Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Campaign Creation

Campaign are fun.  They are far more than the basic definition, a series of games that have been linked together.  They are a new challenge, a source of bragging rights, an inspiration for future projects, and an opportunity to try something different.

Of course, not all campaigns are the same.  The 3 primary types are; Map, Tree (The results of one game will determine the type of game and mission in subsequent games), and Ladder (A linear series of battles that do not deviate from the original plan).  In addition to that limited definition of campaigns are subtypes that deal with other aspects.  One is campaign conclusion; Is the campaign open ended, with a specific win condition, or with a planned conclusion?  Another is Missions and Objectives;  Are the games pre-generated in advance or determined as the campaign progresses?  Does the results of one game effect later games?  Player participation is also a critical aspect; How many people are in it and can people enter after it has begun?  You also need to decide if the army composition is fixed or non-fixed; does the campaign require you to use certain units and keep your army list fixed or can everything vary from one battle to the next?  What about a sideboard style where you can have a combo of both types.

There are various elements a campaign writer has to keep in mind that make a great campaign;  A compelling story line has to be number 1 on my list.  Anything that connects the storyline to myself and my army is what will make me want to keep playing the games.  A sense of fairness and balance for everyone involved must also play a large role in the design of the campaign.  Try to avoid the “steamroller” effect and vary the types of missions and deployments.  Another critical aspect
is the inclusion of interesting battles that challenge the players in new and unique ways.

While it’s not necessary for a campaign to have a story line that links the games together,  I’ve found that if before the campaigns starts you don’t already have story line that links the games together one will naturally develop one on its own.  Don’t resist it if one does develop on it’s own.  That’s part of what
makes a campaign fun and memorable.

Story line development is often quoted as the most difficult part of campaign writing.  I find it the easiest and I can attribute that to being a DM in AD&D.  In those types of games a good story line is critical.  It is central to the game itself.  But if you’ve never written a story line for role playing games then where do you find one?  Story lines for campaigns are everywhere if you just look and use a bit of imagination.

My favorite source is the news.  A recent example is the toxic sludge disaster in Hungary.  To me, that sounds like Papa Nurge causing trouble.  The first battle can be the initial opening of a massive warp gate, the second would be the rescue of stranded units, and the final battle would be a mission to close the warp gate.  The recent news about the Quantis Jet making an emergency landing because of engine trouble can be converted to an Imperial starship having to make emergency repairs on an Ork infested planet that holds an old Mechanicus station.  The first battle could be a forced entry into an occupied area, the second is gathering needed repair parts, and the last is evacuation after repairs have been made.

Those examples quickly rose out of my mind as I was writing and need to be fleshed out in greater detail but the basics of a good story line are there.

History is another good source for a story line but it may take a bit of work and imagination to convert historical battles to something logical for a wargame deployment and mission.  You may have to admit that some historical events and battles would make a boring campaign even if they were critical events in history.  Move on to another historical event if they can’t be easily converted.  Others, like Sherman’s March to the Sea from the American Civil War, just about writes its self for any campaign type.  It’s series of major events and battles can be easily converted to the table top wargame.

Also look to fictional history to inspire a campaign storyline.  Inserting your games into the greater storyline of the Sabbat Worlds Crusade that forms the backdrop of the Gaunts Ghosts series is
easy.  After all, they aren’t the only regiment in the sector wide crusade.  It’s easy for an Imperial Guard player taking the role of an un-detailed regiment in the books or simply replacing the Tanith 1st.
Another option is to use a random story line generator.  Do a google search and I’m sure you’ll find dozens of sites for this.  I admit that most of them are designed for role playing games but that does not mean that the inspiration can’t apply.  Keep in mind that random charts for games don’t have to be used randomly. It’s perfectly acceptable to selectively pick the parts of these charts you want to use instead of letting the dice decide for you. It’s your game, use this material as you see fit.

One of the other, and most difficult to achieve, elements of a great campaign is a sense of fairness.  You may have to accept that in a campaign it may be impossible to achieve perfect fairness in every game throughout the entire campaign.  It’s the overall campaign that must be fair.  Both players should have an equal opportunity to win.

Special campaign rules that favor one army over another can lead to an imbalanced campaign.  Try to avoid this situation but accept that it may be necessary to imbalance an individual game to move the
campaign’s storyline along.  An example would be to give a planetary invader an advantage to get them on the surface in the opening battle.  The storyline would be silly for subsequent battles if the invaders were wiped out in the opening battle and never made it down to the planet alive.

Do this by allowing the defender a chance to win the scenario without actually winning the game.  If one side has a huge battle advantage let the other side have an easy win condition.  With the previous example I’d help the invader gain a needed story line foothold on the planet by giving his entire
army (including vehicles) “without number”.  That would represent the continued reinforcement of additional troops an invader would need.  To balance it out require the defender to keep a single specified model alive to win the scenario.   This model could represent the planetary governor, a general, a great hero, etc….

