Losing Faith

This is a DMing advice blog, not a personal journal. As such, I don’t talk a lot about my daily life. I don’t think it’s very interesting to see me talk about how I feel about the news or how my cats are doing unless I can tie it into some tabletop role-playing topic. There’s nothing wrong with any of that, it’s just not what this particular blog is about. But I have been inspired by some soul-baring I’ve read lately, and I realized it might be worth putting a little something out there in case I have any readers who have been dealing with some of the same struggles. If that’s not your bowl of tea, feel free to skip this post. It’s not especially fun. My normal combination of commentary, insight, and irreverence will continue next time.

I’ve posted a few things about the campaigns I ran in 2017, but mostly in the context of how they played. The one about which I’ve written the most was the campaign using Monster-of-the-Week, which just wasn’t a great fit for our gaming group and absolutely did not give me what I wanted out of it (the campaign, that is. The system is fine.). Here’s what I said:

It didn’t go great. To put it pithily, the campaign ended more than a month ago and I’ve only recently separated myself from it enough to have a logical opinion on what happened. It was not a crushing failure, but it wasn’t a rousing success either. I went through several rounds of blaming myself, blaming the players, and blaming the system, in that order, until I think I’ve come to a point where I can look at what we did, what went wrong, and how to handle it in the future, all without burying any of the people who decide whether my characters live or die next week.

It’s nice being able to talk about something with that emotional distance, but it does gloss over the actual game. Each week I struggled to put together something I thought everybody would enjoy, each week I failed, and each week I had to get myself excited to try again. The campaign ran shorter than expected mostly because I just couldn’t muster up the energy to run it any longer than strictly necessary. But I knew it was a gamble going in, trying a new campaign with a group of players and a DM who hadn’t done that sort of thing before, and it was a proper learning experience.

The Eight Arms and the Contract of Barl ended around the same time, and that was something completely different. This was a campaign in a system I knew with some of my most frequent players, two of whom were reprising characters they’d already played in a previous story. On paper it should have been a rousing success. But I found myself not enjoying that game either. Part of it was the phenomenal amount of work I had to put into every session; this was high-level Pathfinder play, which meant complicated enemies, but we also had a small party with limited resources and atypical stats. Even finding pictures of characters and places was a chore, which I’ve documented. I went into every session frustrated with the amount of time it had taken to plan it, more than ready to see my work come to fruition.

During the actual sessions, a lot of that was meaningless. The players felt outgunned by their opponents at every turn, so they avoid direct conflict as much as possible, befriending the campaign villains so they could later betray them. For a time I felt they were avoiding the things I expected them to do specifically because I (and thus their enemies) expected them, and they spent so long talking, analyzing, gathering information, re-analyzing, and discussing the re-analysis I found myself outright bored for much of my own campaign. The key example I remember is a session that ran overly long because the players adamantly refused to open a door until they had full and complete knowledge of everything behind it, assuming it was an ambush. Again, with the benefit of distance I realize how ridiculous it is to think the players were explicitly trying to subvert me. It did color how I felt about the campaign, where I put in a lot of work to give the players a lot of freedom even though I knew I’d have to toss most of it out. But I knew my players weren’t out to get me, and I realized a lot of the problem was that my players and I expected different things from the game, so I treated it as another learning experience.

I wanted one campaign in 2017 that I actually enjoyed, and for The Eight Arms and the Day That Wasn’t, I tried to learn from my mistakes. I put it at a low level, to minimize the work I had to put in between sessions. I limited the setting to a single city, so I could manage the players’ freedom. I made the enemy reasonably active and overtly antagonistic, so the plot would move forward. During Session Zero I even explicitly told the players how I wanted the campaign to feel, laying out what my payoff was. And I still managed to fit in things that made me happy, like using characters from previous campaigns to tie the story into the overall campaign setting. This, I thought, would be the campaign to break my bad streak.

For me, it was the worst campaign of the lot. I’ve talked about some of my problems, but I’ve deliberately kept others close to the vest, like the characters who went so against the mood and payoffs I wanted for the campaign I have to assume it was intentional. Suffice it to say that while the players loved the campaign, I hated it. Other campaigns frustrated me, but I actively dreaded running this one. Honest-to-goodness, week-to-week dread. The only reason I didn’t end it early was because I wasn’t going to cut and run when everybody else was having fun. But if you check the Eight Arms wiki, you can roughly see the point where I emotionally checked out, shortly after session three. The campaign ran for more than three months after that (observant readers may have noticed a hiatus in blog posts for almost this entire time), and when it ended I was completely burnt out.

