Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Terrible Campaign Ideas

One thing I have noticed about creeping middle age is that milestones leave me increasingly asking, “when the hell did that happen?” Recently I ran over the 400 posts mark (really now 420 but why quibble).

Even more astounding has been the continued march of my unpublished draft posts—hitting 300 this month also. That's a lot sitting idle on the cutting floor. Granted about a quarter of that yawning hole in my draft folder are just plain technical misfires, another fifth of them are good, healthy, interesting posts that I just ran out of time in my two-hour window for gaming-related writing I ration myself each day.

The rest...well the on the Island of the Misfit Toys; stunted little dwarf posts that either were too clumsy, too polemical, too badly-timed, or too just damn weird for me to release them into the light of day. Of course these I secretly love.

A for instance, these I group under the title of Malformed Campaign Seeds (and this mind you is only the coherent half of them):
Evolving System World. This idea evolved out of discussion of the familiar rules-detail/crunch arc—that is you start playing a rules lite game only to want more and more layers of rule complexity to the point that you actually start either jumping systems or creating Frankenrpgs. In a nutshell the campaign would codify this.

The PCs start playing with a completely free-form game with few formal options. Each campaign year we would port the game to a new rules system of varying complexity. So after the faceless mooks in grey jumpsuits storygamed their way through that year they'd go on to be OD&D characters the next year would add Greyhawk so on down the line until they were playing Rolemaster or someother bat-shit complex system.

A truly stupid idea, somewhat akin to saying: “I hate smoking. Too get it out of my system I am going to start smoking five Camel Lites a day eventually working my way up to a carton of Pall Malls.”

Literary Tower of Babel World. A variation on the last one, really. In this one each “land” in the campaign world is dominated by a single theme heavily based on a particular fantasist's work. So you are booging around in Zothique with a bleak range of S&S-like options and then the next day you crossed the mountains and were tooling around Gondor with yet another. Each land would have totally different emulative mechanics for it. Oh it hurts.

Polish “Time of Troubles”. Campaign set in the vast borderlands of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth during the 17th-Century. Cossacks, feathered hussars, sabre duels, empty steppes, spooky wetlands, all the works. I planned on converting the Polish RPG Dzikie Pola still sitting on my desk for the project.

It's the last part that makes it a bad campaign idea—any idea that involves you learning a new language and then doing a translation of part or all of a 318-page book is a truly, truly terrible idea.

Pan Chakan Defiance (or Jews with Guns..In Tekumel). A recent joke that almost became a post. Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber lead a band of Jewish partisans through a nexus point into the vast jungles of the Chakas in Tekumel. Guns ablazing they hold off the combined military forces of the Petal Throne, the Red Hats and the Pe Choi. Bad in-jokes makes for worse campaigns.

Now I know very well that many of you have harbored Bad Campaign Ideas (I read your blogs after all, ha). Let your hair down, here's your chance to share. What's lurking in your closet?


  1. "There's a war between humanoid cats and dogs in a fantasy world, and we'll use the rules for mutant animals from Palladium." I have no idea why I ever thought that was a good idea.

    A also once drew up some ideas for a campaign based on the Bomberman games. Again, no idea.

  2. Noticed that the "Point of Light" idea we talked about when you lived up here didn't make the list. I liked that idea which may have made it inherently BAD : )

  3. @Kelvin
    I have a follow-up post for the Even Worse ideas. Just wait.

    And a possible follow-up on the flawed but decent ones--that would fall there.

  4. Worst campaign I ever actually run was one requiring a lot of research and setting the game right before the Greyhawk Wars, where the characters were soldiers in the Furyondy army. Should have checked with my players first, they were entirely uninterested in Greyhawk, didn't want to do the research necessary to run their characters in Greyhawk, didn't want to be soldiers, and the camapaign only lasted a few sessions. It's the shortest campaign I've ever run. My lesson was from then on to listen to my players when they say they aren't interested in playing in a certain world or setting or style, and certainly not to try and shoehorn players into a certain character type (making the players all soldiers, for example).

  5. 1993: Let's play traveller, but with DnD rules.. and zombies!

    1994: You, the player, wake up in low-magic fantasy world with geography just like where we live now. Lasted 1 session.

  6. @Badmike
    Perhaps it should be a general rule of thumb that campaigns build around "high concept" exclusion-criteria are going to be Very Bad Ideas if they don't have a lot of player buy-in. Nothing says we're are going to derail this f-cker like putting in a lot of expectations about a very narrow set of roles they are allowed to play.

    That said I would have totally dug soldiering through Greyhawk with a pike on my PC's shoulder haha.

    Yeah that "You as PC" as an inherently Bad Idea is getting a lot of play on the related Google Plus thread right now.

