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I recently put together a gaming group composed of friends new to roleplaying who were excited to try some D&D. We've only had four sessions so far, and the players are really enjoying themselves, but I am a rookie DM — and I've made some mistakes. As a result I want to start over with a new campaign and new characters, but I'm concerned that the players will feel "robbed" by ending the campaign.

My playing experience has mostly been as a player in play-by-post games online. It's given me experience improving and thinking on my feet, but actually DMing has shown me that I still had a lot to learn. I made a bunch of mistakes and I've learned from them, but they're now "built in" to the campaign we're playing.

I was enamored with the setting and relied on the players sharing my enthusiasm. I wrote a few pages of setting primer and I helped everyone develop individual backstories. But in practice I couldn't maintain the tone of the game and it was quickly overwritten by the chaos my players unleashed. As I couldn't consistently present the setting, it quickly became very Pythonesque, and the game doesn't fit with my picture of the world now. Of course, my players enjoy it and that's what counts, but it's becoming harder for me to actually run the game.

To fix my mistakes, I decided that I need to drop the current campaign altogether.

I've already brought it up in a conversation with them and here's what I'm aiming at now:

  1. Making new characters together as a party, with my help. No individual backstories, we'll just roll some personality traits, ideals, etc. and see what emerges.
  2. Playing in a generic, unexplored setting like "Points of Light" from D&D 4e. That way our gameplay and my setting expectations won't conflict so much.

We have yet to discuss it, so what can I do to not make them feel like they've been robbed of the current game when I end it and start a new one?

I don't think I have a right to say 'no' if they really want to stick with the first campaign, but I really don't enjoy running it anymore.

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I know you're not a native English speaker, but in many circles of general nerd culture in America and on the Internet, there is a phrase for what you're doing right now: your spaghetti is falling out of your pockets.

In all seriousness, though, you seem very anxious about your situation and you should take a step back and relax. You say you're good at improv, but it looks like you're already sweating bullets because your party got sidetracked instead of getting to the quest you wanted to take them on.

I'm going to put my direct answer to your question first and some general advice afterwards.

Your players probably won't miss their characters. Why? Well, you generated them, and even wrote up their backstories. These characters were never made by the players playing them, and while they might have grown attached over a few moments, I find it extremely unlikely that they'll shed tears over a party that lasted for four sessions... that they didn't even make themselves. Even if the characters are extremely cool and interesting, that element of personal attachment just isn't there, which allows the players to truly say that they helped create an exciting story with interesting characters. This obviously varies from person to person, but again, I find it very unlikely that your players would have grown very attached in this case.

Go out with a bang. You know that amazing epic encounter you were saving for the climax of the plot arc? Yeah, run it now. You'll have to make some tweaks because you obviously aren't quite there yet, but get them there as fast as possible. Feel free to kill off PCs or even have a TPK at this point; memorable deaths are often much better than "and then they lived happily ever after."

Here's a few things to keep in mind when starting your next campaign:

Your content will come to light eventually, and it will be good. The quests you've designed will always find a way to come forward. Even if your plot arc is entirely ruined by something the players did, you will be able to recycle the content you made but never ended up playing, and I encourage you to do so for your new campaign. The only things that are truly lost are "hard" materials, like NPC stat sheets, etc.

You're in control, and therefore, you set the tone. Sometimes, it is best to take a page out of Gygax's book; after all, this is your campaign, and you put a lot of effort into it. Obviously you shouldn't take the entire preface from the AD&D DM's Guide to heart, but there is a point where a DM should draw a line in order for there to be some kind of structure, assuming you want your campaign to go anywhere. If your players are goofing around and killing NPCs for no reason, or making light of important people in-character, then they should be ICly punished for it; reprimanded for insulting a nobleman, pursued for attacking innocents, etc. It is also very possible to play a serious game in character and laugh until you're blue in the face out of character. This frequently occurs in the Dark Heresy games that I've played and ran.

