Campaigns, Settings, and the Angry-can Church

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Let’s get one thing straight: I’m old. My former doctor used to remind of that constantly. Actually, she used to tell me that not only am I old, I am neither aging well nor aging gracefully. Basically, she described my aging process as “dragging myself, kicking and screaming toward my own execution, stubbornly and incorrectly insisting with every ragged, labored breath that I didn’t deserve to die.” She was very poetic, I’ll give her that. She also isn’t my doctor anymore. But that’s only because I moved to another state. My current doctor thinks we’re partners and friends. F$&% that s$&%.

Now, I realize I’m not as old as the oldest of gamers. I wasn’t around in the beginning of gaming. I wasn’t born when Gary did his thing. I’m only staring down the double-barrel of forty. Though given the standard gamer lifestyle, I’m pretty sure fifty is about the oldest any gamer can hope to live, so soon I will be the oldest of gamers. Unless I have that stroke my doctors keep going on about.

The point is, my age sometimes f$&%s me up. Gaming and gaming terminology have changed a lot over the years. Well sort of. See, like most industries and genres and things, in the early days of gaming, it was like the wild west. There was a lot of space, a lot of people staked claims to it, there weren’t really any rules, and even if there were rules, we didn’t know what we were doing. We were basically those idiots who ran out to Alaska and California thinking that all we needed to was claim some land and start digging or panning and we’d be rich with gold. That’s why the old games are s$&%. Yes, you heard me: the old editions of D&D and all of the other old RPGs that exist are all s$&%. And so were the games we ran with them. S$&%, s$&%, s$&%. Yes, even my games. And the people who still cling to the old-school rules and the old-school way of doing things are the people who are desperately trying to cling to the glory days of their youth and pretend they aren’t getting old and sliding inevitably toward the icy fingers of death.

You’re mortal and you’re getting die, in case you didn’t get it.

Anyway, the problem with the RPG sphere is that, unlike movies and video games, it never went beyond niche status. Yeah, sorry, your hobby isn’t as big or popular as you wish it was either. Fortunately, you’re going to die someday. Eventually movies and video games developed a large body of theorycraft and academic critique around them. And thus, a common understanding grew up among developers and designers and hardcore fans. But RPGs never got that. So, instead, you get little isolated pockets of arguing theories and critiques. People like me. And you get a lot of people repeating a lot of terms and jargon without really applying rigorous definitions. So, we get a jumbled mass of terminology where every word means sixteen different things and it’s impossible to discuss anything academically without wasting pages and pages trying to define your terms just to get everyone on the same page and then you still get a bunch of mouth breathing idiots screaming about how words can mean anything and so your whole argument is invalid. Meanwhile, the big players keep plodding along, making minor iterations of the same f$&%ing thing and not innovating because innovation is risky. And the pseudo-intellectual elites keep trying to innovate, but their innovations are all just either rejections of bits and pieces of the industry they don’t like or highly-specialized minor variations on a theme, so none of the indie crowd achieve more than niche appeal in a community that is already a niche. And then people just start shooting each other instead of panning for gold, and we go from the boom town wild west to the criminal anarchy wild west.

And yes, I fully admit I’m part of the problem. For now.

Anyway, the point is this: I HAVE TO spend half my verbal real estate defining terms because I can’t teach anything if we’re not all starting from the same core assumptions. It’s not because I think I’m right – even though I AM – and it’s not because I like to argue semantics – even though I DO – and it’s not because my definitions are better – even though THEY ARE. It’s only because if I’m going to teach you to run better games the way I run them, you first have to learn to approach the game how I do. I don’t have the power to tell you what a word DOES mean or MUST mean. Not yet. Someday I will. But for now, all I can tell you is that IF you accept this meaning for a particular word, you can THEN use that word in this way and that will help you make games better.

And that is why I HAVE TO introduce my foray into campaign and world-building by laying out the basic terminology. Yes, that sentence means what you think it means. I’ve gotten through the Long, Rambling Introduction™ and have arrived at the actual start of the article. We’re looking at three ideas today: campaigns, adventure paths, and settings. So, let’s get into it.

The Once and Future Campaign

The word campaign is a complicated one. It doesn’t mean today what it once meant. And when I say once, I mean “to the f$&%ing Romans.” Seriously. The word campaign has its origins not in gaming, but in the military. See, a military campaign is a long-term, strategic plan that comprises multiple individual operations. The campaign itself is generally part of a larger conflict, like a war. That word ended up in wargames because wargames are games that simulate wars. So, the players would play out individual battles. But those battles could be strung together to form a campaign. And because wargaming became role-playing gaming, the term campaign got absorbed into role-playing games. And it had much the same meaning. Well, sort of. Here’s that wild west problem again.

