The Italian Campaign: On Shape and Glue

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Let me tell you something that happened a few years ago. I had these friends. Yes, I had friends. They were married. To each other. Just to be totally clear. I won’t say who they were. You don’t know them anyway. It doesn’t matter.

The point is, for a while, I only knew them as casual acquaintances and we only occasionally interacted in real life. Most of our interactions were confined to the internet. And when I did interact with them in real life, I interacted with them mostly separately. But then, they gradually started to bring me into their mutual circle of friends. And when I started spending time with the two of them together, and with their other friends, holy f$&% I had to get out.

The two of them were extremely competitive. But one was more competitive. Cutthroat. And snarky and mean. The other was less competitive, but he was obnoxious. Constantly making stupid jokes and never taking anything seriously. They spent all their time cutting each other down. Their other friends were all terribly competitive too. And they all had their own personality mismatches. But all of the interactions were dominated by the married couple and their sniping and snarking and constant annoyances with each other.

I will never understand why certain people stay together – platonically and romantically. Maybe it’s my lack of basic human emotions. Or maybe it’s just my unwillingness to put up with unnecessary bulls$&% that I am not, myself, creating for sheer s$&%s and giggles. Thing is, we all know people like that. Friends and couples whose relationship is incomprehensible. It happens. Because people are irrational, emotional animals who like to pretend they possess reason. Except me.

Now, I know you’re wondering why I’m bringing this up. And, moreover, I know that you’re wondering just which of my particular ongoing topics I’m talking about this week. It’s a toss-up, lately, isn’t it? Well, let me answer the second question first: I’m talking about campaigns and settings. And the reason I’m why I’m bringing that up is because we’re starting with the most fundamental thing to know about campaigns and adventure paths and ongoing games: WHY CAMPAIGNS? WHY ADVENTURE PATHS? WHY ONGOING GAMES?

See, when you get down to it, a campaign has one purpose that trumps all others, one thing it HAS TO do if you want a good game. And that one thing is inextricably tied to the very concepts of persistent games, fiction, the metagame, and human interaction. And those things all swirl around the structure of the campaign. So let’s dive in.

Defining Campaigns… AGAIN!

In the last article in this series, the one in which I compared myself to the f$&%ing Pope, I explained that a campaign is just a series of ongoing adventures with any sort of continuity at all. Basically, it’s a running game wherein each adventure connects to the other adventures in some narrative way. Usually, it’s because the adventures happen to basically the same group of people in basically the same setting. Now, I kept the definition purposely a little vague because people have a problem with definitions. And I had some comments to that effect on that article and the previous article where I defined absolutely everything. Someone even brought up that famous thought experiment about the Greek ship. It’s called Theseus’ Paradox.

Let’s say you have a ship, right? And gradually, over the years, you replace each and every board and rope and sail and handspike and rigging and belaying pin and anchor and fo’c’sle and whatever other things ships have. One day, every single part has been replaced. Do you still own the same ship? Or is it a completely different ship from the one you had.

And let’s say that as you’ve replaced every part, I’ve collected every discarded thing you’ve replaced. And from all those masts and heads and poop decks, I built a ship of my own. Can I now say I own your ship? Is the ship your ship? Or is it a different ship?

Well, look, that’s a fun philosophical puzzle. And it led to some people bringing up the question of “if every player’s character dies and is replaced over the course of the campaign, and the setting gradually moves from one world to another, and blah blah blah Ship of Theseus.” And then other people jumped in with “what if you end the game and then start a new game in the same world like ten years later?”

Here’s my answer is “don’t be a f$&%ing dumba%&, it’s just a f$&%ing game about orcs and elves and stuff and these are just concepts that will help you run it well. This is just a framework for understanding. If you’re so wrapped up in applying rules and definitions that you can’t make some common-sense judgment calls of your own, you’re not a f$&%ing GM!”

And that last bit is actually why questions like that piss me off. The reason why D&D is run by a human and not by a computer is because human beings can improvise, adapt, and make judgment calls in unforeseen and messy situations. They can use their experiences, intelligence, and common sense to make things work. They can understand the spirit of an idea instead of the letter of the rules. That’s also why GMs who get bent out of f$%&ing shape about the “Rules as Written” should be beaten to death with their own screens and then have all of their dice crammed down their throat before they are unceremoniously dumped in Lake Geneva to be strained through the digestive tracts of a thousand tiny fish.

Anyway, the point is a campaign is just any sort of persistent game in which the group can look and say “yeah, we’re all still playing the same game and we haven’t started a new game.” D&D isn’t philosophy and it won’t reveal any universal truths. It’s just a f$&%ing game. Holy mother of f$&%.

The Shape and the Glue

Now, even though a campaign is just a persistent game and the definition is fuzzy and messy and based on vague ideas about what constitutes a continuity, that doesn’t mean that every ongoing, persistent game is a campaign. Or rather, that doesn’t mean every game is a good campaign. Just like adventures have structures that shape the individual stories, campaigns have structures too. And those structures play a very important role. And this is where we get to that important thing I mentioned above.

Every campaign – whether it is planned or not – defines precisely two things. First, it defines the relationships between adventures. Second, it provides a unifying factor for the characters. I like to think of those things as the Shape of the campaign and the Glue of the campaign.

