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Keeping Kosher

Staying Fresh

by Walt Ciechanowski
Jun 07,2005


Keeping Kosher

By Walt Ciechanowski

Staying Fresh

It's been a while since my last column. Truth be told, I have about a dozen unfinished columns on my hard drive, many of them variations or expansions of earlier topics. I was having a really rough time trying to find something new or fresh to say, something I just hadn't touched on before. And then it hit me.

Why don't I talk about keeping campaigns fresh?

I've run quite a few "long term" (that is, more than ten adventures long) campaigns. One of the problems I frequently encounter after a few weeks of running is the "freshness" issue. Great ideas that form the basis for a new campaign just start to get old after a while. Going after that first supervillain team is new and exciting. Going after that second supervillain team may still be exciting, but by the time you go after the third supervillain team things start to get tedious.

A related problem is "premise attrition" (there I go coining terms again!). This occurs when the premise for the campaign starts to crumble as the campaign goes on. A typical example is the "skeptic" campaign common among modern games. In the "skeptic" campaign, players make characters that have no knowledge of aliens, the occult, the supernatural, etc. and are expected to play their characters as unbelievers. While this works perfectly for the initial adventures, it's hard to keep the skepticism going as PCs find themselves confronted with the demon-of-the-week every adventure. Unless the GM works hard to make the unnatural seem coincidental, the PCs will quickly become parodies of themselves if they try to continue denying common sense.

The obvious answer for when a GM finds her campaign getting stale or moving away from the initial premise is to end the campaign. Unfortunately, this is often not really an option. The GM and players may be enjoying the current campaign too much to simply let it go. There may be an ongoing story arc that needs resolution and just can't be forced. The GM may have spent $120 on books and wants to get more than a few weeks of play out of them.

Assuming that the GM won't end her campaign, there is another danger that she must look out for. In my time, I've seen many GMs, myself included, try to do something drastic to "freshen things up" and instead take the game off into a different direction. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, it will upset anyone who was enjoying the original premise or felt that the original premise still had untapped potential. Let's look at an example.

The GM creates a modern campaign where the players are typical police investigators in a big city. During the course of their investigations, strange deaths start occurring that are involving the same circles of suspects. One player actually shot someone dead who seems to have gotten better. And why does United Chemicals, Inc. seem to have so much clout? After a few sessions of teasing the players with more questions but no firm answers, the GM notes that the players are growing restless. They are tired of dancing around the conspiracy. Thinking fast, the GM creates a new adventure where a benevolent alien contacts the PCs. She tells them that their city has been infiltrated by a group of alien scientists that are trying to test humanity's resolve against a variety of bio-chemical weapons. She wants to help them, so she gives them some alien equipment to help them raid a United Chemicals warehouse. Suddenly, the campaign is no longer about a secret conspiracy. Now, the PCs are Black Ops agents using alien tech to wipe out the bad guys every week. The tone of the campaign has been altered and there's no going back.

The following are some ideas that I've used in the past to help keep a campaign fresh without destroying the original premise. While premise attrition may be inevitable, I hope some of these ideas will help you forestall it.

Take a break. Oddly enough, this is a simple solution that is often overlooked. We get so entrenched in our gaming schedules that we forget that it's okay to skip a session every once in a while. Sometimes you just need a little more time to recharge your batteries.

If the group still wants to meet, try doing or playing something else (one great idea is to watch a television episode or movie that reflects the premise of your campaign). Make sure everybody understands before they come that this won't be a typical gaming night so that those who would be inconvenienced can make alternative plans. If you do decide to try another game, create the characters beforehand so that you can get started playing.

As a word of caution, don't make your "filler" game run for more than a session or two. Otherwise, you or the players may become emotionally invested in the filler game and may cause a conflict with returning to the old game.

A Day in the Life
Many PCs have recurring subplots. Sometimes these are part of the character sheet and sometimes they are developed during play. Usually, these subplots run parallel with the main plot, only advancing when it doesn't get in the way. This makes sense, as players generally aren't emotionally invested in the subplots of other PCs. On the flip side, some players may be frustrated that their personal subplots aren't advancing because the main plot has been taking up too much time.

One interesting thing you can do with the players is have an adventure where there is no main plot. Instead, the adventure is dedicated to advancing PC subplots. Players can get involved in each other's subplots as they wish, but they also have opportunities to advance their own.

Reflections and Consequences
What is it really like to be a lawyer by day, superhero by night? How does a police investigator write reports that satisfy his ethical standards while refraining from mentioning vampires? What do the PCs tell the relatives of a fallen comrade at her funeral?

In this scenario, the GM reinforces the premise of her campaign by examining the consequences of the PCs actions and their impact on the rest of the world? This scenario is a reality check for the players, reminding them of what the campaign is supposed to be about.

Another Point of View
So your PCs have seen one too many demons to remain skeptics? Freshen things up by having an NPC tag along that is still skeptical. Now the tables are turned and the PCs have to convince the NPC of the supernatural without him getting killed due to ignorance.

While a player could fill this role if he was bringing in a new character, it would not be nearly as much fun (the player would have a tendency to make the leap from skeptic to true believer much too quickly). Since the NPC is under the GM's control, the GM can easily make the NPC avoid situations where he would be directly confronted with the supernatural (or aliens, etc.). The NPC may also be wondering why the PCs are acting so oddly over routine investigations. This scenario works well with the Scooby Doo scenario described below, as the PCs become frustrated trying to "convert" the NPC during mundane adventures.

The Scooby Doo Scenario
The basic premise of the classic Scooby Doo cartoons is that the protagonists come across what appears to be a preternatural event, only to reveal a perfectly (if not completely logically) mundane villain in the end.

If you're running a modern game with occult or alien elements, be sure to pepper your campaign with mundane adventures. This keeps "premise attrition" at bay. It makes far more sense to remain skeptical if only every third adventure contains a hint of the supernatural, rather than facing a demon every week.

The Homage
One sign of a stale campaign is the tendency of a recurring villain to show up way too often (I've actually witnessed a campaign where the chief villain of every single adventure was the same foe). Not only does this become repetitive, but the mystique of a villain tends to lessen every time she shows back up (for you Star Trek fans, think of how frightening the Borg seemed to be in "Q Who" versus their later appearances in Star Trek: Voyager).

An interesting variant on this is the Homage villain. This villain uses the same techniques as another villain, but is slightly different. Part of the fun for the players is realizing this difference in techniques. This works especially well if the original villain is cooling his heels in prison, has died, or has sworn off being evil.

Another variant on this is the Homage vigilante. This is an NPC who idolizes a particular PC and has decided to join his cause. (An episode of the short-lived Flash television series used this premise, as a fan of a retired superhero borrowed his identity). Unfortunately, the NPC is tarnishing the PC's image (for example, a "tough guy" PC learns that an NPC is not only roughing up villains, but literally beating them to death for even the roughest infractions). This also works in more mundane campaigns, as an NPC who follows the exploits of a police investigator ensures that all suspects captured get assassinated on the way to the court house.

Keeping Kosher
Hopefully, I've given you a few ideas on how to freshen up your games without losing the original premise. I'd be happy to hear of more, if you have them.

Good Gaming!

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