Thursday, 8 January 2015

Medge's guide to Narrative Campaigns

Hey All

Medge back again with my Wednesday update one day late (this blog has taken a while to write!). Today, I'm going to talk about narrative campaigns, and how I gon about their construction.

I have some experience I putting together story-driven campaigns; I've run Dungeons and Dragons campaigns in the past, both short one-off sessions and longer on-going campaigns, and I've run, or been involved in, my share of longer-term tabletop campaigns, including Warhammer 40K/ 30K, the Batman miniatures game and Warzone. 

So whilst I would not say I'm an expert, I think I've got a few ideas that will help you get your own campaigns going, or help you fine tune any existing campaigns your planning.

I should quickly clarify that what I'll be talking about is the creation of a whole new campaign, rather than replaying a narrative campaign within an existing story-arc. That being said, many of the points below will be simplified if you plan on playing though/ recreating an existing story arc.

So lets get going

#1 - Setting

To begin with don't focus too much on the full story, including how it will progress, as this may depend on how your players act/ react during the campaign, but rather focus primarily on the setting for your campaign. Where is it set? When is it set? How are the different factions/ players interacting?

As an example, here is the intro I've provided for my Batman Campaign:
The various criminals and gangs of Gotham City have been spurred into activity, with each gang leader looking to crush the others and unite Gotham under their rule.
The only thing standing between anarchy and ruin are the GCPD; the Gotham City Police Department. Commissioner James Gordon has assembled every Officer, Detective and SWAT member at his command and leads them against the myriad forces arrayed in front of him in a desperate attempt to stop the coming storm.
Of course, the police are not alone. Bruce Wayne, the Dark Knight; the Caped Crusader; Batman patrols the rooftops of the City intent of enforcing his own brand of justice. At his side stands Damien, the youngest Wayne and current incarnation of the Boy Wonder Robin, Barbara Gordon, the daughter of the commissioner and current Batgirl, and Richard ‘Dick’ Grayson, the first Robin now a man grown bearing vigilante identity Nightwing. These four stand with the police ready to fight to hold the chaos at bay. But they are only four individuals, stood against innumerate thugs and criminals lead by some of the most daring and malevolent criminals the world has ever known. How much can they really be expected to do?

This opening serves to let the players know the state of the world when campaign begins: Gotham is the battleground, and all players are against each other.

Your setting may be somewhere completely new within the game world in which you are playing, as is often the case with games with a very broad game world (such as Warhammer 40,000, where players have the innumerable planets of the galaxy in which to fight over). In this situation it may also be helpful to your players for you to provide a description of the world/ area across which they will do battle.

As an example, during my Warzone campaign I created a neutral territory, an asteroid known as Harbinger, for the players battle over. 

When creating a neutral/ new area for players to fight over, you need to ensure that there is a good reason for the players to be fighting for it. It's unlikely that four factions would meet on a desert planet with no strategic significance and kick lumps out of each other just for jollies. 

When creating Harbinger I tried to ensure that there was suitable fluff that would make it a tantilising target to the factions of the Warzone world. In this example, I made it so Harbinger had been displaced from the asteroid belt in our solar system; a dangerous and forbidden region rich in raw materials. Harbinger was therefore financially important to the different factions, but most importantly it was not controlled by any of the other factions, making it worth while for the various factions to try to land fight for control.

#2 - Factions involved

Deciding on the factions involved in a narrative campaign is part of your setting, but I'm going to include it as a separate section as it is often the defining feature in determining both your setting, and your overall story.

It is often very difficult to fit EVERY faction into a campaign, depending on the gaming system, and you should try to find a balance between which factions you include, and how easy it is to fit them into your campaign.

In my upcoming Batman campaign it's been relatively straightforward to include all the major factions; the factions in the Batman Miniature game are the Law, (Batman & co, plus the Police) and the major criminals of Gotham (Penguin, Joker, Bane, Two-Face, Poison Ivy, Black Mask and The League of Shadows). Ultimately the motivation for all the criminals will be similar, whilst the police will want to stop them, so there's no clash/ problems in including them all.

In some game systems this is can be horrendously complicated. Take Warhammer 40,000; if we assume that all Imperial units constitute a single entry you still have nine factions located in different areas of space with hugely different motivations, and trying to shoe-horn them into a single campaign can be tricky.

Ultimately, the factions which make it into the 'final cut' for your campaign will be determined by your gaming group since people are likely to want to use models they already own, or will want to use your campaign to kick-start a new project. Be sure to consult with your players when determining what factions you will include, and use their feedback when determining your setting, and in determining what I will next discuss - your story.

