How I Write Skirmish War Games: Campaigns
Updated: Jan 21
In my anecdotal experience the journey from gamer to game designer goes something like this; New weapon/character/unit; New Scenario; New campaign. Typically, the new weapon is considered horribly over powered by your opponents, you always win your own scenario and everyone drops out of your campaign. Those of us dumb enough to persist then write weapons/characters/units for forces that we don’t use (but our opponents will use and we don’t mind facing) and scenarios that we don’t play to learn objectivity and balance, then we write campaigns that everyone drops out of. Writing a campaign that a group of fairly casual gamers (as in, not gamers who will, to a man, grind out the campaign on principle) will actually get to the end of is a sort of Elderado like obsession for many game designers. Having written a whole bunch of campaigns casually (and a few of which that more than one person completed) and designed a couple professionally now I’ve formulated a few opinions, which I will present here.
Don’t. Just, don’t.
Good campaigns are insanely hard to write. They’re hard to write when you know exactly who will be playing them, their personalities and forces, and tailor it to them. Writing them free-form for any group with Meta’s from the insanely competitive to the brown ale friendly (and yes, grimly competitive people do play campaigns) is crazy tough. Playtesting them is even harder, a flesh and blood playtesting group of reasonable size, even when pretty committed, will tend to drift off around the third iteration and re-start of a campaign. Dicing out specific game results is no kind of replacement and probably goes to explain the horrible tendency to avalanche most campaign systems possess (more on that later).
If you write a system some of the people who buy it will never actually play it. More of them will only play one or two games. More still will never move off the core system and basic rules and never sniff at the scenarios. Only a fairly tiny percentage of most players will ever get close to your campaign system and fewer still will play it through. They will be a fairly vocal minority and your biggest fans, but a minority all the same.
If you do write and publish a game system the pages of publication will be limited. Even in PDF format editing and graphic design for additional pages cost and player patience is not infinite, but in a hard copy page count will put a very real limit to the length of your magnum opus. Almost any other content to extend your system will, therefore, be more played and provide more, page for page, to your audience.
All of which are three very good reasons not to write a campaign system at all, so my honest best advice on the subject is, don’t write one. Still, a crap ton of systems, especially skirmish systems, do include campaign rules, including systems I’ve personally had a hand in writing. So why do it? At best because most wargamers have a story about a semi legendary campaign game which was the best thing they ever played. Which is to say, a well put together campaign can be the best gaming experience skirmish games will ever offer, and it’s that which we’re all chasing. In all honestly, it’s usually a wild goose chase, how you feel about those campaigns say more about the people you played with or the time of your life when you played them than the system you used. Not that this stops us, and you still need the system to have the experience, so we might as well give it a good shot.
All that said it should also be noted that while GOOD campaigns are incredibly tough to write, bad ones are both easy and rather fun to write. So being cynical all those reasons not to write a good campaign, they’re hard to do, not often played and fill up wedges of space, are reasons of a kind for writers of a type to write a bad one. They fill out a book and give a sense of value but most people will never really get to judge them. Personally, when I suspect they’ve been bashed out they make me sad because they lead a lot of players to have a sense of never getting full value from their purchase. They make me angry when they lazily make the same mistakes again and again.
So, if you are writing a campaign chasing those few perfect months of gaming, how do you do it? Firstly, and generally, be writing it for the right reasons and trying to do a good job. Secondly playtest it, and playtest it at least once right to the end and until at least two of your players want to finish it out. Aside from that I’d suggest looking to two general areas, narrative importance and avalanche control.
The Narrative Imperative Imperative
Most games carry some degree of narrative, forces have background motivations and characters have back story. In theory campaigns should have more and clearer narrative than single games and certainly they should build better stories, but oddly many written campaigns put more arbitrary pressure on player built narrative than their standalone versions. There are three basic sources of game narrative, writer, mechanics and player. The writer produces narrative explaining the general motivation for the game; the mechanics produce a narrative logic to player’s actions; the player produces narrative to flesh out the first two areas. A game should rarely (ideally never) demand a player provide narrative, especially without one of the first two narrative sources to base their ideas on. Despite this when playing set stand alone scenarios systems always set out clear narratives but during campaigns they request players to arbitrarily select narratives during set-up such as to designate one character a ‘leader’ without context and to afford that character a special significance unearned by the system, select a base or enemy. There are a couple of fixes to this issue to possibly put in place.
Firstly, there is no reason why such choices should be made before the campaign’s scenarios and battles. Consider a basic or procedural set-up before a first game and then a system to define leaders, bases etc. after the first game. The best element of skirmish games is that they create stories for players to shape a narrative around, a well written campaign system should embrace rather than battle against that tendency. A leader should rise from the ranks rather than be selected and potentially never achieve anything worthy of a leader. A base should be defined by a battle for a suitable location so it can be founded on stories rather than hexes and if no base is found a hit and run guerrilla force option should be provided. Offering branching routes based on events will always reward players over pre-chosen strictures.
