Games Design - [Campaigns] So what should an "indie" campaign book look like?

Posted by: Andrew Kenrick On: Jul 30th 2010 edited

Picking up some of the threads talked about here, I wanted to explore the concept of a campaign supplement and how it applies to some of our games. There's a slight vested interest here - a couple of my projects might fall into the category of either campaign book or games designed for campaign play - but I'll keep the thread more general so it's more useful.

So, first let's address the premise: what does a campaign book look like? Well, traditionally it provides an overarching premise, sometimes including setting, and then a series of linked scenarios within that premise.

I've highlighted the two key parts of that definition that I think are useful here: overarching premise and series of linked scenarios, neither of which are mutually exclusive to the way our games work (and some of which is built in already).

So at the most basic level, a traditional campaign book could be produced for a game like Hot War. You'd include the overarching premise, which is much the same as the situation sheet created at the start of a game anyway, and then a series of linked scenarios that build off it. Nothing new here - published scenarios for Hot War is a done thing, after all.

But I wonder if such a thing would be doing the game something of an disservice. After all, creating such a rigid structure for Hot War would take something of the fun away from a game that leans on its players for a lot of the creative input. So, is there something more appropriate that could be used instead? A partially created situation sheet perhaps, finished by the group as they create their own characters, and then a series of loosely defined scenarios, perhaps like a more focused situation sheet for each session that sketched out the premise of the continuing plot, but allowed for GMs and players to fit in their own agendas and the like.

So, in your view, what would a campaign supplement for an "indie" game look like? Could such a thing be done? Would such a thing even have value?


Posted by: James Mullen On: Jul 30th 2010

Picking up from your Hot War example, I imagine a campaign book looking like one of two things:

1. Detailed Setting: Take some part of the Hot War world, quite a large part, and expand on it extensively. For example, a Hot War 'Military' Campaign book would include important NPCs and standard templates for all the armed forces, including covert operatives and Soviet soldiers, as well as detailed descriptions of important locations and, again, some templates for generic locations. This would be held together with a selection of plot hooks related to the NPCs and locations in the book, that could be fitted into the world created by the group's own world-burning session.

2. Giant 'Madlib': A book of detailed missions and scenarios, with large blanks to be filled in with the PCs, NPCs and agendas created by the group, e.g. 'The cabal behind the experiments is blackmailing [the NPC with most credible access to the equipment they need] over their involvement with [the PC agenda they are most likely to be working against] in order to secure their co-operation'. It'd be a bit like having a backseat GM telling you which characters to screw with and why, so the players' choices would have meaning and would determine a lot about the rationale behind the events in the scenarios... but it would be hard to put together a string of scenarios like this, as you could never be sure who would even still be alive at the end of each one. I feel the GM would need to exercise their fiat a lot more to keep the story arc even close to where the campaign book needed it to be.

Posted by: Neil Gow On: Jul 30th 2010

I spent quite a bit of time on my holidays, jotting down notes for a possible BtQ campaign 'something', drawing a lot from the stuff that Gaz mentioned previously. These were some of the things that I mused upon:

1. Level of Player Choice
I struggled with this one for a moment and then remembered my cardinal rule - if you are playing the game, you are playing the game. I'll explain. I think a lot of energy is wasted in design worrying about the marginal cases and awkward buggers at the table. I work from a basis that people who have sat down at the table are appraised of the themes of a game and want to engage with the themes of the game. If, for example, you sit down to a game of Hot War and then insist on trying to create a game set in Little Rock at the same time as the game is set, don't expect the book to support you. Thats not what Hot War is about. I come from a position that the GM will (a) pitch the game correctly and (b) everyone has agreed that this is what they are going to play.

This sort of clears up a number of the issues with player choice and the scope of their ability to mold the adventure and the world because by sitting down to play the game, they have agreed to the concept. How would this manifest itself in this project?

The Naval Mission structure would give the campaign its structure in the generic thrust of the 'adventure' as per a normal BtQ game. The initial missions would act as a settling-in/introductory tutorial to some of the game concepts (challenges, ship-to-ship, Captains Table etc). The later Missions would be split into different zones that the players could choose to tackle, linking to each other. The rewards and punishments for each mission would also have suggested outcomes which the players and GM are at liberty to ignore. There would be quite some emphasis on the transition between Missions and how to reflect the outcomes of these missions in the wider campaign world (indeed, there might even be a mechanic to reflect this)

2. Structure vs Freeflow
This, here, is where me and standard campaign books part company. The need to create a structure that allows the campaign to be 'stable' creates some absolute nightmares for freedom of choice. I'll give you an example. In the Great Pendragon Campaign, one of the early bad guys in Cerdic, a saxon war chief. Now, he is a piece of work and gets right up the noses of the PCs (or at least he did for us) but as I remember it, he has to survive until later on in the campaign for a few pivotal scenes/adventures. Sorry, but this dude had Saxon Enemy #1 painted on his head early doors and any band of knights worth their salt would be gunning for him major-scale. So the GM has to do some jiggery-pokery to keep them seperated until the appointed time. Copulate that! So under my limits, the players have to have the ability to get the job done in a manner of their own making.

