When Players Kill the Campaign

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on May 10, 2010

Players inevitably do the unexpected. A good DM anticipates the most likely options and plans for them. After all there are only so many choices during a dungeon crawl. But what happens when the unexpected scenario involves the characters themselves and not the choices they make? How can a DM prepare for players who want to changes their characters without warning? How is the long-term camping affected when the players decide that they want to try something new?

We recently returned to a campaign that’s been collecting dust since 3.5e. Everyone was really excited about starting up again because we ended it on a cliffhanger. With over a year already invested in the camping there was substantial foundation already in place for the next chapter. During the down-time I’d plotted out the campaign progression through the entire paragon tier. But before we could proceed everyone needed to re-imagine their character using 4e mechanics.

4e D&D presented the players with a lot of new character options. Not only are the classes full of variation in and of themselves, but there are new classes and new races not previous available in 3.5e. After about 10 sessions into the campaign four of the five players decided that they wanted to play different characters. Some of them said that their character just didn’t feel the same in 4e as they did in 3.5 and others just wanted to try some of the new mechanics – both of these being perfectly acceptable reasons as far as I was concerned.

As the DM I want the players to have fun. If they don’t want to keep playing their current character, I have no objection to letting them change PCs. But this is the first time that more than one player decided to change his character at the same time another player.

That puts me, as the DM, in a strange situation. How do I proceed? My original story assumed that the party makeup would be unchanged. A lot of my plot points and interesting role-playing encounters were tailored to the specific PCs, their abilities, and more importantly their previous and continuous involvement in the greater story. By throwing new PCs into the mix a lot of the reasons for why things are happening don’t make a whole lot of sense any more.

My initial thought was to scrap the current campaign and just start something new. After all, none of the characters have a shared history and only one of them knows the campaign history. Forcing the newcomers down the path of the existing story seems difficult and unfair to them. But when I broached this topic with the players they all said they like the current campaign story and they all want to keep playing it.

For the past two weeks we’ve been trying to figure out how and why these PCs would come together and stay together as a party. For now we’ve used the most boring and typical motivation – treasure. But my gaming group is very experienced and very hard-core. They generally want something more out of their role-playing game experience. So we struggle to find a common goal and still stick to the campaign as originally envisioned for a totally different group of characters. So far we haven’t resolved this issue.

This entire experience has me looking at the way I design my campaigns. As the PCs are developed through game play and become more recognizable as actual characters, I try to incorporate a lot of that into my game. The rewards are tremendous and the players feel really connected to the campaign. But using this campaign development strategy has come back to bite me. I’ve tailored the game so much to those characters that it just isn’t he same with a new party. In a way it’s almost impossible to proceed without them.

For the first time in a long time I actually see the value in the short, one-off adventures like the RPGA Living Forgotten Realms (LFR) games. The biggest complaint I’ve heard from people playing these adventuress is that there is no senses of continuity. They adventures are designed to accommodate a party of six PC, regardless of their classes or races. Because you will likely play with different people and different character every week, you loose the camaraderie gained by playing a long-term home game. The complete containment of the adventure week-to-week means that changes like the one we’re experiencing now have no impact to the game. The players show up, play the PC they want to play and the game moves ahead.

So I’m in a situation where I need to find some happy middle ground. I think the LFR example is too far away from where I want to be, but the methodology I’ve used up to this point might be to restrictive. I suppose I need to try and design the campaign to play to the current party, but not to do it to such as extreme that the loosing a PC will destroy the campaign entirely.

Have other DMs experienced this problem? How have you handled mass exodus of characters form a campaign? Do you design your adventures so closely to the party’s current make up that roster changes would essentially kill the campaign?

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

1 callin May 10, 2010 at 10:55 am

Find similarities between your current characters and the previous ones. Did one want to be the best fighter in the world? Find a similar character in the current party, even if its not the same player.
Make similarities between the two groups. Was someone out to avenge his slain family? Have a different player’s character’s family be conned out of their home and livelihood such that the family is not dead but instead in a “near death” state of poverty due to efforts of the campaign’s villain.
Is someone on the quest to restore a long lost family heirloom? Turn it into restoring the family name which was besmirched by the villain.
Was a character part of an organization that was a motivator for the character or group? Have a different player’s character join the organization, or create a new organization with the same agenda (perhaps it is an evil organization with a similar goal that the character has been asked to infiltrate).

