Wednesday, November 02, 2005

The Campaign Fallacy

Remember back when we were kids in school, and we played RPGs all the damn time, and we had those campaigns that went forever? The campaigns that hit the twenty, thirty, fifty session mark? The characters that you took from fledgling to badass? The campaigns where you changed the face of the world, or you just kept going through dungeon after dungeon after dungeon, accumulating power and items and renown?

You know what? I don't remember any of that. It never happened.

I remember imagining running or playing in those campaigns. I certainly remember planning them. I remember starting them. Looking back, I can't recall any game that went for more than perhaps eight sessions. I mean come on, I was fourteen. I don't think I could watch an entire season of a television show with any regularity. But the ideal of the decades-spanning epic adventure was always in the forefront of my mind. That was the goal that I was shooting for, wasn't it? That was the point of gaming! But just as all those kids that bought metric tons of Pokemon cards, dreaming of the day they'd win the big national tournament, just as the kids who bought the Air Jordan sneakers so that they can play major league basketball, just as the kids who bought that starter guitar-and-amp set so that they could be rockstars... I think I was duped.

Certainly there are exceptions. Did you have one of those years-long games? Maybe. I don't think the majority of kids who bought the same book did, though. I think the vast majority of gamers and proto-gamers never ran the same game for more than a handful of sessions, if they actually ran the game at all. That magnificent vision of recreating the Lord of the Rings, or for the youngsters, the Wheel of Time (he still hasn't finished that series! It's still going!)... that was never going to happen at your gaming table. But damn did you want it. Christ, I don't say this lightly, but perhaps the games publishers actually employed a functional marketing strategy once in their publishing histories. Of course you'll need to buy the Guide to the Forgotten Backwater of Zeebadoo, because someday your great and magnificent epic game might go there! The reality didn't matter; it was the dream that made you buy.

I'd say that I'm older and wiser now, but I've got an entire bookcase of roleplaying game books that, while they were fun to read and all, I bought with the bright-eyed ambition of someday oneday actually playing them. I bought very nearly the entire 7th Sea line off of eBay once (an episode we like to call "Why Josh doesn't go to eBay anymore") and have played two 7th Sea games, eight sessions total. I'll stand up and make a case for buying the core book with the rules of a game that I may never play, because I can learn from that stuff. But I bought all the fucking kingdom books. I bought the Castille book with Antonio Bandaras and Leonardo DiCaprio on the cover. I never played in Castille... but I planned a campaign that was going to go there and never quite got off the ground.

More recently, as in, today, we were discussing what we wanted to play in our upcoming once-a-month-because-we're-too-damn-busy game day. Someone suggested Nobilis to which I had a pretty immediate reaction, that being: ew, long. It's the same reason why I can't see playing anything resembling a Fantasy Heartbreaker. It's at least related to the reason why MUSHing does not appeal to me any longer. It's an element of what is starting to piss me off about World of Warcraft. I just don't have time for something that only sees full development when played regularly and consistently for months on end. Who has time for that sort of thing?

The Campaign Fallacy in Gamer Culture
What other activity requires you to invest so much effort over so much time? Hint: marriage and childrearing don't count. And we're talking coordinated effort, here. We're talking about getting four to six people to synchronize their lives to allow them this meaty half-day chunk of time to dedicate to the goal. We're assuming that some hapless schmuck who we call the GM is going to spend additional hours upon hours preparing things for the other people to do so that time and coordination aren't wasted. I still get stirrings of, "But wouldn't that be so awesome?" when I think of it, but the reason that it would be so awesome is because it would be wholly outside the scope of reality. Riding a fucking unicorn to work would be awesome, too, but that doesn't mean that the local Toyota dealer has them available.

Yet the books keep coming, keep getting printed, keep being designed, that assume that the players will create great, sweeping stories that never end, playing that game until they are old and grey. Some of it boils down to economics, certainly: the sole marketing strategy that gaming has ever mastered, that of hookwinking players into thinking they'll need yet another book filled entirely with nothing but color, the publishing equivalent of cotton candy.

