Leviathan Post-Mortem: Keep it Simple Stupid

Image by Drew Melton.

Tabletop campaigns ain’t easy, and that goes for players as well as the apes in charge. If you don’t have experience in either position, your mind will leap into the stratosphere with ideas the first time you have the opportunity to participate. But, seasoned players and organizers know that passion has a limited carrying capacity. Crafting a fun experience takes a lot of energy, and a big part of the expenditure is ensuring that players enjoy the campaign with a minimum of effort. Unless you’re working with a small, tight-knit group, the only way to keep everyone sane is by limiting the mental barrier to entry to something that can be understood within 15 minutes. Why? Because 15 minutes is roughly the only time you’ll have to explain things on game day.

Okay, that’s a jaded perspective on campaign design, but it’s the safest one to take when dealing with a large group of diverse players. If you’re dealing with a moderate-sized player base of semi-experienced tabletop gamers, the majority of them will put a solid amount of effort in. You don’t have to play directly to the chronic Johnny-come-latelies, but it’s in everyone’s interest to account for them. More importantly, no matter how in love with tabletop gaming you or your players are, everyone has a busy life. Upping the commitment of scheduled play by requiring hours of prep time will drain everyone.

Our group learned this this the hard way with the Leviathan campaign. We tried to keep things simple in the early days, but the inherent problems with our concept were compounded by mechanics creep. The concept was probably too much work for all involved to begin with, but then we tried to fix a few inherent problems by making the campaign more complex, and everything unraveled from there.

On the Leviathan’s first few outings, it wasn’t an imposing threat, it was an intriguing set piece that was soundly ignored. Players were interested in grabbing campaign intel, but few people treated the spending of campaign intel, as well as their bouts with the Leviathan, as a step along a long road. The  Leviathan was designed to last the course of the campaign, but players largely focused on their individual missions. This problem should have been handled by tying victory for non-Scourge players to harming Leviathan, but instead we had them fighting over other objectives.

I thought progress would be made on Tuesday night Dropzone Commander games since players could opt to play missions with campaign intel or fight the  Leviathan. But, over the course of four months, no one did either.

Complexity isn’t the only reason the Leviathan campaign quietly ended. Players had no incentive to fight it since it only affected one person at a time. Factions could still soundly beat each other even if one of their own took a bad hit from the ultimate doom squid. You could fill up a thesis about player engagement for this type of structured play, but that’s for another time.

Player interest aside, a campaign like this requires strong drive from the organizers. Organizers are solely responsible for the campaign, and need to provide all of the structure and a good chunk of the motivation. If you can’t communicate like a pro and do so with energy, you’re going to have a bad time. Unless there’s an arrangement made before the campaign kicks off, the only job the player have is to show up and enjoy themselves, and maybe put some effort in between games. Smaller groups of equally motivated players can try more complicated and energy-intensive ideas, but dealing with an open roster of a dozen or more people seriously bogs down your ability to create complicated games.

With that in mind, due to some real life happenings I wasn’t able to stay on top of emails to push the campaign forward. Technically the structure should have held up, but complicated campaigns with large groups can never run on autopilot. Giving the community a heads up every once in a while works wonders: it lets everyone know that someone’s awake at the wheel, and prods them into action.

Even though the campaign didn’t end up the way we’d hoped, everyone had fun and some valuable lessons presented themselves. We still have a sweet Leviathan model to spring on people occasionally, and we’re going to start using a leaner, smarter model of campaign play from now on.

More on that in the future!

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