Long Campaigns in Shadowdark

Long Campaigns in Shadowdark

An interesting topic of discussion came up in the Arcane Library Discord a bit ago (during one of the hangouts that I unfortunately could not attend due to prior obligations) which boils down to the question:

Why does Shadowdark seem less suited to running long-term campaigns?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I have opinions on this which hopefully add something to the discussion.

Thanks for alerting me to this discussion topic, Kiwi!

In order to try and answer the question, we must first create the universe explore a bit how long-term campaigns tend to work in my experience.

What makes a long campaign in the first place?

So, for the purposes of this discussion - I'm going to keep "long campaign" defined to the style of campaign that has an overall metaplot with at least some groups / entities / whatever that have an agenda which is independent of (and likely opposed to) the actions of the players.

I'm going to reuse this definition of "campaign" throughout the post.

I'm not talking about the long, pre-defined story campaign that I talk about over in a previous post in this series - though those have similar constraints. What I'm talking about here can occur organically, with no preset outcome, big-bad, etc. I once ran a lengthy campaign in Dungeon World without defining the actual "objective / threat" at all - the players came up with that on their own. I'll be drawing from that campaign to explain my thoughts.

Likewise, I'll touch on hex crawls, where there are lots of neat "locations", that may or may not have a metaplot attached to them - but I don't really view extended hex crawls as a "campaign" by the above definition, you can run a hex crawl with no metaplot whatsoever and have a perfectly fun game for literally years.

Is Shadowdark ill-suited for campaigns?

Let's get this part out of the way first. No! I think Shadowdark can be used for campaigns just as well as any other system, but I do think there are some design decisions codified in the game that a GM will need to adapt and work with in order to make campaign play work.

Some of those things are directly related to the "OSR play style" (as outlined in Principia Apocrypha), and we'll try and hit those one-by-one.

Character Death and "why are these folks working together, again?"

Lumerb @ Shutterstock
This is "Luther Cunningham IV, cousin of Luther Cunningham III, here to avenge his cousin.... and get treasure."

This particular sentiment I think is the most common reason that any OSR-adjacent game seems less-conducive to longer term campaign play - and Shadowdark is no different. When you're using the risk of death as a challenge mechanic to encourage smarter play a couple of different things can happen:

  • In an ideal situation, the GM and players gel together and get a good feel for telegraphing danger, running away when appropriate, and all of the things that a player can do to lower the odds of death. There will still be deaths because sometimes the dice gods do not favor you, and as in game and in real life - sometimes you make the tactical mistake.
  • Throwing Characters to the grinder becomes part of the fun, and a normal part of the fun, and so you're going to be cycling PCs a bunch.
  • The GM and players don't mesh well with the challenge mechanic and deaths become more common (but less desirable).

And perhaps anywhere else on that general spectrum.

This is a problem when your overall campaign's narrative arc requires the characters to be at least somewhat invested in the goings-on happening around them. If you've got a rotating cast of characters, who frequently don't have a defined personality or backstory yet, it can be difficult to get them invested in anything less than earth-shattering consequences, simply because they also would like to live through the apocalypse please.

It's difficult to get people to care about things that don't immediately impact them in real life, too.

So, if you're not running through a campaign that's immediately life threatening, how do you keep a group of strangers invested - when the risk that they'll be crushed to death in the next delve is high?

There are a couple of ways to deal with this, and it's a consideration that players and GMs have been dealing with since... always? Probably always. The most obvious is to lower the risk of death - though depending on the genre you're playing, this will also adjust the kind of story you're telling.

Another way to do it is to have the players be members of a faction, and that faction has its agenda - and the reasons the players work for the faction can be varied. More on this in a bit...

Into the Dungeon - Torches at the Ready

bnetto @ Shutterstock
Do one thing and do it well.

Many folks on the Arcane Library Discord have expressed the sentiment that Shadowdark is really good at a particular thing, and that particular thing is sending a group of adventurers (really, normal folk) down into a dungeon to overcome a challenge and liberate the loot from the place. I agree with the sentiment, and Shadowdark is really good at that.

This particular element of the game is right up front, and noticeable - and so it's easy to just pitch the game as "great to run dungeons in".

The issue with this, when trying to run a long campaign, is that to run a good campaign with a narrative and metaplot you need more than the core gameplay loop of "go to dungeon, get treasure, carouse, repeat". This works great for a hex-crawl, where the end goal of each session is "go to interesting places, find the stuff, and repeat". If the players and the GM are into that kind of game, you can sustain that indefinitely. That's not really a "campaign" (as defined at the beginning of this post), though. It's more akin to a series of locations that are not connected to one another that you're enjoying independently in pseudo-isolation.

