Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Campaign-Level Play Part 4: Setting Up The Campaign

I spent a lot of time trying to define two separate styles of gameplay, for the purpose of elucidating one of them to you. But I want to stress that I like to mix the two styles. I have created many tools for campaign-level play, but there are locations on my world map that are big plot-heavy adventures. I warn the players ahead of time. They see “Castle Ravenloft” on the map and they know that if they choose to go there, they’re initiating an adventure module that they’ll be kind of locked into for a decent number of sessions. That’s okay. A lot of players really like being taken on the rollercoaster ride of an awesome story you've prepared, so don't be afraid to trade places for who's driving the campaign at different times. The extent to which you do player-driven action versus DM-driven action is up to you, and it's important to figure out your preference because it determines the prep workload you create for yourself as the DM. All those tools I talked about last time are probably things you'd need to make before the campaign, and it'll be a waste of your time if you don't then tell the players "take advantage of this stuff and base your decisions off of it."

Let's say you decide you want to include all the moving pieces, but you might not be sure how to start. So the question is, if you want to use these structures of campaign-level play, then how and when do you incorporate them?

Putting it All Together

Take the ledger system. It requires that you have a conversation with each player. Do you do this during a session? At the beginning or end of a session? Have players take turns coming into your office, or even allow group appointments? Personally, while you could do it this way, I don't think it's ideal. It leaves other people waiting and it's not very exciting. And you definitely can't do it at the beginning of a session because, as explained, you'll need time to think about the resolution of their ledger activities. Maybe you could have a ritual of always ending a session with it (e.g. "dungeoncrawl has to be wrapped up by 9 PM so we can spend the last hour of the session talking downtime!"), but that seems difficult to do consistently. What if they're in the middle of a boss fight at 9 PM? Were they supposed to plan ahead to avoid that? Should they be dictating their actions based on a meta deadline? I think ledger time and table time ought to be kept separate.

Here's an attractive and easy option. Remember what Colville said in his downtime video: DM runs an adventure for 4-8 sessions, then the group takes a break for a while and campaign-level play happens in the off-session time. Then they play another adventure for 4-8 session. I like this setup. You can take a few weeks "off" from D&D while still engaging in the campaign. Then you spend a month or two with lots of D&D. In fact, I once wrote about it extensively as something I call "Navette Story Structure." The basic idea is that the game's "plot" can be run as "open-world sandbox" by default, but with regular "chokepoints" of linear, more heavily-scripted content. Start with a strong opener, let the players drive for awhile, but take back the reigns near the end so you can get the parking job right. Rinse and repeat. You can apply this on the scale of individual adventures (as I originally intended it) or on the scale of the entire campaign (as is relevant here).

However, I also like the idea of always having the systems of campaign-level play going on in the background, and having the players manage many characters across the world in parallel to each other. So instead of having periods of adventure alternating with periods of downtime, you can manage both each week. When you have your weekly or biweekly sessions together, you play out an adventure with whatever characters are available. Throughout the rest of the week, you have some meetings (maybe over the phone or lunch or Discord or something) with each player to fill out a new ledger entry for that in-universe week. Have the results ready for them by the next session. If you play online and you don't want to bother with a full, verbal conversation, maybe have a "ledger drop-box" that everyone has to submit to by X time each week so the DM can process the results by the next session.

What if a session's adventure ends up taking place over the course of more than a week? They get really deep in the megadungeon and find themselves on their 8th night camping down there. Or they spent the session in a hexcrawl and trekked across the whole kingdom for 8 days in a row. Well, here are two answers. Option one is that you could stop everything and immediately, right there, quickly run the procedures for advancing the campaign's calendar one week. That might involve updating quite a few variables. But luckily, none of these characters will need a new ledger entry because their last week of activity is already accounted for with the events of today's adventure. Option two is that you let the party power on through for their 8th night of adventure and beyond, and then retroactively update the campaign's calendar later. The second option will preserve the flow of gameplay during the session, but it will deprive the party of certain information they could have used in the second week of the adventure if the DM had gotten the chance to roll for new astrological events or villain progress or random world events. The second option will empower them with those elements of verisimilitude, where the world continues turning even when they're not looking... but it brings the session to a screeching halt.

If the session's adventure only covers 2 or 3 days of events in-universe, but it was still extremely packed with activity, then you might find yourself stopping the session mid-adventure with a cliffhanger. In this case, you could pick up where you left off in the next session. Of course, none of these characters (Party A) will have a ledger entry to fill out in the time between now and then, since the clock is frozen at the spot where they're adventuring. But if players have alternate characters (Party B) who are inactive at the moment, then they could have some downtime progress made. Fill out their weekly ledgers. Or even more interesting, the players may choose for next session to not continue where Party A left off, but to instead rewind the clock 2 or 3 days and assemble Party B of available characters for an adventure, to see what was happening elsewhere in the world in parallel to last session's events. Just make sure their actions don't conflict with Party A's actions.

