The Campaign

For most, a campaign is the organization of gaming sessions into some sort of continuous story. While most GMs with some level of competence can maintain a multi-week or multi-month saga with some sort of consistency, there is always something ‘more’ wanted out of a campaign, something that really sets it above a series of interconnected sessions.

I’ve run quite a few campaigns of varying lengths, and it was my more successful ones that kept players’ (and my) attention for more than a month or so, which translated to 4-6 sessions in my groups. What makes a campaign successful boils down to three needs: The players have to identify with your game world, the characters have to have an impact on the game world, and the players have to identify with the characters.

The first of these needs is the most straightforward, but can also take the most work. When you place a setting before your players, they should be able to understand it and start running amok from the beginning. I typically sidestep a lot of this legwork by creating modern worlds, where most assumptions about characters’ position in society can be derived from how things work in real life. If you want to make something more fictional, it’s imperative that the world is well enough defined that anything your players do has consistent consequences. If the characters kill a town guard and nothing happens, then your world is both static and not terribly realistic. If the characters are run out of town after word gets round, there’s a bit more realism, and you got a free plot point.

This leads into the next need. When players see that their characters have actually changed something inside the world you have created, it creates the impression that their actions matter, especially if this impact has real consequences to their choices in play. Imagine the above scenario. If the characters return to this town to find they are wanted as murderers, and are fired upon as they reach the gate, you’ve given a potent message about randomly killing town guards. Additionally, you’ve helped further define the world: “The town where everyone wants to kill us” will stick in the players’ heads much better than “that town with the fountain in the middle near the caves”.

The last need is the hardest, because you don’t control what players do, and it’s players’ actions which define how much they end up identifying with the characters. What you as a GM can do is encourage players to think of their character’s actions in broader terms than what are defined in the rulebook. Additionally, give your NPC’s personalities, so that there’s something for a character to bounce off of. The goal is to get a player to have some degree of attachment to their character, which will make later plots and decisions all the more interesting. One thing I’ve done is start every session in the same place. I had a Cyberpunk game in high school where each session started at a Denny’s, and the characters would banter and order breakfast as part of the recap, which gave every player a chance to make their characters into much more real people.

At this point there’s probably a whole cadre of people who are thinking that their group has much more fun with combat, and that time spent building interesting encounters is probably better spent for their group. Having a combat-heavy game is fine, and even spending nearly all your time fighting is fine, but trust me: if the players have a reason to fight, if there’s some consistent rhyme and reason to all these dungeons they’ve been crawling, things will be more interesting. And on a practical note, having a broader world and a broader story gives you opportunities for different and interesting encounters. If your players have plundered through dungeons from level 1 to level 20, then maybe it’d be an interesting change of pace to defend the stronghold they were awarded by the local baron from a red dragon. That’s not something you typically find in a dungeon, and not an encounter you’d normally design if all you had were adventurers with six stats, saving throws, and a number of items.

I find that the key to a good campaign is ending up with characters who can take the story where they want it to go, in a world where you know what that means. As an example, I ran a Cyberpunk game a few years ago where the party was the staff of a rising-star corporate executive who was becoming increasingly caught up in intra-company rivalries. One of the characters was a security specialist, a police officer doing work on the side. The player’s concept was very to the point: “corrupt cop”. However, it was clear that he was quite the self-serving bastard as the game progressed. This lead to the campaign’s climax, which I was completely unprepared for. The corporate executive himself was one of the player characters, and had had the other characters’ loyalty from the start (aided by their increasing paychecks), but as things got progressively more heated, this loyalty began to fragment. Our cop character had recently tricked another one of the characters into killing his boss, the police chief, in order to get heat off his back within the department. At this point he decided he wanted out, and walked into the executive’s office with a loaded gun. In what was possibly the most brilliant moment I have personally seen at a game table, the executive hears a knock at his office door. Having heard the entire plan of the cop’s player at the table, there was a moment of silence before the executive’s player said to me, “my character wouldn’t know what’s coming…so he’d open the door.”

The ensuing violence involved the campaign ending the next session with three characters dead, one suicidally facing a powered armor trooper with a helicopter filled with C4, and a worldwide media meltdown. To me, the most important part of the ending was that I planned essentially none of it, it all came from the characters reacting to previous events and each other. My players remember the campaign quite fondly, both for the character development and my complete inability to recover from having three characters murdered within two sessions. Admittedly other groups may not react as well to having a total party kill (especially not in a PvP fashion) as a campaign conclusion, but ending the campaign is a subject for a whole other column.

[tags]role playing games, game mastering[/tags]

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