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No One Wants To Hear Your Campaign Story

September 8, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Over the years, I’ve heard many times advice against sharing campaign stories. Generally, it’s just as deep as the title of this post. Some seem to merely have memorized this piece of advice, but, of course, I’d like to take a little bit to analyze it. Picture, if you will, the stereotypical situation: While browsing the shelves at your FLGS, some fellow nerd notices that you’ve picked up the source book on Northern Halflings. As a way to introduce himself, he tells you how he once played a Northern Halfling back in the prior edition of the rules. In that campaign, his buddy Jeremy played a half-orc barbarian and was always saying inappropriate things. Once, they were sneaking into this Necromancer’s lair to get a gemstone to cure the citizens of the kingdom from a plague and when they got to the ritual chamber, it turned out that the Necromancer was…and at this point, no one but Jeremy and his friends knows what happens because you’ve zoned out while listening.

To be fair, we’ve probably all told a story about our friend Jeremy and his half-orc that’s only tangentially related to the topic at hand or that we let drag on too long, etc. But poor story-telling aside, it still seems as if campaign war stories are harder to tell well than other stories about your life. Why is that? I feel that there are basically two things at work, here.

Not Enough Context

Can you imagine picking a scene, or even a whole chapter out of your favorite book and trying to tell someone about the best part? How terrible would that be? For anything good to make any sense, you’d have to keep explaining everything in parenthesis: “Then Gandalf (he’s this old Wizard guy who always blahs and says bloo) says to Aragorn (he’s a Ranger (which is a group of guys who roam the north) and heir of Elendil (who was…)) that he’s got to reforge his sword at Rivendell (which is where a bunch of Elves live). See, the sword was important because…” Anything worth relating will probably need a fairly nuanced understanding of the material, but in the space of an anecdote you’re effectively just explaining the joke.

This is the you-had-to-be-there factor. It’s not that the funny (or whimsy or whatever) only existed in that moment, it’s that it relies on an intuitive understanding of some fairly complex relationships between ideas that really can’t elegantly be compressed. This could be solved or worked around by either figuring out how to make a (much) longer story entertaining so as to build up the intuitive understanding over time, or by being even more concise and abandon an attempt to convey something subtle.

Nothing To Care About

If you consider most campaigns, there’s not a lot of characterization (evidenced by folks’ tendency to describe their character by race and class, or whatever equivalent) and not a lot of plot. If the campaign is a series of went in that hole and killed that thing and got this loot, you’re just not giving another human being a lot of hooks to get invested in or people to relate to.

It’s not that there’s nothing to be invested in. The dungeon crawl style campaign is a mostly visceral experience. You can describe what you did in what order and what happened because of it, but if it’s mostly mechanics and dice rolls, then it boils down to a few sentences pretty quick and it’s very, very hard to convey that sense of accomplishment, or winning; that “and that felt good” aspect. Imagine someone who was very into extremely difficult jigsaw puzzles trying to tell you about their latest conquest. There’s no denying the accomplishment or their feeling of satisfaction, but there’s not a lot of narrative arc to the tale.

The Counter Example

This is not precisely a counter-example, but I have a friend (besides Stewart) who I have talked to about Kjemmen from a very early stage in order to bounce ideas off of, etc. Since he was around as the world was getting built and heard about the PCs as they were getting built and then heard the beginning of the story as it was unfolding… he now asks me for an update when we see each other. It was sort of a disorienting experience when I realized I was being asked to relate a campaign story. But I realized that the above two things don’t apply at all in this case.

First off, Kjemmen isn’t a dungeon crawl. The characters have personalities and goals and ways of thinking. The world is deep and (at least to me and the folks involved, including my only-sort-of-involved friend) interesting. The events of one session can have repercussions for a long time to come or represent the culmination of lots of various plot threads. So there’s plenty of hooks for a third party to get emotionally invested in. Secondly, I haven’t been trying to compress it. So all the subtle and complex relationships between ideas have been built up over time with him. If I say, “…and it’s not like Phethil would blah,” my friend will say, “God no. That would be insane!” without my having to explain why.

I don’t really view the telling of good campaign stories as a problem to be solved or anything, so I don’t want to draw any conclusions about how to do it right. However, I would like to draw your attention to the idea that a character-focused story has a lot more meat for people to get invested in and that this kind of thing is a hallmark of the Dann Campaign. This isn’t just true of third parties to whom you (or your players) are trying to explain some aspect of the campaign. This goes for you and your players. Without a character-based (or at the least a story-heavy) campaign, the emotional investment has to come solely from shared experience, problem solving and the like, which are purely meta-game concepts. On the other hand, with that focus on story, you can get investment in other people’s characters, in NPCs, in the culture of the game world, etc in addition to those meta-game sources of investment.

Categories: RPGs as a Medium
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