Sunday, 7 March 2021

Failing better: a GMing retrospective

Ever tried.

Ever failed.

No matter.

Try again.

Fail again.

Fail better.

- Samuel Beckett

Learning to run an RPG, like most things, is mostly about practise. You can read all the theory and advice you like, but fundamentally you learn it by doing it. Bluntly, this means that before you run a really good campaign you're probably going to have to run lots of really bad ones, hopefully getting a little bit better each time. Luckily, the nature of RPGs is such that even a 'bad' campaign should still be a lot of fun as long as everyone approaches it in a spirit of good humour: and each one will inevitably yield lessons for next time, even if it might require a post-mortem chat with your players in order to draw out exactly what they might be.

I've been GMing games for an embarrassingly long time, now: and while I wouldn't claim to be any kind of gamesmastering genius, I've got to the point where I can run a game with little or no preparation and still be pretty confident that both I and my players are likely to have a good time. The last year has really pushed me on this, as I've been running my City of Spires campaign weekly online, alongside a crippling increase in my professional workload that has cut my prep time virtually to zero. Every Wednesday morning I wake up with a sense of dread, remembering that on top of everything else I have to do that day I somehow have to run a game in the evening. Every Wednesday afternoon I seriously consider calling the session off. But every Wednesday night I sit down and log in and everything actually goes fine. There are a lot of reasons for this: I have great players, the campaign is friendly to low-prep play, the system is minimalistic to the point of invisibility, etc. But I think the biggest one is the simple fact that I've had a lot of practise.

I'm not really sure how many campaigns I've run over the years - dozens, probably - but in this post, I'm going to briefly run through ten of the longer-running ones, with a few notes on what worked, what didn't, and what I learned from them. I may not have really succeeded straight away, but I carried on learning and experimenting and I got there in the end. Hopefully this can provide some reassurance to anyone out there currently contemplating the wreckage of their latest campaign: and maybe some of the lessons learned will be useful to someone else, as well!

Campaign 1: Stormbringer (Stormbringer 1st edition)

  • What it was: Not the first campaign I ever ran, but the first one that lasted for more than a few sessions. I ran it as a 12-year-old high on too many Moorcock novels, and I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. It was terrible.
  • What worked: In retrospect, the chargen system gave an early example of how random rolls can generate much more interesting and memorable characters than a bunch of 12-year-olds would ever have come up with unaided. I didn't really appreciate this at the time, though: I just used it because the idea of not following the rules as written genuinely hadn't occurred to me yet. 
  • What didn't: Everything. My idea of encounter design was 'suddenly, seven hawks attack!' There was no story, no role-playing, not even any tactics beyond 'scream and charge and hope the dice are kind'. Characters died in droves. Unsurprisingly, no-one took the whole thing particularly seriously.
  • Lessons learned: Even at the age of 12, it was clear to me that I'd need a more consistent tone and less random character death if an RPG campaign was ever to be more than absurdist black comedy. I didn't have a clear idea of how to achieve that yet, but I tried.

Campaign 2: Heroes of Greydawn (AD&D 2nd edition)

  • What it was: The D&D game that my friends and I played at school as teenagers: one main campaign that ran from level 1 to level 12, plus three side campaigns set in the same world that gave everyone a chance to play different characters for a change. It remains the longest-running game I've ever run: all told, probably well over 600 hours of actual play. Given that (a) I am no longer a teenager and (b) it is no longer the 1990s, I don't really expect to ever run a game this long again. 
  • What worked: Quantity, as the saying goes, has a quality all of its own. This game started with primitive kill-em-all wilderness treks and dungeon bashes, but it ran for so long that it built up its own momentum: lore, narrative, recurring NPCs, and the rest. PCs who started out as blank slates gradually accumulated so much history that by the end of the campaign it was actually quite moving to say goodbye to them.
  • What didn't: My early games were horrible railroads, which simply ran PCs from one scripted encounter to the next, often with heavy hints about the 'right' way to proceed. It took me a long time to finally relax and accept that it was OK for PCs to circumvent encounters, develop creative solutions, cause meaningful change to the campaign world, etc. (A lot of this was forced on me by the levelling process: it's pretty hard to push PCs around when they can teleport, walk through walls, and raise the dead!) 
  • Lessons learned: That the most important thing is just to keep the campaign rolling. That it's OK to let PCs be clever, and awesome, and change the world. That the best games are the ones that don't go the way you expected them to. (This was something I noticed at the time, but it took me many more years to properly internalise it!)