Another key to keeping this smooth is to create an expectation among players that they should plan ahead in between sessions and communicate to the DM what they think they'll be doing next. They should spend the time between sessions sorting out which quests they might pursue next, so you can save time during the session not having those conversations. If all of them wrote in their ledgers this week that they want to spend some time having their character advise the king on his royal court, then ask the party if they'd like to spend the next session playing that out together instead of just getting a written update in their ledgers. Then the DM can spend the week preparing some hefty, robust material to run the "downtime" gameplay live and have interesting and challenging results for each player action on the spot, rather than needing time to think. A DM can run downtime live if they can prepare a bit for it and have an idea of how narrow their prep needs to be, but players are in control of that. Remember, crisis staffers in Model UN might return results in 20 minutes if they have enough prep material, and they're a bunch of amateurs who are handling 8-20 "players" rather than 4-6.

Another thing to account for is organizing all this mess. I talked already about having a ledger drop-box of some kind, like a modern "play-by-post" campaign. I think that, even if you play an analogue, in-person game, you should still incorporate technology to make these tools available to players. A shared folder on Google Drive or a Discord channel with pinned messages can be where you store all the maps, calendars, equipment lists, lore dumps, and so on as needed. If you only had physical copies of these things and you simply kept them in your house, then players could only peruse that info in the off-session by visiting your house. Fuck that.

And man if Roll20 doesn't manage to disappoint. See, it does have "character journals" as a built-in feature, and the DM can create player handouts and set their availability on a player-by-player basis. But the handouts have to be static image files, so no interactive maps or calendars you can take notes on and watch your marker move along or quest boards you can pin messages to or anything like that. And the "character journals" are basically just a place to input character sheet info (stats and ability descriptions and whatnot) + a short bio. Definitely not the ledgers we have in mind. Of course, the site does allow you to create as many "pages" as you need, and they seem promising. A "page" is the board state visible to the players when the game is open, and is usually used for battle mats, with tokens for characters able to move around. Of course, you can (and are encouraged to) use it for other visuals, like setting a backdrop image or an interactive puzzle or a map or something. Players can manipulate content on a page, moving tokens and drawing shapes and lines and adding text as they please. So it would work great for many of our campaign tools, like a map where players can move around NPC markers and label things and draw lines and connections as freely as they want. The problem? Players cannot view a page unless the DM manually moves them to it. 100% of the time. So no chance a party member could ever quickly consult the map if they need to without bringing the session to a halt. We were so close.

However you make this material available to your players, I would recommend always dividing it between DM copies and player copies. I already stressed the importance of that for the calendar, but even maps and relationship charts can benefit from the players having an incomplete version to begin with and the DM having a full version behind the scenes. In fact, it can allow you to continue expanding on it throughout the campaign if you need to, with the players none the wiser. Just start the campaign with one city and a small hex map. Even ambitious, free-spirited PCs can spend a long time tearing it up if you prepare it right, which leaves you time to make the next town over while they're busy with that. Then the next one, and the next. Just tell the players, out of character, to do you a favor and not leave the small hex region until you're ready for them to. Ask them to meet you halfway and enjoy the material already prepared for them, as there'll be ample amounts to start with.

With all the systems I've discussed, it is possible to overdo it. I've stressed that several times, but you might still be wondering how to balance things right. In my mind, I feel like it depends on what your group wants out of the campaign. If they naturally gravitate towards politics, then go the extra mile in fleshing out the politics and NPC dynamics and maybe some rules for mass combat. If they instead want to focus on survival stuff, then pick a really deep hexcrawl ruleset instead of settling for something basic. If they love Monster Hunter or Metroid Prime then prepare a badass bestiary of monster lore, rules for identifying monster features and weaknesses, rules for extracting parts from monsters and using them for crafting, and rules for eating monsters. If they see themselves doing some Animal Crossing shit and building up a small town or the Keep on the Borderlands, managing it from above and keeping the people safe and prosperous, then focus on domain gameplay. But me? I'd probably try to do just a little bit of everything. After all, the point of these tools is that, the more material you prepare, the more there is for players to grab onto and use. So they'll use whatever you provide, and thus, you might want to provide variety.

To put it another way, I think that if The Lord of the Rings were a D&D campaign, it wouldn't be weighted too heavily in any of those categories. I think the proportion of survival content, politics and character relationships, mass warfare, domain play, equipment handling, and downtime activity are all roughly equal. So if you wanted to make LotR into a D&D campaign, you wouldn't have to flesh out any of those too much. But you would have to provide something for all of them. If you've ever played a D&D campaign where you didn't strictly keep track of time, handwaved travel between destinations, only focused on the high-stakes crisis moments, and kinda just relegated the PCs to sideline observers when it came to all the politics and war in the plot... then your style of play would be completely incapable of recreating LotR. But with just the barest layer of campaign-level play tools implemented, suddenly it becomes very possible.

Oh, here's another interesting question that crossed my mind:

How do you make an RPG product built for "campaign-level play"?

The three main types of RPG products are rule systems, settings, and adventure modules. Oftentimes, two or all three of these are merged together. But if you wanted to put out a product that specifically gears itself towards this style, what does it need to look like?

