RPG Campaigns: Why They Fly, Why They Flop

Flight or flop?
I make no claims to expert knowledge on any subject, save procrastination (someday I will get around to writing a post about that topic). However, I have been involved in my share of successful campaigns as a player or GM. I have also been there to witness a few flops firsthand. So I thought I would post a few observations on why some campaigns seem to take off while others flop.

I suppose "successful campaign" needs a bit of definition. My Dr. Handwave definition of success is anything that the participants enjoyed and would do again. My Dr. Handwave definition of campaign is an multi-session game that involves the same setting and a continuity of players and adventure arcs.

In general, I would have to say that the successful campaigns I have been involved with were based on three factors: (1) Players getting along with each other; (2) Commitment of players and GM to meet on a schedule for more than a few sessions; and (3) Shared participation and enjoyment in the creative process that is a part of tabletop RPG gaming.

I am sure there are lots of other reasons that I could identify, but those are my big three. I think you have to have #1 and #2, to get to #3, but #3 is not an automatic outcome. I also think the challenge is that #1 and #2 are about the individuals, not about the setting or system. Get the wrong people together? It won't work. Get the right people together but through in too many scheduling complications? It won't work either.

I have experienced several flops, both as GM and as a player. It is easier to identify a specific reason for failure than a specific reason for success. Here are two flops and one fizzle:

Flop #1: My worst flop as a GM was the result of using a series of adventure paths. "Series" is a misnomber because we never made it through the first. It was a bad match with my GM style and an even worse match for the players. Having a GM who is "meh" on the whole thing doesn't get the players very enthusiastic.

Flop #2: I tried to get my old gaming group from high school back together via Skype. It was really fun for two sessions and then the reality of schedules started working against us. No one could commit to more than one night a month and the odds were against us finding a common night every month. We maybe had two more sessions over five months. One of the guys was in community theater, another guy did shift work, and I was in another gaming group plus was out and about playing music.

Fizzle #1: My in-house face-to-face Castles & Crusades campaign was a great success until half the group (the kids) all went off to college, leaving the rest of us (the parents) staring at empty chairs. I don't view this as a flop, but I do wish I would have had some sort of big ending to wrap things up. Instead, it fizzled with a lot of loose ends.

What has been your experience with campaigns? Why have your successes been successful? What were the reasons for your flops?

[Note: Whatever thinking that is behind this post was triggered by Peter D's post, What Would You Change if You Could Reboot Your Campaign?]


  1. One of the many mistakes I've made starting a campaign was the power level was too high. When you start up here *imagine my hand over my head* its hard to elevate it higher without getting into the ridiculous.

  2. Going into a campaign with one really strong idea and hoping the plot would sort itself out because the idea was so cool. No idea is good enough on its own, and after a month I had to admit that i had nowhere else to go, and gave up the GM chair.

  3. As I've returned to RPGs in the last couple years, I've realized a couple of things about the campaigns of my youth (from both as a player and a GM). In terms of content they were quite immature and undeveloped by my present-day standards. Despite that they were extremely successful precisely because we had all three elements you mention.

    Nowadays, most of my playing has been by post or blog, which I find to be a completely different creature. In written-format gaming, the loss of immediacy and rapid back-and-forth interaction leads to the social aspect of the game fading somewhat into the background. It doesn't disappear, but as long as no one's actually a jerk in written play, things run pretty smoothly. Success and failure seem to depend far more on setting, system, story and "gamey" elements like opportunities for player decision-making and action.

    In that sense, as a PbB GM, I've had to attempt to significantly step up my game from where it was in my youth. As to whether it's a success or not, I can't yet say.