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Doubleheader: The Triple Constraint of A Campaign

This post is one of two posts today in our Gnome Stew Doubleheader. Today’s Doubleheader is about designing campaigns. Check out Patrick Benson’s article: You Do Not Have Time for That [1] after reading this….

When I am not wearing my pointy hat here on Gnome Stew, or behind the screen GMing, I am a Project Manager (stop boo-ing..)

In Project Management there exists something we call the Triple Constraint.  All projects have three constraints that are related:  Scope (what are we going to do?), Schedule (when will we have it done?), and Cost (how much do we have to spend?).  These three constraints are tied to one another, and a change in one effects the other two.  Shorten the schedule, and we either have to reduce the Scope (do less work), or increase the Cost (pay for more people to do the work).

When starting a project,  you can fix two of the three constraints, but you can never fix all three.   The two fixed constraints drive the definition of the third constraint.  For example,  you can define a scope and a schedule, those two determine what the cost will be.  When you try to fix all three constraints, you run the risk of creating an unrealistic project, since you are forcing all three constraints into the values you want, and not necessary what they would naturally be.

The job of the Project Manager is to help initially set the Triple Constraint and then monitor it once the project starts.  When (not if) things start to change, the Project Manager helps to come up with a plan for how to adapt to the changes.

With that crash course in Project Management aside, lets get back to talking about gaming…

So what does that have to do with GMing?  A campaign has its own Triple Constraint, because at it’s heart a campaign is a type of project; making the GM the Project Manager.  The meaning of the constraints are a bit different, but there are three of them, and the are related.  A GM needs to be aware of these constraints, when they first set up a new campaign so that they are creating a campaign that is going to be manageable to run.  The GM also needs to be aware of of the Triple Constraint during the running of the campaign, to be aware of how changes will effect how the campaign is being run.

The Campaign Triple Constraint

The three constraints that for a campaign are:  Scope, Budget, and Schedule.  Lets talk about each constraint in terms of running a campaign.

Scope– What are you playing?

The scope of your campaign is defining what campaign you are planning to run.  The most common questions that come up in determining your scope are:

For example: I am planning on running a new campaign.  After some discussion with my players, we settle on running Witchcraft, by Eden Studios.  Its going to be an episodic style game; no big sweeping epic story arcs, just some simple 3-4 session arcs.  There will be 4 players in the game, 3 physically here, and one playing via Skype.  We will be using the Core Rules, and the Mystery Codex for starters, but we will expand to the other books over time.

Budget– Having the time and money to run this campaign.

The Budget constraint has two parts: material expenses and labor costs.  By material expenses, we are talking about actually purchasing the materials needed for the game.  How much money you have to spend on a new game, may determine, part of the Scope, by what supplements you will and won’t start the game with.

In our current economic times, it may not be in your best interest to lay out $100 for a core system and all its published supplements.  You may want to limit the initial game to just the Core Rules, and bring in supplements later.  Another way to help keep those costs down is to shop for PDF versions of your game book.  Personally, I like my Core Books in print, and the supplements in PDF.

When we talk about labor costs we are talking about how much time do you, as the GM, need in order to prep and run the game.  Knowing your scope, gives you some idea of how much time it will take to run the campaign.  Knowing how much time it takes you to create your session notes, for each session is also an important consideration.  Are you a GM that has few notes and runs their game by improvisation, or are you a GM that requires detailed notes, and complex maps?  Knowing this about yourself will help you determine if you have enough time to run this campaign.

For example: A good friend of mine was starting up a D&D 4e game.  He had some concerns about having enough time to do his session prep.  After some thought, he decided on running published adventures, rather than writing everything from scratch.  By doing this he kept the labor side of his budget low, but increased his expenses, since he has to purchase his adventures.

Schedule– When are we playing and when I am I doing Prep?

Having free time to work on a game is one thing, it is an entirely different issue to see if you have enough blocks of time, in your weekly schedule,  to get your prep done before each session.  The other thing to take in consideration is when will you be running your game and how frequently can you run the game.

In order to be productive on any task you need blocks of time when you a free from distractions, and can sit and be creative.  Finding these blocks of time in your weekly schedule is important in understanding how much work you really can get done in a week.  If you are working full time, and married, and have children, those blocks can be very tricky to find.  From your Budget you know about how many hours it takes to prep your game, now look at the blocks of time you have during the week.  Can you get all your prep done in one week?

If you can, then running a weekly game should be no problem.  If you need more hours than you have blocks of time in a week, then you may need to go to a bi-weekly or tri-weekly schedule.

For Example: I like to write my own material for my campaigns. Lucky for me, because in the case of Witchcraft, there are not too many published adventures.  So I am going to need to be able to brainstorm and write my adventures before each session.  My weekly schedule is pretty daunting, with work, family, Gnomes, and my GMing consulting.  Knowing this, its far better for me to run my game in a tri-weekly rotation.

Staring A New Campaign

As you start the planning for a new campaign, take a few minutes to think about the Triple Constraint.  What is your Scope for this game: Are you going to be running it for a small group, a large group?  Is it going to be published material, or will you be writing your own adventures.  Then think about Budget:  Do you have all the books you will need for the game?  How much will you need to buy?  Do you have the time to do the prep for the Scope you have defined.   Finally, think about Schedule:  Do I have the time in my day-to-day schedule to get my game organized?  At what frequency should I be running this game?

Remember, that a good project defines two of the constraints, and lets the third one be defined by the other two.  So decide which of the Constraints is the most important, or which is the most constrained.  If you have ample personal time, then Scope will be the most important Constraint to define, then perhaps Budget.   If your time each week is very limited, then you might want to define your Schedule and Budget.  Decide when and how frequently you want to run the game, then determine how much time in a week you can devote to prep.  With your schedule and budget figured out, you can then determine your Scope.

