I had never intended to wait two weeks before speaking about the poll, though I think I'll leave it up until it's done. Probably there won't be much movement on it after today. I think its funny that there are more people who would be willing to answer a questionaire in order to play than there are actually people interested in playing. A strict sociologist would have set up a number of questions, so I have no one to blame but myself. At the same time the poll answers some questions I've been curious about the last couple of months.
There were a number of problems with the last online campaign, which time and distance have helped me sort out in my head. I'll talk about them below:
1) Pace. The campaign moved very slowly. A single small event could take three to five days, while anything that was bigger in scope would take a month to play out. This was especially poor when nothing really was happening, such as when the party was travelling from place to place. Parties in my experience have a tendency to treat travel in the game as a sort of 'time out,' allowing for random encounters to get in the way and provide a little interest, but not particularly enjoying the whole "go here see this" kind of gaming. Online, this tended to sink into a state of great dullness, with a great deal of work for me as I described this thing, then the next thing, then the thing after that, without much value in it.
2) Missed Opportunities. As a tactic I like to provide a lot of description of things in order to make them seem more real, but if I press hard on this it can slow even an offline game down. I notice that my style of gaming requires players who can recognize clues in the description and act upon them. Such as, if I mention a cliff overlooking the town, it is an opportunity for exploring. If I mention an extended dockside, there are opportunities for smuggling. If the party runs into four of the king's soldiers in a casual situation, at an inn, say, it is an opportunity for doing them some kind of favor in exchange for access. But if the party only sees a cliff, a dockside or four soldiers, and never makes any connection of how they can be turned to the benefit, nothing happens. If players sit on the edge of the box and just look at the sand, or swirl the dry surface with their feet, nothing happens. A player has to dig into the soft, moist sand underneath ... and this often didn't happen in the online campaign.
3) Exhaustion. Between (1) and (2) I felt exhausted before the end of the campaign. I was tired of writing exposition, and I felt like I was going to have to plunk monsters right in front of the party to get others engaged. Problem was, even when I did this, the low level parties would simply move away to avoid getting killed. Which brings us to -
4) Lack of Engagement. I'm not clear why, but it seems too much emphasis was put on survival at first level than upon achievement. I am not opposed to caution, or care, but as I wrote at the time, there seemed to be a great deal of sheer cowardice on the part of many of the players in the campaign. They tended to see their imminent death in every potential action, as though I would simply step up and kill them without warning, on the slightest, silliest provocation.
This may have been the ominous quality I have as DM of presenting things in their harshest, least trustworthy appearance. If I describe a rock face, I'm almost certain to pick words that would suggest that rock face is upon the verge of collapsing any moment. By nature I tend to describe nature in its coldest possible form, since I firmly believe that beauty in nature is a deception we practice in order to hide all the death going on there. Right now, as the leaves begin to turn, people will get into their cars and drive hither and yon about the country to view the spectacular colors death yields ... and very few will remark or even consider it is due to a mass withering. For D&D, I like describing the world as a deadly place. Unfortunately, for the online campaign this seemed to convince people to treat their characters as though they themselves were about to be killed by said rock face.
While it would be interesting to play an online game that included my having Russian hitmen on a payroll who would show up at your house and off you permanently if your online character died, I haven't quite obtained the necessary diplomatic immunity this would entail. So I am, and was at the time, baffled by the degree of irrational cowardice I saw many of the players embrace rather than take a real risk with their character. Playing is a proactive sport.
5) Timing. Without question the more successful campaign was very much aided by the main players having access to their computers between noon and 6 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. The campaign tended to die after 6 p.m., and players who could not get access to their computers except in the evening were hard put to stay 'in the beat' of the campaign's activity. To do so would have required a very rigorous effort to write their actions every day at a set time (say 8 p.m.) so they could be predicted ... but when this wasn't done it proved very inconvenient. For myself, I found that by 9 or 10 p.m. EST I no longer had any interest in the campaign at all that day, and did not want to sit down and write out more description or answers to questions that wouldn't have bothered me to do so earlier in the morning. When I knew that no answer would be immediately forthcoming - as it often was with events during the day, when I could answer a question and expect to get a response within 30 minutes - I just didn't care. And if I left the answer to the next morning, then I wouldn't hear from the evening person until 9 or 10 that night, if at all that day. This was absolutely brutal in the Greek campaign, and was certainly the reason for its death.
6) Lack of Purpose. I made the error at the beginning of all the campaigns in thinking that if I offered the new players an opportunity to pick their point of origin in my world, they would pick places they knew very well, and for which they would have specific goals in mind. For example, if I were asked what part of my existing world I would like to start in, I think I would ask to begin in Dalmatia, on the east shore of the Adriatic Sea. I would venture into the mountains there to kill or slaughter whatever beasts presented themselves, and probably the Turkish overlords as well, in order to raise the capital to purchase a ship in Ragusa; I would take steps to be recognized by Ragusa, Venice or Genoa as a trader, with merchant access to one of those cities, and then turn pirate to plunder whatever Ottoman shipping I could. I'd choose an island in Greece as a haven, slowly raising capital until I had enough to purchase a immense collection of books, which I would steadily have moved to Oslo or Sweden, with the intent to begin a great university there and to become a player in the government there. Why those places? I don't know, exactly. It just sounds like fun.
I wouldn't expect anyone to live out my fantasies. But I presumed that if a player wanted to start in any particular place, they would know the place well and begin moving towards improving their lot in life with their knowledge. This did not prove to be the case. Players tended to remain very passive, waiting for something to happen, which I then created in order to showcase some of my running styles. I showed how first levels could be pulled into a huge magical conflagration without killing them; I presented enemies which were not insurmountable foes; I created a quest that did not require entering a dungeon and getting a bauble; I set up factions and put the players in the middle. Most of the time this was a dismal failure.
Of course I blame myself, but only because I yielded and attempted to set up circumstances in which the players would play. I should have let them sit there at the Inn for months. The more I pampered them, the more they failed to create their own scenarios or move after their own dreams. It is hard not to railroad when the players sit and wait for you to build the tracks.
These, then, where the worst problems. Personality conflicts occurred, but these are inevitable. The principle missing element was ambition. Offline, this can be accepted for awhile, and handled more easily. Online, with the game experiencing a necessary isolation, it was absolutely intolerable. Eventually it destroyed my interest in playing.
I wouldn't be interested in playing with a group of people who wanted to try things for a few weeks and then quit. The problem here IS the slowness of the campaign. It takes six weeks to accomplish which might be covered in one three hour session. If you see yourself playing four 6-hour sessions to get a good idea of what a person's world is, that's a year online.
Now, who wants to change their mind?