Campaign structures

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Most larp campaigns seem to use the same overarching structure: there is a Big, World-Threatening Problem, which the characters must unite to prevent. Its common I guess because its easy, and because it echoes the structure of the source material (genre fantasy, which has been redoing this plot since Tolkien). But I’m interested in alternatives: what other ways can you structure a campaign to give a sense of coherent, overarching story?

(Sparked by an incidental FB discussion of Regency larps)


One option, increasingly common in tabletop rpgs: “play to find out what happens”. Introduce a threat (or let the players introduce a threat in their backgrounds), see how the characters react, work with that until it reaches a conclusion. It came from Apocalypse World, but Dungeon World added the riff of “fronts”: collections of threats, a rough sketch of an arc. They can be big or small, but the key thing is that they (or rather, the Doom they represent) get closer if the characters do nothing. A campaign can be “structured” by having a few initial threats, playing to find out what happens, and working off any threats that emerge as natural narrative consequences.

The problem with this structure is endings: we like our campaigns to be finite, so working out when to stop, and making it satisfying, is more difficult with this sort of structure.


I’ve been reading about Stonetop, a Dungeon World hack/setting, and it has an alternative campaign frame: rather than saving the world, you’re building it (or a small part of it). The characters are the heroes of a small village in a world of threats and mystery, trying to protect their home and boost its fortunes, and this is built into the mechanics, with Moves for doing that. (Legacy: Life Among the Ruins has some aspect of this as well, but more abstract).

In a larp context, this could be used for fantasy, or for colonisation stories (whether SF, a dusty colony world trying to establish itself and win free of offworld megacorps, or pseudo-Greeks /Romans founding a new colony in a foreign land and trying to make it secure). Plotlines can focus around exploration/mystery, direct threats (the goblins in the forest, the space pirates), resource acquisition, and the internal politics of deciding what projects to pursue, with some abstract tracking on the GM side. Most importantly, known rules for development, so the characters can make meaningful choices: “if we do this, then that will happen, resulting in another thing in the next session…”


Another option: travel. Lots of campaigns follow the characters as they go from place-to-place, and some (e.g. Stargate) seem to have adopted a planet-of-the-week approach - which is a standard format in the fictional inspirations for some genres.

But you could have a campaign about a journey: the characters are at A, and want to get to B, with the sessions being about what they encounter and overcome along the way. It could be about leading a refugee fleet (e.g. Battlestar Galactica) or finding your way home (e.g. the Odyssey). For further fun, and to give the characters meaningful choices, you could gamify it a bit by running a pointcrawl in the background. So the characters could learn what was up ahead, and choose their route or next destination either in session or in downtime. Though this might require some clever design to avoid wasting effort on unchosen paths - maybe focusing on routes, with specific in-game benefits and costs, with the big session nodes fixed?

Pretty obviously, the campaign ends when they get where-ever they’re going. Whether that’s a big finale session, or an epilogue to a previous big climax depends on the exact story you’re trying to tell.


Really? What if what they find is not what they expect?

Getting to where they’re going could just mark the start of phase two of a campaign. (It’s also an ideal point for the GMs to take a break, and take stock of the plot.)


You’re right - it doesn’t have to end. But arrival would probably be a significant change in tone and theme. For example, a BSG-style “refugees fleeing an implacable enemy” game could turn into a building campaign as they try and create a new life.


Oh, it would. The comment mostly came out of me not wanting Embers to end (I love the world) and wondering how it would be possible to come up with a “phase two” when the first campaign ends with the players saving* the world. If I’m perfectly honest, that is.

But a lot of what you’re describing is stuff I was quite used to at home that just happens to not exist at all here. The sort of plotting that happens in, again, Embers is probably what everyone aspires to in the ideal case - but there’s quite a lot of more low-key stuff going on in the meantime. All of which can be very enjoyable precisely because there isn’t all that much at stake. All you do sometimes is inhabit a world over several games, explore some aspects of it and have fun with some others. I mean, I’ve been to events that saved a city from the roiling hordes of chaos and to some that were written around a wine festival or a similar social occasion, and enjoyed them both equally!

You’re right about the ending, of course - that can go wrong and turn into something a bit underwhelming if you’re not planning it from the beginning. I’ve definitely been to games where that was the case. But there’s more to a game than the ending, it’s the overall experience I got for.

And on the other hand it can go places you never expected and amaze everyone as well - and I’ve been to some of those too. They’re the memorable ones that you remember years later precisely because nobody - GMs included - saw it coming until it happened. But as a GM/writer you do give up a fair amount of control and have to be willing to live with a so-so plot in hope of a great one.

*That’s one of the possibilites, anyway. But fingers crossed! :smiling_imp:


Rebellion. The PCs live in an oppressive regime, and the overall campaign goal is to overthrow the regime and replace it.

Redemption. The PCs belong to a group that has been unfairly maligned, and they are seeking to clear their name.

Building a Business. This is like the village building concept, but it’s a commercial entity like a company being built. Each session could involve working for different clients, and failure could set back the financial and reputational progress. I assume that with a village/company building campaign, there would be resource management involved at or between sessions. Building a company of bodyguards / mercenaries / spies / assassins could provide a lot of traditional adventure sessions, but there are other less classic fantasy-adventure businesses that could work. EDIT: Firefly is basically this, or could be, but then it has political stuff underlying it too.


Empire in the UK was all about politics and building a business. It had the advantage (for the referees) that most of the plot was actually generated by the players themselves.