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Player-driven campaigns and developing strong stories

I think everyone involved should follow the Lazy DM method and only create what's necessary at the moment, which is probably never going to be 50,000 words on any one subject. Until the ninja dragon drow folks enter battle, we don't need their stats, no matter who would be the one writing them up.

Until that point -- and I say this as a person with a now-massive wiki full of campaign notes -- I'd rather have that energy sketching out evocative ideas, rather than meticulous details, which I find emerge in play reasonably well, especially if everyone knows they can be the source for them. Tell me why drow and red dragons are working together, not whether the drow have special attacks keyed off of flyby attack.
Ok, sounds good to me.
 

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Celebrim

Legend
What these types of campaign do is to put players in the position of an audience that is being told a story.

I strongly disagree with this description. The goal is to put players into the position of being characters within a story, and definitely not the audience. Relatively linear stories, especially those of the narrow, broad, narrow structure I like to tell, do not turn the players into non-participants. Even very linear stories don't have to turn the participants into a passive audience.

I think the platonic ideal of a great RPG campaign is one that takes place on a grand stage and revolves around the PCs struggling in an ongoing conflict against groups of NPCs, while also having the players ideas, plans, and decisions determining what path the story will ultimately take.

So that may well be your Platonic Idea of a great RPG campaign but understand it is probably far from most player's idea of an ideal good time.

For as long as I've been reading about gaming, there has always been this faction that has argued that open ended, (what's now called) "no myth", player driven, character driven RP is the best form of game and that in fact, that's what the players really want and bad GMs who are frustrated novelists are just keeping them down. And in 40 years of RPing, that has absolutely never been my experience. The vast majority of players both from their observed in game preferences and even surveys of "What do you want the next campaign to be like?" prefer games that are driven by GM narrative, GM created obstacles, and GM driven stories. They do want the freedom to find their own ways around those obstacles, to make their own plans, and respond to the narrative how they want to, but they do not - decidedly do not - want to put in the effort to make their own fun.

I always try to leave room for player freedom, and frequently how the PC's go from A->B is not something I ever anticipated. They will in the micro level always throw me curveballs. But I've never once had players that wanted to actually lay their own rails and invent their own goals and play in the sandbox. My suspicion is that if you have those sorts of players, you will know it and if you open the gates then off they will go. And likewise, if you don't have those kinds of players, then no number of open gates is going to convince them to get off the pasture or away from the comforts and ease of discovering the story I've imagined for them to play through.

So the thing is, ultimately if you want a player driven campaign, it's ultimately up to the players, and to having the sort of players that both want to drive the story and actually have the ability to do so. And for me, they also would have to have enough skill at creating motives for themselves, and planning things, and setting up interesting goals that I could play along with it, riff off of it, and enjoy what they are doing. For example, if they just want to on a hex crawl safari and it never comes more than kill the monster of evening and take its stuff, I'm going to get bored quickly. But if they have something actually interesting they want to do, and enough of their own ideas of how to get there, then I'd be happy to riff off that myself. It's just in 40 years of gaming absolutely never happened with any players I've had.

I particularly want to caution against the false idol that is "no myth". It's one thing to let the players drive the story. It's another thing to use this as an excuse for doing no work yourself.

One particular problem I would have with the idea of a player driven campaign, is that I think it's probably suited only to tables with 1-3 players, and not the 4-6 players that have been more the norm for my gaming. The number of players you have at your table is the biggest restriction on the sort of games you can run successfully. The more players you have, the less the game by necessity can be about exploration of character and individual characters story arcs and goals and the more you have to have some overriding and overarching unity of purpose. Either that, or you have to have an entire crew of players that are both talented enough thespians to entertain everyone else at the table, and also patient enough to just sit and watch for long periods of time. The problem I foresee with player driven and character driven games is that above about 3 players, you'll almost certainly develop a lack of unity in the goals as each player separately pursues their own story arc - essentially you end up with a bunch of players who want to ride railroads in different directions. I've seen this happen, and you can somewhat get around it with troupe play, but as a third constraint, the campaign will suck up more hours than most adults have to spend.

And on that topic, if you really want to run a sandbox well, I think the fundamental thing you have to remember is a well-run sandbox always requires more work than running a linear game. You have to do more preparation work and not less preparation work. Because by definition the GM running a sandbox is willing to prepare a lot of things with the expectation that they will never use them. The amount of understanding of the setting that you need to run it so that it's not an empty rowboat world, however that depth of understanding is made and recorded is just going to be a ton of work.
 
