Saturday, October 31, 2020

What's It Look Like?

Let's talk about running a campaign.

[this post, by the way, is probably going to be a messy one. Right now, my thoughts on the subject are only half-formed, and writing them out like this is one way for me to organize and codify my ideas. Just want to make sure I'm setting the expectations bar "low" here]

A couple days back, I wrote about my realization (finally! it was a long time coming) about how darn rusty I've gotten with regard to the skills needed to run a campaign...and that is to say, any type of campaign, using the term as it is commonly understood in the genre of role-playing games.

But maybe I need to start a bit basic the term "commonly understood?" Just what exactly is a "campaign?" What do I mean when I talk about running one (and my neglected, rusty skills)? Let's go ahead and see how Ye Old Rule Books define the word:

From Moldvay (B/X glossary, page B63):

campaign -- A series of adventures taking place on the same fantasy world.

From Gygax (AD&D DMG glossary, page 227)

Campaign -- General term referring to one DM's adventures as a whole rather than individually. An ongoing series of games based upon a created milieu.

[And just so that we're all crystal clear, I'll go ahead and offer the DMG definition of "milieu," found on page 229:

Milieu -- An unique game setting embodying numerous possible variables in its creation, i.e. the "world" in which adventures take place.

So just go ahead and shoehorn the additional explanation into the definition of "campaign"]

While the definition of the term here is taken specifically from the Dungeons & Dragons game, I should point out that it it is certainly broad enough that it can be used to refer other genres of RPGs. D&D was simply the first such RPG (so far as I'm aware) to coin the term for the RPG genre (and later RPGs would sometimes use other terms..."saga," for define the same general concept).

Note the concept of a campaign: it is referring to a series of adventures set in a fantasy world, not the fantasy world itself. Neither is it some sort of general story arc or overall plot (though my understanding is that the most recent editions of D&D treats the word in, more or less, those terms...i.e. a series of adventures connected by a particular plot thread designed to tell some grand story). 

This is important to understand! "Managing a campaign" does not mean managing a world nor does it mean managing a story. And it's certainly not about managing players (in the sense of controlling, influencing, or regulating their actions)...though it involves interacting with the players to a large degree. Let me come back to that in a moment.

[by the way, when I make declaratives like "this is important!" the reader should probably mentally insert the phrase "to me! (JB!)" after the sentence. Again, I'm writing this as a means of organizing my thoughts...i.e. talking to myself...hopefully with the aim that it will be of help to ME and of interest to YOU. But I am not telling you what you should think is important, okay? Just in case anyone was wondering]

Unfortunately, my habit of the last couple decades has been to fail exactly in this regard, more often than not. I'm not writing that to beat myself up, just trying to look at it critically. We'll set aside one-off adventures (even ones that take place over multiple sessions) because, by default a single adventure is NOT a "campaign"...and yes, I realize that I am ignoring the Moldvay definition of the term "adventure" which simply means any single session of play. Moldvay's use of the term "campaign" includes both a series of scenarios AND the oldest (original) form of play where one is simply delving a singular "tent-pole" or "mega-" dungeon. I'm talking about the (Advanced) Gygaxian model of campaign running.

*ahem* ANYway...what I have been doing instead (when I've been doing anything that looks like "management" of the game) is simply managing the world, that is the milieu or (as I prefer to call it) the campaign setting. What's up with the world, with its history, geography, politics, cosmology? Why are certain places (dungeons, etc.) here or there? Why are these particular opportunities for adventure available? Are the elements of setting consistent and coherent?

None of that really matters. Or rather, it is of secondary importance (at best) to running the campaign. It's fun and challenging to do this kind of world building, it can help provide the DM with ideas for situations and scenarios, and players of a particular persuasion might find it interesting or worthy of appreciation...but for most players I've encountered (your table might differ) experiencing a well-crafted world isn't the point of sitting down to the table. The play is the thing...the play of the game, I mean. 

But sustained play requires management of the campaign. I went from one extreme to another: serial adventures, not much more than episodic one-offs, to detailed world building without regard for the players. In fact, one of the draft posts I've got up on the board that hasn't yet been posted is entitled something like "I Don't Care [About You]," describing my conclusion that the only way I can run a satisfying fictional world is to ignore external intrusions into my creation (including the wants and needs of the players)...even though doing such a thing is (I now realize) NOT an effective way of running/managing a campaign.

In The Past (i.e. in the days of my youth) I did run campaigns...campaigns that would last for months or, in some cases, years. What did this look like? And how was my approach to running games different from the poor attempts of my (late) adulthood? Welll...

