Frame: Freeimages.com / Billy Alexander;
Dice Image: Freeimages.com / Armin Mechanist;
Numeral & Compositing: Mike Bourke
If there’s one subject that I’ve written about regularly in these pages, it’s campaigns. Of the 867 posts, 354 have used that tag, or almost 41% of them. It’s no exaggeration to suggest that the concept of the campaign is at the heart of RPG gaming as far as Campaign Mastery’s contributions to the art are concerned.
I’ve been asked a number of times what advice I have for a beginning GM. This 15-part series is an attempt to answer that question – while throwing in some tips and reminders of the basics for more experienced GMs. This is the middle installment of the second-last trio of articles.
Experienced GMs and those who like a lot of realism in their games should note the Kickstarter campaign featured later in the article.
One question that I always try to find fresh ways to examine is the core question, “what is a campaign?,” because the definition illuminates everything else that happens at the game table, and every variation on that definition shifts the light source just a little bit to one side where it can highlight different aspects of the process.
(For the umpteenth time:) What Is A Campaign?
For the purposes of this article – and there’s method to this madness – I’m going to define a campaign as A group of adventures with connective threads binding the whole together into something greater than the sum of its constituent parts.
At it’s simplest, a single adventure can be considered a potential campaign. Every campaign starts with a single adventure, after all, and if it’s a colossal train-wreck, it might be the only one. But let’s forget such pronouncements of doom and gloom for the time being and focus on the positive alternative.
The Nascent Campaign
So you’ve played a stand-alone adventure, and the players enjoyed themselves so much that they want to do it again. Or perhaps the adventure in question was always intended to be the first chapter in something larger. Either way, you’ve got yourself a Campaign.
Right away, the dominant question to be raised concerns the relationship of one adventure to the next, and to the whole. Again, at it’s most elemental, a campaign consists of isolated adventures with the PCs as the connecting threads.
Of course, not all your players might stick around. Some may drop out for whatever reason, and, if you’re lucky, a replacement be found, though there may be an adventure or two before that happens. Campaigns need to be flexible enough to be prepared for this.
The next stage of campaign evolution is to have one master villain featured throughout the campaign.
Before you know it, your campaigns have one overall plotline connecting the individual adventures together, whether you intended that or not.
The next stage in campaign evolution adds subplots and character plot arcs that further bind the elements of the campaign together by linking character development to the broader storyline.
Finally, you get a sophisticated campaign in which the villains come and go from the plotline only to re-enter the tale, and the identity of the “main villain” is not known until the end – if there even is such a thing. But that’s going a little far and a little deep for a campaign refereed by a Beginner – which is why I haven’t illustrated it.
Clearly, it is these overarching plotlines and plot connections – villain(s), overall plotline, and interconnecting subplots – and the inter-adventure links and contexts that they provide, that comprises the “extra” that is “more than the sum of its parts”.
Of course, a real campaign might consist of dozens of adventures, and there are all sorts of different ways that you can delimit an “adventure” when you move beyond the simple, standalone adventure.
A campaign’s “structure” is a formal (but not necessarily rigid) way of defining those boundaries and how they will connect with each other.
You might decide that the structure that makes the most sense to you is to have one dominant plotline in an adventure that can exist in isolation but is given greater context by what has gone before and what will come after.
Or you could decide that the structure that works best is to define a “change of adventure” in terms of dominant themes – an adventure can comprise any number of vignettes and plotlines, but when these dominant themes change, one adventure has ended and another begun.
That can be represented by a cliffhanger ending, or by some milestone event in the larger plotline, making those appear to be the demarcation points that separate one adventure from another.
Once you start talking about a campaign, the definition of an adventure is one that is provided by the way the campaign is structured.
Other, campaign-level, traits have been identified over the years, and these also form part of the Campaign Structure. A defined style of play – simulationist vs. gamist – or the strength of the bonds between adventures, i,e, strong continuity vs. episodic adventures – are two of the most common.
More complex structures are also possible. Once again, however, anything more is beyond what a Beginner should contemplate, so I won’t go into that in any greater detail.
Some definitions in case the terms are new to you:
Simulationist is the attitude that the rules are simulating a “real world” with an internal consistency and coherent game-world physics and/or metaphysics; where these principles clash with the rules, it is the rules that gives way.
Gamist is the attitude that the rules are an abstracted reality, simplifying complex things like game physics into a set of, well, ‘rules’ that describe the way in-game events are resolved. While characters might pretend that there is a coherent game-world physics and/or metaphysics, if that should clash with the rules, it signifies an error in that physics or metaphysics.
There are also all sorts of intermediary positions – most games are neither purely one nor the other. Quite often, the dividing point is pragmatic efficiency – my Zenith-3 campaign has a strong campaign physics that overrides the rules regularly, but in some areas, practicalities of play mandate that an approximation or simpler abstraction be employed that is ‘close enough’. On a scale of 1-10, it’s probably about 7/10 Simulationist and 2/10 Gamist – with a gray area where circumstances tip the balance one way or the other.