Secondly, campaigns should cease to be tack-ons to existing systems. Consider a non-game based campaign style story, “The Walking Dead”. For those unfamiliar, this series was conceived to be the continuing story of survival horror, that which occurs after the movie ends, and more of the story occurs between the skirmishes than during them. Battles define loss and the routes of trust, they should not define your primary story. Campaign sessions are generally a few minor choices after the primary battle, consider making one session of play a skirmish game and the next a campaign game, give campaign issues as much weight as skirmish battle issues. Deciding where player's characters live and grow should have as much weight as where they attack each other with knives.
It’s An A-a-a-avalanche
There is one simple problem both most serious and most universal to campaign systems; avalanching. Generally, campaign systems reward winners of games with experience based upgrades and punish those who lose with a lack of progression and long term injuries. The result of this is that the best player wins the first game and is made more powerful and, being both the best player and the most powerful player, wins the next game and the next. The upshot is that players avalanche in power and there is less point in two players facing each other twice than in a normal series of scenarios. Such systems inevitably become little more than league systems but ones where some players never need to even bother playing each other since their relative power levels are totally incompatible. This tendency is the main reason most campaigns never reach their intended conclusion. Fixing it is difficult, it is a regular problem for good reason, but there are a few options.
Firstly there are a few options to avoid:
Two steps forward - some systems offer a two steps forwards one step back approach to stop one player charging ahead because they keep getting dragged back. This is a poor option for three reasons: one, winners only creep ahead, but losers move backwards, so the relative problem is exactly the same. Two, winners only creep painfully slowly forwards, making the reason for competing anyway, the progression, constantly out of reach. Three, this isn’t a fix, its just slowing down the avalanche in the hope that the campaign will end or players stop playing it before it hits. This doesn’t work because players get put off by the vision of the oncoming avalanche even if it doesn’t ever arrive, anyway, shouldn’t players be able to continue their ongoing stories perpetually if they want to?
Ganging up - Some campaign systems say, if someone pulls ahead get the losers to gang up on them. The issue with this is that the winner feels like their reward for winning is to play a game where they’re behind two or more people they’re beating, and if they win then their opponents feel not only like there is definitely no point going on with the campaign but pretty humiliated also.
Pretty random - Many campaigns either offer randomized progression, choosing character advancement by random means. Since this makes building interesting combinations inherently difficult to engineer it slows down progression and therefore the avalanche. But constantly blundering down dead ends is just like repeatedly walking into a lamp post and it kind of sucks.
Viva la difference - Finally different advancement is a system whereby progression leads to interestingly alternative options rather than more powerful ones. This does avoid avalanching, but it amounts to locking up the proverbial sweet shop such that everyone feels very much like they have to wait four games before the fun starts, or worse, that someone else is having way more fun than them.
The simplest fix is to separate out the experience progression in the campaign from its victory conditions, at its most basic you only reward wins without progressing forces, though this is hardly a campaign system so much as a themed win count. Within a more advanced two stream system this means that a player who chooses to avalanche in strength will be behind in victory and will need to effectively employ that additional power to catch up players who have been picking up victory points without advancing their abilities. This can be complex to employ but particularly effective if players can pick up different forms of the advancement during the same battle, with losers gaining power from the experience of defeat while winners advance towards final victory but without powering up their forces, or visa versa. It can also be increased in effectiveness by offering alternate victory conditions.
Alternate victory conditions can allow multiple players to compete for separate victories. For example, in a combat based system the player who wins the most games will not necessarily be the player to have made the most kills, so a best general and a bloodiest warrior reward is suitable. Final victories should also be highly narrative (more so than this example) potential examples would be marching armies breaking off for lesser concerns, clearly the more inherently narrative your game is the easier this becomes. For example, in Gaslands since it is a televised death sport on an occupied earth players can win the televised season or work for the earth resistance, in fact Gaslands used a combination of both of these solutions.
A potentially more complex but deeper and more rewarding option is for the campaign to attach primarily to narrative or other progression based rewards without offering advancement to models and units. This can feel like heresy but there is no inherent reason that campaigns should attach to power advancement and doing so brings significant frustration. It can be freeing both for writer and player to transform the campaign into a story telling tool. In fact there is no reason campaigns should not be co-operative, if players are all sections of an advancing but infighting force within an objective based system consider a narrative where none of them reach their destination if enough objectives are not completed but only the player with the most points wins the whole system.
A final option is to make progression so hugely stepped up that a slight lead in reward gives a tiny enough advantage as to be practically negligible. Players engage in campaigns to advance their heroes and forces so just advance them all with the winner getting a tiny bigger bump. This way the winner gets a reward but losers feel like their progression will mean that next time things will be different, even if its not.
In conclusion, campaigns are hugely difficult to write for a range of reasons with limited rewards but the greatest reason for their failures is their being seen as an add-on to an existing system. If a campaign is to be part of your system it will need to be and deserves to be given as much attention and space as the core system itself. Avalanching systems are a waste of time and space, easily spotted but hard to correct they should not be allowed to enter your system and are best removed wholesale rather than allowed to persist. Write campaigns, but give them their due of attention and difficulty.