#3 - Running the Story

Once you've decided on the setting and the factions involved, you can move on to the actual story. There are, in my opinion, two ways you can do manage the story element of your campaign; I would describe them as Prescribed' and 'Evolving'.

Prescribed Campaigns

In a 'Prescribed' campaign the story is pre-written and will follow a single, linear course, with individual player actions having no, or a very limited effect on the story.

This style of narrative is often easier for authors as it keeps the full creative control of the story with the them. Since players have no effect on the story it can, however, lead to player dissatisfaction, since the faction which wins the majority of games can still end up losing in the narrative.

I would recommend this style for those players that enjoy recreating famous battles from their game systems story, rather than for players trying to create their own stories.

For those players that want to use this for new campaigns, try to come up with ways of engaging with your gaming group and encouraging players to play in a story they are destined to lose. A Win/ Lose ratio for the different players could help provide some extra motivation for gaming.
I would also suggest trying to engineer some scenarios to be particularly one sided to provide a cinematic quality to the games. i.e. a surprise ambush of reinforcement than sees one player with 50% of the army size of his opponent  try to survive X number of turns/ escape.
In this way you can enhance the detail of the story by playing smaller skirmishes within a larger war setting to engage and excite players.

Evolving Campaigns

In an 'Evolving' campaign the author describes the setting and establishes the scene, but once the campaign begins the players dictate the direction of the story.

Evolving campaigns are by far my my favourite style of campaign, and all of my campaigns to date have been of this type.

Depending on how comfortable you are as a story teller, you can make this style of campaign as hands on, or hands off, as you see fit.

I would describe my Batman campaign as being particularly hands off; players pick their character and create a gang, and then will proceed to fight over sections of a map of Gotham, shown below.

The conquest map from my upcoming Batman: Arkham Conquest campaign.
Once the campaign begins players have the freedom to carry out the campaign as they like, allowing the story to evolve naturally, and rivalries/ alliances to come as go as the players see fit.

My Warzone campaign, by comparison, was incredibly hands on.

The campaign was broken into 6 rounds, each of which featured scenarios crafted on an individual faction basis. These scenarios forced two or three factions into direct conflict to deliberately create grudges/ competition between players. After every game I would speak to the players to hear how the game went and take notes, including the numbers of casualties and the success of the mission based on the primary/ secondary/ tertiary objectives, and I would use this to write the following round of missions, with the conclusion being a single confrontation in mission six between the "good" and "evil" factions

The end result was, in my opinion, a great collectively written story in which I still had ultimate control of words, but I let my characters (the players) dictate the story.

This took a lot of effort from myself, and my players, but was definitely the most rewarding campaign I have run.

#4 - Writing the story

Once you've decided how to manage the story, you have to actually write the story.

Some things to consider;

Antagonists/ protagonists - Many games have bad guys and good guys; great games have morally ambiguous guys whose position on the good/bad spectrum changes depending on who you ask.
Regardless, someone will probably end up playing the "bad-guy" in your campaign.
In my Batman campaign this is, ironically, the role being played by Batman and the Police, who are trying to stop the criminals from taking over the city. In the Warzone campaign this role was played by the Dark Legion who, as the name suggests, are the unambiguous bad guys trying to wipe out humanity (convenient!)

Someone will, invariably, need to play the role of antagonist in your campaign. You can either take this role on yourself, or you can trust in your players and give this to one of them.

In many campaigns the antagonist will be the one destined to lose, or at least will suffer worse at the hands of the other players, so be sure to pick someone that doesn't mind getting their hands dirty.

Protagonists, on the other hand, will be the main drivers of the story, and will represent the majority of your player base. If you're playing a campaign with multiple different protagonists (e.g. many different factions all with their own agendas) consider trying to foster some animosity between them just to spice things up, otherwise you may find the campaign finishes nice and quickly as everyone just gangs up on the antagonist.

Story duration - How long is the story going to last within the game world? This will have consequences on the way the players interact with the world, and the world reacts back.
For example, my Batman campaign is due to take place in a single night in Gotham. Why? Well because if it took a week and a half, the National guard would be mobilised and come in in support of the GCPD.
Likewise, a longer campaign, e.g. A campaign centered around the conquest of a city/ state/ planet over a number of months opens up the possibility for reinforcements/ redesigns of the players army to represent the larger scale conflict, and the requirements for specialist fighting forces during the time period.

