Restarting my AD&D campaign - doing it differently

This post is a reminder to myself... don't get caught up in the frenzy and the hype. Because it just doesn't always work out in reality. What I thought was "neat" and "cool" didn't always translate well to my campaign, and this is why.

When my campaign shut down in 2011 for life reasons, I had hosted about 30-odd people in my campaign. I had originally started it as a "West Marches" style of campaign, geared towards having the players establish themselves into an area abandoned by civilization about two generations ago - basic fantasy post-apoc. With orcs-with-guns (NO PIE!), weird metallic machines that sounded suspiciously like 1950s era Martian war machines, red/exploding goblins and ... a DM with ADD.

I bought into a couple of things that ended up not working out nearly as well as they read in blog posts - namely, the concept of adherence to XP for HD/GP and the concept of "realism." I also bought too deeply into the "sandbox" world and didn't balance out freedom with something geared towards actively happening in the world.

Or maybe I'm a shitty DM, but I seem to get folks coming back, so I don't think that's it.

When I looked at what didn't work, it was clear to me that while basing experience and rewards on monsters killed, gold taken/liberated/stolen is fine, it wasn't working for a group that met about once a month. I have folks that were in this campaign for 2 years and they'd only reached 5th level. Well, that sucks. In the MMO world, that's taking the concept of "grinding" and making it work in pen/paper. This might have worked for groups meeting weekly, but with us only meeting once every 4 to 6 weeks, I don't want my players stuck in 1st level for a year.

My rule of thumb is geared towards something that Jeff Berry/Chrine said during GaryCon this past April 2015... that the EPT campaign he'd been in didn't revolve just around the concept of advancement based only on monsters killed and treasure kept, but also revolved around how the players worked themselves into various organizations and power structures within the world. If someone has been affecting things for their chosen religion, or for their city, or is known throughout a region, they're not "2nd level" anymore, no matter what the spreadsheets say.

I have a mental rule of thumb now, that I'd like to see advancement every 2 to 3 games, but that also means the players have to be doing things commensurate to their level. So if Jorann, the 5th level cleric, goes on a kobold bashing expedition, he might end up just HP/GP for XP. But if my 1st level characters are taking on orcs and the Chaos-afflicted goblins right out of the gate, and they survive a couple of sessions, they're going to 2nd level. They've done more than most other folks and are now seen as "those damn pesky adventurers!"

While that might not be "by the book OSR goddammit" and while I might start seeing this ...

... I really don't give a rat's ass.

Secondly... realism. I thought I could pull it off and make it interesting. I was hooked by all the crazy, wild shit that Alexis manages to pull off in his campaigns and he blogs about on his blog - (Tao of D&D). It's some pretty intense madness that he admits to, and I was attracted to it. So, taxes, economy, costs of living, loss of resources, the whole nine yards.

Except, it sucked. Well, it probably sucked because I couldn't pull it off, or it sucked because this is really not what we all want. And it took me playing Skyrim vs. TESO vs. Arena to taking that long 4 year break to get of my fondness of tracking the resources to realizing that 1, I ain't got time for this and 2, this is just not fun for anyone related to my campaign. I have bigger fish to fry, with trying to offer the campaign at multiple levels (mass combat, skirmish combat, RPG) and keep things coherent without trying to tack on uber-levels of realism and simulationism.

So... while my hat's off to Alexis for pulling off the highly detailed campaign, it's not within my interest or capabilities.

As another thing I was attracted to was "mustard farming"... the idea that a sandbox is just that, open ended without any prompting by me, in the most realistic fashion. Except... if that worked, we'd see it in all forms of entertainment. We don't. There's a reason why games and entertainment isn't truly open-ended without prompting... that kind of "realism" demands way more than I've got time to put into. And, at the end of the day, we get together to play D&D for entertainment, for some ongoing interactions and explorations and, dare I say it, story telling and fun. (see previous "OUTRAGE" photo). Looking at someone, saying "what do you do" and then expecting some sort of meaningful action without context, requires a shit-ton more than I'm able to put into a game.

