I’ve just started, hopefully long-running, Nobilis campaign, I’ve started seriously thinking about how to handle campaigns. However I wouldn’t consider myself well versed in long campaigns. I’ve played a few that have lasted more than a few months (real-time) and I once ran a campaign that ran over two years. Still I can think about it.
My understanding is that people think of, or use, three different types of campaigns:
- Episodic Adventures: The campaign is made up of a series of distinct adventures.
- Rolling Adventures: Adventures and stories roll into the following adventures and stories. There is no apparent distinction between one and the next adventure.
- Extended Adventure: Or The Big Plot. There is one big adventure (though it can comprise smaller adventures).
However, I believe these categories are mostly artificial.
This of course does not mean they are useless though. Let me elaborate, all campaigns and adventures are made up of individual sessions. Players and GMs meet up for 3 or more hours, play and then go home. These are hard-limits unless your into mad 8 hour gaming sessions every week!
Sessions are “episodes” in themselves and all the tips and tricks you use for writing/designing adventures should fit into those single session even if the adventure you planned overflows into following sessions. A single session is a complete delimited experience for the players and should be treated like that. If an adventure doesn’t finish in one session, it flows over into the next and I treat this as a “new adventure”, as in I re-design whats left so that it becomes a complete experience again rather than just finishing it off.
When you start thinking long term about the nature of your campaign, then you should start thinking how to manage your story-arcs. No matter how you look at it, your campaign will be made up of several story-arcs. You may have a big plot or you plan to roll with your player characters, but in the end it’s all about story-arcs, either initiated by the GM or the players. The difference is the nature and mix of these story-arcs and this is what categorises your chronicle.
With Episodic Adventures, you have well-defined story arcs. That doesn’t mean they can’t be linked together or have a big encompassing plot. The GM is essentially stating that this point is a beginning of an adventure and that point is an end. Personally I favour this approach myself as it’s easier to plan. It also provides convenient points for character advancement and downtime.
With episodic style campaign, you can plan to have certain types of adventures in a rough order and figure out how they link together. This does not tie you down. You can always modify and change the implementation of future adventures depending on the players, their actions and the consequences of previous adventures. I guess the pace of the campaign (as opposed to the pacing of individual adventures and sessions) might seem a little forced but at least it’s under the GM’s remit. If it becomes stagnant, it’s easier to pull back and get the pacing moving again, just throw an different type of adventure at the players. It’s also easier to have breaks, stops and re-starts without losing the momentum of the campaign.
With Rolling Adventures the GM doesn’t delimit adventures but lets it flow naturally. In my mind you still have “adventures” though you may call them plots or individual story-arcs. The difference is that they run into each other and you probably have a few going on in parallel. With this type of campaign, I believe, you depend more on player characters actions to create new arcs or resolve existing ones. If you don’t have the type of player that generates story-arcs though… your campaign can run out of stream or worse have players overshadowed by others and become bored. I’ve seen both these cases happen a few times. Extended Adventure, in my mind, are just a variant of the Rolling Adventures format because it has one big story-arc normally full of lots of little story-arcs.
So I’m moving towards Episodic campaigns more and more. They are easier to plan out and handle. I believe you can create decent and involving big story-plots better with this approach. On a side-note, as a GM/writer I find it more fulfilling because I get to see complete “stories” without restricting the freedoms of players. I’ve started to put together a “model” for my campaigns, a kind of generic plan that can be modified for any game or idea. This makes it easier to design and write adventures when each has a specific purpose. Even if you do not delimit adventures, having planned story-arcs like this would be useful in managing the pacing of your campaign.
With my new current campaign, while I design/plan episodic-like adventures, they already have a tendency to run into each other as I’ve found that players start to drive things naturally forward onto the next adventure.
So I now introduce Cammy’s Model, as a work in progress:
1) The Introduction. The first adventure is a simple game to get the players use to the world, setting and your GM style. It shouldn’t last more than one session and if possible fit in the same session as character creation. It doesn’t have to be intense and it doesn’t have to introduce your entire setting/campaign.
2) The Setting. The next sequence of adventures should introduce all the elements that you as the GM want to include. I generally plan an adventure around each major element and introduce smaller elements along the way. The order is important too, particularly for combat. If combat is going to be part of your campaign, then you should have it early on, probably in the first adventure. Leaving it till the third or fourth adventure is saying that, while it is an element of the campaign, it will not be a common.
Having a sequence of adventures to introduce all the elements of the setting your interested in also allows the players to get to know what type of characters are needed. Most GM’s allow players to change their characters within the first few sessions. I’d recommend the end of this sequence as a good point to cut that option off. By now they know whats going to be in the game.
If you do have a big story-arc thats going to be the driving force of your campaign, you have to introduce it now, probably in the first of these adventures. You can be subtle and introduce it as minor elements such as have hints of some dark mystery or power and then go full force in 4) The Big Plot (see later).
3) The Players. The next sequence of adventures is about the players’ characters. Each adventure should focus on one character and try to introduce elements from the character. I find it’s useful to be quite open with the players about this, even ask them for plots and hooks. I haven’t met a player who did give me a plot yet but I still ask. It also prevents any sort of jealousy as players know that they’ll get their turn.
If you have the problem of players not getting into the setting, you might try mixing up 2) The Setting and 3) The Players. I’ve tired this with mixed results. While the players have fun, your setting suffers a little, it becomes a little… unreal. And the danger with that is can then crash. It becomes unrealistic or inconsistent to the players and that is death to the campaign (YMMV).
4) The Big Plot. Now is the time to mix things up. Change the pace before it becomes stale. When I talked about designing adventures in a previous article I had a concept which I called “Part Deux”. This is it, for campaigns. You want to introduce a big plot, something bigger than the players and their adventures so far. It could be the revelation of some power manipulating them in previous adventures, it could be the beginning of a great war which will lead in a battle to stop all battles. You should be trying to pull together various elements from previous adventures in this, in particular, elements introduce by the players. Perhaps the dark power kills one of the family of the player characters for example.
While I normally think about the big plot before I start a campaign, I don’t settle on anything until well into the campaign. I collect potential ideas as we play the previous adventures and start letting something form in my mind. I still drop hints here and there and see which ones the players pick up on. By settling too early, it might not gel with the players and their characters.
5) The Rest of the Campaign. Hopefully by this stage everything is running itself, it has a natural drive or pace. This is uncharted territory for me but I hope to explore this with my current campaign. I have a few ideas about what happens next so I guess you’ll probably see me revise this model in the future.
I would suggest, as you drive the big plot forward, you re-visit 3) The Players and 2) The Setting at various points, to see how things have changed because nothing should remain exactly the same. You can of course introduce new elements along the way. Sometimes you’ll need to pump the pace of the game and introduce another 4) The Big Plot or dramatically change your existing one.
6) Climax?. I haven’t worked this one out yet. The climax of any campaign is a (or the) pivotal point thats higher, for the players, then what has gone before. I’ve never been in a campaign that went to such a point though I have tried to do it in campaigns I’ve ran before with varying degrees of failure. Anyone any thoughts on this? Even after the climax of one big plot, you can always start the sequences again (though you should give the option for players to create new characters at this stage).
So thats the first version of my model. Hopefully I refine it and update it in the future. Perhaps I may even throw it out if experience shows me the errors of my thinking. I’m quite open with my players about what’s coming up. What this model does not cover is the idea and implementation of that idea for a campaign, character (both player and non-player) advancement, the impact of various systems and tools and various other little factors. I’ll leave those to you as it really is dependant on what you want from your campaign, the particular rpg and your group.
Right then, back to planning the next adventure of Nobilis: The Journey of the Fool!