Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

The “Always On” Campaign

One year ago, I broke the news that “one real day = one game day” was the key to understanding real old school D&D. Today I am here to tell you that the implications of this rule go much deeper than we originally imagined.

Now, the first thing you notice is that the AD&D game world of your campaign ceases to be static. As is explained on pages 104-105 with EXTENSIVE EXAMPLES, any monster lair or dungeon location that the players fail to finish off in the context of a single session will typically have about a week to prepare for the players’ return visit. The spirit of these rules is going to come up in most “old school” circles, often times in the context of discussing Keep on the Borderlands, say. However the conventional “stop time” approach to the game will simply not grapple with these time-related issues on near the same frequency as a 1:1 campaign. In real D&D, the notorious “15 minute work day” just isn’t an issue at all.

Note that real D&D gameplay is fundamentally at odds with the assumptions of most modules. Dwimmermount– which until last year had produced the best set of game sessions I had ever experienced– is conceived of as a set of rooms that the players can wander into at any time and then experience a gradually unfolding sense of a weird D&D campaign world. Yes, interesting things should emerge as the players explore, but the setup assumes a more static dungeon environment than I think the rules imply. In any case, there is a world of difference between the dungeons of Dave Arneson’s First Fantasy Campaign and the sort of neo-classical take on the mid-eighties style of adventure module. A decade ago, adapting the OD&D mega-dungeon concept to contemporary understandings of module design was one of the signature challenges of old school game design. But what if there was some other lost axiom of old school gaming that had such a drastic impact on gameplay that this turned out to be solving the wrong problem?

Maybe we didn’t need to adapt seventies style rpg lore to eighties style module conventions. Maybe we needed to adapt ourselves to even more seventies era rpg lore! 1:1 timekeeping with multiple independent domain-level actors is the fundamental axiom we have been missing. Here is what you get by implementing this one neat trick:

  • Every monster lair you hand over to a real player will necessarily generate personalized and idiosyncratic encounter locations. Details on how patrols are set up, even the names and personalities of sergeants and captains. Random table “content generator” supplements take for granted that running the game is a one man show. D&D as it was intended to be played puts players to work helping to flesh out the campaign world.
  • When player characters need to interact with a domain level player, the DM does not need to improvise something to fit the type of adventure he is trying to run. Instead, the person running the relevant domain merely needs to play his role. Bonus: the domain level players will not pull their punches but will instead play their parts FAR BETTER than what a DM will be able to do. They are not limited by the players’ feelings being wounded by a game mastering decision.
  • There will be so much domain-level information being generated and no way to create fair or useful session reports that you will have no choice but to set up a news feed for your campaign comparable to the old Traveller News Service from the pages of the Journal of the Traveller’s Aid Society. And for this one, I confess to not being the sort of person that is creative enough to come up with the ponderous world-building blah blah that comprise most articles and supplements about rpgs. However, with an actual war game running behind the scenes IT IS TRIVIAL to convert game events into hints and rumors about what all is going on.
  • Similarly, your campaign will immediately begin spontaneously generating SECRETS as soon as you turn it on. I always dreamed of someday running a campaign as legendary as the one implied by GDW’s old Secret of the Ancients adventure module. Heck, even something like the nature of elves and dwarves gradually emerging over time in Dwimmermount would be cool. But no, y’all. I’m telling you today that the secrets your ridiculous AD&D campaign will generate JUST AS A SIDE EFFECT OF BEING PLAYED will be more hilarious, more ingenious, and more fun than anything you’ve read about anywhere else. ADVENTURE DESIGNERS CANNOT COMPETE WITH THIS.

Looking back at my 30 game sessions in the Trollopulous campaign last year, as wild as the game was it was still relatively static. The players would merely walk away from many adventure situations only to return a couple months later. At that point I would arbitrarily rule how much things had changed. And yes, this did create a living backdrop. But it was still just a backdrop. Adding the domain-level patron players creates tremendous game elements that cease to behave like set dressing and matte paintings.

Best of all, the game is ALWAYS ON. Players can plot and scheme with each other even when I am not in contact with them. They can act as de facto Dungeon Masters for individual player characters that are running their downtime actions within their domain locations. And they can find a use for many, many old rules that never seem to get applied in more conventional rpgs.

The reason that accounts of Gary Gygax’s Greyhawk campaign are so baffling today is because he had assumptions about D&D that are 100% foreign to practically everyone playing the game today or even that were playing it in 1985. Judging by the magazine articles and remarks I have received from angry boomers, nobody really understood this in 1975. And the amazing thing is… Gygax’s definitive treatment of the subject of Dungeon Mastering ASSUMED THAT YOU WILL BE RUNNING A GAME THAT IS MORE OR LESS LIKE WHAT I AM DESCRIBING HERE: ie, 1:1 timekeeping, multiple characters per player, player-run domains, and NO DISCERNABLE SPOTLIGHT ON ANY GIVEN GROUP OF ADVENTURERS.

