On Campaign Design Patterns

In my personal experience most people are very, very, bad at campaign design. It's one of the reasons that gaming over hangouts has been such a positive experience. It's one of the only ways to get to play with high quality, high skill game masters.

What's my metric for high quality, high skill game masters? Do you have an online game with over 100 players signed up to play? Does your real life player pool exceed 20 people who want a spot at your table? Do players you do not know in your local area contact you to run games for them? Have you been running a game for the same people for over a decade and they are still excited about playing? These are some signs you are a high quality, high skill game master.

I've already addressed the cohesive theory behind campaign design. Now we are going to look at specific design patterns, putting that theory to concrete use. I am doing this so you can link this article to people who are bad at campaign design so they can read this and not be bad anymore because of how concrete and helpful it is. Please. I'm not begging, but let's help people! Right now so they can stop making me sad!

Note that unlike software (or architectural) design patterns, the following patterns all are methods of solving the same problem: How do I structure a campaign at the table with real players? They are all different patterns of solving that single problem rather then a collection of patterns to deal with a large variety of problems, as in code or architecture.

Campaign Design Patterns

Linear Sequence: A series of scenes/rooms/events that follows a sequence in sequential order.
Design and Scope: Linear sequence is the single most important campaign design pattern. It is simultaneously completely necessary and often terribly misused. Your campaign right now is completely linear, if you believe accurate time records must be kept for a meaningful campaign. The key factor in the design is that the sequence of whatever is in the campaign must be sequential.
The scope of this pattern is the broadest of all patterns which is why it's so important. Most campaigns only allow time to flow in one direction and do not use flashbacks, time travel magic, or other dilation effects. Time and its inexorable path forward is the most common use of the linear sequence in role playing games.
Linear Time
There are lots of reasons outside chronomancers that a campaign might not use linear time. Many classic first edition campaigns did not use linear time, due to training rules. Sure, the fighter might be out for several weeks training, but players often had alternate characters and might go on adventures that would take them out of the local space for months at a time. Their adventure would move forward and the characters back at the base wouldn't. Then the campaign would jump back in time to deal with the adventures of the other characters. This is one of the reasons for the strict admonishment in the 1st Edition Dungeon Master's Guide about keeping time records for a meaningful campaign.
And, of course, there are always chronomancers.

When discussing space, it refers to a sequences of encounters (rooms, scenes, etc.) that can occur in only one order or sequence. Note that providing side passages that can be explored do not undo a linear sequence. If the characters enter, and there is only one way between the starting scene/entrance to the final scene, then the linear sequence pattern is in use, even if their are side rooms and closets to explore.

Use: The linear sequence is by far the most common structure used in adventure materials sold to the public. Everything from the first major adventure for fifth edition, Tyranny of Dragons, to many Dungeon Crawl Classic dungeons, to Pathfinder adventure paths primarily uses the linear sequence. 

Why? Because people don't live, eat, and breath role playing. Linear adventures are easy to prep and easy to use at the table. It's a way for Dungeon Masters to prepare and run a campaign without a significant amount of work. It allows the Dungeon Master to open up the module or adventure path and go "Where were we?" and simply respond to player actions and direct his players to the next encounter area. The linear nature guarantees that set-pieces and "designed memorable encounters" will occur at regular intervals.

What's more, is that adventures and campaigns that are designed around linear sequence are often purchased by collectors, not by people ever intending to run them. The linear modules or adventures read in sequence with good imagery, and function as a form of entertainment for those who don't have a group to play them. An adventure that isn't linear and is instead a toolbox full of things that interact in strange ways has less of a traditional story structure and (generally) makes for less entertaining reading.

In small doses linear sequences are critical for successful adventures. Small sites such as monster lairs are an example of linear sequence being put to great use. Having a strict linear time sequences avoids heinous complexity, of time moving forward but party members not having spent their time yet. The outcomes of some player choice allows linear sequence to be used as an effective tool, e.g. the player makes a choice triggering a linear sequence of events.

Consequences: The largest consequence of linear sequence is the inability of the player to affect the outcome. It's most useful when focused on allowing the character agency in "character builds" and combat for tactically focused games and providing agency in the choice made during the scenes.
Although simple for busy players who want to get a game in, linear sequence over the course of a long campaign is soul-crushingly terrible. It is a very reactive style of play. Players show up and wait to be told where they go and what they do next.