In the Adventurer’s Club campaign, the “game physics” is looser and far less defined, and the “pulp style” is used to override both simulation and rules when necessary. 60% of the time, the campaign is gamist-with-stylistic-override, 10% of the time, it’s profoundly simulationist – and there is a far bigger gray area in which circumstances and the pulp genre and style dominate, and can swing any individual rule or law of physics aside as necessary.
Finally, some contend that there is a third axis, Narrativist, which places story in a position of supremacy over everything else. I disagree with that position mostly because it implies that story can and will be sacrificed by adherents of the other two philosophies, and that game physics is anything more or less than a story element and enabler, to be revised until it supports the story that you want to tell.
Strong Continuity,, also referred to as Serial Campaigns, are campaigns in which each adventure follows immediately after another with minimal hand-waving of time, and with conditions, statuses, and effects from one adventure persisting into the next.
Episodic Campaigns are those in which this effect is attenuated or even absent altogether, with most of the campaign world ‘resetting’ at the end of one adventure, ready for the next. What continuity there is rests with the PCs and perhaps a key NPC or two who continue to develop in abilities within the context of the game world.
The Zenith-3 campaign has VERY strong continuity. It’s rare for a game day to pass without something happening to or around a PC. Sometimes when events would be repetitious, there can be a little judicious hand-waving of time in-play, but outside of those occasions, the longest gap between notable events has been about three days, and I use personal life ‘events’ to deliberately fill the intervals between adventures with something significant.
The Adventurer’s Club campaign, by contrast, has a very weak continuity, though there is a consistency and persistence of unresolved side-issues. Most developments in the personal lives of the characters are introduced in the form of prologues to the main adventure which exist as much to update the players on where the characters are and what they have just been doing when the adventure proper commences, though if there is a significant mid-adventure gap, we will often fill it with more ‘personal lives’ activities, so there is stronger continuity within an adventure than there is between unrelated adventures. However, at one point we had a major “miniseries” within the continuity in which multiple adventures, linked by the one overarching plotline, exhibited stronger continuity.
Once again, there are all sorts of variations in-between the extremes. Neither of the two campaigns mentioned are completely defined by one orientation; there can be episodic periods in the Zenith-3 campaign, and there have been strong-continuity periods in the Adventurer’s Club, as I explained a moment ago.
Sandboxing Vs Temporally-constant Campaigns
Sandboxing simply means that the only areas which need to be developed are those required for the immediate adventure at hand; the rest of the game world exists in some (metaphoric) nebulous limbo, unchanging, until the PCs next go there.
If there is a single consistent term to describe the opposite of sandboxing that gets universal approval, I haven’t found it. For this article, I’m using “Temporally-Constant”, an accurate but somewhat unwieldy term. The meaning is far more agreed-upon, however; it means that time and events continue to occur even when the PCs aren’t around to notice them. News of such events may travel and eventually intersect with the PCs location, or word may not reach them until they return to the location of the event, but they have still taken place.
The Advantages Of Sandboxing
The big advantage of Sandboxing lies in prep-time. By only preparing what you need for the local area around the adventure and paying nothing more than lip service to anything beyond that, you substantially cut prep time; for a beginner, when prep requirements can seem overwhelming and when you don’t have the experience to correctly estimate how long various prep tasks will take, this can be a life-saver. And even when you become more experienced, the time saved can always be applied to putting greater polish on the content that will be called upon.
That doesn’t mean ignoring anything that lies beyond the bounds of your immediate needs; you can quite happily accumulate ideas and notes for when the time comes that a new area needs to be defined. You can happily name things, and even drop in some everyman knowledge on the subject. Every citizen would know the name of the capital city, for example, and would have some (possibly greatly distorted) impression of the place, even though they had never been to it or even known anyone else who had done so.
This suggests a couple of secondary benefits to the sandboxing practice: First, you have a longer time for good ideas to accumulate, resulting in a better quality of content when actually detailing a new area in the future; and second, because you already have a number of ideas on file, the prep time when you do get to the area in question is reduced.
You can even deliberately build the anticipation of these advantages into your campaign plan by starting your campaign a long way removed from what will eventually become the nexus of campaign events and journeying to that destination in a couple of steps along the way. The first area will be the least polished, because there has been minimal stockpiling of content ideas; the next will be only a little better, because there has been very little; the third would be better again. By the time of the fourth or fifth adventure, when the PCs finally reach the nexus point that will be central to the campaign proper, you’ve had time for both benefits to accumulate.
