DoomDuck and I settled on running an ongoing campaign as co-DM’s, given our previous experiment with a co-DMed one-shot. We spent free time working on organizing the typical aspects of the campaign – getting players, planning logistics, and researching the type of campaign we’d be running. These fell into place quickly – we already had several potential new players to round out our group of more experienced players, the logistics fell into place fairly naturally, and we had a good grip on the general campaign flavor we wanted to run. Soon we needed to develop campaign material in preparation for actually playing. Initial brainstorming came up with a scattershot list of interesting tidbits – scenes, flashes of story, and interesting challenges sprang out of our enthusiastic chatter, ready for expansion and refinement. But while we shared much in common in our general approach and brainstorming, it turns out we differ dramatically in our approach to campaign worlds.
In my history of playing from behind the screen, I have always favored custom campaign worlds. I built up whatever amount of details about the world naturally sprang to mind, and used that as the springboard for the campaign itself. This allowed for me to play with attempts to alter some of the fundamental assumptions about the traditional high fantasy world of the game – my first campaign world, for instance, was a world in which Elves were an uncertain myth in the world (Half Elves did exist, however, to muddy the waters.) I enjoyed having a completely blank canvas, and the creative freedom it offered in crafting adventures for the players. The downside, of course, was scope – I had to craft enough material with sufficient detail that the players would find the world believable and fun. This presented some challenges – I spent considerable time developing a frontier city that fit nicely within the world I built, and obsessively built up details about the city. Building layouts for the entire town, detailed backstories for the inhabitants, significant history for regional points of interest, even a topological map of the town. I had outlines for the players to not only start their adventuring careers in this tiny town, but outlines for them growing with the city – integrating into the life of the town, and fundamentally altering it as they grew. The players completed the first dungeon delve I had built in a nearby mountain range, and spent some time exploring the budding town and helping the inhabitants. Then they packed up without warning, and departed for the closest major city, never looking back on the town. Now, I’ve told this story many times as a cautionary tale about the unpredictability of players (and I can only imagine DoomDuck is bored to tears by it now,) but there’s another side to the story. The truth is, I loved developing that world. I really enjoyed working out these details, coming up with interesting historical moments and trying to cover the entire canvas before me. I still have all those notes in a set of folders, and have gone back to flip through them at times since then. The actual quests and dungeons got equal attention, but I think, looking back on it, I tended to view my role largely as the world builder.
Now, to be completely honest, I’m guessing as to DoomDuck’s views on campaign worlds, but I can at least state a few facts from where I’m sitting. When he’s DMed, he’s used published campaign worlds for most of his adventures. This brings a wealth of advantages – hundreds of pages covering every aspect of the world, well written and thought out countries, cities, and pantheons. Less reliance on potentially confounding oddities such as my banning of a core player race. Importantly (and here comes the guessing), I believe his efforts focused more on crafting a story around the players and their characters, with the world as the backdrop. Now, that isn’t to say that I didn’t pay attention to my players, or that he didn’t build out the parts of the world he was interested in – we both did those things. But I believe these differences align with the ideas of top-down and bottom-up design. We each develop campaigns from different approaches, and have an approach which eats up all our individual resources as we develop campaign materials. Given our teaming organization, however, we had the opportunity to mix our approaches.
The development took a varied and meandering approach over our development sessions, but there are two main highlights to our development process. The first, was our use of the excellent game Microscopeas a process for collaborative world building. We played it over a half dozen sessions, building the world one note card at a time. As a summary that doesn’t begin to do the game justice, Microscope works by having players take very short turns wielding narrative control within the story’s framework. It’s well worth purchasing the game and supporting Ben Robbins to get the full details of the gameplay. The game is not only well designed, but thanks to the fractal nature of its design, worked well to blend our differing styles of campaign development. The game’s approach to world building encourages creating and exploring the “hot” parts of the world – themes, topics, or stories ripe for creative effort. The world isn’t built top-down or bottom-up – it’s an organic process that takes whichever direction feels more natural at a given moment. Now, there was one major drawback – only the two of us were playing. The rulebook explicitly mentions this situation as suboptimal, and suggest alterations to rules to mitigate the more obvious issues. The amount of creativity brought to bear on a particular focus is controlled by the length of a turn, which is in turn proportional to the number of players in the game. With only two players, there’s less creative riffing on a given focus – the longer turns suggested for two players increases the material developed in a particular focus, but additional players would have added more twisting and turning. The other odd spot in our play came from Scenes, which are the smallest scope of event in the game. These are created through taking on characters and role playing through a scene, and with only two players, it is difficult to role play more complicated scenes. To be clear, these issues are very minor, and largely due to our insistence on playing with only the two of us. Had we known just how amazing the game would have turned out, and I was doing it all over again, I would invite the players to join in, and truly let the world generation run wild.
The second highlight involves the presentation of our campaign world to our players. In previous campaigns, the world was presented on an ongoing basis through play. The scene is set with a general overview of the world given to the entire group, with dialogue to clarify as necessary. Then, the world unfolds through the flow of the game – details unveiled as the story unfolds, with intermittent Q&A for the group as curiosity or uncertainty arises. What knowledge the players receive tends towards summarization of the facts as they are known. This provides for smoothly running a game, and keeps the story as simple as it needs be at any given point, at the expense of verisimilitude. The players learn the same details, as a group, and only when the story introduces an important point. There’s no variance in knowledge, or characters bringing forth some tidbit of knowledge to save the day; there isn’t even any chance for players to present knowledge as their character would. Note cards in sessions can alleviate some of this, at the expense of game speed and the social interactions of passing notes. As we built up our campaign world, we started a wiki as a repository for the material we had built up, with the intent to eventually provide access to the players as a general reference. The wiki evolved, however, as our development continued – a permissions system allowed us to provide access to certain pages to specific players. Articles were rewritten and published as fiction within the campaign world, providing additional flavor into the world. Furthermore, the wiki evolves in response to player interest – new articles, both public and private, are written and added as the game continues. The player response thus far has been very positive. We’ve had great moments in game, when someone brings some of their knowledge from the wiki into play, and the players end up engaging each other in the story. The players end up more invested and connected to the world, are more aware of the details, and exhibit greater interest in the world outside their immediate quest. These two aspects of our campaign has made it my personal favorite thus far, and I’m excited to see how it continues to develop as time goes on.
We’ve set much of the site public – if you’d care to see our handwork and see how it’s turning out, you can check it out at http://dnd.catexia.com. We’ve had a few people investigate out of curiosity, and have gotten valuable feedback from them. I know I’d love to have more people take a look at our efforts thus far, and I’m sure DoomDuck would as well. There’s more to write about our campaign and efforts at a dual DM scenario, but for the moment, this seems as good a stopping point as any.