Gaming After The Grand Campaigns

Copyright Nicholas HM Caldwell 1999


Half a lifetime ago, I began role-playing. The first games were dungeon crawls, interspersed with the occasional town trip for buying equipment. It was hack and slash, kill or be killed. The games matured with addition of three-dimensional non-player characters, settings with depth and realism, and the arrival of real stories. Epic campaigns were created and played to decide the fates of nations, of cultures, of whole worlds, and the stories evolved, matured and climaxed over a period of years.

Times have changed. We are all older now, perhaps we are even wiser, but we are all busier with the demands of the real world encroaching upon the lives of both players and gamemasters, and hence compelling changes in our gaming habits.

Creating a campaign takes time. It takes more time if the gamemaster must create the history, the cultures, the geography and so on of the setting as well as the plot lines, the essential non-player characters and locations of interest from whole cloth. My first warning to other gamemasters is to ensure your existing worlds remain intact. You may have great need of them in the future so avoid world-shattering events that forever alter the nature of a world. For instance, I would like to run a Renaissance/swashbuckling campaign in my current world, but to do so really requires the invention of gunpowder and that commits all future campaigns in the setting to be post-medieval in flavour. I do not wish to make that commitment at this time.

Worlds or parts of worlds can be bought off-the-shelf or even downloaded from the Internet. Even if the creations of others cannot provide a complete setting that suits your particular inclinations, modules are still a useful source of ideas and source material, which can alleviate some of the creative burden.

Assuming that a brand-new campaign has been created by hook or by crook, the real world has one other weapon in its arsenal that can ruin a campaign once play begins. This weapon is the "no-show phenomenon" where players find it difficult to attend sessions on a regular basis for work-related reasons. This is exacerbated when players are forced to cancel suddenly or are unable to give any notice of expected absence. This has several adverse impacts on campaigns ranging from cancelled sessions owing to insufficient available players leading to inconvenience for the others, "missing man" sessions where a core set of players attempt to advance the story whilst running absent player-characters by committee, to a disenchantment with the campaign.

As this state of affairs is not the fault of the players but of their employers, simply replacing the players is unjust, even if it is possible. So changes must be made to campaign style in order to accommodate the new circumstances.

Firstly, do not make the entire story depend upon or revolve around a single player-character or the character's background. The entire campaign could collapse if the player is forced to relocate to a different part of the country for career reasons.

Secondly, do not tie advancing the story at a particular juncture to the application of the unique talents of a specific player-character. Guess who won't be present in the crucial session to optimally use the character.

Thirdly, avoid overly intricate stories. Unless the players and the gamemaster are very diligent in taking notes on exactly what happens in a given session, then details will be forgotten. If the campaign suffers a sequence of cancelled sessions, then memories will become hazy and the players and even the gamemaster can lose the thread of the story and the campaign vanishes.

The new style of campaign evolving here to confront this challenge is an episodic campaign with an overarching story line. The campaign is divided into distinct episodes or scenarios where each episode is relatively self-contained yet the (un)successful completion advances the main story in an appropriate direction. Dependent upon the duration of the episodes in terms of sessions, it may be possible to have the scenarios undertaken only by characters whose players are actually present. (Naturally the gamemaster needs to fine-tune the dangers in a given scenario to match the capabilities of a reduced party complement.) This modular approach allows players to "rejoin" the campaign following absences.

If the episodes can be reduced in length to a single session, then this approach can yield complete role-playing experiences, even for players who can only attend sessions occasionally. The most effective mechanism in cramming more role-playing into a shorter time-frame is to dispense with needless system complexity. Eliminating rules which add time-consuming paperwork to the game without providing useful realism or play-balance is normally a good idea. In Rolemaster, using generic static and moving maneuver tables and a set of typical modifiers is faster than leafing to the specific table for each maneuver. Handing over some of the workload for combat can also speed the session. In some circumstances, gamemasters will be reluctant to reveal opponents defensive bonuses, armor type, and so on, but allowing the players to handle looking up the results of their critical results is an acceptable compromise.

There are many campaigns that are appropriate for this episodic approach:

  1. The PCs are the trusted retainers of a feudal lord or lady and are given certain tasks to perform for their liege. A grave threat to their liege or the kingdom gradually begins to unfold and the PCs will become responsible for combating this nemesis.
  2. The PCs are a band of outlaws who inhabit the deep forest, eking out a precarious existence by banditry. Survival, a royal pardon or the overthrow of the local lordling is the goal of the campaign.
  3. The PCs are a group of would-be buccaneers who must first capture a ship, gather a crew, and fight and plunder their way to fortune. ICE's Run out the Guns! provides a fast and exciting route into historical piracy.
  4. The PCs are a team of Pulp-era gentleman adventurers or modern-day investigators pitting their wits against inexplicable crimes, paranormal activities, eldritch horrors from other dimensions, the alien conspiracy or all of the above!
  5. The PCs are a group of freelance operatives working for or against the megacorporations in a dark grim future.
  6. The PCs are explorers, merchants or mercenaries travelling the gulfs between the stars for knowledge, profit or conquest. The goal might be to rediscover mankind's original homeworld, to preserve the galactic peace, or to overthrow the evil empire.

The old order of campaigns must and is changing here, giving way to new styles of gaming, so that we can keep on role-playing, creating new stories, and most importantly, having fun!