Anthony and everyone---
How much thought have you given to game elements/structures that are part of the campaign's flow and evolution, independent of the individual adventures' structures? I'm reading Erin Morgenstern's new book _The Starless Sea_, which is a fairy-tale-like novel told through nested stories like the 1001 Arabian Nights, and exploring their structures, some of which are meta-fictionally self-reflective/-reflexive, a la Borges or Robert Coover. It's a bit like a mega-dungeon of a book, really.
I'm thinking of structures that drive campaigns over the medium- to long haul, like:
- active foreshadowing through backgound/history/sage advice, spies/spying, divination and research spells, prophecies and divine/infernal guidance, etc.
- hidden foreshadowing through returning to earlier locations/NPCs/items/prophecies/etc. that have a newly-realized meaning or significance in retrospect after learning D after A, B, and C ("we should never have sold that wand at 3rd level so we could pay our training costs---it's the X"; "whoa!: we need to head back to that well in level 6 and open that unopenable door with this key now"; etc.); this works best, of course, when specific items, content, histories, etc. have layers of meaning/mystery to them
- assembling pieces and parts of multi-part magic items (Rod of Seven Parts, Eye and Hand of Vecna, etc.), maps, information/lore, paintings, etc.; Anthony's Black Journal falls into this category, I think, in addition to being an awesome prop
- red herrings, false trails/false alarms, and misinterpretations: player agency means that they'll get distracted by the fake ghost's tricks rather than unmasking the fake ghost, sometimes; this is possible through their own misinterpretations, as well as through being distracted by false trails/fake news clues intentionally created by NPCs---I'm thinking of Urgaan of Angarngi's map from Leiber's "Jewels in the Forest" here, or Eclavdra's false trail luring the classic GDQ players to assault Lolth as the root of all of their woes.
- independent actors with their own agendas that drive their goals, priorities, relationships, etc.---this is the whole "putting it all in motion" to create verisimilitude
What other kinds of tools like these do you use to structure long-term campaign play?
I'm revising some of these structural ideas in light of the prophetic works that my PCs are in the process of getting caught up within!
There's also something in the zone here worth considering on processes vs. outcomes. See https://seths.blog/2019/11/the-process-vs-the-outcome/ for a kick-off point, but an RPG needs to be fun in the process of playing it, which will reinforce the longer-term replay value ideas above. Milestones and outcomes are important too, in particular for longer-term campaign play; not just the in-the-moment process of playing. So this starts to get into sub-processes building into processes into workflows of processes into complex systems of processes*---which is why system selection is an important factor in campaign viability: if the system for your game is designed to product disposable one-year-long campaigns, as the 3.x and later editions of D&D are, then you shouldn't be surprised that the game design doesn't scale to support epic-level play over three or more years.
*I'm also not going down the rabbit hole of RJK's "open forms" book concept yet, but that is a possible ending point for this kind of analysis, I suppose.
Great points, Anthony! I definitely use the Greyhawk calendar---my favorite version is the one at http://www.greyhawkonline.com/canonfire/greyhawk_calendar.pdf by Clay Luther, since it's a great tracking calendar---and I find that Greyhawk's alternative dating systems (along with my own in Mendenein) very useful in-game to help ground the players (and their PCs) in Greyhawk's history.
I finished reading _The Starless Sea_ last night, which got me thinking further about the pacing of stories and their endings, and about their differences in application to campaigns and to games vs. to literature. Foreshadowing is a literary technique, and not all literary tropes and techniques will be as applicably useful in an RPG. In addition, stories have endings, but RPG campaigns don't necessarily have endings (although they do have a natural rising/falling pacing of action in play). So what techniques and tropes (and other tools) exist uniquely in RPG campaigns that aren't literary in nature, and how do they impact the structure of campaign play?
