I love campaigns, especially map campaigns, and so I thought I'd write a little article based on my experience, giving some advice on how to run them. It is a common saying that map campaigns are never finished, they just fade out or never get off the ground. I disagree, I have run six map campaigns each lasting one school term and with around 12 participants in each. They have all finished and I have had one player drop out in total (and he never showed up at all, so he hardly counts). However, there are a lot of challenges with campaigns and they even appear to be reasonably well understood, so it is a mystery to me that most campaign organisers tend to deal with them by crossing their fingers and hoping. Surely, if you know that getting each player to show up for a weekly meeting month after month will be difficult, you do not make a campaign where this is required?
The main challenge with campaigns is keeping players committed. This a quite broad issue, however, and I have separated it into a series of issues you should think about and which can all cause players to drop out if they are not handled in a good way. Not all issues apply to all campaigns and how concerned your players are about the issues will also vary, but these are the major ones I have discovered in the running of my campaigns. Most fall into the category of "do it a bit and people are motivated, do it a lot and people are discouraged" and it will be up to you to find out just what is enough. In my experience, campaign rules generally have too much stuff and require too much of the players and the organizer. Very few campaign systems I have read are too minimalistic. If you do plan on having a campaign, have few rules to begin with and consider expanding them in later campaigns. Keep it exciting, keep it simple, keep it short and you will not go far wrong.
As a side note, I would suggest that players do not use the original Mighty Empires rules, at least not without heavy modification. They were written during 4th edition Fantasy Battles and game balance had not yet been invented.
- The strategic versus the tactical
- Campaign meetings
- Starting postions
- Army specific rules
- Book keeping
- Who fights whom?
- Encouraging aggressive play
- Fighting the battles
The strategic versus the tactical
With campaigns, you need to balance the tactical (events at the tabletop level) against the strategic (events at the campaign level), so that you can't just ignore one and win at the other level. For example, a campaign where you can win by doing so well at the campaign level that it matters little what you do on the actual tabletop is probably not very interesting. Similarly, a campaign where the player that does best in the battles doesn't really have to worry about the strategic level isn't very interesting either. There are some measures I have taken in later rules sets to encourage this:
- Each player must attack somebody each turn. This means they can't hide away in a corned and avoid actual battles.
- You can only grab territories by playing battles. In some campaign systems you can grab neutral territories without fighting a battle and this can even be more profitable than fighting a battle.
- For an army to get advantages (extra characters, Special, Rare, etc.) it must build features on the terrain map using points gained from playing battles. These features can also be lost, giving the advantage to the opponent.
I think campaign meetings are a great idea. They give players a chance to get together to brag about victories and scheme against those who are in the lead. If they can meet around a nice-looking campaign map, then so much the better. The social aspect of a campaign should not be underestimated and by having players get together regularly you get a peer pressure that makes it more difficult for people to drop out. You do not get that with campaigns organised through email or a website.
However, as mentioned above, campaigns are often far too ambitious about how often they should have campaign meetings. I guess the case is often that the organizer selects one night that fits him and doesn't consider the fact that other people might not have the same night available. If all players are needed at every campaign meeting, then I would not recommend weekly meetings if the campaign has more than three or four players and lasts for more than a couple of months.
There are many things you can try out that helps when it comes to campaign meetings.
- Have meetings only every two or three weeks. Thus if your campaign meetings are on tuesdays and a player usually plays poker (or whatever) on tuesdays, he can alternate between the two. Naturally, if the campaign round lasts two-three weeks instead of just one week, you should make sure there is enough for people to do in between the two meetings. I had people fight an average of two battles during rounds that lasted three weeks and that way okay for us.
- Let players who can't come to a meeting do their actions by phone or email. This may or may not be easy to fit into your campaign system and often you must adapt it somewhat if you want to make this possible. If for example players do actions in a random order and what one player does can strongly affect the later ones, it can be very difficult for one player to plan this in advance.
- Have teams of players where only one player per team needs to show up for each meeting. I am very much in favour of this and have used teams of two players for all my campaigns. This lets players get around all those little family-, school- or work-related emergencies that tend to crop up now and then. Team play also has the advantage that it creates more peer pressure to stay in and you can get to know new people.