The intent of the word campaign was “a series of adventures that comprise a larger, overarching story.” The Lord of the Rings triology is a good example of a campaign. You can break it down into adventures like Flight from the Shire, the Battle at Weathertop, the Mines of Moria, and so on. Each adventure serves, in some way, to advance the larger story.

The earliest RPG campaigns were repeated forays into the same dungeon. Or repeated attempts to defeat the same dungeon. Take, for example, the Ruins of Castle Greyhawk and Undermountain. But as more and more people got involved in RPGs and more, shorter modules starting coming out and people started writing their own home games, the meaning of campaign eroded. The need for an overarching story vanished. You could have a campaign like Lord of the Rings, where every adventure moves the party toward a larger goal. Or you could have a campaign like Greyhawk or Undermountain, where the only continuity is the dungeon itself and even the characters can change because some of them keep dying. Or you could have campaigns made up of one-shot adventures as a bunch of heroes wander the land exploring dungeons and killing monsters. No overarching plot, no common site, just a different adventure every week.

And then, TSR started releasing campaign settings. Campaign Settings were materials that provided details about particular worlds like Greyhawk or Toril or Athas or whatever. And they were just worlds. There were lots of possible stories, lots of possible adventures, and lots of possible campaigns. But some of those worlds were also released with snappy titles. Athas was the world of Dark Sun. Toril was the world of the Forgotten Realms. And so on. So, the Forgotten Realms campaign setting detailed the world of Toril (or Abeir-Toril or Faerun or some bulls$&%, I don’t actually care). And so people started to get really careless and would refer to these SETTINGS as CAMPAIGNS. I mean, it was innocent enough. People started by saying “I’m running a Dark Sun campaign,” which meant they were running a campaign in the world of Athas detailed in the product line called Dark Sun. But gradually, the name of the setting became synonymous with the campaign itself.

And then Dungeon Magazine came up with a different clever idea. See, they wanted to publish a series of adventures comprising a single, overarching story. But, they had two problems. First of all, the old-schoolers had gotten used to the idea that a campaign was a long, long affair that involved all of the games a group played in the same world with roughly the same characters. A series of a few adventures didn’t comprise a campaign because you could keep playing after that storyline was played out. Second of all, no one wanted to give the impression that the series of adventures was somehow a new world or setting, and calling it a campaign would certainly do that. So, they called it an adventure path.

So, now you have a word “campaign” that can mean a series of adventures connected by a single, overarching story OR all of the adventures a group has regardless of an overarching story OR a world in which a series of adventures, connected or otherwise, takes place in. And you have the word “adventure path” which means “a series of adventures connected by a single, overarching story.”

PHEW.

Meanwhile, you have me. And, as I demonstrated, the central tenet to my entire approach is understanding the structures – mechanical and narrative – that underlie the game. In the past, I’ve been able to subtly redefine words by looking at the common threads underlying most of the definitions and then pulling them out to a conclusion. Basically, it’s a process of distillation. My definition of role-playing game is the distilled essence of all of the definitions of “role-playing” and “game” and “role-playing game” held by lots of different people. But this time, I’m kind of f$&%ed. Because I literally have to say “the historical precedents are garbage and their definitions are useless, so THESE are the definitions now, live with it or go somewhere else for your advice.” I’m basically the Henry VIII of RPGs. After trying to toe the line and play nice within the rules and only occasionally beheading anyone, I’m just grabbing the big hat and saying “I’M POPE NOW, HAHAHAHAHA!”

Welcome to the Angrycan Church! Convert or GTFO.

Campaigns in the Angrycan Church

Now, let’s spell this out. In the Angrycan Church, a campaign is any ongoing game with any sort of continuity at all. A campaign is just all of the sessions and adventures that a group plays together that they decide are all part of one campaign. Now, is that a circular definition? F$&% yes it is. But tough s$&%. It’s a necessary circle.

The thing is, I have to remove all of the assumptions from the word campaign: assumptions about continuities and ongoing stories and settings and all of that out. First of all, campaign and setting are not synonymous. We have to get rid of that so we can talk about setting design and world-building as its own thing and establish that the Forgotten Realms of Abeir-Toril are a SETTING only. We can’t let that s$&% come anywhere near the word campaign.

Second of all, we have to accept that people CAN play series of ongoing adventures WITHOUT the overarching story. Those sorts of games require much less design and structure than other series of ongoing adventures that DO have an overarching story. In fact, many, MANY ongoing RPG games fall into the category of “accidental campaigns.” Basically, it’s only a campaign because mostly the same players keep showing up playing mostly the same characters in a series of unconnected, unrelated adventures.

