I’ve recently been reading Francesco Nepitello’s The One Ring roleplaying game. Chris Tulach picked up the book for me at Gen Con, after I mentioned how impressed I was by its aesthetic style.
The one element of the book that interested me most was the “Fellowship Phase,” which addressed a question that had nagged me for some time: What is the best way to capture the time in between adventures in roleplaying games?
Let me preface my answer with a bit of explanation: I run games laden with intrigue and sweeping plot arcs. I juggle multiple storylines, each with a write-up. I invest time creating elaborate background for nonplayer characters and player characters. The problem is, when you’re only meeting once every other week for five or six hours, you can only relate so much of all that story over the course of a game.
To that effect, I’ve taken inspiration from Nepitello’s system and created something suitable for my own needs, and I call it: Campaign Mode.
Campaign mode isn’t for everyone, but I hope some people find it useful. My hope is that I might actually be able to use the following rules set to (a) wrap up all the character story lines and (b) include some players who have left the campaign due to relocations. This system is still something I’m developing, so please comment with your feedback. If you’re a player and not a Dungeon Master, I still welcome feedback, and if you like what you see, please encourage your Dungeon Master to take a look.
Campaign mode is a new instrument in a Dungeon Master’s toolbox for time and story management. It can be used to pass days, months, or even years, without forcing either the players or Dungeon Master to go into great minutia about the actions taking place in the campaign world. As a Dungeon Master, you should decide whether or not campaign mode is right for your game, though it’s a good idea to take into consideration the types of players at your table and to consult them before introducing it.
The Flow of Time
Time in a Dungeons & Dragon game normally flows in three ways compared to game table time: either at a fractional pace, an equivalent pace, or at a moderately accelerated pace. For example, time flows at a fractional pace during combat. The time “in game” is only a fraction of game table time. In 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons, one combat (five minutes) is about an hour at the game table, or approximately one-tenth game table time. Exploration or social interaction occurs at an equivalent pace. You say what your character says to the nonplayer character, or alternatively, in the time it takes you to explain that your character is searching the room and roll the die, the character could have made a good start on his or her search. Finally, game time proceeds at a moderately accelerated pace. You might explain to the Dungeon Master how your character spends his or her day in town, or how the part is traveling by horse to a nearby cave. In this case, the game time might be equal to anywhere from one-hundred to one-thousand times the game table time. That is, it takes you 1 minute to explain what your character is doing, and in that time, a couple hours might pass, or a day might pass.
Nothing in the game limits escalating of this system of time to a higher magnitude. Why shouldn’t a player be able to explain what a character does over the course of a week, a month, or even a year? In a traditional Dungeons & Dragons game, the answer to that question is that the adventure or the campaign doesn’t allow it. A Dungeon Master can’t have his or her players saying “I spend the next year of my character’s life going to recover the Rod of Seven Parts.” For one, it puts a Dungeon Master in the awkward position of telling that player to not bother showing up for the next session, plus all the sessions after that. It is also impractical because a Dungeon Master can’t just let the players complete quests without challenge. For that reason, a Dungeon Master should decide whether to use campaign mode in his or her game, and when to use it.
Campaign Mode Basics
Once you decide to use campaign mode, ideally with consulting your players, you should provide or communicate the following rules to them.
Initiate: A Dungeon Master initiates campaign mode at the end of a rest, generally in a safe location, such as a town. However, in order to expedite travel through wilderness, a Dungeon Master might decide to initiate campaign mode during a rest while the heroes are traveling through or exploring harsh or dangerous environs. The Dungeon Master can announce that the game is entering campaign mode or can do so through the narrative. For example, you might state that in subsequent days, travel passes uneventfully, and it looks as though the party faces no immediate threats and has no pressing matters to address.
Determine Timespan: Both the players and the Dungeon Master determine how much time passes. Before asking the players how much time they want to spend in campaign mode, you determine the upper limit of time the characters can spend. This amount of time should generally not exceed 5 years, and it is usually limited by events related to the campaign. Villains are unlikely to let the characters relax for too long, and threats of war and the promise of treasure can interrupt the actions characters perform in campaign mode. Determine the maximum timepsan by choosing an increment of time. Also, decide what campaign event, if any, interrupts the characters actions in campaign mode.