Now, here’s where things get tricky: we’re pretty much used to the idea that adventures are deliberate things. Either you run an adventure that someone else wrote and published, or you design and run your own adventure. Even if you improvise an adventure, you’re still doing things deliberately. Improvisation is not working without a plan, remember. It’s just planning and doing at the same time. Unless, of course, you run one of those s$&%y “dicking around adventures” where the players just run around doing whatever they want and you just make up random wacky s$&% in response. Session after stupid-a$& session. And if you do that, get off my site. You don’t give a f$&% about your art, so you don’t belong here. You’re making those of us who are actually good at this look bad.

Campaigns, though? Campaigns are different. Or rather, they seem different. I mean, sure, if you’re running an ADVENTURE PATH campaign or even a SERIES OF ADVENTURE PATHS, that’s deliberate. You plan that s$&%. But let’s say you don’t really have any grand plan for the campaign. The characters are just having a different adventure every week as they wander around the world doing adventure things. This week, they save a village from goblins. Next week, they are in a different village fixing a plague. Next month, they are delving through a tomb looking for lost treasure. After that, they are uncovering an evil plan by the king to murder a just cult leader. Or whatever. You didn’t plan any of that, so what’s all this bulls$&% about Shape and Glue and Structure?

Well, guess what? Your game WILL have a Shape. Linear is a Shape. Blobby and amorphous is a Shape. Unformed is a Shape. Well, sort of. YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN! All campaigns have a Shape. And if you don’t plan one, one WILL emerge.

Now, the Glue part is a little bit trickier. Every campaign NEEDS a Glue. If you don’t plan one, one MIGHT emerge. But it also MIGHT NOT. And THAT is the part that GMs always f$&%ing forget. And THAT is the one that will KILL your campaign. Kill it DEAD.

The Italian Campaign

The Shape of the campaign describes how the adventures relate to each other. If you want to sound a little more technical, by the way, you can call it the campaign’s Continuity. Personally, I like Shape. Now, if you really want to get picky, there’s only a few basic shapes that a campaign can take. Honestly, you could break them down to two if you want to be as precise as possible. But precision isn’t always as helpful as idiots on the Internet think it is (see the Ship of Theseus bulls$&% above).

Me? I like to break things down into four basic shapes with two special designations. And I call my model the Italian model because my shapes are Noodle, Spaghetti, Sausage, and Meatballs.

First, the simplest type of campaign is the Plate of Meatballs campaign. Each adventure is a meatball. And the meatballs are all just piled on the plate. You eat each meatball in turn. Done and done and done. In terms of the game, that’s the campaign in which the adventures really don’t have many connections to each other. Each one stands on its own as its own story. You could drop a meatball or throw it away and you’d still have your dinner. That doesn’t mean, by the way, that adventures don’t have any connections at all. See, characters – the players’ characters and the non-player characters – can recur from meatball to meatball. And because the game is persistent, those characters remember the things that happened to them. So, over time, some connections are bound to emerge. But, in general, if a player can miss an adventure and jump right back in without having to have the missed adventure explained in detail, it’s probably a Plate of Meatballs campaign.

Second, the second simplest type of campaign is the Noodle campaign. This campaign is like a single strand of spaghetti or fettucine or vermicelli. It’s a long, sinuous, single noodle. And you start at one end and slurp it all up. These are the campaigns that people generally think of as adventure paths. There is a single, overarching story with a defined goal. Each adventure is like a slurp of the noodle, advancing the game slowly toward the overarching goal. Of course, each adventure also has its own motivations, goals, and structure, but they are still just slurps on one, long noodle.
Now, those are the two most basic kinds of campaigns. The Noodle Campaign and the Plate of Meatballs Campaign. But there are two more complicated shapes that campaigns can take.

First, there’s the Sausage campaign. Now, when I talk about sausage, I’m talking about fat pork sausage links. Not that long, skinny Italian sausage that’s extruded into a spiral. The Sausage campaign is like a chain of Sausage Links. You take a sausage off the chain, cut it and eat it from one end to the other. And then you take another and another and another. Those campaigns are campaigns which are made up of several adventure paths in succession. Each sausage is an adventure path and each bite of the sausage is an adventure. Every adventure has its own motives, resolution, and structure. Each adventure path has an overarching goal. But, unlike the Noodle Campaign, after you finish one sausage, there’s another one. A new adventure path with a new overarching goal. Now, what makes this metaphor really apt and brilliant and delicious is that Sausage Campaigns can be served up in two different ways. You can serve the sausages while they are still linked together OR you can cut the sausages apart and plate them up. What does THAT mean? Well, it means that the adventure paths that make up the campaign (the individual sausages) might be tied together, with each one building on the one before it, and they might even have a grand unifying goal that each adventure path goal advances. Or the individual adventure paths might be completely unrelated to each other. In that second case, new players and new characters could be easily introduced at the start of a new sausage… I mean, a new adventure path… and they wouldn’t have to know too much about what came before.

Second, there’s the Plate of Spaghetti campaign. A Plate of Spaghetti campaign is a campaign made of up of several individual Noodles – that is to say, adventure paths – but they are all piled together in a big mound on your plate. And smothered in delicious meat sauce. Because real sauce has chunks in it, damn it.

I really need to stop writing these things when I’m hungry.