So, that means our definition of campaign basically has to be as bare bones as possible: it’s just a series of games with any sort of continuity at all, however minor. As long as there is some common element that somehow relates the adventures together, it’s a campaign. And generally, that continuity is usually a combination of players, characters, and setting. Basically, the same players keep playing the same characters in the same world.

Now, we have to be careful about that word: continuity. It’s a word that’s going to be very important in our campaign-building talks. Continuity doesn’t mean that nothing changes. What it means that the changes are explainable and persistent. So, look, sometimes a player leaves the gaming group, right? Now, that doesn’t mean the campaign has to end. It can continue without that player. Usually, what happens is that players-character retires or dies or leaves the group or whatever. The rest of the players and their characters still remember that character and player. Everything Alice did as Zanzabarbara remains a part of the game’s history. Likewise, if Zanzabarbara dies, Alice can create a new character. Next week, Yardiana can join the party. Zanzabarbara is punctually gone, but she hasn’t been pulled from the continuity. And if the players travel from Abeir-Toril to Athas through a magic portal, the campaign isn’t destroyed and replaced by a new campaign.

Here’s what continuity really comes down to: a continuity exists if you can describe all of the events of the game in terms of the fictional narrative of the game. So, Zanzabarbara left the party for a time and adventured on her own. Then she died in the Cave of Muckraking Sludge Rats. Then Yardiana joined the party. There’s a continuity there because all of the events exist as part of a plot: a series of events in the story.

Now, I admit that definition can be a problem in some very specific cases. For example, imagine if all of the PCs die and the GM decides to let the players restart as new characters in the same world, picking up the story ten years after the PCs failed to stop the invasion of aberrant tentacle monsters. There is a narrative continuity. Does that mean it’s still the same campaign?

Well, there’s two answers: first, no. I would consider that a new campaign. The new campaign simply absorbs the old campaign as backstory. But that’s just me. Because, second, it really doesn’t f$&%ing matter at that point. Because, however you slice it up, the GM is doing all of the work of campaign building again. So insisting that, by a strict definition that it’s still the same campaign is just impractical bull-headedness. That doesn’t change what the GM has to do now.

In the end, then, according to the tents of the Angrycan Church, a campaign is a series of game sessions and adventures with any continuity of players, characters, and story. And a continuity between game elements exists whenever you can describe a sequence of narrative events or story elements that form a connection between those elements.

More simply: a campaign is a series of games that mostly the same players play using mostly the same characters in mostly the same world. And a continuity exists if you can tell a story about how you got from there to here.

Adventure Path’s in the Angrycan Church

I’m going to admit I don’t like the term “adventure path.” I’ve always used the word “arc.” But then, I’ve also always used a campaign specifically refer to a series of adventures interconnected by an ongoing story. And those other things that don’t have ongoing stories? I’ve just called them games.

And the main problem I have with “adventure path” is that it seems… kind of short. Like, it’s just a few adventures. A path made up of a few adventures. To me, a campaign can be made up of many, many adventure paths. Like Lord of the Rings. First, there’s the founding of the fellowship. That’s all the adventures that get us from Hobbiton to Rivendell. And then there’s the breaking of the fellowship, which is the stories that go from Rivendell to Amon Hen when Boromir dies and everyone gets kidnapped. Then, there’s the search for Merry and Pippin. The Rohan thing. And so on.

But here’s what changed all of that for me.

I realized that there’s no difference – in terms of design – between writing a campaign made of one adventure path and writing one made of many adventure paths. And that might seem weird. It might seem like “of course there should be a difference.” And there sort of is. But it isn’t an important difference. It isn’t a structure difference. An adventure path is the largest structure in an RPG that requires any sort of special understanding.

It’s kind of like a building. Every building has to have a foundation that provides the support. And every building has to have a roof with all the roof things like ventilation and whatever. But as your buildings get bigger, the differences between the structures become smaller and smaller. That is to say, there is very little difference between the foundation of a ten-story building and an eleven-story building. I’m not saying there’s no difference. And yes, there are some differences between a one-story building and a hundred-story building. But, apart from the extremes… look, okay, it isn’t a perfect analogy. There really isn’t a good analogy here.

Let me put it like this: once you understand the elements that every adventure path needs, you can string them together very easily with very little additional work. Adventure paths have common structural elements and rely on very little outside of the adventure. So, once you know how to build an adventure path, you can write a campaign with as many adventure paths as you want all strung together.