After you’ve decided upon the timespan and campaign event, it’s time for the players to decide how much time to expend. This decision should be a collaborative process, in which the players examine their characters’ goals, obligations, and interests, and then come to a consensus. If a consensus is not possible, you can deal with the disagreement in two ways: go with the length of time the majority of the players want, or go with the minimum amount of time a player proposes.
Determine Actions: Once both DM and players have decided on a timespan, each player decides how to spend his or her actions during that time. A player chooses how to spend his or her actions based on the entire unit of time. For example, a player can’t break a month down into several week-long increments, or a year down into twelve month-long increments.
A character’s activities in campaign mode are represented by two types of actions: a major action and a travel action. A major action, similar to a standard action, makes up the bulk of a character’s activities during the campaign mode timespan. A travel action, similar to a move action, represents a character traveling some distance overland, based on what can be accomplished during the timepsan.
Going around the table, each player tells the DM how his or her character will spend these actions during the timespan, and in what order. Whether or not a proposed task can be accomplished within the timespan is determine by the Dungeon Master. If a player’s proposal is too ambitious, let the player know how long his or her character expects the action to take. At your option, you can allow a player to accomplish part of his or her major action if time runs out or if an event interrupts the action (see “Unfinished Business”). Here are some general suggestions for what a character might accomplish with his or her major action.
More Than 1 Year
Creation: Build a castle or tower, create a mundane or magic item of exquisite craftsmanship, found a city, invent a new spell, create a magical beast, write a book
Education: Retrain your character classes, learn a hard language, adopt a new career requiring years of training, such as captain of the guard, general, a guild leader, a governor, a chieftain, a physician, an abbot, or a high-ranking member of the clergy.
Exploration: Track down an object or location lost for centuries, mount a major expedition, map an a vast uncharted region, complete a challenging major quest
Relationships: Start a family, develop a vendetta, gain a nemesis, train a dangerous or untame beast, rekindle a friendship with a long-lost family member, gain an apprentice, develop a lifelong friendship with a person or a rapport with the citizens of a city.
6 Months – 1 Year
Creation: Build a large house, create a mundane or magic item of fine craftsmanship, found a village, invent a new cantrip, research a secretive organization or obscure arcane subject,
Education: Attend a university, train a domesticated beast, retrain your theme, skills, feats, powers, or class features, learn an easy language, adopt a new career requiring considerable training, such as a knight, a lieutenant in the army, an armorer, aweaponsmith, a metalsmith, a merchant, a mayor, a constable, a steward, a scholar, an innkeeper, an apothecary, an animal trainer, an artist or performer, an acolyte, or a mid-ranking member of the clergy.
Exploration: Track down an object, location, or a person that has been seen or heard from for decades, mount an expedition, map a dungeon or small uncharted region, complete a major quest,
Relationships: Get married or develop a relationship, gain a reputation for something incredible, develop a rivalry, develop a strong friendship with a person or a rapport with the citizens of a large town.
1 Month – 6 Months
Creation: Build a small house,, create a mundane item of good quality
Education: Research an obscure organization or esoteric subject, train a simple domesticated animal, retrain one of your skills, powers, or class features, learn fragments of a difficult language, become a squire, a soldier in the army, a mercenary, an apprentice armorer, an apprentice weaponsmith, an apprentice metalsmith, a counter, a scribe, a stablehand, a deputy, a server, or a low-ranking member of the clergy.
Exploration: Track down an object, a location, or a person that hasn’t been seen or heard from in several years, mount a minor expedition, map a river or a path through a wilderness region, complete a challenging minor quest
Relationships: Fall in love, meet a rival or adversary, gain a reputation, develop a good friendship with a person or a rapport with the citizens of a small town.
1 Week – 3 Weeks
Creation: Purchase land, start a farm
Education: Read a tome, decipher a faded scroll, research a widely documented organization or subject, train an intelligent domesticated animal, find out the local rumors or legends, retrain one of your powers, learn fragments of a common language.
Exploration: Track down an elusive local object or a person that hasn’t been seen or heard from in weeks, explore a local forest or mountain, gain insight or hints into completing a quest.
Relationships: Become smitten, develop a friendly rivalry, gain a minor reputation
Coming next week…
- Characters aiding each other
- Interrupting character actions.
- Integrating rewards.
- Providing a narrative.
- Adding complications.
- Advancing the story.
Do you have some suggestions? Something else you want to see integrated? Help me playtest this system and build more robust options for characters. When I’m finished, I’ll compile all the rules into a single, easy-to use document.