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The problem with the players being given a series of immediate task by a superior authority is that it again limits the impact that player decisions to short term situations. They still go from point to point as they are being directed to by the GM as servants of NPCs who make the actual decisions where the story is meant to go.
It's certainly an improvement over an all railroad campaign, but still far off from the goal.
Well.... sort of. I mean, this is the basic thesis of Star Trek, right? I mean, Star Fleet Command orders the Enterprise to go to Planet P and do things X, Y, and Z. Yet somehow Kirk is in charge and does whatever HE thinks is best, even if he sometimes has to directly contravene his orders. He seems to have a LOT of leeway! Certainly in a narrative type RPG sense he's plenty empowered to address the themes in play. Or take the other goto example, Stargate SG1, where the team certainly have missions and objectives in the context of a greater whole, but yet they somehow manage to do their own thing, make decisions, and evolve as characters. In both of these cases I would expect that the GM represents Star Fleet Command, or the SG1 commander (whatever that bald guy was called).

Of course, there are similar formats you could go with that don't rely on a 'higher command' like Night Stalker, or something. You can still run quite an involved campaign in this sort of milieu where the GM throws stuff at the characters, and they play with it (though the players might also suggest a lot of the themes here). I think Supers are often a very similar kind of situation where a lot of scenario parameters could be set by the GM but still leave things very open, and here often the stuff that actually matters isn't the fights against the bad guys, but the heroes identities, relationships, etc.
 

I use an episodic sandbox with an overarching threat. I guess Buffy the Vampire Slayer and to some extent Babylon 5 were my inspirations for this approach. The PCs can do what they want, but somewhere in the distance an active BBEG force is on the move. I will roll for its successes and failures, but generally slanted towards success, where other factions would be more random. So it might happen that offstage NPC good guys succeed in a desperate holding action to hold the mountain pass vs the BBEG army, but the chances are the BBEG is only slowed, not defeated. Eventually the PCs may rise to challenge the BBEG, and succeed or fail - one of my best ever campaigns was set in the aftermath of a previous campaign where the BBEG won. :)

Edit: I guess what I do somewhat resembles (edit) Dungeon World 'with its Fronts/Threats system and Progress Clocks', but more simulationist, I use a Free Kriegsspiel* type approach where I'll get in the heads of the NPC factions, determine their resources, goals & attempts/efforts, and where there's conflict I'll roll to resolve success, usually with a d6. I may not roll if success is certain, eg my Black Sun BBEG faction had a 'ringer' in the form of Kainos, Demigod Son of Ares-Bane. He was around CR 28, and when he went up against various level 8 or so NPC heroes, I didn't bother rolling.

*Derogatorily referred to as Mother May I by the uncouth. :D
I think its pretty much EXACTLY the idea of the 'campaign front' in DW. The GM can 'ring the doom clock' whenever it logically and narratively seems apt to do so. I mean, the 'ticks' of that clock will be at least partly designed in prep, but the moves happen when the GM needs them to, and as DW says "use your prep" "make a move that follows."
 

The challenges of the campaign are the obstacles that stand in the way of the players achieving their goal. I think the main element that separates player-driven campaigns from scripted games is that the players pick the goals depending on their own and their characters' perception of what issues in the game world need to be faced and addressed. I believe that in addition to the players deciding who they want to challenge and oppose, it is also important for the players to pick who they want to support and approach for alliances against shared enemies.


I think one important advice we could take away from this is to start the campaign with very unambiguous and clear cut conflicts and factions and arrange for the players to have to make decisions whose outcomes will be very predictable and immediate. No hidden agendas, manipulative NPCs trying to deceive them, or complex conspiracies at this point. Simple A or B options that will result in the consequence that the players can expect from them. And both need to be genuine options with meaningfully different outcomes.
(Making enemies or friends would probably be good consequences, as they create relationships that can become relevant later.)