3. Scope of the Sandbox
This is mainly about giving the GM enough information to support their game if their players decide to go monumentally off-piste or really get stuck into one area over all others. Here, I think giving broad information without straightjacketing detail is needed. NPCs could have four or five points of interest but don't need to be statted or pinned down too much. I think that excellent referencing can help as well. OK, this is more prevalent to my games than maybe some others, but I can point people to a ton of written and online reference for their games, and thats a big part of this, I think.

I think I cheat a little as my games are pretty 'trad' in structure, with narrative bolt-ons dialled up and down to the table's preferences. No collaborative world building, for example, although there is collaborative ship building which is as near as I get.

I think that a more 'indie' campaign book would have to concentrate some of its energies on the process of playing an intense, player-driven game over an extended period of time. Take some time to look at methods to slow or extend the gameplay or to introduce interludes and such as fully played out sessions. (For example, in Hot War, a full session played out as a flashback to the days before the Disaster)


Posted by: Andrew Kenrick On: Jul 30th 2010

I guess for Beat to Quarters or Duty & Honour, you could present a sandbox setting complete with characters and opportunities for adventure, and a series of "mission briefs", which would then be created as any other mission is in the game as written. You're still playing the game as written, but some of the work of the GM (coming up with the missions) is done for you.

Posted by: Malcolm Craig On: Jul 30th 2010

An interesting an worthwhile discussion, for sure. I'm glad this topic has been raised, as I've been thinking a lot about this myself in light of the Campaigns or One Shots thread and James' Dead of Night Campaign thread. Trying to assimilate all of this and work out how it would feed into something practical for Hot War and Cold City has been taxing my brain.

From the comments so far (which all offer some great ideas and advice), it seems that the 'campaign' book crosses the line between the traditional campaign pack and a sourcebook. Location, characters, and situation are more important than a heavily proscribed adventure arc. Looking at James' suggestions for Hot War, his first point really connects with something I've been fiddling with in the background.

My intent was to write a game situation for convention play, based in the huge mental asylum at Cane Hill in Croydon. As I was writing it, it became apparent that it could be sued for much, much more. But (and this is the important but) how proscribed did I want to make it? Not very, would be the answer. Which kind of ties in to the fact that in terms of traditional adventures, I'm absolutely rubbish at writing them because of a complete inability to come up with a plot in advance.

So, hat I've been doing so far is just coming up with locations, characters, situations, and motivations. Then, individual groups would make of it what they will. Perhaps there could be some briefly sketched out game situation sheets included with all the other information?

In essence, I'm pretty much vocally agreeing with what everyone else has been saying!


Posted by: Andrew Kenrick On: Jul 30th 2010

I guess, traditionally, there has always been the background book too, which was like a campaign guide but without the actual campaigns. And maybe that's something which chimes a lot here - fundamentally, they're books packed full of interesting characters and situations, that GMs can include to drive their own stories.

Posted by: Malcolm Craig On: Jul 31st 2010

To disgress into the sourcebook issue for a moment, there have been many, many sourcebooks where you are presented with a bucket load of information, but no advice on how to actually use any of the people, places, or ideas in your games. It's often left up to the GM to work out how they might be integrated. Which, in some cases, is fair enough.

A campaign/source book for Hot War, or D&H, or whatever would combine interesting stuff that inspires the people reading it, but also give strong advice and worthwhile direction on how to actually use the information you are presented with.

Certainly, that's the direction I would see a Hot War 'campaign pack' heading in.


Posted by: Andrew Kenrick On: Jul 31st 2010

Digress away - I see it as a valid part of the topic.

So, rather than just present a character or location in isolation, you'd also include situation set-ups, suggested agendas and scenario set-ups that actually use them.

Posted by: Gary Bowerbank On: Jul 31st 2010 edited

It’s a funny one and the usual caveats about the type of game apply, but lets throw some things out there.

Bizarrely, in some of the more “trad” games out there, there have been campaigns or source books that seem absolutely meaningless, but as devices for Hot War or Beat to Quarters may well have been gold. A lot of the WW “By Night” books detail a city, inhabitants, agendas – but for playing Vampire you read them and thought “WTF am I supposed to do with that?” – also their adventure books (aside from being really poor and championing doing the exact opposite of what the game said it was about) were extremely linear and made no in-game sense.

Why was this? Because Vampire should really be played based on what the players individual characters are all up to and the rest is window dressing or interesting backdrops for this to happen against. It offered some good source stuff, but never explained *how* to use it – or that Vampire should be played as a hippy game, with player-brought plot, not a competition to see who could get the most Dominate or Potence.

Occasionally something big happens that transcends what the individual agendas are involved with and and you have to change what you’re doing at an individual level to take into account what’s happening in the world. The WW books tended to provide the chess pieces, but not tell you which NPCs were playing the Corsican Defence and what the reactions of others would be too that.