The point is, with a Plate of Spaghetti campaign, with every individual forkful, you might be getting a bit of this Noodle or that Noodle. For this analogy to work, you have to imagine you cut up your spaghetti, but that’s neither here nor there. Oh, wait. No, imagine that you’re not a rude jerk and you bite off the noodles rather than slurping and slurping and slurping. So, in one bite, you might get a bit of the first noodle. Then, the next bite, you might get a bit of a different noodle. Then the first noodle again. Then a third noodle. I may be overthinking this. I need to focus.

Plate of Spaghetti campaigns are campaigns that have several different adventure paths interwoven with each other. There are several different overarching goals that tie different adventures together, and each individual adventure advances one (or two or several) of those goals. The best example is the campaign in which each player has defined a personal, long-term goal. Each of those goals can be considered an adventure path. Each adventure gives one or two of the PCs a chance to advance their goals.

Now, to be honest, the Plate of Spaghetti and Sausage campaigns are just different ways of connecting several adventure paths, several Noodles. But they are common enough approaches to deserve their own discussion and putting each together requires a slightly different approach. But things can also be more complicated. And there’s also another important factor that comes into the shape of the campaign.

The Tour of Italy

Look, I love Italian food. But I don’t put on airs. Sure, I love a good, home-cooked Italian meal, but I also have no problem with sauce in a jar (as long as it has chunks) and I’ve never actually made my own pasta from scratch. And I’m also totally fine with the Olive Garden. In fact, I LOVE Olive Garden. What’s it to you?

Olive Garden, like many restaurants, offers a combination dish for indecisive people and people who like a little of everything. It’s called the Tour of Italy. You get a couple of different meats and pastas. And that’s actually very relevant to the discussion about campaigns. At least, it is if you’re using Italian food as your metaphor. Because campaigns can actually also take on the form of a combination plate.

For example, you can have a Spaghetti and Meatballs campaign. That’s a campaign with multiple interwoven adventure paths and ALSO a bunch of standalone adventures. In some adventures, you take a bite of the spaghetti and advance one or two of the overarching goals. In others, you just eat a meatball. And that’s just one example. You can pretty much mix and match the types.

If you have one major adventure path (or series) and a bunch of interwoven minor adventure paths, you might have a Sausage and Spaghetti game. Some adventures advance the big, major adventure path series. Others take a bite of the spaghetti and advance some of the lesser paths. You might also think of that as Spaghetti with a side of Noodle. And that’s where the food metaphor breaks down a little. WHO would order that? Or you can throw some Meatballs in with your Spaghetti and your Sausage.

Not only can your campaign be a Tour of Italy Combination Plate, you can also change plates in the middle of the campaign. For example, you might be enjoying a nice Plate of Meatballs and then, suddenly, you decide to help yourself to a yummy Noodle. Or some Sausage. Or a heap of Spaghetti. In campaigns like that, the unrelated adventures might give way to an overarching goal (or goals) that you decide to introduce or that just emerges from gameplay. Or, as you eat your way through the Spaghetti, you might find yourself down to just one Noodle. Or you might finish the Spaghetti and discover there’s a bunch of Meatballs under there.

See, these shapes are general ways of looking at campaigns (and each has its own special way of planning), but they aren’t the only ways to enjoy a campaign. You can mix and match and change it up. And that brings us around to…

Meal Planning vs. Just Ordering Out

Sometimes, you plan your meals in advance. You come home from work knowing what you’re going to cook or what restaurant you’re going to. It’s a deliberate choice. But sometimes, you come home from work and you have no idea what you want to eat. You don’t feel like cooking. There’s nothing in the apartment. So, you just order out from some random place.

Campaigns are a lot like that too. You can make a conscious, deliberate choice at the start of your campaign about the shape it’s going to take. And honestly, to run anything other than a Plate of Meatballs, you really do need to make a deliberate choice AT SOME POINT. If you don’t make any deliberate choice about your campaign, you’re going to be running a Plate of Meatballs. And that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with that. Meatballs are delicious.

The thing is, though, that a campaign’s Shape can change anytime. Either deliberately or completely by accident. As you’re running your Plate of Meatballs campaign, perfectly happy, for example, the players might fail to bring down a particularly villainous entomologist necromancer, but the adventure might have been so much fun that you turn the black bug mage into a recurring villain. Soon thereafter, you decide he has a master plan for unleashing a plague of undead evil weevils over the entire world. His machinations grow into a complex adventure path. And suddenly, you’ve added a side of Noodle to your Meatballs without making a deliberate choice to reshape the campaign.

Likewise, you might also be happily running your Meatballs campaign. But the players each start adopting little goals of their own. You run a few plots to focus on their goals. And then those goals start to become the focus of the game. You’ve thrown out your Meatballs and dished up a Plate of Spaghetti.

Unlike an adventure, which really does need a goal from the outset, a campaign can develop goals anytime. Deliberately or accidentally. And that’s pretty cool. And, honestly, it happens a lot. You can even make it happen on purpose. Well, sort of. You can plan for it. When the game first starts, you can run unrelated adventures, Plate of Meatballs style. But, you’ve also got a plot in the background, ready to jump out and turn into a Noodle or the first Sausage Link. And there’s some damned good reasons to do just that. Which we’ll be talking about in the future.

But campaigns aren’t just about shape.

