Thursday, April 5, 2012

C is for Campaign

Let me start out by getting something off my chest, something that's been bothering me for a while. I have to say that there are some OSR sacred cows with which I take issue.

Most of these dastardly bovines take the form of "truisms" or "either/or" situations. For instance, I've read opinions such as:

  • 1st level/low-level PCs are "amateurs" (funny, aren't 1st level fighters in B/X called Veterans?)
  • PCs are not heroes, they are "adventurers" (an adventurer can't become a hero, willingly or not?)
  • Story games vs. sandbox games (never the twain shall meet)
I'm here to tell you that I think this is a bunch of crap, and that all of these things are not mutually exclusive, or need not be so. All of this is just people clinging to the way they've always played and propping it up as "the only real way to play."

Anyway, with all that said, onward to the letter of the day:

Blasphemous as it is to many OSR ears, I've always run something of a "story" campaign. By story I mean: players develop backgrounds for characters of varying depth, and these backgrounds help form the foundation for the campaign and have some influence in the potential adventures that lay ahead as the campaign progresses. This means that, as a GM, I can use pieces of character backgrounds as potential options (quests, if you will) for the players to pursue in whatever order/manner they see fit (if they follow them at all). To me, none of this robs players of agency (big buzz word right there) nor does it lend itself more readily to railroading. To me, your average pre-made adventure module is much more likely to lead to the old choo-choo boogeyman.

When I started out as a teenager, my friends used to like to develop elaborate backstories for their characters. To my young self, who was I to deny them that, something they clearly saw as fun? And I was more than happy for the help in fleshing out the world, elaborating on their backstories. To us, that was the source of motivation to sally forth to adventure. It was all in the spirit of "cooperative storytelling." And I find that this type of game makes players more invested in the campaign, usually.

Call "teenage-me" a victim of the dreaded "Hickmanization" of D&D from back in the day. I really don't care. I've had plenty fun gaming this way, and last time I checked fun was one of the big reasons for roleplaying...or any other pastime for that matter.

However, I'm willing to concede that there are also limitations to the story-driven game (and I keep using that term but it really irks me, because I don't want people to think that I accept the standard negative connotation of that phrase).

When I started my C&C campaign in summer 2011 (the first campaign I had run in years) I carried on my old tradition of story-based gaming with the new group of people I met. And they were also very inclined to that sort of game. We had a lot of fun. But, unlike when I was a kid, we adults don't have time to show up to every game session on a consistent basis. Therefore, there were nights when, if a couple specific players didn't show up, I was loathe to run a session without those players being there. There were nights when sessions were cancelled due to this fact of adult life.

Again, I was just as guilty of cancelling as the players. But I felt the need to do things differently with regard to the foundations of a future campaign, i.e. make the next campaign less about the backstory of characters. In other words, play what many consider to be a more "traditional" old-school fantasy RPG game.

The downside of story-based games, to me, is the dependence on players showing up. I don't want to keep a game going without the players (and their characters) that were integral to the formation of the game. It can also make it hard for new players to join the group, as their characters will not have been in existence at the creation of the campaign (and therefore are not part of the campaign's inception). This may lead to a lessened feeling of investment.

That's why I'm looking forward to a more sandbox approach to characters. Not that old-school characters are generic and disposable. But I want to go with little to no backstory for once. I feel like there's a fine line between cardboard PCs and interesting PCs in Classic D&D, and a player's creativity and attitude is what places them on either side of that line. The players will get out of it what they put into it. That's one of the strengths of Classic D&D: your character isn't just a gestalt of feats, powers, equipment, and all the other stuff that goes into what can be called a "character build." Your character is who he/she is thanks to how you play that character, how you describe their appearance, personality, know, how you ROLEPLAY that character.

So, what I'm doing is trying out a different style of play. I'm not rejecting my story-based gaming past for the "true religion" of the idealized/deified sandbox concept. But this Labyrinth Lord campaign will be my first real foray into a different style of play for me, and I'm excited as all get-out!


  1. So funny- I guess it just depends on your definition. For me, if I as the DM make my game about the players and what they put in their backgrounds, versus manipulating then into following a pre-determined path I chose for them, then that's the definition of sandbox. But if I have NPCs that I think are too important to die, or when my players do something I don't expect and I say, "Oh, you can't go there" or (worse), "Your character feels like he doesn't want to go there", then that's a railroad.

    I don't think having a "story" is the acid test of whether your game is a railroad or a sandbox. But that's just me - sounds like my games are much more similar to what yours.

    And, I also agree with you about the whole "hero vs. adventurer" thing. I don't get why they are seen as mutually exclusive by the OSR.

  2. Re: hero versus adventurer. There seems to be a couple of misunderstandings here.

    First, your character in an old school campaign isn't expected to survive. Your character survives if you play smart and get lucky. There is no 'plot immunity' offered to your character. Some players begin with the presumption that they will play the same character through the whole campaign, that their starting character is destined for greatness. The old school says bollocks - you can acheive greatness, but nothing is pre-ordained or guaranteed.

    The other side of this is that there is no default presumption that the player characters are 'the good guys.' The players may opt to build an orphanage, or burn one down, or even do both over the course of the campaign. An old school sandbox campaign leaves those choices in the hands of the players, with the referee as neutral arbiter of the players' choices.

    I hope that clears up some of the confussion.

  3. Martin: Good to hear from you, dude! How are things?

    Black Vulmea: I agree with your responses, but I feel as though some OSR pundits take the choice between hero and adventurer out of player's hands before the first dice is even rolled. In other words, I feel like there's a large contingent of OSR folks who come from the stance of "characters are supposed to be glorified tomb robbers." I don't think you are one of those, and I agree that the players must make of their characters what they will, and that becoming a hero is a process in Classic D&D, not something you start out as (like in 4E?).

    And agreed with the low survivability of PCs, which I am looking forward to experiencing with my new campaign! ;-) Not to sound like I want to be a Killer GM...far from it. But just want to see how the inherent deadliness of Classic D&D will play out first-hand...I'm warning players up front of the relative fragility of low-level Classis D&D characters, and having them roll up multiple PCs from the very start, to be brought in mid-game if death comes knocking...

  4. That BS of what this 'should' be or what not has always made me chuckle. Run the game that is the best for you and your players. The only thing I would take issue with is if you're not having fun. Keep it coming!