When I first starting playing D&D a million years ago (give or take), an actual campaign was something that just never happened. I was in sixth grade, and started with the Tom Moldvay red box Basic Set (published in 1981). It was the beginning of a lifelong love of roleplaying games.
But back then, those of us who “discovered” this game didn’t actually know anyone who had been playing it for any length of time. It was a brand new type of gaming for us, and we didn’t have any advice from anyone—we had to rely entirely on what was printed in the rulebooks themselves.
So we fell into a pattern: Someone would start a new campaign at first level and the rest of us would create characters. We’d play 2-3 times (always exploring a particular dungeon), and then it would fall apart. A month later, someone else would start a new campaign at first level and the whole thing would start all over again.
Sometimes, a few characters might make it to 2nd level, but even that was rare.
Forward to high school, and I start gaming with an entirely new set of people. By this time, my Basic/Expert game had been replaced with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and published adventure modules were the order of the day.
But it was even rarer for a “campaign” to be established. Instead, someone would purchase a cool-looking adventure (e.g. Expedition to the Barrier Peaks), and the rest of us would create characters of a level appropriate for that adventure. We’d play it through (sometimes even making it all the way to the end), and then we’d take a break. And then someone else would run us through a different adventure, usually for a completely different level, which required us to create all-new characters.
Of course, there were some pretty big adventures (or adventure series over multiple modules), such as the famous T1-4 Temple of Elemental Evil super-module, or the A1-4 Scourge of the Slavelords series. But we never managed to play all the way through any of those really big ones, with the sole exception of I3-5 Desert of Desolation.
In fact, the first real campaign game I ever played that lasted for more than a couple of levels’ worth of play wasn’t with D&D at all—it was a RuneQuest game, taking place on Griffin Island. And the first one I ever ran that lasted a significant amount of time was the first edition of the Warhammer Fantasy RPG.
But, almost inevitably, I returned to D&D and, using the experience I had gained both as a player of RuneQuest and a GM of WFRP, I ran a lengthy D&D campaign (this time AD&D 2E).
Still, my campaigns generally involved a great many individual, unrelated adventures rather than a single campaign-specific thread. Even when I started my WFRP campaign with The Enemy Within series, I ended up departing from it when the players grabbed onto other adventure hooks that I always sprinkled into my games.
It wasn’t until Vampire: The Masquerade came out that I ran a campaign that focused on a single, ongoing plotline that managed to hold the players’ attention and interest throughout the entire game.
When Paizo took over publishing of the Dragon and Dungeon magazines, the Adventure Path for D&D was born. Originally the adventures were published in the pages of the magazine itself. Later on, when those magazines were pulled from Paizo and returned to being in-house publications, Paizo continued to publish adventure paths for D&D, and then for their own 3.5 copycat game, Pathfinder.
For those who are unfamiliar with the concept, an adventure path is a series of connected adventures with a core plotline that takes characters from 1st (or thereabouts) level and lasts through a complete campaign, ending anywhere from 13th level (e.g. Council of Thieves) to 20th level (e.g. Wrath of the Righteous).
With the current (5th) edition of D&D, Wizards of the Coast has adopted a similar approach to their adventures. Rather than publishing them as a series of 6 or so separate adventures, however, they tend to publish them as a single large adventure in one book (with a couple of exceptions), usually taking characters from 1st to 15th level.
With D&D 5E, campaigns are designed to be played and completed in less than a year. This reflects the reality that many groups find themselves unable to keep a campaign going for longer than that time—external pressures tend to cause the collapse of longer campaigns. So, with this shorter time frame in mind, it makes sense to concentrate on a singular plotline for the campaign.
This relates to my thoughts on the rate of advancement in D&D 5E, as explained in this post from February.
For someone coming from those early AD&D games, however, this is quite a shift in focus. I’m generally pretty happy with the official WotC-published adventures for D&D 5E. I think they’ve managed to produce some fun and interesting adventures—I’m running Out of the Abyss for my adult players, and Princes of the Apocalypse for my younger players—and I have no major complaints.
However, I do miss those older campaigns where the characters were entirely free to explore the world and wander into whatever adventure grabbed their interest. Smaller, self-contained adventures could be really fun, and it allowed a wide variety of experiences within a campaign. One adventure could be a grim and gritty dungeon crawl, followed by an urban investigation adventure, and then a wilderness exploration adventure.
It feels to me that the options were wider.
But, of course, with those wider options you also need longer campaigns, and more time to play them. For some groups, that’s not an issue. For many groups, however, they know they won’t have the time needed to run a long campaign with slow advancement.
Luckily, converting adventures from earlier editions is actually really easy to do in D&D 5E. In fact, in a couple of days I’m going to be introducing roleplaying games to a couple of people who have never tried them before. And I’ve adapted the adventure Mad God’s Key from Dungeon Magazine issue #114 (a D&D 3.5 adventure). I also adapted B2 Keep on the Borderlands as the beginning of my son’s current campaign.
Once again, I’m impressed at how flexible D&D 5E is when it comes to supporting various styles of play. It is very easy to take any of the Paizo Adventure Paths and convert them to D&D 5E. And many of the official WotC adventures, like Curse of Strahd and Tomb of Annihilation, are fantastic.
On other hand, by slowing down the pace of advancement, it is very easy to use many smaller adventures to provide a more varied campaign experience, allowing the characters to wander around a world and get into whatever adventures they want.
What’s your campaign preference? One big adventure or many small, unrelated adventures? Tell us about it in the comments.