Dungeons & Dragons and the Dream of the Grand Campaign

The original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide included an instruction that seemed pointless to most readers, even though Gary Gygax shouted it in caps. In AD&D, he explained, “YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT.” DMs needed to work with players to record every character’s use of campaign time.

Few dungeon masters bothered with such bookkeeping. The 2nd edition explains the reason. “Time passed in previous adventures has little of no effect on the current session. Next game session, the DM announces, ‘A week or so has passed since you last went out.’ An entire campaign can be played this way.”

When I first read Gygax’s declaration, no one I knew tracked campaign time. Still, thanks to the The Arduin Grimoire, I aspired run a campaign that marked time. In a trilogy of little, brown books, Dave Hargrave explored his Arduin campaign’s lore and house rules. See Once subversive, the Arduin Grimoire’s influence reaches today’s games. For me, the most inspiring passage revealed the scope Dave’s game.

“The Arduinian Campaign has been running about as long as D&D and related role-playing games have existed. Game time has been more than 11 years (of 453 days each). Over 480 player characters have been permanently killed in that time, and many more have had to retire due to wounds or afflictions acquired in campaigning. On the other hand, two characters have become Dukes of the realm and half a dozen are Barons (three landed and collecting taxes. raising troops, etc.). One even managed to woo the youngest daughter of the king and just this ‘end year’ all Arduin celebrated their nuptials. So, even though it is a hard and dangerous world, the rewards are usually more than a bold player can ever expect.”

Unlike Arduin, my campaign featured a mere series of adventures for a single party. To most gamers now, that’s a campaign. But Hargrave, Gygax, and D&D co-creator Dave Arneson ran grand campaigns on a scale I dreamed to achieve. Someday, maybe.

When Arneson and Gygax made the original game, they ran campaigns for player communities who floated in and out of frequent game sessions. The original rules suggested one DM and “from four to fifty players” in a single, fantastical campaign. “The referee to player ratio should be about 1:20.” Gygax’s Greyhawk campaign hosted weekend sessions for up to 20 players, but most parties included fewer players. During the week, Gygax let players drop in for spontaneous sessions. Often, he ran D&D for a single player.

The megadungeons under Castle Greyhawk and Blackmoor helped make those campaigns work. Every game session mounted a new expedition into the dungeon, so the particular cast of characters never mattered. See When megadungeons ruled Dungeons & Dragons.

Once character’s left the dungeon, they needed to heal at a rate of just one hit point per day. “The stricture of time is what makes recovery of hit points meaningful.” Recovery aside, characters involved themselves in projects like castle building, magical studies, and training. “All of these demands upon game time will force choices upon player characters, and likewise number their days of game life.” Campaign strategy involved spending your characters’ time.

Much of this resembles modern D&D’s downtime system, but with the time spent matched to days on the campaign calendar. A character could not leave for a month of training, and also join tomorrow’s dungeon crawl. The campaign calendar forced regular players to keep a variety of characters. TSR’s first employee, Tim Kask, explains, “If my currently-favorite Fighting Man was laid up recuperating, but word had just come at the tavern that a new menace was in the offing with a promise of loot, I played my next-best-for-the-situation character.”

Time in these campaigns advanced in step with real-world time, keeping all the campaigners on the same schedule. “The recommend time period for individual adventure campaigns is roughly on a one to four basis, with one real week equal to one Game Month.”

Arneson and Gygax’s players mostly stuck to dungeon and wilderness adventures, but other early games imply a bigger canvas. The scope of what players achieved in Dave Hargrave’s Arduin campaign awed me.

In the ideal grand campaign, a bunch of individuals and groups don’t just play in parallel—their actions affect all the other players. Groups change over time. As parties form and reform, characters share information. Rumors from the local inn tell the news of the day. Some players develop rivalries. For instance, Ernie Gygax and Rob Kuntz raced to be the first to retrieve the Magic User’s Crown from under Castle Greyhawk. Sometimes players unite against common threats.

