I keep unfinished article ideas in a text document on my computer. When I first started writing Campaign Mastery, I set up a list containing some seventy-odd ideas deriving from material I had produced for my different campaigns. In the past year, that list has, quite obviously, reduced in size – by all of four entries.
In November, I moved apartments, and my computer was the last thing that I packed, and the last thing that I unpacked. I knew that once I let the genie out of the bottle, it would take 80% of my attention and nothing else would get done (and I was right – I still have three boxes to unpack!)
Because I had prepared blog posts in advance, I spent almost four weeks devoting no thought at all to what I was going to post next. So, when the computer was finally unpacked (but my internet connection not yet restored), I had to get myself back up to speed, and that’s when I noticed that only about four items had come off my list.
Naturally enough, I started thinking about why there has been so little movement on the list. A number of reasons came immediately to mind, including (in no particular order):
- New article ideas
- A number of articles that ran longer than expected
- New series: Personality Archetypes, Lessons From The West Wing, Rules Mastery
- Articles inspired by events in-game
- Articles inspired by events out-of-game
- Artciles in response to reader’s questions
- Articles that could be written more quickly than others while under time pressure
Application to Campaigns
At the same time, I was thinking about campaign structure (because that’s something that I do a lot) and I realised that there is an analogy to be made between these circumstances and what happens in my campaigns. I’ve already talked in an ATGMs post, “In It For The Long Haul” about why my campaigns tend to last for so long, and realised that there was more to the story of why this is so, or perhaps a different way of looking at why it is the case that makes my points more accessable to the readers. So, as a sequel to my contribution towards that answer, I now present this article.
When I create a campaign, I set out a list of plot threads that are to get successively ticked off the schedule until they lead to a crescendo. These aren’t plot trains; they are external stimuli that get folded into whatever else is going on in the campaign. Some of these are inspired by the characters that the players have created, some are inspired by the things that the players tell me they want their characters to do, and some are interesting ideas in their own right. Many exist purely to establish foundations for later plotlines.
For example, in my “Fumanor: One Faith” Campaign, the plot threads that have taken place thus far are (in sequence):
- “Surfaceworld” – Gallas (PC) leaves the Drow Tunnels and makes his way to Fort Sharpfang and is recruited by the Inquisition, a new branch of the Church designed to hunt down and destroy the ideologically corrupt and impure. En route, he discovers that the Elves have been training themselves to ride dragons that they are force-maturing; having obtained the eggs from Goblins in exchange for lessons in Magic.
- “The Silver Palms” – Gallas receives his first assignment, joins the Silver Palms (an NPC adventuring group deliberately based on the Untouchable Three and Black Hands from KODT), and gets to know them en route to The Grave Of The Prince Of Lies, which they have recently discovered. Sebastion (2nd PC) joins the party. Along the way, they discover that the current high taxes prompt the commons to form rebellions and become bandits and robbers. Law and Order in the outer Kingdom begins to break down.
- “The Grave Of The Prince Of Lies” – The Silver Palms find the clues leading to Khom (location of the Red Masque) within the icy tomb of the Dwarven Prince seduced by a Drow Priestess, and learn new campaign background material on Elf/Dwarf/Drow relations.
- “Reap The Whirlwind” – En route to Khom, the Chaos Power imprisoned within the Red Masque seduces one of the Silver Palms by playing on his overconfidence. The Silver Palms pass through a village where it is revealed that the Church has inadvertantly been subverting the economy of Fumanor, which is the root problem that has necessitated the crushing tax rates. The subversion of the party Cleric is discovered by Gallas and Sebastion, but they decide to take no action – yet.
- “The Burning Sage’s Demense” – Silver Palms reach the Lost City of Khom, which is temporally fragmented as a result of the imprisonment of Dis The Destroyer in the Red Masque. Dis has mastered his imprisonment and turned it to his advantage, giving him free reign throughout time. The Silver Palms disintigrate as a group, torn apart by greed and subversion. Kardles redeems himself, providing the key to restoring the imprisonment.
- “The Red Masque” – Under constant threat, Sebastian and Gallas transport the Red Masque to safety, undermining a Church-led rebellion against the throne en route. They discover that the Goblins are a bigger threat than anyone realises, but manage to forge an armistace with one of the Goblin tribes.