The Glue that Bonds

Remember how I said this article was about the single most function that a campaign MUST serve? The one without which your game is doomed? Well, it isn’t that shape bulls$&%. Knowing the shape of the campaign is a useful planning tool. And deliberately choosing a good shape or building toward a good shape definitely improves your odds of running a successful campaign. But the shape is still totally optional. If you don’t pick a shape, one will emerge, even if that shape is just a pile of Meatballs.

No, the thing that a campaign MUST do – and I don’t care who tells you otherwise because you’re going to have people telling you how wrong I am – the thing a campaign MUST provide is glue. It must somehow tie the group together. The characters NEED a reason to adventure together. And to STICK together. You CANNOT allow your campaign to degenerate into one of those relationships like I described above. The one where no one can understand how and why they stay together.

You CANNOT run a game for a group of adventurers that should split up.

Realism vs. Fiction

They say that truth is stranger than fiction. And that is definitely true. See, in truth, people are weird. They are crazy and irrational and unpredictable. And even when people do have reasons for doing the crazy, irrational things they do, we don’t always know what those reasons are. And, Hell, there’s no guarantee that any of those reasons will actually make sense. People are just f$&%ed up.

So, you might say it’s totally realistic to have a group of adventurers who should never be traveling together. Adventurers who don’t trust each other. Adventurers who betray each other. Adventurers who just hate each other. Adventurers who have fundamentally different ethics, morals, beliefs, or goals. But the problem is, that makes for a terrible story.

See, the thing about fictional stories is that they make sense. We expect them to make sense. In fact, that’s part of the great fantasy of storytelling. It’s terrifying to imagine that we live in a world filled with random, nonsensical, and incomprehensible things. It makes us feel like we’re not in control. And really, we’re not. We could be wiped out tomorrow by a meteor we never saw coming. We could get a strange disease. Or get hit by a truck. Every day is a toss of the dice.

Telling stories – whether they are accounts of things that happened to us or completely made up – storytelling provides us with two essential psychological things. First, it lets us analyze situations and look for patterns and see if we can’t understand things better. Second, it lets us imagine that we don’t live in a crazy, random, unpredictable world in which we are mostly powerless. And that’s why stories make sense. They have to make sense. We NEED them to make sense. We hold our fiction to a higher standard than we hold real life.

If a story stops making sense, we get pulled out of the story. Our emotional engagement drops. Whether it’s spotting a plot hole or simply being baffled by a sudden development in the story that comes out of nowhere and is never explained, when something disrupts the sense of the story, it disrupts our interest.

Trapped in the Metagame

Now, in a role-playing game, it’s easy to say that if the characters – and we’re talking about the characters here – if the characters should split up, they can split up. If Alice betrays Bob one too many times, Bob and Carol and Dave can kick Alice’s character out of the group. Or simply go their own way. Or Bob can. But, I’m going to let you in on a little secret: THAT NEVER HAPPENS. Unless the players themselves split up, D&D parties DO NOT split up. They don’t. In fact, it never even occurs to most players that it can happen.


Because it’s part of something called the Metagame. I’ve discussed the Metagame before, usually while screaming at dumba$&es for using the phrase wrong. The Metagame is all of the underlying structures and unwritten rules and social contracts and codes and everything else that make D&D work. You won’t find them in any rulebook. But they are there nonetheless. And one of the rules of the D&D Metagame is that it’s about a party of adventurers having adventures together. The game goes where the party goes. And if the party breaks up – not just splits up, but actually breaks up – the game is broken too. And so, players will almost NEVER consider having their character leave the party.

And that creates a very interesting situation. When you have a party of heroes whose relationships are completely borked beyond repair, the logic of the fiction demands they break up. But the Metagame says they can’t. And so you have a group of characters working together and risking their lives together who absolutely should not be together.

Borked Relationships and Broken Games

So, what IS a borked relationship? And how bad does a relationship have to be before it becomes borked? Well, the problem is, a relationship doesn’t have to be that borked to break the game. All it really takes is that the party struggles to work together. That can be due to internal strife, hatred, or betrayal. It can be down to moral or ethical disagreements. Or it can be down to nothing more than different approaches to solving problems. Hell, it can even be down to something as simple as not having a common goal.

Imagine for example that you’ve got Alice the Barbarian and Bob the Wizard. Alice is impulsive, she prefers action, and she uses violence to solve her problems. She likes to kick in doors, kick a$&es, and take names. She hates talking, she hates planning, she hates deliberating. Now, Bob is careful and smart. He likes to be well prepared. He’s a wizard, after all. He has the perfect spell for every situation as long as he has information and time to plan. You can already see the conflict. Alice and Bob have a hard time working together. And as the game goes on, they spend more and more time arguing and yelling at each other. What happens then is that the game gets bogged down with Alice and Bob’s arguments. Everyone else ends up either taking sides or sitting around awkwardly waiting for the married couple to reach yet another sullen, resentful compromise.

Now, sometimes these are player conflicts. And then you have a whole other problem. But many of these conflicts occur at the character level. For example, imagine that Carol the Paladin is, well, a paladin. And Dave the Rogue is a rogue. Dave steals s$&%. A lot. Not even from his own party. He’s just amoral as f$&% and rips off everyone. He has no respect for life and property. And Carol is the complete opposite. Now, sure, that might START as an interesting conflict, but as the game goes on, it gets boring. And it starts to hog the spotlight. And divide the party.