It sounds like you need to take a step back and spend a few adventures reintegrating the new characters into the campaign. Rebuild the personal connections.

It might also help if you can identify what exactly about the campaign the players liked/desired that makes them want to continue the current campaign. Was it the recongition their characters had within the world? Was it certain legendary/powerful items they possessed? Was it a feeling of being important within the setting?
It sounds they were less enamored with their actual characters and more enamored with the campiagn setting/theme. This is a plus, since it should allow you to move past the former characters while retaining the campaign.
Identify these things and it will help with deciding how to and where to reintegrate them.
.-= callin´s last blog ..NPCs and the Normal =-.

2 skallawag May 10, 2010 at 11:16 am

1. Are you over-tweaking your adventure?
With 4e, you have a pretty good structure with a defined set of rules and guidelines. I would recommend not deviating from this. If you feel your gaming group is “hard core” or “elite”, don’t feel the urge to constantly tweak the encounters (i.e. adding Drizzt as an enemy mob because you feel the battle is too easy for your group). Thousands of hours were spent play testing the 4e rules to make it what it is today — don’t reinvent the wheel.

2. You have a predefined story arc.
Regardless of the type of party, you obviously have a start and a finish to your story. I would recommend that you spend some time thinking whether or not your campaign is too lengthy and not providing your players with a sense of “closure”. Have you been sending your party on a number of quests and they aren’t actually seeing the outcomes of their efforts? Have you been giving your players the run around over and over and now they see new characters as an out to add something new to their gaming experience? I’m a pretty big advocate of splitting your gaming sessions into episodes (like TV shows) while your overall story arc is the season). The LFR adventures are good in how they try to breakdown modules into a gaming session — a single episode to their 3-5 module campaign season.

3. Are you rewarding your players?
Since you have had 10 gaming sessions, how have your players progressed level wise and magic item wise? LFR modules are good in that they reward players with money or magic items at the end of each session.

3 Smerg May 10, 2010 at 3:39 pm

I would suggest using family or organization connections with the previous characters to the new characters.

We all come from somewhere and belong to something. The old characters are swapped to NPC status while friends, relatives, or other members of their societies are brought in as the new, active, adventuring group.

Many shows and stories have these types of connections. The game Ars Magica is focused on the larger covenant and players will at times activate various characters from the covenant for missions.

Players can claim a new character is someone their previous character turned for help in dealing with the problem. The original character’s links are extended through to the new character in a organic way.

The player of a dwarf can then claim support from her whole clan of dwarves while a mage could turn to any his wizarding society for aid.

If one player is a mage and now wants to be fighter then it might be the Caramon brothers, twins re-united for future adventures. You just allow the players to specify which one is adventuring on any day.

I would further suggest that you allow the players to keep their old NPCs current in XP with the new characters in case they choose to swap again or a change in party makes an old character a preferred choice for an adventure.

The only stipulation you then need to provide is that the swaps only occur between logical rests in the campaign. In the middle of an enemy castle or cave system is a no but when the players return home or to their sailing ship (ships and starships with big crews are another good source of replacement characters) is a yes.

4 begindnd May 10, 2010 at 5:11 pm

I think the only problem I’ve had is one character wanted to change from a rogue to a fighter/rogue and wanted to re-level. I was absolutely fine with that but…it can feel you’re being a bit messed around when suddenly your players want to change characters.

10 sessions of creating history for your characters only to go down the toilet and it’s not fair. Of course the players are going to feel detached from their original characters, the new characters are just not the same!

Thank you for the article :)
.-= begindnd´s last blog ..Masterplan – Fantastic DM tool for 4th Edition D&D! =-.

