Tuesday, January 7, 2020

The Constant Reshaping of a Campaign

The Northmen temple the party explored. They expected something bigger. 

Last night's game session three of the five players showed, one was an hour late. The two weeks before, two players showed. And the week before that, one player showed. And the week before that, all five showed.

What is the common denominator of all those weeks? 

We played. 

I've been running this campaign for a little under a year and attendance is sporadic at best. One player left completely. It happens. There are a ton of legit reasons players don't show. And there are some bogus reasons, but we won't dwell on those.

I run a hex crawl, with lots of things going on. Different groups grabbing for the same pot of power. And monsters. Yeah, lots of those. I build off the characters' backstory and their actions. I morph the campaign to reflect the consequences/rewards of those actions. Because I do this, no two campaigns are alike. The maps don't even look alike. I create what best suits the party I'm running.

This is Monday's group map.

This is Wednesday's group map. 

These are the same hand drawn maps. Hounds Head remains in the same spot, but little to nothing else is the same. For example, take a look at the hills just north of Hounds Head. Monday's group encountered a gnoll fort there. Wednesday's group discovered it was territory run by a bugbear tribe. While not all that big of a difference, each change served that particular game. 

A lot of these changes were due to who showed up at the table that night. I will run a game for one person or all of the party. Trying to weave personal story lines to play off a character's backstory is difficult when that player doesn't show on a consistent basis. I built story lines that would flesh out one of the characters and the impact would be felt campaign wide. Then they don't show. And don't show the next week.

Move on.

There are going to be times when story/plot lines don't go anywhere. They abruptly end. It's okay. Work them into the background. While the party is off slaughtering the next batch of orc babies the Temple of Sarrath is establishing fortified locations. Shit happens while the party is crawling in a dungeon.

Focus on the people that show. It's okay to mess with the time continuum. In a recent adventure where the entire party showed I had a climatic end. To be continued the next week. Only two people showed. I still ran a game. I put them a few days back and they got to explore details of what was going on in more depth. The next week it was the same. One person showed. Finish this side quest while we waited for the rest of the group to show. 

This last week, still only two showed (third joined later), the freeze on the climatic end was unfrozen and that scene played out. Nearly exterminating one of the party members. He's okay. A little scarred and scared, but his soiled britches have been changed and his boo boos have been kissed. 

While it wasn't what I wanted, A GM rarely gets what he wants, but I got to play. Have fun. Roll dice. You know. So I did get what I wanted.

Running this past year has taught me to be more flexible when running a game. To run the game with who shows. Adjust your adventures and expectations. Just because you planned the party to enter a hell dungeon this week, but only two show, you decide to run something a little smaller, shorter, but no less deadly. Work in a little backstory or something the players have taken an interest in.

So yeah. That's it. Don't call the game if not everyone shows. Be flexible enough to run with one person or ten.  

Peace out!


  1. Good stuff, Tim. I appreciated this perspective. I hope all (or at least most) of my future campaigns have the fluidity exampled here.

  2. Play with who shows . . . I'll drink to that. Works with marriage, sometimes, too.

    I bulled a session once to my own chagrin: the guy who didn't show that day was the real combat-technician in our group.

    Your standard fiends-rush-out-of-cave, party yanks bowstrings, screaming, spattered blood, then the usual horn-call. Calm.

    Then the returning fiend-raiding-party crests the hill. Fight on two sides. Panic. No maneuver, no retreat, no cover. Mayhem.

    I swear on my life this party got lucky with mules taking the thumps of most of that volley. Thrashing mules forced an awkward retreat and limited the enemies who pursued. I straight-rolled every single attack and the party got lucky a bit there.

    When the whimpering and vomiting had stopped, the party was too depleted to push forward, and too hampered (mule hamburger) to retreat. The remainder of that session was a misery exercise in limping away and eluding capture. THAT was actually sort of cool.

    But I bulled that session and probably hurt the overall ecology of the next several games. You are absolutely right about adapting to the gamers who show.

    "Mule steaks for everybody!"

  3. I like it. We tend to cancel when we don't have everyone, but that leads to a lot more "mot playing" than playing. Good thoughts!

  4. As you know, my game is built on "play with who shows" as a foundational rule. If it wasn't for that, it would have died a quick death. Instead, it expanded to a steady pool of nearly twice as many players as our initial group and a typical group size of around twice our initial. So it's not just a way to deal with attrition and busy people, it's a way to expand and thrive.

  5. Yep. The basic premise of this post is a good one.

  6. I rn a west marches style collection of games, every now and then they intersect, but there always ways to deal with no shows and those who quit completely.