Failed Campaigns

I think the fizzle may just an omnipresent potential when playing with people who have "adult life" commitments to work around.
Adulting is hard. Scheduling 4-7 people to get together regularly for 3+ hours is a challenging thing.

I should grateful my group is at least regular. Moving to the VTT actually made scheduling easier for us. It sucks because generally irl gaming is better than VTT gaming but is has helped with regular scheduling of session and having people actually be able to make.

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Not your screen monkey (he/him)
Since the campaign still gets a lot of publication updates (which implies it still gets a lot of play), I'll be careful about spoilers.

When I ran Masks of Nyarlathotep in 1998, the group TPKed in <redacted> when they encountered <redacted>. But it is Call of Cthulhu, after all, so I don't consider a TPK in any place but the first few scenes a campaign failure. And I was ultimately OK with it since we filled the Dead Wall with character sheets for all to look upon with despair, and my eldest daughter was born less than a week later (which really reduced my gaming time).

I think most GMs have them: campaigns we prepped for, recruited players for, maybe even had a session or two for, but then it just collapsed. What's yours?

The one that I think of when I think "failed campaigns" was this way overly ambitious Exalted 1E campaign that was straight up a retelling of the seminal 80s run of X-Men (but with a tough of the movies). I was writing for Exalted at the time so I was super confident. Character creation went great, with people choosing and building cool Exalted versions of key X-Men. I had big plans.

We played one session and the weight of the Exalted system was a hurdle too high. We never played again.
I guess personally I'd draw a distinction between "failed" campaigns, and "experiments that didn't work out". For me (and I'm not saying anyone else should be similar), I don't actually feel bad about a campaign being abandoned unless I invested a ton of effort on prepping for it, and/or the players invested a lot of effort learning systems and generating PCs, or we got part-way into it, and were enjoying it, but had to stop for some reason.

Personally I think of a few:

1) Champions: The New Millennium - Everyone was hyped about this, because we didn't like HERO/Champions, but we did like Interlock, and the FUZION version of Champions promised to combine the two. I worked up quite a significant plot (well, for me for a superhero setting). All the players came up with complex original-conception (not rip-off) PCs who they actually wanted to play. We did some pre-sessions with 1-2 PCs which went well.

Then we did the first real session and after like 20 minutes of investigation etc. got to a big set-piece fight which would sort of set up the campaign, and hopefully let everyone show off their powers and so on. I expected it to take an hour or two, max. Well over five hours later we finally finished the fight. Turns out C:TNE had the absolute worst aspects of both HERO and Interlock, not the best. People liked their character but no-one wanted to play that system further, so we were done.

2) WEG Star Wars - The Darkstryder campaign - This was actually not that long after the above incident. I was playing, not DMing (my brother was the DM). We all had three PCs (two pregen, one created) in a sort of Ars Magica-ish way (I dunno if that's normal for Darkstryder but I think it is), and we absolutely loved it. We played about three sessions, and it was like were in Deep Space 9 or something, totally amazing. Then the DM was flummoxed by something in the campaign, and he was like "Remember how I said someone should play the captain, and none of you wanted to?" and we're like uh-oh, and "Yes, does it matter?" and he's like "We can't continue because no-one is playing the captain". So of course literally all of us offered, but he was having none of it, and just was like "Gah this is too hard" and gave up. We've still never managed to get out of him exactly what the issue was - I keep meaning to read through the campaign and see if I can work it out. Very disappointing because it was so great.

3) CoC - Orient Express - My brother DMing again - It was all going too well. We got past Baba Yaga and stuff and then... a vampire/tiger/vampire just killed all of us on the train and we had no idea it was coming for us, no idea how to defeat it with the resources we had and so on. We did have secondary characters ready (this is CoC, after all!) but the TPK quite late (or so it seemed) in the campaign, of easily our longest-surviving and most successful group of CoC characters just really took the wind out of us and we first delayed continuing to play something else (WoD I think) and then gave up.

4) Alternity/Dark*Matter - I had a whole campaign set up, and had tweaked Dark*Matter so it was less "right-wing conspiracies are true!" (let's not even talk about the Amazons of the Gynarchy people - if you really need to know an incredibly detailed breakdown/takedown of Dark*Matter is here - I was astonished someone else not only spotted all this but wrote about it) and was very pleased with myself, it involved the then-recent Iraq war and ancient Babylonian evils unleashed on the world and so on. We got a little way in but the system... ugh... it was just not fun to play, and really didn't work for us. I still sometimes think about redoing it in a different system but I feel like it'd need a lot of updating.

5) Shadowrun 5E - I created a campaign based on where my wife is from - it had a name, a website and everything (The Shadows of Michiana) - I constructed a whole Shadowrun version of the area, with all sorts of unique features and plots (and it was also near Bugtown/Chicago for extra fun), and ran it for my wife and a couple of friends. They had really cool PCs too, not ones I'd expected. And this failed because oh my god is Shadowrun 5E an unrewarding mess to write for. Not are the rules kind of terrible (probably should just have used 2E or 3E), but they're very heavy and clunky on the back end, and require tons of prep, way more than I expected (I was anticipating WoD levels or SR 2E - the only version I ran significantly - and I might have had rose-tinted specs about that). We ended up playing a PbtA Star Wars campaign instead - which actually did go really well even if the players got way closer to just straight up murdering Mara Jade than I expected! Like, no, I have plans for her!

