a session of my gritty, street-level, high-school drama, Aberrant-based X-Men campaign shortly after surgery. Long story short: Vicodin, Punisher, Daredevil, Skrulls.

    The next session started with: “Sooooo…. I shouldn’t have run this last week, you can all have 3 experience to pretend it didn’t happen.”

  10. I think a lot can be said for the philosophical position of playing to find out what happens.

    Prepping situations and not plots is also valid.

    Playing a game that supports stakes outside of character death is another thing that will alleviate the problem.

    The problem was not that you hit an undesirable outcome but that the undesirable outcome was something that you pursued possibly aided by the game.

    Lets say for example that the characters all died. How did they die? Monsters killed them. If monsters killing the characters is unacceptable then why were there monsters there trying to kill the characters? The answer here tends to be that one of the major game parts is about fighting monsters to the death. The game parts are in conflict with the gaming experience you want.

    Clearly Kurt feels that the solution to this conflict is to undermine the game parts and push for the desirable gaming experience. If that’s the solution for you and the rest of the group that’s cool but I prefer to use games that align closer to the gaming experience that I and the group wants. If I were a player and not a GM I would probably become irritated when the experience I was expecting from the game becomes undermined by the GMs agenda, especially if the agenda was never previously discussed with me.

  11. On the last episode of the season of a Deadlands game the players had found themselves in TPK territory. The solution we found was D.ex.Machina via Legend Chip they had earned in an earlier adventure. The legend chip is basically a super “hero”/action/fate point and the players opted to use it in a narrative way rather than as the game book decreed…
    Surrounded by Cthonian Wormlings, tainted by an open gate to the Deadlands; with weapons malfunctioning, or out of ammo; the party decided it was at that point that two characters who had been sent to obtain a Gatling gun would return (the players of those characters were away). The returning characters saved the day in a blaze of narrative dakka.
    The entire situation was happily resolved because the characters were able to affect their own rescue due to an earlier success. As a bonus the players of the returning PCs enjoyed seeing their characters being awesome even though it was narrative fiat.

    You don’t need game mechanics though, imagine if the party had no Legend Chip but instead had saved a cavalry squadron from an earlier dilemma? The cavalry owes them their lives and their mission was completed early giving them reason and opportunity to help. These sorts of boons are still earned like the legend chips but its a narrative “get out of jail” rather than a mechanical one. Simply create situations early in the campaign so the party has opportunity to store up these boons.

  12. one i dea that was suggested to me was the idea that yep every one died. but then they wake up naked in an underground vault below the enemies base. unarmed but with all of their memories ( including their dying ) slivering out of a clone tank. it adds a weird spin to a gritty realism campaign but who knows…

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