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.
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 – Using established story tropes can cut down on descriptions and help guide play at 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 Tropes 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 that your 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?