I think it's settled deeper into gamer culture now, though, to the point where it keeps happening because of tradition. I know I've seen reviews of books that complained that they could not see a long-term campaign arising out of the presented material. That's a standard of quality, now? I know that I, as a designer, once dreamed of having a row of my books marching along my bookshelf, all with their cute little matching spines and title treatments. It was a standard of success for me, and still is to anyone who bemoans the "death" of a game line when there are no more supplements being printed. Hello? Nothing stopping you from playing the game, and isn't the game being played a better guage of whether it's alive or dead?

The 'default' gaming situation is everybody showing up for "The Greyhawk Campaign" or "The Ninjas versus Pirates Campaign" or whatever else. We define a given gaming group by the game they are currently playing, presumably forever -- "My L5R Group" or "The Thursday Night D&D Group." We even assume that gaming has to happen at regular intervals or else it's not really gaming, it's just a one-shot or one-off. Chris Chin recently wondered about GM burnout; maybe the weight of responsibility for three years of entertainment has something to do with it. Maybe trying to create something that can be sustained indefinately strains the hell out of the thing created, until it's no longer fun, not because this session wasn't fun, but because it's getting hard to see how the game will continue off into the sunset forever. Striving for the impossible is pretty damn stressful; I can see why people "burn out" and give up.

Nitty-Gritty: Actual Products
Of course, I am writing Full Light, Full Steam, which is written with the same Campaign Fallacy, that certainly my game is bright and shiney and cool enough that you will want to play the damn thing forever, right? Man, steam-powered etherships and martians with flippers for hands! How could that ever get old? But Christ, I don't want to play the game forever. In all truth, I'd be happy to play a handful of three-session games and then move the fuck on. There are too many good other games out there that I want to play to content myself with tooling around the same old bathtub forever. And of course all those other games are infected, to varying degrees, with the assumption that I'll play them forever, too.

There's a certain honesty to the How to Host a Murder boxed set series that RPGs have never had, and I don't think have every quite understood. HHM implicitly says, "Inside this box is one night's worth of fun." Gamers turn up their noses at that -- no replay value! But guess which one sells more copies? And really, shelling out $20 for six people's enjoyment -- that beats the movies, that beats nearly any sports event, that beats the amusement parks. Contrast with an RPG line -- sure, the main book is $20 ($30, recently) but then the GM book is another $20-$30, the splatbooks are $12-$15, the setting book is $20 more. We'll always throw another book on top of the stack because we'll play it eventually, but really, we won't. We'll pile up over a hundred dollars for "enough books to play," and then we'll play, what, three sessions before it falls apart? Even if we make it to five sessions, we have only broken even with How to Host a Murder. And the GM had to invest some of their precious time to prepare the adventure, too. We have paid money to do work and we still haven't got more entertaining time out of the experience.

We have some games now that don't fall prey to the Campaign Fallacy. My Life with Master and the Mountain Witch, for instance, are designed to be played for a limited space of time, until Endgame. Bacchanal and Breaking the Ice are designed to be played in one sitting. These are great developments, and in the end, I think these make far better products, with greater appeal to consumers. Buying the core book to Exalted is an investment -- not of your money, but of your time. Once it's bought, you tell yourself, "Now that I have it, I must play it." And when you're fingering the book for the first time, somewhere in the back of your head is the thought, "But if I buy it, will I ever play it? Will I set aside months of my life to pursue this thing?" But pick up Breaking the Ice and you think, "I can totally play this with my girlfriend one night." The book feels lighter in your hand, and it's not just the page count I'm talking about. Buying the book is a lesser commitment than buying into some mammoth encyclopeadic Campbellian monstrosity.

