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.”
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.