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Time for a Game-Changer

This past weekend, my local D&D 4E campaign came to an end.  It wasn’t a lack of time or scheduling issues which ended the campaign, nor did bickering among the players, or a character-based inter-party conflict behind the end of my attempt to “upgrade” the Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil to D&D 4E.  In fact, it had nothing to do with the players at all – as Dungeon Master, it was I who ended the campaign, and it was done simply because I was unhappy with the current version of Dungeons & Dragons.

Now some of you who have read my blogs before know that I am a big 4E proponent, and that I actually run two campaigns – one locally in Michigan (now ended) and one with my old college buddies in Ohio.  Interestingly enough, the campaign in Toledo is still going strong, and has plenty of momentum to push it through the Paragon Tier and up into Epic over the next year or so.  There characters and party dynamics are developing nicely, and they’ve firmly grabbed hold of the storyline to rid the world of the Doombringer cult before it can unleash some kind of cross-dimensional apocalypse.

But with my local group, I never found that “sweet spot” with D&D 4E.  We tried a couple of different campaigns, switched settings to Dark Sun, and even played Gamma World for a while, but 4E never seemed to resonate with most of the folks in the group.  If anything, our stint with Gamma World was the most successful at engaging the players, and we only messed around with that for a couple of session.

It took me a while to figure out what might be the cause of the general player malaise.  I never felt that they truly engaged with their characters or the campaign story, and each session began to feel like we were going through the motions but not really getting the same fulfillment out of the game, that fervor  I felt with my group in Toledo.  It’s not that we didn’t have a good time, but it felt like I spent an awful lot of time on prepping for a game that barely got off the ground each week.  I had even made a personal New Years’ Resolution to do whatever I needed to do to inspire my local group, and spent considerable time these past few weeks pondering what to do to “fix” things.

Then it finally hit me.  Maybe some gaming groups just don’t interact well with D&D 4E.  Perhaps the AEDU power structure and the rather voluminous rules don’t mesh well for what this particular group needs to engage in the game.  Maybe the players don’t need a change of campaign setting so much as they need a game system which matches their play style.

In other words, it was literally time for a game-changer.

New Game – New Rules – New World

I was honestly pretty worried about how the players were going to react when I started my pitch for why we need to not only start a new campaign, but switch to a whole new game system as well.  But I had also concocted a plan which would increase immersion and get the players engaged in the campaign in a way they had never experienced before, so I was confident if they would hear me out, I might get them to consider the idea.

As it turns out, I actually had less to worry about than I thought.  Once I brought up my concerns about the lack of player engagement, I found several heads around the table nodding along with me.  And when I mentioned that I found the Core 4E characters options to be a bit too rigid, and the rules a bit long winded, I had even more agreement.  I also mentioned the feeling that I wasn’t getting the spontaneous play that I used to enjoy as a DM, which I mentioned in a blog a few weeks ago about 4E, and that I longed to return to a system which allowed me, as DM, to just “wing it” from time to time – I really began feeling bounded in by preparing encounters and skill challenges, and I was more of a presenter than a Game Master.  And I told them I wanted the characters to be the driving force in the campaign, and that I had no intention of even bothering creating a story arc – the heroes’ personal goals were going to push the story forward, with no pre-conceived theme to the campaign whatsoever.  This seemed to really resonate with my players, and I had no doubt they were on board for this new campaign!

Once I sensed consensus among my players, I finally told them that I thought we should try an OSR RPG style campaign, however I was loathe to drop back into old edition set of D&D rules.  Instead, I recommended we try Goodman GamesDungeon Crawl Classics, being OSR in style, but with some very cool current “indie game” flair that made the rules really unique.  And I convinced the group that we were going to play it RAW (Rule As Written), with a very random character generation, the “character funnel” where a pack of 0-Level characters (3 per player) would be weeded out by a deadly dungeon to only a few remaining survivors, and no real options for optimization other than what player insight and good role-playing could create.

And lastly, I offered the chance to play in a whole new fantasy world like nothing my gamers had ever experienced before.  And the main reason it would be a whole new world setting is due to the fact that the PLAYERS had not invented it yet!

