I’ve had in mind thoughts about RPGs that don’t seem to coalesce into a single topic. This topic is about simplifying.
I will read forums and blogs to see what people say about running campaigns. How much actually penetrates and leads to different behavior is questionable. The impetus for change is routinely some sort of negative experience rather than a “shoulda done it differently” thought that occurs.
One thing that keeps coming to mind, however, when I think about theoretical campaign experiences is oddly D&D. Not necessarily what D&D has become or ever was but the stripped down, hack and slash dungeon crawling that I picture when I read play examples in not only D&D and AD&D books but in The Fantasy Trip and whatever (with less of the obsession over distances, light sources, poking refuse piles, whether you look up to see the spiders above you, etc.). Much more akin to what it’s like to play the HeroQuest boardgame (or Descent for a more modern reference).
I believe this vision of a simple, straightforward, easy to play (and run) game comes up because my experiences seem to make things more difficult than they need to be. If you have to spend more than 30 minutes getting a character together to play, that’s too much work and too awkward for something you aren’t going to be sure you want to do. If the players are lost in terms of what they are trying to do, what the world is about, how the system works, or whatever else, that’s … weird.
Why should anything be hard?
It’s not important to have a coherent character. It’s important to start playing a character that becomes coherent. The more you understand a system and a world, sure, the more tailoring that can be done up front. But, most campaigns fail to run very long, so sayeth others and so I observe. Even campaigns I run that I’m motivated to keep running fall apart in the face of spotty attendance, if not something else.
What interests me in character creation isn’t necessarily what interests someone else. Some people like shopping for their gear, for instance. I quite can’t stand it, which is why I have characters running around in game worlds that have no armor when everyone is expected to be outfitted for warfare.
But, even where mechanical details like this are supposed to matter, just … start … playing. What determines the length of a campaign? Well, how much you play. So, play more.
Why is length important? For some, character advancement is a major or primary appeal. In my experience, duration of campaign has led to depth. Where a character starts out as a character sheet, eventually you hit some point in the campaign where you know who the character is. After that point, then you start playing to who that character actually is rather than who you might have thought it was supposed to be.
15-30 minutes. Can spend more than that off on your own when you aren’t wasting anyone else’s time, but I find that many a campaign sees people creating characters with everyone else around, and it tends towards being a waste of time to spend more than this when the important thing is playing long enough to have your character become something more than a character sheet.
In The Beginning
I only think of two campaigns I played in as long running. I don’t include Heroes of Rokugan because of the structured nature of the campaigns and because of the incredible inconsistencies in the schedule of play. I don’t include the RuneQuest play as the actual number of sessions is nowhere near as high as the span of realworld time used to play. Plus, my characters keep changing while the situations hardly do – essentially, there’s no story arc.
The Conan d20 campaign started off uncluttered. We had a reasonably clear need at the beginning, being on the Pictish frontier. Whether actually doing our jobs or fleeing before an implacable foe, survival was the focus.
In contrast, the Princess Police campaign was much less clear in what we were supposed to be doing and had a very slow start. It ended up working out because of the commitment level of the players.
I’d encourage the former. Simple, clear goal(s) with straightforward play to “get into” the campaign. Not everyone is highly committed to a particular campaign idea to keep going when things aren’t meeting their expectations right away.
I know I can’t escape it, but, for some reason, it’s far harder to articulate and define a campaign vision at the outset than you would think it would be. Even when you have a campaign mission statement, somehow different players expect different things and GMs expect different things than players.
It’s not just characters that add dimensions over time. I see the play (plots, setting pieces, NPCs) as gaining more dimensions through continued play. I wouldn’t say this depth necessarily comes with complexity. I would put it down more to just investment in what happens in the campaign.
This is where I struggle with the idea of a dungeon crawl campaign. Isn’t it just doing the same thing over and over, with the names changed? Sure, the Gygaxian model, as far as I can tell, is to dungeon crawl until you get enough resources to establish yourself in the world as a territory manager or whatever. So, there is a shift from murder hobo to murder lord. Economics, politics, whatever become relevant at some point, and the 20’x20’x20′ rooms get pushed somewhat to the side.
On the other hand, I’m still trying to wrap myself around how to do more episodic play. TV shows have done very well with the idea of the same setup every week with only modest evolution in the main character(s) or what they do, i.e. minimizing depth. There has to be some way to have a satisfying game that is “The Case of the Broken Rubber Band” each week (think Encyclopedia Brown, Sherlock Holmes, etc.).
Maybe others have seen it and I just haven’t, but I’ve yet to see a campaign where there was essentially no concern for change in the PCs mechanically, where a campaign focused on plots, instead. Come to think of it, I’ve played in adventures at cons that were part of a series where the focus was on the story arc and the characters undergoing changes didn’t really matter. That doesn’t seem like something with “legs” for a home game.
Even episodic TV shows saw character development. Magnum P.I. saw a greater focus on his Navy background. MASH, to my recollection, got more and more into the frustration with the war continuing and, of course, moved into the reality of characters being done with the war. Not that Jeannie and Tony getting married (or whatever evolution of a show along similar lines) is necessarily much more than a nod toward how things can’t stay exactly the same and be remotely plausible. My observation, which admittedly does come from most of my TV watching being when I was growing up and relatively little since the ’80s, is that entertainment became more sophisticated over time. It was fine to have an incredibly repetitive show in the olden days (some weren’t), but the demands for novelty led to more character development. Unfortunately, at least when I look around, I feel like modern TV has to make every protagonist tortured because simplistic characters don’t satisfy more “sophisticated” audiences. The idea of simple fun seems to be missed.
I think I got ramblely there.
To restate: It can’t be that difficult to start a new campaign quickly and with clear goals and expectations that the players buy into to where the campaign has legs.
Characters don’t need to be hyperdetailed – that can arise later. Motivations don’t need to be complex or convoluted, not even for the villains. Missions and accomplishments don’t need to be involved – I keep coming back to how one of my failings is that I don’t give clear short term wins and losses to my players; the impact of actions is too enigmatic and subtle.
I may be lost on what HoR3 is supposed to be about, but I do find the format enjoyable. One benefit of the format, I perceive, is how each module typically has a well-defined mission and how the results of mods are immediate and defined.
I own far, far more modules for D&D/AD&D than the number of modules of a RPG I’ve played in home games. I would imagine that playing a module based campaign for something other than L5R could work much the same way, but I don’t know. Maybe the “videogame role-playing” comes through much more with D&Desque adventures in play, as it does when you read them and read over and over again about room descriptions with monster statblocks and what sort of implausible treasure can be had and read not much else (well, there are random encounter tables, too).
As we started up a new campaign that uses Savage Worlds for the system and a pseudohistorical setting, I’ve been looking at my Solomon Kane book recently. It is an interesting contrast to my ’80s D&D modules, where there’s far less detail and much more focus on a simple, one session adventure with hardly any sort of randomness to the plot. I certainly grok the SK adventures far more than I can envision how the D&D modules play out.
In my recent experiences, I’ve run across difficult to understand systems, labored character creation, unclear motivations/goals, difficult to resolve scenarios, and maybe a couple of other things. My intent isn’t to complain. My intent is to figure out how to easify playing RPGs. The heights of RPGs are greater than the heights of other games I’ve played (except for the ousting multiple players with Jake Washington experiences). It shouldn’t be challenging to reach those heights. I’m not looking to play some dungeoncrawl, hack and slash wargame. I’m just wondering where the ground is that captures simplicity of action with richness of narrative.