Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Should RPG Campaigns Have a Plot?

The question is asked, “What are your favorite ways of coming up with an engaging campaign plot line for role playing games?”

My answer to this is that it’s an inherently wrongheaded question: If your campaign has a plot line, you are not just doing it wrong. You have repudiated the very concept of fantasy role-playing games!

The most common structure in “plot oriented” game sessions is going to be the Pathfinder/Wizards series of combat encounters that are perfectly balanced to the party’s assets such that they can win against a “boss” of some sort with their last hit point. At the campaign level, you would then have a series of these scenarios that are strung together that all culminate into a satisfying climax where something resembling an epic plot is resolved.

This is no doubt a lot of people playing tabletop games in this manner. Is it legitimate or is it intrinsically, morally, and ethically wrong to do it that way? Now, you might think I’m being facetious, unnecessarily bombastic, or just plain silly… but I honestly think that it really is WRONG. And the reason is… it’s boring!

Not that we didn’t have linear adventures in the bad old days before this new type of play became the norm. I just ran the Car Wars adventure “Convoy” for someone this summer and it’s about as linear as it gets. Heck, even the combats are played out on road sections where the average speed of the combatants is sixty miles an hour.

But note that little bit of a fractal-like quality emerging here: road combats like this are intrinsically less interesting than the insane ballet of destruction that goes on in the arenas. The elimination of dimensionality in game-play really is boring. “Convoy” compensates for this by moving the more significant aspects of player choice up to the resource management level. It’s not any one combat that matters. It’s how you pace yourself to get through them all in time that counts.

But what happens at the end? Everything suddenly opens up! The surviving drivers split up their take. Players kick back with an Uncle Albert’s catalog and go shopping for ways to pimp out their rides. They look back on everything that went wrong in the session and start hashing out ways to avoid that stuff the next time around.

This sort of planning is the bread and butter of any rpg session, but the next thing that happens is the best part. When the dust finally settles, the referee turns to the players and asks… “what do you do now?”

And while you may have used somebody else’s convention scenario to get your campaign off the ground, I would argue that you really haven’t started playing until you ask this question. It really is the entire point of this enterprise, and if your game system or campaign system precludes it from ever truly and honestly being asked, you’re not really playing a genuine role-playing game.

(And note that James Streissand’s answer to this question on Quora is predicated on the players having a choice even of which type of campaign to pursue. This is solid… and it mirrors the same type of choices available to players when they’re dropped into even a classic module like B2 Keep on the Borderlands. Ah, and check out his expansion on this over at his blog. I think it’s clear we are pretty well on the same page with this. To be precise, I would say that role-playing games do not have plots. They have situations at the campaign, adventure, and encounter level which the players are free to interact with however they wish– as long as they accept the consequences!)

8 responses to “Should RPG Campaigns Have a Plot?

  1. John Boyle August 28, 2018 at 11:28 am

    “as long as they accept the consequences!”

    An absolute must for any campaign: the players have to accept and deal with the consequences of their actions. No do-overs, no reboots, no item or spell that can reverse time. If there are no consequences, then sooner or later the players will turn on each other. I had a Call of Cthulhu campaign go up in smoke in an hour because one player had screwed over the other players in a D&D campaign run by another DM.

    The other players got together and proceeded to hunt down every character that guy had in every campaign they had in common: D&D, CoC, Stormbringer, RQ. In that Call of Cthulhu game, in 60 minutes 13 player characters wound up dead, hopelessly insane or doing consecutive life sentences in Sing Sing.

    Inflicting the consequences of their actions on your players should be the bread and butter of every game master.

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  3. Ruprecht December 12, 2018 at 3:10 pm

    I think a “campaign plot line” is a bit different than what you are talking about. I could be wrong but I see a campaign plot line as an evil wizard that is screwing with the area and thus allowing the players lots of options (i) leave the area (ii) start to take down minion and work towards taking down the wizard (iii) Try to get hired by the wizard….etc. or the plot line could be financial backers are willing to sponsor expeditions into area x hoping a shorter route to area Y can be found and the players have to determine will they take the job and if so how will they go about it, that sort of thing. Seems it could leave a lot of player agency if thought about on the campaign level rather than a tactical level.

  4. LL December 30, 2018 at 6:25 pm

    This is one of the worst assessments of RPGing I’ve ever seen. It makes sense for some beginners maybe but, what it doesn’t take into account is that SOME gamers actually MATURE and GROW beyond the more simplistic gaming mindset they possessed as teenagers or pre-teens. Mindless hack’n slash may have been cool during lunch hour at school back in the 6th grade but, not necessarily to adult gamers who have since developed more sophisticated tastes more in line with their ages!

  5. LL December 30, 2018 at 6:27 pm

    YES! RPGs should have a plot!!!

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