Monday, March 2, 2015

Breaking Up is Hard to Do

All the players signed our last foe

When Great Gaming Groups Disband

I am sure there are some gaming groups who have been together for decades, but I’d reckon for most of us, we’ve changed “parties” at least a time or two as we’ve grown in our hobby.  I played Dungeons & Dragons for three and a half years (2009 - 2012) with a creative, sharp-witted, tremendously outgoing group of close friends.  But at the end of our epic campaign, the group split up, most of the players going their separate ways.  As a thirty-something, happily married man, this was the closest to a break-up that I have ever felt. 

Let’s rewind a bit

 and be warned, this gets a little sentimental...

My weekly game setup


Six years ago I started my first online role-playing group with some friends from Levittown, Pennsylvania, where I grew up.  I was still relatively new to social media, having just joined Facebook a few months earlier, and it didn’t take long for me to connect with people from my high school years.   Since most of us were gaming-geeks, we shared stories of our amazing quests and campaigns from the old days, and lamented about gaming as an adult.  It was the tail-end of the 3.5 Edition era of Dungeons & Dragons, and I was starting to burn out, not just on the d20 system, but on the campaigns I had been running.  

I needed a fresh start, with some creative players, and new ideas.  It would be great to get back together with my old friends, and just play a few games together.   Before I even had a method to play, I was out recruiting on Facebook and managed to dig up a terrific ensemble.  To bridge the distance between the players and myself I started plotting a way to game online.  Over the years I had tried some chatroom RPG’s, which could be fun for the occasional evening, but was slow and ponderous.  There had to be a faster and more efficient way of gaming online.  

Organizing the players on Facebook, I soon turned to Yahoo Groups and created “Qualanthorus’ Keep”, the name derived from an old NPC in a AD&D 2nd Edition campaign.  I would use the Yahoo Group to organize play sessions and send group messages.  To talk to everyone, we used a newfangled program called “Skype”.  Since we started off with D&D 3.5 and eventually transitioned into 4th Edition, we would need a map-grid and miniatures.  Maptool would eventually become our virtual table of choice, since it was easy to create pogs, and I could drag .jpg maps directly onto the screen.  

Our goal was to play at least once or twice per month, but after only a few sessions we all realized that we had found something special.  At the time I was drowning in homework, since I was going back to school for my MBA.  I was also trying to balance a pair of campaigns, the online game, and an offline campaign, with my personal life.  It was becoming too much work.  Given the ease of play, and the quality of our games, I chose to continue the online game, and backed away from the in-person group.  

We called the campaign “Ravenscape”, and it was a hybrid Ravenloft/Planescape setting, where the players started off as “monster themed” characters (Goliath, Tiefling, Goblin, and Shifter) in the xenophobic Demiplane of Dread.  During the early sessions the party spent considerable time having to ally itself with traditionally evil creatures, while fleeing monster-hunters and angry villagers.  Over time the campaign shifted to the planes, as we introduced a massive story-arc:  the great demon Orcus wanted to usurp the Raven Queen, goddess of death.  Some of the highlights of this “kitchen sink” campaign concept included the following:

  • The tiefling bard character found out that he was the son of Orcus
  • The party’s shifter escaped slavery-by-vampires on a ship called the “Downeaster Alexa”, only to return and rescue all of shifter-kind as a savior.
  • The goblin sorcerer character became a chronomancer (time-mage)
  • Time travel became a critical element to the campaign, and the party eventually realized that a “Tome” they had been following as an in-game “guidebook” was actually written by a party member… from the future.
  • Strahd von Zarovich acted as a benefactor, and friend for most of the campaign until he killed off a beloved NPC.  
  • When we added a new player, at level 21, we let him be the actual “Lady of Pain”, built as a Deva Ardent.
  • The party at 24th level came back to Barovia and killed Strahd (challenge rating 18, if I recall) by surrounding him and pummeling him mercilessly in only a few rounds.    
  • The party killed the Tarrasque
  • The tiefling’s drow lover became pregnant, which meant Orcus was going to be a grandpa.
  • At the very end of the campaign, after introducing the Astral Sea, I threw Spelljammer stuff into the mix.

In other words, we did just about everything you could possibly do in a D&D campaign, as the party went all the way from 1st to 30th level.  

