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Signs of Campaign Greatness

Some campaigns are not that good, some are fine, and some are ones we never forget. In my last article [1] I talked about my Elhal campaign, and how it was one of the great ones. In a discussion on G+ (btw, Circle +Gnome Stew [2]), some Plussers asked me what made Elhal so great. So I did some soul searching, as well as asked some of my players and we came up with some factors that not only made Elhal great, but could make any game achieve greatness.

Just The Facts Ma’am

For a frame of reference here are some important facts about Elhal:

Summary: The campaign was set in a world where the Demon King had conquered the human continent of Elhal 30 years before the start of the campaign. The Human lands were occupied by the armies of the Demon King. The characters were the descendants of some of those who failed to stop the Demon King.

Why Did It Work?

On the surface there is nothing about Elhal that was different from a hundred other fantasy stories. What then made it stand out? Here are some of the conclusions my players and I came up with:

Clear Sense of Purpose — From the initial pitch for the campaign, it was clear that the goal of the campaign was to de-throne the Demon King. Other things would happen along the way, but everyone knew where the game was going. This purpose was a beacon for the players. No matter what was going on, they knew what they were working towards.

Epic Feel — Elhal was an epic story, and thus it was clear that the fate of humanity was at stake. Likewise, it was clear that the characters were not just adventurers but people of purpose. That was conveyed through the tone of the game especially in the way NPC’s regarded the players.

Characters Tied To the Setting — The players did a great job of making characters who were tied directly into the setting. There were no Weirdos [3] and no lone wolves. One character was the son of one of the Kings who fell to the Demon King, the other was the grandson of the King’s assassin. The third initially had a mysterious background with hints of the divine, but I would add some elements to that and fully embed him into the core of the game.

Say Yes, And  — There was a lot of saying Yes on my part. I worked very hard not to stifle any of the players enthusiasm, so when a player asked for something, I tried very hard to make that happen within the game, and the characters would have to earn the thing they wanted. When the players said that they would need a base of operations to mount their rebellion, I worked up an arc that would lead them to liberating a city under a terrible curse.

Small Group — There were three players, and later I would add a GMPC when one of the players switched from a figher-type to a Wizard. That small size allowed for a lot of face time for each player, allowing them to grow and develop. It also made combat, which became increasingly more complex at higher levels, to move faster.

Outside Communication — The players were so excited that discussions of the game would spill into email between sessions. These discussions were almost always in first person and often represented in depth discussions about the situations the characters faced. Those metagame moments reinforced the game and added great depth to the campaign, and growth to the characters.

Fixed Problems Fast — When problems arose with something that happened in the game, we worked very quickly to address them and find some kind of solution before we moved on. In one case, the son of the king ordered an NPC to execute someone, something that was more brutal than had been seen before. There was a lengthy discussion both in character and out of character until everyone agreed that the situation was dealt with.

Constant Improvement — During the three years of the campaign I worked on how to make parts of the game better. That included much more creative recaps [4] to make recapping the game at the start of the session more exciting. We moved from using dice as counters, to using illustrated counters. I wrote the occasional fiction piece between games, or wrote some cultural element in the world. I also re-read the rules every year just to make sure we got the most out of the mechanics.

Reaching For Greatness

The list above are some of things that I remember about Elhal four years later. Many of those things, are things that I have tried to incorporate into all my campaigns since Elhal, with varying degrees of success. There are likely more things that made Elhal great, and it may never be possible to truly define or capture what makes a campaign great. If there was a simple formula we would all be doing it by now.

What are the things that have made your campaigns great? Do you recognize some of the things that I have mentioned? Do you have some of your own?


4 Comments (Open | Close)

4 Comments To "Signs of Campaign Greatness"

#1 Comment By Razjah On April 12, 2012 @ 9:37 am

I think a few things have made a couple of my games great:

-Small Group Size; my best games had 3 or 4 players. It keeps the spotlight moving, I think 3 players is best, to hell with the “balanced party size”

-Players Give a Damn; the players were invested in the game, alert during sessions, and came wanting to game. We often discussed parts of the game during the week in between sessions. The energy really helps.

-Roleplaying to the Hilt; the players played out characters, not a pile of stats, but a person who has concerns other than adventure. Relationships, enemies, friends, fame (for good or ill) and other things that made the game stand out.

-Clear Campaign Focus; everyone knew what the end goal was.

-I Wanted to Game Every Session; if the GM doesn’t want to run the game, then the session is worse, wanting to play every week made those campaigns better.

#2 Comment By thomasbrown@frii.com On April 12, 2012 @ 10:15 pm

I thin I have to chime in and agree…

-Smaller group size really helps focus attention on each player.

-Definable, recognized goals (long term) allow them to always have a touchstone. “Is this important to the goal?”

-Characters the players really buy into.

-Lastly – always leave them wanting more. “Dang, I was thinking we might get to…” meet/attack/steal/whatever. As long as they have something they are excited about for the next time, they will be excited in general.

#3 Comment By BryanB On April 13, 2012 @ 9:43 am

One of the signs I’ve noticed over the years is when there is a lot of excited chatter between game sessions, particularly after the last session had ended on a cliffhanger. It is really cool when the players are excited to see what happens next or especially when they have a desire to be more proactive and actively try and shape what is to come.

I can toss things at a wall until they resonate with a particular group, but when there are proactive players in the mix, that just makes everything so much more fun and engaging. I’d say proactive and engaged players are a sure sign of campaign greatness.

When the entire table (including me) is eagerly anticpating our next “scene,” then I know we’ve got something great going on.

#4 Comment By clight101 On April 18, 2012 @ 10:28 pm

Nice article. It makes me think about my Second Son’s campaign and why it’s so great and while people have moved away we all still get together every couple months to play a marathon session.

1) Actions the characters took really impacted the story. At one point the players made a decision to kill someone who was a friend of theirs but was against them at the time. Later they decided it was a bad choice and wanted to bring him back from the dead. All these choices were things I didn’t foresee happening so I just rolled with it. These choices created sessions of play I didn’t expect which invested the players into the story. They felt like they had a real say in the way things worked.

2) I did the Characters tied to the setting too. It works quite well.

3) I like to create difficult decision points where there really isn’t a right or a wrong answer but there are consequences. For instance one of my players was trying to pull some terrible aberrant power out of a celestial being. Once again I never expected this to happen but rolled with it. Very Yes and of me. He succeeded to pull it out but not enough to dissipate the energy so I asked him if he wanted to let it randomly go somewhere with the possibility of dissipating or did he want to take it into himself. There was no discussion of morality or alignment, just a choice based on where he wanted his character to go from here and what would happen with the energy. He choose to take it into himself. Now he’s got a Hulk like power in him he can’t always control but he’s got a clean conscious.

Those are just a few but I’m getting long winded here. Can’t wait to see what you come up with next.