Thursday, August 30, 2007

What is a campaign?

In the board wargamer/actual military sense, the term campaign describes a series of actions in the larger context of a war. A single campaign might be a series of related, sequential battles, like gaming out all the battles of Rommel in Northern Africa over the course of several sessions.

Figure 1: The red circle is a war, the dark red circle inside is a campaign.

In modern roleplaying terms, a campaign is basically the intersection of a group of players and a GM's setting. My copy of the World of Greyhawk plus the PCs equals the Bandit Kingdoms Campaign, or the Wild Times Campaign.Figure 2: The red circle is the GM's setting material or handful of modules or whatever. The blue circle is a group of PCs. Their interaction, the purple region, is the campaign

But at the start of the hobby, I don't think either of these definitions described what Gygax or Arneson was doing. I think the following diagram more accurately describes what was happening in those games.

Figure 3: Greyhawk/Blackmoor? The campaign is the ongoing GM sandbox, the red circle.

The red area is the GM's setting. Various groups would interact with the single campaign, all of which could thereby indirectly influence each other. If the green PC group slew the Dragon of Apple Hill and took all the loot, that monster and treasure would not be available to the blue group on a later visit to Apple Hill. I'm pretty sure I'm reading this right, as the section on campaign time in the DMG makes it clear that not all players necessarily come to all of his sessions because their PCs might be on a long journey not involving other players. This dovetails nicely with this line at the beginning of Men & Magic: "Number of Players: At least one referee and from four to fifty players can be handled in any single campaign, but the referee to player ratio should be 1:20 or thereabouts." That many players makes a hell of a lot more sense if you don't assume that every player comes to every session and they all act as a single party. That's how minis campaigns with multiple players work, right? Not every meeting of the campaign involves everyone putting their army down on one big board.

When you stop thinking about a campaign as these PCs in this setting and these players with this GM, then all those old stories of campaign hopping make a lot more sense.

Figure 4: The early hobby, before Runequest ruined it all. (Just kidding, folks.)

The green player(s) can operate the same PCs in both Gary Gygax's and Dave Hargrave's game (or whatever) because the effect on either GM's sandbox is negligible. Especially when you can just sic a rust monster on the laser pistols some player brought back from Arduin.

Am I reading the old style of campaign correctly? Is there something more here than semantic wankery? I think so. I think if you want to do a sandbox game like the old guard, then you need to give up the idea of equating the player group and the party. The player group is whoever from a large list of people happens to show up on D&D night. The party is the folks among those who attend that all agree on a single course of action. I think to do this sort of campaign, instead of taking my list of every cool gamer I know and whittling it down to four people, I need to invite everyone.


  1. Anonymous11:18 AM

    Another old school product to look at with this would be Tunnels and Trolls. From what I've read in some of their products T&T campaigns worked in similar ways.

  2. That's how my older brothers and their friends ran things. Most of them would be DM at some time, and everyone had their own dungeon or type of adventure they liked to run. One guy actually had a big underground dungeon. Another did shorter scenarios. Most of them (my brothers included) ran published modules.

    I was too young to play at the time, but my brothers were stuck dragging me along to their sessions because both my parents worked and someone had to watch me. I have vivid memories of how they played, though. Bringing characters from campaign to campaign was common. There were a lot of arguments over unique magic items and such, and some DMs favored certain players over others, etc. It was cool to watch on many levels.

  3. Anonymous11:27 AM

    I did the sandbox stuff from the start on, even though I´m a whippersnapper.
    I never, ever did run an adventure twice, because it had already happened.
    There are about fifty players in Berlin who have a SW-character in Berlin from my campaign.
    more later, good entry!


  4. Interesting. A bit like how one guy will build a huge model railroad layout and then have other people come over for an "operating session" where they'll run the trains.

    I wonder how easy it was to keep the game going. Did you have to end everything in one session? If a party was knee-deep in combat when the session was over and next week only half the party shows up plus 3 other guys whose PCs were all over the map what did you do?