You should document the Triple Constraint for your campaign.  In the Project Management world, defining the Triple Constraint results in a large number of documents being generated.  For the sake of simplicity, you should be able to do this for your campaign, on a single sheet of paper.  Once you have it defined, you should talk about it with the rest of your group, so that your players are aware of the Scope of the game, as well as its frequency, etc.

While Your Campaign Is Running

Regardless if you have have formally defined you Triple Constraint for your Campaign, while you are running the game, changes will creep there way in.  Some of the things that could possibly happen include:

When these changes occur, it is important to note that your Triple Constraint is being altered.  Remember when one part of the Triple Constraint changes, the other constraints are affected.

Getting a new job may mean that your budget of time you have each week is about to be shortened.  That means either your Scope or your Schedule has to change.  You could change your Scope by switching from written to published adventures, or you could decide to drop some of your plotlines.  Or your could change your Schedule, and switch from a weekly to a bi-weekly and keep your current Scope.

The worst thing you could do for your campaign, and your gaming group, is to ignore the fact that a change to one of the Triple Constraint, affects the other two.  So be aware of when changes occur. Then evaluate what has been affected, decide on what changes you could make, and then discuss it with your group.

Using the Triple Constraint

The Triple Constraint is a great tool for making your your campaign is a realistic endeavor.  When properly defined, it defines a game that is manageable to run, and fits within your lifestyle.  By understanding the relationship between Scope, Budget, and Schedule, you can adapt your campaign to the various changes that will occur along the way, keeping it manageable, and keeping your stress low, and your enjoyment high.

10 Comments (Open | Close)

10 Comments To "Doubleheader: The Triple Constraint of A Campaign"

#1 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On January 28, 2009 @ 7:18 am

Thanks for pointing out how these three elements are linked. In my own campaign a couple years back, I failed to see how a major change in one affected the others, and the campaign suffered as a result.

Another way I’ve seen it is: “Good, Fast, Cheap – Pick Two.”

#2 Comment By wampuscat43 On January 28, 2009 @ 9:41 am

Slightly off-topic, but I’m curious (as a project manager myself) – do you find your profession affecting your desire to run the games, as opposed to being a player? I take breaks two or three times a year, letting one of my players run something or simply switching to boardgames/cards, etc. After about three weeks, I get really antsy to take over again. It’s not so much that I’ve got all this great new material, or have a tremendous desire to add the stress of running again, it’s seems to be more of a control issue (“this is going nowhere – we have to get back on track and do it right!”).

Do you ever feel this way?

#3 Comment By DNAphil On January 28, 2009 @ 9:51 am

[2] – I would say that as a PM the biggest effect it has on me being a GM is that I look at all my campaigns as projects, and my players as members of the project team. I will often look at my campaign and lay out my story arcs as tasks in the campaign. Which gets me in trouble, when I think I am “behind schedule” and I start looking at what corrective action I want to take.

As for GMing and Playing, in our group, we have three ongoing campaigns in a Tri-Weekly rotation. So I have been GMing for years, while being able to be a player in two other games at the same time. As a player I have to suppress my urge to seize control in every game, as the natural organizer an PM. I try really hard not to be party leader in most of the game I play.

#4 Comment By wampuscat43 On January 28, 2009 @ 10:03 am

Oh yeah, I do something similar. Every player has a side job – One tracks the XP and loot, one is in charge of NPCs, one keeps me straight on the rules, another handles the tokens for conditions, and one is the initiative tracker. And I worry that one has more work to do than the other.

Still, at least I’m willing to delegate…

#5 Comment By John Arcadian On January 28, 2009 @ 10:54 am

I know that I’ve only had to fulfill the project manager role in regards to side-projects of mine, and never in a way that I have to do good enough to earn money, but I can definitely see how this intertwines with GMing. Scope, Budget and Schedule are a great way to look at the structure of a game, especially if you want to do elaborate and impressive things from the GM’s side. I think I’ll have to implement this in planning my next convention games.

By the way, great article!

#6 Comment By Scott Martin On January 28, 2009 @ 1:42 pm

This isn’t the way I normally think about gaming tasks, so I really appreciate the new point of view. So far, budget has almost always looked like it was time constrained, but I appreciated the way you pointed out that paying for supplements (etc.) can help offset that. Of course, many supplements just increase the time spent (like player options)– remembering that they suck time as well as the player’s cash is important.

#7 Comment By Patrick Benson On January 28, 2009 @ 3:39 pm

BTW – I’ve hired Phil via his GM4Hire project to be a project manager on a game that I am designing. I’ve worked with many project managers in the past for my job, and good ones are hard to find. Phil is one of the good ones. No gnome nonsense here – he knows how to quantify and evaluate a project and create deliverable results from it.

And as a GM this article is great advice. 🙂

#8 Comment By coolcyclone2000 On January 28, 2009 @ 7:12 pm

Very Nice and Appropriate Post! Something all GMs should always keep in mind.

#9 Comment By Yax – DungeonMastering.com On January 29, 2009 @ 12:42 pm

This puts into words a concept that I’ve always understood but could never quite explain this clearly.


#10 Comment By theEmrys On January 30, 2009 @ 8:16 am

Very interesting. I’m a PM myself and don’t think I ever really sat back and realized how much of that I’ve been applying to my GMing. Now, I’ve been GMing much longer than I’ve been a PM but I can see how each has influenced the other over time… very interesting.