08 November 2019

The Starless Sea---Campaign Structures vs. Adventure Structures

How much thought have we collectively given to game elements/structures that are part of a campaign's flow and evolution, independent of the structure of the individual adventures that make it up? 

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

I've been reading Erin Morgenstern's new book _The Starless Sea_, which is a fairy-tale-like novel told through nested stories like the 1001 Arabian Nights; the book explores the stories' structures, some of which are meta-fictionally self-reflective/-reflexive, a la Borges or Robert Coover.  It's a bit like a mega-dungeon of a book, really.

So, it got me thinking about elements and structures that drive campaigns over the medium- to long haul, like:

  • active foreshadowing through backgound/history/sage advice, spies/spying, divination and research spells, prophecies and divine/infernal guidance, etc.
  • hidden foreshadowing through returning to earlier locations/NPCs/items/prophecies/etc. that have a newly-realized meaning or significance in retrospect after learning D after A, B, and C ("we should never have sold that wand at 3rd level so we could pay our training costs---it's the X"; "whoa!:  we need to head back to that well in level 6 and open that unopenable door with this key now"; etc.); this works best, of course, when specific items, content, histories, etc. have layers of additional meaning/mystery to them to be found
  • assembling pieces and parts of multi-part magic items (Rod of Seven Parts, Eye and Hand of Vecna, etc.), maps, information/lore, paintings, etc.; Anthony Huso's Black Journal falls into this category, I think, in addition to being an awesome prop
  • red herrings, false trails/false alarms, and misinterpretations:  player agency means that they'll get distracted by the fake ghost's tricks rather than unmasking the fake ghost, sometimes; this is possible through their own misinterpretations, as well as through being distracted by false trails/fake news clues intentionally created by NPCs---I'm thinking of  Urgaan of Angarngi's map from Leiber's "Jewels in the Forest" here, or Eclavdra's false trail luring the classic GDQ players to assault Lolth as the root of all of their woes.
  • independent actors with their own agendas that drive their goals, priorities, relationships, etc.---this is the whole "putting it all in motion" to create verisimilitude
What other kinds of tools like these do we use to structure long-term campaign play?

In response to that original question, Anthony Huso offered several comments, and suggested a pair of additions to my list above:
  • an actual calendar with slow-moving but time-critical plot points
  • real consequences to player choices
and to which I replied:
Great points, Anthony!  I definitely use the Greyhawk calendar---my favorite version is the one created by Clay Luther, since it's a great tracking calendar---and I find that Greyhawk's alternative dating systems (along with my own in Mendenein) are very useful in-game to help ground the players (and their PCs) in Greyhawk's history.

I finished reading _The Starless Sea_ last night, which got me thinking further about the pacing of stories and their endings, and about their differences in application to campaigns and to games vs. to literature.  Foreshadowing is a literary technique, and not all literary tropes and techniques will be as applicably useful in an RPG.  In addition, stories have endings, but RPG campaigns don't necessarily have endings (although they do have a natural rising/falling pacing of action in play).  So what techniques and tropes (and other tools) exist uniquely in RPG campaigns that aren't literary in nature, and how do they impact the structure of campaign play?
That's an open question that I don't have a definite answer to, but here are a few mulled thoughts.

There's a lot of overlap in literary and cinematic techniques with RPGs, but I think that's in part due to the still-nascent nature of RPGs as a form of play, art, and creative expression: we know drama, literature, and movies since they've been around longer, so we naturally incorporate the terminology, structures, and tools from those genres into RPGs; Justin Alexander has written several sets of posts on his blog The Alexandrian about dramatic and cinematic structures in RPGs, for example. But RPGs are distinct from these forms, on several key fronts:

  • RPGs are creative ensembles, not performing ensembles (Critical Role, et al, aside): the players and the DM build the campaign together, one encounter, one adventure at a time, and it is through their interplay that the campaign flourishes
  • the DM is not the author: this follows logically from the previous point, but it's worth being explicit about it, I think; the DM doesn't own the story of the campaign---the DM is more like the director of an orchestra, since without the other players' PC activities as participation in the game, the DM's actions are silently meaningless (the DM's behind-the-scenes design work is far from meaningless, but you get my point still, I hope; note to self: ponder the DM as architect vs. director)
  • RPGs are games, so their primary motivation is to entertain and to have fun, and that "fun" piece colors the RPG genre distinctly from drama, literature, and movies---which set out to entertain, but are not in and of themselves expected to "be fun" in the way that games are
  • As long-term games, RPGs are expected to have "replay value"---that secret sauce which keeps players returning to the table week after week, year after year, to explore the game that they're building together. One-shots, asides, and classic reruns (playing modules from our youth?) are certainly part of the pacing model of the campaign, but without that continuous draw to re-engage, a campaign will probably stagnate (this is probably one of the best reasons to have a stable of recurring villains as an organization vs. single-figures---if the PCs are pitted against The Cult of Vecna, even when they take out the EHP at some point, there are still other foes standing who need to be dealt with)
  • RPGs are games with systems, so random events can and do significantly impact the play of the game and the outcomes of actions in the campaign, within the scope of the systems used. When the key villain rolls a 1 on a saving throw and is charmed, or disintegrated, or plane shifted away to the Seven Heavens---or whatever!---that's probably not a result that the players (and their PCs) or the DM (and the NPCs, monsters, etc.) have necessarily prepared for. So the nature of random results inject random outcomes into gameplay which the players and the DM have to run with, respond to, and manage as complication during each and every session.

The flow and pace of these many random events play out in retrospect as the sense-making stories that we tell ourselves to summarize the encounters, interactions, combats, and explorations of adventures in the context of the campaign, but that's still a literary layer thrown over and summarizing the action of the gameplay. 

What more falls into this bucket?

Please share your thoughts, analyses, speculations, ideas, and inspirations in the comments!


P.S.  There's also something in the zone here worth considering on processes vs. outcomes. See https://seths.blog/2019/11/the-process-vs-the-outcome/ for a kick-off point, but an RPG needs to be fun in the process of playing it, which will reinforce the longer-term replay value ideas above. Milestones and outcomes are important too, in particular for longer-term campaign play; not just the in-the-moment process of playing. So this starts to get into sub-processes building into processes into workflows of processes into complex systems of processes*---which is why system selection is an important factor in campaign viability: if the system for your game is designed to product disposable one-year-long campaigns, as the 3.x and later editions of D&D are, then you shouldn't be surprised that the game design doesn't scale to support epic-level play over three or more years.


*I'm also not jumping down the rabbit hole of Rob Kuntz's "open forms" book concept yet, but that is a quite possibly an ending point for this analysis, I suppose.

1 comment:

  1. Speaking of Calendars, I'm going through Fellowship of the Rings (again) and noticed Tolkien uses a normal Calendar. He's mentioned July and October which is practical as far as info for the reader and all but very odd once you notice it as that puts the War of the Rings after the Romans if you take it overly-literally.


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