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Forging the Narrative – Part II – The Campaign

15 Minute Read
May 18 2014

Everyone loves to throw the phrase “narrative gaming” around – but what does it REALLY mean?

The last article I posted was about what Narrative Gaming was and how that applied to tabletop gaming in where we are coming from in terms of what we are looking for in a game.  For most narrative gamers, this was not new information but I feel it was a vital primer on what we will be discussing in the next few installments of this series as everything that is written from this point will be coming from the point of view of Narrative Gaming.
Campaigning – What is it?This is a topic that many readers may be familiar with already, but I have also found that there are a good number of people interested in this concept, but that what it is is lost in the maelstrom of rage and angst that is the community, or are coming from a gaming system that really doesn’t cater to or inspire campaign gamers so much as it does the competitive guys.  Really at its very basic level, a campaign is nothing more than a series of linked games that tie together somehow.
CampaignTitleImageA tournament can be a form of a campaign as it is a series of related games that lead to a desired outcome.  This idea is something that I have been kicking around lately as a matter of fact, as narrative tournaments I think would be a great type of event that has no real visibility to the community in general.  I have heard of a couple of narrative styled tournaments running, but when you think of tournament you typically think of things like NOVA, ADEPTICON, and events of that nature.  This type of event would be a short-term campaign taking place over a day or two, and is something that a few of us in my local community are going to attempt to put together this fall to see if we can generate some interest.
Another form of campaign that you may hear about are narrative campaigns using a storyline.  Some examples of these can be found with Forgeworld in their excellent Imperial Armor campaign books, or for fantasy fans the Tamurkhan Throne of Chaos campaign.  These provide a very detailed background story as well as a linked set of battles where you and your group can fight over a predetermined set of battles that have a clear beginning and a clear ending point.  Victories in battles tend to give small bonuses to future battles, and as such are how the games begin to matter over the course of the entire game, culminating with a final battle that determines the overall victor.
I find story-based narrative campaigns to be the easiest to run as you have a clear beginning and a clear end and they don’t require a lot of work in terms of organizing.  The rulesets can be as complex as the group wants them to be, but they can be run pretty much how they are out of the box.  The campaign group that I help organize have for the past few years run nothing but these style of campaigns because of their simple nature which helps make running them easy and allows for people to pop in and out as they need to without disrupting the overall campaign.
Another style of campaign that you may have heard about are Game Mastered Campaigns.  A Game Mastered campaign is one where there is a neutral figure, called the Game Master, that plays the role of creating dynamic scenarios on the fly that change and morph as the storyline does.  The Game Master may also be called upon to run opposing neutral forces and will often craft unique items and situations for players to find themselves in.
Game Mastered Campaigns can be uniquely tailored to any group and provide the group with an experience that they desire on the fly, changing as time goes on to suit the fluid desires of campaigners.  The onus of a Game Mastered campaign will often reside with one individual (the Game Master) and can take a lot of organizing and planning to pull off successfully.  Game Mastered campaigns were what I myself started with in the 80s under historical gaming systems and Battletech.  Often, the focus of these campaigns is not on list building, but on overcoming scenarios and situations that the Game Master devises for you (much like RPGs).
Map campaigns are often cited as being favored by many people, for they provide a visual map to fight over and provide more than just a game of Warhammer or 40k to play over; the map itself is a game in and of itself!  Map campaigns are truly my favorite as well, but are also the most difficult of any of the campaigns that I have run to pull off successfully for many reasons, those which I will discuss in a future article in this series dealing with Map Campaigns.  I will provide a link to my personal fantasy map campaign system that I wrote in 2003 then, as well as discuss a little bit of my 40k version I call The Grand Crusade which is an in depth system focused on sector battles all the way down to holding planets.
Node campaigns are a mixture of story-based campaigns and map-campaigns, wherein there are a series of nodes that represent areas or chapters in a story that have a variety of paths that can be taken depending on player choices and battle outcomes.  An example of a node campaign can be found in the Lustria campaign book released in mid 2000.  Node campaigns are a bit more flexible than the maps because the nodes themselves can shift and change whereas a map is more rigid.
