I was having breakfast with some gaming chums the other day*, when a rather interesting question barged into the conversation and plonked itself down at the table:
What does your perfect campaign look like?
I’ve never run my perfect campaign. In fact, I’d never really thought much about it before. After all, the pursuit of perfection is a fool’s errand. Even if you hit your target (which you won’t) the very best that can happen is that you are satisfied.
That all said, it’s an intriguing question to ponder. With the vast body of options, mythologies and games out there it should be possible—even if you can’t actually run it—to describe your perfect game.
Since that fateful breakfast, I’ve been pondering this question.
I wrote this post several years ago. This is an updated version of my original thoughts. When I first wrote this post, we were playing Pathfinder 1st edition. The points below assume the Pathfinder rule set, although we now play 5e and have given 2nd edition AD&D a go as well. I think many of the entries under “The Rules” are system neutral.
So without further ado, here are some mechanical elements of my perfect campaign:
- Core Rulebook Only: I don’t need tons of newfangled options to have fun or to run a good game. I know this is where I lose a lot of people—shiny, new options are cool—but this is my perfect list not yours. I’d go 95% core, with the caveat that I’d introduce other options only if they made sense to the campaign. I'm a big fan of flavour and I think that just adding in everything to your game is lazy design.
- Low Magic: Magic is an integral part of Pathfinder and I love having it in my games. However, I hate the “Christmas Tree Effect” and magic shops with the burning passion of a thousand fiery suns. In my perfect campaign, I would radically alter the crafting rules—probably reverting to a quasi-1st edition AD&D solution—to reduce the characters’ over-reliance on magic items. (Perhaps I should blog about that!) I’d still include magic items (of course) but more of them would have their own back stories, flavour and atypical abilities. They would be wondrous and not mere commodities.
- Slow Advancement: I love Pathfinder’s slow advancement track and including it in my perfect campaign is a complete no-brainer. I’ve previously blogged about why I love the slow advancement track, but in a nutshell I like the pace of the game it promotes. It also gives the players time to get to know their characters. One of the things I deeply dislike about 5e is the insanely fast low-level advancement.
- Characters with Character: In a truly awesome campaign, the heroes would be more than just a collection of stats and magic items. They’d have backgrounds, personalities, hopes and dreams. They’d have successes and failure and would live in our memories for years. They would not be disposable and their personalities and priorities would drive the action both on adventures and during their downtime. Characters would become part of the setting--making contacts, friends and enemies, opening a business, perhaps meeting that special someone and so on.
Setting & Plot
So with the mechanical side of things out of the way, where would I set my perfect campaign? Obviously—if you know me at all—you’ll know Greyhawk would be very high up on my list of places to set my perfect campaign.
One of the design philosophies I follow with Raging Swan Press is that everything we publish should work with my beloved Greyhawk. The Duchy of Ashlar (and Gloamhold) and The Lonely Coast are both small enough to easily fit in some little-described corner of Oerth.
In particular, Gloamhold and the Duchy of Ashlar seem (unsurprisingly) perfect for my perfect campaign. I think megadungeon play has a lot going for it, but—of course—there are many different flavours of megadungeons. My perfect megadungeon campaign has these characteristics:
- Conan Meets Cthulhu: I’m a sucker for pulp fiction; Howard and Lovecraft are my favourite genre authors. I love the world Howard created and I also loved the deep history and cosmic dread running through Lovecraft’s. (And, of course, everything is better with tentacles.) Both wrote in a gritty, "realistic" style and–of course–were both relatively low magic.
- Sandbox Style: I like it when players get to make their own meaningful choices to influence the campaign trajectory. That said, I think a sandbox needs boundaries. Limitless choice is rather difficult to prepare for, and just leads to a confused mess or a total lack of focus. It can also lead to choice paralysis among the players (as I discovered several years ago). A megadungeon and attendant city such as Languard (along with its hinterland) provide the perfect balance between choice and restriction.
- Mix of Challenges: I love dungeon exploration, but sometimes it’s good to have a change of pace. I’d like events in the megadungeon to feed into adventures in the nearby city (and its surrounds). Obviously, I’d also like the reverse to be true. In regards Ashlar, this means what happens in Gloamhold doesn't stay in Gloamhold.
And that’s pretty much it. I could waffle on about various points of minutia, but essentially the above represents the bare bones of my perfect campaign.
The Final Word
One final, crucial point: as a GM, there is no point trying to run your perfect campaign if none of your players are interested. There would be absolutely no point trying to run my perfect campaign if my players weren’t invested. I’d be wasting my time and theirs. Frustration and resentment would inevitably ensue.
To read the original version of this article, and the ensuing comments click here.