Campaign Structural Paradigms

Hand of Evil

Adventurer
Epic
I don't run campaigns; I just iterate them.

I am looking forward to the day when Artificial Intelligence gets good enough it can run a game for other other AIs, and then, after realizing how the game runs best after trillions upon trillions of iterations, the AIs will band together and take over the world so that they can (1) kill off us pesky humans, and (2) institute a workable spell-less Ranger.
Paranoia! :)
 

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MGibster

Legend
I am looking forward to the day when Artificial Intelligence gets good enough it can run a game for other other AIs, and then, after realizing how the game runs best after trillions upon trillions of iterations, the AIs will band together and take over the world so that they can (1) kill off us pesky humans, and (2) institute a workable spell-less Ranger.
And then it'll be the best way to handle psionics that causes the great AI Civil War.
 

Mezuka

Hero
Fantasy: Order vs Chaos always. PCs are often young nobles that must protect their parent's estate. If not they are part of a group that must protect some territory, town, village.

Modern: I do mystery / weird science investigation for an organisation that protects regular people from mad scientists, regular threats, aliens and deep earth people.
 
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Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
What about you?

I have to admit that I generally work without a long-term plan, much less have a general paradigm that I follow for such plans.

The result seems to be, as you referred to it, as kind of X-files like - there's a long arc that develops, with a lot of side trips along the way. But that's an emergent feature, rather than a designed target.
 

Galandris

Foggy Bottom Campaign Setting Fan
What structural paradigm do you tend to design your campaign around? That is, structurally speaking, what does your campaign look like.

I design a few groups (the bad guys) with specific goals. I then make a "calendar" of things they want to do (in broad strokes) if left unchecked.
Then, I confront the players in the first adventures with an opportunity to discover the bad guys and their plans, and I let them disrupt them. I don't plan in too much details the actions fo the evil groups beforehand, but when targetted by the players, I details their reaction, counteroffensive and change of plans. I mostly like my players to drive the narrative by selecting their priority to deal with problems. Or ignore those that don't appeal to them.
 

kenada

Legend
I love this peek behind the curtain, very cool!
Thanks! I’m really liking how just following the content just flows. All the PCs did for the rest of the session was go back to town, but they learned about so many things. Even just rolling a random encounter was an opportunity to learn that there’s a dragon’s lair in the area. It’s fun letting things go and seeing what happens.
 

John Dallman

Adventurer
All my recent campaigns have been episodic, with the characters being an official team of investigators or some kind, dealing with individual "cases". Those are ideally one session, but sometime get too complicated for that much time. Larger stories grow out of combinations of cases.
 

Richards

Legend
We have two 3.5 campaigns going on right now and they're slightly different as far as structure goes.

The campaign I DM for meets on Saturdays from noon until 5-6 PM. As such, I write out the adventure ahead of time as if it were being submitted to Dungeon magazine, with boxed test, room descriptions, etc. - it's the format I've gotten used to. Each gaming session I bring the adventure the PCs will be going through and the campaign is rather like a short story collection, where the same PCs are in each story but each is fairly standalone. (Sometimes a plot point from one adventure will build off a previous adventure.) However, there's an on-going overall plot wherein the PCs are traveling the continent rescuing people who have gotten "trapped" in their dreams and they're slowly finding out who's behind it, although they have yet to discover why.

The campaign my grown son DMs is much more like an ongoing novel, with each game session - much shorter, as we play on Wednesdays from 6:30-9:00 PM (two of our players are still in high school) - more in the form of the next chapter. Since the sessions are so much shorter, he just jots down the relevant info he needs in a notebook and wings the adventure from there. Also, the shorter adventures allows him to design the next adventure in the week before we run through it, so he "pivots" much faster than I do (as I write mine out months in advance, given there's a lot more prep work for mine).

Both of our DMing styles have been formed to fit the schedule in which we run our sessions. I dare say if we swapped which campaign runs for 5-6 hours on every other Saturday and which one runs weekly for 2-3 hours on Wednesday nights, we'd each start running the campaign in the manner the other one has been doing.

Johnathan
 

One paradigm I have always wanted to run but have never figure out how to do it structurally is the procedural. This differs from the "regular" television paradigm I listed above in that each adventure would essentially be a variation on a theme, and character development would be slow and subtle at most.
The thematic procedure is the basic reward structure for "Promethean the Created." Probably my favorite TTRPG of all time as it has far more personal growth, self-discovery, and autobiographical narrative than any other RPG. Also, it takes the normal growth trajectory and goals of RPGs and switches them around. In PtC the players determine their PC's path for living. Based on the path they choose, PCs are given bonus exp for completing moments along their path through roleplaying. That bonus exp can only be spent on certain advancements for self-improvement. So it's up to the DM to create thematic sessions that allows PCs, or focusing on a single PC in particular, to explore their path and challenge themselves. Disclaimer: I've never run a PtC game but I have played in very long campaigns and it's transcendent.
 

