My first ongoing in-person Dungeons and Dragons game as a dungeon master reached a milestone yesterday: It moved from being an adventure to being a campaign.
I’ve read the Dungeon Master’s Guide from both 3rd Edition and 4th Edition, and I know that there’s some discussion of what differentiates an adventure from a campaign. From my reading, it’s always felt to me like it’s a question of duration. An encounter is something that takes a few minutes of game time and maybe an hour of real-life time. An adventure is a string of encounters that takes a few hours or days of campaign time and probably one to three gaming sessions in real-life time. A campaign is a series of adventures that takes any amount of time in-game and many sessions over months or years in real-life time.
I suppose those things are true, but I think there’s a more important distinction about what makes a real campaign: Collaboration between the dungeon master and the players.
In an encounter, I know which enemies are out there and what they’re capable of, and the players react to that.
In an adventure, I know the same things on a larger scale. Maybe the players are delving a dungeon or chasing after a bad guy through a city or something like that, but the overall script of what could happen is written by me. Yes, the players can come up with interesting ideas that I hadn’t thought of and I can work them in as I see fit. But I’m the one who establishes what could happen.
When we move to a campaign, things change. I’ll still be responsible for creating the future adventures and encounters, but what those adventures ARE is something that the players can have a huge hand in establishing. Would they rather head to the mountains to help a trader or head to the coast to find a wizard? Would they rather do something else entirely that I hadn’t considered as a possibility?
My first adventure ends; my first real campaign begins
Yesterday, my friends finished the first D&D adventure I had ever written. The main structure is something I wrote eight years ago when my wife and I tried D&D 3rd Edition, but that game never got off the ground and I never had the chance to use the adventure. The overall plot was pretty straightforward – the party is out to recover a mysterious family heirloom from a stronghold full of orcs. I used the stronghold design that I had drawn years ago and updated the monsters to match 4th Edition.
Things took an unexpected turn when the adventurers tossed some dead orc bodies into an underground river, which flowed by another room populated with live orcs. This triggered another battle, and the players decided to hole up in a fortified location in the stronghold to take a rest and defend themselves. Some bad guys took the heirloom out of the stronghold while the party was attacked by a smaller force, which led to a later chase through the woods and a last stand with the boss orc and a few lackeys. It was a satisfying conclusion.
So now what? Well, the party was able to establish that the heirloom has some magical properties that are being suppressed by a powerful enchantment. They could go find a mighty wizard to help them investigate further, or they could honor an earlier promise they had made to a riverboat merchant who had given them free passage if they would agree to serve as an armed escort on a future trip. They decided to help the merchant. And thus the campaign is born!
What makes this into a campaign for me is that the players have decided where to take the story. I held off on designing actual encounters for the next couple of possibilities, as I didn’t know which way the players would go. They’ve made their choice, so I now know what to build.
Furthermore, the players also took the story in a direction I hadn’t thought about at all – they decided to claim the former orc stronghold as their “castle”! Now, it’s out in the middle of nowhere in hostile lands, but they managed to convince the owner of the heirloom to send a small garrison of able-bodied villagers out to the stronghold to keep monsters from moving in while the party went a-questing.
There are so many juicy possibilities with this side story that I can’t wait to use them! The party CARES about this stronghold now. They have conquered it, and it is THEIRS. Any time you can get the players to actually care about something in the game world, you create the opportunity for future plots. Also, since they’re going in a completely different direction for their next adventure, things can be happening at their “castle” while they’re away. So many possibilities!
I feel great as a DM that I’ve managed to create world elements that my players care about and that they’re interested in making decisions about where the story goes. It’s a really good feeling.