Looking at that it seems like system is the big killer for us, for actually making us leave and not come back intentionally.


Chaotic Looseleaf
What exactly happened, if you don't mind me asking? Perhaps we can suggest a system that will help.
Oh, thanks. I've always played multiple TTRPGs, so I've got a frame of reference for what I'm looking for, but the search is long, and I'm always happy to hear others' perspectives and opinions.

I'd begun this D&D5 campaign at 3rd level, and as soon as 5th level I was having to modify the kind of story I wanted to be telling with the group, to accommodate PCs that had simply moved beyond a compatible threat level. A lot of baggage I'd been carefully packing away suddenly burst its straps, and I realized how hard I'd been subconsciously fighting D&D's poor support of my preferred narrative-first playstyle for 30 years. Had a crisis of identity; didn't run again for close to 18 months.

The core mechanical issue seems to be how tightly progression and power are tied together. If you're using XP advancement, every encounter (just the act of playing the game) brings the PCs inevitably closer to the next power spike, which will necessitate an equivalent spike in threat. With milestone advancement, you acknowledge that in conjunction with a major campaign success, the threat of the whole setting simply moves up a tier.

I need to be able to at least stall that climb until the narrative is ready to move on, without the players feeling like they are not progressing or receiving just rewards.

But the core philosophical issue is that this is the whole point of D&D. All of the game's systems feed into this core conceit in some way, including its treatment of narrative. D&D stories involve a steep, steady power climb. Trying to keep PCs at a static or even slowly increasing threat level defeats the entire purpose of the game. Sure, a patient table may be willing to play at 3rd level for years, but why bother?

This is clearly a matter of personal preference. I'm not trying to make statements about D&D in general, just how D&D works for me. I also don't want to give the impression that by 'narrative-first' I mean I prefer to railroad players -- how these stories proceed and ultimately end is in the hands of the table as a whole. I just prefer to run a table that collectively focuses on PC development, the PCs' narrative choices, and how the setting reacts to those choices, rather than on gameplay elements.

I did so much world building for a Traveller game (I know what kind of beer was popular in the subsector!) only for my players to go "absolutely not, no thank you."

That's a fun way to world build, but a terrible way to get a game to stick.

If I were to start a new campaign today, I would begin by asking with what everyone is interested in and then take those building blocks back and build a bespoke campaign around that, where I know there's going to be interest from the start.

Oh, absolutely...which is probably why so many of those campaigns sputtered out back then. I might have thought the idea was cool, but my players might not. Or alternately, we both could think the idea was cool, but have no idea on how to sustain that enthusiasm.

Sigh... Brother, you just said a mouthful! I spent so much time gaming in college I don't know how I found time to get a degree!

College was actually one of the times of my life that I did very little gaming. But thankfully, I got better. Not that I didn't have my share of shirking and blowing off classes.

Whizbang Dustyboots

Gnometown Hero
With all the other distractions I had in college, if I was also gaming, I would definitely have failed out. The most gaming I did then was collecting the first wave of World of Darkness books.


I am lucky in that the first campaign I ran reached its intended ending point, and I managed to complete another campaign and currently have two other campaigns that are on their way to be completed succesfully. But I had a fairly bumpy start after the first campaign for... Almost 5-6 years!

The immediate follow-up to my first ever campaign ended up trailing away to nothingness. The first campaign had ended with widespread war, and I had teased Mind Flayers having some big apocalyptic plan. The idea was that the world had a failsafe if four conditions were met, and these four conditions were basically the Four Horsemen: War, Plague, Famine and Death. I retroactively said the first campaign was War, and the big plan was to hold three more campaigns where things got progressively worse until the Apocalypse happened - in the form of the Tarrasque being released. So I started the second campaign with big ideas in my head... And the campaign petered out in 3-4 games. I ran it to people who stayed at dorms in my high school, and the only time we had was the 2-2,5 hour break in the evenings. I was running Pathfinder at the time, and people just didn't bother with learning a complex ruleset to spend relatively long hours compared to other hobbies. It was a big letdown, but not the worst.

I then didn't run a game for a looong time, and only got back into the hobby when 5E was released. I tried to start a D&D group when I was in the first year of undergrad, but people never had the time. The second year I managed to run a 5-6 session minicampaign that ended up forming the basis of my first serious campaign world, but then the third year of undergrad had a failed attempt as well. I also tried to run Out of the Abyss to an online group, but that game petered out after 6-7 games.