Whatever the conflict – assuming it’s on the character level – one day, someone is going to start wondering why Alice doesn’t strike off on her own. Or why Carol and Dave don’t part ways. Or kill each other. And if the game doesn’t have an answer, everything falls apart. Because they are going to stay together anyway. That’s the way the metagame works.

Drawn Together, Stuck Together

Ultimately, the characters are stuck together by the assumptions of the game. And they must learn how to work together. Normally, this “learning how to work together” thing is covered by character growth. The buddy cops learn to work together and value each other’s skills. Right? But the characters in RPGs don’t tend to grow or change. Players don’t tend to build or follow character arcs. They just start playing the character they want to play and keep right on playing it. And there’s not much you can do about it as a GM.

Instead, you need to build an in-game reason for the characters to be stuck together. One that allows the party to stick together, despite any conflicts. And then, using other tricks in adventures and campaigns (don’t worry, we’ll talk about them), force the characters to grow once they realize they are trapped together.

And THAT is the single most important aspect of campaign design. You need to find a way to draw the characters together and an excuse for them to stay together despite whatever idiotic conflicts arise until they are forced by the story to learn to f$&%ing grow and compromise. Now, we’re going to explore how to set up the Glue of your campaign in the next article, but know for right now that you HAVE TO have some sort of Glue if you want your game to last. If you don’t, you’re risking everything. And that brings me around to two HUGE MISTAKES GMs make when it comes to designing and starting campaigns. They are so big, I want to talk about them now, rather than wait until the next article about “starting your campaign.”

The Accidental Party

Many, MANY campaigns start off with a party of strangers ending up in the same place at the same time when Something Terrible Happens™ and they are forced to work together to fix the terrible. And GMs assume that once they fix that first terrible thing, the party will have formed bonds of trust and friendship that will unite them through many, many future adventures.


It just doesn’t work that way. Seriously. I’m not saying it’s bad to start with an accidental party, but you can’t rely on it to work for too long. Sometimes, after a few adventures of terrible things wherein the party is The Only Group that Can Save Us™, they actually will form bonds of trust and friendship. But, lots of times, they won’t. And eventually, that excuse won’t work.

As a GM, the Accidental Party is a way of GETTING the party together (and, honestly, it’s a good, fun one for a lot of reasons). But it’s not a way of KEEPING the party together.

The Old Friends

Another things GMs assume is that if they make the players generate characters with preexisting relationships, that will somehow keep the party together. After all, they are friends. They wouldn’t create characters that wouldn’t stay together. Would they?


Yes, they would. They do. And the reason they do is because the character a player CREATES is never – NEVER – the character they end up playing. I know some people love to argue this point. These people are wrong and stupid. And they are usually players. And players can’t see how they f$&% this up because they are players.

Here’s the thing: just like every plan you make as a GM has to be modified and adapted the minute the players start f$%&ing around in it, every plan the players make also have to change based on what actually happens in the game. Personalities emerge. They grow. And that’s because personality grows and develops through interaction. Group dynamics cause people to settle into different roles and every new party is a new group. In addition, just like you – as a GM – can’t plan for every contingency and write for every circumstance, players can’t either. As they encounter situations, personality traits emerge as responses to situations. A player might discover their character really can’t handle being insulted, something they never planned for. Or makes a lot of stupid jokes and sarcastic remarks. And another character might turn out to engage in friendly ribbing. Or be completely humorless and annoyed by sarcasm.

These discoveries – and the idea that you DISCOVER A CHARACTER through play – are what make role-playing so much fun. But they can also poison preexisting relationships.

Counting on preexisting relationships is as dangerous as counting on the accidental party. Again, preexisting relations are a way of GETTING the party together, but not necessarily KEEPING them together.

Well Begun is Half Done

At the end of the day, EVERY campaign needs some degree of planning. That is, if you’re running more than a one shot and you want the game to last, you need to put some thought into it. But most GMs f$&% up their campaign planning because they focus on where the campaign is going, rather than how it starts. That is, they focus on the Shape rather than the Glue.

The reality is that if you don’t pick a Shape, you’ll find one. Or else you’ll find the Shape doesn’t matter much and you’re perfectly happy eating Meatballs. Campaigns have deliberate Shapes, accidental Shapes, or just default Shapes.

But if you don’t figure out what brings the party together and what keeps them together, if you don’t have a plan to Glue them together, you’re leaving a lot up to chance. Sure, sometimes, it all just works out. But most of the time, the party starts to crack and crumble. And even if you don’t build the Glue in at the start, at least you’ve got a bottle handle to put the party back together when it does break apart.

So, in our next article, we’ll talk about forward planning: how to start a campaign that will stand the test of time. And player stupidity.

And now, I’m off to find something to eat.

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47 thoughts on “The Italian Campaign: On Shape and Glue

  1. This has always been difficult for the groups I’ve been in. It seems like there’s always at least one person who wants to be stand out, even at the expense of the other people at the table. I don’t feel like they would do that to be jerks, but I guess I have no idea why they might do that. I would love to read more about how to begin well.

    • Tricky thing is, you might not spot that person at the beginning either. I was happy to have a very engaged player to drive the group forward. He then became a real stage hog until we dialed that back. He was both boon and bane for the campaign. He didn’t try to be a jerk, or rather rarely, but there’s evenings that he clearly ruined, even though he always tried his best. How do you deal with that? Kept me busy for years… 😉

  2. I am “lucky” enough not having that problem, because it seems like, out of 5 players in my group, only 2 or 3 are really attached to their character. If someone doesn’t really work in the group, don’t worry: he’ll be replaced by another adventurer in a few weeks, no big deal.