This dragon's nickname should be "Kitchen Sink"

The Dark Road Ahead

But in the summer of 2012, as the campaign started to approach its epic conclusion, I started feeling things slip.  Some of the players had been talking about taking a break after Ravenscape, and interest in another campaign seemed lukewarm at best.  Instead of recognizing this change for what it was, “player burnout”,  I desperately tried to hold onto the group.  I constantly bombarded the players with new ideas about future campaigns.  I felt that I just needed the proper spark to keep everyone interested, and once I found it, we would be good to go for another one-hundred sessions!  Some of the ideas I hatched were great, others were just desperate:

  • I bought Shadowrun 4th Edition and ran a demo of the game, even though there was no interest in sci-fi gaming from two of the players.
  • I tinkered with an Alternity-based post-apocalyptic campaign.
  • After picking up Savage Worlds in May of 2012, I offered to run a Steampunk spinoff of our Ravenscape campaign, blending Deadlands into the mix, and calling it “Plane Justice”.
  • I offered to return to a classic fantasy setting, like Dragonlance.

There was some interest from a couple of the players in returning to 2nd Edition AD&D with Dragonlance, and I pounced on the idea.  At the very last Ravenscape session, which was held at our “tiefling bard’s” house near Philadelphia for a two night “sleepover”, the party defeated Orcus, saved the multiverse, and we celebrated only briefly before trying to build 2nd Edition AD&D characters.  In hindsight, we should’ve taken some serious time off, at least a few weeks, but I wouldn’t yield.  I felt that the only way to keep the game alive was to push it forward.  Didn’t work.  

Little did I know that when Orcus died, so did the magic of this group.

Some of the players seemed keen on 2nd Edition nostalgia, while others still preferred the modern rules of 4th Edition.  After an unproductive character creation session, I threw together a last ditched attempt to come to a middle ground:  4th Edition Dragonlance.  This only aggravated the players interested in returning to 2nd Edition.  I tinkered around, offering to try Pathfinder or D&D Next, but it was too late.  

The players of Qualanthorus’ Keep, a.k.a. the “Monster Squad”, broke up.  

As a somewhat obsessive game-master I was devastated.  After playing every week, sometimes twice, online for three and a half years with that incredible crew of players, losing the game left me feeling very empty.  I second-guessed myself constantly on how I concluded the campaign, and secretly hoped that the group just needed a short break before getting back together.  When that didn’t happen, I resigned myself to starting something new, but I didn’t want it to be Dungeons & Dragons.

My wife baked a special cake for our very last Ravenscape adventure

New Beginnings 

Ultimately the story has a happy ending.  I started playing Savage Worlds, but found myself not having enough players, so I founded a game club where we also started playing Numenera, and then I was introduced to many of you who read this blog.  Along the way I got my wife and kids to start gaming too… bonus points!  

One of the special aspects of being a game master is that you get to put your heart and soul into your ideas, your writing, and your play sessions.  You are opening your imagination to the players, and allowing them to go on a “guided romp” that is unique and special.  Truly great role-playing experiences leave you feeling warm, excited, and eager for the next encounter.  It is easy to see why so many of us who game-master, continue to take on the role.  But sharing our imagination also leaves us vulnerable when our ideas fall flat, or don’t create that spark with the players.  It’s natural to feel sadness when you end a campaign, leave a group, or lose a player, especially when things are going well.  

In hindsight, I think my fears and anxiety over our online group's end were based on a misconception that, as I got older, it would be harder and harder to find new people and share in our collective imagination.  I saw Qualanthorus’ Keep’s ending as a finale rather than just a simple transition.

I’m so very glad that I was wrong.  

Your Thoughts?

Have you had a similar “break up” of a special gaming group, or collection of players?  Maybe you moved away, leaving old friends behind?  Perhaps you still want to play Pathfinder but the rest of your party is jumping into 5th Edition?  

Let us know.  Share your story, and let’s celebrate those special memories.  We’d love to hear about it!

PS Tom, Frank, Randy, Tym, and Cone, if you do happen to read this I just want to say “thank you”.  Thank you for the best campaign I’ve ever had the pleasure of running.  You guys were phenomenal!

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