5 Thadeous May 10, 2010 at 6:12 pm

I have been in this situation before and I worked it out with my players to an acceptable end. I asked them to pick up the story with their original characters and each week we would work one character out of the story and one new character in to the story. It allowed me to leave the story relatively unchanged for the better part of 4 weeks, which gave me time to tweak what I needed to. It also allowed each new character to spend some time working into the group. One new character was childhood friends with one of the characters who was still waiting to exit the story. So when that character made their dramatic exit due to an untimely death it gave the new character (the child hood friend) a reason to move on with the group.

I don’t know if this would work for your story or if it is too tailored to tweak. Just a thought, or more of a memory.
.-= Thadeous´s last blog ..dm tips in 140 characters or so #5 =-.

6 panzerleader May 10, 2010 at 7:20 pm

Ultimately you must do what feels right to you, anything less would lead to a lessening of the fun. Good players understand this, and they will try to help you by agreeing to whatever they think is easiest for you. Also, their reasons for wanting to continue the current game might have something to do with the level they have attained as much as the compelling story. He he I am essentially calling all players a bunch of power-hungry appeasers.

Which they are.

But seriously, maybe a story describing how the one original PC ended up with a new group might be easier on everybody. I, for one, can’t stand going back to old campaigns, they seem stale somehow, but if that is your preferred outcome then there are a number of opinions, as noted above. But if you are not too keen on continuing the campaign, for whatever reason, then there is always the proverbially ‘and then everyone got hit by a bus.’

Shake it up, break it down, have a meteor strike the capital city, the opening salvo of the Dusk War. The new dynamic, whatever it may be, will wipe away the spiderwebs of the old campaign and everyone will fall right into place in the new. In my game, the game-world is into its second campaign, and there are many familial ties between the the pcs, old and new.

Its an interesting problem though, and Im interested to know how it all shakes out.
.-= panzerleader´s last blog ..Game Night May 7 – Interlude at the Welcome Wench =-.

7 surfbored May 10, 2010 at 7:35 pm

If your players are enjoying your campaign so much that they want to continue in the same story line, then you’d be a fool to scrap it. Getting player buy-in is the hardest thing in building a campaign, so you’re just going to have to refocus your creativity and work these new PC’s in.

We recently had a near TPK with only one PC surviving. He ran to the nearest Inn and asked for volunteers to help save his fallen comrades. Obviously the volunteers that stood up were all the new PC’s and they quickly bonded as they set out to “save” the original PC’s.

While the new PC’s were obviously unsuccessful at saving the old PC’s, they did take up the cause that the original PC’s started (thanks to the remaining original PC). Now, all new story arcs involve the new PC’s and the older arcs have either faded out or old enemies mistake the new PC’s for the originals (nobody is caring around a photo ID after all).

In short, don’t change your style if it’s working, just be ready to do some reworking.

8 Chromed Cat May 10, 2010 at 8:32 pm

A bit of a shame you couldn’t have been a bit more specific with the STORY problems, because it seems you have a great resource going by the posts of your readers. Saying that i think i’ll being echoing the sentiments already post before me.

With out those STORY specifics, it seems you will need the direction of the previous PCs to have some impact on the current PCs. Something that the players can buy into. Unfortunatly this campaign will not benefit from the ‘Yes” rule, the players will have to conceed to some restrictions on choosing their background. Or else the campaign looks scrapped, bar being in the same setting.

Perhaps mess with the timeline enough to have the current PCs being the disciples/inheritors of the past PCs motivations. Using such hooks as; new PCs are members of a faction started by the previous PCs or an opening ‘encounter’ reinvesting the animosities or ties experienced by the previous PC’s. Or taking a leaf from Wimwicks book. To which i’m refering to his article; Hey, Isn’t That My Character: Using Retired PCs As NPCs.

What ever the hook, it seems there needs to be some kind of legacy from the previous PCs. The players don’t need to be painted into a corner, but they will be required to come to the party, so to speak.

