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.