In short, I’ve come around to the idea that the adventure path is the biggest structure in the game. There’s nothing bigger. The only thing you can do after you can construct and run an adventure path is string them together. Or run a bunch of them in tandem.

So what IS an adventure path? Well, an adventure path is a series of adventures connected by a single, overarching story. Now, you might wonder how that differs from a campaign. After all, campaigns are connected by continuity. How is continuity not story?

A continuity is just a continuous sequence of events. At best, it’s a plot or a setting or a collection of characters (or a little bit of all of that). It has no structure to it. It’s just a pile of things in the story. But a story DOES have a structure. A story, specifically, has a beginning, a middle, and an ending. Basically, in the beginning, something happens to make the characters want to do something. At the end, they have either done it or not done it. The middle is everything that takes the characters from the beginning to the end. But there’s more to a story than even that. Stories include all sorts of elements that help them take shape. And that’s why we speak in terms of incitement and resolution instead of beginning and end. And we talk about motivation as the thing that drives the characters toward the resolution. And we talk about the climax and the denoument. And reverals and story beats and all of that crap.

Now, once I start talking in those terms, we have a problem. Okay, so an adventure path is a campaign with a story structure. Fine. Good. But how is an adventure path not an adventure? Both adventures and adventure paths have all of those things, right? What makes an adventure path a series of ten adventures and not just one long adventure?

Good question. And the answer is that an adventure path doesn’t actually have ALL of the same structures as an adventure. Instead, an adventure path defines some shared structures.

For example, every adventure has it’s own incitement to action. That’s the opening scene. That tells the players and the characters initially what they are trying to accomplish and points them toward the resolution. But what gives them the drive to pursue that resolution comes from their motivations and goals.

An adventure path also has a goal. But that GOAL becomes the MOTIVATION for all (or most, we’ll get to that) of the adventures inside of it. For example, everything that happened in the Lord of the Rings was driven by the goal of the free people of Middle Earth to defeat the Dark Lord Sauron. Frodo left the Shire to hide the One Ring from the Dark Lord. They passed through Moria because they had to bring the One Ring to Mount Doom so they could destroy it. Legolas, Aragorn, and Gimli joined Rohan in their war against Saruman to prevent Saruman from bolstering Sauron. And to unite Middle Earth against Sauron.

On the other hand, Adventure Paths often lack some of the important narrative structures and instead rely on the adventures inside of them. For example, when Frodo and Samwise finally destroy the Ring and Sauron is defeated, that serves as a climax for the adventure of Mt. Doom. But it also serves as a climax for the Lord of the Rings adventure path. Yeah, I know, that razing of the Shire. But that’s just because Tolkien was bad at story and didn’t know when the story was done.

Adventure Paths can contain their own narrative elements: climaxes, incitement, pace, and so on, but they don’t have to. Any of the elements of any of the adventures can become a part of the adventure path. For example, lots of adventure paths don’t begin with their own inciting incident or call to action. Instead, the players gradually come to realize that there is a larger story going on as they experience the first few adventures. Adventure paths can get away with that because, as long as the adventures themselves work, the path can take its time and borrow what it needs from the adventures.

Now, that means that adventure paths LOOK simple compared to adventures, BUT they are actually tricky beasts with their own little tricks and foibles. And we’ll be discussing all of them in the weeks to come. For now, let’s just settle on the Angrycan Church definition of an adventure path.

An adventure path is a sequence of adventures whose motivations are all defined by a single, common resolution. Or, more simply, an adventure path is a sequence of adventures united by an overarching story. Done and done.

Settings in the Angrycan Church

And now we come to the final piece of this puzzle: setting. And here is where I start to say some offensive things that will upset a lot of gamers. Far more than comparing myself to the pope and far more than reminding all of them that their hobby is tiny and irrelevant compared to every other form of media and how they are going to die someday. The concept of a setting has no place in this discussion. It really doesn’t. Setting doesn’t belong here. I should stop at “campaign” and “adventure path” and not even talk about setting. And honestly, it’s super important for you to understand why.

We tend to think about the setting – the fictional world in which the campaign takes place – and the campaign as closely interrelated. And, guess what, they actually aren’t. Or rather, they are, but they aren’t any more closely related than anything else. Why is the setting any more important to the campaign or the adventure path than it is to any individual adventure? Or any given scene? The answer is: it really isn’t. Setting is just another story element, like character, plot, tension, climax, denoument, etc.

Here’s the thing: as I’ve already established, you can run adventures without running a campaign. Basically, every week, you just run a one-shot with new characters. You don’t even have to use the same game system. Now, if you keep the same characters and system and the characters gain levels and progress, you’re running an accidental campaign. It’s technically a campaign, but you didn’t BUILD a campaign. It just happened because you kept running adventures for the same characters. And that’s a valid – and FUN – way to play Dungeons & Dragons. Lots of people play like that. It’s cool.

