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What Makes a Campaign?

Updated: Nov 7, 2022

In this column, I’ve frequently used the term “campaign,” but haven’t really explained what that means. Put simply, a campaign is a story that plays out over several sessions, and can last anywhere from a few weeks to several years.

The best analogy for a campaign is to compare it to a season of television, particularly a show where seasons carry self-contained arcs. Every session is basically an “episode” in a series, and these can either be self-contained stories that tie tangentially into a larger story (along the lines of Burn Notice or Doctor Who), or a long story where each episode leads directly into the next as they tell a long, epic story (like Lost or Game of Thrones). In my experience, the best campaigns – like the best TV shows – do a bit of both.

In the beginning, you probably want to have each adventure serve as a stand-alone story, but you can start teasing a larger picture – maybe the players learn of a war brewing on the horizon, or hear about a sinister foe or group of foes that are causing havoc elsewhere in the world. These stories may not affect the players yet, but then they may discover that a villain they have defeated has a medallion branded with a sinister glyph or a letter from a mysterious benefactor… and then they begin to see this same thing crop up more and more during their adventures…

This is a fairly easy way to build a campaign, and build interest with the players early on, but the downside is that it’s all contingent on the players remembering the connections – if they see a character with a demonic tattoo, and then another one several sessions later, they might have forgotten about the first tattoo by that point. To help resolve that, it’s useful to drop these clues very close together, at least at first. If the first two enemies they defeat have matching star-shaped scars on their wrists, then it will stick in the mind better – and the next time they encounter someone with the same scar, it will register more clearly.

This is an especially useful tactic if you are not yet sure what the “finale” of your campaign will be. While it’s useful to have an idea of where your story is going, sometimes early on it’s best to throw out vague yet definitive connections – two players with scrolls signed by the same enigmatic character, for example – and then sit back and let the players try to connect the dots.

This leads me to an incredibly useful and important trick to use when running a campaign – listening to the players. Keep track of their theories and arguments as they debate amongst themselves what the possible connections between the adventures could mean, because it will tell you exactly what they are taking away from the campaign, and what elements they are remembering. This is often more effective than straight-up asking them what they think is going on, or asking them to recap the session so far, because they’re exercising a different muscle.

One of the tricks I have tried as a DM is to open a new session by asking the players to recap the previous sessions. This is useful, in the sense that I will sometimes notice that they miss important details, or have come away with a very different understanding of what has happened to them. They’re using their memories to try to remember the sequence of events, and approaching it from a more clinical perspective.

However, when they theorize as to the connections between characters, they are using a very different tactic – they’re trying to solve a mystery. And that approach involves their imagination, and tends to produce more excitement. On the whole, when people talk about TV shows like The Boys or Better Call Saul, they’re not just commenting on the events that have transpired – they’re making guesses about what will come next. This is why people get so invested in lore-heavy shows like Lost or The X-Files – they want to be able to figure out all of the secrets on their own, using only their reasoning skills.

Watching your players speculate is the best form of recap, because you get to see exactly what they think of each character they’ve met – “I bet that barkeep at the tavern is in on it!” “There’s no way the princess would knowingly send us to our death, she’s too nice – I bet someone is blackmailing her!”

Based mostly on “Avengers Classic” #8, by Art Adams.

A campaign lasts as long as the players decide. Sometimes the DM has a specific story they want to tell, but a campaign can end early if the players aren’t responding well, or continue past the conclusion if the players have more they want to do with these characters. When my Santa Clarita group played a campaign of “Unknown Armies,” the campaign lasted almost an entire year of twice-monthly gameplay. However, we surprised our GM by making some unexpected choices, and ending up having our big boss fight a bit early in the story. As a result, half of the story was left unresolved after our explosive finale. So our GM took a few weeks off to figure out what would essentially be a second “season” of the game, to tell a new, self-contained story that would wrap up the loose ends.

However, as the end of 2013 drew near, we ended up rushing to the end and concluding the story early, as interest had more or less trailed off, especially because our GM was ready to get into a new story, and a new system.

When we were in college, our campaigns tended to last for one semester, and usually averaged about 12 or 13 game sessions. It was the best approach at the time, since everyone would come back from the holidays ready to start a new story, rather than pick up where one had left off. Now that we are adults, and our games can take abrupt hiatuses for weeks or months at a time, it’s much more common for a campaign to last at least six months. These days, it’s more important to us to finish out the entire story than stick to any specific time limit.

But that depends entirely on the group. My Curse of Strahd game has been plagued by scheduling issues, and a lot of those could have been mitigated if I had structured a shorter campaign. The 13-session model worked really well in college because it fit into the semester schedule, but I also think it could work well for busy adults, as well...

Discussion Question: We’re talking about TV shows in the context of an ongoing campaign, so the question of the week is this: What TV series do you feel best sums up your preferred campaign style? Maybe you like things more episodic (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), or more serialized (Stranger Things)? Or maybe you prefer for something to start with more independent, one-off fun adventures, and then build to a climactic finale (Avatar: The Last Airbender). Leave your thoughts below!

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