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Whose Campaign Is It, Anyway?

Posted By Martin Ralya On October 13, 2009 @ 1:48 am In GMing Advice | 25 Comments

When I was writing “My Players” and “Your Players,” Not “The Players,” this question was also kicking around in the back of my head, and it seemed like it was meaty enough for its own article:

Whose campaign is it, anyway?

In other words: When you run a game, is it your campaign?

In terms of how you refer to it in conversation, I’d wager that — like every GM I’ve ever met — you refer to it as “my campaign” or “the [something] campaign,” and when you’re a player talking to your GM, as “your campaign.” That’s what I do, and it’s convenient: that way, you can’t mistake which game you’re referring to.

But on a deeper level, how do you think of the games you run? As “yours,” “ours,” “theirs” — or another way entirely?

On the one hand, GMing is more work than playing, so it might be fair to think of a campaign as being yours. But on the other hand, without your players, and the shared stories you tell around the gaming table, your campaign wouldn’t exist.

For my part, I’d have to say that while I think of campaigns as “mine,” the ones that have gone best have been the ones where I focused most on my players — in other words, the ones that have, in a way, been the least “mine.” But I’ve never given that much thought before — and looking back, I wish I had.

As I think about it now, all of the worst games I’ve run were focused more on my interests, or on something I had in mind that would be cool, rather than my players’ interests, and what they might think was cool. And it can be an easy trap to fall into — especially if you don’t know that it’s a trap at all.

So how about it: Is this just more musing about semantics, or have you noticed a similar difference between campaigns you conceptualize as “ours” rather than “mine” — whether consciously or unconsciously?

About  Martin Ralya

A father, husband, writer, small-press publisher, former RPG industry freelancer, and lifelong geek, Martin has been gaming since 1987 and GMing since 1989. He lives in Utah with his amazing wife Alysia and their awesome daughter Lark in a house full of books and games.




25 Comments (Open | Close)

25 Comments To "Whose Campaign Is It, Anyway?"

#1 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On October 13, 2009 @ 2:00 am

My typical thought was “mine” but after my last campaign where the players and I produced the world using the Dawn of Worlds rules, it was very much an “our” affair.

#2 Comment By DNAphil On October 13, 2009 @ 6:19 am

Similar to Matt, my best campaigns have been ones where the interaction between the players and I have been the highest.

For me, as a GM, I see the campaign as the interaction of the players with the story. The “my” part of the equation is to come up with material that my players can take, interact, and expand. The players part is to take the material out there, and use it creatively, and make it their own.

A GM without players is a writer. I can create great stories arcs, NPC’s and such, but without the players, I am not GMing, I am writing. It is only when I react to what my players are doing, and mold the story elements to their actions, am I actually a GM.

So who’s campaign is it? It may be my story, but its our campaign.

#3 Comment By BladeMaster0182 On October 13, 2009 @ 8:52 am

When I talk to people outside of game about it, I refer to it as “my campaign,” mostly because it is the only possessive pronoun that makes sense. I do the same thing for games I play in. However when I talk about the campaign to my players I refer it as “our campaign,” (like Matt does.) I do this from the get go to promote a collaborative atmosphere because honestly it is OUR campaign. I write the story, they make it progress.

#4 Comment By TwoShedsJackson On October 13, 2009 @ 9:05 am

It’s sort of like when a father says “My house, my rules” and the child says “It may be your HOUSE, but it is HOME for both of us, and we should both have a say in how we live together.” Well, I had that conversation with my father, anyway.

#5 Comment By LesInk On October 13, 2009 @ 10:26 am

Whenever I’ve started a campaign, I tend to be the one with the genesis point — the single theme or idea that makes this campaign different from any of the other campaigns. It really puts the “my” stamp on it pretty heavily.

However, it is fair to say the players help to breathe life into the world. Without their interactions, it would just be a setting. With their help, its an adventure.

#6 Comment By Zig On October 13, 2009 @ 10:37 am

I tend to refer to games I run as my campaign/game in the sense that I’ve done most of the work in putting the game world together.

However, when running a game the world becomes more of an “our” thing. I try to come up with adventure ideas to hook the PCs on and attempt to figure out how encounters will go. My players are always surprising me so they are very much an integral part of the creativity.

Also, at times where I have started out a game in a new world — “you find yourselves at the Tavern in the village of Mead River” — I tend to leave a lot of the world unfinished. As my players get into their characters they will start asking things about the world or come up with things about it just by sharing their evolving sense of character. I try to keep the players’ suggestions, ideas and backgrounds to make a world they are more likely to enjoy being part of.

#7 Comment By LordVreeg On October 13, 2009 @ 10:59 am

My Setting, My campaign, Our Game.