You had better get used to murdering your darlings. This is a phrase commonly used amongst writers and creative designers everywhere in the U.S. The phrase means that you'll have to scrap ideas frequently, including ones that you really, really liked, so you had better get used to it. The saying is intended for use in the writing, film, video game, and other industries where a publisher or producer oversees your work, constantly telling you what can and can't make it to the final product based on time and expenses. However, it works just as well for when your ideas can't make it to the game because your players did something insane. And, on a related note...

Plan less. I don't know how much effort you're putting into writing everything ahead of time now, but you might want to ease up on that. From what you're telling me about your role-playing experience, it seems like you've been playing in a "safe" and slow environment where you rarely, if ever, have to scrap or re-do material. This happens literally all the time in regular tabletop RPGs, thanks to the insanely unpredictable nature of 4-5 different people working together. It will save you a lot of anguish if you lay out a basic outline of what's going to happen and then add the details once you're sure the players will be arriving there next session, or maybe two sessions later.

It seems like you've learned a lot already OP, which is great, but scrapping a campaign after 4 sessions (and while your players are all enjoying it) is something you should really avoid. If everyone else is having fun, consider either shaking things up a bit and changing your own notes, or coming up with a way to set them back on track, which doesn't always need to feel contrived or railroad-y.

EDIT: Well, now that SevenSidedDie has made that edit to your post, there are a couple of details that I didn't quite catch before, no offense. Since you said you have a month between each session, it seems like you might be over-planning because you have a lot of time between sessions. Heck, you might even consider having more frequent sessions, if you can't stop yourself from overthinking it in the intervening months. If in-person is not an option, use Skype and/or Roll20.

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The Simple Part

There's an easy way to handle this:

"Hey guys, I'm glad everyone's having fun, but things have gotten a little too silly for what I was thinking of. I'd like to scale back the silliness to (point to a book, or movie, or tv series as a common example)."

It may not be a hard sell, because your players did take the time to put together interesting backstories and you can remind them "it's going to be hard to explore (this issue you put into your backstory) if we're busy being silly.

If your players are good with this, when things do start getting silly, just remind them "Hey, let's tone it back a bit, ok?"

If your players aren't happy with a more serious game, then you can talk about the fact that it's not being fun for you anymore and decide if it makes more sense for someone else to take over as GM or if some other arrangement can be made.

The Bigger Picture

So here's a really useful skill in this that will serve you forever in tabletop roleplaying games: you can always pause the game and talk to your group as people, fellow creators in the game world, and geeks.

If you "end the campaign" to because you don't like the tone, and don't tell them why, or what you want, of course, they're going to feel robbed. Roleplaying games run on communication, and a basic part of it is knowing what kind of game (in tone, in goals, etc.) you all are trying to play together.

You will always do better by talking and cooperating as a group than you will do by trying to hide it from them and "get one over" on them.

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One way you can make them feel less "wasted" over time is to have the old world have an influence on the new world.

If the new world is remarkably different, it does not need to be over-the-top, but subtlety will go a long way. Consider that the long-living parts of a campaign are the subtle stories that grew over time, not the moments of "OMG we would have died if you didn't just roll a 20!"

As a case study, consider the world of the ABC show Once Upon a Time. The characters of Storybrook are not blatantly fairy tale characters, until the writers chose to make them so. But until then, there were uncanny patterns. The evil wizard who is always willing to make a deal runs a pawn shop. The good fairy is now a nun. For most of their interactions, they are nothing but their new characters. However, every now and then we get the privilege to see an allusion to something much bigger that we know about, but the characters don't.

They can even be transient characters. My last DM brought in a powerful NPC from games past to help us out with a particular quest line. We saw slivers of something larger, but never put it together. Finally, as we parted ways in the tavern, we witnessed him slurping spaghetti like a madman and realized from that quirk who the NPC was. We smiled, had fun, and then the DM whisked him away. But we never did know if he would show up again. A little bit of the old world had been made permanently a part of the new world.

