Star Wars Wednesday - Running Published Epic Length Campaigns

Adventuring in the Star Wars universe takes many forms: the one-shot adventure, the homebrew campaign, the convention “classic” adventure, the living-style campaign, and the long term published campaign. Campaign length ranges from a few adventures, to epic length storylines played across dozens of sessions and multiple months or years. Campaigns are plotted well in advance, grow organically out of the choices made by players and gamemaster characters, or more likely, a combination thereof.

While these are all great blog subjects, today I’m focusing on the long-term, epic length published campaign. In this case, I’m defining a this campaign style as one that includes full length adventures for every major plot point in the story. There are a ton of products, including some that I have contributed to or written, that include campaign storylines and ideas, but rely on the gamemaster to connect the dots and generate the details. Here, I’m talking about the campaigns a GM can run solely from the published adventures, with minimal gamemaster tweaking, if that’s what they want to do.

I’m a veteran dungeon master and game master of several campaigns designed for that purpose. For Dungeons & Dragons, I ran the Desert of Desolation campaign twice all the way through - once after its release in 1st edition and a second time as a 2nd Edition game years later. Previous to that, I ran one of the original standalone I-series modules before their consolidation into a single campaign book. It is easily my favorite classic Dungeons & Dragons campaign. I also ran the Rod of Seven Parts box set campaign for 2nd Edition. While I looked at later published D&D campaigns with interest, such as the various adventure paths, I was already playing in other long-running homebrew campaigns.

For Star Wars, I ran both of the major long-term campaigns published for the role-playing game. I ran the DarkStryder campaign 1 1/2 times, and Dawn of Defiance once. I also wrote adventures for both campaigns, though that didn’t influence my decision to run them.  As we’ll, see, though, it did influence HOW I ran them.

The first question in a GM needs to ask himself or herself (and possibly their players) is how much they want to adhere to the product’s story. No adventure or campaign survives first contact with the players, or at least not completely. The players are going to do something bizarre, unexpected, funny, stupid, or, most likely, a combination thereof. GMs adhering strictly to the storyline risk railroading the players and their decisions. How limiting or disruptive this is to the game is a matter of the GM’s skill and sometimes a player’s willingness to adapt their expectations and goals to the needs of the story.

OK, so nothing new there, that’s in the GM’s job description. However, if you want to play the campaign through to its intended ending, the GM has to learn what plot points to protect, and which ones can change without, say, changing the major events in the epic storyline. Say, oh, I don’t know, maybe failing to free the Rebel agent charged with introducing the PCs to the local Rebels as well as the campaign itself - in the first session of the first adventure. That would never happen. Nope.

When both the DarkStryder and Dawn of Defiance campaigns were first released, it was impossible for the gamemaster to know the details of later adventures. They simply had not been published yet, or written for that matter. They existed as outlines - descriptions given to the various authors with a start point, an endpoint, and a general plot. There was no way for the GMs to know the plot in detail. Today,  however, GMs can read (or at least scan) the entire series before play begins. If a player character development threatens to change a later story, the GM can look at the details and adjust accordingly.

Next question: how much playing time will be spent on events between the published adventures? Will there be side quests? These campaigns are so long, it takes months, if not years to complete them - at least for those of us who can no longer play daily or multiple times a week. Every side adventure adds to the length of the overall campaign. If time is at a premium for your group, consider eliminating or severely limiting any side adventures, and gloss over activities between adventures with narrative descriptions as to what happens, preferably with player buy-in. If time is not a factor, side adventures are great ways to allow characters to grow in ways not limited by the campaign locations and storyline.

Character creation: Here the GM is best served by staying within the storyline. Allowing players to create characters that do not fit will only lead to problems down the road. They may be frustrated that their skills and abilities never come into play. Their backstories might cause great conflict within the party or storyline, or be ignored all together, if their goals do not align with the campaign. GMs can work around issues like this, but if when trying to move quickly through the campaign, it can become an unnecessary disruption.  

Character death: Usually, this isn’t a huge issue any more than in a regular campaign. In DarkStryder, though, it presents special issues because the campaign includes a lot of pregenerated characters that are expected to be used. More on that in the next post. Some GMs want character death to have a mechanical impact in the game, and may require replacement characters to be of lower level.  In my experience, it’s usually easier to just bring them at the same level.

Player changes: With one big exception, every one of my long campaigns has seen at least some player turnover. Most campaign storylines are not greatly affected by this, any more than in a homebrew game. Once again, the exception is DarkStryder, due to the pregenerated characters. Mainly, when bringing in a replacement player, the gamemaster should decide if they are taking over a character, rather than replacing it. In most cases, replacing the character works best for everyone.

Character growth: if the player characters have been created with the campaign goals in mind, character growth is much easier to achieve. Ideally, the gamemaster can tie existing plot elements from the campaign to specific character backgrounds. Again, this is much easier when the entire campaign is available for review prior to game play. Of course, the gamemaster may not want to give away too many secrets, but giving some additional insight to individual players is a great way to encourage role-playing without having to pass a note or explain what a character knows at the table.

Next week, we’ll look at some specific examples from the DarkStryder and Dawn of Defiance campaigns.