Define Campaign

Call it thought exercise, or a challenge, or an exercise in futility… I’m not really sure. I feel like maybe the answer doesn’t even matter but I found myself wondering about the evolution of the term/concept of a campaign.

So here’s my simple answer. A campaign is a series of interconnected adventures. At least, I’d say that’s the most common way I would describe the concept to a new person. If I say, “I’m starting a new campaign,” what I’m probably saying is, “I’m running a series of interconnected adventures.”

But saying that really involves a lot of assumptions which are not explicit. Not the least of these is the fact that when I’m running some games — like Amber DRPG — I don’t actually run “adventures” at all. Not in the discrete sense of, well, you completed this adventure… that is, it’s not modular so much as continuous.

I get a sense when I read some older gaming products that at one point (and I could be totally off base here with the real history of our hobby, this is just my impression) campaign – as a concept – was much more closely tied to setting. We hear talk of the “Greyhawk campaign” and the “Blackmoor campaign” and these seem to be tied very closely to their settings, if not defined by them. As I’ve been reading Arcanum in preparation for possibly running it, I’ve been struck by some statements that feel like they are using the words “campaign” and “setting” in such a way that they might be interchangeable. This might stem from the fact that Arcanum is a game and a supplement so it doesn’t always assume the default setting will be Second Age Atlantis… even though the game parts refer to themselves as “the Atlantean System.” It’s also worth noting that when I say the word setting, I am including NPCs in that. I don’t just mean physical locations.

But is campaign more than setting? If it is, how can it be? The setting of a game would, by default, seem to dictate most of what is going to happen/be possible. If I’m playing a no-magic spy game in the modern world then I won’t have a character (or a villain) who throws magical fireballs and I won’t tell stories about orc invasions… Yes, those are very surface concerns and seem obvious – but are they also more important?

Is a campaign story? A game’s story can’t really be told until it’s over after all, because the players are still making that story happen until they aren’t anymore. I’ve run and played two Pathfinder Adventure Paths over the last couple years and it’s interesting to me how the presumed story of these APs is threaded through. I was reading the Legacy of Fire, part one they other day and I was blown away by the fact that at the end of part one – the players are rewarded with a year of downtime. Um, I don’t know about you but I’m pretty sure that if my GM came to the table and said, “Yay, you win, now tell me what you do for the next year…” my answer would be, “I go find some adventures.”

Time passing is an important element of many fiction stories but time is a largely ignored element of tabletop RPGs. Time passes but only insofar as the players move time along more than the needs of the story in most cases. And not having that element of time passing often tends to make stories feel odd after a while in games.

But not to get distracted from discussing story – it seems that many new games are built in such a way that the rules support exactly the kind of story you expect the game to tell instead of providing a set of tools which allow you to build any kind of game from them. Note, I’m not saying all new games – but a significant subset of modern games are built to allow the rules to shape the play experience rather as a specific design goal.

Is campaign better described as a series of interconnected events happening to/around a group of characters? I struggle with this definition as well. Our Carrion Crown group had significant character turnover with a party of four having seven deaths (5 were my PCs) in 8 levels and having two other PCs ‘retire’ and their players bring in new characters. By the third chapter of the AP we did not have a single character who had been part of the first chapter. Please note – this is partly because the second adventure in that AP is one of the worst adventures I’ve ever been unfortunate enough to be a part of. Part One is pretty good, Part Three is great… Part Two is awful. I also think about living games – like Shadowrun Missions or the Pathfinder Society. Are those campaigns since they can involve different players every week. What about descriptions of the old Greyhawk games where it seems like they played with different people in the group all the time? Again, I’m not sure I can pin this down, but it seems that campaign can’t really be tied directly to the player/characters either.

I’d love to hear what you all think of this question… what do you think of as being a Campaign? I’m a gamer without a cause right now and it’s leading to the madness of asking questions like this so… hopefully a game is in the offing for me soon.

As always, thanks for reading, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts.


12 responses

  1. Great topic…To me, a campaign is a big story arc that feels coherent to the DM and players, with a period of beginning, a long period of development, and a period of resolution.

    My own Arcanum players have begun by dabbling their toes in my setting, and the choices they’ve made have already set some long-term plots in motion (mostly through enemies they’ve made and the influences their adventures have had on a city’s politics). If a time comes when those long-term plots more or less resolve, I’ll call that a campaign. At such a time we may decide to quit, to move the characters somewhere else to begin again, or just to begin a new phase of local history.

    But it’s also easy to imagine plots and subplots constantly rising and falling and never really syncing up, kind of like a soap opera. In a game/group like that, either there is no campaign per se or the campaign is an eternal grind ahead. I think I’d feel less rewarded by a game/group like that, but it would be perfectly viable.

    1. It’s interesting to me… what you describe in your last paragraph is actually what I prefer from a campaign. I like the idea of a soap-opera-like flow of play where the story lines can rise and fall and players can opt in and out of the parts they are interested in as they evolve without worrying about “finishing” an “adventure” if they don’t want to. In-world consequences may still result from their inaction but it doesn’t always have to be directly related to what they are doing in the now… though as I write this response, I wonder if there is much difference between this and the action you are describing in your second paragraph?