That's an open question that I don't have a definite answer to, but here are a few mulled thoughts:
1. There's a lot of overlap in literary and cinematic techniques with RPGs, but I think that's in part due to the still-nascent nature of RPGs as a form of play, art, and creative expression: we know drama, literature, and movies since they've been around longer, so we naturally incorporate the terminology, structures, and tools from those genres into RPGs; Justin Alexander has written several sets of posts on his The Alexandrian blog about dramatic and cinematic structures in RPGs, for example. But RPGs are distinct from these forms, on several key fronts:
RGPs are creative ensembles, not performing ensembles (Critical Role, et al, aside): the players and the DM build the campaign together, one encounter, one adventure at a time, and it is through their interplay that the campaign flourishes
the DM is not the author: this follows logically from the previous point, but it's worth being explicit about it, I think; the DM doesn't own the story of the campaign---the DM is more like the director of an orchestra, since without the other players' PC activities as participation in the game, the DM's actions are silently meaningless (the DM's behind-the-scenes design work is far from meaningless, but you get my point still, I hope; note to self: ponder the DM as architect vs. director)
RPGs are games, so their primary motivation is to entertain and to have fun, and that "fun" piece colors the RPG genre distinctly from drama, literature, and movies---which set out to entertain, but are not in and of themselves expected to "be fun" in the way that games are
As long-term games, RPGs are expected to have "replay value"---that secret sauce which keeps players returning to the table week after week, year after year, to explore the game that they're building together. One-shots, asides, and classic reruns (playing modules from our youth?) are certainly part of the pacing model of the campaign, but without that continuous draw to re-engage, a campaign will probably stagnate (this is probably one of the best reasons to have a stable of recurring villains as an organization vs. single-figures---if the PCs are pitted against The Cult of Vecna, even when they take out the EHP at some point, there are still other foes standing who need to be dealt with)
2. RPGs are games with systems, so random events can and do significantly impact the play of the game and the outcomes of actions in the campaign, within the scope of the systems used. When the key villain rolls a 1 on a saving throw and is charmed, or disintegrated, or plane shifted away to the Seven Heavens---or whatever!---that's probably not a result that the players (and their PCs) or the DM (and the NPCs, monsters, etc.) have necessarily prepared for. So the nature of random results inject random outcomes into gameplay which the players and the DM have to run with, respond to, and manage as complication during each and every session.
The flow and pace of these many random events play out in retrospect as the sense-making stories that we tell ourselves to summarize the encounters, interactions, combats, and explorations of adventures in the context of the campaign, but that's still a literary layer thrown over and summarizing the action of the gameplay.
What more falls into this bucket?
This is so smart to bring up b/c it's all essential to a long-running campaign. Ideally, you use them all. And your last sentence is most important re. ways of STRUCTURING the game. When you have a totally open world + the multiverse the DM worries that total chaos is about to erupt at any moment. What if they...? Etc.
But when you've fed the party with the proper rumors, lore, NPC-relationships, and saddled them with responsibilities that are attached to their stations and property...you have a good sense of what they will do, mainly because they openly discuss their options and the implications of those choices.
If your game world behaves like a real world, the players soon learn to think seriously about their actions and choices. It's not that you are taking away their freedom, you are simply training them to behave more like Sun Tzu than Bugs Bunny. They are not likely to head to Albuquerque if spies have given them actionable intelligence about a threat to their stronghold...or if the locals are pleading with them to deal with a dragon ravaging their flocks. For the players that callously disregard such pleas, I reward them as a dragon would: with bolder raids, loss of taxable income, and an intelligently timed raid by said dragon upon the reckless heroes' stronghold and treasury...while they are in Albuquerque.
Obviously you don't want to go overboard in this respect. Only punish players for flagrantly disregarding the Cassandra who warned them about X. The worst I've done is destroying an entire city (and base of operations) when the PCs headed out on an expedition despite knowing that enemy forces were marshaling.
Point is, when players begin to think in terms of risk/reward/defense because they see your campaign as a REAL place with logical hazards, they begin to behave in predictable ways that help you DM efficiently. Thus allowing you ample bandwidth to support the curve balls they throw.
I would add to the list above:
an actual calendar with slow-moving but time-critical plot points.
real consequences to player choice
This means that you decide in private how long the forces of evil will take to prepare and then mark the date on your calendar for the execution of said event. Doing this is powerful because you can postpone it if the PCs take action...or cancel it altogether if their efforts are enough to crush the enemy will/opportunity for profit. Having it on the calendar REMINDS you of it constantly (though it is invisible to your players). So you can foreshadow and provide warnings as necessary...or celebrate it when disaster is averted.
Real consequences are critical: like the city example above. They incentivize sanity in PC actions. None of this should be understood as rail-roading, however. As Allan points out, one of my campaign props is a book loaded with adventure hooks, all ready to go. I have no idea in what order they will tackle them (or if)...but it turns out they went after almost ALL of them so far. And that kind of loose structure is super helpful when you establish the foundations of the campaign.
Further providing sturcture: if you reward real-time expedition prep (with supply purchasing, potion manufacturing time, sage-consultation, spying, map-hunting and other such research) you should find that you get plenty of heads up about where the party wants to go, this lead time should be sufficient to get the destination in shape for their arrival. And if not, you can probably protract the journey a bit with side caves/dungeons and wilderness encounters--even seeding these with more information about the primary objective or about the campaign's highest level story arc to give your world a sense of cohesion while reinforcing the big picture.