Thoughts on Campaign Structure

It’s Friday night, and I’m at home not playing an RPG. This feels odd.

The reason I’m not playing an RPG is that the hosts of our Friday Night RPG sessions, Martin and Peggy, have wandered off to another part of Australia. Typically, we alternate weeks between two RPGs. I DM my 5E D&D Greyhawk game one week, and Martin DM’s another RPG the other week. We’ve been playing Shadow of the Demon Lord for the past few months, and it’s awesome. It’s a brilliantly realised system, and I just wish the adventures we are playing were engaging my imagination more. It doesn’t help that I’ve been very tired on Friday nights of late, but there are a couple of structural problems with the campaign. Bad things have been happening, and we’ve been dealing with them, but I do not perceive an overarching shape to the campaign.

This is, of course, difficult to do well. Many RPG campaigns fail to present a good storyline. Shadow of the Demon Lord has one great advantage: a complete campaign is meant to take ten sessions. It sets a boundary on things and allows focussed storytelling. One of the great drawbacks of the Pathfinder Adventure Paths is that they tend to be too long and bloated. They fill in time with many combat encounters, so the players can gain experience to face the next chapter of the tale. The older I get, and the less time I have for playing in one game, the more appreciative I am of story-based campaigns that tell their stories efficiently. That’s something Shadow of the Demon Lord is designed to do.

My D&D campaigns are not typically known for this. Some manage it when I have a focussed idea in mind from the start. My first 5E Greyhawk campaign was like that: the adventurers needed to free the land of Onnwal from the Scarlet Brotherhood. They reached 8th level in the campaign, freed the land, and I ended the campaign. My players were surprised! Individual adventures all worked towards the end goal. We started with the destruction of the adventurers’ home village. They searched for the resistance. They freed a mining town from the Scarlet Brotherhood. They gathered allies. They learnt where the Brotherhood were taking their slaves. They started a full uprising, and they drove the Brotherhood out. And there it ended. I’d told the story I intended to and didn’t then try to extend it. Likewise, an old County of Ulek campaign where the adventurers were fighting against invaders from another plane; that was longer (several years), but just as focussed.

However, the more standard sort of homebrew is one where each adventure stands alone, and – if there are links – I tend to apply them retroactively. I’m quite bad at DMing for the adventurers’ quests. There are times when I manage it, but when we play a campaign once per two weeks for 3 hours, and there are six players? Individual stories tend to get lost in the greater campaign arc. I’m aware of it, but I may be too set in my DMing ways.

The TV show that I admire most for its storytelling is Babylon 5. This show came out just as I finished school and started university, and it was a revelation. When it was at its height – the third and fourth seasons – no other show could come close to it. One of the great storytelling techniques it employed was to have each (many?) of the episodes end with a revelation that increased the stakes for the next episode. Yes, the challenge of the episode was defeated, but it had triggered something that made the universe that little bit darker and more challenging for next week’s episode.

The D&D Adventurers League attempted something like this in Season 4, the Curse of Strahd season. This is one story in 14 parts, and there are some chapters – I’m looking at you, The Executioner – that have these brilliant revelations at their end which change the players’ understanding of the campaign and set up the next adventure brilliantly. I love the revelation of The Executioner; it’s awesome. The problem is that the story before it doesn’t allow the revelation to work properly. Doing villain reveals hard in D&D. Those player characters have a pesky habit of killing off the villain before he can escape to the next adventure!

This is the thing: The state of RPG adventure and campaign design is still an evolving art form. We don’t know all the answers. And, because we want adventures to not all be carbon copies of the ones before, we must take risks when writing them. Sometimes, they don’t pay off.

There’s also the balance between linear quests – where you have more control over the story – and divergent quests, such as the sandbox campaign – where the story tends to emerge from the characters’ actions. Both are hard to do well. I have no problem with linear campaigns – some of my favourite adventures follow that form – but they begin to fall apart when the players feel railroaded and being forced to make decisions with which they don’t agree. There is a social contract for those types of campaigns: if I propose running the Dragonlance campaign, then people will expect a certain amount of linearity. However, if the players don’t understand what they’re getting into (as many players didn’t when Dragonlance was new), then they get frustrated and angry.

With a sandbox campaign, you have the problem of the story sometimes feeling unfocused and the players getting lost as to what’s going on. Consider the hexcrawl elements at the beginning of Tomb of Annihilation. You can get great emergent stories out of those, but it’s also very possible for the adventurers to just wander around lost and confused until you take pity on them… or they abandon the adventure for something else. A good sandbox tends to have the DM introducing plot elements even as the players make their decisions. Proactive villains help a lot with this; if an enemy is conquering your land, you’re forced into action at some point just because you come face to face with their minions. This is something Tomb of Annihilation lacks: the overall threat, deadly though it is, is passive.

Short, mini-campaigns are far more likely to be linear than sandbox. Even a campaign that is linear can have sandboxed sections where the players have more freedom in how to approach them. Consider the exploration of the High Clerist’s Tower in Dragons of War or the exploration of the Cloud Giant’s castle in Hoard of the Dragon Queen. No two groups approach these scenarios in the same way, but you always know what the next adventure will be.

I guess what I want the players to get out of an individual session is twofold:

  • A sense of accomplishment, and
  • The revelation of something unknown that sets up the next session.

We’re getting the first in our Shadow of the Demon Lord campaign, but I don’t think we’re getting the second.

There’s a certain amount of discipline needed to achieve this; discipline I don’t always possess. Let’s see if I can bring it into my homebrew campaign for next year; and if I can also use it when writing my own adventures for publication!

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3 Responses to Thoughts on Campaign Structure

  1. Glen Cooper says:

    Great article Merric. I think we both have agreed in the past that creators should be taking more chances so that we can all learn and grow.

    I am DMing ToA soon… I need to get it done in 10 sessions. Impossible? Maybe, but I’m going to try it anyways. Wish me luck.

  2. Joe says:

    Another great article. I would expand on your points of things desired out of an individual session. That would be a sense of completion, to a degree. I see those type of sessions similar to a great sitcom or tv series, each episode generally has a beginning, a middle and end, even though story or season continues the next week. Sure, there is an occasional “to be continued”, but having a clear end to a sessions “chapter” gives a sense of satisfaction to the night.

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