So, I think that in order for you to understand where I am coming from, you need to know a little about my gaming background. That means you need to know about a history of betrayal, regret, abortive beginnings and catastrophic endings. You need to know about my campaigns.
So like most gamers I started as a player. That lasted several years and included some abortive attempts to run a game, usually with laughable results. One notable exception was Traveller, which was successful mainly because of some Talking In Funny Voices, an essential skill for any GM.
Lesson #1 – Talking In Funny Voices is a good skill to have.
As the old group I played with broke up, my remaining fellow players and I had to share the burden of GMing, as the ‘good’ GMs of group were older, and had moved away or left for college. Thus my friends and I were forced to take up more of the burden. This resulted in more and more character creation sessions, and more aborted campaigns. None of us knew what it really took to run a consistent campaign.
It wasn’t until the last two years of high school that I was able to run a ‘successful’ campaign, using the Runequest II rules and set in Glorantha. I have successful in brackets because even though the campaign went on for more than a year, there were plenty of fits and starts in the game. I let one rather pushy player play a giant (you could play monsters in RQ) and the other players complained, eventually fracturing my player base. I stopped the game because eventually no one wanted to play besides the player with the giant and his cronies.
Lesson #2 – Some players always want more power than is good for the campaign.
More time passes, along with some moves of my own, and some more aborted campaigns. There were some successful notes here and there, like the Call of Cthulhu campaign that I played with players who were all much older than me. It worked, and I found that I could do creepy really well. That campaign ended because I moved for a year to another city. By the time 2nd Edition had come out, I had experience under my belt running Call of Cthulhu and other games at Tournaments, and I had more success running year-long games with AD&D2 and Pendragon. In part, my campaigns seemed to work better when I had more discretion about who to play with. As a teenager, you had to take whoever came along, especially if they were ensconced in whatever group or clique you felt the need to belong to. Now I had a car, and I could exercise a lot more control over whom I played with.
Lesson #3 – Play with people you like, and who like you.
In particular, that Pendragon game worked well because I found myself playing to the strengths of my players rather than trying to lead them to areas I found more interesting. I ended that game because I wanted to restart the campaign arc from the beginning.
Lesson #4 – Play to the level of the people you are playing with.
So all throughout the nineties I played many other games, tried to start many other campaigns, some with limited success, some with no success. I had long term campaigns (more than a year) with WFRP 2nd Edition, Runequest III, Traveller: The New Era, Mage The Ascension, Nephilim, and Rolemaster. But generally speaking, none of these games came to a satisfactory conclusion – I was never really able to end a game well. It wasn’t until 2000, after 3.0 of D&D came out, that I realized my error. In many of those games in the previous ten years, I felt the campaigns were untenable because the players were too powerful under the system I was using at the time. That is, there didn’t seem to be anything I could do to adequately challenge the players after a certain point. They were always, by the time I felt the need to end the games, maxed in terms of what the system allowed the players to become. With no challenge, I felt like running scenarios were pointless, if the players were able to walk over any opposition I could throw at them.
Lesson #5 – In a long term campaign, slow advancement is the best advancement.