That said, just because the game doesn't provide mechanical guidance for a thing, doesn't mean it can't be done. I think this is part of a thing for people - if there aren't mechanics in the book, they don't think they can do a thing, rather than "oh wow, I'm free to do stuff."

I feel this way about D&D 4th Edition. To me, it's an amazing tactical minis game. But I can't roleplay very well in it, because there aren't mechanics that encourage storytelling. However, I've met people that love 4th edition for that same reason - for them, the mechanics get out of the way of the roleplay elements, and then they've got a solid framework for combat scenes.

Character Focus and World Focus

vikstudio @ Shutterstock

I've already dedicated an entire post to this concept, but it's kinda worth repeating here. From my limited experience and understanding of the general genre (and looking to the "Be Their World" portion of Principia Apocrypha) - running a campaign in a style of game that emphasizes the interaction of the Players with the World requires a different style of campaign play than indie games or more "simulationist" games. In essence, the way campaigns are designed and play out have some interesting differences.

This style of play treats the interactions with the world as the main means by which the players build the story together with the GM - it's not so much the characters. They're thinner, in the beginning. As time goes on, they may become more fleshed out, but they're not the focus of the narrative. So for campaigns in this style of game, you have to do a little more work to get the players involved - involve them in faction play, give them kingdoms, discover what appeals to the players sense of adventure and play off of that.

Contrasting with story games, where the action of the overarching narrative is driven by the characters, and their motivations. You can develop the overall fulcrum points for a campaign based on their stories, and weave them together.

Some Campaign Techniques

It'd be remiss of me to omit some techniques that work well in OSR style games and will likely work well in Shadowdark as well (though I've not tried any of these yet).

Faction Play

In OSR games, as well as really great games in general, having various factions that have motivations which are opposed or aligned to the players can make for interesting longer-term play, depending on the scale that their motivations operate on.

In my experience, the games that do this the best (which, apologies to the OSR readers, these are story games - I don't possess enough experience to call out games in the genre) are Dungeon World and Blades in the Dark.

For Blades, this is called out in the Core book - with the Factions of Duskwall. There are a whole bunch of them, they have tiers representing their level of influence in the city, and they have many varied goals. In a game I ran, the main plot revolved around a very simple core premise - the Demon Setarra wanted to raise a number of eldrich horrors from below the sea, and one of the Characters inadvertently helped her do it. Meanwhile The Church of the Ecstasy of the Flesh wanted those very same demon's power to "ascend" and seize control of the city. The players, a rising faction in their own right, allied with said faction for a while and then when they figured out that the Church was using them took them out in an epic night of blood.

For Dungeon World, they have the concept of Fronts, Factions, Dangers, and Portents. These essentially boil down into "Things that have motivations and will get worse the longer the players ignore them". I can't do a better job of explaining this than the Dungeon World Guide - it's a great read and I think it can enhance any game.

Having the players belong to a faction also have as a way to mitigate the "why are we working together" issue when they're essentially agents for a group. It gives you an easy way to narratively explain the joint venture - especially if the characters do not get along. It can also help mitigate some of the effects of not having a sense of who the character was before they popped into existence (sometimes at the bottom of a rowboat).

Troupe Play

Another interesting way to run a longer term campaign is to play in a troupe style, where you have multiple PCs for each player, and you run them at different locations and at different times. Ars Magica does this in a particularly interesting way - the group has essentially a village of NPCs that can become PCs for a given session. Each player creates 2 PCs - a Magician and a mundane but highly skilled character. Each session, one player plays the Magician, another the mundane PC, and the remaining players take on NPCs from the village to go on an expedition. Each session, the roles rotate - and the narrative time between sessions can be months, seasons, or years.

This can even be taken to all kinds of levels, different groups across a continent working towards a singular goal or even just a stable of PCs who go out and learn of different elements of a plot.

Emergent Storytelling vs. Collaborative Storytelling

I'm not sure exactly where this goes, but it's something that's been hovering under the surface of my brain for a bit. Principia Apocrypha has a nice little section in it which states:

Don't set out to tell a story, let one emerge from the characters' interactions with the world.

Which is particularly interesting, because it both jives with and conflicts with the way I play games. I think there's a supposition in here that the GM is building a story based on what the players are doing to the "fun sandbox" the GM has created. The way I tend to play is collaborative storytelling where the details about the world and the things that inhabit it are also suggested by the players, so not only is the world changing based on what the characters do in the fiction, but it's also determined by what the players think will be cool or drive the plot forward.

Not everyone plays like that, but it's my favorite playstyle.

Wrap Up

So we've got another long and meandering post yet again - but I hope this was insightful into why some of the reasons I think that there's a general "worry" or "concern" around playing longer term campaigns in Shadowdark. It all boils down to the kind of game you want to run, the notions the game is designed to hum around, and the methods you use to develop the game with your group.