  • For one thing, the setting (the "world" of the campaign) only existed as a vessel in which to place adventures. Its importance as "place" was of very little importance. Time, distance, and logistics were of lesser importance...if possessing any importance at all. 
  • For another, adventures were what I guess I'd call "player facing" or, at least, player motivated. Dungeons existed, not because the world had them, but because players needed them. Players created their own adventures based on the wants and needs of their characters. 
  • At the same time, needs existed for the players' characters. Especially in non-D&D games, there were foils or rivals or straight up antagonists that compelled player action. My best and longest running Vampire campaign ("saga") was based around a group of newly embraced neonates whose sires simply did not care about them, forcing the players to band together for mutual survival as they explored and adapted to their un-lives in the strange and hostile World of Darkness. 
  • This didn't mean there was any kind of "storyline" the players were required to Big Bad Villains that required defeating, no Evil Empires that needed toppling. My Marvel Superheroes campaign was far less about "heroes versus villains," and far more about the lives and dramas of powered individuals. Rivalries and romances and super teams that were more like high school cliques and most definitely NOT government sponsored anti-terrorist units ('course this was run back in a pre-9/11 world).
  • In all cases (D&D or other games), the campaigns being run elicited excitement and engagement from ALL the players at the table, such that discussions and plans and schemes carried beyond the confines of the game room. The various group members chatted about or wrote about (as in actual letters to each other) or discussed what was happening in the game, the direction the campaign was going, reactions and reflections and ideas. And I, as the DM, was in charge of managing the campaign, taking into account the feedback of the players, keeping track of the various plot-lines and dramatis personae inhabiting the world, and shaping the scope and direction of "the series of adventures taking place" to fit the needs of the campaign.
And generally speaking, reflecting on these past campaigns, I think there was a general lack of ownership to the campaigns being run. If JB was running the campaign, it was "JB's Campaign," but I wasn't the sole owner and master of the campaign. The campaign belonged to everyone at the table: it was OURS, a collective of sorts, and we all had buy-in and investment in the thing because of it.

THAT may be the main piece missing from my games these days: when I've run games in recent years...whether one-offs or my rather poor attempts at starting campaigns...I have set myself up as the exclusive owner of the game. I don't share. I'm running the game, and my attitude is one of absolute despotism. That's not to say I'm a tyrant at the gaming table or that I don't solicit feedback from my players and attempt to incorporate their wants and certainly doesn't mean I'm inclined to say "No" to the players! But my disposition, the thought that remains at the back of my thoughts, is that this campaign is "mine," not "ours," and certainly not "theirs." If and when I end the game, it's over.

That's certainly different from campaigns of my youth (and when I say youth, I'm talking about up to my early 20s). And I'm not sure where exactly this attitude started. Somewhere along the line, certainly towards the end of college, people were asking me to run games for them without having any inkling of the rules...that was a problem. Being a sole arbiter of all things mechanical and thematic does not make for a great "shared experience." People were also asking me to run games that I didn't particularly like, or run games in ways that I didn't particularly like. And, of course, just graduating and growing up put any thoughts or time for gaming (let alone running campaigns) on hiatus...much easier to do when you're not enthused about the games (and gamers) that were available. Certainly didn't help that all my romantic relationships (up till and including my wife) have been with non-gamers. 

All of which (coupled with a lack on introspection on the subject) may have been what's led me to the place I am at the moment: deeply crusted in rust when it comes to running real (i.e. "satisfying") campaigns. Hell, "rust" doesn't cover it...I'm petrified wood. 

I have more to say on the subject, but it will have to wait till later; I've been writing this post for the last couple days and it's getting a little long (I warned you things would be messy!), and I've still got a couple more pumpkins in need of carving (we've got three done already). Happy Halloween to everyone! 

This one turned out pretty good.


  1. Your earlier post (plus a few other recent posts about campaigning -- did Grognardia start this topic going around?) was actually making me think about my earliest games, and how our campaigns were just what Gygax is saying they should be. I'll probably still write it, but you already touch on all the points I was going to include in it. Basically, the players had their characters. The referee ran the game, the players brought those characters. It was a campaign. Episodic often, but it worked. And there was very little pressure on the referee to produce content because it didn't need to be some grand world building affair or some epic overarching metaplot to follow.

    1. It was actually a recent post on the Blue Bard (and my comments to Anthony on the post) that started me down this road. However, perhaps there's a bit of introspection in the air these days.
      ; )

  2. This guy have a lot to say.

  3. Great to read you on this topic! I've not thought about the "soft" side of running a campaign in a while and you've reminded me that I need to.

    1. I'm all about being a softy.
      ; )

      I have a bit more to say. Hopefully some of it will be useful.

  4. The key thing to a successful campaign, one that both the players and the DM/Designer look back on fondly, is having a good group of dedicated players. It's the consistency that builds upon itself. This is the thing I've found difficult to recapture in later adulthood. Even now with a good group of 40'ish year old players, many weeks... even months can pass between games, and we often rotate games/systems/DMs.

    1. @ Sir Robilar:

      You are not the first person to tell me they've had this issue. I have some ideas/thoughts on it that I want to dig into even more, because a lot of times (it feels like) we (adult DMs) just write it off as "oh, that was then this is now, rose-colored glasses of the past, etc. etc.). Maybe there's more to it.

      [and maybe there isn't, but not discussing it at all sure doesn't accomplish much!]