Welcome to the “How To Turn Around” series for GMs that want to make their campaigns better. Today let’s talk about the worst sin a GM can allow: having your game turn boring. Here’s how to fix that.
There is no quicker way to get people in to the action than to find out what kind of action they like. If your table likes deep role playing, then lay off on the fighting and give them an environment where they can do that. Whatever it is that you are not doing, that they want, go to it. If you’re in the middle of an event that isn’t giving them what they want, but the event needs to happen for the story to move forward, use what I call “the snapback."
Tell your players that you’re pausing the story. Think of an object or ally that they could have right now that would help them in their current situation. It can be tickets to get in to an event, a health potion, a bag of jewels; whatever. The point is you establish that macguffin. Once you’re all agreed on what it is, tell them that you’re now flashing back to the last time there was a gap in your story. In this flashback they will be doing whatever the table really wants to be doing. Taking off heads? Sure, when they were camping last night they got jumped by Goblins. Exploring their character’s background? Why not, an old friend came in to town, roleplay that out.
If they are successful, then they now have the macguffin. If not, they didn’t get it. Either way, the group had fun and will go into the rest of the event with renewed energy.
Fun fact; I went to France once. While driving through the countryside, I stopped at a ma and pop kind of sandwich shop, where I saw they had something called “the American”. It was four beef patties in a hoagie bun, stuffed with French fries and ketchup, and slathered in cheese. This was what the French thought Americans liked. They were 100% correct. That sandwich was delicious.
Do this for your table. Combine many great things to satisfy everyone. Let’s say that in the example earlier you don’t have a unified table that prefers combat or roleplay, but instead one that is divided with some players wanting one and some wanting the other. Make them the same thing. During your fights describe not just what’s happening, but how it looks, feels, and emphasize that the thing doing it is more than a bunch of numbers on a sheet. If your party is jumped by bandits; who are they? Take a moment to describe some of the rumors they’ve heard concerning this group of ne’er-do-wells.
Compare the difference:
“As you round the bend in the road you come across 5 human bandits, looting a corpse. You see them first, but not by much, and the leader shouts ‘Get them!’ Roll initiative.”
“You’ve heard that the big hero around these parts is Sir Kevan the Loud. He’s known for wearing enchanted gold plate armor, which amplifies the sound of his voice. He’s also known for laughing as he swings his great maul through the skulls of villains. Sir Kevan is a sight anyone would recognize in an instant from only a brief description, and so you do. When you turn the bend in the road you see Sir Kevan, lying in the road. His beautiful gold armor is now splotched with red, and a dozen daggers are sticking out of the gaps between his joints. Sir Kevan is dead, and the five men standing over him are silent.
These men are also easy to recognize. They are the Hushed Brothers. They wear bandanas over their mouths, for they have sworn a vow of silence until each of the five is as rich as a king. As they stand over the body, signing instructions to each other, they stop, and then turn to face you. Each draws a dagger.”
Much more entertaining! The fight guy knows he’s going to get to swing his weapon, but the RP guy has something to work with as well. During the fight don’t just let role player roll and tell you if he/she hits or misses, have them tell you what happens, maybe even how they feel about it. Make the actual fight an RP experience.
The real trick is you can do this for anything. In an extreme example, have the player that loves fighting realize that a difficult conversation isn’t all that different from a duel, and stat the NPC’s resistance to whatever idea the players want to get across like it’s a monster. Have the fight-minded player make attacks as though they are fighting the monster, but describe what actually happens in terms of a wicked retort, a funny joke, whatever.
The idea here is that, as the GM, you have control over everything. This means you can have any given event play out in whatever moods suits the table. Keep an eye out for what your players want and make it that. Sometimes that will mean combining elements, and trust me: it tastes so good, you guys.
There is the chance that a campaign will just fizzle. I’ve been on both sides of this; player and GM. No one seems to care about getting the ring to Mordor, or blowing up the Death Star, or whatever. Maybe it’s gone on too long. Maybe they don’t have a clear moral stance. It doesn’t matter what caused it; what matters is that your players are no longer excited to come to the table.
Fixable! Just fast forward. Either have them montage through a series of short scenes that get them to where the climax of this story could take place, have them be surprisingly more prepared than they thought they were (“That charm you picked up glows in the presence of the Ogre, which jumped you at night. You have plus ten anti-Ogre magic to each hit. Looks like you’ll be able to avenge the village after all!”), or my favorite which is the villain switch.
If you have players that truly don’t seem to care about the story, use that. Have them come upon the end of it surprisingly early, then have a bigger bad wipe out the villain before they can. The bigger bad is the real story: Welcome to your new campaign. This has never failed to inject new energy into a weary party.
It hits all the major adrenaline pumps. First, they are suddenly upon someone they hadn’t expected to find this session. Are they ready for this fight? They don’t know and you will find eyes much more open as they debate how to proceed. Then, a new presence. Friend or foe? Again, no one should be mentally checked out for this. Finally, these things they thought were all-important are cast aside. This new villain has bigger plans. Newer plans. Interesting plans.
Even if you think you are in a corner with your campaign, this can be done. Imagine you made “Lord of the Rings” and your players have become bored with it…
“While you wander, ever on foot even though you’re quite sure Gandalf could have at least summoned you a horse, the ring wraiths arrive. You are suddenly, and entirely without warning, surrounded. Before you can be cut down, an axe head raises out of the ground and buries itself in the foot of a ring wraith. The thing screams in pain, and for a moment the ground seems to quake. Dwarves are climbing out of hatches in the ground, concealed cleverly until they open.
As the leader of the wraiths turns to attack, it is casually cut down by a Dwarf in rusty metal armor. The rest of the wraiths meet similar fates. The Dwarves walk up to you, Frodo. They are all wearing rusty equipment. Their leader, who stands nearly as tall as a Man and twice as wide, snatches the ‘one ring’ from the necklace with shocking speed. Between his thumb and forefinger, he crushes it to dust.
In the background, you see—more sense—Barad-dur fall. The tower at Mordor is no more. In the instant the ring is crushed, you see the leader of the Dwarves shimmer in red light. Some sort of magic, of a kind you can sense is unbelievably wicked, washes over his armor and restores it. The armor is no longer rusted, but now shines a beautiful crimson.
Without words, the leader nods to his cohorts. One of them grabs your sword, Sting, and destroys that as well, absorbing it’s strength into his own armor. Then they make for their holes, hoping in one at a time.
Before the leader, the last on the surface, hops in, he turns to you. He says, ‘Find me more trinkets, Hobbit. I crave. And I will have my armory. You have a month to arm another of my number with magic essence. If I find you in a month without an item for me, there will be dire consequence.”
Now, you have a new campaign. Your players may be baffled, but if they were bored before you now have made progress in the right direction.
There are uncountable ways to save a boring campaign, but these are one’s I’ve used that have never failed. Try them and let us know what happened! As always we’re pumped to know about your own stories from the table.
Jake Draugelis is an actor and the author of The Deadly U. He is also the GM for Local 4’s own tabletop RPG Twitch stream, Channel 1d4. Join the adventure live on Wednesdays at 7pm EST: www.twitch.tv/channel1d4