World Building 101: Campaign Styles - Part One

Everyone who plays D&D, DM and player alike, has a different style of play. Some prefer campaigns with strong narrative elements, others, the freedom to go where they will, when they will. Some prefer to focus on characterization, giving priority to scenes that will allow them to explore different aspects of their character’s personality, while others aim for something more akin to cinematic action.

Each style has its own particular strengths and weaknesses, and each style has pitfalls to avoid or particular tricks to employ that can help it run smoothly. There is no style of campaign that is inherently superior to the others, since every group is different. The only measurement of any real importance is whether your group is enjoying themselves—as long as they are, don’t worry about trying to shift your campaign style.

On the other hand, there is always room to improve your DM technique, and sometimes you or your players may want to try something a little different. A few different archetypal styles of campaign are listed below, along with some strengths, weaknesses, tips, and pitfalls for each. Most campaigns will have elements of more than one of these styles, depending on the particular taste of the group and the DM.

The Narrative Campaign

This type of campaign focuses strongly on telling a story, and tends to emphasize ongoing plot threads and events that come together into a larger narrative. It can be cinematic, focusing on action and excitement, or more thoughtful, with mysteries to unravel and secrets to uncover.

Strengths: The narrative can give a strong sense of direction to a game, ensuring that players do not feel at a loss for what to do next. It can create tension by including time-sensitive goals, and create a truly memorable experience for your players as they progress through an ever-more-epic storyline to the climactic finale.

Weaknesses: If the players feel the narrative is weak or aren’t interested in the story that you’re telling, this kind of campaign can quickly become unpleasant. If the DM is not careful, this kind of campaign is also the most prone to becoming a “railroad”, where the players feel they have no way to meaningfully affect the outcome.

Pitfalls: Keeping the story flexible enough to allow your players to influence the direction it takes is critical. Try to avoid “cutscenes” or villain monologues during which the players have no opportunity to act to prevent the villain from accomplishing his goals. Definitely avoid having the characters “rescued” by NPCs, as it takes the glory away from them and puts it on someone else. Also try to avoid lengthy segments of exposition or plots too convoluted for the players to easily follow.

Tips: Focus on the player characters as much as possible. Try to engage them and keep them involved in the story as much as possible, by weaving their backgrounds into the narrative. Decide on antagonist’s goals and methods, rather than trying to script the outcome beforehand—this leaves you freedom to react to PC interference rather than keeping them on rails. Focus your world-building on setting up important characters and sites for the plot, but always have a few alternatives to hand in case your players do something unexpected. Foreshadowing or prophecy are likely most useful in this kind of campaign.

The Sandbox Campaign

At nearly the other end of the spectrum is the sandbox campaign. In this style of game, the motive force is the player characters themselves, and the goals are set by what they decide to pursue at any given time.

Strengths: Sandbox campaigns are the ultimate in freedom. If your players want to explore strange ruins and mysterious caverns, that’s great—and if they instead want to engage in intrigue and mystery, that’s just as easy to accommodate. There’s no need to worry that your players aren’t going to be interested in whatever you pull out, since if they don’t find it exciting they can always fall back and try something different instead.

Weaknesses: Sandbox campaigns can suffer from a lack of direction. Some players may freeze, given no immediate direction, and if there is nothing particularly engaging for them in a given location or session, they might feel like wandering off or feel there’s little to no motivation for them to continue. Novice DMs, or those less comfortable with improvisation, may find this kind of game challenging to run in the long term.

Pitfalls: Avoid leaving your characters with no motivation—a sandbox game does not mean there is no need for narrative, simply that there is more focus given to allowing the characters freedom than to telling a cinematic-style story. Also try to avoid becoming formulaic by ensuring that you have a variety of possible activities available at any given point in time.

Tips: There’s no way to plan for every eventuality, but having rough outlines of several different options will help keep things running smoothly. Preparing a variety of materials, from stock NPCs you can drop into any situation to encounters or even dungeons for all sorts of environments, can keep things moving quickly and let you provide a seamless game. Taking careful notes is vital. Focus your world-building on creating a wide variety of interesting locations to explore or characters to interact with, and flesh out those the players seem most interested in.

NEXT WEEK: Part Two - Dungeon Crawls and Character-Based campaigns.