Friday, November 27, 2020

Campaign-Level Play Part 1: Maybe the Best Thing that D&D Has to Offer

How often does your character
choose to write a letter?
This is one of the trickier-to-describe qualities of running the game I know of, because it has to do (once again) with presentation and flow. I hope it makes sense.

I perceive a distinction between a common and, seemingly, modern way of running the game and an older way of running the game that has to do with the structure of the activity itself. And it seems obscure enough to me that I don't believe that even most OSR gamers play in this "old style" because they don't know about it. Like, adventures and RPGs from OSR designers that are clearly built with old-school sensibilities in mind are often nonetheless ignorant to this quality. I'm gunna call this old structure "campaign-level play" because of the following reasoning:

"Campaign" is a residual term brought over from the wargaming hobby. But it wasn't just a meaningless word used for its familiarity, like some other terminology relics. See, something like "Armor Class" is called that because the AC rules were borrowed from an old naval wargame, where every ship had an "Armor Class" rating like "first-class armor" (the best quality) or "fourth-class armor" or whatever. That's why we use a weird name for something that refers to a character's ability to not get hit or damaged. But "campaign?" As in, "me and the bois are gunna start up a new campaign of 5th Edition"? That comes from a time when the hobby was about a series of grand Napoleonic battles strung together by the same strategic and political forces that define a real military campaign. While, yes, a single session does just look like some homies getting together to have an isolated battle on a pre-crafted terrain map with their respective armies... they were playing what modern gamers would call a "legacy game." Today's battle is determined by the outcome of our last session, where the army general has a macro-scale plan for the direction of the army's campaign to conquer the enemy. You suffer losses in one battle and it carries over to the next. You write a treaty forming an alliance today and that matters tomorrow. You make a crucial victory and you take advantage of the opportunity by carving up the map of the countryside into chunks that will be allotted to each of your allies and yourself, which then shapes the next campaign when another war inevitably breaks out. These could be thought of as "meta elements" that shape the campaign itself, rather than elements you play out during the session (the battle).

Now I know I know I know that this is just me going over the invention of "plot" as a game element in the hobby. We all know that this is the line of thinking which led to the invention of D&D. But the specific thing I'm focusing on is the activity of resolving all these game elements that aren't the battle mechanics with the miniatures on the table. This was not all just flavor and fun and "roleplaying" fluff. They weren't just doing all this stuff to spice up their battle simulation game. It is the game. The conversations in-character as commanding officers are the mechanics. And this kind of matters.

The way I see most people play D&D nowadays looks very much like a TV show. Even the language we use is often borrowed, like a DM saying stuff like, "fade to black" and "cut to a reveal of the villain's true form" and whatever. I'm not criticizing that practice, it's fun and functional and a way to communicate things that works well for the players' imaginations. But on a moment-to-moment basis, the "camera" is usually locked in a close-up position, where the party plays out all of their actions either in real-time or even slower. Obviously, combat is hyper-slowed down because it's a crisis where death can happen in a matter of seconds. But even just the navigation of a building is usually resolved room-by-room. Again, that makes sense for the purposes of certain kinds of gameplay, and is fun and great. But I notice a lot of groups only have gameplay at that level. It's important to play out the full minute-to-minute blow-by-blow adventure during the "interesting" events, but as soon as the "interesting part" is over, a lot of DMs fall back on another TV trick: timeskip. Like, liberal usage of timeskipping to reach the next stretch of the story that lends itself to real-time drama.

So a character has an argument at work, and it goes poorly, so now they want to plan some revenge with their coworker. Well a TV director skips the scenes of the protagonist finishing the day, driving home, eating dinner, taking a shower, going to bed, and coming back the next morning so we can get right to the scene where they scheme with their coworker at lunch the next day at noon. Just the argument on Monday and the scheming on Tuesday. Those are the important scenes. Cut out everything but the juicy stuff, the stuff that can be played-out in roughly real-time. That's the way a lot of DMs construct the flow of their game.

So What?

