Complete Campaign – Lessons Learned Along the Way, Part 1

Complete Campaign – Lessons Learned Along the Way, Part 1

This weekend I will be wrapping up the first campaign that I’ve ever completed. EVER. I’ve learned a lot from the process and am quite thrilled at the idea of finishing a campaign on purpose with a fairly tidy ending (I hope). I feel that this was one of the most interactive and fun to GM campaigns that I’ve ever run. In this short series I’ll be sharing a few of the lessons that I learned along the way with examples from the Solo Ravenloft campaign. Hopefully you’ll end up inspired to try something different for your next campaign.

Communication – Have THE conversation with your players!

In the past I’ve TOLD players what a campaign was going to be about. I’ve given them an idea as to the theme or the nature of the campaign. I’ve told them the location or the setting information. It’s usually a fairly one-way conversation… This is totally wrong I realize. For the Solo campaign that I’m wrapping up, I made sure to ASK the player what he was interested in happening for his game. It was very much a two-way conversation. These are the important questions I’ll make sure to ask each player in the future when I plan on running a campaign:

1) What are the player’s goals?

  • It’s important to know what the player considers fun and what the player actually wants to get out of the game.
  • How relaxed will gameplay be?
  • Is the player looking for a very serious, focused RP session every game or is casual conversation at the game table ok?

For the Solo campaign, the main focus was to have fun. It was a very relaxed game, we got off topic many times but had fun. In some other gaming groups that I’ve been in, off topic conversation is totally taboo. But since we were gaming for 6+ hours at a time and happen to be chatty folks, this was not an issue for this game.

2) What are the character’s goals?

  • Where is the character coming from and where is he going? The answers may not be actual locations but states of mind.
  • What does the character believe has happened to him so far? What is he wrong about?
  • How much does the character know about the world we’re playing this campaign in?
  • Are we starting out with a low level character or a high level one?

The character in the Solo Campaign was trying to resurrect the love of his life. He knew that his mentor had killed her, but he didn’t know the real reason why until near the end of the campaign. The character did not know about Ravenloft at all when he arrived there. His “homeland” later appeared in Ravenloft but by then he had figured out a lot about how “The Lands of the Mists” work. We chose a high level game that would make the character powerful, interesting and influential in the world around him.

3) How do you see things turning out for the character in the end?

  • Happy ending or tragedy?
  • Do you think the character will complete his goals? At what cost?
  • How much wiggle room do I have with the character’s background story?

Unfortunately for the character, divine healing magics don’t work in the particular realm that he hailed from. We both knew from the get go that the character was not going to succeed in bringing his love back to life. The player let me know early on that he suspected his character would end up a Dark Lord – this was an evil campaign in Ravenloft, afterall. There are no happy endings for Dark Lords, only tragedy.

4) How do you want the game to feel?

  • Serious or campy?
  • Fast paced or slow progression?

The setting was fairly serious. There were not too many characters or story lines that deviated from the horror/fantasy feel. The focus on the theme was dead on. The pace was very fast.  At times I felt like the game was a speeding train and that we might pass something important in and not notice it.  Every time I felt this way, I asked the player if the story was going too fast and he reassured me that it was going at a good pace.  I didn’t want to bore the player but I didn’t want the campaign to be over after just 2-3 sessions either.  Timing was by far the most difficult part of running this campaign for me.

5) Combat Saturation

  • How much is too much? (The question I did NOT ask but should have).
  • Are we going to use a battlemat and minis?
  • How lethal should combat be?

Since I abhor combat, it didn’t occur to me that we should have more than 1-2 fights per night. Sometimes I would struggle to fit in a combat encounter once in an eight hour session. Near the end of the campaign, I found out that the player would have preferred more combat. Next time, I will make sure to ask the players and try to compromise more on that.

I did think to ask if we would be mapping out the combat situations and using miniatures or just winging it. I prefer to wing it, but since the player preferred Mini’s, that’s the route we went. It turned out pretty well.  I will never be a great combat strategist and the fights were probably a little underwhelming.  Many fights ended after just a single round or two (more on that later, under the topic Tall Tales – Why not let the character do that?).  Hopefully the final two battles will more than make up for my combat light approach and lack of strategery…

6) What rules do we need to change or throw out?

  • What parts of the game rules or setting are getting in the way of the player’s story ideas?
  • What parts of the game or setting are causing you, the GM, grief?
  • How strict are we going to be on the rules as written?

The basic approach that we agreed on was that story comes first.  The first rule that we agreed on throwing out was “Player characters who become darklords automatically become NPC’s run by the DM.” Why is this even a rule? There’s no reason that you can’t have a player be a Dark Lord, especially in an evil campaign.

The second thing we threw out was the entire Recommend Powers Checks chart. It was agreed that keeping track of the many, many small evil acts committed by the character would be tedious. Since the character was a Dread Necromancer and practically every single spell he cast had a small chance for being a failed power check, keeping score would be a full time job. I also felt that having the character fail a power check over some randomly cast spell against some randomly unimportant NPC would be a total waste of story opportunity. Instead the player and I agreed that we would only take stock of major evil acts and that those would have automatic power check failures.

The third thing we threw out was the rule about how many failed power checks would land a character in the Dark Lord seat. If the story was right for the character to become a dark lord at only his 4th failed power check, so be it. If the game was going strong with the ending far out of site, it might be the 9th check he fails that makes him a Dark Lord. It just so happened that the story fit the “correct” number of failed checks but that was a total coincidence.


By having this discussion ahead of time, the game went the way the player and myself wanted it to go. We knew going in how things would be and stayed focused on keeping the game on track for our own goals. It was a fun ride!

Next post I’ll be discussing how specifics can give you some wiggle room. Knowing a few locations very well and a couple of story elements very well can pay off when it comes time to improvise!