Saturday, March 6, 2021

Sometimes, You Need a Plot

"Mary Pickford" Image by Eric Perlin from Pixabay 
I have had a frustrating couple of months of TTRPG play. I want to tell you about what I have been running into, and how I fixed it, in case you might be colliding with the same issues. Namely, of multiple campaigns fizzling ou it a row. 

I am currently involved in five games:

  • My playtest game with a cousin and some old Highschool friends, which is a blend of B/X Dungeons & Dragons, Index Card RPG Core 2e, and the odd break for Dungeons Crawl Classics RPG.
  • Stephen Smith's World of Weirth game, which is a heavily house-ruled game of Low Fantasy Gaming that is rapidly becoming its own game.
  • A game of B/X D&D taking my wife and oldest son through several classic adventures (the Mentzer tutorials, The Ruins beneath the Tower of Zenopus, Castle Mistamere, Keep on the Borderlands).
  • Sporadic tests of my ultra-light kid-oriented TTRPG Square Dungeon. Usually while walking my son home from school. 
  • A home campaign played with my wife and a rotating cast of friends and family. Usually ICRPG, DCC, or Low Fantasy Gaming. Often with strong accents of Blades in the Dark

All told, I play about 12-15 hours a week.

A Case of the Fizzles

With my playtest group, some of my frustration arises from daily life, flus, sick kids, wildfires, work emergencies, etc. California's power grid has been a particular menace to my group. Fair enough. 

Gaming with a five-year-old is its own challenge.

The big issue, however, has been a that my home and playtest games have suffered issues with player engagement. I have had several fizzles... At home I ran several campaigns that started well and ran 4-6 sessions, then, once the initial adventure and its aftershocks were over and the game opened up to a sandbox with a few rumors of looming threats and dangers, my players' excitement would wane.

I faced the same issue with my Test Group to a lesser extent. Once they reached Baddenach and had some down time, the intense, high-energy engagement they had been giving me waned. It took me a couple of weeks to get the game rolling again.

It took me awhile to figure out what the heck was going on. I have games fizzle once in a while; every GM does. But this was becoming a pattern. I could have attributed it to busy lives; the Plague has played merry hob with my friends' schedules. My wife is working 60 hours a week. So's my best friend. My cousin has started a new job and is still finding her rhythm, my other gaming bud always works 50+ hours and is trying to weather a management shuffle...

Never Let Yourself off the Hook for Your Problem

...but I possess enough self-awareness to realize that, as convenient as those excuses might be, they can't account for all my problems. When there is a negative pattern in your life, the best thing to do is to ask you how you are contributing to it. Never let yourself off the hook for your problems.

Normally, my games are played out until the PCs sit victorious in a castle on a pile of gold, with skill and power enough to make a dragon think twice. I often carry campaigns to Dominion Level Play, if not right up to Epic or Immortal play (or equivalents in other games). And in a myriad of different TTRPG systems. I have frequently run games that last hundreds of hours of play. I have not had so many problems with engagement in the past. So it must have been a change in the present that created this stall.

With that understanding, I started looking into the difference in how I played two years ago, versus how I play now.

The systems are slightly different. I became interested in the OSR because D&D5e and Shadowrun 5e (my old go-tos) are too damned slow for the amount of time my wife and I can devote to playing together while raising two little kids. I remembered how much game you could cram into four hours when playing AD&D and wanted that back.

The systems, however didn't change much about my GMing style at first. As I took a deeper dive into the OSR and played a little Lamentations of the Flame Princess and Dungeon Crawl Classics, however, I found myself wanting to return to some of the simpler, less prep-intensive styles of play I enjoyed when running games as a kid. Especially with my groups in grades 6 through 8, where I ran classic sandboxes.

This was where the big change was.

Cover of XDM: Extreme Dungeon Mastery
by Tracy and Curtis Hickman illustrated
by Howard Taylor.
From Train Station Docent to Keeper of the Sandbox

My games starting in high school were very Hickman-esque. That is to say, I had a simulacrum of a story to tell. By the second adventure, my players always have a sense of some bigger threat looming, and are given leads on ways to fight it. There is still a sandbox there, insofar as they have lots of options as to what to do, but every adventure was in service of countering that rising threat.

For example, three of my longest-running Shadowrun campaigns all were dedicated to the same goal, finding ways to stick it to the colonial government of San Francisco. Each campaign, the players would start trying to eke out a living in the Bay Area, and each time, I introduced them to some other facet of the dystopian nightmare detailed in Shadowrun California: The Land of Sun, Fun, and Run. From directly messing with specific politicians, to bringing peace to the sodbuster conflict in Carmel, to ousting the Yakuza stranglehold on specific rackets.

Each campaign, I would give the players dozens of run options, and let them decide which ones they would take, but I would make it clear how many of them would let them move closer to the goal of making the City That Never Sleeps a little less of a nightmare in a way that was important to them. The endgame came usually when they PCs were mob bosses, powerful fixers, or feared initiates closer to Spirits than mere mortals, and had the power to make a few big changes to their home sector of the City.

