Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Rise and Fall of Roleplaying campaigns.

Over on Hack and Slash, +Courtney Campbell  talks about Campaign Crashes. Over on Google Plus +Alex Schroeder mention two posts I wrote touching on the subject.

The Majestic Wilderlands as a Persistent Campaign
Running a Long Term Campaign in Fantasy Earth.

As some of you know I been running the Majestic Wilderlands for a long time. Over thirty years in fact. The earliest scraps of paper I have date to 1981. However I have not run a campaign for 30 years. The longest I managed was about 3 or 4 years in the mid 90s with my friend +Tim Shorts and +Dwayne Gillingham. Instead I just get the same setting with a different group or different setting. Using the result of previous campaigns as a background for later campaigns.

This all got started because I was the referee who let people trash his setting. Knock over a City-State? Found a Kingdom? No problem! It won't be easy and there will be challenging adventure but if you pull it off, I am not going to get bent out of shape and blue blot you. And believe or not, referees doing this was a problem back in my day.   Some just couldn't stand the idea of anybody messing with their precious settings.

I was the type of sci-fi/fantasy fan who not only loved reading Lord of the Rings but the appendices as well. I got a lot of enjoyment of letting players "trash" my campaign because they stuff they had to do wound looking like our group own version of those appendices after it was all said and done.

Then I discovered that my games became even more popular when made the result of the previous campaigns as part of the backstory. At first it was no more than "Hey Rob is that kingdom I founded still around?" Then got refined from there. It got to the point where I ran whole campaigns that the only purpose was to define some aspect of the setting everybody was interested in.

When you let people "trash" your setting the natural way of doing this to run your campaign as a sandbox. I couldn't predict what the players would be interested in so I learned to run the Majestic Wilderlands as a pen & paper virtual reality.

The consequences of this bears directly on the issue that +Courtney Campbell brings up. In his post he mention this study commissioned by Wizards of the Coast on the habits of tabletop roleplaying.  It mentions that the average length of a campaign is 8 sessions for newcomers and rising to 12 session for people with experience at tabletop roleplaying.

In my opinion it so short because the referee running these game rely too much on plot. Tabletop roleplaying is a leisure activity. To played on a regular basis, the group needs to find it not just fun but interesting as well. When you base a campaign around a plot, you are literally rolling the dice on whether the plot is interesting or not. If it is not well... that campaign will probably not reach even the average of 8 to 12 session.

Campaigns based around a specific plot also have an Achilles Heel in that when the plot is resolved, then what? Perhaps a new plot is devised in which case that has to be interesting for the campaign to continue.

I want to be clear that campaign based on plots are not wrong. In fact when a referee comes up a good plot it can make for a hell of a ride like any good story. A campaign based around a plot also has the advantage of being accessible to newcomers by providing a structure around which a campaign is based. Plots based campaigns are also better for large groups where you have a referee with eight or more players.

+Courtney Campbell has a lot of good ideas in his post, in the end the campaign's lifespan hinges on whether the plot is interesting or not.

Are their alternatives? Sure, the sandbox campaign. Because the sandbox campaign is about what the players want to do at every step it is far more likely to engage what I call the Soap Opera Effect. The desire of the group to play one more session of a campaign to see what happens. Sure it can happen with Plot based campaigns but is far more likely with a sandbox as in general the players are doing something they want at a given moment.

However Sandbox campaign have downsides as well. Since you run them like a pen & paper virtual reality there a lot of pressure of referee to come up with details on the fly. Sometime the the players do something stupid and the consequences changes the direction of the campaign into something unpleasant. At other times the initial context or situation at the start of the campaign proves to be uninteresting to the players.  What seems like a good idea at character creation doesn't really work out in play.

In short Sandbox Campaign have advantages but also complications as well. But if you avoid the pitfalls it is my opinion that a good Sandbox campaign will run far longer than a plot based campaign.

However they don't run forever, at some point they end. How they do crash? to use a phrase from Hack & Slash.

In my experience the most common reasons that sandbox campaigns end are.

  • The initial context/situation proves to be uninteresting.
  • Real life circumstances change preventing the campaign from being run.
  • The referee or players fuck up and things are not same afterwards.
  • When the characters are established. .

The initial context/situation proves to be uninteresting
This is the most common reason if a sandbox campaign ends before a half-dozen sessions. You can see this in actual play posts from the mid 2000s when the idea of sandbox campaigns was being popularized by the team behind the Wilderlands Boxed Set, including myself. We left the impression that a typical sandbox campaign started with the players on a blank map expected to explore their surroundings. Well many people tried this and found it confusing and ultimately boring. Their choices had as little meaning as in a classic plot railroad as they might as well been throwing darts at a map.

Real life circumstances change preventing the campaign from being run
This is pretty obvious. As a leisure activity tabletop roleplaying down on the list of things one needs to do. The longer a campaign runs the more chances of this happening.

The referee or players fuck up and things are not same afterwards
Basically the campaign has a "Jump the Shark" moment. Things are not the same afterwards. The Blue Demon incident is a example of where I made a poor decision. As it turned out, +Tim Shorts wanted to continue a few month later turning it into one of greatest campaigns I ran. Demonstrating it is possible to recover from such a moment.

When the characters are established. 
This is the positive outcome of a sandbox campaign. Just like in real life there are times in the sandbox campaign where events and circumstances are such that the characters are established. The campaign could be stopped and the characters seamlessly merges into the background life of the setting.

My two most recent sandbox campaigns ended this way. The first one with some of the players joining the Council of the largest city in the setting, Viridstan combined with the others having important position and owning several pieces of real estate. The second one with everybody participating in the construction of a Inn. The campaign ended with the Inn built and safely opened for business.

Another notable example is the campaign that I ran with Tim and Dwayne. Tim played a blacksmith, Dwyane an agent of the Overlord's secret police the Black Lotus. The campaign started with a mission to figure out what a rebellious duke was up to. It ultimately ended with them discovering that the duke was building early gunpowder weapons, cannons, for use as siege weapons. Along with the arrest of the duke and aborting the rebellion. After the denouement the Tim and Dwayne came to the conclusion that their characters have achieved enough of their goals that there was no real reason for adventuring. So we ended the campaign and moved onto a new one with new characters, same setting tho.


Chris C. said...

The way you handle Wilderlands is basically the model of what I want to be able to do some day -- have a setting that is rich enough and worthwhile enough to go back to again and again and let it go where it will. The more I get to game in it, the more I appreciate it.

-C said...

Thanks! You seem to be actually putting into practice what I'm talking about.

CritSystem said...

Great post Rob. If some of the Game Masters out there take the comments the community will be better for it.

Hedgehobbit said...

All the earliest D&D campaigns (Blackmoor, Greyhawk, Tekumel) all worked as persistent setting with the setting's history formed by the players action. However, these campaigns, at least initially, didn't have a consistent party as each week different people would show up to play. So you have a pool of players only some of which were at the table at the same time. Since they were playing different amounts, they were all different levels.

This might help with the establishing of characters. As only a small fraction of the character will establish them at any one time, those players can roll up new characters leaving other players to be the highest leveled ones (and, thus, being in more of a leadership role).

Unknown said...

I'd be careful taking too much from the idea that "the average campaign" is 8 or 12 sessions long. Really, what that means is that for every campaign that runs 20 sessions, there's only that implodes after only one.