Hello, my name is Cameron, and I play Tabletop or “Pen and Paper” Roleplaying Games like Dungeons and Dragons or Vampire the Masquerade. For those of you who might not know, these sorts of games are played with a group of people who sit down to tell a collaborative story wherein one person generally sets the stage with the world, the conflicts, and the supporting cast and antagonists. The other people are generally playing major characters within that story, and attempt to resolve the various conflicts. Resolving the conflicts is done by way of various agreed upon rules, often involving dice, cards, or other elements of chance, or some form of narrative negotiation.
These games are played in regular intervals called “sessions”, lasting between three to six hours on average involving usually around a half dozen people or so, meeting on weekly or monthly schedules, as time allows. Completed stories are called “campaigns”, while major narrative arcs are called “adventures”. Completed stories are rare, because these stories take months or years to tell, and groups often do not last that long because life can get in the way. However, when one does get a chance to complete a campaign, it is usually a story to remember.
In my many years of playing and running these games, I have only ever completed three full campaigns. I have done dozens, if not hundreds of single session introductory games at conventions, many of which went quite well, some of which went poorly, and a few of which were fantastic. My first real attempt at running a game was one. It was during my college years and during a summer break. Two close friends, and the brother and friend of one of those friends came to my parent’s place and I ran them through a published campaign book. It was a lesser known science-fiction game set on a far-off world rife with politics, action, and remains to this day one of my favorite fictional worlds to play in.
Now, published adventures and campaign books are materials one uses to run a game that provides the person running the game with the story and conflicts already created and ready to go. Some are more rigid, others are more flexible. This one provided not just the structure I needed as a novice to get started, but advice and suggestions for ways to expand on it that would lead to me building my own stories. Not just that, but suggestions for things to help the players add to the story as well. Early on, I stuck to the script provided while I got used to running the game. But as the game went on, as the players added more and more of their own story to the game, the more I changed, removed, or added from what was in the book to adjust.
When the final game was upon us, we were already down one player due to real life concerns. The player had a scheduled trip with their family, so it was just myself and the remaining three players. We were a week or two from the end of summer break, and it was a bit after midnight. We had been playing for nearly twelve hours, as we were on summer break, and we were very much excited to keep playing. I looked at the rest of the book and my notes, looked to the players, and informed them that we had a choice. We could stop here and finish up next week, or we could push through and finish it before everyone had to go home the next day.
So, like many college students with access to caffeine and junk food, we pressed on. When we had finished, we had been playing for about 26 hours, and the characters had been through a similar gauntlet, staying up for 38 hours. When they had taken stimulants to keep going, we had downed cola. When they took painkillers to push themselves further, we stretched and grabbed a handful of chips. The final scene was one that just worked. The dialog, the dice, everything. The players finished the game feeling exhausted on not just a physical but also an emotional level, but at the same time satisfied.
Even now, I still remember that campaign fondly. I have written short fiction for it, as have some of the players. I even had one of the final moments drawn by a very talented artist. We even tried to run a sequel. It was my first solo campaign. I had tons of great ideas, we were going to have the entire team back, we even had a new player.
The game lasted about three sessions before it just fell apart. It was not working well, and the usual scheduling conflicts helped to end things before people started souring on it altogether.
That is the thing, getting to these endings is hard. When you create it yourself, you have to plot everything, then adjust for all the things the players add, your own diversions, the sessions where characters are shopping or the players are socializing instead of playing the game, and that is when you can actually get everyone together. When you can do it though, it is wonderful, and even though I was using a published campaign book, the story of that game is going to be fundamentally different from any other game that used that book, on a number of levels. Sure, the major events will be the same, but the main characters will all be different, as will their actions, as will the results of their actions. If my players ran that same game with someone who was not me, it would not have ended the same way. If they had played with me and some dice results had gone differently, they might have prematurely ended the threat of the main antagonist. Each campaign, even if many elements are the same, are fundamentally different stories.
Cameron Johnson is a Game Master, LARPer, and general purpose nerd. He does amateur voicework from time to time and spends far too much time pretending to fly around the galaxy. Every week or so he manages the misadventures of a group of reprobates that includes Joshua Simpson. Despite this, he was still willing to write this article.