Thursday, September 5, 2013


I was wondering about games that go 'stale,' and what to do about them.

Games get frustrating, sometimes. Occasionally it's hard to get an image across, to make it clear where characters physically stand in relationship to one another, particularly if a combat hasn't happened and the distances are too large to justify a battle map. Sometimes a word or two here or there will get someone on the wrong track. It happens. It's no big deal. I fixed a large whiteboard to the wall above where I run, and I have found that terrifically useful for quickly explaining everyone's position in a few dozen seconds (which doesn't work online, unfortunately).

And a game gets difficult. There's too much to manage in too short a time, either with combat, or with herding the party like cats in a given direction; sometimes its just trying to relay information that the party might not have much grounding in. My online party recently woke up a king who has been sleeping since the 8th century, and much of the roleplaying recently has been 1) what the king thinks of this incredibly modern 17th century world, and 2) references the king makes to the world in the 8th century - placenames, regions, countries, people, etc. Making that play well for the party, who looks at one another confused when the king simply can't explain where something is except to repeat names the party has never heard (and which exist now exactly nowhere) has occasionally been challenging.

Stale is something else. It's no longer fresh or much fun; the motivation is gone. The party has been at this thing for months and it's just ... too much.

There are a number of things that contribute to staleness in a campaign. Compelling a party to follow through with a quest until it is done, and giving them no choice about it. A massive battle that just doesn't seem to end. A monumental task that just seems to go on, and on. Anything repetitive.

I recently caught someone making a comment somewhere - it doesn't matter, it's an opinion that is expressed often enough - that he did not feel his characters were anything except convenient constructs, he didn't understand people who thought of them any other way, and didn't run his campaign in any manner that encouraged sentimentality.

I wondered at the time how he got around that pesky human nature thing.

We identify with everything. We view with fictional characters we've seen for less than an hour with sentimentality (its called a 'movie'), causing us to miss them when they die. These are characters over which we have no control. We sentimentalize stuffed animals, cell phones, little objects that fall off things after they've rolled around on the floor of the car for a few months or a year, the shape of a rotting fencepost in the back yard, the curb where we caught the pedal of our bike when we were 9 and had our first real accident, the supermarket that used to be in the next county but is now just a big flat concrete slab with weeds growing through it ... literally everything. These things have life for us. We look at that slab and are affected - and we didn't even shop at that dumb supermarket. It's just that our mother used to shop there to buy some dumb thing, driving an extra hour so you could sit in the car and wait for her. But now that supermarket is gone, and it's sad.

So how can people be so stupid not to think that people would sentimentalize their characters? Characters whom they have directed, designed, rewritten, named and struggled to keep alive ... which required only about a hundred times more effort than that ridiculous cup where you keep your toothbrushes, the same cup you'd scream about if someone spontaneously decided you needed a replacement for.

We get attached to things. Why?

To begin with, we invest in them. That stuffed animal kept you company when you were four and afraid of the dark. That's the cellphone you had when you heard on it that your daughter had been born. That knob that was on the floor of your car, but now for no particular reason you keep in your toolbox, was broken off by the girl you lost your virginity with 18 years ago. The fencepost is a reminder that this is your property, the property that you own, and it has a strange place in your heart because you remember sinking it into its place by yourself. The curb reminds you how much bigger you are now than when you were nine. We were there. We saw those things. And even if they hurt and were a lot of work or they otherwise don't have any purpose now, that doesn't matter. In fact, it matters more because there was a lot of effort and pain involved.

So, stale campaigns. They come in two types. The first is where the DM imposes that unending, grinding dullness. Where the party is just so bloody tired of this miserable purposeless going-through-the-motions nightmare that they eventually reach a point of endurance failure, ending their involvement with that campaign. They're not invested, they're just doing what comes next, and this particular goddamn thing just went on too long. The DM asked too much. Can we please, for the love of dead puppies, end this thing?

And then there is the other kind of 'stale' campaign. Where it isn't stale because someone made a campaign that's a bit dull. This campaign is stale because the party has decided to do a particular thing, and doing that particular thing isn't going to be pleasant, it isn't going to be fun, and its going to take a long, long time.

Have you never done anything like that?

I have written a number of books. I have published one myself, and I am working on others that I've already written, but which are not now good enough to publish, in my opinion.

I freaking hate these books. To put it clearly, if I met these books in a bar, not only would I look at them with a mean look in my eyes, I would grab them, drag them outside, beat the living shit out of them and then drown their motherfucking asses in a pothole full of water mixed with mud and piss.

That doesn't mean I'm going to stop working on them. Because I am. Because that is what it means to work on something you care about. It's hard. It's unpleasant. Getting the thing done sticks in your craw and you can't be happy as long as its not done. When it is done, you're satisfied like nothing else in the world can satisfy you. That sort of task, no one can plan for you. No one can design for you. It's simply not possible.

Look at the features of your life that matter, and ask yourself if there's a pre-fab module or adventure that can duplicate this idea. Ask yourself if a DM ought to view this sort of thing as something that needs to be 'jump started' to make it more exciting and interesting. Because, in reality, it is the staleness that offers the insanely gratifying pay-off that's bound to come later.

I don't think that a DM can make this sort of adventure. I think this is the kind of thing that can only occur organically. And I think it is a FAR, FAR better campaign when this sort of thing does happen, for it produces an investment in character and motivation that is utterly unmatched by anything that a third party can slap together.

Sometimes, people just want to grit their teeth, and the worst thing you can do is bother them. It helps to understand pyschologically when and how this occurs.

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