The Campaign Game: A Shift in Prep Style – or Not?

So, with 2020 nearly over, I can see that my gaming radically changed during this year. I’ve kept a tally of my games this year, and a quick analysis shows me that only 31% of my game sessions have been one-shots – which is a huge shift for me. The majority of my gaming in 2020 has not only been online, but in multi-session “campaigns.”

And, in 2021 and beyond, I can’t see that changing. The online groups I’m in are unlikely to fade away when face-to-face gaming returns, so you can expect this blog to better reflect that – while there will still be plenty of posts on one-shots and adapting games to convention settings, there will also be content about GMing ongoing games. I’ve got some posts drafted already, and you can expect more – including some extra ways to engage with the blog.

So, thinking about campaign games (and for me that’s a game that’s 4 or more sessions, with recurring characters, the same players, and development between them) – what one-shot advice still applies to these games?

The biggest carry-over for me is session structure. I find myself still coming back to a lot of tricks that I’ve used in one-shots.

Start Big

Start with a bang each session – this could be a fight, a dramatic situation, or a revelation. Throw your players in the deep end a bit – let them know that something is happening. This is particularly important in online gaming where everyone is logging on from their own homes – you want to bring them together and get them into the game straightaway.

Example: I started session 2 of my Legend of the 5 Rings campaign with a river flooding the castle they were staying at. As servants rushed this way and that, each PC had a chance to try and help – by calming the river Kami, hefting the arms and armour out of the basement, or simply barking orders at inefficient courtiers to get on with it. Each of these was just a single skill check, and the pattern of successes and failures fed into the tone of their next mission – and it make the players immediately get ‘into character’ and think how they would respond to the flood.

End Big

Similarly, I plan for rising action leading to a big climax at the end – again, could be a fight, could be a skill challenge (see here or here for examples of how to do this). Giving the session a sense of finality helps to make it feel more like a structured series.

The final session of my L5R season – skill challenge gridiron borrowed from Unknown Armies and the friendly forces led by player recruitment and preparation.

What to do if you won’t get to the climax, or if your plot is going to take 2 or more sessions? For this, you can always end on a cliffhanger – just before they raid the orc village, or as the dragon awakes. Your big climax can fold into being the big opener of the next session, and you can kill two birds with one stone.

Example: Running the One Ring scenario Crossing of Celduin (from Tales from the Wilderland) we spent the first session discovering (through a lengthy festival-revelation) of an approaching army, travelling to the bridge they were attacking at, and preparing. The session ended with the first horns of the advancing army being sounded – as they began to see the army mass across the river.

Flexible Middle

In between these two points, you have to be a bit flexible. There’s excellent advice from Sly Flourish about thinking in terms of secrets, locations, and NPCs instead of scenes, and from The Alexandrian about node-based design. You probably want to have a mixture of (to borrow from D&D’s pillars) Exploration, Role-Play, and Combat in the scenes – for Exploration think “investigation” in a more grounded modern game. Think about how these scenes could be flexible in delivering the plot points or revelations that your game needs, and how you could expand or collapse the number of scenes if you’re running short of time.

An approach I often use is to have a sketch of what might happen completely planned – but then be prepared to go off-piste if the players choose. I’ve used a big range of ‘plot structures’ for campaign play – and find it works best if I switch between them each sessions – but my big three are the Sly Flourish method linked above, the node-based design, or the five-room dungeon. Now, the five-room dungeon is about as on-rails as it could be, so I prep like that and then hold onto it very lightly as I play – skipping rooms, make NPCs have different revelations, and so on to lead to the big finish.

PC-to-PC Interaction

One big difference in structure is that, with ongoing PCs, you want them to grow and develop as it happens. Inter-party RP and discussion is great when it happens in character naturally, but I’ll try and encourage it as much as I can in my prep – either by thinking of provocative questions to spur discussion, or linking to PC backstory.

If you’ve done a session Zero, your players have probably given you a veritable arsenal of Chekhov’s friends, enemies, and contacts – these are your stock NPCs, to be used at least as often as your own creations. In a campaign you can allow a little more time for this than in a one-shot, but be prepared to interject with a bit of plot to get things moving if needed.

Give Sessions a Name

This sounds like it won’t make a difference, but it will. Thinking in terms of session names will shift your campaign prep to make each session like an episode of a season, and make you think in terms of big-picture structure as well. While we’re on it, thinking in terms of a “season” rather than a campaign can be helpful to prep – play 4-12 sessions of one game, then set it aside, and either pass on to another GM or swap out another game. Thinking of what the structure will be in this season like it was a macro level of a session can help as well.

Example: In my L5R game above, I knew what the scope of the season would be – the samurai were summoned to a rotten province on the edge of the Shadowlands, and tasked with sorting it out. They’d discover worse and worse corruption, until they would face a terrifying opposition – which turned out (I hadn’t really planned in advance) to be an advancing shadowlands army.

So, just like a one-shot?

Well, pretty much, yes. I think all the advice about pace, prep, and flexibility is just as important for campaign play as it is for a one-shot, and well worth the investment and planning for. There are certain tweaks and approaches for using published adventures and campaigns that I’ll blog more about later (see this post for examples of doing this with one-shots), but overall my prep isn’t hugely different for campaigns than it is for one-shot games.

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