I have run all of these formats in one form or fashion over the past couple of decades and each one has their pros and cons.  As I mentioned earlier, lately I prefer the story-driven narrative campaigns because it lets me as the organizer focus on the story, minimizes paperwork, and allows me to move players into factions and shift them around as needed.  Despite that, I still vastly prefer deeply logistic campaigns centered around a map; you just have to know where the hazards and roadblocks will get you.
Arranging a Campaign
The first thing that one must do is set the campaign up.  This next section is aimed at people not really sure how to do that or who would like some ideas to better get their community open to the idea of campaigning as opposed to random pick up games or tournament games.
I live in Louisville, and we have a decent gaming community going.   I realize that not everyone has access to a large community but look at the size constraints of what you are trying to do first.  A good campaign at minimum requires just two players.  For intensely detailed map based campaigns I would suggest capping your players at around four or five.  Narrative story-driven campaigns can be very flexible and there really is not a cap I’d recommend other than what a potential organizer wants to deal with.  This year’s 40k campaign featured the Imperial Armour 8 campaign Kastorel-Novem, and we had roughly fifty-five players.
Realize that in any given gaming community, you are not going to attract everyone to your idea.  Campaign gamers I find are about as common as tournament gamers in that neither are the common player, at least in my experience.  Your common player is often not going to want to dedicate the time to see the campaign through and are more comfortable with random pick up games or events that only take up an afternoon.  This is fine, the first step in arranging a campaign is to simply identify the players that are willing to invest time into a campaign and who will fit best with what you are trying to accomplish.
There are a few general rules that I follow when setting up a campaign and the very first one is simply you will never ever ever ever please everyone so do not try to.  It will be tempting to share your creation with the community in the hopes that it will be globally lauded but there will always be people that do not agree with what you are doing, and realize that that is fine.  Your target should be those people that do enjoy what you are trying to produce, so focus on them.
Start Simple
If this is your first attempt at campaigning, it will be tempting to launch out of the gate with the world’s next awesome campaign system,  complete with rules that cover everything that could possibly happen in warfare.  That will be your first mistake as well, I promise you.  Rule #2:  the more complex your system, the higher the probability of it not being seen to its conclusion.  People love the idea of complex campaigns on paper, but dedicating the time and energy into seeing one of these through is daunting and you will need to generate some good will and trust from your campaign group before you attempt to try one of these, lest it collapse midway.  Keep your rules simple.  Start with an idea and push out from there slowly.
For example, you may have read a nFinalBattleovel from the Black Library where a space marine faction does something on a world that you really liked and you want to recreate it.  Set it up!  Outline the world, its traits, its background, and why the armies are there, and put together a simply three or four linked scenarios that go from start to finish.  Set up some small victory conditions that benefit the victor for the final battle.
Your first campaign will likely have a handful of players.  Build from that!  Keep the campaign small in scale, complete it, and then build from there.  Your players will enjoy seeing a campaign to its conclusion, and so will you.  One of the more frustrating components of campaign gaming is that so many campaigns simply fizzle, which makes it hard to recruit players that have had this happen to them in the past.
Houseruling – Keep it Contained
One of the things most campaigns will feature inevitably is a houserule tweak here or there to existing framework or codices.  I find that perfectly fine; as a matter of fact if there is ever a place to tinker with rules it is in a campaign in my opinion.  I know that in the past I have written vast forty or fifty page house rule documents that pretty much altered the game largely, and that has largely not been a positive thing as for the most part players tend to want to stick as close to the published rules as you can get.  Now this will also depend on your gaming group.  Some groups enjoy tinkering more than others, and you will know your group better than I will.
I am writing a chaos legion supplement for our 2015 campaign, which is going to run off of the Badab War framework from Forgeworld (Imperial Armour 9 and 10).  These will largely be severe changes in some places, but it fits the campaign.  Other campaigns I have tried my absolute best to keep houseruling to a minimum.  Currently our 40k campaign has a small page of houserules that include limiting flyers to one per 1000 points, not allowing non-troop choices to be taken more than twice, and a rule giving painted units a re-roll during the game to encourage painting.
