Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Purely Tactical Problems

Almost all new wargamers start their careers by fighting a succession of single, unconnected battles; this is inevitable since it takes time to get the feel of the hobby, to learn the rules etc. But if a new recruit is really going to take up wargaming, then before very long he begins to feel that something is lacking: that these individual games, though well enough in their way, need some connecting link to make them more satisfying and to give an objective other than just trying to destroy the other fellow's army. In other words, the desire to fight campaigns rather than battles. 

Those words are from the introduction to Tony Bath's Setting Up a Wargames Campaign (1973). Though written as advice for miniatures wargamers, they could, with very few changes, apply equally to players of roleplaying games. This is a topic I've touched on a couple of times recently and to which I suspect I will be coming often in the weeks ahead. 

My experiences at Gamehole Con, though very pleasant, further convinced me that there is a huge difference between playing a single scenario (or even a collection of related scenarios) and participating in an open-ended campaign, to the point where I'm almost willing to say that they're not even the same kind of activity. Playing through Keep on the Borderlands is not a campaign. Playing through Against the Giants, even if you follow through with the Drow modules and make it all the way to Queen of the Demonweb Pits, is not a campaign – though both can be parts of a campaign. 

What makes a campaign rewarding? Why, if you have limited time available for the hobby, should you use time that could be spent in fighting on the table-top in poring over maps and situation reports? The answer is that no real-life general could limit himself to the purely tactical problems of the battle-field, and a campaign is the way in which the wargamer general widens his horizon.

Again: though Bath's words are directed at the miniatures wargamer, they could just as easily have been directed at roleplayers, in particular his belief that the campaign widens one's horizons beyond "purely tactical problems." In the context of RPGs, prewritten adventure modules are, in my opinion, exemplars of such narrow concerns. That's partly why I increasingly feel that such modules, as they have evolved over the decades, are the products of convention culture and therefore quite alien to the original expectations of what playing a roleplaying game would entail. 

I'm far from wholly opposed to prewritten modules, but I much prefer locations-based over plot-heavy ones (never mind plot-heavy series). There's definitely a place for modules in a campaign. I've often used a module as a kick-off for a new campaign, which is why I am so fond of 1st-level Dungeons & Dragons modules. I've also occasionally made use of locales from a module, since it can be time-saving and a way to step outside my own tracks of creativity. But a campaign is more than just stringing a bunch of modules together, as Bath explains:

As your campaign develops, you will find yourself adding new angles to it which, while quite unnecessary from a purely practical viewpoint, can add much fun and interest to the proceedings. The provision of a campaign newspaper, as mentioned later, can add both a touch of humour and serve a useful purpose – and enable players to show off their skill at such diverse things as poetry and propaganda! Keeping a detailed history of the campaign can also be fun, and many other side-lines will occur. The danger in fact is of losing sight amid all these things of your original objective and letting the tail wag the dog!

These are lessons I've come to learn over the last eight years, as I've had the chance to referee and play in long campaigns that have lasted years, most notably my House of Worms campaign. A commenter recently described "long campaigns played with close friends" as "the acme of the hobby" and he is correct. That's the kind of game out of which D&D – and, by extension, all RPGs – emerged and that's the kind of game that its earliest practitioners envisioned and indeed played. We need more of this!


  1. Hear hear...

    Someday I will get to run a 10 year campaign (that isn't a play by post...)... Maybe just maybe my current Roll20 RQ game will go there.

    There are a bunch of games I'd love to run long term to see how they evolve over time, and to use those high level PC rules...


  2. Times I've used the giants/drow and KOTB have lasted well over a dozen games, and probably into a couple dozens. I don't really know how any of these can be used in a couple of sittings. Then again, I'm a fairly laid back DM who likes to give players ample room to express themselves outside of tactical situations. Interacting with npcs, looking into histories and details of things they are encountering, interacting with each other, etc. So to me it can feel like a campaign (and therefor is for me I guess). Even with just the steading and the cave as base camp, good role players are going to interact and stretch the taffy as each game most characters are growing and the players are getting a better grasp on who they are. I promote role play (not community theater by any means) because half the fun for me is watching what PC do, with each other and the world around them.

    Yeah, I hate one shots. To me you may as well just bust out a copy of Talisman.

  3. Pre-written modules come out of convention culture, really. The G-series, the D-series, the A-series, S1, S3, S4, C1, and C2 all started as tournament scenarios. I've long felt that having these as models has a negative effect on how people design their own adventures. A tournament scenario doesn't connect with anything, and it doesn't have to be survivable: you just have to do a bit better than the other groups in the tournament.

  4. Tony Bath was a real visionary for things you can do with gaming ... in a sense he was also pioneer for roleplaying games, so it's no surprise his thoughts still feel very relevant for today.