Monday, April 27, 2009

Thoughts on Campaign Complexity

I tend to have a hard time describing my campaigns to non-participants. You'll note, for instance, that my "recaps" here tend to focus on a few key issues, often mostly out-of-game or otherwise technical in nature, with very little discussion of any events outside of the specific problem I'm having. If I did more than that, it would quickly turn into pages of material.

The Traveller game has already gotten to the point where it would take several paragraphs just to fully discuss their current mission, and explain why everyone's going along with it, how they got it in the first place, and where they're going from there. A complete explanation of all the different goals they have bubbling on various burners would take weeks.

It's ridiculous. But it's not unusual, for one of my campaigns or for roleplaying campaigns generally. This one doesn't even involve all that much history; it wasn't unusual in Is This Fair for a complete update of the campaigns current status to require repeated references to events that happened in two distinct time periods, one thousands of years prior to the start of the campaign, and the other around four hundred years previous.

I'm sure that there are some campaigns which don't develop such labyrinthine complexity, but it strikes me as a general tendency of such things, if only because there's half a dozen people all contributing their input to the thing that will someday resemble a plot. The basic challenge of integrating four or five separate backstories and character motivations into a coherent whole, which a campaign does by default (though a good referee will guide it towards a stable state that doesn't shortchange any one character or group of characters in favor of another) accounts for a great deal of complexity all on its own.

But a lot of it comes directly from the game master's side of the screen. This has been particularly true in my current campaign, but it's true in a general way of most roleplaying campaigns: I generate a lot more material than I will ever reasonably use, most of it in the form of offhand references, minor NPCs, and hooks the players don't bite. This is just a normal part of negotiating the divide between player and game master; I don't know exactly what they'll be interested in, so I make more than I need, and they'll be more interested in some things than others, so they'll notice less than I make.

Sooner or later, though, some of that material that doesn't immediately get used will come up again. Either the players will remember what I'd intended as a one-off incident and attach some significance to it, or I'll reason that something that happened a couple of sessions ago has a neat connection to what they're doing now. There's a continual process, negotiated between me and the players, of generating material, reacting to it, creating a story to explain it, and then generating more material based on that story.


  1. I understand the problem. Explaining events in my campaigns often involved a long explanation as to character backgrounds and the labyrine events which led to the situation being explained.
    I spent a lot of time on character conception and background. In fact, over half my adventures come from those, particularly in my champions campaigns. And I have a lot of adventure hooks and subplots which often are undealt with by the players or that they simply miss. I then sit back and ejudicate such events and often create another adventure hook for a later date. Individual players have often accused me of "picking" on them because the adventures revolve around them specifically (and they overlook the fact the same things happen to everyone else, thou I admit those who have particularly juicy backgrounds do get hit more often). I do run a very player centric game.

  2. Strange.

    Complex and multi-layered as my campaigns may get (and they often do), I don't know that they are particularly difficult to describe.

    Part of being a good GM is being a good storyteller. Part of being a good storyteller is conveying not only atmosphere but also information. Sometimes the most important skill you can have is the ability to get to the point.

    Recently, I've been on the player's side of gaming instead of in my usual position as GM. I am a lousy player. I have very little patience for slow moving plots and GMs that are essentially taking me by the hand through a long story.

    My GMing style is one-part storyteller, one-part referee and 2
    parts showman. I owe as much to P.T. Barnum and Robin Williams as I do Gygax and Arneson.

    Barking Alien

  3. BA: I don't know about Oddysey's games, but I think you and I have a similar way of handling exposition. In the Labyrinth Lord game I'm running that Oddysey is playing in, I've dumped reams of info about elves on her, but I did it through the exploration of a ruined elven villa. There was never a point where play stopped for a "Council of Elrond" exposition-fest. Instead, the info was gathered "organically" through the exploration of an otherwise traditional dungeon environment.

    Which is all well and good, until you have to add new players or you're trying to explain the campaign to outsiders. I joked recently that if a potential new player wanted to play an elf, they were in for a mountain of reading material. But in truth, I knew that might come up, so I designed the campaign to encourage PCs who come from distant lands with different cultures than the local norms. That's not always possible, though, or even optimal.

  4. Starting with my first session, I give all my players a little booklet. Inside are pictures of important creatures or NPCs, perhaps a map of the immediate area and a little beyond and some background text, though not too much. Each session, everyone gets a couple more pages. This way I can detail my world (or worlds) in small doses that supplement the ingame activity.

    Some people read it, some don't. Adventures are never dependant on the players having read the info but they certainly will be helped by it if they do. More on this will be discussed on my blog really soon.

    Barking Alien

  5. Underminer: In my current game, the plots are almost entirely driven by player backgrounds. And there's a little bit of "things I threw in at the beginning of the game because I thought they were cool," but pretty much everything else is "I tossed this off as a one-off idea, and the players liked it so it stuck." That's how they ended up investigating an interplanetary conspiracy to take down KordCorp, for instance. It just kind of happened.

    My players tend to like my using their backgrounds, though. And I tend to use backgrounds from the quiet players, to help balance out the participation ratios.

    Barking Alien: Well, sure, I could explain my campaign fairly easily by saying "they're heading to Angel to see if they can find Athene's fiance, and they think he might be useful in their attempts to overthrow KordCorp." But that misses, well, 95% of what happens in a given session. That's a thumbnail sketch, not an explanation.

    And I'm kind of allergic to long player handouts, because I used to be really bad about harassing players with information that, in retrospect, was kind of useless to the business of having adventures. At some point I'll get over that and go back to it, but for now I just don't bother to come up with too much world info ahead of time, so we can figure things out together.

    trollsmyth: My campaigns are pretty much run the same way, these days. Most of the "background info" I make up as it comes up, but I do have a few important setting details that the players will run into sooner or later, as a part of their adventures.