Alright, I need to stress: this is not a bad thing. The new way I'm describing is fantastic. It's what most DMs should do, and some of them take a while to learn how. One of the best features of this medium is that time moves at the speed of narration, and the DM should get used to saying things like "four hours pass" when they need to so they can maintain the flow of the game. Many RPGs explicitly encourage this by structuring their gameplay on the basis of "dramatic pacing" with units like "scenes" rather than "minutes" or "hours." That's awesome.

HOWEVER... there are elements of "campaign-level" gameplay that cannot easily be incorporated when the game is structured like this. Sure, your character is well-equipped to hack n' slash through a dungeon with all their class features. The rules explaining those class features always tell you what sort of action they cost or how many times per day they can be done. But did any of your features imply a level of gameplay that was happening on the scale of weeks? Or that involve open-ended choices and planning on your part rather than solving a problem presented by the DM? In 5E, there are only a handful. The Assassin archetype for the Rogue is tricky to use because it's built with campaign-level play in mind. Likewise, many of the background powers rely on it to be useful. But these are few and far between, and because of that, these features also tend to go unused in campaigns where the DM uses "dramatic pacing."

You might say that all I've identified is the difference between linear games and "sandbox" (open-world) games. But even so, the way that most DMs build a "sandbox campaign" is still usually just by telling the players they have 5 quest lines they can pursue instead of just 1. Each one is still built like it'll be a firm plotline to follow, and the players are just choosing which adventure path to play. Or, alternatively, the DM does offer a true open world... but it lacks depth. They have a hex map and random encounter tables to roll on and they let the players start walking... and nothing interesting emerges out of their walking around and fighting wandering monsters. Or, alternatively alternatively, the DM has a big hex map that's really well seeded with interesting content... but they impose a certain structure to each session that must be followed: you prepare in town, you travel to today's dungeon, you crawl through, and you travel home at the end of the day. Their game is built only for that one cycle. Look at Five Torches Deep. It's been praised for some of its procedures, like its wilderness rules. But they break if they aren't being used in the context of this cycle of town-wilderness-dungeon-return-repeat. It even has an optional "roll to return home" at the end of a session if you ran out of time to play it out. Or look at Torchbearer (the Burning Wheel derivative). It has specific phases of play that cannot be broken by a little bit of player creativity.

So let's say instead that maybe you really have nailed the sandbox experience because you've designed a robust setup like The Dark of Hot Springs Island or something. Jacob Hurst, the author of that book, describes a philosophy of "powder keg adventure design," where the introduction of the players and their actions into the currently-stable-yet-extremely-volatile situation will have an explosive effect that feeds into future plot. He identifies the right kinds of variables to have prepared and the right kinds of connections to build between them so that an interesting story will emerge out of the mere event of "the party runs into a wandering monster in the jungle." No plots scripted in advance, just pure imagination-driven direction for the campaign to take. But it can be taken further. Let's review some words of wisdom:

“Game time is of utmost importance. Failure to keep careful track of time expenditure by player characters will result in many anomalies in the game. The stricture of time is what makes recovery of hit points meaningful. Likewise, the time spent adventuring in wilderness areas removes concerned characters from their bases of operations – be they rented chambers or battlemented strongholds. Certainly the most important time strictures pertains to the manufacturing of magic items, for during the period of such activity no adventuring can be done. Time is also considered in gaining levels and learning new languages and more. All of these demands upon game time force choices upon player characters and likewise number their days of game life…YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT.” 

AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide (page 37), Gary Gygax

Most folks read this and focus on needing to start using a clock and calendar in their game, but timekeeping itself is not as important as the activities which rely on strict timekeeping. So, yes, while a lot of this will go back to the crucial element of "time," I assure you that's not the only thing this is about. The real thing that strikes me, that defines campaign-level play, is the player characters setting their own pace. A game where a PC can form a long-term plan, and they have the information and materials to do so in an informed way. A game where players don't just pick between quests presented to them, but go so far as to instigate their own conflict. A game where the DM now requires X number of weeks of training to complete a level-up, thus forcing the players to hunker down and think about their place in the world during all the time one of them is training while their friends are still out adventuring.