    One of my players debuted her 3rd dwarven Ranger in a row last week (this one is a Hunter, but she plays it basically the same way) and they are all pretty similar. The previous characters didn’t die, she just sometimes decides to retire her ranger somewhere, and bring out a new one. 2 other players have a “secondary” character ready if this one dies, and it seems like they talk about making new characters almost as much as they talk about the one they are currently playing; one of them decided to retire his character and switch it out for the secondary one a few months ago, and is now playing with that one (but he still has another “secondary” character available). Only 2 people (who have used the same character since level 1) would actually be sad if their character dies, and I know one of them still would not bring him back, for RP reasons.

    This tends to be a problem when everyone agreed to run an adventure path and is enjoying it, but often we’ll get moments when an important element of the past adventures comes back, and only 2 people actually know why this is important and have to “explain” everything to their new teammates.

  3. Had an Edge of the Empire game without glue. Only thing our group had in common was that we were on the same prison transport at the start. It was fun, but impeded by a lack of organization. Fortunately, real life intruded and I had an excuse to leave, in and out of character.

  4. I’m a noob DM and definitely a victim of lack of gluey-ness currently.
    Likely accentuated by the fact that we can only play (at max) once a month.

    Luckily, for the most part, the players are as new as me and are happy to bash on whatever I throw at them for 3-4 hours and fun is had… but I know it could be much better.

    Looking forward to the next article…

  5. Looking forward to your next article! When you wrote I realized I needed to start better, and I began starting with the glue. But I didn’t do it on purpose, I was just unconsciously following your advice.

    I’m currently running a game, that I got into last minute and let the players meet in a tavern and form a party accidentally.

    I’m going to have figure out some glue, because already I’m watching the PCs get into one of the debates that you outlined in your example.

    You’re good at this.

  6. I find it odd that you said that you can assert that you will have problems because “…the characters in RPGs don’t tend to grow or change.” but that “Personalities emerge. They grow. And that’s because personality grows and develops through interaction.” How do you reconcile this?

    • I assume he means they don’t grow in ways that will change their relationships. They won’t change their minds and views about things. Their personality grows new quirks and they find new views but if they’ve made their meatballs out of beef they won’t change the menu to include Turkey meatballs. They just add new menu items.

      I don’t feel like proofreading this to make sure it makes sense

    • Angry may respond differently, but I see it like this:

      In, for example, movies, characters tend to undergo well-defined and concise character arcs that change who they are. For example, Thor learns to be less of a brash, arrogant fight-starter and exercise restraint and humility over the course of two hours. Boromir goes from wanting to use the ring to save his people to trying to steal it to realising why he can’t use the ring for that purpose. Flawed characters become better people through satisfying arcs in films. This is ‘story-based’ development, all inside the context of the fictional world. This often doesn’t happen with DnD characters, because players settle quite early into who they want to be, and don’t allow them to undergo this kind of self-improvement.

      However, In the early stages of a game, characters undergo a certain amount of adjusting from the players original plan, based on how that character interacts with others, and how the player interacts with other players. For example, before the game, Player A makes an elvish fighter who will be sleeves-rolled-up and getting stuck into fights, but during the first three or four sessions other players see ‘elf’ and make jokes about being poncy and pretty. This banter makes everyone laugh, including player A, so player A makes the character a bit more poncy and foppish. This is less ‘in-story’ change, and more a metagame adjustment to fit the gaming group (hoping Angry won’t be dissatisfied with how I’m using the word metagame). In film terms, it’s more akin to the character of Thor or Boromir evolving through the development process (scriptwriting, concept art, early scenes with Chris Hemsworth or Sean Bean playing the character), as everyone got a feel for how this character would integrate into the story. Early episodes of a TV show are often like this- they feel a bit weird compared to much later episodes, because writers, directors and actors were still getting a feel for the characters.

      (minor example- Theon Greyjoy’s hair colour changes between episodes 1 and 2 of Game of Thrones, because episode 1 is using footage from the pilot- this change has nothing to do with the character of Theon dyeing his hair and is purely a behind-the-scenes decision)

      So one is a metagame evolution of ‘player idea to what actually appears in the game’, and the other is ‘long-term in-story development representing the characters growing maturity’. The former is fairly normal in roleplaying games, the latter is much rarer.

    • My understanding is that these are two slightly different things. When a “personality emerges” it’s because the player doesn’t know how a character is going to react to a certain new situation. But one the personality has emerged through play, they will just react the same way to the same situation, thus the character doesn’t “grow or change”.

    • I’d venture: ‘Characters invariably settle into accidental new personalities, without any in-universe explanation or acknowledgement (looking back at your first games would give rise to Early Installment Weirdness, in TvTropes lingo). Characters never undergo meaningful development in the sense of having character arcs throughout play.’

  7. “Telling stories – whether they are accounts of things that happened to us or completely made up – storytelling provides us with two essential psychological things. First, it lets us analyze situations and look for patterns and see if we can’t understand things better. Second, it lets us imagine that we don’t live in a crazy, random, unpredictable world in which we are mostly powerless. And that’s why stories make sense. They have to make sense. We NEED them to make sense. We hold our fiction to a higher standard than we hold real life.”