Make It Real
But as I try to pound into the heads of Forgites, writing something in the book does not make it happen at the gaming table. My target is the game -- the people around the table -- not the books. The books are props and tools. The game is the people, and the people are our community. There's a group up in Canada that is practicing what they call Stealth Gaming -- they get together and play games. Sounds familiar, but the change is this: the games change. The people signed up for Stealth Gaming did not sign up for "a wicked-cool Eberron campaign!" but they signed up to play anything. Maybe tonight will be something they like; if it isn't, maybe next time. No one is obliged to show up every night, anyway. The important distinction is that the group is not there to play a game, they are there to play games.

We've had this staring us in the face for years upon years: we call them Cons. This is an event where people from far and wide show up, not to play a game, but to play games. What will you do at the Con? Well, maybe you'll sign up for some specific events and you'll have some idea ahead of time, but the rest is up in the air. Try new things! Meet new people! Stay true to the common thread: play games. We also have the House Con, an event where a smaller group of people all mob somebody's house and do the same exact thing. Perhaps they occur annually, or semi-annually, or even just once.

What happens when we make it happen once a month? Once every two weeks? What if we stop having "the GURPS: Banestorm Campaign" and just have "Game Night"? Sometimes you play Sorcerer, sometimes you play Dogs, sometimes you play fucking Munchkin or some Mario Kart. Sometimes it's Ed, Mary, Sue, and Habib; sometimes it's Ed, Mary, Sue, and George; sometimes it's Mary, George, and Habib. Sometimes everybody piles into one game of D&D; sometimes there's a game of Breaking the Ice going on side-by-side with a game of Paranoia. It doesn't matter, as long as you stay true to the common thread: play games. Make it a private or semi-private affair, and make the thread play games with friends. Open it up, hold it in a public place or even rent an auditorium and make the thread play games with new people.

Previously this kind of set up would have been impossible. You would never acheive that great, epic story that the games told you you wanted. Without someone designated as the GM ahead of time, there would be no prep work done by the time people showed up to play. Disaster! But today's games can be set up in moments -- a Dogs town in ten minutes. Some of today's games make the set up part of the collaborative play -- the pitch session of PTA. And some of today's games require no set up at all -- Breaking the Ice! Capes!

Don't think it can be done? LARPers do it every month. The thing that us Tabletoppers needed were the tools to make it possible -- games that allow us to play immediately, with different people each time, without expectations that one "game" will require session after session of play in order to be worthwhile. We have our first tools, and I suspect that we will be getting more in the months and years to come. Think of the Campaign Fallacy as the cocoon, and the emerging creature -- whatever shape it will eventually blossom into -- the roleplaying game.


At 5:49 PM, Blogger Ron Edwards said...

Way ahead of you, m'friend.

We play just as you describe (the good way, not the bad way), and sometimes I'm in multiple groups doing it. The campus club I advised functioned just like that too.

Sorcerer opened the door for it, I think. "The unit of fun is Kicker resolution" was ... really hard for most people to understand, at first. And then, when they did, they thought it was obscene, horrible, never to be done, wrong.

It's been a good nine years, watching that happen.

At 8:16 PM, Blogger Joshua BishopRoby said...

Oh, I know it's being done. It's done at Cons, it's done at LARPs, it's done by the Stealth Gamers up in... Edmonton or wherever they are. It's just not "normal" yet. ;)

The question I'm pondering now is: how do I make it normal in my immediate vicinity, how do I make it normal in other places, and most importantly, what tools need to be developed in order to accomplish that?

At 9:17 PM, Blogger Bradley "Brand" Robins said...

Josh, a few things:

1. If you have not, read this:

2. I did have two of those epic campaigns of yore which you doubt ever happening. The first was awesome, the second sucked. After that I kept trying for them, over and over, and only gave up on it about a year ago.

Now the longest game I've done is one just finished that went 2 years, at slightly less than 2 games a month. By the end I was dragging though, and when it ended I said I'd never do it again.

This was a lie -- I've got a game that's actually longer running than that and has no sign of stopping. But it's a solo game done in a very episodic style. We play when we feel like playing it, get a resolution, and move on. When we feel like playing again, it's a whole new story. Works wonders.

