Thursday 23 September 2021

The Campaign Which Runs Itself

I'll keep this entry simple. The ideal campaign - regardless of setting, regardless of genre, regardless of system - is one which runs itself.

A campaign that runs itself is defined as one which, after the initial setup, creates its own adventures.

What this requires is really just four things:

1. Loose ends. The dungeon, hexmap, city, etc., in which the campaign is set needs to be liberally peppered with questions which you, the DM, do not yet know the answer to. At some point, the PCs will ask one of these questions. Because you do not know the answer, the range of possibilities is open-ended, and has no conclusion. What does this symbol on a dungeon door mean? The PCs ask the local innkeeper. He doesn't know, but he tells them there is a witch who lives on an island up the coast who might. What will the witch want in order to give the answer? When they get there, the PCs discover her son has gone missing, and will give them their answer if they can help find him. The PCs discover the son was kidnapped by pirates... And so on. 

2. NPCs/monsters with motivations. If most NPCs, dungeon denizens and so on are pre-prepped with motives or goals, adventure follows. If the gnolls are not just gnolls but have a rivalry with the local grimlocks, and are afflicted with a nasty disease, encountering them becomes not just a matter of "kill the gnolls, take their stuff", but a source of further adventure. And, of course, new motives and goals can arise. If the PCs kill some of the gnolls, or steal a treasure the gnolls had their eye on, the gnolls suddenly have powerful new motives.

3. Staying a page ahead of the players. Each session, afterwards, sit down and take notes about what happened. Come up with two or three hooks or events stemming from this. Make the world responsive. The PCs killed a nest of kobolds. Ok - next time they come by, the room is infested with scavengers, or dangerous mold, feeding off the corpses; or, Mama Dragon has come to find out why nobody attended her birthday party.

4. Don't be afraid to steal the players' idle musings and run with them. Players often speculate out loud about meanings, motives, explanations, histories. Don't make use of all of these. But riff on them - again, after the session, when you've had a chance to mull matters over. 

The goal is to get to the stage that you only need to spend 10 minutes between sessions, essentially on caretaking tasks, like a well set-up garden that needs just a bi-weekly mow with the lawn and some dead-heading to keep it beautifully maintained. 


  1. Great advice. It's exactly how I started my current campaign last year with a group of complete beginners to RPGs. I just had them roll up characters and then started making stuff up to round out the session and teach them the basics of exploring and fighting. By the time we finished, I had three plot threads underway based on their comments and theories about what was going on around town.

    The next week, I stuck a forest sandbox nearby and let the threads lead into it. With each excursion into the forest, the forest gets deeper and darker, and new and unexpected things occur. But the campaign goals and direction are driven almost entirely by the player's decisions.

    I've always been an over-prepper, but the approach you've outlined here is so liberating and way more fun. It just takes some loose organization (particularly for 2 and 3) and the confidence to let go of the reins sometimes.

    As an example of the latter, I often ask the players to name a new NPC they meet. Giving them that responsibility seems to lock the NPC and their personality/role in the players' minds way better than anything I might come up with. It's also way more fun(ny). They frequently remind me what someone's name is, which always makes me happy because it means they're invested.

    To help keep things organized, I write a session brief and post it to a share drive. That way, everyone can access and comment on what happened, and I can link back to previous sessions as events develop further. As you point out in 4, their between-session strategizing generates tons of ideas for me and helps me prep the session.

    It's incredible how much of the campaign my players are actually creating. I'll never go back to my old way of doing things. Thanks for a succinct explanation of how to do it.

    1. Thanks! Yes, getting the players to name NPCs is a good one.

  2. S'funny, I've been slowly working towards this realisation, but it crystallised for me this morning, about an hour before our game, when I bumped into a friend whose Runequest games I used to sometimes play in when I was a sprog. He's still running the same campaign, over 30 years on, through following exactly the approach you describe. I'm dying to jump back into his game.

    1. Every single living human is at most 6 degrees removed from somebody who has a really long-running Runequest campaign. FACT.

    2. Hahaha, I had no idea.

      Tru fact: there was a Sheffield Pecha Kucha night that had the working title "Six Degrees of Dan Sumption", because by being involved in a wide range of communities (music, art, tech, fostering, photography, theatre...) I accidentally became them best connected person in the city.

  3. Damn straight! Any other type of campaign would be impossible for a busy guy like me to maintain.

  4. Really great advices! I think I more or less use them, but it's always great to remind them.

    PS: Poor ol' Mama Dragon :(

  5. This is basically the idea behind Apocalypse World and it’s derivatives. Some fine procedures in there!

    1. I am not a massive fan of Vincent Baker's authorial voice but, you're almost right - I would say that Apocalypse World is this, but at a higher level of abstraction. I still have a dungeon or hexmap key that I largely stick to when playing D&D, for example, and I am pretty rigorous about running the game by the book rules-wise. The mechanics of play are very different to a PbtA game. But there is a similar approach to what might be called the strategy of DMing.

