In case you haven’t heard, pen-and-paper role-playing games are awesome on so many levels. I assume, since you are reading this column, you already know that. But it never hurts to step back sometimes, get away from the minutiae of gaming that we analyze and ponder and debate, and remind ourselves that we play these games because they are so much fun.
The most fun I had as a player and a GM in home campaigns happened back in those early days of RPGs, particularly D&D, Top Secret, Gamma World, Star Frontiers, and the like. I am talking about a time when the personal computer was nothing more than a really expensive and practically unattainable myth for most, and the Internet was still the dream of a scattered bunch of computer scientists. I wasn’t even in high school yet, but my older friends showed me the two computers our school owned. My friends had managed to get their hands on a couple games a bit like D&D: text-based games where you had to type the instructions for your character, and most of the time the game did not accept the commands you typed. Not only that, you had to load the games via an audio cassette player, and more often than not the load failed. (If you are really young, go ask your parents about cassettes. Ask about 8-tracks while you are at it, for a real hoot.)
So you can only imagine, after waiting two hours and enduring four failed attempts to load games that were practically unplayable even when they did work, how unbelievably great it was to go to my friend’s house and let our imaginations run wild. No failed game-loading. No frustrating hours of trying to simply get your character to the dungeon by typing things like “GO NORTH. GO WEST. GO EAST. GO FREAKING SOMEWHERE.” In our D&D games, we told the stories. Our characters could do anything they wanted, and the DMs were ready to make up new adventures for us based on our whims. Our characters weren’t just going into the dungeon to rescue the kidnapped townsfolk. We were rescuing the NPCs who sat with us on town councils, who shopped at the stores we owned, and who frequented the churches we built with our own hard-earned loot. The world was built just for us to play in. We could spend whole evenings, whole weekends, totally immersed in that world.
Many gamers know what happens next. Youth passes. School ends. The responsibilities of jobs and families and the rest of life catch up to you, and those countless hours conquering fantasy worlds gives way to the less-thrilling but equally challenging task of conquering our own little corners of the real world. The game doesn’t change all that much, but we do.
A Different Kind of Fun
I was fortunate enough to be able to hold on to a bit of that magic through the RPGA, where my involvement in the game morphed from a player and DM into a designer, editor, and organized-play administrator. Though those days of yore were gone, I started to have a different kind of fun. I got to be a part of running organized-play campaigns, where I worked with others to create a great deal of content that people could spend hours playing. Seeing dozens of people simultaneously interacting with a story you helped create is very satisfying and time well spent, even if it is volunteer work that is not glamorous and very time-consuming.
Organized-play campaigns, especially ones that are experienced by tens of thousands of players, can be very exciting, fun, and fulfilling. Players around the world are undertaking the same adventures with their characters, and in some cases the players get a chance to see how the actions of their characters affect the campaign as a whole. Players can go to conventions like GenCon, Origins, DDXP, or Dragon*Con—or even smaller ones—and sit down to a game with a total stranger from halfway around the globe. And together, these total strangers can create a bond through a game, and from that bond comes a story that gets told there and elsewhere.
For players craving complete character immersion, however, organized play cannot compete with a home campaign that is tailored to their desires. In an organized-play campaign, your character might save the king’s daughter Princess Penelope, but you probably aren’t going to get the chance to marry Princess Penelope. If that were allowed, Penelope would probably find herself betrothed to about 20,000 characters (male and female), which probably wouldn’t fly—even with the most liberal and polygamous of campaign staffs. And don’t even get me started on the whole “heirs to the throne” debacle that would arise. Anyway, what I am trying to say is that in a home campaign the players can create the story; in a large organized-play campaign, the PCs generally must be content with influencing the story.
That is not to say, however, that these organized-play campaigns cannot be fun and immersive. In fact, many home campaigns never quite reach the level of interaction and player-driven goodness that I think of as truly awesome. I would proudly hold up the examples of Living Greyhawk, Xen’drik Expeditions, Living Kalamar, Living Arcanis, Living Death, and Living Forgotten Realms as extremely successful campaigns that could be just as engaging to both players and characters as the average home campaign, if not moreso.
Improving Interaction Through OP Techniques
With that thought in mind, the question I am forced to ask myself is the same one that I will constantly come back to: in terms of increasing and improving interaction within your game, what lessons and techniques can we take from organized-play campaigns for use in a home campaign? I have often brainstormed about ways to make the organized-play offerings more like my favorite home campaigns, but now I want to look at it in reverse.
What follows are elements of many organized-play campaigns. Some of these can easily be adapted to work for home campaigns.