But, you CAN’T run adventures without a setting. There is ALWAYS a world that serves as the backdrop for your games. It might not be very rich or well-detailed – and, hell, it might not NEED to be – but it’s always there. You might not have given it a lot of deliberate thought – and, hell, you might not have HAD to – but it’s still there. The setting is there from the first description of the first scene. In fact, it’s there from the moment character generation starts.

But somewhere along the way, we got it into our heads that setting design is high-level design that is the other side of the same coin as campaign design. When you design a campaign, you must also build a world. You can’t do one without the other. And, yeah, to some extent, that is true: a campaign has to take place in a world. But so does an adventure. And no one says when you build an adventure, you must also build a world. And when I say build, I also mean steal… I mean “use another setting.”

Now, I’m not saying that world-building can’t or shouldn’t be high-level design. It can be. It doesn’t have to be. But what I’m saying is we need to divorce the idea of setting-building from the idea of campaign-building. They are utterly and completely separate things with very different issues. And while they do relate to each other, they only relate to each other in the same way that all of the various narrative elements relate to each other.

Settings have as much to do with campaigns as adventures and non-player characters have to do with each. Yes, the designs inform each other and yes, they relate to each other, but they are not inextricably tied together. Character design is not adventure design. Setting design is not campaign design. You can design settings without campaigns, campaigns without settings, characters without adventures, and adventures without characters.

And to make that point utterly clear, THIS series about campaign and adventure path building? This series will NOT discuss settings and world-building. I’m creating a new category for world-building and settings. And I’m going to alternate between world-building and campaign creation articles. Yes, ideas will cross over. But ideas also cross over between adventure building and world-building and NPC creation and campaign creation.

So, as far as the Angrycan church is concerned, we’re done here. Because, right now, we have nothing to say about settings. But we will soon.

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37 thoughts on “Campaigns, Settings, and the Angry-can Church

  1. I always saw this sort of “era” of “geek culture” being somehow accepted into mainstream like a missed opportunity for tabletop RPG. I mean, if you look at how videogames, comics and geek related movies grew, tabletop gaming paled in comparison. If anything, they didn’t seem to grow at all. Every poll of age demographic I’ve seen shows a lot more gamers on the 30-40s or older age spectrum than anything else, and there are barely new teenagers, though I admit I haven’t seen that many. What I’m saying is that it seems like tabletops RPGs actually seem to shrink comparing to videogames. I suspect that lack of innovation you mentioned on another articles has a lot to do with that problem. Companies pandering to the same ageing fan base as opposed to bring new people.

    Anyway digression aside, your original definitions look a lot like the ones I’ve been using for years. Adventure, Arc, Campaign and Setting. Except that I always accepted Campaign as a flexible definition as to whether it needed and overarching story or not. But I can accept your new Angrycan(lol) definitions just fine, as long as they are useful, I’m all for it.

    BTW I hope this doesn’t mean the Adventures series are over, I’d still love that Mystery series articles. Please? 🙂

    • I think another big factor in this is this big divide in playership between editions. There are a huge number of people who still play 3rd and 3.5 and pathfinder. They didn’t let go. I am myself hypocritical, because I still play 4e. But finding 4e books is fairly cheap, I don’t want to learn 5e’s rules et yet (however easy it may be or not be), …I don’t know; a third thing that I’ve already forgotten.

      I have a coworker who just moved into town who’s interested in our group. And he’s only ever played 2e. JUST 2e. Nothing else. Because that’s what his dad plays. And has always played. And refuses to play anything else. “Because it’s the best”. Whilst admitting to never having tried the other editions.

      It’s ridiculous.

    • There’s no way tabletop games aren’t growing, at least overall (although it does ebb and flow quite a bit and we’re definitely in an ebb right now). Tabletop books (not just D&D either) are on bookstore shelves, and there’s no way that one could sell hardcover books for 50$ even back in the days of Third Edition D&D. The huge rise of videogames has improved tabletop RPG visibility overall, even if video games are surging massively in popularity.

      Also the fact that tabletop RPG properties are considered valuable enough that large game companies are willing to invest in them suggests that the market is pretty healthy.

      Also I’m not sure if companies are really pandering that much. The last three editions of D&D have innovated pretty heavily on the game, and none really resemble the “classic” style of play present in oD&D. Most other new games are trying something new (usually in pretty bad ways that I dislike). Maybe it’s pandering to have super-fluff “story games” now? I dunno.

