Are you a Butt-Kicker, a Specialist, or a Story-Teller? There is a huge world of games out there to satisfy every player’s and group’s style. And while there are academic discussions in every corner of the internet, sometimes it’s best to start at level one. Join the Level One Wonk in exploring the possibilities that RPGs have to offer, from Aberrant to Zorcerer of Zo. This week, we talk about taking adventures and linking them up into a campaign!
As we discussed a few weeks ago, role-playing games have structure. Adventures represent the avenue in play by which the characters accomplish a single goal. An adventure can stand alone, like a movie; when the adventure is done, the characters go off and live happily ever after. That said, games are more often like TV series, with the same characters coming together week after week for a new set of challenges. This ongoing, continuous play is typically called a campaign, and this is the scope of a game that most GMs and players think of when they think of role-playing games. Campaigns, though, are not a monolithic entity. Depending on the story you want to tell, your campaign can take on one of many permutations, varying in length, plot continuity, and story.
The shortest a game can be, effectively, is one adventure. The characters go on the adventure, solve the problem, and that’s that. A subcategory of the single-adventure game is the one-shot, where the whole adventure (and sometimes character creation and learning how to play) is contained in a single play session. On the other end, there is effectively no limit to how long a campaign can last. As long as the GM has their notes and the players are interested in the world, everyone can keep playing. Even in games where there are inherent limits to how long a campaign can go on those limits aren’t actually based in length, rather in milestones that are pertinent to a given game’s typical story arc (like reaching level 20 in D&D).
When it comes to how long you want a campaign to run, it really depends on what your goals are. If you want to run a single adventure, great! Run that adventure. Maybe you want to run one arc that tells a bigger story. That’s a great basis for a campaign, especially if you’re in a group that gets bored or restless easily. One large arc gives enough time for characters develop, but after about 15 sessions or so the arc is resolved and you’re ready to try on a new character, system, or story. If you want to go deep with characters and have enough time to show them growing and changing, you’re going to need more, possibly a lot more. Think about a theoretical D&D game, one where you’re going from level 1 to level 20. Turns out that in both 4e and 5e, it requires an average of 10 encounters per level to advance. That’s 190 encounters…If you assume 3-5 combats per session, that’s 40-60 sessions to get through the entire arc. That’s a year of play in optimistic conditions, and for those of us who schedule in the real world, possibly two or three!
How long you actually run a game depends almost entirely on balancing your players’ desire for continued growth and investment in the characters they have with humans’ innate penchant for boredom and seeking novelty. It can be extremely rewarding to watch characters come up from humble beginnings and develop power, prestige, and depth. At the same time, not every story a GM wants to tell is going to last the 60 sessions it’ll take to get to level 20. There is nothing wrong with that, and it’s best to let the campaign conclude at an appropriate moment rather than trying to string it along.
While a story is whatever length that story is, character development takes time. Various sources say it can take anywhere from a half dozen to a dozen sessions for players to really start identifying with their characters. If you want to run a really character-focused game, you should be prepared for it to be longer.
TV shows provide a whole range of examples of plot continuity. For decades, each episode of a sitcom, for instance, essentially happened in a vacuum. The zany antics of that week’s episode were neither informed by nor affected any other episodes in the series. This was perfect for the TV world in many ways; it allowed viewers to watch any time they liked and not worry about missing anything. TV dramas, on the other hand, often had long-running plots and characters of which viewers were encouraged to tune in regularly to keep track.
The sitcom can stand in parallel to an episodic game. Each adventure in an episodic game happens in sequence, not necessarily affected by any others. The drama, meanwhile, is more aligned with an arc-style game, where a relatively large number of sessions, adventures, and conflicts all collapse towards one central plot arc. In each case, there are places where the analogy breaks down. An episodic game is often going to end up being less like Family Matters and more like Big Bang Theory, where some events will affect future episodes as opposed to having everything wrapped up tidily at the end of 30 minutes. And while you may envision a sprawling epic like Game of Thrones for your long arc-style game, the logistical difficulty of having “scenes” in four different places with four different characters will mean that your sideplots and secondary conflicts are more likely to be dealt with in episodic interludes rather than jump-cuts and splitting the party (That said, games with intense relationship mechanics like Urban Shadows can deal with splitting up PCs a lot better than many others).
Plot continuity can be controlled to a degree, but it’s highly dependent on both length of the campaign and how many story beats the campaign has. The shorter a game is, the more continuity you need to effectively tell a story. Longer games not only have more latitude to jump around episodically, but may necessitate mixing things up and adding story beats to keep a longer story from plateauing. Even if you only had one central narrative you were interested in exploring, at the end of the day you’re running a game; your story will be more fun for your players if you keep them interested.