There was always a premise: Carmel is on the brink of civil war, and you are in the middle. ...or... The ambulance company you work for has been liquidated with extreme prejudice... now you have to take your medical expertise to the streets just in time to help with the newest plague until you can find safe legitimate work again. And the players could choose which leads to follow with that premise as a guide post.

I did the same with Dungeons & Dragons-derived games. There was always an invasion, a plague, or some oncoming storm that the characters are in a position to possibly stop, with a list of possible steps they could take... and then I let them decide which leads to pursue.

In fact, I like stacking dooms: having three or four rising threats at once.

I hate to use the word "Plot" here. it doesn't get much more complicated than A is coming to ruin your life. You can fight back by doing X, Y, or Z; but to do any of those you are going to have to find a route through the jumble of B-W. Bearing in mind that you can happily wander off into Alpha and Beta and we will see what happens. And in the meantime, A is going to get worse as time passes. But, this is what my players think of it as, because they don't get enough of a view from behind the curtain to see how little there is behind their experience.

Diagram of the Narrative Bumper Pool Concept in
XDM: Extreme Dungeon Mastery by Tracy Hickman
Diagram by Howard Taylor
My old campaigns were never on rails... but to a degree they were like a train station: Each hook they pursued was going to take them along one line with a sequence of branching adventures, that might lead to a big step towards thwarting one or more of the aforementioned dooms.

And sometimes the campaigns went completely off the rail system entirely, with the players thinking of things I have never thought of. And I loved every minute of those moments.

To my players, of course, it always seemed like there was a rich, well-thought-out plot that they were exploring, even when they had started roaming entirely unmapped territory within my game world. And that is what they were coming to me for: A game with a lot of freedom of movement towards a fixed end goal. 

Much like the "Narrative Bumper Pool" structure Tracy Hickman presents in XDM: Extreme Dungeon Mastery.

By opening up my games to a more sandbox-like structure, with fewer pressures on the PCs, I was giving them something they were not used to... and not what they wanted from my games. They could go anywhere and do anything... they could hear rumors and hearsay about dangers on the rise. But I had no corporate assassins or monsters nipping at their heels to push them forward and help them decide which rumors to follow. 

And this gave them two things: disappointment, because they are looking for my plots, and a sense of option paralysis.

What I realized was this: my "plots" have never been sophisticated. For the most part, they have been little other than a sentence or two of fluff backed up by a few encounters. Their function, however has been sophisticated, as it has given the PCs a tool for making decisions where they might otherwise feel adrift.

The Solution

I liked the freedom of plunking a sandbox in front of my players... but that is not what they wanted. And if I want to play, it has to be the game that they are going to enjoy.

Thankfully, my time devouring OSR material has not gone at all to waste on this front. First: I now have faster, lighter games that are easier to hack, and the knowhow to build a custom game to suit my premise in a hurry.

Moreover, I have tools that let me plan more effectively, like the fronts tool from Dungeon World, which give you a scaffold to build on. Or the random setting generators in Pacts & Blades' Salamandur Household

Reducing the cognitive load of creating a campaign is a welcome part of OSR Toolkit that will be a focus of my attention, and I welcome recommendations.

For my home game, I have (again) started from scratch, but dropped invasions, plagues, and undead armies down in session 1. For my test group game, I put a hook in front of them that gives them the leads necessary to control an ancient biomechanicsl war machine the size of a mall in eight steps, and a (false) prophecy of coming conflict. This will give the PCs adventure fuel for at least a few months.  And suddenly, all of my players are talking about the next session and making long-term goals for the campaign.


  1. Your thoughts mimic Matt Colville's video on having a number of Central Tensions in your game. Actions which are busy happening in the world, which the players could get involved in. In my 5e game I used an overarching danger of Tiamat putting her tendrils into day-to-day life with an immediate threat of a goblinoid army on the horizon.

    I like OSR sandbox play but the fact that nothing may actually be happening (i.e. relative peace in the region, which usually seems to be the case) always bugs me. Make danger exist, have NPCs act to the characters in certain ways, make the world alive and maybe a little scary.

  2. Every TV series with a long-term story line has one thing in common - ongoing tension. tension between the characters. City Hall. The Mob. The FBI. Russian hackers. Venezuelan smugglers. Aliens and monsters. Doesn't really matter, just so long as there is a long-term source of tension that the players have to either endure or do something about. Then you slowly crank up the tension until the characters must do something about it, or risk a major loss.

    Just how they go about doing that is the sandbox part of the adventure.

    1. And if you have several separate tension sources, pulling the characters in different directions, that's so much better. The feeling you get when you use one of your antagonists against another is very, very sweet. The anguish of knowing that no matter what you do today, something else is going to get worse tomorrow is also a good motivator, when used in moderation.