For the next three years, I got one group that succesfully completed its campaign, but when I tried to start a Mage: The Ascension game with the same group, that game fizzled. Since then, all my campaigns have been hits! It helps that I only did two more, and the second one is more of an epilogue to the three-year game. :p

So overall, I'd say I had... Four failed campaigns. So far two of my campaigns were brought to completion, though currently there are two more that will hopefully be completed. I hope I'll keep the completed campaign tally higher in the future!


Staff member
Been in the hobby since ‘77, and went behind the screen by 1980. So I’ve had a few campaigns die.

The FTL that bugged me most was I had some insight on how to model the worlds of M:tG as a campaign setting in Fantasy HERO. I had figured out some of the most vexing issues (like the colors of magic and sources of mana) when I told my group I was designing a FRPG Magic campaign. Everyone in the group was enthusiastic…until I mentioned I was using HERO as the system. Interest dropped to zero. I was so stunned I stopped working on my campaign (though I still have my notes). The creative spark was snuffed.

The Collapse that hurt was with the same group, but a few years later. I decided to dust off a homebrewed campaign I ran for a prior group that was essentially a low-powered HERO supers game using the world of Space:1889 + other fictional expansions. Even though that was my best ever campaign, knowing my group at this point didn‘t like HERO, I retooled it for Mutants & Masterminds 2Ed - much closer mechanically to the 3.5Ed D&D we all enjoyed. But a combination of some errors on my part, distaste for some of the mechanical differences between 3.5 Ed and M&M2, and some players not paying attention to the setting at all caused the game to fizzle within a few months.


I picked up DM'ing for the (thinks about it) second time in 40 some years playing - another player was the forever DM. It was also after a long time not playing, right before Covid hit, so the game went right onto VTT play. I picked up DM'ing after one DM finished off his 5e Tiamat campaign (two years), then I started a 5e FR campaign. Its been rocky since...

Collapsed: 5e FR Campaign set in the Moonshaes 500 years before current timeline. It was a sandbox style campaign, we started with Treasure Hunt, highly modified, and then the party went where the winds took them - almost literally. We started at 1st level, with the session zero and set up describing a more low magic, dark ages 'ish type of setting and world, lots of opportunity to be on the ground floor of changing politics, Waterdeep had yet to be established, most of the Moonshaes was unexplored or had been "lost", the invasions from the north, etc. Party rolls up with all magic-using characters, or fighter archetypes that are magic intensive, or multi-classes into spellcasters = first rumblings of collapse. Party overcomes every obstacle, environment, and monster and I start increasing CR but finding that very fine line between challenge and TPK is almost impossible. I give up on the idea of low magic and consign myself that this will be 5e dnd = foundations crack. Party (actually one player) doggedly pursues one minor thread (which is actually perfectly fine in a sandbox) that continues to get the party into deeper and deeper trouble, in over its head, etc. (while the threats are completely and repeatedly telegraphed), and continues to return again and again to get pummeled = campaign collapses around 6th level as I can't continue to fight the 5e system while trying to maintain an interesting story. Granted, the campaign did last one calendar year, so I wouldn't call it a failure. I certainly learned a lot about DMing....

After my 5e game, one of our players stepped up to DM Basic for the first time in 40 years, and a couple of players in the group decided to deep six his game at about 4th level. I thought the game was actually going pretty well. The DM didn't want to continue after those players quit.

Failed to Launch:
I've then tried to get some interest in Old School Essentials Advanced in Greyhawk - one campaign I tried setting up in Furyondy against Iuz after the Treaty of Greyhawk - I got one player who started adventuring in the area and we're about 70% through the first adventure (started 4th level). Has since stopped. (Sandbox, pbem)

Alien RPG - got as far as character creation. No momentum, only one player.

Tentatively Still going/trying
A campaign in Sterich in Greyhawk - a different player started that campaign, is playing 4 PC's and has some NPC's in the party, and is exploring the Sterich area also post the Treaty of Greyhawk. He is currently scouting the areas west of the capital as villages and towns are being re-inhabited, and he is interested in finding out where the attacking monsters had gone. (Sandbox, pbem, occasional VTT for combats)

I have two players for OSE Advanced in Ravenloft. The second player is doing character creation. They're 1st/2nd level currently, and I will be modifying Curse of Strahd to OSE. (VTT)

So, during the pandemic, there was a pretty solid regularity to games, but now its all but died off, and I can't seem to either get a game going (OSE sandboxy low magic style game, I don't have it in me to run 5e, I just don't like it) or find any games that are online that are doing similar (I've found a couple but timing doesn't match up, or time zones don't work). So I'll keep reading, making notes, trying to keep my Pbem games mentioned above going. But I'd love to get into a game with a group doing more OSE stuff.


As a player, I can think of a couple that still sting.

A game of Aberrant where I spent ages making a person, not just a collections of dots in stuff. Lasted one session, with one prelud-ey side session.

A game of Exalted, But What If Modern, where I again spent ages making the character and the GM managed a single session.

As a GM, I've had several. I always try to do weird things, and have trouble getting enough people, and I run text games, and many people try it once and it's not for them. That problem eased up when I gave up and started running 5th edition. :)

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