      • It’s a matter of scale. Right now, there are far more people listening to Beethoven’s music than even listened to him when he was alive. Thanks to audio recording technology, you can listen to his 5th Symphony more times in a single day than anyone in Beethoven’s time was likely to hear it in their lifetime. Classical music is less than 3% of the global market share for music sales, and Beethoven’s only a piece of that, and classical concerts do not have the attendance figures of rock concerts or raves. But because there’s so many more people around nowadays than 250 years ago, and because it’s so much easier to listen to and own music, Beethoven’s still more popular today than in his own time, even though the vast majority of people do not listen to him.

        Likewise, there are more people around than 40 years ago. Thanks to the internet, it’s easier to distribute RPG materials, to find other players, to even play RPGs online, to finally show people what a game of D&D can actually look like instead of incomplete definitions like “it’s a game board without a board; it’s improv theatre with dice; it’s Risk with acting”. But it’s always going to remain a niche hobby or form of entertainment compared to passive pursuits like television and movies, or pursuits like video games where all the heavy-lifting of systems and narration is done by the hardware and software. A game where you have to develop some level of system mastery and make a time commitment to hang out with a half-dozen people on a regular basis is never going to have as much appeal as the game you can play without much thought in your own bedroom while in your underwear eating Cheetos.

        • Furthermore, there’s evidence that it isn’t growing as fast as other geeky-type hobbies. Consider, for example, that video games and D&D have both been around for about the same length of time. Video games are now the biggest entertainment industry in the united states. Once they were the sorts of things that geeks did in their basements. When I was a kid, even after I got my first Nintendo Entertainment System, lots of people didn’t have one. Or play video games. It was treated with the same sort “oh, that’s for geeks” as gaming was. Mike Mearls said as much on Twitter before the release of 5th Edition. He said that all of the various geeky hobbies: board games, comic books, video games, superheroes, all that crap had seen a huge explosion in popularity, but D&D has maintained the same steady rate of growth across the editions. So, yes, the hobby is growing, but given the number of potential gamers out there, it’s growing slowly. In fact, as a share of the market of geekdom, it’s actually shrinking. RPGs are becoming MORE niche.

          • Part of that is probably because it is necessarily a group activity. And getting a group together is hard. Video games can be either and if you want a group you can just drop into one of the online connections and, boom, instant group play. There’s nothing like that with D&D until we get the whole 3D avatar thing with a DM that can conjure challenges on the fly (if that will ever happen).

            So I think its growth is simply curtailed by the play requirements it imposes. And DM is a black art (at until Angry came around to break it down for us 🙂 )

          • So are board games.

            And the growth differences are, as far as anyone is willing to admit, pretty vast. And frankly, the growth differences are actually very easy to see if you know where to look for information. The percentage of the geek community that belongs to the gaming appears to be shrinking even as both communities grow. And several companies – I know for a fact – are concerned about it.

          • True – but the commitment required to play a board game is lower. But perhaps there’s also a layer of abstraction that comes into play (no pun intended) with board games? TTRPGs require more free thinking and improvisation that perhaps starts to trigger performance anxiety on behalf of many potential players?

    • To be fair to us, while super hero movies have become a big deal, that has had only a small impact on comic sales. It’s there, but comics are not suddenly a big deal: super heroes are. With the rights to a D&D movie now in the hands of a real movie studio, there’s a chance that Dungeons & Dragons might get some of that treatment in the future, but don’t expect it to increase the attendance at tables all that much.

  2. I would pay money for an organizational worksheet system for campaigns, adventure paths, adventures, & encounters designed with your definitions in mind.

  3. I can see how someone might tie setting and adventure/story together tighter than they need to be conceptually. And certainly setting doesn’t need to be fleshed out much more than “pre-industrial revolution with magic and goblins” before beginning a campaign.

    But it still seems to me that you are giving setting design a bit short shrift (what’s a shrift, anyway?). Because if one is sitting down to think through an intentionally designed adventure arc, I would think the plot, tone, pacing, and so on are going to go a long way to informing the world building process. If you want a fast paced mystery campaign featuring a shadowy conspiracy, what does that say about the world? etc.
    I think you could get some interesting discussion out of such a process.

  4. I’m just amazed that Angry made multiple references to LOTR without deliberately mixing geek metaphors. Does that mean the article was rushed, or that you actually care about Tolkien?

    • There were a couple of articles where he made Dongor and Norahn jokes(I think it was the social interaction one). Also Darklordsaurus about a dinosaur on Middle Earth. So no. Even Tolkien can’t escape lol.

