Reframing Campaigns and Adventures

A realization on the way home from work, combined with discussing it with a friend online, means I’ll be changing a few definitions I’ve used for a while.

GreyKnight, I think this one qualifies as a ‘Revisit old post and completely change everything’ result on the Keith Davies Blog Post Generator.

Old Definitions

There are some terms I’ve used for quite a while when discussing campaign and setting design. I have a more complete set of definitions, with examples, but I will include brief definitions here for context.

A setting is a place where many campaigns happen, often a particular world. Forgotten Realms is a quite well-known Dungeons & Dragons setting. There are recurring entities (major NPCs, deities, nations, etc.) that can be experienced or can influence things across the setting.

campaign is a set of related scenarios that take place in a setting. ‘Setting entities’ may be present in a campaign, and there are recurring entities within the campaign that might not be present outside it. Usually lasts about four levels of advancement; anything shorter tends to feel episodic and not really significant enough, and I’ve found players tend to start losing interest when they run much longer.

scenario is a single situation or location to be played in. Setting and campaign entities can be present, as can scenario entities that are present only in this scenario. I usually expect the PCs to take part in 12-15 encounters (D&D 3.x assumes ‘13.333 encounters per level’), and I might design 16-20 on the assumption not all will actually happen.

New Definitions, and Reframing

I was working on some documentation at work today, describing how to develop a test plan. One of the more important points is that each test is to answer a specific question. It has preconditions, steps to follow, and expected results (measurable postconditions).

On my way from work, I realized that there is entirely nothing preventing us from applying the reasoning to adventures, and many things suddenly fell into place. Discussing this led to a couple of terminology shifts in order to accommodate the mental shift.

Setting

The definition of setting remains the same.

Campaign

A campaign is now a set of related stories involving a central cast of player characters. The specific PCs may change over time as they die (or less commonly retire) and are replaced, but the general core tends to remain consistent. A campaign happens in a single setting; a campaign that might ‘span settings’ (such as planehopping campaign or a Spelljammer campaign) actually expands the setting to include the new areas.

Story Arc

A story arc is a series of adventures or stories, each of which might involve several adventures. A story arc need not be contiguous, there may be other adventures or even other stories between the stories that make up a story arc. However, there will and must be recurring entities and themes that cause the stories to be related.

Story arcs tell stories, and as such there must be a goal or purpose. Common murderhobo behavior is adventuring, but typically without a goal or purpose. ‘Kill things and take their stuff’ isn’t really a story, it’s an activity. ‘Defeat the invading hobgoblins’ and ‘become crowned king of Arlington’ are more likely appropriate goals or purposes.

I would still expect a story arc to run for about four levels of PC advancement. Longer may work for some people, but I’ve found this to be a sweet spot for the groups I’ve played with.

Story

A story is similar to a story arc, but has a much more limited scope (and no ‘sub-stories’ per se, though it may have adventures). In the context of a story arc it would describe how a major event or situation was resolved. If the story arc goal is ‘defeat the invading hobgoblins’, ‘The Defense of Tal Forenn’ might be one of the stories (and it might be retitled ‘The Razing of Tal Forenn’ if things don’t go well — not all stories have happy endings).

Each story has a goal or purpose. In ‘The Defense of Tal Forenn’, the goal obviously is to defend Tal Forenn. The story that comes out of it depends on how the game plays out. If the goal is achieved and the city is successfully defended, you get one story. If the defense fails, you get another.

I would expect a story to run for about one level of PC advancement. I have had ‘half-level stories’ at times, but more often I treat the completion of a story — whether victorious or not — as cause to advance the PCs a level. It would probably play out over several sessions, and if I were one to track experience points it would probably come out fairly close (expect 12-15 encounters, but it might take as many as 20 or as few as 8 or 10 depending how the PCs go about it).

Adventure or Scenario

I use these words more or less interchangeably, with the primary difference involving tone or location. An adventure usually involves exploration, while a scenario usually involves resolving a situation present, without exploration. They really amount to the same thing structurally.