See, there's an old adage in storytelling that "villains act, heroes react." I find it especially common in the superhero genre, where the activities of the heroes are usually just crime-fighting, and thus, responding to crimes being committed. In most heroic adventure stories, the conflict is instigated by the villain. A lot of the time, the audience is presented a status quo that is basically peaceful and just, and the villain is a disruptive force that must be stopped. Of course, you don't have to write adventure fiction this way, and in many cases, the opposite has been done. The heroes find a treasure map and are inspired to set forth on their own journey. The hero wants to enter a martial arts tournament to prove themself. They're an intrepid entrepreneur who wants to start a ghostbusting business. Or maybe the status quo is unjust and the world is a dystopia and the heroes decide to start a rebellion. In any of these situations, you are likely to find the villains reacting to the heroes instead of the opposite, like the EPA getting pissy at the Ghostbusters. But even within those narratives, they can sometimes still introduce a villain that is proactive and forces the hero to suddenly be the "reacting" one during the third act, like the ancient god Gozer needing to be stopped by the Ghostbusters. Hollywood-style villains lend themselves really well to the "villains act, heroes react" method.

And... most D&D adventures and scenarios are written the same way. Like, nearly all mainstream ones, and even the vast majority of indie/DIY ones. Either they're really pushy about it, where the PCs are forced into circumstances created by the villain (e.g. your hometown comes under siege by conquerors, or you're a prisoner in a Drow dungeon and have to escape), or they're a bit softer with it, where the PCs can visit a new town and hear plenty of rumors and get lots of hooks pointing them in the direction of some villainous activity that they may want to do something about. But in either case, most players are used to showing up at the table and having the DM pretty much tell them, "this is the adventure we'll be playing today. Here's the setup." I'll once again stress that this isn't a bad thing. Most adventures I've ever written myself would fall under this model. Being able to craft a compelling situation with a villain instigator is a fine art that most DMs should learn, especially the ones with big aspirations about some grand story they want to tell. But... I have to admit that "villain-driven adventure" is at odds with the unique strengths of the medium. Especially when that's all the players get to experience.

How Do You Design For This Kind of Thing?

Well, first we can just look at adventure modules and evaluate them for their compatibility with "player-driven campaigns." I'm gunna look at some modern OSR classics and measure them on this quality.


  1. The Cursed Chateau
  2. Kidnap the Archpriest
  3. Tomb of Black Sand (optional intro, where the PCs wake up as prisoners)
Don't get me wrong. None of these adventures are actually bad. In fact, they're all really good. But the reason I consider them "bad" in regards to campaign-level play is because they're heavily context-dependent, and once the players are in, they're kind of "locked in." Kidnap the Archpriest especially is dependent on so many world elements being set up that it's unlikely to be arranged just by chance during the player-driven sandbox. Instead, if you are playing Kidnap the Archpriest, it's probably in the form of the DM sitting everyone down and announcing, "for the next two sessions, we'll all be playing Kidnap the Archpriest." While you could take The Cursed Chateau or Tomb of Black Sand and seed them into an open-world map as adventure locations, each of them will likely take many sessions to play through and will start to define the campaign in a long-term fashion.


  1. Tomb of the Serpent Kings
  2. Barrowmaze
  3. Fever Swamp
See, each of these can be easily seeded into a campaign world map as adventure locations to be visited at the party's leisure. Players can delve in, stay as long as they want, and leave when they're ready. There’s no main plot to get sucked into, at least not beyond the point of no return. And they're all open-ended enough for what you'd even get out of them that ambitious and creative players can affect the scenario in all kinds of ways. When you run The Cursed Chateau, the goal is to escape. But Tomb of the Serpent Kings? I've run that adventure something like 5 or 6 times at this point and never see the same thing twice. I've run it and seen a party try to renovate the dungeon before.