The Sandboxing Downside
I’ve thought long and hard about Sandboxing, and there are some downsides. First, it is far harder to be inspired to establish interconnections between the local activity and the areas to be detailed; the latter are just an inchoate and fuzzy collection of possible ideas. The regions of the world are constructed in relative isolation, and that makes them far less integrated that they would be if prep time was invested in all of them pre-campaign.
Second, it’s a lot harder to be consistent. It’s like having a jigsaw puzzle in which each piece is being individually crafted rather than being cut from a larger whole, and in which there are margins of error. Each successive piece that you craft and set in place hems in the remaining empty spaces, and quite often pieces won’t quite fit no matter what you do.
Third, these two combine to weaken the verisimilitude of the campaign setting. If you have an in-game incident as part of an adventure, especially one that transpired at some past point in the recent history of the region, and later introduce in the nearby capital an organization or group with both the means and motive to intervene, you need to then explain why they did NOT intervene. It can be very easy to become trapped by an inconsistency.
In fact, when detailing a new area, it becomes necessary to backtrack through every adventure and past region in order to ensure consistency with the details that were given to the players at the time. In one of my early campaigns, long before sandboxing was invented, I ran headlong into this problem; solving it required the capital to build walls around the city only to see them destroyed not once, not twice, not even three times, but four times in succession. Trying to work out plausible and different problems to befall the construction each time became increasingly difficult; by the fourth occasion, I was down to having a Genie simply up and steal the whole thing overnight, for reasons unknown. All this because some people had reported the walls under construction and unfinished, and some plots were predicated on that being the case, while others had them functional and complete – and there were conversion errors in the dating (each race had their own calendar in that campaign).
This problem starts small and grows worse as the campaign grows and develops, and can become bad enough for you to swear off sandboxing forever – better a couple of extra months playing board games while you dot i’s and cross t’s! (And yes, that was my reaction at the time, even though sandboxing as a concept had not yet been introduced – this was back in the early 80s).
Fourth, a logical consequence of the above is that sandboxed campaigns grow more stressful and less fun for the GM as they progress, just when you would hope for things to get easier so that you can focus on and polish up a suitable end to the campaign, and start working on the next one.
It also means, fifth, that the prep workload progressively increases over time – and can even outstrip the workload savings from Sandboxing in the first place.
The pain of being temporally-constant
That doesn’t mean that life is necessarily a picnic on the other side of the coin, however. Even assuming that you let irrelevant gaming areas stagnate and only focus on those that still matter to the campaign, the prep-time requirements start higher than sandboxing, and gradually but regularly increase over time as more and more significant elements – places, situations, NPCs – are introduced and need to be updated.
Of course, over time the simplification and focus that comes as you close in on a campaign conclusion begins to bite into those prep requirements; the result is a shape that resembles a parabolic arc.
Now, the complexity of gaming attracts the unrepentantly nerdy, but I don’t want to make assumptions about Campaign Mastery’s readership, and certainly don’t want to demean them, so I’m going to assume that none of you played around with the mathematical functions that describe parabolic motion when you were in high school, or that if you did, the memory has long since faded. Me, I played intensely with them for a couple of weeks and then moved on to other issues of interest.
In a nutshell, the initial speed of release of a projectile and the angle of release dictate how far it will travel, ignoring air resistance, wind, and other such. Aim too high, and the projectile will expend more of it’s energy gaining elevation and then lose it again as gravity overcomes its upward motion; it will fall short of it’s optimum range. You can also achieve exactly the same landing point by aiming at too low an angle (assuming there are no obstacles).
The curve that results if you plot the effort involved in a temporally-constant campaign is not a perfect parabola; the downward leg is shorter and sharper and the peak effort comes somewhere in between the mid-point of the campaign and its conclusion. Somewhere around when the effort required starts decreasing is where the regular effort required for a sandboxed campaign overtakes that of the temporally-constant campaign. But it’s also notable that the initial levels of effort involved are significantly greater than those of a sandboxed campaign.
A Third Option: The Phased Campaign
There is another choice, and its the one that I usually recommend (and employ), especially for Beginners. I call it the Phased Campaign, and it’s something of a hybrid between the two, avoiding the worst vices of both, but not completely capturing the benefits of either. The graph at the side compares the three types of campaign structure in terms of effort required over time (with, perhaps, a slight exaggeration when it comes to Sandboxed campaigns) just to keep the differences visibly clear.
Yellow depicts a Sandboxed Campaign that suffers more than most toward the end of the campaign. The trend is fairly clear, however – prep effort starts low and progressively rises in difficulty. Shown in red is a reasonably typical temporally-constant campaign, while a phased campaign – the example graphed uses three phases, but there can be more – is shown in light blue. The somewhat-fuzzy white line is the overall average.