For my campaign and players, the hooks need to be there, and more up front. The players should have the opportunity to start pulling the curtains back and I wasn't doing enough of that. 2 yeas of grinding and not having opportunities to achieve alot in the name of "figure it out yourselves" isn't really much fun.

So yes, if the players choose to farm mustard, they're more than welcome, but there is going to be a lot more things very obviously happening and I'm going to be more up front with the hooks and with the opportunities. I'm not going to hand it to them on a silver platter, but we only have 6 to 8 hours a month, *that* is my biggest factor in deciding on how to run this campaign. Their farms are probably going to get overrun by orcs or goblins.

I'm going to have fun playing elf-games with folks in a way that works for the time that we have, without trying for some purity award that I had the misguided perception I should be going for.


  1. Remember, CW, it took me thirty-five years of playing my game my way to get me where I am now; and the economic trade system you mention started in 1986, so that's 29 years of practice I had to get to this point.

    It's perfectly understandable that you don't want to do the work I do; but I think you're wrong to blame the fail on your "buying in" to the wrong things. To me, this sounds more like someone who really dreams of buying a motorcycle for romantic reasons, without really thinking through the things that have to be understood. Lots of people do that and some of them even die.

    That doesn't undermine the value of a motorcycle. And it doesn't say that the romanticist can't learn to ride one. But it does take work.

    I don't think I've ever failed to argue that position.

    Anyway, thanks for the plug. Had a lot of people follow the links above to my blog. You've still got your following.

  2. Hi Alexis,

    Yep, very aware of that, and also aware of the *passion* that such an endeavor requires. Creation is passion writ corporeal. I just don't have the same passion as you do, as my desires are elsewhere. It took a long hiatus to realize that. I need to focus in my game on what fuels my passion... and that's giving the players opportunities to explore and see "what's over the next hill" or "what's behind that dungeon door?"

  3. Yeah doing the extreme-sandbox requires there be a lot of xp lying around, good point.

    My highest-level player is 17th after 7 years. It works ok for us, but it's a thing.

  4. The conflict between ideals and/or desires against capabilities and time is always a frustrating one. I hope the new direction works out for you.

  5. RE: Slow Advancement (for infrequently appearing groups)

    1. You can cut the XP needed to advance by a factor of 2 or 5 or 10 (so instead of needing 2000xp for 2nd level, a fighter would need 1000, or 400, or 200). Over all there will be less time spent kobold slaying and copper hoarding, as players will move onto larger challenges and bigger rewards at a quicker rate (2 "kobold killing" adventures instead of 20, for example).
    2. You could develop random tables to determine "adventuring stuff that happens" during the weeks off between sessions (similar to some folks' "carousing tables") to award extra XP for the slower paced folks. Though I will consider this a lesser solution.

    Alexis has some great posts about how temporal power in a campaign doesn't need to match "level" power (you could have a 2nd level character that is a berger keister of cardinal or general of the army, for example), as level is a measure of combat and adventuring don't need to tie temporal power to things like "name level" (and probably shouldn't).

    RE: Realism and Mustard Farming

    1. What Alexis said, and...
    2. Alexis has added a large dosage of realism to his game (larger than most people) in service to an end goal of allowing his players a deeper immersion (and thus better gaming experience) in his campaign. He doesn't want the arbitrary abstract artifice of the basic game to break the immersion (see his recent series on founding a trading town).

    But you've already got a good thing going in your game with your Planet of the Apes style orcs and ancient ruins...your players are already invested in the escapism (that's why they keep coming back). You don't have to dive whole hog into "reality" thing...just add a piece here and a piece there, try things out, discard what doesn't work, build your own "series bible" of house rules. That's what Alexis has done over the years (not every piece of "reality" he's modeled has managed to stick around in his own campaign). The aim is a richer experience...if going "off book" and injecting objective reality can give your players that, then do it.

