When it comes to campaigns we often strive for the long running, epic campaign; the kind of campaign that we hear about from other gamers that has been going on since the Reagan administration. Sometimes, though, we are not interested in running a long campaign; quite the opposite, we are looking to run a very short campaign – a micro campaign. There is plenty of advice about running longer campaigns (I am responsible for a portion of it), but how does that apply to the shorter campaign? What advice is universal and what advice is there for specifically running a micro campaign?
Note– Today’s article came from a request by Jeremy Frisen via G+. Circle me if you like to talk about gaming and other things of a geeky nature.
The Micro Campaign
The micro campaign is a campaign designed to run for just a few session. For this article I am going to define that as 3 sessions; your milage may vary. Three sessions takes this past the one-shot, which also gets a good deal of advice. We are talking about a game where players are going to be invited back twice to reprise their characters and complete the campaign.
I am going to discuss the running of the micro campaign with the sameÂ approachÂ that WaltÂ and I took with Odyssey.
Like any campaign the micro campaign is going to go through the phases: Starting, Managing, and Ending. All of these phases will be influenced by the small length of the campaign, but they all exist.
Starting A Campaign
Starting a micro campaign should not be more work than running it. You still need to gain buy-in from your players and reach group consensus, but you do not need to be as rigorous as you would for a full campaign because you do not need the campaign to be stable for more than the three sessions.
When starting a micro campaign keep the following in mind:
- Clear Concept – You don’t have a lot of time to tell a complex story, so you should have a concept that is easy to convey to the players. Do not discount simplicity in your concept. Keep your scope simple and deliver it well.
- Archetypes and Roles – Your players will not have a lot of time for character growth and development during the three sessions, so the characters have to fit into the story from the start of the game. Use archetypes and roles to make sure that players have a function in the game and know what they are expected to do during play.
- Simple Backgrounds – Likewise, these characters do not need complex backgrounds, nor will they have time at the table to delve into them. Backgrounds should be kept short with enough detail for the player to have a grasp on the character to be able to play them.
- Single Issue – If you are going to do sub-plots within the campaign, a character should only have one issue which can come up that needs to be resolved by the third session.
- Pre-Gen’s – A set of pre-generated characters eliminates the time to design characters from scratch, often highlights certain areas of the setting and rules, and comes with established roles. It can be a time-saver.
Once you have a group of characters assembled, its time to get them into the campaign.
Managing The Campaign
Even though the campaign is only three sessions long, there is still a need to manage the three major areas:
This is the most critical of the three phases in a micro campaign. You have just three sessions to play out a story worthy of a campaign. You should have a very specific story you wish to tell. The story can be open-ended or planned, but three sessions is not the time to do a sandbox type game.
When planning your story, here are some guidelines:
- Minimal Foreshadowing– Three sessions does not lend itself to heavy foreshadowing, and is more geared for straightforward play. The best foreshadowing comes with a gap or a build up, so avoid foreshadowing an event happening in the next session.
- Get To the ^&*%*& Monkey – Three Sessions. Don’t spend one session meeting in the tavern with the mysterious robed man to get the quest. Rather, start inside the dungeon with the sounds of orcs coming down the hallway. Every scene in all your sessions should have a purpose and drive the story to its conclusion.
- Three-Act Model – Walt does a fantastic job talking about this model in the chapter on Story Management (Odyssey p.100). Its also on Wikipedia. With three adventures, your campaign can easily follow this model.
- Checkov’s Gun – Hand in hand with Foreshadowing, if you are going to take time to describe something in the game, it should have a signifiant role in the game. Do not bog down the sessions with descriptions which do not have direct impact on the story being played.
- Befriend Tropes -Â Using established story tropesÂ can cut down on descriptions and help guideÂ play atÂ the table without having to be overt about it. Tropes are powerful tools which you can use as a story shortcut, saving you story time. Visit the time-sink known as TV TropesÂ for ideas.
There will not be a lot of character growth during the course of your three sessions. If your group is large, there will be far less growth as spotlight time will be very limited. In Starting the campaign, you should have limited your players to no more than a single issue; try to use the three-act model in resolving their issues during the campaign.