And every game is different, it is just the workload differential you mention that determines this. And if it were merely the adventure creation that was causing that differential, I could say, “That’s my Job as GM”, so it would be more equal.

in my particular case, however, it’s a very old Setting, and the PC’s have full access tot he wiki…if they want to contribute more, they can.

Right now, My Setting, My Campaign, Our Game.

#8 Comment By Scott Martin On October 13, 2009 @ 12:12 pm

I do tend to use “my game” when speaking to other groups and non-involved people, but “our game” when speaking with the players of the game. I consciously tried “our game” when speaking to non-affiliated people, and it works… but it’s hard to fight ingrained habit.

#9 Comment By Zig On October 13, 2009 @ 12:33 pm

@LordVreeg – I like the idea of using a wiki for a campaign and open parts of it up to the PCs. Giving them a chance to influence the world beyond the effects their actions have in-game. I probably have a few players who would have fun writing up somethings about the world their characters inhabit.

#10 Comment By Swordgleam On October 13, 2009 @ 1:04 pm

Since we all play in each others’ games, saying “our game” would only confuse everyone. It’s my game if I’m running it, as opposed to your game if you’re running it. “Our game” could mean either one.

When I think of the game, it’s inextricably bound with who’s playing and who their characters are. I think of my current game differently now that the group has changed. It’s not “the Rex-Xephyrus-Key-Syphus-Other Candle game,” in my thoughts, it’s the “??-Key-Nathan-Other Candle game.”

The only part of this game that’s really mine is, “I want to run a dark game.” As soon as the characters showed up, it became all about them, and I’m just along for the ride. I like it that way – overarching plots are too much work.

#11 Comment By Tyson J. Hayes On October 13, 2009 @ 1:16 pm

@LordVreeg – I’m with @Zig on the wiki idea. How does that work for you, do you just put all the campaign notes into the wiki as well as npc ideas and contacts that they have made?

How do your players contribute? Do they flesh out areas that just their characters been or do they try to add on ideas on top of what you’ve already created?

#12 Comment By shinma On October 13, 2009 @ 1:45 pm

You’re essentially bringing up the point Ron Edwards wrote an essay about that he labeled ‘The Great Impossible thing Before Breakfast’. Essentially its the dilemma where the storyteller (narrator, gm, judicator etc.) writes the world, but the main characters in that world are outside his control. This leads into the discussion of storytelling styles and how the resolution of these styles answers the above question.

M. Joseph Young wrote a great essay (http://ptgptb.org/0027/theory101-02.html) attempting to answer the possible avenues of resolving this paradox and I believe this perception of game and players and world sharing is also intrinsically enmeshed with the point you’re bringing up here.

I think it would be interesting to write an article or correlate your GMing style to how you think of it. I tend to think of (quoty fingers) “my game” as ‘the game I’m running’. But then I’m a bass player style GM at heart ^_~.

#13 Comment By DarknessLord On October 13, 2009 @ 3:12 pm

I actually refer to the campaign I run by it’s name (IE No, I can’t do Saturday Cliffhangers might be meeting that day [which shows how great at organizing people I am]), however that may just be because I lucked into a name (my players like to push people off cliffs), and in general, my group calls it ‘s Campaign with the Cliffhangers being an exception.

But I like the name, it gives a group possessive without the confusion “our” can bring about.

#14 Comment By Airk On October 13, 2009 @ 3:13 pm

My situation is a liiittle special since I also wrote the system, so it pretty much _is_ “my game”. That said, it’s still the only way that _works_ as a descriptor, because when you have a relatively closed gaming group the way I do, often with several games running at once, you really need some way to easily identify the game. While sometimes just identifying it by system (“The Vampire game”) more often than not you find that “‘s game” is much easier than “The D20 game with the Elladrin that always argue, no, no the other one! Without the dwarf!”

#15 Comment By Martin Ralya On October 13, 2009 @ 9:06 pm

@DNAphil – I really like this take on things, Phil. Why not treat different aspects of the campaign differently? Viewing the nuts and bolts as yours and the magic as everyone’s is a great perspective.

@LesInk – Very good point! I too tend to have a strong hook when I try to get my players to buy into a game; ditto for the other GMs in my group. As a starting point, that definitely speaks to ownership.

@LordVreeg – I also like this take on things quite a bit — three parts makes sense, and I can map your perspective to my own experiences well. Good call!

@shinma – It’s been ages since I read that article, but I remember finding it interesting. Looking back over it now (link for the curious) I’m reminded that it doesn’t map terribly well to my own experiences, though I do like thinking about the core concept.

If I had to pigeonhole myself as GM using those four game types, my approach would be a mix of trailblazing and bass playing — though again, I think it’s an imperfect model.

