Compared to the one-shot life of the Japanese TRPG scene, most western roleplaying games focus around the concept of ‘campaigns.’ As you’re more than aware of, campaigns are multi-session games of indeterminate length where you and your buddies could feasibly keep adventuring for god knows however. I personally have a distinct definition between lengths that I’d like to quickly share:
One-shots: 1 or 2 sessions (part 2s are pretty common)
Adventures: 3-6 sessions
Campaigns: 7+ sessions
That said, as a Gamemaster, what makes your campaign different? Is it the setting? The story? The tone? The characters? The players? Contrary to popular belief, as a GM you only really have consistent control over the setting at best. The characters will always change, you’re likely stuck playing with the same friend group, and both the story and the tone are dictated by the actions of the players. As a GM, you ultimately act as a fairly reactive force. Any degree of active control tends to be taken as railroading and must sparsely be used.
So where do you actually derive control? Personally, I would say the Rules. No, no. Not the game rules. That was written by someone else. I mean your Campaign Rules, your homebrew rules you personally add.
Setting Bits & Bobs
One thing I absolutely loved about Savage Worlds is that it encourages ‘Setting Rules’ in the text. As an aside, even if you never plan to play Savage Worlds (Adventurer Edition of course) I would highly recommend just picking up the book. The rules there are so good they’ll inspire a whole new level of play across all your games. Anyways, Setting Rules are a series of rules that are meant to change your gameplay experience.
For example, ‘Heroes Never Die’ is a base rule where the players never really die permanently, they’re just temporarily taken out of battle. Or things like ‘Heroic Adventure’ where you can spent points to temporarily gain the use of Edges (Feats for your D&D players) whenever you need ’em.
Setting Rules are meant to change not only gameplay, but the right combination of such can also completely change the tone of your game.
One thing I’ve always disliked about D&D 5e’s Curse of Strahd is that it’s supposed to feel like this kinda grim dark adventure resembling Dark Souls… But at the end of the day it’s still D&D 5e, one of the pillars of power fantasy in the RPG community. It’s somewhat hard to feel low-powered when you can cast a fireball that can singlehandedly burn down any village you come across. There’s an evident dissonance between the system and the setting. Regardless of how many times I’ve tried it, and no matter how amazing of a GM I’ve played under, I’ve always been dissatisfied with the end result. Curse of Strahd just worked in D&D early editions because the system worked with the setting. Nowadays it feels impossible to get that same gritty real…
But is it really?
Back in March (or was it yesterday?) I wrote a series of examples using 5e’s Curse of Strahd.
Through the use of Setting/Campaign Rules, you can heavily influence not only how your players interact with the world, but how that world and interaction makes them feel. Through these Campaign Rules I devised (and with the reasoning behind them under every line) you can see how each rule accents the grit and realism.
I’m not saying that my rules should be the definitive way to play Curse of Strahd, but you should definitely devise a series of your own Campaign Rules to influence the game. Even with minimal interaction with these rules, the players are also mentally prepared to believe that “oh no, if we’re not careful, we’re totally screwed.”
Next time you’re starting up a campaign you should go on to consider the sort of rules you’re bringing into it. One thing I have enjoyed about D&D 5e is that the levers are very clearly identifiable. When I tweak something I know exactly how it’s going to snowball or affect everything else as a whole. For more mechanically complex games like Genesys or Cypher, it can be a little difficult to figure out just how far reaching your changes can go.
That said, take your time and really try to think about what kind of game you’re trying to run. Tweaking the rules as you go along is fine, but I would highly suggest making such big sweeping changes from the get go.
Happy haunting, – Di.