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I would like to add something from my personal experience in DMing a Good\Neutral group in a 3 years long campaing, hope it will help to solve your problem =)

Firstly, answer yourself this simple questions:

  • Are you enjoying the story you created? Leave apart the players for a sec: the fun at the table is also strictly linked to the fun YOU are having crafting your world and your story, or DMing a pre-crafted story you like (and making it your way)

  • Are your players in love with their characters? I mean, not just enjoy them, but start to or already feel like something they crafted and wouldn't let go. You know, like a book or a tv show you like so much you don't want it to end.

If one or both of the answers are not true, just move on to another campaign: not every group\story mix comes out well.

BUT if everyone at the table is having fun and really enjoing the mood, there are several tweaks you can perform to tone down the sillyness and create a different atmosphere.

  • First of all, just always remember that while the players are in control of their actions, you are in control of the environment. No one is to much for a joke with women and kids dead around them, with absent fathers just returned from job crying and screaming for vengeance for the sudden hobgoblin strike that caused the slaughter. The real world is (sadly) full of horrorific stories that can inspire you for dramatic situations your heroes can solve or help with.

  • Actions have consequences. This is something my players learned the hard way. The cleric of my group thought it was funny to have The Evil Artifact of Burning Madness™ sold to a local merchant in exchange for the silly hat that make you change aspect at will. But just a couple of days after they get the notice that the merchant has been slaughtered and that the evil aberration army in the region is inexplicably groving stronger all of a sudden.. This is a way to let the players make what they want, not to "punish" them just because they made something very strange or plain stupid; but also to remind them that they are the heroes, and their actions really count, both in a positive and negative way.

  • Alignment is not static. Also here the cleric example: i shifted his alignment from lawful neutral to chaotic neutral, because of his action. When he started arguing this was not fair, i replied that alignment is not just how you (or your character) perceive yourself, but also a mix of how you act and how the world reacts to you. If you want to be good and act chaotic or not-caring, well, you're just a wanna-be-good. Also here, shifting alignment is not a punishment or something negative: it's just a matter of facts.

Now some tips for your DMing:

  • First and most important: don't overplan your adventure. It will simply don't work. Your players will ruin your plans.

  • What i do first is to have a clear timeline of events that are about to happen, some or all of which are influenced by the players actions.

  • Then have a clear idea of the main NPCs (maybe write down a couple of lines with their temperament, mood and motivation).

  • Finally, present the players with the actual situation they're in and act the npcs like everyone is living his life, based on this actual moment and their temper.

I know it sounds difficult and vague, but give it a couple of tries: you'll find that with this simple guidelines it's not hard to act your npcs and create a realistic world. Then, when the time in your timeline is right, simply move the things further on. Maybe the eruction of the vulcan caused by the local mage will not wait for your players to get a full rest.

With this method you can tweak your adventure on the run: a crucial NPC has been killed? Another one will take his place. The last encounter was too hard, and you can see a TPK incoming for the next one (assuming you don't want it heheh)? Just place more time inbetween the encounters, maybe add the support of an helpful npc, so the party can rest and prepare more. Your party is going to catch butterflies when they are supposed to stop the demons that are about to ravage the town? Well let the demons do their job, almost everytime they will feel guilty about it: "we could have stopped the attack!". The next time they will care more.

The real challenge in all this is to be coherent with your story. Try to never contradict yourself and write down important events happened in your campaign if your memory fails. If something crucial is not ready when the players find\need\ask it, use the emergency button: "ok you find it, but i will send you the description tomorrow". It's bad, but not as bad as a rushed, bad written crucial point. Try to avoid or delay it if you can (maybe an identify ritual or a message spell awaiting for answer will buy you some time or even delay it to the next session), but don't be ashamed to use it if needed.

And finally, the hardest of all: make the players care for something. Make they fall in love with the woman that works in the city guard, enjoy the songs of a certain bard, feel at home in a specific tavern, care for the old man that gives them bread for free just because he notes a resemblance of a member of the party with his lost son. This may seem something very unimportant, even stupid, but i found that it's one of the most important acts you can do to make the players really enter into the fantastic world, care for what they're doing and why they are doing it.

I could add more, but i think i've already written too much ;) Enjoy your worlds! M

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