  5. I like this topic! I’ve been running games in a home made setting for years. It centres on a couple of city-states vying for control of resources and trade in a harsh and isolated northern realm, on the fringes of an empire that’s already fallen (but refuses to admit it). And it’s neat because while the local sites obviously have names, I put no work into fleshing out the greater setting or ‘world’ around the region… A couple of the characters are from out of the area, so we’ve learned which direction they hail from, and what kind of societies they come from… But nothing explicit besides a couple name-places… the PCs know the general direction of the base of power for the aforementioned fallen empire, but nothing much about it beyond there (“Old Abner is south, over the mountains, across the tundra”). The continent, and the world for that matter, aren’t even named… I’ve found that this all creates a wonderfully archaic atmosphere, where the locations the PCs act in are truly the entirety of their reality, and very seldomly do people talk of the greater ‘world’ beyond the region… it’s just too isolated to receive much information like that. It all makes it feel like the cities in the area really are little pockets of civilization, bulwarks against a vast and mysterious world beyond. I would also like to sheepishly add that not all of us who play the Old Games are clinging desperately to the past or some idealized youth haha (never go back, youth sucks!). The Rules Cyclopedia campaign I run started for no other reason than the fact that we had never actually played old-school d&d, even tho it came up all the time in discussions. So we visited a used book store, rolled up characters, and set off on what ended up being probably the best campaign that I’ve ever had the pleasure to run. For us, the simple Old Games were actually something new, and a break from newer, flashier games in which everyone seemed to be a epic hero. I definitely see what your saying though… sometimes I think I could just throw out half of the Rules Cyclopedia by just using the 5e advantage/disadvantage rules . Thanks for the article Angry! Awesome as always!

  6. Oddly, I think I basically agree with the whole article. This usually doesn’t happen. 😉

    I especially agree with the fact that anyone who calls a world (aka “setting”) a Campaign is definitively wrong.

  7. I’ve got one or two points to make:

    The first is a bit of a joke, but might be an interesting idea. It’s the idea of Theseus’ Campaign. You see, there’s this story about the Ship of Theseus, which the Athenians are supposed to have preserved by always replacing broken planks with new ones. The question is this: is the ship still Theseus’ when all the planks have been replaced? Now imagine that someone else collected all the old, broken planks and rebuilt them into the original shape of the ship. Who has Theseus’ ship?

    So how does this relate to the definition of a campaign here? Well, imagine that, I, as DM, am running a campaign. Characters die fairly often, and so players are introducing new characters fairly frequently. All of the sessions and adventures are linked together with a common world, and perhaps a common over-arching goal (as per the adventure path). The new characters just inherit the aim of the group as a whole. Soon, the whole group will be replaced? Is this still the same campaign? What if, every time a character dies, the player is replaced as well? What if, at some point, a new DM also takes over? Perhaps that’s staring at the problem for too long, but hey, it’s what I immediately thought of when reading the article.

    The second point is about the relationship of campaign and setting, and is an expansion of your suggestion that campaigns and settings can, but don’t have to be intertwined. A good example of a campaign-type that is essentially so entirely based on setting that it can’t be divorced from it is the sandbox, particularly one in the style of the West Marches. In such a campaign, the DM designs a world only, and asks the players, perhaps with the prompts of various goals or quests to help them, to venture forth and discover the locations the DM has created for them. Clearly, it is impossible to run such a campaign without building a setting for the campaign to be played in.

    • Regarding your last point, while a good setting is usually integral to a good campaign (Sets up a world where actions can have broader consequences beyond the immediate adventure), it’s still possible to distinguish the two. I really like that angry actually pulls from basic literary theory, because while I found it pretty damn useless back in high school when I learned it, it’s certainly helped my campaigns.

    • Regarding your first point, I’m currently running a game with exactly that scenario. There is a single PC from the first session still in the party, and I took over DM responsibilities after about 10 sessions.

      It’s most definitely still the campaign, though, because we’ve been operating under a tightly controlled plot arc (PotA, mores the pity), so have had a single overarching goal the entire time.

      Mind you this is very much an example where the characters as dolls are distinct from the players experiencing the story. The characters are merely a series of posturings and rules interfaces with which the players advance the story. Not great, but not horrible, either.

  8. I like the idea of this new series, but I’m also hoping Megadungeon progress doesn’t suffer because of it?! We need a Megadungeon fix ASAP!!

  9. Even in 5e d&d I feel a little pandering going on, at least in relation to od&d, which I currently run. I feel that they’ve gone a little overboard with PC powers and abilities, to the point that players are spoiled with like, 3 new abilities per level. Like most RPGs, it’s now geared towards making ‘super-hero’ PCs, and has lost that feeling of a few regular schmucks setting out into the world. Now everyone is a legend right at level 1. I love 5e by the way, but I feel most games are leaning towards favouring the players to make them feel better, d&d included.