The Lustria campaign we limit unit sizes to 60 models or no less than 25% of the overall army in points without characters being added to prevent the death star mega hordes from appearing, which in our campaign we do not want.  The painting rule for Lustria was altered so that unpainted models simply are hated by painted models to encourage painting.  We also have it so that buildings can only be entered and exited by their access points, instead of being able to evaporate out of walls which defies any sense of “realism” we are trying to put into the game.  (this also makes scenarios like Watchtower more palatable)
Are these houserules the absolute best and the gaming world will see them as genius?  Not hardly.  I have been attacked verbally for these houserules on several forums after sharing them.  See rule #1 – you will never please everyone.  Please your campaign group first and foremost.  The rest of the global gaming community is not required to like what you are doing.
Dont Be Afraid to Get Creative
One of the biggest draws to campaign gaming is that you are not constrained to the Core-Six scenarios.  There is a lot of material out there that you can draw from.  There are narrative scenarios in the core rulebook.  There is cityfight, planet strike, Apocalypse, Escalation, Battle Missions, Altar of War Missions, Zone Mortalis, Kill team!  There are so many ways to play the game (and I just listed 40k expansions there, fantasy does not have as many but there are still narrative scenarios and Storm of Magic that you can plug in not to mention Triumph and Treachery scenarios with mercenary rules) do not feel that you have to constrain yourself to the basic six; in my opinion that would be a disservice to your group.  Explore the game!
Another thing people like to do with campaigns is come up with new units, or use fan made codices or army lists.  For Lustria, we are using the fan Dogs of War codex as well as the fan made Pirates list as they both fit very well with our theme.  Listen to requests your players make, and understand that not everything should be allowed in to the campaign but do not be afraid to use outside resources or material if it fits the campaign.  If it proves to be too powerful or too unbalancing, work with your players to right the ship.
A Chance to Model
I spend a lot of time in a game’s off season (which for us is during one game’s campaign, the offseason is the opposite game) painting my next campaign force and working on terrain for it.  Our campaigns have a final game which are intentionally made epic in scale with nice terrain and scenarios that wrap up the six months we’ve been fighting.  Last year we had a twenty-five foot long table in our gaming store set in a mall with roughly twenty players playing a massive battle and we had a constant stream of people walking in to take pictures of it.  Its still talked about months later.
For Lustria, I am building a large golden pyramid which is the end goal of the campaign.  For our 40k campaign, I am building a zone mortalis board that represents the interior of an ork munition factory which will be the setting for the final battle for the top players in each of the three factions while an apocalypse battle rages outside.
Here is your chance to build some units or terrain that reflect your campaign and begin telling your tale.
Be Prepared For Rough Seas
It would be great if all campaigns rolled smoothly but the organizer has to be prepared to play the role of the organizer, which is not always pleasant.  Tournament Organizers, Campaign Organizers, Event Organizers, they all have different names but their role is the same.  They are the ones that are ultimately responsible for seeing the event through and dealing with any rough spots.
People are going to quit.  You have to be prepared for that.  Campaigns require an investment of time, and that investment of time is not easy to come by.  If your campaign is set up where a person quitting will bring the whole campaign down, you need to evaluate the campaign system you are using.  This is especially true for map campaigns, which is one reason why map campaigns are hard to run and conclude.  People quit for all kinds of reasons, and why they quit is not really important.  You need to have contingency plans in place for when they do quit.
Some people are going to get irritated with the rules, or are going to get irritated that someone looked at them wrong, or get irritated that someone said something that they took personal offense to.  Regardless, people are going to get irritated and you are going to be who they go to to tell about it.  You have to play the role of mediator at times.  This is a group of people that will be playing together for an extended amount of time, and unless everyone is close friends, you will get issues crop up between two personalities that are not meshing very well together.  (this is true in tournament environments as well, though typically those are one day affairs where the two people will not be around each other for extended periods)
No Man is an Island
Your gaming group will often be a great resource for ideas.  Involve them!  Players that invest creative time into a project will often stick around to see it through and will have an enjoyable time doing so.