Campaign 3: The Sign of Fourteen (WFRP 1st edition)

  • What it was: The WFRP game we moved onto after deciding we'd 'outgrown' D&D. (We were about 17 at the time.) Started off as an embarrassing exercise in grimdark nonsense masquerading as maturity, but improved greatly as we moved onto the published Enemy Within adventures. (Only parts 1-3, obviously - I wrote my own final chapter!)
  • What worked: The Enemy Within was a triumph, though I don't think I could have run it successfully if I'd been any younger. (Power Behind the Throne really pushed me to my limits - so many NPCs!) In retrospect I think that some of the horror imagery I came up with in my own adventures stands up pretty well, although other parts are pretty cringeworthy. ('And then the skaven eat the babies! GRIIIIIMDAAAARK!')
  • What didn't: Railroading remained a vice to which I frequently succumbed, right down to forcing PCs to sit through villain monologues. I also struggled to write adventures without using combat as a crutch, meaning that players with non-combat-focussed characters were often left without much to do in the inevitable 'suddenly, mutants attack!' scenes.  
  • Lessons learned: This campaign taught me how much could be achieved by maintaining a consistent pattern of mood and imagery, which my previous campaigns had never really had. Running The Enemy Within also served as a crash-course in running investigative adventures, although it wasn't until later that I fully understood why an adventure like Shadows Over Bogenhafen works as well as it does. 

Campaign 4: The Arltree Campaign (Mage: the Ascension 2nd edition)

  • What it was: Like all pretentious teenage roleplayers in the late 1990s, I decided to tried my hand at running a White Wolf game. It was going to be Deep and Meaningful and full of Themes. Unfortunately I wasn't nearly as clever or sophisticated as I thought I was, so it basically ended up being a street-level superhero game, which in retrospect was probably for the best.
  • What worked: This game saw my first fumbling attempts towards character-driven drama, character development, and even PC-NPC romances, which represented quite a milestone for me at the time. The PCs and NPCs were certainly much more vivid and three-dimensional than in any of my previous campaigns. 
  • What didn't: Every attempt to raise the tone above the level of 'pulp action-horror' crashed and burned on the rocks of my limited GMing skills and lack of general life experience. 
  • Lessons learned: This was the campaign that really taught me the value of having a cast of colourful NPCs for the PCs to bounce off. To the extent that it worked as a campaign, it did so largely on the strength of its supporting cast.

Campaign 5: Smoke and Mirrors (Delta Green)

  • What it was: A horribly over-ambitious attempt to run a David Lynch style game of surreal conspiracy horror. It had symbolism. 
  • What worked: The point of the campaign was to transition steadily from reality to surreal nightmare, without ever making clear at exactly which point the PCs had moved from one to the other, and in this I think I was moderately successful.
  • What didn't: The actual game. I had a head full of scenes and symbols and metaphors and I was going to use them, damn it, with the result that most of the campaign was a massive railroad from one symbolic set-piece to another. In retrospect I would probably have been better off just writing it as fiction, instead. 
  • Lessons learned: Your set-pieces are never going to be as cool as you think they are. If the PCs aren't making real choices then there's no point in playing an RPG!

Campaign 6: To the Ends of the Earth (Exalted 1st edition)

  • What it was: An attempt to run a properly open-world fantasy epic, with the PCs as reincarnated kung fu heroes on a mission from God to save the world. Go anywhere! Do anything! Kick people in the face!
  • What worked: Breaking away from D&D-style fantasy into epic-scale anime-fantasy mythic weirdness was very creatively liberating, and I'm still quite proud of some of the fantasy imagery I came up with for this one. 
  • What didn't: I was simply not prepared for the level of power and agency the PCs brought to the campaign, meaning that most of my epic villains turned out to be paper tigers. The system was also an absolute nightmare in terms of complexity: I'd spend ages statting out each NPC, only to have the PCs splatter them in a couple of combat rounds. The campaign ultimately became so unsatisfying that we abandoned it in mid-adventure - the only campaign of all those listed here to come to such an ignominious end.
  • Lessons learned: This campaign taught me an important lesson about the limits of my tolerance for complex systems, starting me on the long slide towards minimalism that ultimately brought me to OSR D&D. It also taught me to recognise that giving PCs certain kinds of agency over the campaign world can actually make the game less fun for everyone, pushing me towards an interest in lower-powered games. 

