Hard Choices: Running Multiple Campaigns in Parallel

Published December 31, 2013 by in For Gamemasters


One of the themes I always enjoy in roleplaying games is one of moral ambiguity, the areas of grey and the requirement to make hard choices (or the struggle to avoid having to make them). On the other hand, focusing too hard on the players can lead to one of the things I tend to dislike about some games I’ve played. If the players aren’t making progress, neither are their enemies, and things only ever happen to the players, not to other people. While focusing only on the players certainly makes for an easier time as GM, it can tend to result in a world that feels reactive to the players, rather than a living and vibrant world of its own.

One of the ways I am trying to combat this in my own games is by running multiple campaigns in parallel. In my current game, I’ve started off the characters on a campaign involving an assassination attempt against the King of Ghan, one that may have ties to a greater plan being enacted by the Jagged Dream and which ties strongly into two of my players character backgrounds. I’ve also set them up on the Devil’s Spine campaign at the same time.

Both campaigns are time-sensitive and both involve far off places. The assassination involves Ghan and the need to expose the traitors in the King’s midst before something happens is great and can’t wait – the players are currently over a thousand miles away on the other side of the Black Riage in Nebalich, so getting there in a timely manner leaves little room for other adventures. However, during their attempt to capture some Rasters to use as flying mounts to aid them in their travels to Ghan, I introduced the group to the events of the Devil’s Spine, rewriting the initial hooks of the adventure to take place in a long abandoned, derelict castle on an island off the coast of the Salted Marsh. Now, they are in a fight for their lives which requires several other quests, most of which will not take them to Ghan, and they have a count down to death hanging over them.

They are presented with a choice straightaway – save themselves or save the King, or try to do both and risk everything. Also, with the events and timeline loosely written out already for each campaign, you have a timeline you can apply to the world whilst the players are playing through the other one – perhaps the players focus on themselves and ignore the issues with the King for now, you can progress the worst case scenario of the players failing to act against the King’s enemies a little bit closer and the world starts to exhibit the fallout of the players not getting involved in one option and the benefits of them being involved in the others.

For most of my scenarios in my campaign notes, I have a number of success and failure possibilities to choose from and notes about the wider changes they cause to the world. When weaving these threads together from multiple campaign story lines, you often get interesting overlaps which make the world seem all the more real and chaotic, rather than the neat and orderly sequence of events a singular campaign story line can exhibit. Perhaps the assassination attempt goes ahead and succeeds whilst the players are out trying to save their own lives but their self-preservation quest also takes them to Ghan later – now that part of their job is harder, Ghan is locked down under martial law and movement and trade is impossible as investigations and political fallout run rampant. Strangers are suddenly viewed with extreme suspicion and so all their tasks are now that much harder too.

Equally, failing in one campaign could make another one easier. Perhaps you have a campaign that involves a war. Failing to divert the course of a certain battle might mean victory for the enemies, but equally now the enemies need to spend time securing this new victory and rather than retreating and regrouping, they fortify to hold their new position. This could free up another area that the players need to go to for another campaign being run at the same time, or make it easier since their destination isn’t swarming with angry, defeated soldiers like it would have been had they won the battle.

With a little rewriting all the adventures in the corebook and the supplements, such as The Nightmare Switch and The Devil’s Spine can be adapted to run in parallel with each other, requiring the players to make hard choices about who lives and who dies, whether they allow a great evil to spread to save a small village or if they forgo a chance at discovery and exploration to defend someone. While campaigns themselves often have branches in them, rarely do many provide any information on what happens if the players fail, if they never succeed. With multiple campaigns run simultaneously, you can spend some time filling in the blanks and weaving the threads of cause and effect between them, blocking off parts of one campaign contingent on another, or even making it impossible to succeed at both, the success of one being contingent on the failure of the other. Presenting these hard choices and these complex interactions can make the world feel more alive and also provides a chance to reward the players with a success for every failure they may have (and equally, inflict them with failures for each success, as the consequences of their actions reveal themselves).

So, if you are looking to run a game that requires hard choices or are just looking for a way to make your world seem more alive beyond the players immediate actions, consider running two or more campaigns in parallel for your group. It’s certainly extra work, and I’d only recommend doing it with pre-written adventures (whether you’ve made them yourself or are using a published one) alongside your existing campaign. That said, so far my players are enjoying wrestling with the choices they are having to make and I’ve not as yet found it too difficult to manage.

Finally, it would be remiss of me to say that this approach is not without certain risks. The primary risk is that of splitting the party. Your group may decide that solving both campaigns at once is the thing to do and split themselves into two groups, one for each campaign. This hasn’t happened to me yet, but it’s a distinct possibility you have to be prepared for. This is likely less of a risk for smaller groups, but for a large group such as mine (8 players) two groups of 4 are more than capable of handling each campaign themselves which can make it an attractive option to the players.