Friday, December 19, 2008

Man: 0, Dungeon: 1

I believe the phrase is “Missed it by that much.”

And thus ended the career of my thief after some fifteen months of running him through the various twists and turns of the campaign. Overwhelmed by gnolls, he died in a back alley of an abandoned dwarven city, his head caved in by a gnoll’s morning star after falling unconscious under their combined attacks. He gave it his best, managing to bring down two of his three opponents before he succumbed to his wounds. Before he died, he managed to learn much about the goings-on in the dungeon, uncovered the hidden lords of the dungeon, and managed to discern the location of the magical key that would open the secured treasure caches scattered throughout the level.

It was a very close match right up to the end. As is often the case in D&D, had the dice gone another way on two occasions (confirming two possible critical hits), he might have achieved his goal. But it was not to be. Now I find myself characterless and the rest of the party remains boxed in, a fate made grimmer because they now lack the magical gee-gaw to access the guarded magical key. A situation which I’m truly sorry to be the cause of.

I’ve had a few days to ruminate upon the demise of my character and in that time I’ve come to a few conclusions that I’d like to touch on now. I think I’ve learned a little something from the experience that might be useful to others and this is as good of an opportunity to share as any. Surprisingly, what I’ve learned in not “don’t get yourself surrounded in an alley by angry gnolls.” That I thought I already knew. Instead, I’ve had another insight into the nature of myself as a player and the hidden dangers of a too-successful campaign.

In looking back at the events that lead of to my thief’s death, I’ve noticed that a pattern had developed with the way I was running him most recently, as compared to the way I played him earlier on. In the past few months, I had grown a little bolder and a lot less cautious in the decisions that I had him make. While I’ve always played him as being more than willing to place himself at risk, the most recent game sessions have had a few moments when those risks were slightly higher with less margin for error. And while he was always a pleasure to run, I see that there was a lot less emphasis placed on actually role-playing him with the funny voice and whimsical gypsy expressions that I’d used in the past. I didn’t put much thought in this at the time, but now I’m beginning to suspect something.

I remember once reading in an issue of Dragon magazine that the average shelf-life of a campaign is about 18 months. At the time I thought that that number was rather arbitrary, seeing how many campaign are lucky to survive eight months, let alone eighteen. I also believed that, with a good enough DM, a campaign could survive decades of constant play. After all, hadn’t the campaigns of Gary and Dave lasted much longer than eighteen months? Players came and went sure, but the campaign lived on. But now I’m beginning to think that that 18 month average might be closer to the ballpark than originally believed.

The nature of this stems from the fact that most people, while abhorring change, do like variety in their lives. This desire for variety can vary from person-to-person, and from subject matter-to-subject matter. After all, one hopes that the desire for a change from time-to-time doesn’t apply to their marriages, children or career, but still looks to have some choices in what they eat for dinner each night. And role-playing games hopefully fall into a category of importance more similar to dinner options than marriage and children. As such, it’s not so surprising that the same character played on a regular basis can begin to lose its “new character smell” after awhile and begin breeding the contempt that accompanies familiarity. This is especially true when the character begins to reach the doldrums of mid-level, a place where the attainment of a new level and all the neat new abilities that accompany such an accomplishment are separated by wider gulfs of experience points. The desire to switch things up, whether it is a new character, a new campaign, or even a completely different game setting begins to creep in. This is not to say that every game is subject to this, but I’m willing to bet that it happens more often than not.

In the wild and woolly days of D&D, I don’t think that this campaign creep was as prevalent as it is today. In the days of yore, it was more common for a player to have a stable of characters to draw from and the more open nature of the dungeon “just outside of town” meant that if Bill had a bad day at the office and felt more like running Blood-Axe Skullcrusher than Medius, the Wizard Wise, it was a small matter to pull out Blood-Axe and let him crack some heads, thus letting Ol’ Bill blow off some steam via imaginary violence.

Even the DM got a break from time-to-time back then. In the beginning, it was not uncommon for gaming groups to have revolving referees, allowing the DM a chance to recharge his batteries on the other side of the screen while another took up the slack. In many of these cases, the players didn’t even need to roll new characters. The new DM just cooked up a magic portal to whisk them away to his campaign for the duration of his time at the helm and provided them a way back to the original game setting when the first DM was ready to take over again. In the case of the original Mid-West gaming groups, the players didn’t even need to leave the campaign world or even the dungeon they had been exploring. It was the same setting, just a different DM.

This is no longer the standard and I feel that the game and its participants have lost a little something because of it. Most campaigns have become little more than extremely extended “one-shot” games. Because the overall storyline has taken center stage, the players lose the ability to swap in and out characters as their moods and whims desire. They must march lockstep towards the conclusion of the overall story, if only to maintain some sort of continuity to the preceding chapters. Even introducing a new player and his character becomes something of a mangled and hand-waved event as the players and DM attempt to rationalize why this guy suddenly shows up midway into their quest to defeat the Lich Duke of Upper Provenus is accepted without question, rather than riddled with arrows on the suspicion that he’s a spy for the Lich Duke. The only real time that a change in characters can occur without such heavy-handed glossing over occurs when the story reaches its conclusion or one of the characters dies.