You can see that the initial effort levels required for a temporally-constant campaign are about double those of a sandboxed campaign, and not that far below the overall average, while the effort required for a phased campaign is somewhere in between the two. Shortly after half-way through the campaign, the increasing demands of the sandboxed campaign lead it to overtake the phased campaign in terms of effort. The real payoff takes place toward the end of the campaign, when the phased campaign most closely resembles the temporally-constant campaign, though a little higher in effort required.
The other feature that can be noted is the shape of the curve for the phased campaign – a series of fairly flat parabolic arcs, each with end-points that are always higher than the start point. The first arc typically has an end-point very close to its start-point, no matter how constant an effort you try to maintain; the end-point of the second is far closer to the “peak” of the parabola, and it has a peak that is only a little greater than the peak of the first, while the third phase is much higher in peak demand. The more phases you have, the flatter these curves and the less elevated is the final demand.
You’ll see why this pattern of effort required results as I explain just what’s involved in a phased campaign. But first, there are a few fundamentals that need to be examined: the Aspects of a campaign that can be subjected at least somewhat independently of each other.
Aspects Of Sandboxing
There are five respects or aspects in which a campaign can be sandboxed or phased. There are also a couple of exclusions that are treated as temporally-constant even in a fully-sandboxed campaign.
- Relevant Background
- Events: Plotlines, Society, & Politics
- The Weather Exclusion
- PC-triggered Exclusions
- “Fuzzy” Sandboxing
- Villain-triggered Exclusions
Sandboxing the background simply means that you deliver no more of the campaign background than is required for the next “sandbox”. Sometimes, that will be no more than has already been revealed, sometimes it might be quite a bit. Another way to think of this type of sandboxing is “compartmentalizing” the background.
Sandboxed backgrounds can actually be the driving force that unifies a campaign. Sandbox 1 details the immediate situation that the PCs have known all their lives. Sandbox 2 delves into why that situation came into existence. Sandbox 3 deals with what was around before that, and so on. Each stage goes farther back into the campaign history, gradually revealing and placing into context everything that has already been revealed – with surprising twists and turns deliberately incorporated along the way.
“If the world was created yesterday, complete with past history and memories, how would you know?” I know it’s not a completely original thought, but it is the first deeply philosophical question that I devised entirely on my own, while walking down the back lane to my Grandmother’s place, at about 9 years of age. (I concluded that it made no difference, because we would be unable to perceive any discrepancy, and therefore one had to proceed as though the apparent past was actual; only from a privileged position beyond space and time as we understand them would it be possible for any distinction to be observed). I should also add that this concept continues to influence my RPGs to this day in that there are metaphysical relationships and events in most of my campaigns that can only be observed from the ‘outside’).
In a way, that’s exactly the conundrum that sandboxing poses to the PCs. Each time they expose a new layer of the onion, it doesn’t matter if the new ‘reality’ was only created yesterday by the GM, complete with false history – the PCs have to treat it as though it were reality and proceed on that basis. The only thing that can be known for certain is that the new layer is incomplete until it fully encloses the layers already known and explored.
It’s quite often a good idea to limit the influence of Magic, both arcane and spiritual, at the start of the campaign. In terms of the PCs, that limitation happens naturally simply because their capabilities in these areas are low in most game systems; but in terms of the metaphysical foundations of adventurers, the natures of the adversaries faced, the rewards bestowed, and the degree to which fundamental and major existential concepts play a direct role in the campaign, there is scope for the GM to carefully control the introduction and depth of metaphysical content.
Events: Plotlines, Society, & Politics
Picture this: everywhere beyond the immediate sight of the PCs, everything is frozen in time, in perfect stasis, only coming to life just as the PCs are about to perceive it. An extension of the philosophical conundrum posed earlier, this is perfectly describes what is meant by Event Sandboxing. Or, to put it into gaming terminology, “Every event can and should be handwaved into existence unless a PC is in a position to interact or observe the event.”
Villages are created complete and frozen until the moment a PC enters. The moment they leave, the celestial puppeteer lets the strings fall loose and picks up the next objects to be animated.
The sandboxing of events permits the creation of that village to be deferred until a PC is about to be in a position to enter it. That’s the power of sandboxing.
It’s even possible to create a village or two in advance and simply stack them in a queue; the first is the next village that the PCs enter, wherever that might be, and the second is the one after that. All that remains is to determine the maximum number that might be needed in any one game session and for the GM to ensure that he has at least that many ‘pre-loaded’ and ready to drop in before play begins.
You can get craftier by subdividing this workload according to one or two characteristics. Size and population are the usual first choice, within broad limits; and a second might be the dominant political type, or it might be the status of the defenses, or any of a dozen other criteria. This slightly increases the number of settlements that need to be prepared in advance but means that the one you pull out of your pocket will more closely match the needs of the plot/geopolitical context at that point. If the village is located in an area with many hostile forces around it, a village with strong defenses is logical, while one without such makes no sense. If the area was recently surrounded by hostile forces but the wilderness was pacified a generation or two back, a settlement that has begun to extend beyond its decaying former defenses is rational. Expect to see the former city walls being slowly cannibalized for building materials. And so on.