      1. Whether my game goes more soap opera or more “campaign” will totally depend on the players, and that’s fine with me — as you describe, they may resolve one plot and leave the others to resolve themselves, or they may do something totally unexpected. I won’t railroad them into heroism or epic evil or whatever other role-playing would naturally lead to a “campaign” that ties up nicely. It’s a cool experiment to see how their actions work out in the context of the world, which I do control.

  2. Almost exactly two years ago (April 26, 2011 — it’s April 25, 2013 here for a few more hours) I wrote Campaign Setting Design: Scope Level Sizes that talks about exactly this.

    Short form: a campaign is a series of related adventures that form a story arc. A setting, on the other hand, may have multiple campaigns that may or may not be related.

    Many people equate the two, but I think there is value in separating them.

    1. Thanks for the link! I’ll check that out today. I might learn the answer to this when I read the post but… can a campaign only have one story arc? I suppose that’s part of my desire to examine the definition… I don’t think a story arc matters so much (or rather, that there can be multiple story arcs) and that something else should be going on…

  3. I don’t know that “interconnected” is the right word here. I prefer to think of a campaign as interrelated episodes (be they adventures or scenes or whatever) because it is that relation that is more demonstrative than the connections. Here’s why:

    A campaign stands above a setting because it could conceivably shift settings.
    A campaign stands above actors because it could conceivably draw upon many and not always involve a core cadre.
    A campaign stands above time-frame because it could conceivably be generational or span lifetimes (or more.)
    A campaign may even span many story arcs in a grand tale and telling.

    And just to demonstrate the bounds of the true campaign, once could even make the argument that a campaign could conceivably span more than one rule-set.

    But the campaign itself can never push beyond the bounds of the interrelationship of all those things because by definition it is that interrelationship. When a new relationship is discovered by the group, that is subsumed and encompassed by the campaign.

    1. I like the list. That’s a good way of looking at it. I find it interesting that you mention spanning rule sets. I’ve converted my home brew world of choice several times now into different campaign rules (PF/3.5, D&D 4e, Warhammer 2e, AGE System, and others) but I’ve always done this when I am preparing a new campaign with a new group/plan versus doing this on the fly. I’ve always thought of this as converting the setting more than converting the play of the campaign…

      I’ve run games with multi-generational sets of characters before and it was tremendously fun… I highly recommend it.

  4. I was thinking of something like a ‘military campaign’, so in this context I think it appropriate that a campaign be focused on a single arc. The definition of ‘campaign’ here is focusing on several adventures (modules in this case) far enough apart to be considered distinct, with more in common than the PCs taking part.

    Consider GDQ (my go to example here). You might consider the entire thing a single campaign (“we defeated the one ultimately behind this whole mess!”), or each stage as a different campaign (“first we defeated the giants, then went after their underground manipulators, then the one pulling all the strings”), depending how you view the structure as a whole. I could go either way on it.

    Or you might defeat the giants and give the rest a pass, deciding to look into a problem with slavers that’s been happening somewhere else. You change ‘campaigns’ but are still in the same setting.

  5. Keith and Alec, this is what I love about our hobby/community- the fact that your two replies are very different while still able to use the same “jargon” and have it be understandable by anyone who at least understands the terms. It’s a cool thing.

    I think for me that part of the problem I have is that I need to avoid thinking in a “module” or “adventure-based” fashion to enjoy a game long-term. I prefer the feeling that what is happening in game (the adventures) spring from the choices players make and the consequences of those choices rather than any adventure design choices the DM is making. This is probably why the Adventure Path experiences have been less fulfilling for me. I’ve played in fulfilling games that were more adventure-based but I prefer the other method.

    1. Yeah, I actually share those values — I guess a campaign that doesn’t arise naturally isn’t worth much to me. An “Adventure Path” seems to me like a ride at Disneyland that you buy a ticket for, get on, and get off at the end. But you can’t force the kind of campaign I want; you just have to relax and collaborate.

    2. The curious thing here is that as different as our replies are, I suspect we’re just talking about the same thing from different perspective.

      I cannot see myself running or playing an ‘Adventure Path’ with any kind of happiness. What I have seen so far feels much too linear. The relationships in GDQ, even, are way more linear than interests me. As presented it ramrods things through — even if you don’t find directions to the next site, the nobles you work for do and send you there, or else.

      GDQ makes a good example of what I aim for, and I can see ways to make it much less linear (start by adding more relationships — even in the Hill Giant place you can find links to the fire giants, to stone giants, even hints of the drow if they could be figured out — in order to give options for moving between adventure sites).

      I tend to work at the setting level, defining a bunch of stuff going on and the relationships between things. As the party chooses a direction (we want to defeat that guy!) I can start focusing my groundwork on their current direction, providing clues and directions that can get them where they want to go. If they abandon it, because I’m not working at high resolution I don’t lose a lot of effort anyway, and they can deviate from the shortest route (on purpose or not) without a lot of pain.

      So, at the setting level I have sandboxy stuff, and if they decide to go on the Quest to Kick That Guy’s Ass I move to campaign mode.

  6. I think we are probably (all of us) are thinking the same things… I appreciate all the thoughtful responses. GDQ and its associated adventures make an interesting case as an early “adventure path.” You’ve inspired me to go back and read through them as I think about what I’d like to run next.

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