Something like Broodmother Skyfortress is fine because, despite being a big, epic, dramatic plot-focused adventure, it is recommended to be thrust upon the players only once they’ve spent a long time in the campaign world. That way, the stakes are meaningful to them and the outcome will be a major change to the status quo. So while it is definitely along the lines of, "alright guys, for the next five or six sessions we'll be playing Broodmother Skyfortress," this can be done as a very welcome interruption to the normal player-driven nature of the campaign and will help to further fuel the campaign-level play in all sorts of ways. I mean, this is an adventure that literally asks of the DM to destroy at least 6 major cities in their world.

But these are still just planned adventure modules, not the full story. These are elements of the campaign, but the campaign itself can only grow into its full potential with tools that affect the entire game. Most games that attempt this will have some kind of "downtime" system. However, most games' attempts at downtime is usually something like, "forms of relaxation and recreation your character can enjoy between adventures" or, "how your character can run a business between adventures." Now, these are great activities for campaign-level play, but the problem I have with treating "the stuff in between dungeons" as downtime is that the dungeons now seem like "the important stuff." That "downtime" is less important or consequential or adventurous. But the activities you undertake during that time could have greater consequences on the plot of the game than anything else you do, if you do it right. It doesn't have to just be stuff like "working on a project you have on the backburner." The only thing intrinsically different about "downtime" action versus active session-time play is the timescale, for the most part. That your activities take place on the scale of calendrical time. Like, you ever see a movie with a montage in it? The plot moving forward through months-long events really fast? Your players could maneuver themselves onto the throne of the kingdom and start a war during so-called "downtime." There's nothing about the activity between dungeons that's any less adventurous, and we should stop relegating it to that dismissive status of mere "downtime."

You could make the argument that calendrical activities are better played out between sessions, which we'll break down. But the built-in downtime systems in some games certainly seem like something the DM has to prep for at least as much as the sessions themselves. Let's look at a few.

Pendragon is an old RPG for playing as knights of the round table in King Arthur's court. Pretty sick. The game's setting is also attached to a specific timeline of events covering something like 75 years. It lays out how things play out over the years (e.g. Uther Pendragon's conquests, Arthur discovering the sword, the formation of the table, the introduction of the Grail quest, etc.), but if the players' actions would change these things then the timeline can get derailed and that's awesome. But because it takes place over such a long period of time, each session covers one whole year, and there is a built-in cycle of gameplay that covers the full year's activities. First, because of the demanding lifestyle of the knight (training, managing an estate, traveling to and from the king's court for your yearly service, recovering from injury, going on hunting trips, throwing parties, etc.), the majority of the year is "downtime." Then, the knight has one major adventure that year. If there was other cool shit they did, like defending the village from some brigands or killing a witch or something, then it can be handwaved as minor knightly feats done in your everyday knightly stride. But the adventure of today's session, the cool quest where you had to travel to the Fell Tower of the Faerie Giant and rescue the prince and uncover an ancient mystery or whatever... that's your cool girl summer story that all the homies got together for during the session. The quest that you were all ordered to undertake during your yearly summit of the knights of the round table, when Arthur was distributing plot hooks and said, "alrighty you five dipshits get the Faerie Giant quest." Then, once the yearly adventure is over, the group plays out the "Winter Phase," which is a procedure you follow to resolve all the other major yearly activities that would be considered "downtime."
  1. Perform Solo Scenario (if applicable)
    • The juicy one that's actually nice and flexible. Although the game recommends this one for players who missed a session and don't want to miss out on some adventure that year, not so much as a part of the procedure you're expected to indulge in.
  2. Roll for Experience (if applicable)
  3. Check for Aging (if applicable)
  4. Check Economic Circumstances
  5. Make Stable Rolls (i.e. your horses)
  6. Make Family Rolls
    • Includes marriage, children, and family events (like scandals)
  7. Undergo Training and Practice
  8. Compute Glory
  9. Add Bonuses from Glory (if applicable)
Neat, right? It has cool features but I bet the limitations jump right out at you. This is a procedure that completely breaks down if the PC isn't a medieval knight. There's literally a step for checking the health of your horse. Aging and family is important because in a 75 year long campaign, you'll be playing through 3 generations of knights, raising some kid to one day be your future PC. That doesn't fit the assumptions of most people's campaigns. On top of that, it imposes a specific cycle of events that can't be broken. You will only have one adventure per year and then you will take the winter off while you manage your castle. No sword and sorcery or picaresque stories here. But because this RPG knows exactly what its genre is, it takes advantage of that by abstracting all these time-based activities and turning them into an upkeep checklist. Like, your economic standing isn't measured by the number of gold pieces you've gotten from your dungeoncrawling, fluidly going up and down as you plunder and spend. Knights don't track their money the way most adventurers do in other RPGs. No, your economic standing is instead a rank that'll be audited at the end of each session to see if it goes up or down.