  7. Speak for yourself, bub! I only have good ideas.

    On the serious side, I tend toward pre-published campaigns and whole cloth created adventures. I like the structure of a published campaign world and can reference the published canon at need, though I freely break from canon when it suits the game. Thus, my Greyhawk has no Circle of 8 or whatever its called but retains much of the slaver's core ideas and the old megadungeon as well. Our Pendragon campaign is steeped in Malory; but, Ulfius is the bad guy and lordy how the environs of London are riddled with hidden Saxon dens or witch covens.

    My next campaign idea is also something I think is really cool; but, may pass into Bad Idea territory. It all starts out with a 1-shot with pregenerated characters and takes off from there. Check it out.

  8. "Let's play traveller, but with DnD rules.. and zombies!"

    Oh, Fading Suns.

    Snerk. ;)

    Something about "Literary Babel" sounds not-so-sucky, though, in a kind of TORG-ish way. Run it with RISUS or Encounter Critical, maybe?

  9. Just wanted to say, been readin yr blog through Reader since post-Zak G+ adds, & it's one of my faves. Great stuff. Keep it up! Thanks.

  10. Polish “Time of Troubles”? Can't you just use the rules engine from WFRP1e to give you a miserable, early-Modern central European vibe?

  11. @Eric
    At first I thought you were satirizing my Conan one shots and then clicked the link. That one looks anything but a bad campaign idea, a well-executed one shot can definitely whet the appetite for the longer banquet of a campaign. Are you running it face to face?

  12. @ghostwriter
    That's nice of you to say, appreciate it.

    I had thought about it, but I wanted the tone to be much closer to the 19th century trilogy that starts with With Fire and Sword. Those books are much more Romantic adventure tales, brighter tones (though there are for sure some Slavic melancholy mixed in there).

  13. Here are two recent ones:

    Evil PCs are geased by a necromancer to recover the remains of an evil PC from the previous campaign. That did not go well...

    Adventures in Hobbiton!

  14. I am still waiting for your post on Hobbiton.

  15. How about this one?

    Elves living in Ravenloft are actually the afterlife for other races. First adventure would end in predetermined TPK and PCs "waking up" to discover themselves all transformed into elves. Another variation on this idea would be to have this ready in case of a TPK, but IIRC I actually tried the first one, and it lasted two sessions.

  16. Chris, I've not run it yet. It would use Stormbringer 1981 rules and I've never refereed in that system. Online or face-to-face would work. If there are takers, I'd attempt a G+ game; however, because I've never refereed the rule set before I'd need some pretty tolerant players.

  17. Trying to pay Traveller with a bunch of dyed in the wool D&Der heavy metal fans. Went no where fast.

  18. @Chris

    On the "Players as PCs" riff, my ancient game group played Aftermath post-holocaust with the players as PCs. It worked for the first couple sessions until Mr. Power Gamer decided he wanted to steal the M60A3 main battle tank that was sitting in the Honeywell compound a mile away. Suddenly, the game only revolved around his character, and I dropped out of the game. This could work in some cases.

  19. @Brendan
    Yowser, well at least your are in good (bad?) company here.

    Fantastic, if you take it to the G+ pocket universe I'd love to play in. And tolerant I am having had to suffer through my own first-time running SB blues myself recently.

    Sometime remind me to tell you about a related, stupid story.

    Funny I was just leaving you a comment on your blog. Yeah "PC as player" double plus ungood when you add the more pathological side of our fellow gamers.

  20. 1993: Let's play traveller, but with DnD rules.. and zombies!

    Sorry, these are the bad ideas. The good ideas are in the next post. ;)

  21. You past 400 posts, holy cow. That's pretty cool. I have bunches to go before I hit 444.

    Happy Blogging.

  22. I've run players as characters in Ghostbusters, DC Heroes, AD&D, Marvel Superheroes, the WWF rpg, and probably a few others that escape me at the moment.

    Marvel Superheroes worked out awesome, and they're all looking forward to more.

    DC Heroes also worked out great, with only one blip, but that was due as much to an irrational attraction as anything else.

    WWF, it all worked great, but it took entirely too long to do matches. Promos and storylines were great though.

    AD&D worked out for all but one player. His biggest problem was not with the game though, but with the character creation system where he did not do as well as some of the others.

    Ghostbusters, it worked out for half the players. The other half will never give it another go. Ah well. And yes, this time it was strictly obnoxious players. However, perhaps strangely, they are fine in the ones listed above, and at least three keep asking me to run the Time Lord game that they all made themselves up for.

    As a player, I was in a d6 adventure game as myself, a Marvel Superheroes game, and a homebrew wrestling game. Had a blast in all of them.

    So, avatar games can work, as long as you're willing to work with each other- just like for any other game.

    Oh yeah, and Stormbringer rocks!