The important thing about continuity is that, especially in longer campaigns, the medium thrives on it. The ability for characters to change their world and see those changes later is something no other popular media can do, especially not with the flexibility a tabletop GM has. Therefore, even if you’re running an episodic game callbacks and recurring characters are fun and help players feel connected to the world you’ve created.
When Vampire: the Masquerade first came out, its GM advice section included tips on writing a Chronicle (the Vampire term for a campaign). These tips included giving equal writing attention to the beginning, middle, and end of a Chronicle so the GM knew what story was going on when and how to guide the PCs through it. On the complete other hand, the GM’s section in Apocalypse World admonishes you not to write anything that’s going to happen in advance. Instead, the game’s threats and fronts architecture and GM moves should give you a toolkit to tell a story with the players, instead of for the players.
Storytelling in campaigns runs along this continuum. On the Vampire:the Masquerade end, a GM is essentially a narrator, showing the players a broad story that they interact with in tangential or proscribed ways. This works well in the conspiracy and noir genres, as playing with notions of forces larger than the characters and mean reversion are common themes there. It’s also worth noting that by default this is how all role-playing video games work. Even in games with sophisticated stories, branching plotlines, and multiple endings, everything is scripted in advance.
On the other end, the Apocalypse World end, the GM goes in having written a conflict or two. They look at the characters their players have created, and try to write them in as well. Then, all bets are off. The GM must write what happens next only as a reaction to what the characters do, ensuring that the players have a strong amount of control in the outcome based on how they act.
Assuming your players are on board, these are both completely valid ways to play. I say this upfront because the notion of story in role-playing games is a contentious one. Most gamers have an experience of being “railroaded” by a GM who was either inexperienced or communicating poorly, and this collective memory encourages the assumption that linear or structured narrative games are inferior. If the players are on board, though, they can be just as fun as any other game.
Looking at your game, you have to figure out how much of a story you want to tell. While there’s “completely reactive” on one side and “completely scripted” on the other, there’s a lot of space in the middle. If you’ve determined you want your story to be about a rebellion overthrowing the king, you’ve narrowed down the story space a lot, even if the players still have control over the outcome. Regardless of how scripted you think your story is or isn’t, make sure you talk to your players about what you want your game to be about. If everyone has the same expectations, then all of you will likely enjoy yourselves more.
A final note on story: the longer your campaign is, either the looser or the bigger your story has to be. D&D has a continual ramp up to level 20 that helps pace this, but other games are more amorphous. No matter what desires the GM has for story, it is easier to give the PCs more freedom and have the story take more time than it is to continually ramp up the challenge and conflict over many sessions. And, speaking from experience, it is almost always less frustrating to have your campaign take longer than you expected than to have things suddenly grind to a halt before you were ready to stop.
Between the scripting of story elements, how many of those story elements exist, and how long it takes to resolve them, there are a lot of different ways to structure a campaign. Here’s a few example arrangements that can work well:
- “Finding the Plot”: The game starts in an episodic format, with the GM throwing out story hooks from the setting and PC backstories, but not writing anything longer. After a few sessions, when the PCs are better defined and the players have shown interest in a subset of the plot hooks used, the story can begin collapsing into a single arc.
- “Burn Notice”: The game has a driving story behind it from the beginning that’s either too powerful or distant for the PCs to touch. While the game is primarily episodic, there will be a portion of the story dedicated towards moving the PCs, slowly but surely, to the point where they can engage the central conflict.
- “Quest/Sidequest”: The GM has a narrative thread that is clearly meant to be the driving force, but the PCs are being engaged by other forces in the world as well. The PCs move between the overarching plot and other sidequests from the GM and their own backstories at their leisure. Fate Core provides an example of this out of the box with current issues being the story conflicts the PCs want to address now, and impending issues being the broader story conflicts the PCs will have to address in time.
- “Sandbox:” The GM writes the world and populates it with conflict and story hooks. They then drop the PCs in that world and create the story based on consequences of PC actions, with any episodes and arcs arising organically out of what the players decide they are most interested in doing. Can be similar to “finding the plot”, but with less structure.
- “Grand Strategy”: The GM writes a number of threats or rivals, using PC backstories to link them in. Then, they play as these rivals, reacting to PC moves. This is approximate to the mode of GMing in Powered by the Apocalypse games.
When you have five, six, or seven people all contributing to the underlying story of a campaign, things get more complicated than merely “beginning, middle, and end”. Beyond these examples here, there are many other iterations of potential campaigns. Perhaps a GM wants to go back to their world again and again, but with different characters or even in different time periods. Perhaps there’s no emphasis on story at all, and the players just enjoy a self-directed chance to play someone else for a while. Perhaps the GM is writing a series of one-shots, and the players have to figure out the connections between each adventure and all their different characters! Nothing is off the table, literally. Even if you want to try something weird and wild, planning for your campaign will be easier if you first answer framing questions about length, continuity, and story. From there, the only real constraint is your own creativity.