Sunday, January 10, 2010

Anatomy of a Campaign

Over at B/X Blackrazor, JB was wondering:

hmm… I wonder how Oddysey and Trollsmyth’s current on-going campaign developed. Odd has said this is the first time she’s played in a campaign that took things to this particular depth of character interaction…were her former games played in the mini-campaign or forced plot setting? Or is their current gaming style simply built on mutual rapport and understanding of narrative agenda needs?

The answer is, not quickly. That's not the sort of play you can start cold. You have to build up to it.

It would be nice if you could just say, "Hey, we're building a social campaign and it's going to deal with x, y, and z." You could, I suppose, pull it off if the DM was willing to give the players extreme amounts of narrative control, and I've done that in the past with a few players I knew very well and had played with a lot before. If you don't do that, however, you end up in a situation where the players don't have anything to talk about. Even if they've read voluminous amounts of campaign material, they don't really understand the setting well enough to interact with it. (Unless that setting is based on a well-known IP, like Harry Potter or some such, which is why such are the most popular themes for free-form RPing, I'm sure.) The background gives players something to talk about, and knowing and being comfortable with the style gives them ways to talk about those things. If either is missing, they're reduced to talking about the weather in the safest and most boring of tones.

My preferred style is open sandbox and very laissez-faire. But such games need a bit of impetus, and if the players are to be comfortable enough to stretch themselves a bit, they need some limitations. There's nothing more intimidating to a lot of people than a completely blank canvas.

In Oddysey's case, I started off with a very open-ended problem for her to solve: being shipwrecked on a strange coast. This got her used to my rather loose, the-DM-doesn't-have-a-plan-so-do-what-makes-sense-or-is-fun-for-you style. When she returned to civilization and was able to choose her own path, she latched on to dungeon-delving. This was great because it was a style she'd not had much experience with, but comes with its own set of very focused goals and geographical limitations. As Oddysey recently commented, however, it wasn't raw monster-slaying and trap-finding. Since it was a solo game, there were hirelings and such to fill out the party, mostly chosen by her. Whenever she mentioned interest in hiring a particular class to join her group, I'd gin up at least three examples (it's so easy in LL that three take maybe a half-hour or so to roll up and write down) with a brief description of their personalities, reputations, and competencies beyond their class. Because there was no one else to interact with (most of the time) there was a lot of interaction with these NPCs. And that's really where we got things rolling.

Up until that point, I wasn't really sure what sort of play Oddysey was interested in. As she points out, most of the traditional assumptions of Old School play, like dungeons, were not very well known to her, so even she wasn't sure what sort of play she wanted, other than something new that she hadn't tried before. So leaving things open and not forcing a certain agenda left it open for us to explore, and we built the playstyle together out of mutual interests.

(And yes, this did mean that certain dungeon complexes were left "uncleared" but that's fine with me. Like Mr. Maliszewski, I've never assumed that clearing the entire locale was the goal, and my players have generally been happy with focused, surgical operations rather than genocidal invasions. ;p )

The one thing I did rigorously enforce was the verisimilitude. I think that really helps, because it gives players things they can rely on, things they can trust. With that bedrock, they can begin to invest in their characters' interests and goals, and from that comes engagement with the world. And once they do that, it's easy to build an entire session around chatting with a rakshasa and a priestess about boys, because the players know who their characters are, how they relate to the rakshasa and the priestess, and why boys would be fun to talk about.

Art by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema and Edward Moran


Dennis said...

Interesting. I haven't tried a solo campaign, but I'm working a lot with a sandbox-style campaign. Do you work a lot on the PC backgrounds? I've found that using a background generator to explore the character's life, year by year, up until the adventure begins really helps out when the players are the ones deciding the direction of the campaign, and provides a lot of conversation topics as well! I had to play a solo scene with one of my players for about half an hour, and came back to notice that the rest of the group had continued roleplaying throughout the time I was gone. Preparation is really the key.

trollsmyth said...

The NPCs or the PCs?

The backgrounds of the PCs I leave largely up to them. I don't request much, because I know some players prefer to explore and "discover" the background of their character through play. Some give more than others, while others have learned to enjoy the process of creating an in-depth background as part of character generation. Largely, though, it's a matter of learning what is useful and what is just fluff for the style of campaign you're going to be playing in.

As for me, yeah, I can get pretty detailed on the NPCs, but usually only after the players indicate which NPCs they deem important. Yes, some are just destined to be regulars in the campaign, but the players have a way of ignoring folks I thought would be central while adopting others who are literally just spear-carriers. My college group rescued a city guard from wererats and adopted him into the party. Only after he'd been in a few adventures with them did I start to build a detailed background for him.

I agree, though, that prep work is the key. However, since I let my players discover the worlds they adventure in, it generally works best if they can develop those backgrounds over time, so they better mesh with the world, and the world can better mesh with them.

Nope said...

great post!

"There's nothing more intimidating to a lot of people than a completely blank canvas... I started off with a very open-ended problem for her to solve: being shipwrecked on a strange coast."

That's a great insight on a great way to start a sandbox game. Give the players a concrete goal to complete, and let the world reveal itself in the process. I'll keep this in mind more often.