- Make the meeting schedule be known in advance, preferably before people sign up. That way people can plan well in advance and have time free for the campaign. It might be a bit difficult to know in advance which nights a week people have time to play, but it can be frustrating to have people sign up and then discover that the day that works for everyone else doesn't work for them and so they can't play after all. Related to this, I firmly believe that all campaigns should have a set time limit, so you don't risk it dragging on indefinitely. Mine always lasted one school term (about 15 weeks), which was long enough for people to have a good experience and short enough for them not to be sick of it. I think it is far better to have two short campaign than one long. You might of course have the option for a campaign to end early (e.g. first player to gain 10 territories), but I feel that this can get dull if it ends too soon and encourages gimmicky play.
- Have the meetings all be on the same day of the week and start at the same time. Again this makes it easier for people to plan ahead. The starting time will in my experience be subject to some adjustments now and then as people want time to fight out battles at the last minute before the next meeting.
- Send out a reminder a few days in advance of every meeting. This will also help people to get their battles played in time. You would be surprised how many people will forget when a meeting is, even after being told repeatedly, so it is worth sending an SMS to the worst offenders to get them to show up.
Whether it fits to have people play battles immediately after the campaign meeting depends on your group of players (we never really got it to work in my group), but if you think you can make it work I would recommend making an effort.
I have two main recommendations when it comes to how the players start the campaign.
The first is that all players start out as equal as possible; if a map is used they should start off symmetrically placed. In one of my later campaigns, I had players freely choose their starting positions on the campaign map and it was terrible. One of the teams set up in a semicircle, forcing the others to clump together and cutting off a significant portion of the map so that it was very difficult for the other players to reach it. That didn't work at all and I would strongly urge other campaign organizers to have pre-determined starting areas and make them all equal.
The second is to have players start close to each other. If space is too plentiful, so that players can be left alone, you can easily get very little interaction and less fun for all involved. If you ask me, any neutral space up for grabs should be strictly limited, meaning that the campaign quickly becomes a zero-sum one where one player's gain is another player's loss. This keeps the pressure up and the campaign interesting for the players. It also means the campaign becomes less merciful on those who do badly, so you probably don't want to keep this up for too long.
Army specific rules
Not much to say about this last point other than despite army specific rules being highly popular, I would not recommend them, since they are so difficult to balance. Instead I sugest leaving armies with the differences they have on the tabletop and not try to make them more different on the campaign level. I have repeatedly tried to give armies interesting bonuses without having some be wildly more useful than others and I have repeatedly failed.
In general, the fewer things you need to keep track of during a campaign, the better. This means a much easier job for you the organizer (I don't know about you, but I always play in the campaigns I run) and people will have a much better idea of what their and their opponents' armies can consist of. Something that can help a lot here is having it displayed visually instead of writing it down somewhere. The little feature tokens you get with the Mighty Empires set (cities, mines, etc.) are good for this and by combining the old and new sets we got a lot of different features to use. Thus instead of keeping a list, I could just take a picture of the map when the meeting was done. Having upgrades be more generic, as mentioned above, also helps a lot. If you don't have to keep track on features that give extra knights, war machines, monsters or chariots, but simply have one that gives extra Special choices, you can save yourself and your players a lot of headaches.
You can also abstract away a lot of things that would have been interesting to have, but which would have lead to more work. For example some campaign systems forces you to make one army list at the start of the campaign and keep track of any upgrades or casualties as the campaign progresses. This is a lot of work and I would not recommend it. It is much easier if players can set up their army lists anew from battle to battle, and it gives fresh players more of a break since they are more likely to set up a bad list initially. This way you also avoid people calling you two hours before their battle because they forgot how many Reaper Bolt Throwers they can take. Similarly it might be interesting to keep track of baggage carts to feed the armies with, but I prefer to do without that, reckoning that it is more interesting to play the role of the general instead of the quartermaster.
Who fights whom?
As with so many of the other issues, some restrictions on who fights whom adds to the flavour of the campaign, but if you do end up fighting against the same guy round after round because he's the only one in your area of the map, it gets dull very quickly. If the rules allow a player to attack anybody, then there should be some mechanism to stop the stronger players to pick on the weaker round after round (a process called bottom feeding). I was listening to an episode of 'The D6 Generation' podcast which talked about campaigns and how bottom feeding was a problem, and then they presented a rule set that actively encouraged bottom feeding! One common mechanic to limit bottom feeding is to limit how much a strong player can gain from beating a weak player. If winning a battle gives you a number of campaign points, then winning against someone much worse off than you should give fewer points than winning against someone on your level. This encourages players to take on someone their own size instead of picking on easy prey. You can also give players who are lagging behind more points against better players, which makes it easier for people to catch up.
