Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Myth of Completing a Campaign in Modern Gaming.

I've been mulling over the idea behind this post for a couple of weeks. It all boils down to the fact that I've never "finished" a campaign in any game ever. I need to make a distinction to start out though. I've had huge success in both playing and running one-shot games, but that's definitely not what I'm talking about here. A campaign in the context of this post is more than just completing a published adventure over the course of a couple of weeks.

What I'm talking about here would be, in a traditional level-structured game, starting at level 1 and going through a complete arc through the highest level possible for the characters. For example, in D&D 4th Edition, a GM would help a group of players make level 1 characters and run an entire campaign by bringing them to level 30 through many, many nights of adventure and story-telling. I'd even allow the group to start at a low, but not bottom, level like 3 or 4.

So I've never done this or particapted in such a game. A part of me feels ripped off as I haven't had the opportunity to so thoroughly identify with any of my characters the way a full campaign allows players to do so. I take solace in the fact that we've only been playing tabletop games for four or five years now, and to complete a campaign of our first game we jumped into (Star Wars Saga Edition), we'd only just be finishing a campaign now.

But it really it's all about options. We're still searching for our main game system and setting at this point, and outside of Dragon Age, which is neccessarily slow-going to allow time to build new set pieces, we ping around from the familiar (Call of Cthulhu, D&D 4th Ed., Savage Worlds, etc.) to the new shiney kid on the block (Amethyst, Shadowrun, World of Darkness, etc.). There are just too many options and fun new games out there to try out. Like more RPG collectors, I have a gigantic backlog of games I'd be ecstatic to run but just don't have the time to sit down, read through, and plan a game of (Legends of the 5 Rings 4th Ed. I'm looking at you).

I wonder, is this pretty common? We actually have a fairly stable core group of 5 to 6 guys who meet weekly, and even we can't pull off a solid, regular campaign. I haven't gotten into board games and how sometimes we just need, as a group, a collective break from role-playing. What about everyone else out there? How many campaigns have you completed in the last decade of gaming?

The other big question I have is this: do we need games that support 30 levels of play, or are we getting a heckuva lot of extra material that will never see the surface of a table? I'm working on putting together my own game, and it occurred to me that I want a different focus on advancement. It's somewhere between games made for one-shots (Fiasco, Dread, Remember Tomorrow) and games that allow for endless character development and power spectrum (D&D). Maybe instead of designing your game to be played out over the course of years with character power curves growing endlessly, we can look to completing character arcs and personal stories in a matter of casual play over months? If nothing else this plays in favor towards the "simulation" and "realism" camps of role-playing. Afterall, it's exceedingly rare that a character starts at Strider and finishes the story at King Elessar, right?

To round this out, I'd love to hear what you think of the modern campaign, and even moreso from those who have had some success completing (or at least getting close to completing) a campaign.


  1. Argh.

    I wrote a two page response but Blogspot ate it. Stupid "must log in to account" bullshit for posting replies.

    Anyways, short version:

    Yes, awesome. Love full campaigns. Played and run lots of them. HOWEVER, do not feel that a "full" campaign has to cover the full "power curve" of the game in question. I've played great campaigns that only used part of the curve. Planning a short campaign and running it to completion is a great way to show the players how awesome having an "end" to the story can be.

  2. In our case, mostly playing with house rules, we haven't felt the power curve. Certainly in a low detail game, I think it is the players and the GM who signal that the time to close up has come. On the other hand, the high detail campaigns I've run (d20, Rolemaster, MnM) the pressure to wrap up usually comes from the GM's side as they begin to feel overwhelmed. We do some one shots, but even the short run things we do have a beginning, middle and an end of some kind. Most long term campaigns run there course here- ending early is the exception- and usually based on scheduling factors.

  3. @Dyson: God, I hate when that happens (you are not alone!). I agree that a full campaign doesn't have to be levels 1 through 30, but that's definitely the impression you get from game books, and that is what I'm trying to speak to. I appreciate that you can have a full campaign lasting only 8 or 9 levels (or less), but games like D&D and Dragon Age (and any other level-based system) want to support this idea that you have to start at level 1 and play through to the bitter end to the top level. At least that's the impression that I get.

    @Lowell: I'm a big supporter of our little play group, but we don't have a lot of opportunities to play a story from start to finish as we jump around games, GM's, and game types (board, card, rpg, etc.). It makes it hard to run a full story, so in that I definitely envy you!

  4. In systems where there is a "top end", there is always the aspiration to reach towards it. I've tried a couple of times and never made it.

    When playing other systems, I'm more likely to run "story arc" campaigns that are pretty finite in length. Those generally get finished, though there are exceptions.

  5. I understand the "fractured campaign" gaming model all to well, my Wens night group is very guilty of it. We rarely play the same 'campaign' twice in a row and rarely for more than a handful of sessions.

    That being said, I have played two campaigns through to a natural ending point. Each lasting over a year of roughly weekly gaming and I was quite happy with how that played out. So it is possible with a stable group of players.

  6. I've recently (last few years or so) structured a lot of my campaigns to have a distinct beginning, middle and end, with a whole lot of room in the middle for player choice to shape the exact path of the journey. Since I started doing that, my campaign completion percentage went way up.

  7. I agree that most groups never play a 1-30 game, but I don't think that means the higher level material is wasted. Some groups enjoy playing campaigns that start out at the higher levels.

  8. Hell yes, I know just how you feel. I much prefer running campaigns, if only because the plots and settings I write tend to be complex and multi-layered, so a campaign time scale gives the players room to explore. I've run one-shots and limited games about 10-12 sessions long, and they were fine but things were left feeling unfinished (from my point of view).

    On the other hand, every time I *do* try and run a campaign, real life gets in the way. My nWoD game fell through as the two players broke up their engagement. My mutants and masterminds game died slowly to players just being unavailable for weeks at a time. My current attempt with Pathfinder is going okay so far (3 sessions in...) but I'm aware that it could falter at any point, so trying to scale it back. Long story short, having a similar amount of luck with campaigns. Still love 'em though.


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