GM Advice: 4 Reasons Your Campaign is Dying

Campaigns die all the time. Some just peter out while others implode spectacularly. Why do some campaigns crash and burn while others seemingly go on and on?

By William McAusland (Outland Arts)
By William McAusland (Outland Arts)


I’ve previously written about four of the signs heralding a campaign’s impending death. When you realise your campaign is dying, it’s well worth exploring the reasons behind its demise. In this way, you can either try to reverse its death spiral or learn what pitfalls to avoid next time.

Some campaign deaths are unavoidable – perhaps the GM is moving away or starts a new job. Alternatively, several of the players could be moving away to start college. There’s not a lot you can do about that except try to recruit new players (except play on line or only in the holidays).

Other deaths, however, are completely avoidable as they spring from the game itself. In my experience, the most common in-game reasons for campaign death are:

  • Too Dangerous: If every fight is a literal fight for survival and PCs are dying with surprising regularity the players are bound to lose interest. I played in a campaign once in which the main source of loot for the party was the equipment of fallen comrades. It got to the point we’d make joke requests that new PCs buy certain items our PCs needed because we never found any decent treasure. If I’d been the GM, I would have taken that as a pretty gigantic hint that all was not right with the campaign.
  • Too Easy: If the campaign is too easy – in that mysteries are laughably simple to solve and villains are comparatively weak – players eventually lose interest. The feeling of accomplishment you get from victory is directly related to how hard it was to achieve. If you don’t feel like you are achieving anything, why play?
  • Railroading: A few players like railroading and to a certain extent it is impossible to avoid – a GM only has so much time to prepare, after all. Most players understand and accept that. However, some GMs are particularly heavy handed and force the players down a certain, proscribed route with the subtly of a herd of stampeding wildebeests . (I once had a GM who even tried to stop us using a different entrance to a dungeon – I suspect because he hadn’t prepared that bit!) Many players react very badly to this practise. They either withdraw from the campaign or deliberately try to break it. Neither outcome is desirable; both lead to campaign death.
  • GM Loses Interest: In almost every gaming group on the planet, the GM is the leader. I don’t mean that GMs boss their players around, but normally a GM – because he invests extra time, effort and money in the game – is more invested in the campaign than most players. If the leader of a group loses interest, it follows the players’ interest will also wane.

Remember that campaign death is not inevitable. If you can spot the signs you can reverse course. Pay attention to the four signs heralding a campaign’s impending death and act before it is too late!

Help Fellow GMs

Have you been in a campaign that ended prematurely for another in-game reason? Let us know what they were, in the comments below, and help your fellow GMs dodge the same fate!

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Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

6 thoughts on “GM Advice: 4 Reasons Your Campaign is Dying”

  1. Rules-lawyers are the worst, making the game miserable for all. When half the time they just want to argue about rules, the other players get annoyed and bored. If you have one of these jerks in the group, explain to them that they can make a note, and argue rules with you after the game, but at the moment they will have to accept your call. If they can’t do that, they will have to leave the table.

    I’ve actually had a rules-lawyer lose this battle at a game and then slowly poison the group against me while I was not around. These guys are almost always complete butt heads.

  2. I believe the failure of the campaign to evolve to fit the players’ current interest is a top reason that should be mentioned. This can happen in two ways. The DM may fail to adjust his campaign to fit the changing interests of the players or the players fail to adjust their characters to fit the needs of the campaign.

    An example of the 1st case is where the players show an interest in politics and intrigue and the DM offers nothing but dungeon delves. In the 2nd case, the players are playing a campaign centered around politics and intrigue, but develope their characters for dungeon delves.

    Role-playing Games are a story woven between the players and the DM. The weaving of the story threads requires give and take by all sides or the campaign tapestry will unravel or remain unfinished.

    Scott Davenport
    Mepacon Organize Play Lead: Greyhawk Reborn
    Grehawk Reborn writer/DM: Saltmarsh

  3. Similar to Scott, but not quite the same, I’ve shuttered campaigns due to dissatisfaction with the way the game systems was being used (and perhaps abused, at least exploited) by the players. Likely some blame falls to me for the power creep, and some to some of the players for wanting to milk the most of the system to their advantage. Eventually the back and forth about minutiae of the system lead to ennui at my end (I just tired of it).

    In another case (a meta-game game involving a war), I just couldn’t get the system and scenario to mesh in a satisfying way and the game petered to an end after a bit.

    1. That’s something I hadn’t considered – a growing dissatisfaction with the rules. It is an excellent point, through. For example, I relatively recently ran an OD&D game. it was tremendous fun, but for use there wasn’t enough there to sustain a long-term game.

  4. How about that players? I came to the realization recently that I have really lousy players. Previously when I GMed I had players begging to come and play at my table, but then after some moved away and went on with their lives, I was left with some less-than-desirable players.

    Sometimes they would not show up at all. I’d be there all alone wondering if people got the message that game was on (they did). Two would show up, but were recovering from a bender from the night before. One would show up four hours late and distract the other players. They were crude and rude, telling sex jokes at the table (I can put up with a little of that, but not constantly). Some of my players have had problems with the law in the past.

    So, I finally said enough I want a game, not a correctional program. I’ve dropped these players completely and building a new group, and I’m excited to play again after many years of putting up with this and almost dreading it.

    1. Blimey. That sounds really crap. I think it’s crucial that you like the people you game with. If you don’t, it might be time for a change. Of course, it’s much trickier than that but I’m glad you have threaded the needle (so to speak). Good luck with the new game–I hope it’s super fun!

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