Another way of looking at the concept is that every location is frozen at the instant of maximum adventuring potential. Let that thought sink in for a moment.
It’s even possible to state that it takes a certain population level to sustain a given number of potential plotlines – so the maximum number of possible adventures will occur within a large city, while their might only be one in a small hamlet. But that is formalizing things too much for my tastes – and demands that you think up those potential adventures and prepare to run them, knowing that all but one are likely to remain unused. Sure, you can recycle them for other locations, or hold them in readiness for the next time the PCs visit (if that’s likely), but it still represents wasted effort at least some of the time.
Similar concepts are entailed in Sandboxing the environment – don’t draw anything but the most superficial of maps until the PCs enter a space. Don’t work out any geographic details until the PCs can see them.
Consider the (very rough) map below:
There is a village, there is some forest, there are some rivers, there are some roads, and the only other thing depicted are some mountains that would be clearly visible from the village. One road leads up to a mountain in the north, the others are isolated. Aside from these visible features, the remainder of the map remains unexplored and undiscovered. That’s what a sandboxed environment is – nothing gets defined except what the PCs can be expected to see and interact with in the course of the current adventure. In fact, since the town is a moderate size – at least 2,000 residents, possibly as many as 5,000 – you could base several adventures in the vicinity, adding to the map as necessary. Right now, it seems fairly clear that the first adventure is in the mountain to the (presumably) north of the town, with preliminaries and aftermath possibly within the town itself.
Incidentally, if anyone wants it, I’ve also provided a larger version of the “blank map” for download. Just click on the thumbnail.
By far the most time-consuming part of running an RPG, week in and week out, is keeping the NPCs up to date. A lot of GMs don’t seem to realize that these, too, can be sandboxed – which means that you only update them when you have to, i.e. when the PCs are going to interact with them.
The Sandboxing Exclusions:
There are a few exclusions to these principles.
The Weather Exclusion
The seasons generally continue their march, whether the PCs are in a location or not. That’s because going someplace and finding it’s still autumn while the place they just came from is in late winter tends to be sufficiently disconcerting to break verisimilitude completely.
If a PC triggers an event and then goes elsewhere to do something else while waiting for the event to play out, time keeps happening even without the PCs presence. For example, if a PC orders a suit of armor to be made to his measurements and specifications, and it is going to take 6 weeks, he might well go on another adventure without waiting for the armor to be complete. When he returns, 5 weeks later, the armor is almost complete.
However, there can be some “fuzzy” sandboxing applied to such situations, in that the GM can simply ignore the passage of time until the PCs return to the scene of the event, at which point time “catches up” with them.
Similarly, if the villain sets something in motion, it will continue to play out regardless of what the PCs may be doing. If he’s gathering an army, for example, they might go on an adventure and return to discover that instead of an army of 2500, they now have to deal with an army of 4,000.
This is also subject to “fuzzy” sandboxing, though this must be done more judiciously. For a villain to be credible, he should encounter (and overcome) the occasional setback and the occasional wild success, neither of which the PCs have any responsibility for, and both require some planning in advance.
Progressive Campaign Developments
So, with the fundamental concepts dealt with, I can now return to the question of Phased Campaigns.
A phased campaign is a campaign that is broken into stages. These are typically larger than a single adventure, and represent a goodly proportion of the total campaign. The simplest such breakdown is divide the campaign into three phases: beginning, middle, and end. Each phase is sandboxed with respect to the other phases, but internally, employs temporally-constant methodology. Most people will be fairly familiar with the trilogy concept, phased campaigns simply apply the concept to an RPG.
Such a simple concept, and yet – as stated earlier – it can have a profound impact on campaign structure and the workload involved in running one.
It works because for each phase of the campaign, a certain amount of previously-completed prep will carry forward, but nothing is done in a given phase that is not needed for that phase, other than the accumulation of notes and ideas. Thus the benefits of both sandboxing and temporally-constant models are partially conferred on the campaign.
More importantly, the downsides of both are also mitigated, and this effect is more pronounced and significant even than the transferred benefits:
- There’s no problem establishing interconnections between areas and events that pertain to the current phase because they are all being designed and created at the same time.
- The problem of “jigsaw puzzle pieces” that don’t quite fit is greatly reduced, and virtually eliminated, because each phase is a “bigger” puzzle piece in its own right that is then subdivided perfectly as necessary. What’s more, while there are still the troublesome transitions from one phase to another where thee problems can arise, you now have an entire phase, multiple adventures, in which to resolve them.