    I found the second point here particularly insightful. We are looking for some logic to bind all of this madness together.

    Thanks, Angry. I’m excited to see the next article.

    • I agree, this caused quite an epiphany in me. I wondered if I worried too much about different aspects of the campaign fitting together too much, especially since I typically run horror/cosmic horror campaigns.

      This sparks a question though… a big group of recurring themes in horror is that realization a character lives in a crazy, random, unpredictable world or the reminder of how powerless they actually are. So, would “horror” campaigns would be the exception to the rule, or is “horror” in actuality just gore-flavored fantasy pasta?

      • I would argue that most horror games really aren’t crazy, random, or unpredictable. They still need to have a plot and a reasonable cause & effect chain. How well do you think a horror game with a bunch of random shit that happens without any cause, motivation, or relevance to the main plot would go over with your group?

        • Not great at all! They wouldn’t take the disempowerment theme very well either!

          At least, I wouldn’t play a game like that.

          …point taken.

      • There are different types of horror. What you’re talking about is Cosmic or Lovecraftian horror. The revelation is that we live in a world wherein there is a truth, but the truth is utterly incomprehensible and also completely uncaring and indifferent to us. What makes it horrible is not that there is no sense to be made, it’s that our minds are incapable of grasping the sense. Horror is about isolation and disempowerment. The isolation comes from the fact that the universe is uncaring and indifferent: humanity is utterly alone. Disempowerment is that what we see as our greatest gift – our intellect – does us no good because the way the universe really works is utterly beyond our grasp. And that is by our nature. There is no overcoming that limitation.

        The point is not the horror of living in a universe that makes no sense, it’s that the sense it makes is beyond our ability to comprehend. And what little we can comprehend is horrible.

        Other types of horror play with different things.

  8. I love these metaphor articles like this and the dolphin combat. Fantastic.

    I hope for more food related metaphors in the future. Or dinner.

  9. I actually think this is a place where DM fiat is necessary. I had a semi-successful game where we used a modified version of Fiasco to set up character relationships and backstories, which worked, but didn’t quite put everyone on the same page.

    For the new campaign I’m putting together, everyone *has* to be good and *has* to be connected to the local lord in a backwater trading town. The beginning adventures will hopefully give them some attachment to the place and its rustic residents. At least I hope so, otherwise they might be harder to motivate when the dinosaur samurai come rampaging through and conquer their little city-state and they have to figure out a way to get their liege lord to send troops.

    • It’s not “necessary”. If the Players all show up and say “We’re all members of the Black Ravens mercenary company” there is no reason for GM fiat. If the GAME says “You’re all members of a crew of scoundrels on the streets of Duskwall.” there’s no need for GM fiat.

      GM fiat is only “required” when no one else steps up to the plate.

      • I mean, as Angry correctly points out above, saying you’re all members of a group and actually playing as members of a group with a cohesive group mentality and set of consistent interests are not at all the same thing. I’ve run into this problem too many times now, so I’m going to side with Angry on this one.

        • Angry just says there needs to be Glue. He isn’t saying the GM must declare the Glue by fiat. Frankly, Angry doesn’t care where the Glue comes from as long as it’s there. But Angry will probably talk about that in a future article.

  10. “D&D isn’t philosophy and it won’t reveal any universal truths”
    You just made the enemy of every college-attending philosophy-major D&D player out there. Why, angry, why?

    • Because basing universal truths and real philosophy on a game that is a bunch of crude, constantly-modified rules for running a fantasy adventure is very stupid.

  11. My character was a Lawful Good cleric. The rest of the party… wasn’t. Once it was clear that this character made no narrative sense with the rest of this group, I told the GM that my character was turning out to be a bad fit and asked to swap out my LG cleric with a druid, and the GM agreed.

    This happened fairly early in the adventure so the transition was reasonably smooth and after that, the group dynamic worked much better. But it was up to me, as a player with some DM experience, to notice the issue and seek a remedy. And if I hadn’t taken the initiative, this train-wreck of a group dynamic would have persisted until… I don’t know… someone killed off Father Buzzkill or something.

    The DM had a well established, long running setting which was all Shape and no Glue. Session Zero was for everyone to make whatever character they wanted as the GM nodded his head impartially.

    Point being, experienced GM’s (who should know better) have this irrational faith that the players will provide the narrative glue. As if a coherent group of fictional characters just happens somehow.

    My experience is that if a GM doesn’t provide direction and context, then more often than not the players will end up with incompatible characters.

    One player wants to play a paladin at a time when another player wants to play an assassin? The GM sees a “role playing opportunity” rather than a train-wreck and has the nerve to be surprised when it ends badly, not just at a character level, but at a meta-level.

    I didn’t call it Glue before, but I’m calling it Glue now.

  12. My “glue” is a mixed military unit called the Queen’s Own Troubleshooters. They are literally anyone the players want to play, and are ad-hoc members of a specialized unit of the City Guard akin to the Dirty Dozen or the A-Team. Since I play with fickle teenagers for very short sessions at work, this enables us to justify throwing together whoever turns up on game day; they are whoever the Captain pointed at when the in-game crisis came up and said: “You guys deal with it.” They might be members of the palace guard (knights, paladins, healers), students of the royal college (wizards, sages, more healers), boxed crooks (thieves, assassins), passing adventurers looking for temp jobs (elves, dwarves, half-orcs, barbarians), or anything else that I can think of a thin excuse to add into the party. If the PCs don’t get along, that’s OK; they’ll probably only fight one mission together anyway.