The reason this is a real consequence and not a preference is that the primary advantage of role playing games over other media (such as video games or board games) is agency and infinite play. In campaigns that use only the linear sequence design pattern, both agency and infinite play must be limited or eliminated in order to retain the advantages of ease of use. In the likely case of a player looking for those specific things, a long linear campaign (i.e. adventure path) can seem like a slow, painful, death by one-thousand cuts.
Related Patterns: (Forthcoming)

Base: A safe place where adventure does not occur.
Design and Scope: This can be a building, headquarters, or even a city that the player's have their character's retreat to between sessions. The key factors in the base design pattern is that it is not a location in which gameplay occurs. It is the assumed location of characters before play begins. Use: The base is a crucial part of constructing a campaign, especially at low levels and for beginning players. We are playing a game, and as is useful in any game, it's important to have a line between where the gameplay begins. This base/game divide is as important as the overworld/mystical underworld divide in communicating to the players what their expectations should be. It's important that there's a clear delineation between what's a site for gameplay and what's not. Having a base is essential to that.
Base Camp
If you're having trouble wrapping your head around why this is so important, imagine sitting down at the start of your next session and saying "While you were sleeping, someone snuck into your room and stole several of your magic items." What does this communicate to the players?

  • I'm not safe anywhere. 
  • I don't have any expectations that gameplay ends anywhere. 
  • I'm going to have to describe where I keep all my things
  • I have to spend a non-trivial amount of time each session explaining the steps I take to insure that I don't ever leave myself open to this. 
  • Since their aren't any safe areas, I should make a list of precautions I have to take at all times.
The question that needs to be asked is: Is this what I want gameplay to be about?

Later, as the game progresses, and the characters increase in power, the focus can shift to them creating a base (Building a castle, et. al.) once they have the resources to do so. Gameplay concerns (enemies, rivals, etc.) drive the need to create a safe place.

An excellent example of this progression is Dungeons & Dragons basic module B2: Keep on the borderlands. It's clear from the setup and introduction that the Keep is not a base, but rather itself a site for exploration and adventure.

Within it, it provides opportunity for the players to acquire their first base at areas 7 and 14. Private apartments at number 7 are available for the well to do, and there is an inn with private rooms for a gold and a public room for a silver. Page 7 further notes the progression continues as they may eventually be allowed into the inner bailey upon completing a quest, and eventually once they've reached a certain level of power and dealt with the internal forces in the keep,

"After the normal possibilities of this module are exhausted, you might wish to continue to center the action of your campaign around the KEEP by making it the base for further adventures which you may devise. For example (assuming that the group has done good service for the Castellan), have a large force of bandits move into the area, and then appoint the group to command an expedition of KEEP troops, mercenaries, and so on to drive them away. Or the party might be-come “traders” operating out of the KEEP, hoping to find adventures as they travel in the surrounding area. . ."

Consequences: Having a base is entirely about communicating effectively with your players about where the gameplay lies. It answers questions so they can enjoy making meaningful choices, rather than being on the defensive and not knowing where to focus their energy. It isn't necessary to provide an area without risk, but is very useful for low level groups as well as helping players focus their energy on the gameplay you've prepared. Being clear about the relative danger levels in housing options also fosters an area of trust at the table and allows players to make informed decisions. Do I want to spend 1 silver to sleep in a common room, or pay 1 gold to sleep in a private one? Related: (Forthcoming)

We'll look at some more design patterns Wednesday.

Hack & Slash 


  1. A great post, I am still thinking about this one since you posted it.

    On off the cuff thing:
    "What's more, is that adventures and campaigns that are designed around linear sequence are often purchased by collectors, not by people ever intending to run them. The linear modules or adventures read in sequence with good imagery, and function as a form of entertainment for those who don't have a group to play them."

    It's an interesting and dead on observation. There's likely a feedback loop between people who read adventures this way and designers. I mean one thing I noticed straight off in the feedback from SUD was how different concerns/criticisms/praise between readers who read it (or better wanted to use) it as GMs and those who read just as readers is. As a designer conscious of that feedback you can feel the tension each time you sit down to write.

  2. Good things to think about here. One part in particular that I noticed right away was "Linear adventures are easy to prep". I'm in full swing with my group right now, and providing meaningful options traveling overland takes a lot of effort. Even if you are good at it, there is just the sheer amount of skut work that needs to be done. This is one area that could really use a good software solution. So far, no one has figured out that the work involved to prep and run a game is what keeps most people away. So much easier to pull out Settlers.


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