#16 Comment By Lunatyk On October 14, 2009 @ 12:11 am

I always think of a campaign as group work… and I tell the players that I’m having as much fun running this game because of them as they have because of me running it…

and when referring to games, I learned not to say “my game” instead I either use the name of the campaign or just say “in a campaign I ran”…

#17 Comment By Zenith034 On October 14, 2009 @ 9:44 am

I suppose this is a trap I’ve fallen into before… but I think my main issue is that I can never get the feedback I’m looking for from my players. I want to do what they want, but they never give any hints or tell me what it is that they want…

#18 Comment By LordVreeg On October 14, 2009 @ 10:39 am

Tyson, Zig, and Martin,

Sorry, ran online game last tnight and had consults all morning today.

Currently, there are 11 players able to edit the Celtricia wiki. One of the nice things about the wiki format is you can set things up to be approved and every change by a player at least goes by my desk.

Some of them help heavily with rule organizing, or pushing me to complete certain parts of the rule or setting. Brian, the PC who plays Varconavitch, recently rewrote part of the frontpage prose since it dealt with one of his older characters.
Players also sometimes go through periods of great productivity, or adding notes into the play groups areas.

Now, let me tell you the big issue. Though you can lock certain pages (and I do), both in terms of viewing and in terms of editing, you have to trust the players not to metagame.
http://celtricia.pbworks.com/Venolvian-Empire
this page is a historical page, and the information herein is known in completeness by only a few, and by no player. So I have to deal with this, though the Players so far have not caused any issues here.

#19 Comment By Zig On October 14, 2009 @ 10:50 am

@LordVreeg – Thanks for all the information. Much appreciated!

#20 Comment By Tyson J. Hayes On October 14, 2009 @ 11:30 am

@LordVreeg – Hey I’m just happy you replied. :D

Thanks for the information, I think I may use this for my next campaign. I think even using a pre-built world my players and I add enough to warrant a wiki or something to keep our adventure log and campagin notes in.

Thanks for the idea.

#21 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On October 14, 2009 @ 12:43 pm

It’s just starting up, so it’s definitely my campaign and my setting right now. ;)

Seriously, I think the actual words matter only when they matter.

In other words, if I refer to ‘my campaign’ in order to differentiate it from the campaign I play in, then it doesn’t matter.

But if I tell my players to take their hippie-gamer narrative hands off my campaign, then it matters.

#22 Comment By Tyson J. Hayes On October 14, 2009 @ 12:51 pm

@Kurt “Telas” Schneider – Well you should always tell hippies to get their hands off your campagin. They’re dirty and it’s only right and proper. ;)

On a more serious note you make a fairly good point, if your super possessive of the game then it may become a problem. Personally I’ve never had the experience of a DM who was that possessive over the game. Something I’m rather happy with.

#23 Comment By Martin Ralya On October 14, 2009 @ 5:40 pm

Goddamn dirty hippies! ;-)

#24 Comment By HVL On October 15, 2009 @ 9:16 am

One of the things I do while DMing is assign periods of ‘downtime’ into the campaign structure these can be periods of time that (in game world) are years or months that nothing to move ‘my plot’ forward happens in these spaces I ask players to tell me what they’ll be doing. Thus they write parts of the campaign themselves by giving me a new idea to write stuff that coming up so for example, coming up on our next downtime, on of the characters want to go and find a place to train herself in fighting, another is recording a CD album and a third is going to go and see his parents. I’ll take these dieas and run with them, creating a little half our solo scene that can be played out with a break in the middle section so can cut to the others. It really allows the players to build a deeper universe.
Take the fourth player, for example. About a session or so back an NPC ally briefly mentioned who his father was and what he did. I put this in to add depth to the NPC, mainly but the player has decided that the trouble his character is now having might be a little easier if he seeks help from the NPC’s father. So he’s going to seke out the father and ask advice. This forces me to do somthing I’d never considered doing, which is creating the father as a fully rounded NPC rather than a footnote. He might even become a sort of surrogate father to the PC that seeks him out if things work out properly.
I think sometimes a DM prepared to surrender a bit of his own mind to designing what the players actually want to do will find he’s enjoying them adding bits to the world he’s designed. It’s such a rare joy to be suprised when DMing, epsecially when it’s by the world itself.

#25 Pingback By Ravenous Role Playing » Blog Archive » Friday Five: 2009-10-16 On October 16, 2009 @ 4:46 pm

[...] Whose Campaign Is It, Anyway? This post from Martin Ralya briefly touches on the concept of who “owns” the campaign? Is it the players? the group? the GM? I’m of the opinion that it’s the GM’s campaign since he puts in the most work, but it’s something to share and enjoy with other people. If a GM wants a story that no one else can impact, then he should write a book, not run a campaign. [...]


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