When crafting campaign rules, get them together to discuss what is forthcoming and iron out a final rules packet.  For our campaigns I like to go have a dinner or a painting party with people that want to discuss the rules and we iron out any issues that may arise a couple of months before the campaign starts.
Involve your players often.
Have a Solid Schedule and Stick With It
Campaigns run for an extended time.  Create a schedule that works for everyone.  If you schedule games too fast or too often, people will quit.  If you have a system where one person can play and win many games and get a serious advantage over people quickly, people will quit.  What I have found works great for the story driven campaigns is that in any given month I schedule one game with my players.  They get a scheduled opponent and have all month to play that game wherever, whenever.  Then on the last saturday of every month we have campaign day at a store.  We rotate the stores.  This places both a flex game and a set game on the schedule.  Most players cannot make every game in a campaign (ours last six months each) but the system does not allow one player to run away with the campaign and people for the most part do not feel that their side ever has no chance of coming back.
Have a Plan for the End – Reward Your Players
One of my favorite parts of a campaign is the final campaign day.  This is a celebration of everything we have worked for the past few months and a final resolution is ha
d.  Typ
ChampionsPicturesically the last battle in a narrative game will be the ultimate decider over which player or faction wins.  This is also where I like to hand out awards to players.  We have a small campaign fee which everyone pays at the beginning which I use to pay for the website and awards.  Any money that is needed after I typically front but that’s just me.
We have a plaque for best painted army and the best player (the one that is the most fun to play against) which is a group vote.  After that I obtain a nice trophy for the overall winner, and consolidation trophies for those that came 2nd or 3rd place.  For 40k, there are three factions this year and the top players of the factions get a trophy, with the overall winner being the player that is top of his faction and that faction wins the campaign.
We have also had trophies for Best Rookie, Best Game, and so forth.  I also get medals for the members of the winning faction.
Its a lot of stuff to give out, but I do not see why campaigns cannot be treated like large tournament events that also give out nice awards.  This is not required of course, but something to consider.
Have a Central Location for Information
This one is very important in my  opinion.  In this day and age, having a place where players can go to see their standings, the map, who is winning and so forth is vital.  It keeps peoples’ attention.  Even if it is just a facebook page, create something that the players can use to meet and discuss and see how everyone is doing.
Be Communicative
Coordinators that do not say much I find lose peoples’ interest.  A weekly blurb about how the campaign is currently going may be all that is needed, but lets everyone know on a fairly regular basis what is going on.
Let it Grow Organically
Campaigns that are successful will generate a lot of goodwill and enthusiasm.  Goodwill and enthusiasm will generate more interest.  Do not push for campaign groups to grow faster than you can handle or accommodate, however.   This part here is probably one of the more important pieces to remember.  Often I will hear how it is difficult to get people to play in any campaigns and how people are tournament-focused.  There will genuinely be many people that do not have any interest in campaigns, but there will also be many people that COULD BE interested, if you show yourself as capable of doing so and start showing through successful campaigns that you see them through and that people are having fun.
Finish What You Start
This goes without saying, but is something that I see get dropped very often.  If you are going to start a campaign, see it to its conclusion.  This is where starting small works to your advantage.  You will get to see what your group wants, and how much of your own time you are willing to devote to seeing these events to their close.  Regardless, leaving campaigns unfinished and dropped leaves players with a bad experience.  Finish what you start.

Overall these pointers are what I have picked up over the years of running campaigns and I hope that they were useful.  In our next installment I will discuss setting up a narrative story-based campaign and how the Lousivillewargaming.comcampaigns are created and run from a narrative story-based standpoint.  We will move on from there and explore some more complicated systems.

Auticus currently resides in Louisville and helps organize narrative events there among the various game stores.  He has been playing gaming since the late 80s from historical tabletop to Battletech to GW games like Warhammer and 40k.  You can find onine here

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