Be careful of giving out too many or powerful rewards to one side after a winning battle.  These rewards tend to stack and make that player even more difficult to beat in subsequent games.  That player will end up steamrolling everyone else unfairly if the rewards become too numerous or too powerful.  Consider giving rewards that don’t effect the very next battle, don’t stack, are very minor, or are balanced out
with special rules for the other side.

Players who are unable to tell the difference between a “win at all costs” type of game and a “story line” driven game are another huge problem.  Those kind of players belong in a tournament where the intent of the game is to determine the best general.  They will enjoy those types of games much more.  

Another huge issue is the inflexibility of the players and the campaigns setting.  Quite often the writer of the campaign doesn’t know the players, their playing styles, their army, the battlefield terrain or anything else that’s unique to your situation.  It’s your game, feel free to change anything you see fit.  Any of those situation can imbalance the campaign unfairly.  If it’s not fair then change it so it is and restore the fun.

Some campaigns systems like Plantetary Empires give advantages to the looser (underdog) as a means of balancing the games.  This allows players of various skill levels to still compete against one another and “forgives and forgets” bad and good luck that we all occasionally have.  While the underdog rules can be cheated to give a player too many advantages the effect is minor and will balance itself out after a few games.

If you do decide to give the players advantages then keep them limited and relatively minor.  Loosing shouldn’t be rewarded any more than a lucky win reinforced.  As with everything else the advantages should be consistent with the storyline.

So now that you have a campaign story line and a sense of fairness how do you build the series together?  I believe that is the minimum number of games you need to make the campaign interesting is 3.  Four to six games is ideal for a campaign with a specific ending point.  It’s long enough to advance a story arc yet short enough for the players to not lose interest.   Coincidentally most comic book series are about that long too.  I admit that some comic book series, like campaigns, are much bigger but those tend to be reserved for special characters and situations.

I highly recommend that you follow an abbreviated form of what’s known in fiction as the Dramatic Arc.  It consists of the exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and conclusion.  Unfortunately that exact format works in fiction writing but it doesn’t translate to well to a table top wargame.  It, as a form of drama, was designed for the Greek and Shakespearian stage.  The falling action and conclusion will bore the players and seem completely redundant.

Skip the lasts parts and only use the exposition, rising action and climax.  This more closely resembles the Japanese form of story arc called the Jo-Ha-Kyu.  It means that all action should start slowly, speed up, then end swiftly.  This is ideal for a wargames campaign.

The exposition literally means to set the scene.  It begins the story, introduces the players, and in this
case starts the campaign.  If you do it right it will set the theme of the campaign.  How you do it is entirely up to you the players.  You could start it big.  An example is a Tyranid invasion where they all come down in overwhelming numbers.  You could start it small such as using Killzone rules.  This is much more in line with the Japanese story arc of Jo-Ha-Kyu.  To continue my previous example of a Tyranid invasion a Killzone game could be played where a Genestealer cult tries to shut down a major piece of planetary defense or kill the defending general.

Once the campaign is started you need to build up the story.  Like I said earlier, even if you didn’t start with a story you will quickly find one developing as you go along.  Tree campaigns by their very nature are known for story development.  In their case the results of the previous game determines the next battle fought.  A loss in the first battle could suggest a need for the looser to survive the subsequent battles.  A win following that could suggest a counter offensive while additional loses would suggest the need for an evacuation.  One method of building the action is to make the battles escalate from smaller games to larger games.

For these “middle” games, who’s intent is to build up the action, I prefer them to be a bit more
complicated with more than one basic objective.  Having a central objective (be it kill point based or
objective based), a secondary and possibly an additional tertiary objective will complicate the game in new ways.  These can be challenging games that still offer story line growth.  A lose for a player can still give him a moral victory if he manages to complete his secondary objectives.

If you’re deciding these games randomly then I suggest using the DLT random “tournament” games
chart.  In time we will release an updated version that will include improvements and updates designed for campaigns.

The conclusion is obviously where you end the campaign.  You may not have a conclusion pre-planned but even if you don’t I suggest ending it with a bang.  It should be big.  It should be memorable
and it should be climactic.   A huge Apocalypse game is an awesome idea but so would a character based mission like Assassination or definitive like Annihilation.

No matter how you decide to end the campaign this is what the entire series of games has been
leading up to.  These games should be kept simple with a clear winner and loser determined by a single game objective.  Campaigns don’t end well in ties.  It’s far better to keep playing to the death than to come to an inconclusive ending.   This will force the players to put it all on the line;  will the player who was winning all along be able to maintain the win or will the guy who lost most of his games make an incredible comeback?  The last game will decide.

1 comment:

  1. Dan,

    Thanks for an excellent and really intersting post. I particularly liked the link between a campaign and a dramtic arc/story arc. I'd not thought of a tabletop wargame campaign in that way before. It's given me a lot of ideas. Thanks again.