3. Long term games are important to certain types of immersivists and simmers. The deep, abiding, and developing intertwining of character and setting is something that the hardcore in those modes do actually do, and do actually like. The mistake isn't thinking it can be fun -- the mistake is thinking its fun for everyone, should be the default fun, or is the only fun gaming can provide.

GNS, if nothing else, has shown us the light on that one.


Yes, we know. Dude, someday one of us will catch up to you. Until then, can you accept that I'm dumb, and Josh is dumb, and we're working hard to learn? Just accept your Hastur status and wait for us to follow the King in Yellow to your door....

(Seriously though, it was Sorcerer for me too. Kicker resolution blew my brain wide open.)

At 9:19 PM, Blogger Bradley "Brand" Robins said...


In reply to your reply: The thing I've had the most luck with in making it normal in my gaming groups is using games that let you have the fun and move on. Get people playing Sorcerer, Mountain Witch, and Dogs and show em it can be fun. Once they start having fun in new modes, they start to accept that maybe they didn't know everything all along.

The other thing I've done, less honestly, is to get people jazzed about 12 different games at once, waited for them to say "But it would take like 10 years to play all those games" and then come in with "Unless we do a short run series...."

At 11:20 PM, Blogger Joshua BishopRoby said...

1) Yeah. Certainly informed my thinking.

2) Your episodic solo game I'd call a different animal -- as you say, you find a resolution and then start another story. You're not playing LotR, you're playing Anansi (I say Anansi because I'm sure you're playing with trickster Mo).

3) I question whether long-term duration is really that important for immersive play. I think what's more likely is that, the longer you play, the more likely it is that you will bump into those defining moments where you strike a revelation as to how your character and the setting intertwine. Much like we have Bangs for Nar and challenges for Gamism, I think we'll find that 'spark' that makes immersion/sim really important, and then we'll develop games that hammer on that until it squeals, as the current Nar games do with Bangs.

I can see the long-term nature being important to the social agenda of a group, where it's important to me to have that sense of continuity with my good friends. I won't go so far as to invalidate that very real desire of some players, but I can't help but think it's mostly clusterfuck masturbatory. Cliques of MUSH players come to mind.

Games that are built for short-term play are good tools, but they aren't the only ones. I'm grasping at the very edges of what I want, but something that allows different GMs, different players in the group, but still is the 'same game' is part of it. Like the way-back olden days of gaming where everything was supposedly part of a far greater continuity, and people played one character in three different campaigns and nobody batted an eye? Or look at the Dogs game that Clinton ran and killed off all the Dogs -- they later decided that that was at the end of the Dogs' stories, and any later play would take place in-game before those events.

Take the modularity implied by that game, applied in a systemic fashion, and combine it with GMless/GMful system and episode story structure, allowing any five people out of a group of ten to show up and "continue" playing the same game. That's hazy, but it's the best I can sketch it right now. Something that categorically cannot apply to cells of players in isolation, but requires a broader, more flexible network to function (or causes such a network to be developed).

At 11:23 PM, Blogger IceCreamEmperor said...

The goal you describe doesn't seem that far out of reach; whether or not it was something we did explicitly, much of my gaming as a teenager was much like this. Sure, we nominally showed up to play some specific game, but if the GM for that game was tired, or someone else had an idea... we did something else.

But really, I don't see this as counter to long-running campaigns. It may be counter to the Idea of them, but that's not really a problem. I've run one longish-running game and played in a longer one, but neither of them ran uninterrupted by other games, played by the same group.

It seems to me that it's the pressure/obligation you are complaining/concerned about -- the idea that everyone shows up expecting the next chapter in epic game X. But if you have two or three 'campaigns' and a half-dozen shorter games sitting around on any given night, it's not hard to pick up the one the group feels like playing -- while still getting the rewards that come from both short and long-term play.