When I'm running a D&D type game I'll create series of encounters, whether they're in dungeons or some other place, and give the encounters level appropriate treasure. The structure is a lot like a classic D&D module, complete with random encounters, events, and treasure. Then I decide how I want to run it, and that's were it changes according to the theme.

I got into the habit of writing adventure outlines about two decades ago and refined the technique. It's a synopsis of the adventure. However, I take my generic adventure and use this outline to modify it according to the story I'm trying to tell. All DMs do with the commercial modules they by. I took it a step further and modify my own work. I've found that it helps me stay flexible enough to present the strongest narrative. It really helped me on Friday when I had two people cancel at the last moment. All I had to do was spend about 15 minutes modifying the outline for fewer PCs, and highlight the details that best served their current skill sets (they lost their Rogue and Fighter).

The game is an Eberron Detective campaign that plays more like 70's TV police action show than a D&D game. The last session involved talking to witnesses, following leads, a foot chase, and knocking out the bad guys. It started with the PCs following the leads they had from a witness and connecting the clues they found at a scene. The witness took the PCs to the place she was kidnapped, and one of the PCs who is a gnome wearing a masquerade mask, ended up getting kidnapped when they were separated. The chase scene was exciting, and funny with the classic trope two workers carrying a pane of glass and one of the PCs accidentally runs through it. The PCs cornered the kidnappers and interrogated them. They were able to get some information for the delivery, which eventually led them to a final destination. Then they sneak into a mansion during a masquerade ball using a service entrance where they were discovered and attacked by Cultists. That's where the session ended.

The TV cop drama has four basic components that are useful for TTRPGs:
1. Mystery - unsolved crimes and clues
2. Unreliable Witnesses - the witness isn't telling the whole story
3. Street Danger - simply investigating the crimes is dangerous
4. Big Reveals - there's always something the PCs missed that gets revealed

The pace is a little different from other games as there's often a sense of urgency. In the current adventure there are children being kidnapped. There's a 48 hour window before the children are gone for good. Normally D&D, or any RPG, doesn't put a time constraint on the adventure. The cop drama is fast paced. The PCs need to gather evidence, and if they can't identify it they'll take it to an expert, and comeback later as they investigate the other clues. They're in a constant state of motion. Short rests are rarely a problem but long rests are hard to come by.

The way encounters are structured is also different. The encounters exist on a flow chart rather than a dungeon, and serve the narrative. Each new scene is a mini-dungeon with its own set of challenges. Unlike most dungeons, there are no doors or hallways to direct the PCs. Instead, you must leave breadcrumbs and rely on witnesses or fellow law enforcement to serve as guides and lead them to the next encounter. One example was a warehouse full of dangerous, illegal symbiotes (the classic criminal warehouse shoot-em-up). The PCs were led to that location by the colleague for a deceased witness. Another example is the PCs stumbling on to a crime scene - the witness was murdered (sometimes the killer is still at the scene or just running out the back door). Now the PCs must look for clues to see why, and dig up information that leads them to the next encounter.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I'll start with a hard-set first adventure after which there's a vaguely-defined storyboard that I use for overarching plotlines and suitable adventure ideas that fit within those plotlines.

However, I'm very much aware that after that first adventure anything can happen, and my storyboard might go out the window in a hurry depending what the players/PCs decide to do and-or where they decide to go. For one campaign, for example, I had an initial storyboard of about 15 adventures that involved a fair amount of city intrigue culminating in an attempt to overthrow the King. Four adventures in, however, the PCs decided to head up-country instead and they ended up leaving the area for over a year. Wheeeee - out the window went that storyboard, replaced with a series of not-always-connected (or coherent!) stand-alone adventures until another storyline presented itself later.

That said, the overall paradigm I try for is a big sprawling campaign with multiple parties operating in the same setting, sometimes meeting and interweaving with each other and maybe even with a common-to-most home base, such that various different things can be going on at once. Kind of like troupe or West Marches play, except the players don't change every week and the adventures last for several (or more) sessions each.
 

Egon Spengler

"We eat gods for breakfast!"
My preferred paradigm is the "living sandbox" milieu. Draw a hex map, fill it with: cool places, interesting people, conflicting factions, dangerous monsters, desirable treasures, a difficult mystery, and loads of clues. Turn the players loose on the world and see what happens. Make sure the world keeps on ticking like a living, breathing place where things happen — the PCs can impact the world by interacting with it, and when they don't, things may still happen that impact them.