- That means that the third problem with sandboxing is also reduced massively, if not eliminated completely. To take the example offered earlier, the organization in question either already exists when you create the adventure, so that you can take its existence into account, or the adventure has already taken place and you can solve the verisimilitude issue when creating the organization, enriching its history.
- With the causes of the fourth problem mitigated or eliminated, the fourth problem also goes away.
- Which, collectively, means that the crippling exponential rise in workload is also dissipated.
A brief note on Note Organization
I was going to make the point earlier that collecting ideas while in sandboxing mode requires a robust system of organizing those notes so that you can locate everything relevant when the time comes to extract everything that has already been made known about the next ‘Sandbox’. But the initial draft of this article also made a similar point regarding the organizational needs of a temporally-constant campaign – which, since it deals with the entire campaign world simultaneously, imposes even greater organizational demands. Nor is this problem greatly mitigated by the phased campaign approach, though it is reduced in intensity somewhat; notes made in phase 1 can only apply to the remaining phases, so automatically there are fewer notes to search through, and there are fewer sandboxes into which they have to be sorted. In a three-phase campaign, the organizational needs are 2/3 the size; in a four-phase campaign, they are 3/4; and so on. As each phase transpires, the problem also becomes less – once in the middle phase of three, all notes must pertain to the final phase, by definition; in a four-phase structure, they can only apply to phases three or four, and so on. That means that this hassle becomes less at exactly the time when you want to devote more time to polishing, wrapping up loose ends, etc.
Phases can be separated by the amount of campaign background that’s relevant. More to the point, any campaign background that isn’t relevant can be ignored until you are prepping the next phase, so long as you build into the opening parts of the phase a means for that information to be delivered to the PCs.
However, there is a caveat, or, more precisely, a trap to beware of. Background can take longer to generate than you expect, and the need to finish it can interrupt and disrupt a campaign. That’s what happened with my Fumanor campaigns – I had to shut them down to generate the background, and even had to resort to presenting the background here at Campaign Mastery as the Orcs and Elves series so that I could devote the time that would otherwise be spent writing articles to writing the background. Even so, after six months (and only about half-done – okay, maybe 2/3rds done), the players made the decision to put the campaigns on hold and play something else.
I avoided that trap when doing the background for the current Zenith-3 campaign by designing the campaign so that it could proceed even if the background was unfinished – which it was. The players were given more of it than appeared here at Campaign Mastery (in the Imperial History Of Earth Regency series), but it still wasn’t complete – lacking mostly the everyday life of citizens in the Empire and the most recent 20 years of history.
In fact, it actually turned out to be an advantage; I could detail the most-important, most-relevant parts of the background in the course of each adventure, rather than relying on the players memories. What they had actually been given was foundation.
There’s scope for another piece of practical advice, here. I created most of the detailed campaign background in question in the form of single-line longhand notes based on a general outline. If a new technology was to be developed on a certain date, like the flying cars that are a ubiquitous part of the setting, I also listed the technological and scientific breakthroughs that led to those developments, and looked for other applications of the technology and listed the development of those, as well. These were then cut up and placed in envelopes labeled by year. One year at a time, I then took out all the slips that pertained to that year and – using real world history as a guide if there was any – sorted them into logical sequence, by month. Finally, in the exact sequence, these were glued to pages under the year, month, and day.
These days, I would do it all in a text file and employ cut-and-paste. Back then, I didn’t have a laptop, and wanted to work on the project during Christmas holidays at my mother’s place. These notes survived for many years – but eventually the glue gave out when the bundle of pages was accidentally dropped, scattering and landing out of sequence, and – in some cases – blowing away before I could retrieve and gather them up again.
That practical advice: label everything, and don’t rely on glue! The pages weren’t labeled clearly – only when there was a change of year – and the notes weren’t labeled at all. If I had only taken the time to number them when I put them in order…. oh well.
The phased approach works really well in terms of the metaphysical sandboxing that I described earlier. Another way that you could label the phases might be “low fantasy, middle fantasy, high fantasy”. In the first phase, you deal with everyday ordinary problems in adventures; in the middle one, magic becomes a significant element; and in the last, you grapple with fundamental forces within the campaign like devils and demons.
Or, you could delineate the phases in terms of the tone of the campaign. That’s (in broad terms) what I’ve done with the Zenith-3 campaign, which is now approaching Phase 2 of 9, in which the threats they face become more significant and start to pile up faster than they can be resolved, and in which a distant threat begins looming on the long-term horizon. In phase three, that threat begins to influence events, however indirectly, and there is a slow transition from isolated problems to those problems becoming aspects of a bigger issue. In phase four, the true nature and shape of the distant threat can be discerned; the problems faced by the team begin to lessen in number but increase in difficulty still further. Phases five through eight is all about the precursor effects of the major threat as it comes to dominate the campaign. Phase nine is the crisis itself coming to a head, and phase ten deals with the aftermath and the consequences. Each of these phases is shorter than the one that precedes it in terms of the number of plotlines and individual adventures, but those adventures increase in length and complexity, with the exception of phase ten, when things simplify again.