Campaign 7: The Red Queen (Vampire: the Requiem 1st edition)

  • What it was: A tightly-contained vampire game dealing with one mystery, in one city, over the course of about fifteen sessions.
  • What worked: Almost everything. This was the first campaign where, at the end, I was able to look back and think that everything had gone pretty much the way I wanted it to.
  • What didn't: There were some moments where I was over-ambitious with horror content that I wasn't really able to do justice to, emotionally, and which consequently fell a bit flat. 
  • Lessons learned: This was the campaign where I finally started to understand the power and value of sandbox play. One location, one cast of characters, one unstable situation, enter the PCs, stand back and watch the fireworks. (I should have been able to work all that out from Shadows Over Bogenhafen several years earlier, but I was clearly a slow learner...)

Campaign 8: Falling Towers (D&D 3.5)

  • What it was: A fairly tightly-scripted D&D campaign, running from level 3 to level 7, and dealing with a single extended plot. 
  • What worked: By this point I'd become pretty confident in running games. I could reliably run exciting chase scenes, heist scenes, fight scenes, exploration scenes, and so on. I was relaxed about letting the PCs have major impacts on their world, and even dabbled a bit in collaborative world-building.
  • What didn't: This campaign was fine, but it didn't take risks. I kept to my comfort zone throughout, complete with balanced encounters and a mostly-linear plot. Everyone had fun, but the game as a whole was not a particularly memorable one.
  • Lessons learned: That you can't learn any lessons if you don't try anything new!

Campaign 9: The Pale Man (D&D 3.5)

  • What it was: A low fantasy D&D game, with a setting loosely based on Dark Ages Scandinavia. Initially it was only meant to run for a few sessions, but it kept getting extended, with the result that what was originally meant to be a short and tightly-plotted adventure ended up expanding into something much more ambitious.
  • What worked: This was my first real attempt to run a game in which the players tried to take on the mindset of people from a culture very different from their own, and it sort-of worked, at least in relation to the animistic religion of the setting. It was also probably the most character-driven game I'd run to date, with a plot that essentially boiled down to 'different people want different things, this generates conflict, enter the PCs.'
  • What didn't: This was a very low-key game: relatively low stakes, relatively low risks, most situations defused by diplomacy and negotiation. That's fine as far as it goes - not every game has to be about saving the world! - but I struggled to invest these purely personal stories with the energy and significance that they deserved.
  • Lessons learned: That while I might want to run deeply personal, emotionally-charged, character-driven games, I'm actually much better at running action-adventure material, and I should probably play to my strengths.

Campaign 10: Team Tsathogga (B/X D&D)

  • What it was: The first game I ran after discovering the principles of oldschool D&D, and the longest one in years, with well over 200 hours of actual play. A vast, sprawling weird science fantasy sandbox, with player agency placed firmly front and centre.
  • What worked: I put the OSR principles into action and they fucking worked. Having no set story, no plot armour for PCs, and no prior assumptions about what might or might not happen was incredibly liberating, both for me and my players, leading to a gloriously freewheeling campaign that surprised and delighted me at every turn. 
  • What didn't: As I discussed here, what was gained in breadth was lost in depth. Many of the people and places that the PCs interacted with were very lightly sketched in, mere backdrops for their latest insane adventure.
  • Lessons learned: That sometimes less is more. This is the lesson that has informed 'City of Spires', where, by focusing on a single ruined city, I've been able to bring the people and places within it to life much more vividly than I ever could have in the previous campaign, where the PCs would just have wandered in, wrecked some stuff, and wandered off again...
So. Those were the campaigns that I learned the most from running. Feel free to tell me about yours in the comments!


  1. A very insightfull read. Maybe I should do the same.


  2. For a sec I got really excited thinking this was a post about Failbetter games, but this is equally good!

  3. This is pretty great stuff. I’ve had far more failures than successes...and most weren’t even SPECTACULAR failures, sadly. I’ll have to think about my own personal list.

  4. "while I might want to run deeply personal, emotionally-charged, character-driven games, I'm actually much better at running action-adventure material"
    THAT! It's precisely me. :)

    1. I think it's precisely most of us, to be honest. It's just an easier match for the standard TTRPG form. The other stuff is possible, but it's harder to integrate with the basic 'six people around a table for three hours' format.

    2. That sort of game is also hard because of player buy in. I've found a bit more success with reaching for games outside of the OSRsphere for that sort of thing- games like Powered by the Apocalypse tend to have more tools for both GMs and Players to create emotional situations, and those tools sort of 'prime' players for that sort of play?

      If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, and game rules that focus around solving lateral thinking problems and fighting things are definitely a sort of hammer.