  5. Interesting scenario, blue gargantua. I think leaving the PCs in the dungeon is the right call. If I had a fixed end time to each session, I might even considered a house rule like "If at 10pm you're still in the dungeon, your PC is assumed to be captured and starts next run imprisoned."

    Either way, I think the half party of return visitors would run new PCs or henchmen or something like that. This is one of the reasons I think lighter rules would support this sort of sandbox play. When building a character is as simple as in OD&D or Basic/Expert, you can quick whip up a new PC for these emergencies. Henchmen and NPC allies that could be pressed into service as brevet-PCs also become much more important.

    A PC with 2 henchmen might leave one behind on a dangerous expedition. "If we're not back in two weeks, dig up the chest we buried under the big oak and use that gold to finance a rescue."

    RE: Players doing different things. Gygax and Arneson both had assistants who would help them with people away from the main action of a particular session. I recently read one account where Arneson on-the-spot drafted a player to DM two PCs who went off exploring on their own.

  6. This is how we ran things when I was deep in the hobby in the early 80's as well... and to answer the question on how stuff carried over - generally everyone had pretty much a stable full of characters, with folks of course gravitating to the favorite of the moment. Should someone run a drawn-out dungeon/mini campaign arc, then said characters would be tied up for that period; but you still had others open should the next nights/weeks game choice be different, DM/Players not available or whatever. We played pretty free with house rules back then as well, it just seemed that most everyone gravitated towards the same basics in terms of character generation, hit points etc & worked from there.

  7. Anonymous12:26 PM

    It does sound like a fun concept. I've always enjoyed the shared worldbuilding part of RPGs though sometimes it can be difficult to get my players to realize they can come up with their own ideas and not just react to situations I set up. I'd love it if one of them wanted to DM a few games it would really add to the game world (which I am building as we go along anyway).

  8. Anonymous1:57 PM

    Back in the 80’s there were about eight of us, five liked to DM. We would bring our favorite characters t each others game. Some would get stuck in dungeon for a couple sessions so we always had a bundle of PCs to choose from. I remember the only big deal was whether someone had too powerful of a magic item too early the game that they got from the DM last week. “So Steve let you have a Staff of Power at 3rd level well you will have to keep that out of this game…”

    In the new rules (D&D3.0/3.5) it seems to be not some the magic item that a player brings from someone else’s game into yours, but what character class & feat combos the player has. Class and feat combos really offset play and make the PC unplayable in different games. Back in the early days the DM would just tell you not to bring a magic item but you could still play your favorite character.

  9. That approach dominated some notable commercial design decisions well into the late 80s.

    I frequently game with a kind of hybrid approach. Example: In my longest-running Fly From Evil campaign, there was a large body of potential players, and two intertwining campaigns to handle them: the private-eye campaign for when only 2-4 players showed on a given night, and the gangster campaign for when 4-10 players could show. I kept material ready for both, and since almost everything was single-session episodic, the jumps could happen whenever. The two campaigns really were one campaign, in that they shared facts and NPCs (the gangster PCs drove a stolen car that the private-eye PCs had failed to recover at one point) ... but they were two campaigns in that players had a character built for each.

    All that said, I still consider Figure 1 universal to all approaches. It doesn't really contradict your other figures since the circles represent different things entirely.

  10. All that said, I still consider Figure 1 universal to all approaches. It doesn't really contradict your other figures since the circles represent different things entirely.

    You mean in the sense that the in-play events represent a subset of the overall setting?

  11. Oh, another dimension to (maybe) factor in is multiple PCs per player (both in the Type-A "maybe this week I'll bring in my Thief" sense and/or the Type-B "My Thief will try to climb the bleeding wall; my Cleric of Odin will pray for guidance about what it means." sense), which is another thing frequently discarded from the more streamlined campaign image.

    That's something that, again, faded only very gradually in commmercial work through the 80s, and never went completely away (in GURPS Black Ops, for example, I recommend an organized Type-A multi-PC approach where any given mission's team leader can hand-pick who plays who based on the needs of the mission).

