Thoughts on Campaign Down Design

After ruminating on this for a few days, I don’t know that I was very clear or precise in my attempts to discuss my thoughts on designing a game from campaign level down instead of from encounter level up. I don’t see that either style is explicitly good or bad and as I mentioned in the comments of my previous post it really just comes down to the play style I’m interested in. But I’ve kept thinking about it and here’s the next step.

When I say “design from the campaign level down” I don’t mean prepare a whole campaign with XP budgets and tiers of play and an Adventure Path like rigor… I mean only that I want my game to set me up for the long ride, not the pick up game. The pick up game is, to me, the afterthought. The larger goal of playing roleplaying games (again, for me) is to engage in long-term play with the same group of players and characters in a “living” game environment. I want the designers of the game to be thinking about that style of play when they design a game (something that 4E is actually pretty poor at).

I can only say that, when I’ve run my best games — the games I talk about for years afterword and that players still remind me of when we talk — it’s been a combination of factors that make those games great… But my part as the GM has been improved when I stop trying to write discreet adventure scenarios and transition to running the game like an ongoing soap opera with players picking up and dropping storylines that suit them an with plenty of “downtime” adventures.

When I run an ongoing campaign my sessions rarely have a defined “beginning” and “end” and instead simply bleed from one week into the next. There is little of, “tonight we’ll assault the tower and next week we’ll go to a dungeon and next week we’ll spend some time in the city…” Admittedly, part of the reason this works is because my strength as a GM is working on the fly. I’m not a “plotter” GM. I’m a doer GM. I’m at my best when players are throwing stuff at me as fast as they can and I have to come up with answers on the spot and rationalize them later. Give me three weeks to sit down and plan a session though with a rules-heavy system and I’m likely to make a mess of it. It’s not what I’m good at. If I ran Kingmaker ever again I’d spend a lot more time letting my players shape their home kingdom and interacting with the people there instead of constantly running off into the wilderness on the “next” adventure.

It’s also because I see GMing as an active partnership with the players. I’m always stunned (as I’ve written about many times) by systems that require wagers, or fate points, or whatever, to allow players the privilege of altering some aspect of play or inserting details. I’m that guy who’s disappointed if my players aren’t doing this. I’m at my happiest when players are inventing their own NPCs, telling me what’s hanging on the walls, and shaping the personality and perception of the game world by their own actions. When I run Amber, for instance, my portrayals of certain Elder Amberites shifts from one campaign to the next based on how I see players interact with those elders for the first few times in a game. In one campaign my players decided they loved Fiona, in another they were terrified of her. I let that shape the way I ran her based on their interactions. I trust my players — sometimes even when maybe I shouldn’t — and I give them a lot of rope at the table because the game is just honestly better for me that way. And I want the same from a DM I play with.

I played with a DM a little while ago who mocked us (as a party) for interacting with his dungeon complex in intelligent ways because it meant we were thwarting his attempts to kill us. He did this to the point of eventually overriding character choice… So I quit the game. There is no place for that in gaming and we don’t do anyone any favors by being that kind of DM…

Overall, when I say that I want the game to work from the campaign level down I mean only that I want design resources funneled into understanding that I intend to play the game for a long time, with a lot of people. If I want to dungeon crawl, I’ll play Descent or the Ravenloft Boardgame… If I want to blow off steam, I’ll play Skyrim and continue my quest to sniper shot kill every bandit in the country… I want my RPGs to be prepared to support long-term, mature, demanding play at a high level.


8 responses

  1. As usual, you’re right on the money on a lot of things. I’ve always thought about my games as an arc- as a story that ends up being told in pieces.

    I understand what you mean about fate points and such and certainly that was my first impression. I’ve always encouraged players to take an active role in things. For example, turning around the “Is there a dangling rope?” question to a “So there’s a dangling rope…” statement. However, I’ve found that the FP mechanics, particularly as given in FATE, actually help that. Players can still make those statements without spending points. But if they want to do something more off the scale, a wilder statement of the environment or situation, they can do that by spending points. And they feel more empowered to do so. That then combines with way the system pushes players to think about the environment and interact with it. In my experience, giving a solid, clear and easy mechanic, helps players remember they can do those things. I’d say it has made the group more aware, and the players have said how much they’ve enjoyed it. So not a bribing or incentivizing system, but a tool to aid the players in getting a handle on things.

    re: your DM example. Ugh. What the what?

  2. hahaha… “What the what?” is right on.

    Here’s a small taste…

    So we’re in this dungeon complex and we’ve been shown that when we go certain places doors will slam shut and bar themselves behind us with no way back… That’s been established previously on two occasions. So we head into a room that is a dead end, fight the shadows there and open this stone and metal chest that’s in the back corner. When we backtrack to the last room and realize that the only way forward is to go through a door that is the twin to one on the far side of the complex we get the bright idea… “Hey, let’s drag that stone and metal chest from the other room and use it to block this doorway… so if the door tries to swing shut it can’t. We know we’ve cleared out the monsters behind us so it’s doubtful anyone will come along and move the chest after us… so at least it’s something.

    The DM berated us for ten minutes about doing this and how long it took and how noisy it was and how paranoid we were as players and how it seemed like such an odd thing to do… to the point that some of the players were ready to abandon the plan because they felt guilty for doing it… And that was one of the least awkward moments of the game…

    It was frustrating.

  3. No kidding. If I were to have such doors in a scenario (let’s pretend I can come up with a reason why someone would build such a thing) then I applaud your thinking.

    When I place challenges in a scenario I want them to be defeated. If I put something ‘impossible’ in and you find a way to deal with it, that’s what I want to see.

    But that’s just me.

  4. I started to write a longer response to the primary point of this post, then realized it was long enough to warrant its own post at my site.

    Top-Down Campaign Design.

  5. Re: DM example…
    I have been feeling that the ‘ What is repeating?’ sections of core books was just wasted space these days. I take it back.

  6. Sorry, “What is roleplaying?”

    I am trying a new keyboard app and it has a very aggressive prediction/correction “feature”

  7. Yeah… I tend to still read those “what is roleplaying” sections just because of the nostalgia hit (and I always wonder if I’ll learn something new… it happens). But truthfully they are often repetitive and of little interest to long-time gamers. That said, you hope that someone would read them at least once in their gaming career, right?


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