Well, in just a few days I’m supposed to start up the playtest campaign for Outer Darkness, assuming I have any players. It’s been many years since I’ve run a campaign in any game system; there was a time when I was running two or three campaigns simultaneously, with two or three game sessions per week. I could never really do one-shot games; they’d always turn into full-blown campaigns.
Running a role-playing game is a lot like writing. When you run a one-shot game, with a definite beginning-middle-end structure, it’s like telling a short story. When you run a full campaign, it’s more like writing a novel with complex plot threads that can run every which way and sometimes completely out of your control. When you write a novel, though, you at least maintain a small amount of control over the actions of the characters (though any novelist will tell you that the characters eventually do take over the story); but in a role-playing campaign, you have no such control over the players and their characters.
But a long-term campaign, with complicated plot threads and deeply developed player characters and fully expressed villains and taking place in worlds with complex histories and intricate structures, really is a thing of beauty, in its own way. My old roommate Cavematt and I used to wax philosophical for hours, lamenting that it was so sad that only a few people could ever participate in the joy that was a long term RPG campaign. Sure, you can write down everything that happens and perhaps even market your own game system based on the campaign setting that you’ve created, but the experience of the campaign itself is a once in a lifetime event.
For ten years I ran a campaign which I simply called the Moon Dragon Campaign. This was a Dungeons and Dragons campaign with three major story arcs, and dozens of side stories and explorations into the deep past of the setting and the far future and even into far reaches of space. Because my style of Dungeon Mastering can be so haphazard and cavalier at times, elements of stories which I introduced when the first sessions of the game started back in 1987 could be re-introduced as major plot threads in 1992. I ran a "companion adventure" for some friends of mine a few years ago, a campaign which took place in the same world, on a separate continent. And one of the most important plot threads that developed from the very first sessions took on a life of its own and even became the central storyline of a Live Action Role Playing game that I ran just over two years ago. Maybe someday I’ll even reveal to my players what it was the Malayik Jyran really was up to all those years, and why he was banished from his plane of being in the first place.
In my own mind, Moon Dragon really was the pinnacle of my gaming career: a single storyline which saw me through eleven years of table-top gaming and at least one year of live action gaming. It was such a rich storyline for me: its central elements could drive the adventures of a couple of rogues in the rival towns of Slash and Smash on opposite banks of the Sles River, or the intricate machinations of beings so powerful that their consciousnesses could be annihilated and spread throughout all of time and space and they’d still be able to manipulate a group of vampires in 20th century America to do their bidding.
I admit that sometimes the stories do tend to get out of control. While the group Helter Skelter was an intriguing set of villains for the last Vampire LARP I ran, I was never entirely sure exactly what they were there for or how they managed to show up in my campaign setting. At least one of their members, Buddy, has had an impact on the character I’m playing in Book of Dreams now.
See? The madness never ends.
And in a couple of days, I’m going to start it all over with a new campaign setting. Even though Evilpheemy and I have been developing this setting since 1997, and I’ve got about fifteen years of Game Mastering experience under my belt, I’m nervous about it. It’s almost like stage fright. For the first time in all that time, I’m running a new story in an entirely new setting, using a rule system that I’m only vaguely familiar with (my staff in Underground Puppeteers, the last LARP I ran, were always frustrated with me because I never actually mastered the rules of the games that I ran). I’m going to feel like I’m adrift in an entirely new worldset, a story arc which is both familiar to me, but also entirely new. The massive story arc which drives the Outer Darkness hasn’t really been play-tested before, even though Evilpheemy and I have both run short one-shot playtests to hammer out rules and mood; this is the first time the driving story arc will be expressed, and I admit to being somewhat nervous about it.
And I haven’t run a table-top game in at least four years, really. Oh, I’ve tried here and there to do minor things, but nothing has really taken off. So yeah, I’m feeling a bit of stage fright too.
But I’m confident that it will work out. My main concern is that my cavalier and haphazard approach to storyline development will overwhelm the driving story arc of Outer Darkness, if that makes sense. It must be similar to the feeling that the writers of Enterprise have: I’m sure that they’d love to do galaxy-spanning storylines, but they’re restricted in that so much of the Star Trek universe has been so thoroughly developed over the past thirty years, and the consistency of the central story arc has to be maintained.
I’m sure that only a handful of my readers will actually care about this entry. But even if you don’t: Wish me luck.