What is a successful campaign? How can this be achieved? Or is it a mirage due more to nostalgia than to true quality?
It happened quite often to stop and talk, during the fair or the weekly meetings, with the players who shared or had shared with me the experiences as a player and storyteller. It was, and still is, an opportunity to discuss what has been done, to hear opinions on emerging role-playing games or never tried before but, above all, to hear about successful campaigns.
Obviously these experiences, narrated to me with unparalleled enthusiasm, have some common denominators, fundamental to grab the title of "Success Campaign" by the players who play it. Without counting the mere affective attachment to the character and the campaign (points that I think can be shared but absolutely not necessary) at least three elements are needed.
The elements for a successful campaign
First, the lunghezza. It goes from the minimum four-five years to the maximum ten-fifteen, a period that usually does not last beyond due to force majeure commitments such as marriages, children, jobs and removals. A good campaign, it seems, is one that takes you from puberty to adulthood. And do the same with your character, an eternal XNUMX-year-old who goes from summoning soap bubbles to raising volcanoes out of thin air.
Therefore, there are no one-shots of success and success equal to longer-term campaigns. And, exactly thanks to this point, there are thousands of stories of campaigns that began and never ended, perhaps lasting two or three years and then left in the limbo of endless stories.
In secundis, of course, i characters. It is well established that memorable characters are those who participate in successful campaigns, and it is equally obvious that all the others are not. This cuts out a good chunk of all those characters created for a session on the fly, the replacement characters and so on, not to mention NPCs, enemies different from the final bad guy, weapons, armor and so on.
The effort put into creating a character seems well rewarded only when it is used for a long time, going from being a simple human to being "something more" (a noble vampire, a formidable detective, level 20, King somewhere and so on).
The importance of player choices and the compelling storyline
Third, and last, point: the importance and centrality of choices of the players together with the plot compelling built by the narrator. In all the beautiful campaigns you can see how solid and linear the plot is from the beginning despite the choices (right and wrong) of the players, according to the famous motto "all roads lead to Rome". Could it be a well hidden Railroad? Maybe.
The Grand Final Combat
Fourth point, optional depending on the system you are using, the great final fight (abbreviated GCF) which involves the bad guy and all the characters in the last supper of the campaign. A fight that is often narrow, mean, in which the lives of important characters are broken (and will therefore become even more memorable) and in which everything is at stake.
Precisely because it marks the end of the story at the table, the last fight is the one remembered by the players with the most fervor and enthusiasm. Generally, in fact, after this we start with the final narrative, left in the hands of the narrator who will explain in detail the end of the characters and the world.
How much do you find yourself in these places? How many of your stories are going or going in this direction? How many successful characters and campaigns have you had in your gaming experience?
A matter of tracks
If you have also agreed with the various points listed above do not worry, you are not sick or infirm. You simply learned that there is also one in role play fashion, a kind of conformism that unites everyone and very few make alternatives.
Why are they so few? Because it's difficult to go against the world of role-playing, terribly difficult. The world of role-playing games is exactly like a collection of Greek city states: many small groups united by the common desire to defend themselves from the invader and tenaciously clinging to their traditions. Athens will promptly refuse to throw the deformed babies off the cliff while Sparta will not think twice, but both will team up tenaciously and promptly to face the Persian enemy.
Good storytelling versus long storytelling?
The Persian enemy mentioned above, the enemy of standard successful campaigns (and consequently also of the players who aspire to such campaigns) is the one who indicates as "the best campaign" something opposite to the ideal of the average player and, more specifically , the one who invites to a kind of short and narrative game. The one who chooses an interesting narrative rather than the evolution of the character (probable destroyer of every symbol created during the narration), the one who chooses to collaborate with his players and sacrifice them to the altar of common fun.
Someone might shout loudly “It's brisk self-eroticism for frustrated storytellers” and actually they wouldn't be completely wrong. If, however, we abandoned the tome of "Player Freedoms" for a few moments and concentrated on that of "The Importance of Playing", we would understand that it is not so wrong.
Before you light torches and hoist crosses and pitchforks, I would like to say that I am not against "Success Campaigns" and I believe that everyone, in their free time, should do what they enjoy most, without thinking about what is more or less correct, alternative or common. On the other hand, it is called free time precisely because it is not bound by dogmas and codes and everyone has the right to spend it as they wish at the game table. Whether it's a dungeon crawl, an absurd vampire conspiracy squad or an epic battle with Hans Zimmer's music in Urban Heroes, the important thing is to have fun.
Change course and still reach the Success Campaign
It is quite complex to explain the need to change course, so I will start by explaining how and, subsequently, the reasons for doing so.
End a campaign
Let's start by understanding that the successful campaigns are those finished, regardless of the time it takes. Much of the campaign ends before the age of two due to individual commitments or the early breakup of the group. This gives us the possibility to build much shorter, more studied and less extensive campaigns, therefore more detailed and careful. And God only knows how happy players are to receive details about their characters' past played. However, Critical role teaches.
Not characters that level up, but functional characters
By setting the limit of "two-year campaigns" we also affect point 2 but not necessarily point 3. Due to the limited duration of the campaign, the successful characters will no longer be the most statistically advanced, but those who manage to fully perform their function in history.
Experienced mechanisms (D & D-Path-Vampires and so on, to name the best known ones) work worse in the short term. Therefore even the characters, more “compressed”, will be projected towards themselves rather than towards progress. This, combined with the tight deadlines, will favor a better collaboration between the narrator and the player, benefiting de facto the role play and the fun.
The common narrative and the common free time
But it is not the simple preparation of the campaign to make such a successful but alternative campaign: even players can follow this path by choosing to devote themselves to narration. It is the same principle of the theater, a staging of studied curtains, collaborating and forming a common front to create a work that leaves the actors glory and the writer fame. All too often I have witnessed sad scenes and epic speeches broken by player actions. Perhaps it is the case to turn and head towards a more congenial goal.
One of the many reasons why we should change course has its basis in the role-playing market. By taking part in several interviews with publishers during fairs (in which everyone can participate, try to believe) producers can be heard increasingly aimed at short role-playing games. Role-playing games are increasingly encountered with a lightning start, without too many rules, capable of entertaining for two or three sessions and that's it. The free time of each of us is in fact tight and there is less and less space for long-term campaigns, which tend to get lost in the maze of that role-playing game called Life.
Conclusions and considerations on successful campaigns
I connect to the discourse of free time in saying that "every effort should be rewarded" and most of the time the efforts in pursuing a successful campaign are not worth the effort. We all know at least one player who has never pursued the “perfect campaign” achievement despite having played for years and years. Maybe he participated in games lasting years but never ended. "Yet that character was so beautiful, it's a pity not to have finished the campaign" is the phrase I heard most at the aforementioned fairs, with a mixture of sadness and solidarity.
As far as I'm concerned, I think the first step towards a successful campaign is the session zero. We also talked about it here e here. In all the campaigns in which there was a good zero session I spent some good free time with my players, and they managed to play "what they wanted to play" without the classic tug-of-war between Narrator and players.
What do you think about it? Do you think that the need for a lasting campaign is being lost in the world of RPG or is it only a temporary phase? Have you had experiences similar to those narrated?