9 Feyrath May 11, 2010 at 12:22 am

I had an idea that perhaps might fit your problem. Perhaps these can still be the OLD characters, but in NEW bodies. Why they were thrown into these new bodies can be a mystery for the Epic tier. Some Jarring event transforms over half the party into different bodies, with different abilities, but with their personalities intact. Why not everyone? Who were they before, or did they even exist before? Why’d it happen? Have “someone else’s” memories show up. Have NPCs recognize them. They have specific items that perhaps suggest who these bodies really belong to. Have them unlock or learn their new abilities step by step (for example, tell them they can do this but you get to choose their Daily and 1 encounter powers, and they’ll be revealed to them over time. And you get to pick their new magic items).

10 Feyrath May 11, 2010 at 12:31 am

Oh and one more point. Enumerate the specifics of your campaign, and assign a level of difficulty it’d be to rework it. For example, if someone has to be a worshiper of Moradin, and that’s a key critical point upon which your entire paragon tier campaign is based, then it’s key. Write them down, and really think about them. Take the most important, key ones, and present them to the players and say “Look, I’m fine with you retooling your characters, but I’m in a bind. I need someone to be a worshiper of Moradin. And I need someone to be a female halfling with flaming red hair.” and so on and so forth. Obviously keep the list as short as possible, but put on it everything you need to keep from having to throw away all your work. And let them know that’s the consequences. I would think that your players would try to work with you on this.

11 Dungeon Newbie May 11, 2010 at 2:59 am

Have you given any thought to helping the players feel a sense of connection to the new players? What about having the old PCs “die” or get “injured” in a purposely over-difficult encounter? Then the legendary Fighter of Death (who is actually the new guy) jumps in and saves the entire party. With this, you could make the story much more interesting. Also, you could have the old PC retire from the party and become a wealthy merchant who sells Dragonsword+1s to them later on in the adventure(for the correct price, of course). If the old PC had anything special or unique about him, play on it! If he was a Dragonmarked, have him be the lost heir to the rich Dragonmark House of Denver. Or perhaps he was an elf with a special affinity for animals? Send him to a forest and have him live as a hermit, shrouded in seclusion and solitude, offering the services of his tamed beast to adventurers. Keep in mind the behavioral tendencies of that particular PC, however. Don’t make him the leader of the local Paladin Town Watch and a famous Keeper of the Peace if he was a shadowy and crafty Chaotic Evil Rogue who has a very high Bluff skill and uses it often. On the other hand, don’t make the Cleric who everyone depends on for healing and has a Good moral alignment a tyrannic marauding Warlord who has brutally taken over a village by force and is stealing from the local townsfolk in order to fund his gruesome experiments in troll mutation. Happy Gaming!
-Dungeon Newbie

Visit my blog at:www.dungeonnewbie.blogspot.com

12 Ameron May 11, 2010 at 8:32 am

@callin
The new characters and the old characters are very different. There are few similarities between them, including motivations. Part of the original background motivation was that a personal friend was wronged and the original party, through intense loyalty, vowed to clear his name and help him. It gets harder and harder for new PCs to have this same motivation.

The original motivation for the campaign/quest has indeed shifted as the story progressed, but this friend is still at the root of it.

The camping is set in Eberron. But we’ve been playing in Eberron for years so I don’t think it’s just that. The campaign has been full of political intrigue and non-combat interactions. I think that aspect has appealed to the players.

Thanks for your thoughts on this.

@skallawag
1) I rarely tweak the rules themselves. The only modification I make (occasionally) is to add an extra monster or take one away.

2) This is where I need to buckle down. I need to offer more closure more frequently. This is especially important if we only play once a week or even less often.

3) I find that at paragon level most PCs are already decked out with so much swag that more treasure carries little value, at least when I’m a player. But you make a good point. Rewarding all the PCs with something every week is a good way to keep them interested.

Great feedback as always.

@Smerg
The characters from the original adventure were so unique and so different compared to the new characters that any connections would feel stretched or forced — but it is something I’m looking at.

I’ve already followed your advice about keeping the old characters current. I’ve made it very clear that they can change back to the old PCs if they want to and the old PCs will be level-appropriate.