One trick that can be very useful is to build your campaign around a low-fantasy game system that is flexible enough for you to incorporate higher-fantasy elements and concepts as the campaign enters a new phase. I’ve seen this done successfully with Conan the RPG as the foundation, and with GURPS. There is absolutely no rule that says that each phase has to use the same game rules, either, so long as you have conversion techniques worked out.
Cover art by Bob Kehl. Click on the image to visit the kickstarter campaign.
Song Of Swords
I’ve just learned of a new option that may interest readers. It’s a low-fantasy RPG called Song of Swords. As I write this, it has just crossed the line to be fully funded (with 30 days still to go) – stretch goals would be in view.
The goal with this RPG is to be more historically-accurate than most RPGs, and to focus on a richer combat system than is usual. Combat is built around a d10-pool concept in which players can select where they attack an enemy, and how much effort they put into that attack.
It balances increased effort with an increased risk, making for a very tactical experience.
Character progression is story based, something that I have advocated for a long time.
The creators hope to make this a response to the recent glut of “quick and easy” games that have been emerging over the last couple of years; the goal is depth and elegance of mechanics, a revival of old-school virtues for veterans who would enjoy a more advanced game, but with modern art and design sensibilities, and an introduction to the virtues of historical accuracy for those with less experience.
There’s a lot more to the game than this very abbreviated capsule summary. Check out the full details at the kickstarter page.
I have the feeling that this is going to be another of those success stories that come along every now and then. It might not be success of the same magnitude as the record-breaking 7th Sea 2nd edition, but blowing through a reasonable funding target in less than two days and selling out of the top two reward tiers in less than one is noteworthy, so check it out by clicking on the link provided or on one of the illustrations for the RPG.
Character art by Nathan Park (other character art is by Eric Belisle, of Pathfinder fame). Click on the image to visit the kickstarter campaign.
Although this article is directed at the Beginner, there are some advanced tools that are worth mentioning because even a Beginner can use them to good effect, and they are good habits to get into. Individual examples for a beginner might be – should be – less complex than those from a more experienced GM, but the principles and premises are valid.
Campaign Themes can be the defining focus of a Campaign Phase. This is achieved by arranging those themes so that they spell out a story. For example:
- “For evil to prosper all that is needed is for good men to do nothing.”
- “Right is right, even if everyone is against it, and wrong is wrong, even if everyone is for it.”
- “They that sow the wind, shall reap the whirlwind.”
These define the phases of the campaign. In this case,
- Phase 1: Isolated adventures while the ruling society around the PCs becomes increasingly corrupt, little by little.
- Phase 2: The Corrupt nobility finally commit an atrocity so repellent that everyone notices. Some citizenry respond with protests and marches and small rebellions, which are crushed ruthlessly and disproportionately. Others are bought off with favors and the mechanisms by which corruption spreads. Most are simply apathetic – the problem is too big, and those responsible too far away. A case of mistaken identity puts the PCs on course for a direct confrontation with the authorities, whether they want it or not (the actual culprit is a PC’s family member). In this phase of the campaign, the PCs are hunted by the authorities, whose minions wield some hitherto-unknown dark magic.
- Phase 3: A divine vision (or something) tells the PCs that there is more to the story. They must undertake an arduous quest to obtain answers before it’s too late, then confront the court and expose the true source of the evil.
…is the sort of campaign that I would build around those three themes.
Or you could make the themes emotional in nature:
A theme is simply a unifying concept that links the adventures together in some fashion. Each season of Babylon 5 had one, though these were often more subtle than the rather overt ones that I have used as examples:
- Signs and Portents
- The Coming Of Shadows
- Point Of No Return
- No Surrender, No Retreat
- The Wheel Of Fire
For those who have seen the complete series, the first four themes are fairly self-evident, but the last could have multiple interpretations, none of them especially compelling at face value. I’ve always considered it a metaphor for the dozens of smaller conflicts and problems that broke out in the aftermath of the Shadow War, with Babylon-5 functioning as the nexus around which these problems orbit. But I don’t consider that any more compelling than any of the other possible interpretations.
Nested/Parallel Plot Arcs
If every major character (including the PCs) have their own plot arcs, the campaign consists of the amalgam of those plot arcs and the occasional random event. While such a campaign construction is a fairly advanced one, especially if campaign themes are connected into the plotlines, there is no reason why the concept cannot and should not be applied in a simpler, more direct, and more limited form.
These are essentially a set of minor plotlines divided into individual episodes that take place around the main plot of each adventure. They then proceed in parallel with each other. The more advanced form of the technique has these relating to, and influencing, other plot arcs.