    Adventure hooks and seeds are still necessary. Don't take the mustard farmer thing too may take players a while to work up that kind of initiative on their own.
    ; )

  6. Hi JB,

    Well, I did take the mustard thing way to literally. @thePrincessWife said it best "You have to feel engaged with your world and what's going on, otherwise, why play?"

    We'll see how my advancement works, I'm sure like anything else, it'll need tweaking. I'm thinking that by tying it to organizations, or local reputation, that gets the players more engaged with the world around them. Reasons to go "out there" and "do stuff." I'd like them to be directly engaged with their advancement, versus a table that doesn't have the same feel.

    Thanks for your thoughts.

  7. A while back I quit using XP entirely and just went to tracking meaningful accomplishments. 10 accomplishments = level up. An accomplishment could be a victory in a fight, it could be figuring out some puzzle or secret that has been stumping the players, it could be a successful bit of roleplayed negotiations with a setting bigwig to achieve some goal, etc. At the end of every session I tell the players what I see as the accomplishments they made and write them down in the session log in decimal format (so if the players just turned level five last session and had three accomplishments I would notate it thusly "5.1 defeated the were-unicorn, 5.2 negotiated with the toad demon to keep the unicorn horn, 5.3 found a buyer for the unicorn horn and sold it). I let the players have a chance to talk it over with me, sometimes I overlook a significant accomplishment and if they can convince me they did something that I missed I will include it. It usually works out to level up every 2-3 sessions. A bunch of high level PCs killing goblins wouldn't count as a significant accomplishment - I use common sense and have an open dialog with the players and I have never ran into problems. Works great for me. It also is a great way to remember what actually happened in a session - I keep the log in the front of my DMs notebook and you can just glance at each date and see the major events of the session.

  8. I should also add I sometimes count something as two accomplishments if it was particularly noteworthy. Also this tends to encourage less dithering around and more just doing stuff - which should be the goal of every session anyway :)

  9. I think the problem is tracking success by levels.

    Think about it. You're going to write stories and build plotlines and the only measurement of gain after completing those is statistical.

    If the players don't measure their success in story resolutions, activities completed, doing that thing they always wanted to do or generally interactions they want to have, then really they should just drive their interactions based on the measure of success.

    In other words, stop completing stories, just go around murdering people and taking their stuff, because that's how you get loot and XP. Everything else is just jumping through a DMs hoops.

  10. @Oddbit - "In other words, stop completing stories, just go around murdering people and taking their stuff, because that's how you get loot and XP. Everything else is just jumping through a DMs hoops. "

    I'm not sure that's as cut and dried, but then each campaign has their measure of what amounts to "success" and "psychotic behavior." That's what I liked about what I heard Professor MAR Barker did in his EPT campaign - as you completed "quests" (aka gofer/grunt jobs, I'm sure) for various organizations and rose in esteem and power in your clan, tribe and/or temple, you saw your level raise as well, which makes sense.

    From a military organization, you could be Joe Private for 6 years behind the lines, but get put out on an OP, you stop an attack, organize a counter-attack, keep a squad cohesive and on-mission... and Joe Private because Joe Sergeant from combat. That makes sense without a lot of XP tracking or counting the successes, but in a way, you're doing that as well.

    Success at low level is surviving. Success at high level is furthering your goals or the goals of the organizations you've chosen to align with. Whether you use XP/GP to measure that, or plot achievements, it's a relative measure that would change as your character grows.

    Jumping through DM hoops, well, that's going to happen every game. Whether it's a story railroad or a slavish adherence to the dice, the DM is the one setting up the pins and giving the players the ball to knock them down. Even in your murder example, the DM is going to set up the sheep to be slaughtered.

  11. The DM does not decide how the die rolls, however.

    For all your hedging, your system derives from your whim. I prefer a system where (even if I set up the pins) the die determines whether or not they'll fall.

  12. I think we're saying the same thing. What I don't do is force the players to complete certain things just to advance. Advancement is going to happen as the players explore and grow into their world. Whether they follow my hooks or strike off on a different path.


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