The Beta Campaign. I made have made previous mention to it in a past article, but what precisely is it? While we at Cannibal Halfling are hardly going to take credit for the idea of running multiple campaigns within a group, I think we owe it to at least mention its benefits. When I initially joined a particular group, through which I met the fellow CH staff, a lot of the focus was on a single campaign. This is not to complain about that, and I had a great deal of fun, but as we keep playing throughout the years there are things that I have noticed as we take on new responsibilities in our lives.
Players have lives outside of gaming. As much as we want to deny it at times, there exist hours outside of when we manage to meet. Often, very often as I get older, there are times when despite my best efforts the weekly meetup just is not possible. School, work, relationships, and children are all things that require time and attention. As much as there are people truly devoted to just gaming, for most of us, there comes a time when there is something more important happening.
Tabletop gaming is a uniquely collaborative effort. It often requires the GM to whip players into attendance and to keep order, and the GM must enforce rules, but rarely is the relationship truly adversarial. In the end, the GM needs players, and players need the GM, and each other. As necessary as it is to give real life issues their full due, if the GM unexpectedly can’t make it to that day’s session it doesn’t matter what the players are up for, the game is not going to happen. That is far from the worst thing to happen. If your GM has been planning an entire session based on the plot arc of a particular character, and that player is not there to attend that session, the gears won’t fit. There’s a good chance that you alienate the player, whether you choose to play the game without him or not. There also is a legitimate threat to party balance: if you have been gearing up your combat encounters because one particular character has been tanking abuse on behalf of the party, and they miss that session, it might be impossible to rebalance an encounter to avoid a TPK.
In one personal experience, in one Shadowrun game that we were playing we had all signed on to work as corporate agents. While we were wrapping up for the finale, the group leader made a decision to break from the company, ultimately forcing the party into conflict with it. One of the problems? Two players in the party weren’t there that day, and as a result they didn’t get much of a choice of what side to be on. Since the characters weren’t even on the same continent, they had little reason to not remain loyal to the company. That particular GM had a tendency to push for PvP plot, but this led to an outright fight, one whose existence might not have happened if both, or even one player had shown up.
So, what do you do? Well, one answer is the Beta Campaign: a second campaign that is run by a different GM, ideally with a different system. Roughly around 2014, our group found ourselves in an interesting situation. We had been continuing the aforementioned Shadowrun campaign, but at a group gathering we had tried out Edge of the Empire and we discovered that we liked it a great deal. We were pretty invested in the Shadowrun game, and we had kept it moving, but we really wanted to give Edge a full game as well. We quickly realized there were benefits: bluntly, if one GM couldn’t run or vital players were absent, we had a decent chance another GM who was ready to continue a story with the rest of the party.
There were other benefits as well. For one, it helps to alleviate GM fatigue. It can be demanding to keep a game going week after week, and while GMs love what they do (for the most part), it absolutely can be a relief to take a turn back on the other side of the table and have a bit of extra time to prepare for their next session.
Second, it provides a logical next step when a campaign comes to an end, or long pause. In the case of a campaign ending, it helps prod players through the proverbial (sometimes literal) hangover than can come with the resolution of a long storyline, and players already have things clicking elsewhere. If the game needs to come an extended pause, it helps prevent a sense of “well, what do we do now?”
Finally, it gives a chance for newer GMs to cut their teeth a bit. If you are relatively new to GMing (like myself) acting as the substitute for the normal GM can offer a way to build your experience and confidence before you take on the full force of a campaign by yourself. It can offer more time for you to prepare, and to plan for eventualities, all while knowing that there can be another campaign in the works if you don’t have time, or don’t feel ready to run that week.
So…what should you run for a Beta campaign? Well, that depends on the role that you intend it to fill. If you are looking for a more balanced split in campaign, then it doesn’t really matter. You would be alternating anyway, and sessions simply become more bi-weekly. However, if you are looking to have the beta campaign as more of a fill-in, there are some suggestions to keep in mind.
First of all, keep an eye out for something episodic in structure. If you are filling in every once in a while, it can be hard to bring players right back to where they were before. It’s more ideal to have a resolution of that particular plot, with the ability to move into something entirely new the next time you come in. The Sprawl and Blades in the Dark are well suited for this model, as a session is based off of a criminal operation, and are designed to wrap up by the end of the session. Another way to go might be The Agency, which was designed to play out like an episode of Archer. Has the session ended in a way that is ridiculous and embarrassing? It doesn’t matter! The next session might be entirely new spies shoved into the brain of an entirely new human doing something completely different, and you won’t miss a beat.
As I mentioned in last week’s article, it is for this reason that I picked up The Pirates of Drinax. While it does have a number of preplanned adventures which should be episodic, it also has plenty more things hidden in the background where players can stumble around through space, investigating leads or just pirating whatever they can find. I’m hoping that it’s a balance between the two styles.
Again, if your group likes powering through a single campaign, and you all have no problems doing what you’re doing, I am not advising you to stop. But if you are seeing issues like the ones I mentioned pop up, maybe there’s something of value here. I hope that this is helpful, and I look forward to hearing about your games!