Well, many of the tools can be built into the rule system itself. The more ingrained it is in the core of the rules, the more relevant it can be made to feel within the campaign. Sure, you can tack domain rules onto 5E D&D. But if they had been there from day 1, then characters likely would have access to features and abilities that tie directly into the domain rules. It would interact with the rest of the system more meaningfully than if you added it on as a supplement. So you can either pick a tool and try to make a badass RPG supplement out of it, or you can start from scratch and build an entire game with this in mind. Neither are wrong.

What about a setting guide? Well, to be honest, the secret to making a good setting guide was always to focus on optimizing it for campaign-level play. As I've previously stated, setting guides tend to suck. Most of them are just agonizing, mind-numbing lore dumps that don't seem keyed in to the needs of a DM at the table. They struggle to include any pieces of info that'll be relevant to the act of adventure. While it's true that any kind of world information can be used by an adventurer, there's just some stuff that lends itself to it better than others. So no, Greyhawk Gazetteer, don't explain to me in a paragraph the percentage breakdowns by demihuman species that a region has in its populations. Give me hexes, label them, and provide a hex key that tells me what random encounters can be rolled there.

See, I do want to go a step beyond the normal advice. The normal advice for a setting guide is that whatever you provide "should be more interesting than what most Game Masters could probably have thought of on their own." A setting book should tell me what your world is like. What’s it genre and tropes and staples? How is life different there, how is adventuring different there, and how can I make my game feel like it takes place distinctly in your world and not just, like, a world with some arbitrary proper nouns?

And that advice is still solid. But you know what checks off all those boxes and is still a bit tricky to use? Dark Sun. I love the hell out of Dark Sun, and it makes very clear what makes it so different to adventure in. It even focuses on achieving that through rules rather than flavor, which is awesome. But I also know that, with just the contents in the box, if I dumped my players into Athos and told them to go wild... they still wouldn't have a great idea of what sort of stuff there is to do.

Now, skipping ahead a bit, we could also ask ourselves, "how do you write an adventure module for campaign-level play?" And the truth is that it's unintuitive and hard. After all, most adventures are designed, if not as railroaded linear rollercoaster rides, at least as contained scenarios. That's why I am more inclined to call them "playgrounds" rather than true "open worlds." It's not actually all the breadth of possibility a sandy beach offers you.  It's usually just one really, really detailed building full of monsters and people with strong feelings about the contents. That's not enough for campaign-level decisions most of the time.

So the secret answer to both of these is that you should merge setting guides and adventure modules. Settings should be designed such that they come packed with "adventure ingredients" that'll interact across great lengths of distance and reaches of time. See Jacob Hurst's Hot Spring Island* and Andrew Kolb's Neverland for master-class examples of this. Patrick Stuart's Veins of the Earth is just a couple steps away, as it's more of a setting toolkit rather than a complete, ready-to-use package (which I'm sure was his intention. It's probably a wiser design decision overall). Noisms's Yoon-Suin is perfect if you don't mind rolling on lots of random tables to generate "your" version of the setting. Storm King's Thunder would have been perfect if it has just provided a little bit more crunch to facilitate the "open world" section.

If you really want to make a more scripted adventure that's still optimized for this, then you should include a timeline of events that'll come to pass unless otherwise disrupted by PC actions. I do this trick all the time and it works wonders. You can have an hour-by-hour schedule of events that'll transpire and yet, despite that, the variety of PC actions can still make the outcome look completely different every time.

That's the weird thing about it. Designing scenarios in this way will force you to redefine "adventure" in your mind. That it's not just preparing a list of encounters and the order they'll happen. Rather, you can design, write, and sell an "adventure" to the DM that's just a small region for the players to fuck with. With enough scheming NPCs, opportunities to improve the status quo for the PCs, external threats that would worsen the status quo for the PCs, and enough smart material to provide the DM with a robust understanding of "what would logically happen to X if the party tried Y?" without actually spelling out a "canon" answer... that right there will be the most fun adventure that group ever plays.

Some Final Thoughts

I'm not the first to say it and I won't be the last. But this is the unique thing that tabletop RPGs can accomplish that video games can't. No matter how advanced they get, they'll never have the same potential for pure imagination-driven gameplay. So take advantage of it. I've spent most of my life running scripted, linear adventures because at some point I got it in my head that I'm here to be a captivating storyteller like Homer or Dante. And in many ways, those kinds of adventures are easier to create and easier to run if you're good at it. I maintain that they are not a lesser form of fun... but they are lesser as "role-playing games." And especially if you're a dorky worldbuilder obsessed with sharing their lore with an audience, then I assure you the best way to deliver that content is to let the players take the wheel. Put tools in their hands and see how they use them to fuck up your world. You'll never see them get more invested any other way.


*Hot Springs Island actually comes with a unique tool of campaign-level play that wasn't on my list in the last article: a field guide to the place. It's a physical book that's meant to be an in-universe artifact created by some NPC who was stranded here once, and who wrote a journal about their experiences and the things they discovered. Putting this tool in the hands of players to read completely redefines their decision-making.

Return to part 1

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