After several weeks of illness and travel, my first D&D 5E campaign has finally wrapped up. But in the long stretch of time between last two sessions, I realized a normal campaign post-mortem wouldn’t really cover the things I wanted to say. I think it’s more helpful to discuss each issue separately so it has the space it needs, and I’d like to begin by telling you about a pro wrestling match I saw right after the penultimate session.
It featured two popular, skilled men in a match that had minor implications in their storyline but was more an excuse to give both of them something to do. It was a gripping, back-and-forth affair where both competitors pulled out surprising, athletic maneuvers, and they kept the action moving quickly and constantly. Commentary covered it well, the crowd stayed interested, there were no ridiculous shenanigans to take away from the match or the result, and both wrestlers came out looking like beasts, one for his skill and the other for his determination against great odds. It was fun, it was entertaining, it was excellently performed, and I hated it.
Reading a character sheet isn’t easy, especially when you don’t know what you’re looking for. “Longsword: +6 to attack, 1d8+3 damage” doesn’t actually mean anything without context, and that context is usually buried in gaming rules and minutia. Even if you have a frame of reference, like knowing you’re looking at a 2nd-level fighter in 3.5E, the context changes based on the campaign style (“Why don’t you have a magic weapon yet?”), the challenges (“You’re almost guaranteed to kill any goblin in a single hit, that’s ridiculous.”), the setting (“A longsword? So you’re showing off that you’re a foreigner?”), and too many other factors to list. I can’t give you a detailed primer on how to know if your character’s abilities, or the abilities of your players’ characters, fit the character or characters you want to play. That’s something you have to figure out for yourself within your campaign framework.
What I can do is give you examples of reading character sheets for information and what we learned from those examples. These aren’t direct recommendations like “if a character’s attack bonus falls below the recommended range for an attack bonus at the character’s level, that character is not interested in front-line combat”. Hard and fast rules don’t work for this. Instead they’re concepts, gentle nudges that say “here’s what we noticed, here’s what it meant, here’s how we reacted or did not react, and here’s the result” to demonstrate the general flow of this activity.
There is perhaps no less fruitful question in my daily life then “what do you want for dinner?” The perfect answer is something direct and attainable like “grilled cheese sandwiches with ham like you made three weeks ago”. Acceptable answers include “pizza”. But the most common answer is some version of “I don’t know.” It’s frustrating, it’s unhelpful, and it is completely reasonable.
In my experience, rarely does it actually mean “I don’t know.” It usually means something much more nuanced like “I want a meal that’s warm and hearty but not too heavy, strong on umami but light on salt, preferably heavily sauced, but right now I don’t have the wherewithal to express that.” A person typically knows what they want to eat, but they can’t express it in language. They just know a particular dish or place or culinary style sounds good or bad, and they consider those dishes and places and styles rather than finding the links among them to get a picture of their current perfect meal. That’s neither wrong nor surprising. It takes knowledge of food to be able to say what you want in food terms, and it takes knowledge of self to be able to even begin looking at your wants in that way, and most people don’t have both in sufficient capacity.
I don’t spend a lot of time here talking about how my current campaigns are going. I generally only mention what we’re doing week-by-week when it’s something I can apply to gaming in general or an opportunity to make fun of my bad luck. There’s probably some fun to be had in a narrative, in-character description of what we do each session, but that’s not really in keeping with a GMing advice blog.
Luckily there are other blogs, and one of my players is keeping an online journal for our campaign. Please thrill to the adventures of Dael, written by a player who heard me say “I want this campaign to be darker and more serious” and decided to play a drunken master of a monastic order founded on a typo. If you really what to go blog diving, this is the same player who brought us Egan Mospru, another character in the same setting, and Lao, Laotzu, and Lao!ze, the latter of whom is in this setting by virtue of becoming a god. I’m pretty sure this character will survive the campaign and complete his story, but it’s my first go at 5th Edition. So far I’ve only almost killed three characters in three sessions, so fingers crossed!
In July I finished my first non-d20 campaign. Having played in and more or less enjoyed campaigns in Fate, Icons, and a Powered by the Apocalypse system, I wanted to apply that sort of narrative, rules-light feel to a campaign in the Eight Arms universe and see how it mapped to somewhat stereotypical D&D. We’d already been giving the rules a bit of a light touch in Pathfinder and I thought running in a system that actually supported it was the next logical step. I settled on Monster of the Week as the system because it matched the feel and the presentation I wanted; most PbtA systems I see are about settings more than anything else, and finding a system that worked in multiple settings was an unexpected boon. Our group applied one of the ideas we’d had while faffing about one week, of a group of low-level folks who begrudgingly dealt with a high-magic world, and gave it a whirl.
It didn’t go great. To put it pithily, the 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. My general takeaway is that while the campaign might have had its good points, this confluence of GM, player group, and play style was not a good match and I’m probably not going to do it again.