One thing that I like is the seamless merging of world elements with meta-game mechanics in this procedure. In most games, XP is an abstract thing that you gain for XYZ activity and it just goes into effect as soon as you reach the threshold. You are meant to retroactively understand your character to have been learning these new skills during all the time they've spent adventuring. But in this system? No, the experience system is literally an activity you perform. You train to level up. Your "glory" points? Sure, it's some made-up metagame-y abstract currency to spend on stuff like favors and authority and whatever... but "earning glory" isn't abstracted. You do that shit alongside seeing if you pop out a baby.

Pathfinder has a good sourcebook titled Ultimate Campaign which has a section for downtime, a section for running kingdoms, a section for warfare, and a section for miscellaneous "campaign systems." It's great! It's surprisingly comprehensive, and seems to understand the goal of adding systems that bring the world itself to life instead of just character stuff. The big problem is that it's still Pathfinder. It's all still tied into complicated rules and is obsessed with granularity and takes 5+ pages to describe something that any DM worth their salt can explain in two paragraphs. They manage to find a way to introduce new units into everything. I cannot imagine actually using this book's content. But, if you are a Pathfinder player, then you can stop reading now and just go use that book.

Stars Without Number, the much-acclaimed OSR space opera RPG by Kevin Crawford, is mostly campaign-systems, which are fucking superb. It accounts for lifestyle, having employees, paying for services, space travel, conducting space trade, collecting and archiving data about new worlds, and best of all, factions. It has an incredibly smart, simple, and fun fleshed-out system for faction gameplay, pitting different kinds of institutions against each other in macro-scale turns and actions. The main problem with Stars Without Number? It's all sci-fi, duh. Most people want something that'll work for their medieval fantasy game. And even if you're playing a sci-fi game, this one has Psionics (i.e. the Force) built-in pretty thoroughly, and can be hard to remove.

Alright, here's a surprising source of really helpful insight. Please watch this video by Matt Colville if you haven't already. This is the product of his attempt to address many questions over the years about downtime, and while he does indeed call the video that, I think he had the same disconnect as I do. That "activities other than dungeoncrawling" shouldn't be relegated to a low-stakes minigame of your character running a side hustle for funsies. That there's nothing "down" about that time. Not really. What's most striking about Colville's take is how perfectly free-form it is. There's not really a need for rules and mechanics to cover this stuff because it's instead just treated as a conversation. Like, even more than the rest of the game is. The PC just says what they want to do and the DM thinks on it for a few days and kinda just decides on the outcome the way a writer works on their novel. This is the loosey-goosey approach that I would argue is actually the most fitting for the medium.

We have a lot to explore with this last option, and most of my insight is directly tied to another example that I want to explain in depth. Let me tell you about a related artistic medium that I have a ton of experience in which we can learn from. In Part 2 I will be talking about the wonderful, weird world of Model United Nations.

It'll make sense, I swear.


1 comment:

  1. Nice piece - particularly the comparison of systems. That is super handy. I signed up for Worlds Without Number over this year on the basis of exactly what you said - all the cool domain stuff but this time for fantasy.