Monday, July 19, 2010

A Campaign or A Story?

So, you've got your rule book handy, you've got your players, and you know what game you want to play. The question is, and you might not have even thought to ask yourself this, are you looking to run a Campaign or are you looking to run a Story? The question is a little misleading since, at least to me, Campaign actually has two definitions when it comes to table top RPGs. The first one is basically any prolonged game of a tabletop RPG, basically the term used for the collection of all the sessions in one game, is called a campaign. The other though, is a type of game, a term that tells you the focus of what the game is going to be about. Something you need to know ahead of time which you want to do, because it changes how you prepare for the game and the setting.

The Campaign
So, lets start right off with defining what, to me, a Campaign entails. A campaign is a game without a strongly set over-arching meta plot. Sure you can have stories, you can have stories leading into stories, you can even have stories contained in over-arcing plots, but they are not the main focus of the game. The focus of the game is the world and the people in it, the focus is the PCs and how they interact with the world.

Campaigns can go for very long times, there is no set ending, there is just a series of adventures and different stories in people's life. Maybe some will die, maybe some will retire, if you run for long enough it is entirely possible that some will grow old, marry, have kids, and the player will be playing the descendant before very long. A campaign is, to me, the very definition of '100% Character Focused' because very little else aside from the PCs matters in the long run of things, unless the PCs make them matter. That town where they all come from? Only important if they stay there or ever go back. That queen they saved from the dragon? Only important if one of them (or all of them) hang around, go back to visit, or try to marry her daughter/son/her/whatever.

As I said above, a Campaign is not the lack of a story, it is a shift in focus. A campaign's story is not "The plot to fight back against the Evil Sorceror Alejandro and save the world" it is "The story of these 4-6 adventurers who may or may not have realized they saved the world one tuesday when they took down the Evil Sorceror Alejandro". Do you see the difference?

A story game on the other hand is the opposite. The game can still be character focused, but from the very start (or close to it) the game is working towards some end or another. There is a distinct Beginning, Middle, and End that are in sight to the GM as the game goes on. The characters are being swept up in events, and the story is less focused entirely on them. Instead, they play the main characters, the protagonists, in a story with conflict, stakes, and all sorts of other common things you see in a story.

In a story the PCs are slightly less powerful because the events of the plot guide them. They may still have (and should have) freedom to move around and make decisions, but the plot is there making little bumper rails that guide them back down the path things need to go. The GM has more say over something's importance by its relevance to the plot. That home village, and that queen may become important even if the PCs don't otherwise care too much about them because of the movement of plot items.

Basically, a Story game is the opposite of the little blurb above, "The story of how 4-6 heroes saved the world from the Evil Sorceror Alejandro" and not the other option above.

Personal Preference
In my experience, different GMs like different things. I personally tend to run Stories a whole lot. I'm not sure why, but I do. I like having the defined end, I like having the trail  that leads to somewhere. Being able to plot, and scheme, and make things happen around the players. I'm not sure why, but that is what I like to do.

Of late though I've felt the desire to run a campaign. The possibility of a longer running game, focusing on the PCs and their interactions with a world. Let it run long, perhaps move time forward so that by the end of the game (when-ever it got called quits) the players are playing their descendants or something else. I may try my hand at it after one of my current games end.

How about you? Which do you prefer? Which do you normally run? Do you have any strange desires to change your standard operating procedure to give the other one a whirl?

final note: I apologize for any typos, the keyboard this was written on is having a variety of issues with hard and sticky keys. I hopefully caught most/all of them as they were made.


  1. Using your terms to define it, I would say that I run campaigns—though ones that contain a lot of story elements. My Star Wars campaign is (as usual) the prime example of this. It was (and is) about the journey of a group of people through various events of Galactic history in the Star Wars universe. Within this greater campaign there have been overarching stories and plots galore, keeping the focus on the players so that they don't get lost or sidelined in a galaxy that already has 'big damn heroes' in the form of Luke, Han and Leia. In their own way, the PCs of this campaign have become very powerful and famous. They are no longer just 'following the orders' of higher ups, they are making decisions that affect Galactic history now. I think the main reason I prefer this type of gaming is for this player focused reason—but also because I don't like having a defined 'endpoint'. I'm usually willing to go as far as the players want to. Hell, I can see playing this same campaign when I'm old(er) and grey(er).

    As far as switching gears go? You know, it may not be bad for a new game. To have a beginning and endpoint—especially since so many of my recent campaigns fizzle out after a few months. I just wonder how that would work out with players. Would they act differently knowing that when the 'final chapter' of the game comes around, it really is the end? Would they be more likely to 'sacrifice themselves' or otherwise go out in a blaze of glory? Or would they still play as though the survival of their character was important to them...I wonder.

  2. You get a lot of interesting reactions from people as a Story game goes on. Obviously people care about their characters, but you are right about the end game phenomenon. When it is the last session, and it really matters to your character, going out with a bang is a lot easier. Yeah you died, yeah it's big and sad and meaningful, but it's easier to deal with on an OOC level because the game itself is ending. As such, you don't have the player brain going "but I want to keep playing him/her!" screaming in your ear and it is easier to let the character do as they want.

    The difference between 'Story' and 'Campaign' is something I read somewhere. I think the DXM manual by Tracy Hickman, lots of good advice (if a bit too silly at times). I think I knew the differences before hand, but he gave the terms, so credit goes there.

    Also, something I didn't mention. Just because you are doing a Story game, doesn't mean you can't do sequels. It also doesn't mean the game can't turn into a Campaign (or vice versa). It's just where the MAIN focus of the story telling is. The plot, where the PCs are the main characters, or the Characters who are the whole entirety of the game (more or less)