@begindnd
We had a similar change when the hybrid rules were released. One of the PCs who just got retired went from a Bard to a Swordmage/Bard. It was a better reimagining of his 3.5e character into 4e.

@Thadeous
I was going to do a slow and phased in approach, but once I realized the players weren’t enjoying themselves I buckled and let two switch one week and two switch the next week. Like taking off a band aid, I thought doing it quickly would be less painful.

@panzerleader
“I am essentially calling all players a bunch of power-hungry appeasers. “
I see you know my players. :)

We looked at the “kill them all and let The Silver Flame sort them out” approach, but in the end decided not to kill everyone off. This allowed for the possibility of going back to those PCs if they wanted to at a later point.

@surfbored
I’m not a big fan of family ties as a motivation. “All the original PCs step aside as their younger brothers and cousins step up.” It worked when I was 13, but after 20 years of playing this doesn’t do it for me any more. However, in some circumstances the easiest and more obvious solutions are often the best ones. I’ll give this some thought. Thanks.

@Chromed Cat
Honestly, I don’t think there were any story problems. It’s a pretty straight forward treasure hunt/quest set in Eberron. The interesting elements my players seem to really enjoy revolve around the assortments of reoccurring NPC heroes and villains they’ve encounters across the continent. They also seem to enjoy the political intrigue. Of course these things can be reworked fairly easily into a new campaign, which was why I originally suggested just starting anew, at the same level, and still in Eberron. But the PCs want to stick to the quest.

I think the new PCs need to find some kind of motivation that is completely devoid of the precious party’s motivations. They need to get involved with the quest to find the treasure, but for their own reasons. Having one of the original party members still in the group opens doors and provides access to the foundation already created over the past 12 levels.

I really like the idea of messing with the timelines. I’ve been thinking about that since reading your comments and feel that might be the best way to shake things up but keep the story alive.

@Feyrath
I think the players want to make a clean break. And having them in reserve eliminates the likely hood of old PCs in the new PCs body angle (but it is an interesting approach).

@Dungeon Newbie
I think we’re going to have the old PCs become benefactors of the new party. Some of them are indeed Dragonmakred and have powerful connections. Thanks for the suggestions.

13 granger44 May 11, 2010 at 10:00 am

I’ve given some thought to this myself. I think I’d try to setup something where the new heroes were taking over the legacy of the old characters. The new characters have heard stories about the old characters and decided to take up the quest those characters left behind as their own.

You could also setup some kinda of old-hero-reincarnated scenario. I’d even consider (at some critical point) rewarding the characters with a free multi-class feat to their old character’s class to reinforce the feel that this character shares something of the old character.

14 surfbored May 11, 2010 at 3:48 pm

Huh…

“@surfbored
I’m not a big fan of family ties as a motivation. “All the original PCs step aside as their younger brothers and cousins step up.” It worked when I was 13, but after 20 years of playing this doesn’t do it for me any more. However, in some circumstances the easiest and more obvious solutions are often the best ones. I’ll give this some thought. Thanks.”

…Is that what I suggested? ;D

I’m not a big fan of the family ties approach either. Having to say, “Hey, ain’t you Krog’s boy/brother/cousin?” over and over would be tedious to be certain.

You need a quick, easy way to replace all the original heroes with new heroes, hence my suggestion of a new party to rescue the old party — but they “fail” and therefore feel obligated to pick up the torch.

It’s also a good way to pass on crucial props (“the sacred charm that must be returned or the “only existing map of the ruins”) without having to explain how a unique item suddenly has a twin. Just have the new party loot the old party.

15 Ameron May 17, 2010 at 8:57 am

@granger44
Generally I’d create a scenario just like the one you’ve described. Unfortunately in my specific case the idea of a legacy picked up by others doesn’t fit with my story arc. I’ve instead decided to have the one PC who’s still around recruit help. Along the way the recruits will realize they have stronger motivations than just the reward the experienced PC promised them.

@surfbored
Sorry, I must have misunderstood you comment. A failed rescue attempt is an interesting approach I hadn’t considered. I’m going to put that one in my DM bag of tricks and use it down the road. Thanks.

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