Genesis by Committee

It dawned on me while I was debating what game system I would switch my game to, I would still need a setting for the campaign as well.  Sure DCC has a setting of sorts already, and I have a myriad of fantasy settings which I’ve bought down through my years of gaming that could work as well.  But I wondered if any of them would really inspire my players, or if the setting might feel good to some but not all of them.

Then it hit me that a way to get the players really engaged in the campaign world was to have them be co-creators in the setting itself!  So I laid down a few foundational concepts for the setting, and let my players ponder where their characters might come from.  Because DCC has strong influences from Howard and Lovecraft, I decided to keep those elements in the setting, with hints of a barbaric world steeped in dangerous ancient magic, and haunted by the horrific spawn of Elder Gods and the Old Ones.  With character racial classes like the Elf, Dwarf, and Halfling, it clearly would be a high fantasy world as well, with creatures and lands which had a Tolkien-esque feel.

To start off, as DM, I would create a large geocentric city-state – it would be a crossroads of cultures, with a seedy and somewhat decadent society.  Almost every fantasy world has a city like that – Shadizar, Lankhmar, Greyhawk, Waterdeep – around which all other lands seem to revolve.  And I’d handle the ancient history and background of the setting once I had an idea what sort of world the players had in mind.  So I tasked each player to pick one of their three 0-level peasants-hoping-to-be-heroes, and tell me about the land they came from.

And I am proud to say that this collaborative effort turned into an instant success!  It quickly became a massive spin-session, with every one of the players coming up with an interesting and inspired land to add to the setting.  Without any prompting they were riffing off each other’s realms with their own suggestions, and I was hard-pressed to type fast enough to capture all the great ideas sparking around the room!  In no time I had plenty of material to start fabricating the setting – a setting which the players could invest themselves and their characters because it was a world which came from them!

So my new campaign is off to a great rolling start, and I’m working hard this week to complete the initial gazetteer for the world.  With a central city-state, and six lands around it to explore, it should be no trouble at all to keep the heroes occupied for a few months.  I’m looking forward to seeing how the campaign evolves and how engaged the players remain over time.  But I think this formula will really work for this gaming group, and through my players creativity and enthusiasm, I feel more inspired to be a DM than I’ve felt in quite a while!

I only hope my players feel the same way after next session when they take their chances on a dungeon designed to kill off half their peasant army!

So until next blog… I wish you Happy Gaming!

About The Author

Michael is an Adept of a Secret Order of Dungeon Masters, and dwells in a hidden realm with his two evil cat-familiars, deep within the Vale of Wolverines, called by some "Michigan". He has been esoterically conjuring D&D Campaigns for nearly a Third of a Century, and has been known to cast ritual blogs concerning Dungeons & Dragons every few days with some regularity. Michael has freelanced for Wizards of the Coast, and writes reviews of D&D and other Role-Playing Game products on EN World News.


4 Responses to “Time for a Game-Changer”

  1. Arcane Springboard says:

    Have you looked at 13th Age? I’ve been playing the preview rules for the last few months and love it. It’s like a great combo of 4e and 2e.

  2. Meghann says:

    One of “his”


  3. @Arcane Springboard – I actually did a pre-release review of 13th AGE on EN World News a few months ago, and I think it is a very cool system. But I was looking for something that was more firmly rooted in an OSR style, and DCC is a bit closer to the OD&D and Expert Set than 13th AGE. I’d will admit that 13th AGE is on my list of games to try if DCCdoesn’t sit well with my group. It’s a bit of trial and error, but at this point it’s my goal to see what inspires and excites their inner role-player to excel!

    @Meghann – oops… sorry Meghann… I committed a pronoun fault didn’t I? Fixed!

  4. Philo Pharynx says:

    I know what you are talking about. I have 4e games that are awesome and work well with the group, and one 4e game I’ve had to call at the end of heroic. It just hits different players in different ways.

    One thing I’ve noticed is that people who are technical-minded tend to work better with 4e than people who are less so. 4e has lots of fiddly bits and some people click with how they interact better.

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