  12. Anonymous2:43 PM

    There should be a bunch of little skull & crossbones all over your last diagram of the "old school" sandbox campaign. Along with the structure of the player group and PC group another distinguishing feature was : a high rate of PC deaths.

    This makes a lot of sense for a couple reasons:

    1. D&D rose of out wargaming. It would be absurd to a wargamer to play a game without taking any casualties. That's what happens in war- people die- on both sides.

    2. When each player has a stable full of PCs, 2 or three of them getting their heads crushed by a falling boulder or skewered by an ogre is not as big a deal. Especially when...

    3. As Jeff mentioned, PC creation was way more quick and simple with the rules systems in use for these types of campaigns then most current rpgs (especially current D&D). So even if all of your PCs got killed in a TPK, it takes what...10 minutes, to roll up a new character with B/X rules.

  13. You mean in the sense that the in-play events represent a subset of the overall setting?

    More or less, yep. The first diagram doesn't really concern itself with participants, only the scope of events, so it maps more universally and kinda speaks a different language.

  14. I would totally love to run a multiple-campaign "whoever shows up" game like this. If players I knew were up for it, I'd do it in a heartbeat.

  15. Thats some interesting stuff. I've heard talk of this kind of campaigning before but the people doing the talking always came across as smarmy weasels, and thus theirs notion held little weight with me. The way you tell it, that sounds like high times indeed.

    Also, that first image looks like the Death Star, I tells ya!

  16. my experience is probably VERY different from most others. In my junior high experience, all the players (about 30 roughly) were expected to "take the chair" at some point, and so once a month, we met at what would now be referred to as the FLGS and make notes about what changes we'd all made to the WoG over the last month. Our science teacher would print it out for us in the computer lab, we'd change a few maps, and use that plus the Gazetteer (this is before the boxed set), plus any Sorcerer's Scroll articles from the newest Dragon, as the basis for our individual campaigns. And while DMs campaigns were fixed (oddly like LG, we divided up the world -- I ran Celene, the Uleks and the northern Wild Coast), the players could move characters to whatever DM was running where they wanted to play.

    In retrospect, I wish I'd been Iuz or the Horned Society :)

  17. Back in myVirginia days we had a rotating-chair shared-world fantasy campaign of a similar nature (though using a heavily-homebrewed version of one of the Avalon Hill settings, rather than Greyhawk). I was the GM in charge of the gigantic plateau where the Wemics run free :)

    We used similar approaches for a western campaign where the PCs were all Marshalls ... and _almost_ used it again for a space-opera mega-multi-campaign thingy, but that one was slaughtered by incompatible work-schedules and an unexpected marriage. Ah, the great beasts of grown-up gaming :)

  18. I think you pretty much got it in your post, with the addition of players having multiple characters each, as pointed out in the comments already.

    I've recently been reading Spirit of the Century, and this seems to suggest a similar model by default also, which i find interesting.

  19. Jeff - I feel rather odd after reading this, probably because you just described pretty much how I've always thought about campaigns. I started role-playing in 1975, and played in campaigns where the referees had been players in Greyhawk and Blackmoor. The campaign-hopping you describe was fairly common among some players, though some referees were quite clear that they had "closed" worlds.

    I guess what I am trying to say is that by explaining all of this clearly in a retrospective way, you've helped illuminate a nagging sense of oddness that I've experienced looking at how campaigns and parties have been thought of more recently. I'm not sure I have anything more than this, save to say that I continue to feel like a coelecanth.

  20. Jeff... nearly a year later (almost to a day!) i came across this post while doing research on entourage/troupe style gaming. This post is excellent.. and I'll echo the other comments by saying that this has reminded me of how the old days were. I think i'm going to dig up my 1E AD&D DMG just so I can revisit the old sections on campaign building and character/plot developments. Side by side with the new 4E - its like a different.. no it IS a different game.

  21. What a great post, Jeff. I guess I haven't been following your blog too closely for a while, but this post was linked from a comment on this post at grognardia, on the same topic.

    As I wrote there, this insight really drives home the "world-based" nature of RPGs in the beginning, as contrasted with the increasingly "character-based" and "story-arc-based" style that arose over time.