In it’s simplest form, decide how many adventures there are in a phase and then, for each character to be allocated a plot arc, break a side-plot into that many episodes or events.
If stretching the plotline that far doesn’t make sense, or it appears repetitive, it’s time to cut them back, leaving gaps; another minor plotline for that character of the required number of episodes then fills those gaps. These ‘nest’ within the larger plotline.
For example, here’s a 22-episode plot arc:
- Character is nominated for a position in a local volunteer charitable organization, something like the Lions Club or Rotary Club. He is not expected to decide right away.
- Character accepts the invitation.
- Character attends his first meeting and learns of an upcoming public/charitable service in which he is expected to participate that involves theatrical makeup in some fashion. The Treasurer reports that the makeup has been ordered and will be delivered to him before the event.
- Character assists in performing some public/charitable service involving theatrical makeup in some fashion.
- Character assists in performing a different public/charitable service.
- When a member of the committee falls ill, the character is elected to replace him.
- Character attends a social function organized by the group.
- The Treasurer of the group commits suicide. No motive can be found.
- After the funeral, the character is appointed the new Treasurer.
- Some of the account ledgers are missing. The character attempts to find them, without success.
- The character, with expert help if necessary, begins recreating the missing ledgers.
- The President of the group advises them that he will be away for several weeks on unspecified personal business.
- Several people swear that they saw the Treasurer around town.
- The recreated ledgers show a huge discrepancy – the group should have a lot more money than it does. Did the former treasurer know? Was he responsible? Is that why he killed himself? Or was he silenced?
- The character finds evidence that the President of the group (still absent) is responsible. Has he absconded with the money?
- Another member of the group gives the President an alibi without realizing the significance of his statement.
- The character verifies the alibi. The President returns from his trip.
- Digging deeper, the character finds evidence that the body who was buried was not that of the Treasurer.
- Investigating further, the character finds that the former Treasurer’s wife has dissapeared and discovers a hidden location in the former Treasurer’s home that was big enough to hold the missing money. It is now empty. The mystery deepens when the grave-site of the Former Treasurer is disturbed and the body exhumed and removed by parties unknown.
- An overlooked unpaid invoice turns up for the theatrical makeup used in Episode 4. Someone has added some items to the bottom of the list in different handwriting to that of the missing, possibly deceased, Treasurer. The items would enable someone to pass themselves off as the Treasurer..
- Someone other than the character stumbles across a body. When the character is notified and investigates, he discovers that With the remains are the elements of the disguise added to the invoice. The body is confirmed as that of the Treasurer by the President. Nearby, the character discovers a scrap of paper with a list of several ships and departure times, probably dropped by whoever was wearing the disguise.
- Attending the departure of the next ship scheduled to depart from the list, the character captures the widow of the deceased Treasurer, who has the money that she embezzled under her husband’s nose in her possession. She confesses to the murder and the subterfuge, designed to make it look like her husband was responsible when she is interrogated by the character. The embezzlement operated by intercepting the real invoices and replacing them with dummies that she had created for higher amounts, then paying the original and pocketing the difference. This was exposed when a vendor noticed a mistake on an invoice that he had issued and a correction and refund was sent to the treasurer; when he checked his ledger, the original amount of the invoice did not match what he had recorded. Not realizing that his wife was behind it, he confided in her and planned to investigate quietly, after the charitable event, giving her time to plan and execute the murder and her escape with the loot.
Most of these are brief events, covered in no more than a couple of minutes of game time. They are designed to be fitted into the character’s spare time, and separated by an interval of time.
Half-an-hour at the start of each adventure can be profitably spent running the different PCs through such plotlines before commencing the main plot of the day, guaranteeing each player a chance at roleplay under circumstances and in situations that the character wouldn’t normally encounter.
Of the PCs in the Zenith-3 campaign, one is studying creative writing, one is becoming an oil painter, a third is a member of a rock climbing club who he has just persuaded out of the indoors and onto the real thing, and the third is a cook and member of a restaurant-of-the-week club, which he attends when not otherwise engaged.
Usage For The Beginner
These tools, even when applied in simple form by a beginner, can add substantial depth to a campaign. Ultimately, that’s all a campaign really is – an anthology of related stories, each ‘told’ as well as possible. Everything else is about how these stories relate to each other. It only takes a few minutes to decide which of the options are going to suit you best, and then you’re ready to start accumulating expertise in the craft of being a GM. If you utilize the phased campaign approach, even in its simplest form, augmented with themes and plot arcs, you will keep the campaign prep demons at bay. Which aspects of the campaign you choose to phase is up to you. Any and all of them can work; a campaign is nothing to be scared of.
A fortnight or so from now, the final part of the current trio of articles will look at Relations. Not sure what that might be about? I’ll bet that it’s something other than what you’re expecting…