D&D is a framework for creating a game THAT IS NOT LIMITED BY WHAT YOU CAN ACCOMPLISH WITHIN AN INDIVIDUAL GAME SESSION OR EVEN A SERIES OF INDIVIDUAL GAME SESSIONS. And when you run it as intended, you get far better results than what people have decided roleplaying games can be. The reason for this is that D&D as Gygax intended creates a MODEL FANTASY WORLD WITH REAL POWERS & PRINCIPALITIES AND WHICH DEVELOPS OVER TIME IN TANDEM WITH THE REAL WORLD.

It really is amazing. If you have never experienced this, you really ought to try it. My friends Chanticleer and Bdubs1776 have experimented with using these techniques to enhance their ELITE LEVEL rpg sessions, folding in patrons and downtime actions with player character adventuring. I have pushed as hard as I could toward the game’s wargaming roots to produce downtime play that is so compelling in its own right you need not ever run an rpg session with it at all in order to play D&D.

Somewhere in this range of gaming styles, you can surely find SOMETHING to take your campaign to an entirely different level. I look forward to hearing from the people that do.

13 responses to “The “Always On” Campaign

  1. Wayne's Books July 5, 2021 at 12:16 pm

    Jeffro, could you comment on your Always On campaign as it relates to a West Marches campaign? The player-run downtime seems similar, but the strict timekeeping I don’t recall being an element in WM. Then again, I don’t know much about WM play, so there’s that.

    • jeffro July 5, 2021 at 2:05 pm

      I am not familiar with West Marches except in so far as you are the second person to mention it when I am talking about Real D&D.

      Does the campaign timeline move forward even if you aren’t playing?

      Does it allow you to integrate player characters and Chainmail scale units seamlessly?

      Does it allow you to integrate the actions of domain scale actors and individual player characters?

      Does it allow you to do this with effectively no rules or rules bloat?

      Do people running West Marches campaigns end up with so much campaign news and information they set up a ridiculous fake news organization to dole it out?

      Do people running West Marches campaigns execute their games continuously without any concept of a game turn or the like?

      Do people running West Marches campaigns claim that OD&D and AD&D were intended to be run in this manner?

      • Wayne's Books July 5, 2021 at 4:28 pm

        All good questions. WM is a loose affiliation akin to the OSR. So the questions about bloat etc. may be dependent on the rules system used by a given group. Campaigns are supposed to be mostly player-run, games pop up based on ad-hoc groups that form to handle the objective of the moment. I hope an informed proponent of WM will jump in and engage your questions.

        In any case, I’ve been enjoying your posts about realtime games. Very compelling and I agree you’re on to something here.

  2. James Jeffers July 5, 2021 at 12:38 pm

    We are doing this: first it was 1:1 time keeping, and then the use of Chainmail/Swords and Spells. First battle was not large but ended up completely wrecking the local power balance when a high level NPC was greased by a wand of lightning in the battle. One PC was working towards domain play since session 1 and now that goal is even closer. Can he fend off the NUMEROUS other factions? We’ll see!

    We had the “A Team” PCs off on a month long journey to visit a sage. This meant new PCs (assassins!) got a whole session to go to town. Their session activity started a chain reaction of events that led to that battle with n the first place. At 1st level players are capable of influencing the whole campaign.

    I have no idea what will happen each time we play. This is a feature, not a bug!

  3. JCambias July 6, 2021 at 7:27 am

    Doesn’t the 1:1 timekeeping require long game sessions? If you play a 4 or 6 hour session, then the party can accomplish an objective and retreat to base. But if you’re doing two hours on a weeknight, that becomes much less feasible.

    • James Jeffers July 6, 2021 at 7:47 am

      The players decide what they can achieve in the time you have. That anxiety about not having enough time to get there and back with a score of loot? That’s a feature NOT A BUG,

      • Nagora Nerides July 6, 2021 at 9:31 am

        It’s an interesting point that the two orginal megadungeons – under Blackmoor and Greyhawk – were right beside towns. So a trip in and fall back to “safety” could be done in a single session without worrying about wilderness encounters. Each session was much more of a raid than an expedition, I think.

        Clearing levels was important – and frequently mentioned by players from that period – because it meant that the next session could quickly start with the DM saying “you reach the fifth level without any problems” as a prelude the meat of the night’s gaming.

    • jeffro July 6, 2021 at 11:49 am

      My own Trollopulous sessions 1-30 were all approximately four hours long.

      I have run two hour dungeon delves with Keep on the Borderlands. I know I fit two delves within a four hour convention block with lots of new players.

      If you would like to try to make it work, you could plan a reconnaissance mission for one week just to gather intel. Then follow it up with a raid session the next week. (People should probably do this anyways.) These would be one page dungeons and the players would have to be organized and disciplined, but it could totally work.

      There is of course much more to the game than dungeon delves.

  4. Robert James Eaglestone July 7, 2021 at 12:10 pm

    Traveller needs this sort of infusion. It’s even keyed to work with an Always On flavor: character aging works best when the characters live for YEARS of game time.

    Yes, jumpspace implements in-game aging conveniently. But I think an Always On campaign also is a win for what I call “distributed refereeing”.

    There’s a third benefit that you didn’t mention: EVERY REFEREE can also be a PLAYER in this sort of setup.

    THAT is a HUGE WIN.

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