An adventure answers (usually) a single question about a story, and can provide resources that can help the PCs reach victory. In ‘The Defense of Tal Forenn’ you might have an adventure to gain allies (you hear of potential allies also threatened by the hobgoblins, so you find a way to raise the siege and they join you), another to gain an important resource (a holy relic that will empower the temple wards and help protect the city), another to infiltrate the hobgoblin camp for covert purposes (assassination, sabotage, rescuing hostages, etc.). I would expect an adventure to involve 3-5 encounters, and usually play out in one session, or two. My OSR group can go through a large number of encounters if we stay on task, but more likely a handful of encounters; in ‘more modern D&D’ we’d do well to complete one fight.

If I expected each story to be about 12-15 encounters (and prepared 16-20) and an adventure to be 3-5 encounters, this means I might have about 3-7 adventures identified, and more likely 4-6. Assuming each plays out in a single night, this means approximately five sessions per level, which is a little slow for modern D&D standards but about right for the way we like it.

From Bottom to Top

The adventures in a story or story arc should each resolve a plot point in the larger context. Individual encounters are not likely to be relevant in the grand scheme of things. Whether a particular unnamed hobgoblin dies probably doesn’t much matter. An adventure’s consequence, though, should. In ‘The Defense of Tal Forenn’, raising the siege of Tal Theris and gaining allies will make it easier to defend Tal Forenn, and provide a stronger position for dealing with the hobgoblins as a whole. Not raising the siege of Tal Theris might mean that city falls, making it harder to defend Tal Forenn and putting the PCs in a harder position overall.

Closing Comments

Framing adventures, stories, and story arcs this way provides clear and measurable plot points that can be used to gauge overall success. By having each adventure resolve specific events and answer specific questions it is easy to make higher-level decisions and direct the story and story arc as a whole.

I have found in the past that such measurements and determinations might be identified for specific entities within an adventure (such as “if the PCs kill this guy, this will happen later, but if they don’t, this other thing will happen”). I’ve also found that often the adventures are expected to be played in a particular order, because each depends on previous events. By working at the higher level it is possible to treat the individual adventures as discrete events with identifiable consequences within the fabric of the whole. This helps reduce the order dependency between individual adventures.

Also, structuring stories and story arcs this way makes it easy to compartmentalize the piece and work on only what is necessary. I might identify ‘The Defense of Tal Forenn’ as a story in the hobgoblins story arc, and six questions (potential adventures) to be answered. If the PCs answer at least four ‘victoriously’, they successfully defend the city. If they don’t get at least two victories, the hobgoblins win and the city is destroyed. Individual answers can cause specific results: killing the bloodthirsty leader might mean the replacement is more merciful — he only pillages the city, destroys the dockyards, and takes the ranking military and leaders hostage, rather than slaughtering everyone and burning the place to the ground.

Of course, this might mean the hobgoblins now have a better leader available than the bloodthirsty one that might otherwise have led, and this one is not only more capable but is favored by the hobgoblin high command and has more troops… but you can’t have everything.

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2 Comments

  1. Story Arc asks what is the goal or (may I add) plot.
    Adventure narrows down the Story Arc question: In this plot or goal, how does the PC get buy in (or the first stage of Pacing; Or Asking questions relevant to the Pacing or where the PC is in the Pacing)
    In Scenarios, I’ll be using Pacing to help me find my bearings what questions I should be asking. If its stage 1 out of 3 in how pacing flows.
    Pretty Good technique, Thanks.

    • I always hesitate to use the word ‘plot’ when I talk about adventure or story design. I often see adventures with plots that expect (or require) that the PCs play things out a certain way. Minor details might vary but mostly not important ones.

      The primary purpose of the PCs is to disrupt things, change what would have happened had they not been involved. In the primary example used in this article (defeating the hobgoblin invaders), I know that Tal Forenn is under attack and will fall if nothing is done, and that Tal Theris is under siege and will capitulate if Tal Forenn falls, rather than share that fate. The PCs have an opportunity to prevent these things from happening.

      The story doesn’t depend on either of these outcomes, nor on the PCs successfully preventing them. The path the story takes depends on how things play out, but there is no plot to follow beyond ‘try to disrupt what would happen if you weren’t here’.

      That said, individuals and groups within the story can plot things and have plans. The PCs need something to tamper with, after all :)

      I don’t want to know how the story goes until the play ends. By the time things are done and the dust settles it will likely look like there was a plot, a thread through the story, but it ends up being the ones the PCs make.

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