A Short Campaign History; What have we learned so far?

Rise of the Runelords had been good fun as well as being a great introduction to running an adventure path, and using the 3.5 + Pathfinder RPG Alpha rules system. I’ll try my best to summarize the problems we ran into, and some possible solutions.

  • The rules system’s strengths are not in character development. The mechanics don’t really support things like personality, or ethical and moral dilemmas. On the other hand, the so called combat engine of the system is quite elaborate and supports the kind of game where the character’s combat prowess develops exponentially. The main source of entertainment of character building arises from the existence of a near infinite number of possible power combos. In order to play a game that emphasizes the first kind of character development it should be at the expense of the second kind, ergo, you’ll have to hand waive a lot of the nitty-gritty of the combat engine.
  • Group composition is integral to an enjoyable gaming experience, especially when running a pre-constructed module. If you give your players free reign at character creation, you might end up with a group that won’t survive the modules.
  • Character backgrounds are essential. The group should have reasons for working together from one adventure to the next. The “a mysterious stranger you met at a tavern hands you a treasure map” -approach just won’t work more than once. Preferably the groups should be constructed with linked backgrounds (how much linking is up to personal tastes), and the adventures themselves should contain numerous character hooks to keep the group motivated and on course.
  • Some emphasis should be placed on between-games upkeep. This goes double for long-running campaign, where the players need to be able to backtrack. Otherwise you’ll have the players asking the same questions over and over: “So, who’s this guy again, where did we meet him, and why are we interested in the fate of these villagers?” Regular re-caps of past events, campaign journals, and character bio’s are all great tools for keeping the players invested in the campaign arch.
  • You need to work out with your players just what kind of game you’re running. This is called a gamers’ social contract. Write a list of questions and get the group together to discuss. Some possible questions: Is the game about fighting monsters, and building unstoppable killing machines? Or is it about character personalities, and personal odysseys? Is the emphasis on the story or on the character? What kind of power curve do you want in your game? Is there magic and magic items aplenty in your game world, or is magic rare? Is it a sandbox-type game, or are the characters supposed to focus on the main plot-line as much as possible?
  • Make sure your group of players gets along and is interested in playing the same kind of game. Your campaign won’t survive if Player One constantly whines about his/her character not being powerful enough, Player Two constantly power games and argues rules issues, Player Three has his character constantly off doing something not related to the main plot the other characters are following, and Player Four thinks Players One, Two, and Three are complete dickwads with whom he/she wouldn’t be caught dead in a public place.

Next up, more campaign stuff.

A Short Campaign History; Red Box to Pathfinder RPG, part 3

It took a while for me to get back on the horse after Varjosuot and Verikosto, two 3.5-campaign which had both failed to some extent for pretty much the same reasons. What brought me back was the immense hype generated by Paizo Publishings new 3.5-derivative game Pathfinder to be released in about a year, and the Pathfinder Adventure Path Rise of the Runelords. The RotRL material was captivating, interesting and well written and inspired me to take a plunge into the thus uncharted territory of running campaign material created by someone else. I got together a group of four players, gave them pretty much a free hand to create any kind of characters they wanted, prepped up on the material and started running games. The Pathfinder RPG was at that point in the alpha playtest stage, so for the sake of playtesting we played the rules system and the modules pretty much as written. Starting out, we had a great time exploring the possibilities and learning the system. The characters had real depth and strength of personality. The combats were entertaining and exiting.

The campaign ran without any major hick-ups for about half a dozen sessions. At this point we started noticing that the characters weren’t really meshing, working together effectively as a group, or even getting along half of the time. Players with strong personalities and competitive mindsets started getting on each others’ nerves due to characters with low charisma or opposed alignments being played in a character immersive way.

From a rules point of view the group composition was less than ideal with a monk, two rangers and a barbarian. This particular group was all about front-loaded damage dealing with little or non-existent magical back-up. This pretty much meant they were doing ok as long as they came up against foes using the same arsenal. By the end of book two of the adventure path, however, the villains were getting beefier and bigger by the encounter, which was causing the group to loose on their own turf without any kind of back-ups for alternate solutions to the problems presented. Looking at book three and four (ogres, trolls, ettins, giants and dragons) I thought to myself, there’s just no fucking way this group will get through even half of these without taking several severe beatings and suffering character deaths.

So what we did was this: Reboot the whole campaign starting at book three, create new characters with a stronger group composition in mind and continue from there. Around this time one of my players dropped out and got replaced by a new player. We played Rise of the Runelords book three for a few sessions with this new group of characters, but soon realized the problems didn’t go away. We were still butting egos’, and running head first into rough and tumble combat encounters. The module was also getting increasingly combat-heavy with ogres, more ogres, and stone giants. It was getting old really fast. Eventually we decided to call it a day for Rise of the Runelords and moved on to other campaigns.