Game duration - How long it will take to play? You will probably have an idea of how the players will interact and the rough direction the story will take, but it's important to remember that a campaign can't run forever. Try to pitch a story that is just long enough to ensure players don't get bored/ move on to other things. With my Warzone campaign I made it very clear from the start that it would consist on approximately 6 missions, giving each mission a 2-3 week game time to allow players to get there games in. This equated to 3 1/2 months of game time total, which was a pretty significant amount of time to just play one game.

Ending the story - The end of your story should be a celebration of the game up to this point, and should be a suitably epic conclusion to the game. It should also make sense within the context of the game and the story, and can be kind of tricky to get right particularly without upsetting a few players. Try to write it in such a way that allows every player to participate, either as an epic battle or as something NPC related.

In my Warzone campaign, for example, I had one ending prepared, but two major end story arcs.

Over the course of the campaign players could chose for themselves whether to fight with, or against, the Dark Legion, with the final mission being a "good vs evil" game to determine the winner of the campaign between good and evil, and determine the end of the story.

Second to this, however, I had also kept track of the number of wins/ loses, and the margin by which victory/ defeat had happened, between players so that after the "good/ evil" winner was decided (the good guys won), I could give the one of the factions the secondary victory of having gained control of Harbinger, by virtue of most wins across the campaign.

#5 - Custom Rules

Custom rules should be prolific in your campaign, since this is what separates your campaign from the run-of-the-mill games. These house rules can come in the form of fresh scenarios, house-rules for in game, limitations on characters/ units based on settings, etc etc. Again, you should try to consult you gaming group to make sure these aren't going to hurt/ hinder them throughout the campaign. Some of the custom rules I used in my Warzone campaign included:

Don't be a dick - Usually rule #1 in our gaming group just a reminder it's for fun!

Strategic objectives - Every human faction in my Warzone campaign had to collect and hold objectives representing minerals/ores or ammunition/ supply drops during the games. Mineral/ ore objectives gave the players bonus points to spend on increasing army size, whereas the ammo/ supply objectives provided specific loot and tactical options for future games. The model count in these games was relatively small, and so players had to very carefully decide which objectives there were going to push for based on their army needs.

Temporary alliances - I allowed players to form temporary alliances within games, and often made the missions multi-faction missions, in order to encourage these alliances. Players were free to trade objectives, points, tactical equipment, etc in exchange for help within missions, which helped me build up relationships between the characters which I could later destroy! This worked great, especially since I had 7-8 players spread across 4 factions, which meant that often Player A and Player B from Faction 1 had difference alliances (in one instance I actually had two players from the same faction fighting on different sides of the good/ bad divide where one had chosen to turn evil! Perfect!)

Secret objectives - Great in campaigns where you have uneasy alliances between players like I've just described. I used secret objectives to sow animosity between dubiously allied players, making for some great fun, and helping to ensure that my antagonist player wasn't on the receiving end of all the punishment! Using this rule I was able to make every action a player made have consequences in later missions; yesterdays enemy was tomorrows ally and some players secret objectives involved assassinations/ deliberately stealing strategic objectives. etc as a retaliation for a previous offence.

Model limitations - limiting models is something you should only do if absolutely necessary, since it can put pressure on players to have to buy new things. In the Harbinger campaign I removed special characters, since I wanted the campaign to be about players creating a narrative around their custom commanders (I was fortunate that Warzone has some GREAT Create-your-own hero rules!). I also limited the use of vehicles to Walkers only, since you can't move a tank through the inside of an asteroid.
In my Batman campaign I've used this to place restrictions on the use of any of the "Bat-characters" (Batman, Robin, Nightwing, Batgirl, Batwoman). This is so that I can have any of the aforementioned characters turn up in any game, controlled by any player, and interfere in that game. Batman, etc, are being used as Games Master controlled players, and by restricting their use I'm adding to their narrative (I am, of course, providing the models myself too, but encouraging players that want to buy their own to do so). 

Low Gravity special rule - To make the games set on Harbinger seem more like fighting on an asteroid, I introduced a special rule to allow players to perform a low gravity moon-walk; extra quick movement with a chance of losing control and taking damage. This turned out to be well received, and abused, by my players, and I was forced to introduce a narrative element to remove the special rule, as it ended up overpowering one faction!

I encourage you all to play around with these extra rules, but this last one is definitely an example of the risks of not thinking a rule through! Use it with care, and don't be afraid to undo what you've done; it's your story after all!

And ... I'll leave it there. I hope that provides you with a number of ideas and things to consider when making/ running your own campaigns. I'm sure I've missed some stuff out, so I'm happy to answer any additional questions that people make in the comments below!

As always, please like, subscribe and share this!
And Happy hobby everybody!