At 11:29 PM, Blogger John Kim said...

Actually, there are quite a lot of activities which call for the same commitment. Sure, you can just play an impromptu game of soccer with your friends. However, all of the people I know who play a sport regularly do it in a league which has regularly scheduled games that you are expected to show up at.

Speaking personally, I regularly run one-shot games both at conventions and in my group. Over the past year my group has done a number of one-shots, including My Life With Master, Blue Rose, and two of Shifting Forests' Parlor Larp series (which are excellent one-shot designs, by the way). However, the consensus that I got was that we wanted to move back to the third year of our Buffy campaign -- which has gone for 34 episodes thus far.

In short, I approve of there being short-term games, but I don't think you have to attack long campaigns as a general fallacy to approve of shorter games as an option.

Bear in mind, neither you nor I are the average gamer. For what it's worth, in the 1999 WotC Survey, they found average campaign overall was 15 sessions -- and the longer people had played, the longer campaigns lasted.

At 2:42 AM, Blogger Bankuei said...

Striving for the impossible is pretty damn stressful; I can see why people "burn out" and give up.

Basically the whole point of that post of mine =)

At 10:04 AM, Blogger Bradley "Brand" Robins said...


I think a lot of my ongoing campaigns do use some of the techniques you talked about. I have multiple games right now that have gone for more than a year or three, and have more than 20 sessions under their belts.

However, in thinking about them I realized they don't often fall into the "weekly/biweekly ongoing events" structure of the traditional campaign. At the very least they are episodic and seasonal (following the TV series model from PTA and Robin D. Laws article in Dragon). Many of them are more like novels, with full intesnse stories told and then the game set aside until we want to do another full intense story (like our old Tribe 8 game, yo). All of them that work well have times and places where the game can be safely put aside for a time, and brought back when it is time to do something else cool with it.

I think if you want to get more people to game short-run, you need to look less at crushing the idea of the campaign and more to redefining how it works. Move it away from the serially published Victorian novel series and towards discrete, contained, and modular units that let you tell the story you want to tell without having to show up for 6 hours every week to hear about how many winebottles there are on the sideboard (fuck you James Joyce) for years on end.

Between "endless campaign" and "one shot" there is a lot of room to develop new structures. Kickers do one way, PTA's episodes and seasons do another*, and the logic of neccesity birthed a third with our Tribe 8 games. Fuck around in there, and you may find more under earth and heaven.

*Brilliant, btw. You can play PTA for years -- but you have to break it up into chunks and make goals for each of those chunks.

At 10:11 AM, Blogger Joshua BishopRoby said...

ICE -- yeah, that's what I'm talking about. Not that long-term campaigns can't or even shouldn't happen, but that they happen in the context of a "play games" focus, rather than being the focus themselves.

Which brings me to John -- I don't mean this to be an attack against long-term campaigns by any means; I do mean it to be an attack against the assumption that long-term campaigns are the default.

Your soccer league is a good counter-example; thank you. The difference being, of course, that a game of soccer can be meaningful outside of league play, whereas a number of RPGs are constructed such that they cannot be meaningful or even reach full development outside of that "league-like" long-term play.

I love Buffy's game structure, and Dogs' structure, because that episodic style simply works with our modern audience. Whether it's because we're inculcated by television or because a long series of short stories simply works better (nearly all lasting ancient literature follows this model -- hello, Homer!), modular episodes just click. Modular episodes are also more permissible for players and characters to be swapped in and out. If Xander's player doesn't show up one week, it's not a big deal if Xander isn't in that week's episode. That's the sort of game design that specifically allows for the reality of the play group. Contrast that with some years-long wannabe LotR epic where every session requires the full participation of all members in order to follow the plot that the GM has meticulously set up so as to keep open the possibility of more play later. Buffy and its genre structure allow for each individual unit of play (session, episode) to be meaningful and enjoyable on its own; D&D, GURPS, Shadowrun, et cetera, make every unit's meaning dependent on some increasingly improbable pay-out.

