Table Reflection: Seven Deadly Sins of Campaign Management

I’ve noticed that there are a lot of warning signs that I’ve seen in campaigns I’ve run or campaigns I’ve played in that can be indicators of a dangerous decline. These things, however, are all avoidable, and are hallmarks of a negligent approach to running games. After the break, I’ll explain what they are and how they can be avoided.

  1. Sticking to “the Plan”
  2. Mandating results
  3. Showing partiality
  4. Communicating poorly
  5. Maintaining hubris
  6. Lacking discipline
  7. Forgetting to have fun

The first of these “Deadly Sins” is sticking to a plan even when it forces the players to act against their wills or doesn’t make narrative sense. I fully recognize that it’s tempting to create rich events for your players to discover, and that the natural tendency is to flesh these out and sort of want to drag-and-drop them into the session whether it’s appropriate or not. Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to prevent this. First, if you must have an event that you’re attached to occur, run it at the beginning of a session. This will not only allow it to serve as an impetus for further play (a discussion-starter, if you will), but it will also minimize the chances of things going off-the-rails and making your scene no longer fit in. However, my preferred way of doing things is simply to mandate the events that happen in the world. I like to think of my campaign techniques as being more similar to the methods that Arma or Dwarf Fortress use in play; the players are not automatically the center of the universe, though they can be if they’re in the right place at the right time, and things that go on elsewhere will have an effect on them.

The second deadly sin is mandating results. We play most tabletop games with dice, and while GM’s have a certain degree of power to bend or break these rules, there is a very good reason why we leave conflict resolution up to chance rather than fiat. There’s a very good chance that if a GM mandates too much they will cease to have the focus be on the players. At this point the integrity of tabletop roleplaying as a group narrative is compromised, and the game really becomes more of an act of one person telling stories to a captive audience. However, there’s also a reason why we leave things up to chance, which is the fact that we, as humans, are not terribly random. We’ll repeat ourselves or have very predictable results, and one of the major appeals of tabletop gaming and high-randomness environments in other areas is that the only thing that can really be expected is the unexpected. Don’t mess that up by ensuring that certain things happen. I’d also recommend against certain more narrative mandates as well; don’t introduce a character you aren’t fine with watching the ignominious death of at the hands of the players. Allowing freedom is a great boon to your game.

The third deadly sin is showing partiality. There’s an inherent need for fairness in the gaming process as part of the underlying procedures. External factors should weigh in as little as possible at the table. Don’t use the game as a way to manipulate people. If you think your game will be ruined by someone’s behavior, use your words, not the dice, to get past the issue. I’ve seen (and been tempted by) cases where problem players are simply nerfed into oblivion until they eventually quit out of frustration, but this is really not beneficial to you or them. Your players will typically show you as much respect as you show them, and I’ve found that the majority of game-side problem behaviors (cheating, being disruptive, or the like) come as a result of players feeling stifled or targeted to begin with.

A fourth problem is poor communication. Normally, this would be higher on the list, but I’ve found that in tabletop games communication is, as a general rule, pretty good. You do have to watch out for certain things, though. You need to make sure that everyone’s playing the same game. There’s something called the “Same Page Tool“, which is a great way to see what your players value and get some immediate feedback. It may sound a little tacky to subject people to surveys, but sometimes the multiple choice format is really where you’ll see the best results from players’ self-assessments of desired outcomes, and having a rubric like that, whether you use the Same Page Tool or your own methods, ensures that you are capable of having a reliable method of getting information and acting upon it, rather than just going off of gut feelings and hunches that can be rather easily informed by one’s own perspective.

I’ve also seen a lot of campaigns burn for GM’s hubris, a couple of mine included. Long story short, you don’t want to distance yourself from your players. Much as in parenting, the excuse that “Because I’m the GM!” something must happen is rather unsatisfying for players, but it also has a number of other problems. Having hubris can create a rift between you and your players; insisting that you know best is a great way to force the game down awkward paths and create situations where players aren’t enjoying their experience but don’t want to create means of redress, leading to player dissatisfaction that can pretty easily lead to them just leaving. Moving down the path of pride is also a great way to begin to hold some pretty awkward stances on things; the less you’re open to input and the less you’re transparent to your players the more difficulty you’ll face. In fact, I like to privilege individual players at my table (those whom I trust not to repeat the secrets) with a fair deal of mechanics and narrative information before I bring it into the actual game itself; this means that I get a second pair of eyes before I drop my content into the game and don’t let myself think I’m doing a great job of creating difficult challenges just because the players failed their last fifteen objectives (which, of course, is never a good sign).

The sixth problem that I’ve seen in games is a lack of discipline. I’m far from a gaming purist, mind you, but certain things are important. Under the vestiges of showing no partiality at the table, there’s actually plenty of times when discipline is good. Making sure that players don’t create characters that don’t fit in the setting or into similar power levels as other characters in the campaign may seem a little mean if one player puts in more effort than another, but it can really make a long-term difference in the quality of the campaign. Likewise, it’s important to maintain a fair number of standards. Campaigns that miss more than two scheduled sessions have, in my experience, almost never wound up being picked up again. Having dinner in the middle of a session can mean that your sessions are interrupted by other endeavors, especially if your gaming group has a lot of other shared interests or has a fair chunk of the session prior to the dinner. Planning your sessions ahead is a good thing, and making sure that everyone shows up on time and ready to play is a GM’s right and duty.

The final deadly sin is forgetting to have fun. Enjoy your games, and if you find yourself getting burnt out or needing a little help with doing so, feel free to reach out to your players and try to make sure that you don’t have a miserable time for the sake of others. Similarly, make sure that your players had a good time; ask them frankly if they enjoyed the experience, and give them plenty of opportunities to provide feedback. If something doesn’t work, change it, and if you’re not having a good time think about ways to improve your experience. When gaming becomes a chore, stop right then and there and figure out ways that you can put things back on the right track.

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