So I’m running my own campaign again (the Navah campaign) and loving it. But I’m a different referee than I used to be. Back in 2012, I talked about some of the checks I had to put on my ego as I started playing in other people’s campaigns (Transitioning from Dungeonmaster to Player). Since then I’ve played in a lot of other people’s games. I’ve been in three Pathfinder campaigns (one set in Greyhawk), one in D&D 5e, and one campaign of Sertorius. Spending that time as a player has informed my practice as a referee.
The Pathfinder games seemed over-powered to me (I prefer low level campaigns) because one’s character development may get lost in the build one is creating or in the equipment one acquires. They are fun though, and that is important. They can also be deadly. That combination both helps me be willing to kill players who make unwise decisions, and to give them enough information that hopefully they don’t. Pathfinder also reminded me of all the things in D&D that I didn’t like and inspired me to finish my system, though I have to admit those things do not seem as important after nearly 40 years of playing.
The Greyhawk and Sertorius campaigns set a very high standard for detail of the world. Greyhawk was inspiring to play in. It was what I started playing in 1978, and it has been running since 1972 and developed by many referees, so there is a ton of background material on it. It is impossible for one person to come up to that standard, but it is inspiring and humbling. Sertorius is a newer product, and seems to be based on the campaign of a small dedicated group of gamers. Like my game, it seems to have grown from Runequest, but it was much more detailed than mine. Greyhawk’s level of detail was daunting, but Sertorius was something I could have done, if I had put the time in, and that inspired me to do better in my own gaming. When I got ready to run a game again, I resolved to do it right. I took the world I had run since 1980 and renovated completely. I used a system generator, then used the planet stats from that to create a world in Fractal Terrains 3 and then mapped that world over Google Earth to examine seasonal changes and to view in three dimensions. Then I created local travel maps from the Google screen captures, and finally, mapped an entire city, something I had done back in 1980 for Deybadon (a map and city write-up I still use!). My wife updated the Journeyman Generator, a program in C++ that generates encounters, NPCs, and settlement populations, so that I could generate a full city (over 20,000 households, with names, number of children, marriage status, occupation, character stats, personality stats, appearance, skills, treasure, hit points, and military and underworld connections). So I have a huge amount of data available to me before I start composing an adventure, and in fact the data really drives that development, because I have so much randomly generated material that I need to accommodate, it serves as a creativity tool to spark situations I would never have planned. I felt like I had done the world right, something I had always wanted to do but never had the time.
I also completed my gaming rules. I had done a lot of work on those before, but it was constructed over 34 years of gaming and there were lots of little bits that weren’t integrated, or that conflicted with each other. Playing in Sertorius shamed me for that, because I felt I really hadn’t created a unified system that players could depend upon. The rules in any campaign are the way that referee and players talk to each other, and without dependable rules, it is easy for a referee’s ego to get out of hand. I revised the rules, constructing the player manual first, then the magic rules, then the skill rules, and finally the combat rules, discovering each time that I had to go back and fix things in the things I thought were done to ensure that the system worked together. It was very satisfying when I finished (last week!), and although small changes will continue to take place, I can issue new rules very quickly and the major changes are done. I started designing the system back in 1980 because there were so many things about D&D and RQ that I loved, but an equal number that didn’t make sense to me, didn’t seem consistent, or didn’t allow for the type of world I wanted to run. No system is perfect, but this one makes sense to me, and that makes it a lot easier to run. It also frees up my time for creating adventures, since I’m not always rewriting the rules!
Being a player has also changed my facilitation of the game. It had been a long time since I had done a lot of playing (the 1980s!) and I think I lost touch with some of the fears and concerns that all players have. I wasn’t terribly worried about them. I think my games sometimes fell into simulation rather than story-telling. Hopefully I won’t make that error again! Now I look for the best story as we play, and I make sure I give players opportunities to expand their roles. I did that before, but now there is more sympathy for the plight of the players and less of a “take it or leave it attitude.” The players can’t know the world like I do, but I try to make sure they know as much as their characters would (and maybe a bit more). They certainly can’t do a lot of metagaming, because all of my monsters are unique. They encountered vampires this week, and even that most stereotyped creature is not quite what they know from the movies. That amplifies the fear and paranoia, deservedly so. Playing in other people’s campaigns also reminded me that when a character dies, it is painful but is not the end of the world. A good death can be as good as a good victory, and without the occasional death, victory has little zest. Still, the fear of the unknown coupled with the knowledge that death could be imminent could be debilitating to party bravery if the players did not think of themselves as heroes, something I always believed but now emphasize more through story-telling and the detailed backgrounds of each character. Every character has a history, contacts, and a family (generated by me) that makes him a more complete person, and gives him a support network that is there when all else fails.
Most of all, playing in those other campaigns reminded me how to have fun. It’s a game after all!