Wednesday 25 November 2009

Why Your RPG Campaign Sucks

Since I started throwing dice, I’ve been involved in God knows how many RPG campaigns and leagues. And, without fail, every single one of them has just stopped. They never ended; they just stopped. The most common reason for this was because the GM (including myself, where appropriate) couldn’t be bothered any more. The principal reason for this is very simple – most gamers take their games way too seriously.

Gamers, being overly obsessive compulsive nerds, for the most part, are determined to do everything as big, epic and mind-blowing as possible. They’ll map out entire cities (even countries) for their fantasy campaign, devise scheming political factions for their sci-fi campaign, and create a rich backstory for their superhero campaign – but the fact is that all this is unnecessary.

There are very few role-players out there hardcore enough to want to dedicate one night of the week, every week, so that they can fart around in your Sword of Truth/Games of Thrones/Wheel of Time size fantasy epic. If there are, I’m sure they’ve got their own little dank corner of the Internet to reside in. You can spend hours filling out the factions within the local lord’s castle...but the fact is that all that your friends really want to do is kill some orcs.

It’s said time and time again by every game commentator, and in the introduction to every single rulebook, that role-playing is an adult’s version of “let’s pretend”. You’re supposed to be having fun, and play acting like a little kid. This is something that gets said almost as much as it gets ignored. So, let’s re-word it, and see if that works:

Playing an RPG should make you feel like playing with action figures did when you were a kid.

This works because every kid has done it. We all had action figures, be they Action Man, Optimus Prime or a Mighty Morphin Power Ranger. And not one of the games we played back then were epic, sweeping, complex mythologies. They were fun, blasting slices of Saturday Morning Cartoon action!

This has come up time and time again when organising stuff for my gaming group. I start to think to myself “Hey, wouldn’t it be great if we had an epic fantasy RPG game to play? D&D or Warhammer RP, Conan, something like that? We could do really epic quests and stuff!”

But the fact is, there isn’t a single thing that my gaming group would want to do in a fantasy game that they can’t already do in Descent. That’s a game that centres around picking characters, going into a dungeon, and killing the buggery out of some monsters. You don’t keep the same characters, you don’t level up, you don’t have to worry about motivation, or alignment, or any of that crap. You have to worry about coming to my house, playing with my toy soldiers, and having a bloody good time, and we do it all again the next day or the next week, or whenever.

This isn’t just limited to the fantasy genre. The number of times I’ve sat down and thought to myself “Hey, wouldn’t it be great if I started up a league for Nuthin’ But Net...”, and it never happens. The reason it never happens is that I spend so much time planning the league, how it would work, how trades or star players would factor, etc., that I keep forgetting to do the most important bit: ACTUALLY PLAY THE GAME. Wouldn’t it actually be much more in keeping with the spirit of gaming to get together, and actually play the game, rather than worrying about tracking some league that no-one will really give a shit about?

Think about the games your group is playing at the moment – the Hot Five. Are any of them on-going campaign driven? If so, are they in the minority compared to those one-shot games that involve just getting down and playing? And which of these do you most look forward to?

What’s I’m saying here is don’t let your gaming group become that book you never got around to writing. If you can capture that who-gives-a-shit-let’s-just-play attitude you had when you were dicking around with He-Man and Skeletor on the living room floor, or slamming your wrestling figures into each other with your friends from school, then you’ll have managed to get back to the essence of what gaming is supposed to be.


  1. While I appreciate what you're saying here, Brad, it's the campaign element and the actual ACTING part of role-playing that appeals to me with these kind of games. I realise that I may be alone here in a sea of people who would rather just brutally murder some orcs.

    To be honest, if you take away the campaign elements and the actual ROLE-PLAYING, well, I'd rather just play Scrabble or Chess than a game that takes four hours to set-up.

  2. You may not have noticed, Brad, but I'm the only player in our group who actually acts in character when playing Descent or Arkham Horror. I figure those little cards with your character on them aren't just plain white with a list of numbers on them for a REASON.
    It's a minimal amount of role-playing, sure, but I'll take what I can get.