Monday, June 9, 2014

Campaign Structures and Scenarios

A reader (Michael Shea) asked last week what are the other campaign structures besides a sandbox style and an adventure path.  It's a good question!  Aren't there countless campaign styles?  Plus, we often conflate scenario structure with campaign structure.  But maybe it's not that complicated.  From a reductionist perspective they can simplify down to two basic approaches - sandbox versus plotted.

The sandbox campaign style is player-driven.  The referee creates and describes the game world and the players identify and launch their own adventures exploring the game world.  Information in the sandbox game is usually stored as maps and keys; the dungeon or hex crawl (for fantasy games) or the sector map (for space-based games) are common documents.

The plotted campaign is driven by plot hooks that lead the characters to predefined scenarios.  Mission-of-the-week style games (like spy games or super hero games) are plot-driven.  Many of the adventure series modules from the TSR days of classic D&D and AD&D were plotted.  Modern "adventure paths" show how an entire campaign can be scripted from level 1 through high level play.  Most Call of Cthulhu campaigns are presented as plotted campaigns constructed of consecutive investigative scenarios.

About the scenarios.  There are a handful of common ways to structure individual scenarios.  They can be site-based, event-based, investigative, scene-based, even character-based.  I like to build my sandbox campaigns with a combination of site-based adventures and events.  You can certainly mix and match scenario structures within the overall campaign structure.  A mission-of-the-week style of play (like an adventure module) might have a highly plotted angle to get the players involved, but the adventure itself is a site-based structure and could easily work in a sandbox game.  For instance, the old G1-G2-G3 series of TSR Modules (Against the Giants) are free-form site-based dungeon crawls.  But the plot hook to start the series is something like , "Go kill these giants for us or we'll chop off your heads!"  How about we chop off that plot hook instead and just drop the locations somewhere in the sandbox?

I'm actually fairly forgiving of plot hooks in published scenarios since I'm going to ignore them anyway.  The author has no idea of the best way to integrate the scenario into your campaign, but he or she has to provide something for the finished product.  Tossing the plot hooks is like throwing away the shrink wrap.

One of my pet peeves in plotted games (at least in class and level style games like D&D) is this idea that the plot hooks for low level characters all lead to low level encounters, and then when the players are a little higher level the plot hooks lead to ogres and mid-range monsters, and then a little later it's the giants and the dragons and the liches.  I'm sure are ways to plot that style of game in a manner that doesn't feel contrived, but I'm dubious.  I say put it all in the setting, right from the beginning, and make it the player's problem to avoid the dragon lairs and the giant's caves and the lich's tombs and find the goblin-mugging adventures on their own.  Then again, it's a rainy Monday and I'm cranky.  Nothing that alcohol can't fix.