An indie campaign should provide Stuff You Can Use (or not), but not make any of it essential. Lots of interesting people / locations / situations and an escalating level of scale or scope. There shouldn’t be a linear scale (or arc) *per se*, but there should be an escalation – a sense of things moving on. Also, that Stuff should / could interact with itself and other Stuff independent of what the players are up to. Something to change the world under their feet and add extra dimensions – Events perhaps.

I’d think Zones is better than Arcs (which seems to indicate Linear almost), with the influence or stakes growing as you moved to different arcs. The Savage Plot Points (some good, some bad) are generally driven around an Arc, but in terms of play, there are a bunch of things happening and that you can interact with in a sandbox fashion. Once you’ve ticked off a certain number of pre-requisite scenarios (in whatever order, and maybe doing some non-essential ones too), you can move up the scale to more “important” stuff, until ultimately you get to the big denouement.

Obviously things like having Saxon No1 in the mix is a non-starter. You could have his Faction in the mix though. So, in Neil’s example, we’d not worry about him dying in the Pendragon adventure, as later on we have someone else to step in for that faction (The Saxons), Saxon No2 – who it turns out if far more odious than his cousin from an adventure several weeks ago. You can shift importance from a particular NPC to the faction, or general sphere of influence he represents. Obviously this works well in Hot War. Instead of meeting Perkins later on at the War Office (as you’ve already shot him), you are instead blocked by Daniels – his far more powerful and influential boss, who was the puppet master all along. A campaign structure could be written with the factions or groups in mind and a bag of NPCs to make it happen.

I’m rambling a bit, but I think I’d have the big sandbox, and then a Bunch of Stuff That Could Happen. A list of things people are going to do, if the players do nothing about it. Maybe a Reaction if they’re directly targeted by the players

  1. Will get flustered and try to sell out his masters
  2. Gets violent
  3. Pushes plans forward, risking mistakes

Or perhaps with a series of escalating steps

  1. Have lunch and give the PCs misleading information
  2. Send the boys round with a warning message
  3. Assassinate a PC’s loved one

Depending on how much canon you want to write, and risk taking some of the game away from being about the players, you could add more background events or changes:
What if, as the players were highly involved in the Power Crisis, HMS Dreadnought blew up? What if HMS Valiant tips up in the Thames one day?
Now what if there’s an invasion in force from a Soviet Battalion? What does that do to the players plans?

Now, those two things are extreme, but demonstrate an Event you could add that’s going to shake things up, and then an Even Bigger Event that’s going to take things further, none of which take into account what the players are up to (and arguably therefore take away from what the game is about), but you could carry on playing your game at the low level, but introduce things that are happening in the background to keep the world alive and interesting.

Some groups of players lap that shizzle up. One of the first questions anyone asks me about Hot War is “So what’s happened to Russia then” or “Are there any other cities in the UK still intact” – now sure, any of us could just make that up, or see what the answer is through play – but a big bunch of punters would wet themselves at the thought of a Manchester Sourcebook (with a collection of new factions, NPCs, etc.). What people largely want of that sort of product as well though is just a new bunch of idea they can mine for use in their own games.

I don’t think I’ve been particularly clear there, but its some thoughts for the pot at least.



Edit: Ha - Malcolm beat me to it in a much less verbose way...

Posted by: SebastienPelletier On: Aug 5th 2010

Disclaimer : campaign is what I am doing. There is not much interest in creating such type of product those days. That said, this is one of the most interesting discussion I've seen on the subject for a while. I found this thread thru story-games.

That said, let me propose you to formulate my "recipe" (or in fact, my "brand"), in campaign creation. You might notice that the points below are only rephrasing of ideas you've expressed above.

- A single product : no "setting" on one side and "adventures" on the others. You need to have a single product, presenting a living setting with immediate "stakes" (the adventures).

- No PCs : do not expect anything from them and don't put predefined path which they would need to follow. Should there be room for the PCs in the campaign? Of course. But they will need to find their own place, their own path to follow. Keep in mind tough that freedom comes with a cost: dilemma.

- No details : bring what gamers need to create a great, epic campaign: a lot of high stakes with a strong coherence between them. Given that, you can’t provide details. Focus more on one organisation and its political influence than its members. You’re better off giving tools to create secondary characters than tons of pages of insignificant names and stats.

- Multi Plots : don't provide an arc story, following a single course. Provide a lot of stuff happening at the same time over a large region. And, yes, use Events to describe what is happening in the world.

- Calendar based : you want to get away from story arc ? you want to manage what is happening "while the players are doing something else" ? Well, you can't use chapters anymore. Use a calendar instead. Make use of the metatime.

- Web of events : using the previous points, you'll generate a non linear web of events. Playing the campaign is, more or less, navigating thru the web, influencing some parts, not seeing some other parts, only seeing the consequences. Managing a web is really different from managing an arc.

Hoping this will help you. And like I said, seriously, those are all ideas you've expressed above ...

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