What’s in a Campaign?

As I have been working on my game, it has occurred to me that I have forgotten how to run a campaign. Somewhere along the line, I seem to have lost the skills to plan and execute an interesting campaign. I know that any GM’s reading this are asking… “But what do you mean by campaign?” And I get that. It’s funny, because I often feel like my gaming career has been like Benjamin Button.

When I was younger, just learning the ropes of D&D, AD&D, 2nd Ed, and other games… we pretty much had a formula that was built around a heavy dose of “do what you want” mixed in with “fed a steady stream of adventures by the DM.” This worked great for us. We had a framework that was – the DM will supply opportunities to our characters and we’d interact inside that framework however we wanted to – even in ways that made little to no sense sometimes. But it worked. Everyone knew the DM was pushing the buttons behind the screen, but that didn’t really matter because in between we got to do weird stuff like set up our own version of the Greens and Blues in a shady deal with the Seamstress’s guild.

The word “railroading” might have been floating around in gaming conversation but we certainly didn’t know it – or care. The game worked and everyone had fun; including the DM.

I hit my stride as a GM when I moved into running Amber. I had already run several successful, long-ish games with 2nd Edition AD&D, Mage: the Ascension, and Star Wars. But Amber is the game that taught me how to really hit the stride. As the GM, I had a clear sense of purpose and players who wanted to really dig in to who they were and what they were doing. [I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, you find a good GM and behind them you’ll find a group of engaged and enthusiastic players.]

But I still ran Amber in the same way. The players had absurd freedom because they could literally go anywhere they could imagine. But I was still shaping a framework, still pushing a metaplot in the background that they would wander in and out of. And if the game ever slowed down, I could swing in with a shot of that plot to push them back into sharp action. My peak as a GM came in those Amber days. Getting to run a campaign that lasted about two years, then continue it for another two by having the players make a new generation where they played the children of their old PCs. That was a special time.

It was also during this time that I was interacting with the heavy-metaplot games of the time. Deadlands, Aberrant, all of the World of Darkness. And those felt very comfortable to me because they played on that idea that there was a very clear, straightforward frame to the game that created clear bounds for player action while leaving a massive empty middle to fill with whatever you wanted. That era fell out of favor pretty quickly though. It moved on to be something else that I will get into in a bit.

It wasn’t until I was a “grown up” that I encountered the stories that people tell of their early games with terrible, tyrant GMs and games that were nothing but the story the GM wants to tell and the players are just spectators. In the space of a few short years, I ended up in several of those games – and trying to get out of them as fast as I could without offending everyone involved. It was also the first time I encountered the, “we want to play evil characters because the good guys are boring” crowd. It was a pretty brutal time that gave me a lot of perspective on my own gaming past because I’d never encountered that stuff when I was young in the hobby. How many potentially great players and GMs have we lost over the years because that kind of stuff was their introduction to the hobby?

And then I hit the long diaspora where my gaming became sporadic and I did a lot more reading than playing. I started reading a lot of gaming theory, gaming blogs, indie games. I got into the conversation about player control and railroading. I read a lot of games that really pushed the boundary of “can you even call them RPGs?” Games like Fiasco and its ilk that, even though they involved role-playing were more of what I’d call a party game for role-players. I read games like Dungeon World, Polaris, Malandros, Heroine, and small games like Lady Blackbird. I had definitely lost my way and I was looking for new insights. From there I stumbled back into old school style play. I started experimenting with emergent, old style hex-crawls and such again. It was enjoyable for a time but I definitely knew that I had gotten into my own head.

These days… I just don’t know anymore. Running a game is painful for me. Everything has to be perfect. I worry about framing, plots, metaplots, what is railroading, what is taking away agency. Is any of what I want to run any good at all? Should there be a metaplot? Should there be any plot? I feel like I’ve lost all confidence in my ability to run a game that’s worth playing in. And as I think about putting together a game that is entirely mine, from world to mechanics, I don’t even know what to do with it.

It seems to me; in looking back on the games I’ve run and games I’ve played in that were the best experiences, they’ve had a couple of traits that they all shared.

  1. A very clear campaign structure. Not necessarily a metaplot but a clear structure. The players have easy reasons to stick together as a group, not just the lure of treasure, etc.
  2. A distant but powerful metaplot. Whether this is imposed by the world (Deadlands, WoD) or by the GM’s story (Amber-type-games), this is a powerful agent to keep the game on track.
  3. A clear sense of “bounded freedom” such that sure, some sessions are just players running amok in the city while some are adventures the GM feeds to them.
  4. An engaged player group with characters who have their own, reasonable, goals. These goals fit into that “bounded freedom” mentioned above but drive players to make decisions and really push against the world without breaking the world.
  5. A sense that there are long-term consequences and effects of player action, or inaction. The game world has to go on ticking even if the players choose not to engage it in some way.
  6. Valuable, interesting NPCs. A great game needs NPCs that matter to the story, that the players become emotionally invested in, and who push the heroes to be better – for whatever reason.

And number 6, that last one, is the one I feel I’ve lost the most ground on. It used to be my gift as a GM. Some people are great at devising stories, or adventures, or complex puzzles for the heroes to solve. My strength was always in breathing life into NPCs. And I’ve lost that somewhere along the way. I’m always too caught up in everything else to really take the time to just luxuriate in crafting a great NPC on the spot. Just one of many reasons I struggle to keep a game going anymore.

It used to be that I thought a game wasn’t worth running unless you were planning at least a year’s worth of play. Now I’m lucky if I can make it three months without panicking and cancelling a game. It’s weird but true.

Anyway, I hope this wasn’t too personal – I think I needed to examine it. What do you think of my six points for a good game? Agree/Disagree? Other thoughts?

As always, thanks for reading.








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