Lastly, I have long questioned the validity of the WotC survey. 15 sessions being the average? Doubtful. In fact, almost a statistical impossibility given the very existence of one-shots. 15 sessions being the average "longest campaign you've ever played?" Maybe -- with the proviso that the people answering the question were gilding their recollections with nostalgia, and 30-year-olds were citing their campaigns of their youth. Sure, the longer you'd been playing, the longer your longest campaign got -- because the longer you've been playing, the older you are, the further back you were playing D&D, the more likely you were playing the endless parade of dungeons in the 80s when that's all there was available.

At 10:32 AM, Blogger Joshua BishopRoby said...

Brand, when we are both composing comments at the same time, we need to not share the same brain.

At 11:10 AM, Blogger Bradley "Brand" Robins said...


Spooky, isn't it?

P.S. I'm re-reading your cycle of play and interactions posts. I like it even more than I did the first time.

At 11:11 AM, Blogger Bankuei said...

Hi Joshua,

Another thing is that every "epic" we can think of is generally structured in an episodic manner to begin with. It was necessary for oral storytellers to keep the stories in mind.

My longest run campaign lasted 2 years, but, as you mentioned, it wasn't a solid block- it was many small stories of 4-6 sessions, which made each piece easily digestable and complete to the players, and allowed folks to cycle out and in as life dictated.

I think Ron's recent comments on Reward Cycles apply here:

It's interesting that many people trained/entrenched in older forms of play often ask, "But why would I play a game that's over so fast?" Isn't that interesting ... they associate experiencing a unit of fun with being finished.

At 1:17 PM, Blogger IceCreamEmperor said...

Just to toss in another example to go along with sports leagues: community theatre also comes to mind. Rehearsals, etc. etc.

It's not about finding something that parallels gaming -- it's just to make the point that, no, it's really not that unreasonable to expect some level of commitment to a hobby. It's definitely not impossible. -- that part of your rant just reads like hyperbole to me. The idea that gamers are somehow incapable of any sort of commitment, and so we should not ask it of them, seems a little silly.

Yes, designers should recognize that people may have less time to make those commitments, but arguing against long-term campaigns on the basis of their impossibility doesn't make sense to me. Better to talk about whether that level of commitment is worth it -- is there a payoff in fun that makes showing up every week for five hours a worthy use of my time?

At 3:16 PM, Blogger Joshua BishopRoby said...

I hear you, ICE. There's also folks in the SCA who spend gobs of time in a regular and consistent fashion. But (of course there's a but) community theater is not you and your five close friends. It's like, what, twenty people? And not all of them are there every single rehearsal. Sometimes they're sick, sometimes they're on vacation, whatever, but the rehearsal goes on. In gaming, though, if somebody can't make it, it's not that out of the ordinary to cancel the session entirely (and not still get together and play something else).

It's not the long campaign I take issue with, it's the assumption that, or order to have the long campaign (and you do want it, don't you), you have to have everybody show up regularly and consistently with nearly 100% commitment, and that's phooey.

Taking cues from sports, hobby, theater, et cetera is a good idea -- it shows us how to get together and have fun consistently without saddling each other with ridiculous expectations.

Chris -- yeah, the guy I cited doing the review complaining that you can't run it as a long-term campaign has the same basic reaction and assumption: of course you want this $20 book to give you three years of entertainment!

Brand -- careful with that shit. It infects your thought. I keep catching myself using 'imbue' and 'articulate' on the Forge as if everybody knew what the hell I was talking about.

At 7:49 PM, Blogger James said...

Woot! Stealth Gamers! Propagate the meme!

Umm, yeah. Not much for content here; just jazzed about the mention. :)


At 10:06 AM, Blogger Joshua BishopRoby said...

James, you should make a post strictly about the Stealth Gamers (and not muddied up with one specific Actual Play) and tell us how things are developing -- then I can link it when I mention you guys again.


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