What has occurred to me over the last few nights is that my change in the way I was playing my thief was nothing more than “character fatigue” accompanied by the unconscious urge to remove him from the game, allowing me to replace him with a new character that I might get more joy out of playing. A form of fantasy role-playing “suicide by cop” if you will. Because I was consciously unaware that I was looking for a change, I wasn’t able to address this issue with my DM and work out another solution, something which I’ve done in the past. Fifteen months is a long time to spend three Saturdays a month with, especially when that relationship is as one-sided as the one shared between a character and his player.

As it stands right now, I’m not sure what I’m going to replace my thief with. I do have an older character available in the campaign world, one which I had a lot of fun playing in the past, but I’m not sure if revisiting old ground is going to be enough to keep my interest piqued for another 15 months of gaming. It might be best to start from the scratch, but I have nothing in mind that screams out to be played at the moment. I have some time to think about this with the holidays approaching and the “in game” time that must pass before bringing in a new character, and a period of downtime might just be what I need to rekindle my fire before jumping back in.

The above observations should in no way be interpreted as either a critique on my DM or an attempt to downplay my failure to keep my character alive during the solo session. I’m not trying to be passive-aggressive or justify the reason I lost a character. It is merely an attempt to come to terms with reasons begind my own subconscious attitude change and an observation on the way the nature of role-playing has changed over the years. I hope to take both of these realizations into account when it comes time to open Ol’ Nameless for its first customers.

Right now, after this satori I’m almost convinced that I’ll be using Sham’s entourage method in the initial forays into the dungeon. Failing that, Jeff Rients’ plan for his Labyrinth Lord dungeon crawl is a close second. Both of these methods look to be quite viable as a way to combat character fatigue, but in order to work best they’re something that needs to be introduced at the very beginning of the campaign, rather than shoehorned in at a later period. They’re both rooted deeply in the old-school and, since that’s the style I hope to convey with Ol’ Nameless, they should work just fine.


Vanadorn said...

I agree with you Mike.

Jeff (my cousin) has his characters (who run the gamut from 14th to 23rd - they use the original 1st edition rules btw) of which I believe there are 6 players around the table - they all have henchmen/adjuncts that they "attracted" at Name level - and they take them with them on the dungeon crawls/adventures/town clearings.

Anyone can "swap" out to their hirelings if they want, making that guy take center stage - and the "main" character is then swept into the DM's pile and placed on auto pilot. Obviously the 15th level mage is not as effective when the DM has him on autofollow - but the player is having a blast using the 11th level ranger for that session.

IN fact, this became such a wild and fun thing, that his group has split into two adventuring parties - there is the main one under Baron Brand (Vic) that follows the story and the grand sweeping tale of ridding the barony of evil and goblin hordes and righting the wrong to the populace - and there is a second group of adventurers - which were all lower level henchmen but now banded together who beat up the monster haven, or fort, or take a magical gate to medieval/fantastic Aztec-land and beat up monsters there and engage in the spice trade.

Obviously they play a bit more than we do (every Sunday, 3 PM to 11 PM) as well as the play by email as time allows during the week, so their characters have nailed the name level and henchmen already while we are just dribbling into the gulf that makes up 4-8th level (which is a sweet spot to actually be an adventurer - but as you indicated, the meteoric rise in XP/level advancement does trail off).

Just keep an open dialogue with me Mike and I'm sure we can come up with something good and golden. :) And besides, you will have the opportunity to take over Amal, the last of the wildly suicidal orcish axe-swinging fighters for a bit - and nothing makes you feel as good as skull whacking an armored gnoll and hitting the bastage on a rolled "8" on your d20.

Talk with you Saturday!

Michael S/Chgowiz said...

Thanks for sharing this, it's good to think about this.

I'm going to be running my Dark Ages campaign with that in mind - that people may want to switch characters, people may drop in/out. Given that the story is player-driven (ala West Marches), this will hopefully lessen the fatigue and allow fresh new characters to come in. After all, if six months ago, the intrepid party of 1st levelers cleared out the Goblin caves, who knows who's moved in since...

James Maliszewski said...

Another excellent post filled with terrific insights.

Mr Baron said...

Solid post. I like your comment on the 18 month campaign. My last campaign went about 18 months, and I will be starting another one later in 2009. This idea that campaigns run out of steam after 18 months will probably influence how I set this up.

Michael Curtis said...

Thank you, all.

I've have to state that I don't believe that the 18-month cap is a firm timelimit to a campaign. I do think that it is the limit of tolerance for running the same character in one, however. The campaign itself can continue for a much longer time if the players have the option of switching characters up from time to time within the campaign to allow them to shake off any staleness that comes with constantly playing the same role over and over again. Nowadays, this option isn't as common as it used to be and I think that, speaking from my own personal experience, it's something that we should begin to bring back into our individual games.