  10. It hadn’t occurred to me that the word “campaign” entered through wargaming.
    My own experience with the word comes from computer strategy games (mostly Warcraft and Starcraft), where it referred to an individual faction’s story arc within each individual game or expansion, which I suppose would qualify as a Adventure Path using the definitions in this article?

    Just to make sure I understand your terminology, I will use the Star Trek analogy that you seem to be fond of.

    The Star Trek universe = Setting

    Next Gen / Voyager / DS9 / etc. = Campaigns

    Seasons / Story Arcs = Adventure Paths

    Episodes = Adventures

    The comparison I am least sure about is Season = Adventure Path, but I am fairly confident about the others.
    Please correct me if I have misunderstood.

    • When I read this article, the Star Trek analogy jumped into my head as well. I would not say Seasons are Adventure Paths, though. Most episodes in a season are unrelated. Maybe, you can consider the season finales, which span multiple episodes, as an adventure path. But when you look at the definition of adventure, (incite to action) these seem more like long adventures instead. There is no new “incite to action” phase on a “To be continued …” episode.
      I think the closest you could come to Adventure Paths are recurring elements, usually villains. For instance, the Borg would be an adventure path, consisting of:
      – Introduction to the Borg
      – Borg attack the enterprise and kidnap Picard
      – Borg meet Hugh and send him back to the collective
      – Borg faction splits off under Lore
      – Borg Queen travels back in time
      Those are all individual adventures that lead to a final confrontation with the Borg Queen. (at least until brought up under a different campaign)

      • Yeah, I wasn’t terribly confident with the Season comparison.
        That comparison might work better for some shows than others.
        Off the top of my head, the Avatar series spring to mind.

        Aang and Korra are different Campaigns.
        [ Insert joke about the Avatars being different characters played by the same Player ]

        Each Season (“Book”) could be an Adventure Path, as they do have overarching stories leading mostly toward a shared resolution (for Aang, it was learning that season’s element), despite all the non-plot related shenanigans they got into on the way.

          • See, I vaguely remembered it, hence why I chose that comparison, but I didn’t remember that he outright spelled it out so clearly in the article that you linked.

            Thanks for reminding me. 🙂

    • A more conveniently structured analogy might be Star Wars.

      Each Trilogy is a Campaign, so they’re currently part-way through their third major Campaign in the same Setting.

      Each Movie is an Adventure Path, each containing multiple Adventures as the Minor Plots work their way up to the Movie’s climax.

      Rebel One was a standalone Adventure Path, related to the original Campaign but not strictly part of it.

      The Books and Games are like additional Adventure Paths (or one-shot Adventures for short-stories) that aren’t part of the main Campaigns but are still in the same Setting.
      I’m not an expert on the Books or Games, but a quick google search turns up, respectively, the Aftermath Trilogy and the Jedi Knight Series, which could easily qualify as Campaigns.

      Also there’s Rebels, which, being a TV Series, would be a Campaign and presumably have the same sub-structure as a Star Trek series.

      …This is fun. 🙂

  11. In a couple of instances, I’ve started new campaigns as spinoffs of the previous campaign. In those cases I consider them separate campaigns, because while there is continuity in terms of the setting and the progress of the archvillain’s plot, each time was a completely different set of PCs in a different country.

  12. One thing I think is useful to point out here is that the terms used above are really Platonic ideals. The real world is messier, but that in no way interferes with the intrinsic truths about the relations of the things.

  13. I’m pretty well on board with Angry’s definitions. That’s how I understood the terms. Whenever I saw a D&D book with “Campaign Setting” in its description, I’ve always thought of it as “A setting in which you can create a campaign.” That’s why they give you adventure hooks relating to people and places, but not full adventures.

  14. Your definition of continuity reminds me of the Going Concern Principle in accounting… That article kind of blew my mind.

  15. Possibly the best example of the “setting =/= campaign” principle comes from Star Wars. The Star Wars galaxy, as a setting, is incredibly malleable: not only are there a virtually infinite number of planets and species and cultures and even forms of magic, but the setting supports totally different themes at different times (and for these purposes I’m including “Legacies” material). Even “good vs. evil” cannot be assumed across all Star Wars media. The FFG Star Wars games kind of highlight this, since they released three different (though significantly overlapping) sets of game rules in the same setting, which focus on different aspects of that setting. The setting of Star Wars does not in any way determine what a campaign is about, or even necessarily what things will look like (ships and blasters are usually involved, but there are stories without them).

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