If people can't fight against anybody they want, I suggest that the restrictions are at least set fairly lose. At any one time, each player should be able to attack something like half the other players. One thing that greatly helps here is to not have player armies directly represented on the map, something that really tends to limit who fights whom. If people can attack anyone within reasonable range of their own realm on the map, you get a lot more interaction and a lot more fun for the players.
Encouraging aggressive play
As I see it, campaigns need to encourage aggressive play (at the strategic level) to be any interesting at all. If people are reluctant to attack each other and instead dig in and build up their defences, it makes for a very dull campaign. After all, if you don't fight a good number of battles, you might as well play a strategic board game, such as Vinci or Risk, which would also have been much quicker. In the first campaign rule sets I wrote, you could come off very badly if you attacked another player and got squashed, which meant that the less experienced players did very badly since they lost territories when they got attacked and lost territories when they attacked other players. Not much fun for them. In the later rounds, you could only grab territories from enemies when you attacked them, which made for a much more interesting campaign.
A second thing which has never been possible in my campaigns, but which I have seen in other campaigns, is avoiding an attack, which can also lead to dull games. This most often happens when armies are directly represented on the table and move around. Since armies tend to move at the same speed, enemy armies can generally move away from you at the same speed as you move towards them. If moves are secret, for example by each player writing down what he's doing and then all revealing them at once, it becomes even worse as you will need to guess where your opponent is moving in order to head him off.
Fighting the battles
Here are some tips regarding the actual tabletop battles:
Battles need to be reasonably even to be interesting. Once a player gets more than 10% more larger army than his opponent, it becomes more and more difficult for his opponent to win, and the more likely he is to employ ... how shall I say it ... unusual tactics to avoid getting squished. Trying to catch a player who has decided that he can't win and runs like a squirrel to avoid losing is unlikely to be very entertaining for either player.
Something that usually is very well received is linking the terrain on the tabletop to the terrain on the campaign map. So for exmple if the battle is fought in an area of the campaign map where there is a lot of woods, the battlefield has a lot of woods on it. This is usually fairly simple to do and can add a lot of flavour quite easily.
Another thing that is usually appreciated is playing a variety of scenarios. In my experience, people sign up to campaigns because they want an unusual experience and are therefore more open to playing non-standard battles than other players.
You need some mechanism to satisfactory handle battles that end up not being played. Regardless what you do, you will most likely end up with some battles that aren't played before the deadline you have set. It can be tempting to extend the time limit to give the players enough time to finish, but unless you feel that you have miscalculated in the number of battles that can realistically be played within the limits, I would not recommend this. If the problem is just that the players are slow to get their games played, I suggest just getting on with it. Randomly determining the result can be a solution, but players might end up reckoning that they have a better chance that way than by playing the battles the proper way. What I have settled on is awarding a few points if one player made an effort to get the battle played, or just not counting it if both or none of the players made an effort. However, this might not work with all campaign rules without adaption and sometimes a battle must be played before you can go on. I don't particularly like bitching at people to get them to fight their battles in time, so I try to avoid this.
Attrition is a fancy term covering how during a campaign, the armies that lose a lot get weaker while the armies that win a lot get stronger (or just one of the two). This is one of the things that bring flavour to a campaign, but which can easily get overdone to the point that new players (who tend to lose a lot) get even more of a disadvantage against their more experienced opponents and thus tend to lose even more. While this might be quite realistic, it's not much fun. Having to play battles at an increasing disadvantage is a good way of driving away players, especially the new ones.
Of course, if the campaign hinges on player elimination, you need a good deal of attrition, but in those cases players should be eliminated as soon as it is apparent that they are on a losing streak. Playing 1000 pt battles against 2000 pts is not much fun. Thus attrition should, in my experience, be fairly limited and the greatest advantage you get from winning a battle should be to bring you closer to winning the campaign. A bit more choice in how you select your army can also be interesting, or some stat or skill bonuses for your general. Here I think it is important to mention that I think that the rewards from winning a battle should mostly not be random. You shouldn't get to roll on a table and find that as a Wood Elf player your army can now include one extra war machine. In my modified Mighty Empires rules, players got campaign points from winning battles, which they could spend on cites and whatnot that allowed them to take extra Special and Rare units beyond the limited number they had access to to start with. Thus players could choose to buy features and then choose what to use them for, rather than randomly rolling it up. The exception I make to this is character advancement, which is semi-random (i.e. you roll a dice and get a choice between several characteristics increases or additional special rules).
Other related articles
- Mighty Empires review
- Setting up a Campaign Map
- A Little War in the Borderlands
- Random Scenario Generator
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