To make preparing content more practical, and also to give players some guidance and unity to the party, I think it might be a very good idea to have the general background and outlook of the party established first, before working on populating the world with people and the players start thinking about the specifics of their PCs. When you pitch the campaign, it would be something like "In this campaign you are playing a group of young nobles trying to establish a new stronghold on the frontier" or "In this campaign you are playing a group of thieves trying to take over the city's underworld".
This is of course a predetermined long-term goal that the players will have to comply with during the campaign, but it is not a script that lays out a series of events that they will have to follow to reach the end. Instead it is a focus that helps the players to make characters who are compatible with each other to work for a common cause, and specifies for the GM what kind of content in regards to NPCs, factions, conflicts, and locations will actually be relevant to the campaign.
I think to a degree, and looking at it from @Smon's standpoint, or the DW campaign front view (if they are even different) I don't think the Campaign Front is so much directly aimed at the character's interests or agenda as it is more of a thing that stirs stuff up. It makes action happen, and THEN the action is about the characters and their interests or personalities, or whatever. At some point that campaign front will intersect with them, if they get in its way, but they move in orthogonal directions, the characters and the front. Nor is it up to the GM to manipulate things at all such that the big smash up happens. Sometimes that front might simply be background, and the PCs are off fiddling while Rome is burning, or whatever.
 

S'mon

Legend
Nor is it up to the GM to manipulate things at all such that the big smash up happens. Sometimes that front might simply be background, and the PCs are off fiddling while Rome is burning, or whatever.

That's actually a running theme in my current Faerun/Damara Bloodstone Lands campaign. There are a ton of evil factions, but there's also the Heroes of Bloodstone, the Epic Tier heroes who defeated Orcus. They're the Justice League, the all powerful superheroes who smash giant and demon invasions offstage while the Heroic Tier PCs deal with their own concerns and lower level threats. It makes a fun change from "Only YOU can Save the World!" - and the villain factions still have impact, eg a couple sympathetic NPC local rulers the PCs liked were killed offstage during a frost giant invasion.

Recently the Heroes of Bloodstone were called away to the Southlands to deal with another long-prophesied demonic invasion, so everyone is worried how they'll cope without the Justice League there to save the day. :)
 

S'mon

Legend
One particular problem I would have with the idea of a player driven campaign, is that I think it's probably suited only to tables with 1-3 players, and not the 4-6 players that have been more the norm for my gaming.

IME what actually happens is that 1-3 players are proactive and drive the action while the rest are more passive and treat it more like a linear AP, only it's not the GM telling them what happens next. I do have one group of 7 players where none of the PCs are really proactive once immediate needs are met, so they're not very well suited to pure sandboxing. Conversely groups with 2 or more proactive players with conflicting agendas are a problem too, one group really resented the player who got them to go take on a frost giant invasion, especially when his own PC stayed out of the temple assault where they got soundly beaten.
 
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S'mon

Legend
And on that topic, if you really want to run a sandbox well I think the fundamental think you have to remember is a well run sandbox always requires more work than running a linear game. You have to do more preparation work and not less preparation work. Because by definition the GM running a sandbox is willing to prepare a lot of things with the expectation that they will never use them. The amount of understanding of the setting that you need to run it so that it's not an empty row boat world, however that depth of understanding is made and recorded is just going to be a ton of work.

With a sandbox I'm typically dropping in published short adventures/modules that I may or may not use, and megadungeons where sections may go unused. But I don't have to spend much if any time reading them in advance. With a linear AP I have to understand the structure of the AP and watch out for potential derailments. I'm running one linear campaign, Odyssey of the Dragonlords, plus several sandbox campaigns. The linear campaign is definitely more work to make a satisfying experience. It was the same with Princes of the Apocalypse (not good), Red Hand of Doom (good), et al. Running Barrowmaze, a sandbox megadungeon, is extremely easy by comparison. Likewise Stonehell Dungeon.
 

reelo

Hero
The vast majority of players both from their observed in game preferences and even surveys of "What do you want the next campaign to be like?" prefer games that are driven by GM narrative, GM created obstacles, and GM driven stories. They do want the freedom to find their own ways around those obstacles, to make their own plans, and respond to the narrative how they want to, but they do not - decidedly do not - want to put in the effort to make their own fun.

This makes me incredibly sad. I would love to play in an "absolute freedom" sandbox with other dedicated players, yet I find myself being the DM whenever I get to play (rarely enough, unfortunately), and mostly to run pre-published adventures.
 

pemerton

Legend
As a tangent, once Alicia gets her stuff together who is obligated to make a new character?

Certainly, I can see this as a friction point for drama and motivation. However, it seems to place a time limit on the campaign. Unless your plan is that, depending on what happens with Alicia, Aedhros finds some respect for his fellow adventurer. I suppose that the plan is loose until you come across that bridge.
Are you familiar with the Burning Wheel rules for changing Beliefs?
 

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