What is a Campaign?
So, I was minding my business over on the clock app when I saw conversation about tabletop RPG campaigns flash up. Then it bled over to the bird app. Then I started thinking hard on what exactly a campaign is and how the perception of that what was affecting the conversation. So let’s dive into the idea of a campaign!
Campaigns are, in my experience, multifaceted things that can develop in a few ways. And how you choose to model your campaign is generally guided by a few things. This list isn’t exhaustive, but are some key factors I’ve encountered often.
Time: a campaign does not have to be a multiyear or multi-decade operation. But time needs to be accounted for. As a general rule, unless you have some serious time on your hands to play each week (the dream!), you’re probably looking at a minimum of about 3 months, or about 12 sessions, to complete a campaign of any sort. That’s in my experience and it may differ from others.
Attendance: This is the elephant in the room, and the reality is that attendance is going to be much more influential on the campaign model than some anticipate. In effect, if you have solid, reliable attendance, story driven and directed campaigns will be easier to do. The less reliable your attendance is, the harder those kinds of games become.
Popularity: Never discount popularity as a guide for modelling a campaign. This is especially notable for pre-made campaigns that gain huge followings in the larger community. So even if you can’t run said campaign itself, you may need to incorporate aspects of popular campaigns into models to meet the desires of your table.
Vibe: I use this term a lot, and that’s because it’s important. The vibe of your group is something to absolutely take into account when modelling your campaign. Pay attention to the vibe of the group, because the better it matches the campaign model and contents, the more immersed and interested the group will be.
For the sake of brevity, I’ve broken this into three broad types of campaign design, Directed, Hybrid, and Unconnected.
Directed Campaign: For many, especially with the influence of 5e D&D in play, this is what they think about when they hear the word “campaign”. There’s an overarching storyline, a zero to hero development cycle for the characters, a series of encounters and events related to the plotline, and a final conflict against the Big Bad End Guy followed by a denouement and likely character retirement. There may be some additions in the form of related side-quests, but the storyline remains the main driving force of the campaign. Examples of campaigns like this are things like Curse of Strahd, Out of the Abyss, or Tomb of Annihilation.
Unconnected Campaign: In contrast, an Unconnected Campaign consists of a variety of adventures undertaken by the group that have no, or seldom have any, overarching plotline or connective tissue. Play may start at any level, and the campaign lasts as long as the group wants it to. In many ways, it’s more reminiscent of how games like D&D were played in the past, where groups used standalone materials (modules etc…) and their own homebrew to have multiple adventures without a defining reason for them. There’s no really good example of this campaign type, because of its very nature. It does appear in anime and manga frequently though, usually in the form of a job board where the characters get their next adventures from.
Hybrid Campaign: These are tricky and definitely run a broad spectrum in terms of composition. Sitting between the other two campaign types, the Hybrid Campaign is loose but storied. There is a metaplot, there is a storyline, but how the group can approach it is much more open and multidirectional. A great example of campaigns like this are shows where over the course of a season, the characters uncover clues that allow them to figure things out to reach the final conflict. The adventures themselves don’t have to be connected directly to the plot or storyline, which in some groups is a benefit.
Picking Your Model
There’s no one right kind of campaign model. It’s a question of what works for your table and the playstyle you use. Come campaigns will be short, others might span years or more. The point is to, like in world building, model your campaign so that you can maximize the fun at your table. Personally, I like the Disconnected and Hybrid models, but that’s because of the time and attendance limitations I often have. I think a good piece of advice here is that being flexible in this is as important and being flexible elsewhere as a GM. IF things develop, let them develop, and let your campaign model evolve alongside the game.
This whole conversation really took me back to when I was just getting into the hobby and had no idea about what a campaign was. It also really got me thinking on how things have changed in the hobby with the huge successes that 5e D&D’s campaign books have had. Like I wrote earlier, there’s no one right way to run a campaign, it’s whatever works at your table, but hopefully thing will have helped you with putting together your next one!