Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Open-Ended Campaigns

One of the more interesting aspects of the early days of role-playing games was the assumption that campaigns were something that lasted some time. Certainly Greyhawk and Blackmoor lasted a very long time - but in the first decade of gaming, there did not seem to be any sort of assumption that a campaign would end. Reading articles from early issues of The Dragon, it's quite clear that campaigns did not die (but they might fade away).

I know this era of long-lasting campaigns didn't last. In fact, one good reason for them not lasting for regular play was simply the appearance of new role-playing games. If you wanted to play a different game, and your group met once a week, well, something would have to give. "D&D or Bushido? It's your call!" "How about Boot Hill?"

Now, it seems that campaigns are envisioned as something to start and then end. Case in point: a friend of mine ran a 3rd Edition D&D game set in the Forgotten Realms, and while I enjoyed it, I found that he had plotted a specific "story arc" to end at a particular point in the campaign, and then it was done. I had mentally prepared my Tiefling paladin (not angsty, just different) for a longer period of play, so the end of the adventure was something of an abrupt stop for me.

But in the present Old School Renaissance, we've got the chance to figure some of this out in advance. I think there is something qualitatively different to an open-ended campaign, in comparison with those with pre-set ending points. I'm not saying that a campaign must be played constantly and forever, but more a difference in viewpoint about beginnings and endings. Put somewhat more philosophically, I think that the duration of a campaign is just as much a part of the "sandbox," so to speak, as the geography of a campaign.


  1. I like open-ended campaigns. It gets especially interesting when the characters retire and you start new ones in the same game world.

    I recall the oddly satisfying feeling when my 7th-level wizard came face-to-face once with a 16th-level priest of Lathander I used to play (he was officiating over a duke's wedding, IIRC). You suddenly recall that not only are you talking to an archbishop; not only does he command the largest temple for a hundred miles around; not only is the mace casually dangling from his belt the kind of artifact that beggars touch as a cure for leprosy; but you had played that character up from a freaking *acolyte*.

  2. Precisely. There's something conceptually different about a campaign that is intended to continue indefinitely.

    I think what might be bothering me about *some* campaigns with a fixed end-point (a pre-defined "story arc" if you like) is that it acts as a kind of very arch "railroading" - "okay, here's the end of the line."

  3. I too prefer the open-ended campaign. A finite campaign should be noted up front and agreed to by all concerned, or it is railroading.

    My further comments:

  4. Interestingly, I prefer ones that come to a close, at least in some way. I prefer, both as a player and a GM, to come to some sort of conclusion, and then be presented with the choice of continuing on with the same characters, starting different ones in the same world, or doing something different.

    I'm not sure what this says about me, honestly. But I know I prefer things to have decision points, instead of just fading away due to disinterest.

  5. I think that the duration of a campaign is just as much a part of the "sandbox," so to speak, as the geography of a campaign
    Yes. Just as how the players decide where to go in the sandbox campaign, they can and should decide when it ends. Instead of "next week, we'll investigate the caverns over there", it would be "next week, we'll wrap it up and play something else". It's a perfect blend of scripted adventure path and freeform sandbox, and I think it emphasises decision points, as Malcolm says, rather than detract from them.

  6. Kelvingreen - I think I disagree about it being up to the players. The campaign, after all, is the referee's creation: they get to decide when it is over. I think this idea that the players are the ones to decide is a distinctly new one, and not necessarily for the good.