  6. Excellent post! In the past I've been guilty of way over preparing stuff that never saw light in the campaign and then burned myself out as a DM. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Yes, that's the point of it really. If you try to determine everything within the setting in advance it just becomes overwhelming.

  7. Hmn. I think in the long term a campaign that is easily maintained has considerable advantages versus one that requires constant investment but it cannot be disputed that the application of time, effort and intellect can create sessions and adventurers that no sweeping system or setting painted with broad strokes, no matter how elaborate, can compete with.

    1. & 4. risk consensus reality Dungeon World design. I flirt with those things in my campaign but I suspect they destroy investment in the campaign world in the long run because they violate a key requirement, of a world that exists independently of player desires. It makes sense that you flesh out that which the players decide to focus on of course, but something about it doesn't sit well with me.

    1. I know what you mean, but as with everything it's a matter of drawing the line in the correct place.

      I don't believe that it is possible to plot a campaign area with NO loose ends, and nor do I think it is realistic to NEVER use the players' musings for inspiration. Attempting to achieve perfection in those areas is foolhardy.

      By the same token, all loose ends and all player agency leads to Storygames.

      The best approach is a broadly 'old school' one leavened by some flexibility, as I advocate here, which is how I think in truth the game was always played, even in 1975.

    2. You might be correct that the emphasis is more in favor of then opposed too these practices.

      I recall reading about the original Lake Geneva campaign and its growth over successive years and its development was more akin to the growth of Howard's Hyborea or Leiber's Neuwhon, i.e., peacemail growth, with areas being developed only as the players explored them, rather then Tolkien's Middle Earth, which is complete and all its major elements are known.

  8. Everything is a loose end - or just about. My Dming style is a basic info dump, an adventure premise and a keen ear for player talk. That's it. The players go from there. Its very ad lib, but I have my world in mind so there is consistency.

    The key I find is listening to players talk and turning those talks and plans into obstacles, villains and setting fluff. It great to see how their own words are used against them :)

    Example -

    Players - "There is no way its a Lich pulling the strings behind the city council."
    Me- to myself - that is correct its not a Lich its a vampire lord, who isn't unreasonable.
    Player - This feels like Deja Vu
    Me to myself - Oh yeah it is you are in a time loop/distortion or mind prison.

    As long as they keep talking, I can keep doing my thing. How to keep them talking? Give them oodles of choices and tidbits of lore.

    A backup sheet of sketch notes/ideas can be used for fillers but the players really drive themselves.

    Example (LAST ONE) from my recent 5e game (pre covid)

    Players were tracking down the baddie and his stolen artifact/kidnappeed victim. They spent a good 90 minutes discussing the merits of a two pronged approach with Party X going in hot pursuit through the woods and Party Y with a wagon and team of horses heading to the northernmost town where they were sure he would have to go before he headed into the uncivilized northern wilds.

    Using this info that the blathered on about - I created an overland adventure sketch and a town. I had everything I needed and they created it. Filling in the gaps was easy. Did the baddie have accomplices they asked themselves? Me - hell yeah he does and they are in the forest patrol. I hope the town has supplies and isnt shady. Me - Hell yes its shady as fuck, but it does have lots of supplies and a brewing mercenary guilds conflict.

    So give them lots to talk about, and let them sink themselves by creating their own story - without them knowing it.

    I have mounds of books and papers, I shuffle. The papers blank, the books there just to see cool art. They think this is part of some thousand hour masterpiece. its just me making it up as I go, using their in game actions and real life player disucssiions!

    Ahhhh, wish covid would end. Want to DM more.

    Good points made!

  9. I love this and I miss my open table that ran along these lines. Ben Milton linked to this post in his most recent 'The Glatisant' issue #20.

    My only thought is that 1. can sometimes lead to never actually getting a conclusion. You end up doing One Small Favour in a chain of about 50 events... to the point where you are getting the Golden Hair from the Dryad, to give to the Warlock on Plum Hill in exchange for the Tome of Astrology, to give to... who was it again? Why are we even doing this?

    It would depend on how often you play, and how well your players take notes or remember what is going on, but I feel these chains ought to be pay off and a 'quest completed' reasonably often.

    1. As DM, I have a list of loose ends and when I am prepping the new stuff coming next session, I always see if I can weave in one of the old threads and create continuity that can potentially give a new opportunity to close that loop alongside new current events unfolding. Plagiarize the unused bits of things they passed over or didn’t get to earlier.