Some campaigns use physical representations of items found during an adventure in the form of piece of paper known as “certificates” (or “certs” for short). These certs could then be sold, traded, or used in other ways in game. Many players loved certs, lugging around huge binders as they lovingly (or obsessively) thumbed through their precious items. Many companies create item cards or tokens in various shapes and sizes, and Wizard of the Coast’s Character Builder now does all the work for you, printing off item cards alongside power cards.
Even before I got involved with organized-play campaigns, I experimented with certs in my home campaigns. I found that my players would sometimes have trouble keeping track of treasure on their characters sheets—particularly consumable items. Having a physical representation of the item was useful: when they drank the potion of speed, they tore up the paper (and aged a year).
Certs were also great for those players who needed to be taught a lesson about being grabby with treasure. I had a few players who got a little too greedy, so I started putting the magic items onto index cards and placing them on the table when the characters found them. I made it clear that if the player picked up the card, that meant the character picked up the item. A few cursed items later, the grabby players learned to show a little restraint.
Throughout the course of their adventuring careers, the characters make a lot of friends, even more enemies, and earn the fame (or infamy) that follows them around. Often the players, or even the DM, can forget these past connections and associations. Story awards are a bit like certs, in that they act as a physical representation (usually in the form of a piece of paper) that not only remind everyone what the characters have accomplished in their adventures, but also spell out the consequences of those accomplishments. These can be either positive (“For helping Ralph the Ritual Caster escape the kobold attack, he offers to cast one ritual for you at no cost”) or negative (“Your decision to take the side of Mayor Ira Poofypants in the debate has made you enemies on the town council”). Like consumable items, these can be torn up or altered as circumstances change in the campaign.
A big hurdle in any campaign is the logistics of keeping track of resources, particularly XP and wealth. While computers, the Internet, and different apps and software have made this easier, many organized-play campaigns require a standard adventure log for all characters. Requiring a log like this means that all players have the same responsibility to keep track of their resources, and the same format for the paperwork makes such resource tracking standard across the campaign. It is not unusual for a DM or gaming group to do something similar. The log is always filled out at the end of a session. Not only does this log track the usual resources, but it can also be used to track those elements that are easily forgotten when a game is stopped at an inconvenient time: healing surges used, daily powers used, actions points earned, hit point totals, etc.
Since it is very difficult to tailor adventures and storylines to individual characters in a campaign with thousands of players, other avenues must be used. One of those avenues is to create groups that the characters can join or align themselves with, and then create adventures and storylines and roleplaying hooks for those groups. (A campaign cannot be tailored uniquely to thousands of players, but it can easily be tailored to offer unique opportunities to a couple dozen organizations.)
In a home campaign, where each character’s story and desires can get individual attention, the need for such organizations is limited. However, lessons from how such organizations are used in organized play can be carried over into the home campaign. At the beginning of each adventure, there might be a list of secret information, roleplaying hooks, special missions, or extra equipment that is offered to members of different organizations or factions. If done carefully and with an eye toward story, some of those secret missions for each faction might put the characters at cross-purposes.
Also, by making these extra bits revolve around an organization rather than the individual character, you both complicate and simplify the situation. A paladin belonging to a special knightly order may be charged with destroying the artifact, while the wizard belong to the Arcane University is tasked with bringing it back for study. This complicates the issue by making the characters beholden to other NPCs, not just to their own whims. At the same time it simplifies things, because the characters are better able to compromise with each other when their missions are not necessarily something directly involving their character story or background; they can always justify their actions to their organizations or leave their factions to avoid the inter-party conflict.
One of the most fascinating and entertaining aspects of an organized-play campaign is the ability to let multiple parties interact with the same adventure at the same time. These types of events are generally called “interactives,” and for many veteran OP players these are the highlight of any OP campaign.
Although these are difficult to arrange in home campaigns because they generally require multiple groups (and therefore multiple tables, maps, DMs, etc.), when they are done correctly they can be extremely fun. I was once a player in a home campaign where the DM was running two separate groups through Undermountain on different nights. He decided to change the dungeon based on what the other party accomplished when they played. The two groups would leave each other notes, set traps for the other party, and otherwise interact with each other through interaction with the environment. When the time was right for the two groups of characters to actually meet, all the players showed up on the same night. While this is a small-scale version of what can be done with multiple-party adventures, the possibilities when the logistics work can lead to some fun games.
As a long-time RPG player who loves the intimacy of a home campaign and the administrator of several large-scale organized play campaigns, I have been put into a position to deal with countless arguments about why one was superior to the other. The truth of the matter is that all types of campaigns have their drawbacks and their strengths, and neither holds a monopoly on fun. But the strengths of each can certainly be co-opted into the other to great success.