This past year I had two significant events occur in my life: I celebrated my 10th wedding anniversary, and I co-authored Odyssey: The Complete Game Masters Guide to Campaign ManagementÂ with fellow Gnome Walt. As it turns out, there is significant overlap in these two areas of my life, and with this being Valentine’s Day, I thought I would Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup these ideas and put them together to deliver some relationship advice for your campaign.
Your Campaign is a Relationship
A campaign is a shared set of life experiences with a group of people. Now, the life experiences are made up through play, but they are real, in their own way. The experiences are shared with a group of people whom you have shared high and low points as both characters and players. Face it, you are in a relationship.
Relationships are tricky things, largely because they involve messy human intelligence and emotions. That’s not a bad thing, but it does make a campaign a tricky thing to navigate. This is why we experience the emotional peaks of happiness and anger, as well as the deep valleys of depression and loss over a campaign.
What we want from our relationships, including campaigns, is for them to be healthy and long-lasting. In order to do that, we need to put some energy and some work into our relationships. Before I slip into my Dr. Phil routine, let’s turn this back to campaigns and look at the different phases of a campaign and what the needs of the relationship are in each phase.
Starting The Campaign
First Dates, First Kills
Starting a campaign is exciting. Everyone has a high level of energy. Things are new and different. Its easy to think, as we create the first adventure, that this campaign will last forever. The players are excited as well, making up new characters with new powers and back stories. Everyone is ready to get in and start playing.
Before you jump into that first game, you need to set a good foundation for the campaign. More campaigns collapse because of things that should have been addressed during the start of the campaign, but were ignored because everyone wanted to get to the action. It’s in this phase you need to ask and answer the big questions:
- What is this campaign about?
- What is the role of the characters in the campaign?
- Is this a one-night stand, a quick fling, or a lasting campaign?
There are a number of tools that you can use to help create this shared understanding of the campaign. They include:
- Social Contracts
- Group Template (Fear The Boot)
- Campaign Framework (Odyssey)
With those questions answered and a solid foundation set, you can have that first session and begin this new campaign with a healthy start.
The Ongoing Campaign – Leveling Up Together
With the campaign underway, sessions being run, and players progressing, the needs of the campaign and the group change. In this phase of the campaign your emphasis is about maintaining good communication and adapting to change.
Change is an inevitability in any campaign. Characters develop in unanticipated directions, power levels rise, and the main story encounters changes as the characters act upon it. From the player side, there will be romances within and outside the group, changes in careers, changes in family, and the occasional player moving away.
With all that change, the GM and the Players have to work together to keep the campaign running. The main tool needed is honest and candid communication. As these change occur, the group needs to discuss them and their feelings towards them, and develop solutions that are mutually agreeable. This is not easy, and requires genuine work.
With a good foundation from the start, it is easier to keep the campaign moving in a positive direction. Things like social contracts, group templates, and campaign frameworks provide a guide to help steer the campaign back on track when it strays from the original course.
With some campaigns, a new direction will emerge through play. That is perfectly fine as long as everyone recognizes that this is a new direction, and are equally comfortable with the change. Discuss where the campaign is going and once everyone is on the same page, make some amendments to your foundation documents and play on.
For more detailed advice on how to manage the various layers of the campaign: Story, Character, Player, Risk, and Change. Check out Odyssey.
Ending A Campaign – We can Always Be Friends
We want relationships to last forever, but they rarely do. The same holds true for campaigns. We would love to imagine that every campaign we start will be one that we will play for years, but that is not being honest with ourselves. Eventually a campaign will end, and how it ends will determine how we remember the campaign and how to re-tell it’s story to others years later.
Our knee-jerk reaction to ending a campaign is usually to drop it, cold. Its easy; just stop playing. That does not work for human relationships, as we always remember the bad breakups more than the relationships that lead up to them. Dropping a campaign will leave it feeling unresolved, and your past memories of a campaign will always include that sense of an incomplete story.
For a healthy campaign that has reached its time, use a Managed Ending (From Odyssey); take the current story line to a climax and conclusion, and end the campaign in a way that is satisfying for the entire group. Using a Managed Ending allows you to bring closure to the campaign, and years later you will all think fondly of it.
Making It Work
Campaigns are relationships, and when healthy, they can be incredibly satisfying. When not handled well they can be boring – or worse, destructive. Sometimes we start a campaign well, but don’t follow through. Other times we start too quickly, and then have to repair them along the way. The most damaged campaigns don’t make it, and ideas and time are wasted. With some care at each of it’s phases we can make a healthy campaign that is enjoyable while we play and when we look back upon it.
What kind of advice do you have for healthy campaigns? What phase do you do a good job with, and in what phase do you need improvement?
Some timely advice there.
My experience with campaigns is that it is the ending that determines the group relationships moving onwards. Handled correctly, this will allow you to keep playing with the same group.
Should a campaign end badly, as happened to our last game, then the personal relationships within the group can shatter. You do not want this for your group of friends.
How my Campaign Imploded.