- “Brown Heart” – Gallas and Sebastian are assigned to discover the identity of the Assassin who killed Ceriseth (Druid and PC in a former campaign). They discover that the Druids have more power than anyone realises and have been using it to evolve Goblin Society, transforming them into the deadly enemies that they have become. They learn that the other Goblin tribes have wiped out the Goblin tribe with whom they had arranged the armistace, for heresy. The PCs ally with Razel of the Jal-Pur, a desert people independant of the Kingdom, who bears unprecedented diplomatic overtures to the King. They achieve a peaceful settlement with the Druids.
and, currently underway,
- “Monastry” – Razel, Gallas, and Sebastian are assigned to meet a prickly but honourable Ambassador and escort him safely to the Jal-Pur to complete negotiations for the treaty offer conveyed by Razel, and to ensure the success of the mission at all costs. En route, they discover that someone is manipulating and structuring Wild Magic in the vicinity of the place where they are to meet the Ambassador (a remote monastary), a feat considered impossible to achieve under all the rules of magic that they know about(and that includes the knowledge one of the players has from a former character who became the preeminant mage of her generation and several others).
The “One Faith” campaign kicked off in mid-2006, and – if everything had gone according to plan – would have reached its current position (halfway through the 8th scenario) in April 2008. By now, the entire campaign should be wrapping up. What happened?
The Problems and The Delays
Well, part of the story lies with the real world problem of too many campaigns, not enough time, which has meant that for the last 2 years, the “One Faith” campaign has run only 6 months of the year, instead of continuously as it was originally intended. Taking that into account reduces the discrepancy from 32 to about 20 months.
Even when it is running, we can only play once a month, as I explained in
“Clash Of The Timetables” back in January 2009. So that “20 months” is really 20 game sessions.
This makes the campaign more sensitive to the vagarities of real-world interruptions and disruptions – like moving. Not only have I moved recently (a month without gaming and without ‘net access, I was practically climbing the walls), but one of the key players has been looking for a new place of his own – and missing the occasional gaming session as a result.
And it only takes 12 sessions missed for us to be talking about a whole YEAR of gaming opportunities lost.
Balancing this effect has been an attempt to schedule extra sessions outside the regular continuity of the game on Sundays. These have proven to be even more sensitive to real-world pressures, but even so, I can’t really hide behind the excuse of real-world interruptions. It can take a share of the rap, but it’s nowhere near being the whole story.
So why are we 20 game sessions behind where I expected to be?
The answers are not that dissimilar to those I listed earlier for not being farther advanced through my list of articles for Campaign Mastery:
- New plot and subplot ideas
- Plotlines that ran longer than expected
- Two new characters being integrated into the plotline
- Additional Scenes and subplots inspired by events in-game
- Additional Scenes and subplots inspired by events out-of-game – ie, player requests and suggestions
- Additional Scenes and subplots in response to player’s questions
- Drop-in scenes and subplots that could be prepped more quickly than others while under time pressure.
At which point I have to ask myself the question: Is this a good thing, or a bad thing?
Well, it’s both. It’s good, in that it is a sign of a vibrant campaign with engaging plots and situations, which has inspired active participation on the part of the players, which in turn has influanced the overall shape of the campaign.
And it’s bad, because what should have been a 4-year campaign now looks like running for eight-to-ten, while other campaign ideas are put on hold. And it’s bad for another reason – because the longer it runs, the more frequently those 6-month intervals are going to get in the way. But it’s good for another reason, one that trumps all the others: eight-to-ten years of fun is better than four years of less fun!
This approach to adventure scheduling is a technique of planning that I have written about before, in “Scenario Sequencing: Structuring Campaign Flow” but I have a new term for it: Directed Sandboxing. It means that while characters are free to move in any direction within the sandbox, they are confined to it – but that I keep changing the shape of the sandbox to accommodate the directions that the characters want to move in. My plotlines are devices to stimulate the characters, and to keep the world around them evolving, and to provide the players with the raw materials from which to determine where they want to go. It’s like giving the characters a detsination on the map to try and reach, without telling them how to get there, or how long to take. The direct route gets there quickly, but ignores all the interesting tourist-traps and compelling vistas and interesting side-trips along the way. It’s just not as much fun.
There are another 14 items on my “set list” of adventures for the One Faith campaign, some shorter than others. Some of them might not happen; some of them have been pre-empted by characters moving in unexpected directions. Some of the losses will no doubt be replaced by new ideas, new inspiration. Those ideas that are not replaced might well evolve with changing play style; I am just a little bit different as a GM now than I was in the year 2000.
No, I take that back; I’m now very different as a GM to what I was in Y2K. The differences are subtle but profound – and result (in part) from the time spent writing this blog every week over the last two years. I have no idea what developments and changes lie ahead in the passage to 2014; I can’t even forecast the key events within my life for the next year, never mind doing so for a significant part of the next decade! But so long as we’re all having fun, what does that matter?