Friday, November 25, 2005

RPG Night: An Alternative Campaign Format

My Monday night boardgaming group is a pretty laid back bunch. We get together for maybe four hours and play 2 or 3 different games. We have our favorites such as Ticket to Ride, Bohnanza, Puerto Rico and recently Power Grid. Sometimes people bring a game that they want to play. I've showed up with Carcassonne in hand and Jim breaks out his El Grande set on occassion. Generally there is little controversy as to what we are going to play. If someone really wants to play a particular game, it gets played. And no one minds if someone begs off from playing a certain game, as I did with Santa Fe after several crushing defeats. I just couldn't wrap my head around that game. For a while playing it felt like hard work. Except for a couple of serial games of El Grande, we never have much of a plan as to what we're going to play. I can guess that we're going to play Puerto Rico or Bohnanza next Monday and I'd probably be right. But we might end up playing Texas Hold 'Em or some newly published or something from Bruce's game collection that hasn't seen the light of day since he bought it in '69.

I really like this set-up. We get all the new toy delights we want but also have our comfortable favorites to fall back on. And the possibility of becoming bored with a game is a non-issue. We played a crapload of Ticket to Ride for a while. But then we stopped. No biggie. In all probability we'll come back to Ticket at some future point. Until then, there are plenty of other games to play.

Recently it occurred to me that a similar format might work for RPGs. But before I talk about that, let's take a look at RPG campaigns as I know them. Somewhere along the way everyone I know in the hobby got locked into this One Ongoing Campaign thing. Wednesday night is Jeff's D&D campaign. Friday night is Sue's Champions game. Etc. I think this situation is the logical development from the main thrust of rpg evolution, particularly the 80's increase in mechanical complexity and the 90's increase in setting depth. If it takes you 6 hours to make a character and 300 pages of back story to understand the setting, then by golly you are heavily invested in this game before the first session. You don't want to dick around playing some other thing on Vampire night, you want to play Lord Gloomknickers! After all, there's at least 14 plothooks in the 60-page fanfic you e-mailed the GM last week.

There's nothing wrong with this format. I just think we should consider that other ways of organizing our roleplaying might enable better play for some people. Although I call the present dominant model 'One Ongoing Campaign', this label doesn't mean you only play one game ever. Rather it is acknowledging the fact that when you set up to game with people you say something like "I am going to run Call of Cthulhu and we will be playing every other Saturday". If you come over to my house on Saturday at the appropriate time then everybody is expecting to pick up where they left off two weeks ago. If you also play in someone else's every-Thurday night Ravenstar campaign, that's another 'One Ongoing Campaign' that you participate in.

I call my alternative 'RPG Night'. The main difference is that when you show up you might be playing a different game than last time. The time and place of gathering are fixed, the choice of RPG is not. In my mind each player has a portfolio of characters they keep in a three ring binder on a shelf in my game room. Each portfolio contains three or four Classic Traveller characters, a like number of Basic/Expert D&D adventurers, and one or two people each for several other RPGs. When you get together for RPG night you might spend a little bit of time making a character or two. "I'd like to do a Boot Hill shoot-out next week, so we'll all make some rolls on the chargen charts real quick." You might do some light roleplaying activities. "Hey, can we talk about my wizard making a magic item before the next D&D adventure. And didn't someone else want to look for a henchman?" or "The next Traveller adventure starts at the Glisten asteroid belt. Let's do four or five quick jumps to try to move your Free Trader towards that part of space." Then the group settles down into the meat of the evening. "Break out the Gamma World PCs, please. According to my notes the last time we played Gamma World you mutant freaks had saved a small farming community from a plague of giant radiated beetles. This adventure begins as you are being feted by Baron Ironeyes, the cyborg lord of the region."

Under my proposal you probably couldn't use several different crunchy games. Many people, myself included, aren't prepared to play any one of several different rules-intensive games at the drop of a hat. So for RPG Night you'd do well to stick with a single generic system or use only relatively light and fluffy games. Or you could do both. I could see including Savage Worlds in the mix along with the musty old games I've already mentioned. Slogging through intensive settings would also be a problem. My brain would melt if I went to a session thinking I might be adventuring in either the Forgotten Realms or Tekumel or the old World of Darkness. That means the settings would have to be well-known (generic D&D style, relatively normal modern era, generic supers, Star Trek/Star Wars), easily digestible (Traveller's Charted Space, maybe?), or perhaps just ill-defined (default Gamma World and Star Frontiers).

Notice how everything that theorietically works well for RPG Night gaming happens to dovetail nicely with the exact kind of games that I love? RPG Night ought to also help me out in my greatest flaw as a GM: I'm so flightly I tend to burn out before a campaign goes a dozen sessions. Even as a write this I have a Mutants & Masterminds campaign on life support and a D&D campaign that I should be working on. Most of the time my games flounder because something shiney distracts me and I move on to the next product. The RPG Night structure might allow me to turn that weakness into a strength. "Check this out guys! I've got a copy of Hot New RPG. I've photocopied the sample PCs so we could play the starter adventure tonight!" or "I know we ended last session with your dungeoneers captured by the hobgoblins, but I've got this terrible hankering for some Traveller tonight. 'Sides, I need more time to figure out what the hobgoblin king is going to do to you."

I think the right kind of players can get something out of RPG Night as well. If you like to adventure in many different times and places, here's a way to do it without playing Doctor Who or Lords of Creation. If you enjoy trying out lots of different character types, here's a way to make that happen with the disruptive revolving door effect you see in some parties. And if you enjoy the occasional player-on-player conflict but hate what it does to a long-term campaign, there's no reason why it should break the whole operation on RPG Night. Heck, take advantage of the system and play Boot Hill or Gangbusters with PCs on both sides of the law. Or fight each other as pilots/drivers in proto-rpg wargames like BattleTech, Car Wars or Dawn Patrol. RPG Night would probably be a perfect setting for an En Garde! campaign, as it would mostly be playable during the pre-game part of each session.

In the course of the hobby, players from time-to-time find themselves in campaigns that are good but they just don't particularly like the game in question. Like I could probably enjoy playing Vampire, but it's far from my list of top games to try. RPG Night means that even if you don't like tonight's game you won't have to wait too long for something new.

Another advantage is that GMs and players might be more inclined to try a different game or campaign configuration. You probably won't find much support for an all-halfling campaign, but as a companent of a multi-campaign RPG Night the idea becomes just one more item in the gaming buffet line.

Record keeping would probably be crucial for this system to work as anything but a serious of single-night one-shots. I mentioned the player portfolio idea. I think the GM or GMs would also need campaign portfolios and maybe an after-action report for each session, that way no one forgets that the bounty hunters are still looking for Smelly the Dwarf or that Gold Tooth McGee lost the deed to the ranch in a poker game.

As always, feedback on my crazy ideas is always appreciated. Does this sort of campaign sound feasible to anyone else?