    My first party consisted of an elemental mage with a mysterious past, a healer, a dragonborn warrior, a half-orc knight, an elven archer, and a necromancer. The mage was hired on a temporary basis from the college; she was sort of on an internship. The dragonborn, half-orc and healer were citizens and members of the military. The elf was an ambassador and interested bystander, and the necromancer was working off his arrest for illegal raising of the dead (by, I guess, *legally* raising the dead).

    I’m sure there are plenty of games that take this tack; the best that come to mind are FFG’s Warhammer 40K series. A death cultist, preacher, psyker and techpriest? No problem, they have to work together because the Inquisition says so and will shoot them if they fall out (and if the heretics/xenos/daemons don’t get them first). A Space Wolf and Dark Angel together? A Librarian and a Black Templar? The Deathwatch needs you, so shut up and work together already to kill the xenos. Or don’t, and they’ll walk over and eat you in short order and you’ll also fail the Emperor, which in a space marine’s eyes is worse than having to work alongside an ally you can’t stand. This entirely justifies the GM killing them off if they can’t work together.

    • I feel like your example is a lucky avoidance of the problem, rather than a solution.
      That sort of thing can GET the party together but not KEEP them together.
      Your example doesn’t keep them together, it just notices that your players change often enough that it doesn’t need to.

      At least, that’s the impression I got from what you said.

      • That’s pretty much true. That first group did stay together for about six sessions before it broke up – at a point where the party was isolated far from home and had just been pounced on by a dragon. I had hoped the cliffhanger would get them coming back for more but it didn’t, so the “troubleshooting” campaign is just there as a way for anyone who DOES come back for more to see a little continuity. Maybe the Captain will remember them, maybe the Queen will give them a medal for last session’s bravery; maybe a villain or monster will recur. But it doesn’t have to be that way, and it won’t disconcert any one-off players. Continuity can go on in the background while PCs come and go.

        It also provides ideas for further adventure. The party blew up the royal menagerie? Next week’s party gets to chase weird monsters thru the streets. The party rescues an urchin? She hangs around the barracks and any repeat players will notice her every week.

  13. A sausage with a couple meatballs. That wasn’t on purpose until I wrote it down, realised what I had written and left it here for posterity.

    I glued it all together with a near omniscient vampire queen the players have pledged themselves to in exchange for a reward they can’t refuse (which is different for each). She knows all the crap they do so they can’t do too much sneaky crap on each other.

  14. I’m kind of hoping the glue can also be used for solving the pesky problem of bringing a new character to an old group, regardless whether it’s a new player or a reroll after a character death.

  15. I hope the Glue article comes soon. This problem has plagued a campaign I’ve been running for four years now, and it never really ends being a problem. Though I’m starting to suspect there’s no kind of super-glue to keep these guys on cooperating… But still hoping!

  16. My group just wrapped a campaign that had an interesting solution to the problem when it came up. The DM was running two parallel adventure paths in the same setting campaign concurrently (I think I’m using those terms right?) one for a band of heroes and the other for a band of villains. Each side was roving around the country side trying to drum up support for their side of a larger war, recruiting friendly factions, and preventing hostile factions from joining the fray.

    So anyway, about 3/4 of the way through the whole campaign, things came to a head when our chaotic elven assassin clashed with our LG half-orc paladin. This had been brewing for some time, and there was some real tension around the table. Words were had, items were confiscated, and the elf was thrown in jail. Well, the next week we found out that the elf had escaped prison and went off to join the villains, and at the same time one of the villains had been saved from certain death by the gods and given a chance at redemption by joining us. It allowed us to keep things going together until the end, and made things that much more interesting in the final clash between the two groups when those two faced each other.

    • Was this caused by an out-of-character discussion of how to resolve the tension?

      As with someone else’s example of a player realising that their character was going to cause tension with the group so they switched out for a different one, are you saying the elf’s player switched out for a different character to fit the group better?

  17. When I saw the name of the article, I expected it to be a reference to The Italian Job, and I got worried that I don’t remember enough of that movie to get the reference.

    But food, food I can understand. 🙂
    I’m actually fairly ignorant of food, but I know the basic shapes of sausage links and spaghetti, so it’s all good. 🙂

    To be serious though, this article has made me feel quite lucky that most of the groups I’ve played with have had an unrealistically accepting attitude towards each other.
    Where most conflicts might start brewing, I’ve usually seen a lampshade hanging and a chuckle from the other players as we all just ignore the lack of any in-character glue.

    I suppose you could say we don’t get very into the roleplaying aspect that much, but it sure is convenient when a new character joins the group and the rest of the party just unconditionally trusts this stranger with their life.

    Also, with regards to personalities emerging that the players didn’t expect.
    I think that is the problem a lot of people have with Alignments.
    What a player writes on their sheet during character creation isn’t necessarily what they end up playing, and that can be awkward if any game mechanics depend on it.
    As a positive example, one of my current players made a nominally Chaotic Neutral Rogue, who’s personality diverged so much in only a few sessions that he’s about to be invited into the Lords’ Alliance due to his honourable and noble actions.

  18. Hm… Not a single Garibaldi reference…. Wonderful article at any rate . As always angry, thanks for the wisdom!

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