In terms of mechanical growth, its possible to have a micro campaign where the characters do not advance at all, or you could plan to have the characters advance between sessions, at the mid-point, etc. You should plan this out when starting the campaign, and make sure you have conveyed it to the players.
With a short amount of time and a robust story, you may need to manage your players to keep things focused and moving forward. Here are some tips for things to do and to look out for:
- Quash Player Conflict – Player arguments at the table are going to burn up time. If there is a disagreement between players, take an active role to help resolve the issue and get back to the story.
- Nothing To See Here – To keep the players focused on the story, you will need to keep them from getting distracted with deep conversations with the local barmaid or examining the runes on a non-important tapestry. Don’t be afraid to shoo them along to get back on story.
- Minimal Planning – I have said it before, nothing slows a game down like having the players plan something. By creating your story properly, you can minimize or eliminate the need for player planning. If your story requires a plan, like a heist, try to have the planning occur online, between sessions.
Ending a Campaign
In your third session, you will reach the end of the campaign. Make sure thatÂ yourÂ story wraps up nicely, that guns you hung on the mantle have been fired, and that any sub-plots reach their conclusion. Make the ending satisfying. If you have a big bad, then let the players kill or capture them; don’t let them escape. And no cliffhangers…there is no next session.
If the micro campaign has gone well you may desire to leave the possibility open for continuing it in the future. A successful micro campaign may be the opener for a much longer campaign.
The micro campaign can be a great way to take a break from a long campaign, or a way to try out a different setting or set of mechanics. The micro campaign is about telling a single, strong story. With the right setup, careful execution, and a strong ending, you can create a memorable campaign in just three sessions.
Have you run micro campaigns before? What are your tips for getting one started? For writing a good story? Have you ever had a micro campaign flip into a full-sized campaign?
We run these all the time. We call them “one-shots, that tend to turn into two-shots or three-shots.” ;}
We often run micro-campaigns of 6-8 sessions following a model very similar to what you describe above. It is a great way to try something new or different without a huge commitment, and 6-8 sessions is long enough for the campaign to have some meat on it without meandering.
Even our longer-running campaigns we try to organize into 6-8 session arcs, with breaks in between.
Half of my D&D group was unavailable for about six weeks last year.
I organised a micro campaign for the other half of the group plus one new person who wanted to try D&D. To make it easier for the new person, all the players had new first-level characters.
I initially offered them a choice between “kill the undead monsters” (which would have been the first of several one-shot adventures) and “solve a kidnapping” (which turned out to be a three session adventure). They chose the latter.
After the third fortnightly session I asked the players whether they wanted to continue further. They decided to wrap it up there, and the new person then joined the main campaign with their character ramped up a few levels.
As a relatively new GM, this was my first and so far only limited-term campaign.
I like the idea of the Micro Campaign and actually started one in Edge of the Empire last week. It will only last between 3 and 5 sessions, and it will a have a concrete ending. However, I don’t necessarily agree with always having simple PC backgrounds for such a campaign.
My players all made detailed background choices that could come into play in future Micro Campaigns. This current campaign will end shortly, but we thought it might be fun to run another Micro Campaign several months from now, and give the players the option of using the same characters from the previous one. This way each Micro Campaign could be it’s own little episode within their character’s history. Lather, Rinse, and Repeat every 6 months.
But, if you’re not going for that sort of thing then simplicity is best.
Thanks, Phil. This is a good “how to” article with tips for creating mini-adventures.
I have comments on two of your points:
1. The idea about advancing characters within a short-shot game is worth considering. I played in one where the GM started us at 1st level and gave us a level up after each session. That totally didn’t jive with the advancement rules of the system but it made for a great story progression. In each session we had a different view on the situation around us. Challenges that daunted us the first session became manageable in the second, and by the third we felt a real sense of growth and accomplishment.
2. Player Conflict: The most important way to quash it is not to contribute to it. I have played in so many short games where the GM thought he or she was injecting dramatic tension into the story by writing blatantly conflicting personalities, agendas, or victory conditions into our pre-gen characters. That’s not dramatic tension, that’s just asking for chaos.
Unfortunately our group does this a lot without trying. Your tips are helpful and timely since I’m in the beginning stages of putting together a mini-campaign this one intentional for a change for a Superhero Game.