In the short term, each game session is one adventure; when we aren't playing, time passes in-game at the same pace as real time, which means that between games, the PCs get downtime to heal, study, train, etc. But sometimes downtime overlaps with a session, and that's when a player has to roll up an extra PC and expand their personal selection of adventurers to choose from before each game.

Long-term, there are eventually many more PCs than players, spread out over a variety of levels, so that the players may collectively decide on a case-by-case basis to tackle adventures suited to a variety of levels — low-level dungeon-crawls, mid-level wilderness expeditions, high-level statecraft and warfare, or epic-level planar travel and questing for godhood.

But the point of play — the reason we're doing all of this exploration, dungeon-delving, information-gathering, treasure-hunting, mystery-solving, wilderness-taming, castle-building, army-raising, etc. — is to experience the feeling of going on thrilling, challenging, dangerous adventures in a (simulation of a) believable fantasy world with as much verisimilitude as I can practically muster up.
 
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Lanefan

Victoria Rules
In the short term, each game session is one adventure; when we aren't playing, time passes in-game at the same pace as real time,
Gygax presented this as a standard mode of play in the 1e DMG as well; but I just can't see how one adventure per session can happen unless a) your adventures are very short, or b) your sessions are crazy long, or c) you're skipping lots of detail.

I mean, take some of the classic modules - KotB, Hommlet, Isle of Dread, any of the G series - there's a lot in each of those and IME they take 6-10+ sessions each, meaning a really keen crew might take 4-7 if things are being done at an old-school level of detail.

Otherwise, what you're doing sounds really cool. :)
 

Egon Spengler

"We eat gods for breakfast!"
I guess that means adventures are short then. One adventure is one excursion — leave town, go do stuff in dangerous places, return to town. Every game session begins and ends in Castellan/Kendall* Keep, or Hommlet, or Tanaroa, or Mantua, or the unspecified home-base locations from the G series. Any one of those modules will involve several adventures.

* The Keep on the Borderlands has a different name depending on whether it's located in the Grand Duchy of Karameikos or the Flanaess.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I guess that means adventures are short then. One adventure is one excursion — leave town, go do stuff in dangerous places, return to town. Every game session begins and ends in Castellan/Kendall* Keep, or Hommlet, or Tanaroa, or Mantua, or the unspecified home-base locations from the G series. Any one of those modules will involve several adventures.

* The Keep on the Borderlands has a different name depending on whether it's located in the Grand Duchy of Karameikos or the Flanaess.
Ah. To me the "adventure" is the entire module.

What happens if they simply don't finish - say, a combat runs long or they get trapped in the dungeon somewhere - in time to return to town before the session ends?
 

Egon Spengler

"We eat gods for breakfast!"
What happens if they simply don't finish - say, a combat runs long or they get trapped in the dungeon somewhere - in time to return to town before the session ends?

I run the TSR editions, so I can't recall a combat ever having "run long"; trapped in the dungeon can happen, but it's rare, and it's very bad (random tables dictating the fates of characters who end a session in the dungeon are dime-a-dozen on OSR blogs; the outcomes usually range from "lost forever, presumed dead" in the worst case to "you somehow stumbled back to town with no new information added to your map and no idea how you got out of that horrible pit" in the best case).
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I run the TSR editions, so I can't recall a combat ever having "run long";
Same here, modified 1e; and major combats frequently take half a session and a few take more than a full session to complete. My record is a combat that spanned two complete sessions and part of a third; which in 38 years of DMing has happened twice. (in both cases it was a large party invading the home base of a larger group of opposed adventurer-types plus their assorted pets etc.)
trapped in the dungeon can happen, but it's rare, and it's very bad (random tables dictating the fates of characters who end a session in the dungeon are dime-a-dozen on OSR blogs; the outcomes usually range from "lost forever, presumed dead" in the worst case to "you somehow stumbled back to town with no new information added to your map and no idea how you got out of that horrible pit" in the best case).
I vastly prefer to leave them wherever/whenever they happen to be and pick up from that same point next session.

Not so easy if you've a rotating cast of players from one session to the next, to be sure; but that's not something I usually have to worry about. :)
 


Voadam

Legend
I tend to run modules and adventure paths with a lot of modification and PC freedom.

I feel it ends up being episodic, each module might be a show's season but any given night might be a one off thing of its own or a part of the overall central plot.

When I took over DMing a shared campaign (three of us traded around DMing for the same group using the same characters in the same setting) and ran a pair of modules it did feel a bunch like a new director/showrunner for seasons six and seven.

To add to the analogy when the party TPK'd in my Reign of Winter adventure path game in module 3 it felt like the series was cancelled prematurely by the network.

A lot of campaigns I've been in as a player feel like they were prematurely cancelled by the network, usually without a TPK though.
 

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