  5. In the 'City of Spires' game, what level have the characters reached by this point? Have you managed to introduce organic threats that are still in concordance with their level?

    1. They just reached level 6 tonight. (Some of them did, anyway.) They've overcome major threats twice: once at level 4 when they overthrew the city's government and took over, and once over the last couple of sessions when they overcame a coalition of monsters that had banded together to oppose them. Other potential threats are possible in future - other cities looking to muscle in on the economy they've built, for example - but right now I think they've earned a bit of a breathing space!

  6. This article feels very familiar to me. There are a lot of parallels to my own history!

  7. I still think you're too down on Smoke and Mirrors - it may not have been the campaign you wanted to run, but it was fun to play in.

    Personally, I think the lesson you should learn from it is that railroading is not always as bad as it's made out to be - what matters is that the players /feel/ they have agency, and that can easily come on a micro rather than a macro level.

    1. Hey, Jacob! You were in five-and-a-half of these ten campaigns, weren't you? I'd be interested to know how *you* remember them all...

    2. The website refuses to accept comments over 4096 characters, so I'll have to split this into two halves.

      My general take is that you're usually too hard on yourself - I think you may be judging your past campaigns as abstract feats of GMing art, rather than by the metric of "did the players enjoy them" by which I think GMing ought to be judged; nearly all of the ones of these I played in I enjoyed,

      "The Sign of Fourteen" as I recall was less campaign than two campaigns a one off with the same continuity. The thing I think of as "The Sign of Fourteen proper" was a campaign you wrote yourself, which I remember vaguely but extremely fondly; then you went on to run TEW in London which I missed most of; the section of DotR that I was there for was fun, but felt less atmospheric and more dungeon-crawly than the stuff you'd written yourself, and then you ran a grand finale when I was staying for a weekend, which I remember as being awesome but, again, not quite as gripping as the darker, lower-powered stuff you'd run earlier in the campaign.

      Smoke and Mirrors, as I've said, I enjoyed a lot - I still have fond memories of several scenes, and of the tarot card challenge at the end. The fact that you were able to do that does, as you say, illustrate that it must have been pretty railroady, but because you managed that by providing breadcrumbs rather than walls it didn't feel that way.

      Arltree I got to cameo in the one-off finale of, which I recall as a bit of a blow-out, but the reports I got from the other players of the campaign proper were massively positive. The lesson here is "Cut your coat to fit your cloth" - you'd run what sounded like an awesome campaign, with three thoroughly-invested players, and running the finale with several of them missing and me stepping in for a one-off I didn't have any of the background for didn't really work; we should have postponed it till the right people were all available, and I shouldn't have gatecrashed.

      To The Ends of The Earth is one of only two (that I can think of) of the many things that you've run and I've played in over the years that I didn't really enjoy (the other one being Bad Craziness, but the problem there wasn't so much failure of GMing as that you were running a high-concept game about Big Philosophical Ideas and I completely disagreed with the ideas in question and therefore failed to engage with them, the Mage finale doesn't count because it was part of a mostly-successful campaign and the problem was just with the session and my presence in it, not the campaign). I think that as well as the system and power-level problems you list, it also suffered from excessive scope; too much breadth meant for too little depth. You attribute that lesson to the Team Tsathogga game, but I think that To the Ends of the Earth had illustrated it clearly more years before than I can like to admit.


    3. Falling Towers was, as you say, limited but fun - I enjoyed it, but it wasn't (quite) as exciting or (nearly) as ambitious as some of your other games. I have a vague recollection that it was your first foray back into GMing after a while not doing it (I think you might have just moved to Exeter, or had Eli, or something?), and that you were playing it safe; I also think it's probably relevant that we were running once a month rather than once a week.

      The Pale Man - was this the campaign you ran one summer in Cambridge? If it was, the big lesson I got from that was insights into how GMs set the pacing of a campaign, and why. You were running for one 2-hour session a fortnight with a tight deadline of one summer before one of us (me? you?) had to leave the city, and were consequently trying to keep things moving fast, and I was simultaneously playing in a sprawling 3-hours-a-week 5-year behemoth of a character-interaction-driven Changeling campaign. And it slowly began to dawn on me that the fact that one party were getting through a large chunk of plot each evening but not developing much in the way of relationships with the people around us, while the other could spend most of an evening on one in-character conversation with an NPC we knew well, and not get anything else done, wasn't just about the players, it was about differences in approach between you and the other GM, and I began to pick up on some of the tricks you and she were using differently - camera zoom, summarising vs playing through, asking "So do you do that, then?" vs letting PCs talk things out in character and so on. That was extremely interesting, and I've looked out for it in subsequent campaigns since with interest. As with The Tower Falls, I remember the campaign as being lightweight but fun; I think a possible lesson between the two might be that you tend to be less ambitious when running short, time-limited campaigns than when running either one-offs or longer-term games with room to sprawl - does that ring true to you?