I chalked this up to any number of causes, and I was trying to figure out how I would recover, but it occurred to me that I wasn’t happy with my last three campaigns. That was fifteen months of time during which I mostly felt like I wasn’t enjoying what I was doing, across three gaming systems, across three groups of players, across three power levels, across three very different campaign styles. I didn’t enjoy any of them, and the only constant throughout was I.

And I thought: what if I just don’t like gaming any more?

I don’t blame my players. I’d like to! It would have been much easier on me if I could dismiss any problems I had as the acts of outside agents. But my players were and are, on average, very, very good. I’m not just saying this because many of them read this blog; they were actually that good. They were engaged at the table, they were interesting, they were cooperative, and they were the reason I kept running campaigns at all. It was more accurate to say that the things they thought were good about playing in my games differed from, or occasionally directly opposed, the things I thought were good about running them. We had different expectations, and that was fine. But it meant I didn’t see a way to get what I wanted out of the game while giving them what they wanted, and if I wasn’t having fun, I couldn’t force myself to do it any more.

After Day That Wasn’t ended, I made two posts about 5E in general, but nothing about the campaign itself. There’s no campaign report, and that’s intentional. I don’t think I could write one even now. And I certainly didn’t want to then, because I found no benefit in talking about what had happened if it wasn’t going anywhere. I’d half-decided midway through the campaign that it might be my last, not because it was a good finale but because I didn’t have the energy to drag on any further. I was planning on making this blog’s 300th post a farewell. I even looked into selling my books. I didn’t need most of them to play in campaigns, and I wouldn’t need them if I wasn’t going to DM. I didn’t answer any questions about what my next campaign would be, because there wasn’t one.

But I decided that, if nothing else, I didn’t want my last campaign to be something so hollow. I wanted to give it one final attempt, to come up with a campaign that would get me excited, where I could rely on things I knew I loved and find new ones. I needed to give it one last shot, dropping all pretense and running what I wanted, to see if I could get any spark back at all. I came up with three campaign ideas, concepts around which I thought I could build a fun game, and I sent them to my players with the explicit instruction that I preferred one over the others. Coincidentally, they agreed, and we started working on characters and concepts for a campaign based on one of my favorite video games. After some conversation we decided it would be more fun to shift from an overt video-game campaign to something more based in shounen anime.

This post is also the story behind the campaign name. My working title was Godspeed, because the characters were blessed by their gods to go on an epic journey that began with their deaths. A few days before the campaign began, as I was thinking about it, one of my oldest songs came up on my playlist, and it inspired me to change the campaign name to Faith. On its face, it’s about the characters using time travel to increase the amount and quality of worship their gods receive. But it’s also a statement of my own. Starting this campaign took the last bit of faith I had in my own ability to run a game, and I needed that little “you can do this” reminder every time I thought about it.

Faith has been a raucous success. It’s not perfect, and some parts of it have been just as irritating as the campaigns that preceded it. In particular, I can assure my players that no matter how much they gripe about spending time in the library doing research, I feel the pain of a stalled session even more. But as bad as the low points are, the characters are engaging and lovable, the players are challenged but not terrified, the setting is complex but not overwhelming, and the game encourages the sort of loose rules interpretations we were going to use anyway. After a twenty-six episode season of Faith, I didn’t even want a break. I wanted to keep running, maybe doing a between-seasons “movie” that didn’t connect to the larger plot. But I knew I needed some time off even if I didn’t want it, NaNoWriMo was coming up, and the next DM in our rotation had patiently waited almost ten months to run the final season of his own campaign. So while I am enjoying his game, I’m also working hard for the next time I get to run something. It took a few months, but running Faith has felt so good that I started Under the Stars with my other group. It has its own feel and challenges, but I’ve mostly figured out what I want from it and we’re working our way there.

Obviously, this blog continued. Post 300 became an ode to subclasses, and immediately after that I started talking about time travel and world maps. Because this is still a DMing advice blog, I would love to give some advice here, succinctly explaining what I learned from this series of events. I don’t know that there is any, at least in the realm of tabletop gaming. All I can say is that bad times can get better. One unsuccessful attempt (or several costly failures, over several months) doesn’t preclude a later success. Sometimes it takes a major change, a new approach, or a new definition of success, but sometimes it just takes faith in yourself.

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