      (Also, I'm not convinced that that campaign /was/ called The Pale Man, and some of the description sounds familiar but some doesn't - am I confusing it with a totally different campaign that I wasn't in?)

      Other games I've seen you run that I think might feature in a "lessons learned" list -
      :- "Cherry Blossom Season" ended up going in a completely different direction to the one you'd planned; my recollection is that you handled it smoothly enough that we didn't even twig we'd gone off course until you told us afterwards.
      :-"Bad Craziness", as I said, I failed to engage with, although the rest of the players loved it.
      :-I still have immensely fond memories of "Blood Moon", although it was early enough in your career that I'm not sure what articulatable lessons, if any, you took from it.

    4. I /do/ have extremely fond memories of the very early sessions of To The Ends of The Earth, before the dice started needing buckets, I learned the travel spell and Thousand Portals Reopened's charisma reached the point of being able to effectively mind-control mortals - especially the first session, with the Flying Circus coming to the City of Trees and being attacked by a horde of zombies, has stuck in my mind. You came up with a lot of cool stuff for that campaign, you just didn't account for the extent to which the system would trivialise non-combat encounters and render combat encounters tedious; I suspect that the fact that I've never seen you run D&D above level 6 or 7 since probably owes a lot to that experience?

      Some day I would like to revisit the Exalted setting, with a light homebrew system and a campaign tightly focussed around one small region.

    5. Thanks for the comments! It's really interesting to compare player's to GM's perspective.

    6. Thanks, Jacob! You clearly have a much better memory than I do. I don't remember the tarot thing at all!

      You're right about the breadth vs. depth thing in Exalted, but it interlocked with the power level issue. In City of Spires we've got hundreds of hours of play out of a set of problems that a circle of Solars would have solved in an afternoon. It's hard to tie characters to a place which is fundamentally incapable of challenging them.

      'The Pale Man' did have another name - I just couldn't remember what it was. The game with the pseudo-Scandinavian animistic Dark Ages setting, and NPCs with names like Hild and Skapti, and the Taker? You're also right that I tend to run games with a finger on the fast-forward button, as it were. It's probably because I cut my GMing teeth running games during school lunch hours, meaning that meaningful progress had to be achieved in 45-minute chunks!

      'Cherry Blossom Season' was, indeed, meant to end with an 'everyone dies' downer ending. Luckily, by that stage I'd learned that rolling with the players was more important than sticking to the script.

      As I mentioned here, Exalted did help push me towards lower-powered games, but 'D&D is best at levels 1-6' is a position that a lot of people have arrived at independently, as the whole existence of E6 demonstrates. Level 9 is where things usually start really breaking down, though.

      I think Blood Moon may have been one of those 'the golden age of fantasy is twelve' situations. It certainly wasn't a good campaign by any grown-up standards, but the idea of fantasy gaming was still very fresh to us at the time, and the sheer enthusiasm I felt about the dark fantasy source material may have been infectious...

      Anyway, thanks for sharing your perspectives!

  8. Woah, looks like you're younger than I thought. I guess that professorship tricked me into imagining a gray-bearded wizard type. That, or the fact that the average OSR blogger acts like a grumpy grandpa yelling at kids (role-)playing on his lawn.

    1. Too true, alas. I'm still in my (late) 30s, and I'm pretty sure that several other leading OSR bloggers are roughly the same age. We just enjoy acting like grumpy old men.

  9. Excellent retrospective. Enjoyed reading that.

  10. Have you never actually played in your Wicked City setting before? That’s sad, its so good.

    I guess I have been fortunate, thinking back, about half the campaigns I have run over the years have been my own system,

    1. I sort-of have. My current campaign, City of Spires, is very heavily based on the Wicked City material from the blog, although not identical to it. I've discussed the process of adaptation here:

  11. I had actually considered doing a series or post like this a while ago, because as I see from your example, it's a valuable exercise - but I'll just steal your knowledge instead! I think that insight from World of Darkness is good, by the way, because I had a very similar insight from my multi-act Werewolf campaign. Learning to run a compelling world is very transferable to D&D, and is something that WoD/Exalted does very well. In a curious way they're underrated settings, because of the guff associated.