To describe Arduin, Hargrave seemed to channel Stan Lee. “The Arduinian multiverse has been rocked to its very cosmic core by revolutions, wars, assassinations, royal marriages, and the nearly complete and utter entropic destruction of the entirety of it all in one cataclysmic confrontation between utter evil and everyone/thing else that wanted to survive!”

Actually, Stan Lee may inspire more than just Hargrave’s bombast. Much of the secret sauce that made Marvel comics so successful was that events could ripple between comic book titles. In the corner of panels, little notes from the editor revealed the connections. In the early days, Lee would even coordinate each hero’s schedule between books. By those early standards, if Captain America traveled to Europe, he couldn’t spend the same month with Iron Man in New York.

The title “grand campaign” comes from the first page of Chivalry & Sorcery (1978), a game that aimed to beat D&D by supporting a grand style. Designers Ed Simbalist and Wilf Backhaus wrote that C&S emerged when “a degree of dissatisfaction emerged over the limited goals that were available to our [D&D] characters. The solution was to develop an all encompassing campaign game in which dungeons and wilderness adventures were just a small part of the action.”

In 1978, C&S boasted the “most complete rules ever published.” The game covered everything from mass combat, to tournaments, to courtly love—everything that fit in 128 pages of 6-point text.

In the grand campaigns suggested by C&S and Arduin, every player controlled a cadre of characters, including dungeon crawlers, but perhaps also nobles, traders, courtiers on so on. All gain space to follow their goals, and some will reach them. In response to all their actions, the campaign world changes and develops.

In my post on C&S, I had some fun at the game’s expense. Unlike D&D, where players join in parties to adventure, C&S and the grand campaign offers fewer reasons to gather at a table and play together. This limits the style’s practical appeal.

But the biggest limit to the grand campaign comes from the DM’s time. DMs hosting grand campaigns must run a few group sessions a week, plus 1-on-1 sessions for the exploits of nobles, soldiers, and thieves. Then add time for preparation. Who needs sleep?

I do. I have regular games to play and another post to write. Still, the dream of the grand campaign feels as compelling as ever.

18 thoughts on “Dungeons & Dragons and the Dream of the Grand Campaign

  1. Michael "Chgowiz"

    I have been running a campaign for almost 10 years now. I’ve had close to 100 characters between all of the players that were regulars. I’ve had about same in convention games/event games. I have two campaigns – one tabletop, one online-play-by-post. I also host wargames in my world, I have two ongoing battles.

    We run monthly (due to schedules) for tabletop, and the online posts about 1x day/every other day.

    I would say that my total prep time/accounting time is roughly 2 to 3 hours a week. Maybe 4 to 6 when I’ve got a wargame session that week.

    Now when I get creative bursts or open a new area that I haven’t detailed out, then I spend time. But because I run with “broad brush strokes” at the beginning and do just-in-time details, usually before game day, this allows me to manage the scope and prep effort.

    I didn’t plan on this at the very beginning, but early on, I wanted to allow the world to grow and be open-ended, rather than have a story arc. So from about year 2 to 3, this was an intentional plan – to have a living, breathing world where multiple things could happen.

    You can do this! It takes intention first – because your future prep and thoughts will be towards that. It does take some discipline and tracking, but you can do that too. It doesn’t take hours and hours, although it does take organization and intent so that your efforts are guided towards that goal.

    You can do it!

      1. Michael "Chgowiz"

        The only time I did a retcon was situational, and that was after a campaign hiatus and restart – I retconned a bit of how the campaign flowed and the NPCs attitudes.

        Aside from that, no, I’ve built on top and remained pretty consistent! It helps having the wiki and history available.

  2. Kaihaku (@KingKaihaku)

    Thanks for the article. It was a fun read. I’ve never participated in a “pure” grand campaign but I’ve been in a few that came close.

    Chaos War: This was a play by post campaign that ran for about seven years with four primary groups. There was a core of about 10 to 12 active players with another 10 to 12 who were inactive. I had eight player characters over the course of the campaign, four of whom made it to the end. The Dungeon Master’s focus was on warfare, so each group was a separate military campaign that influenced the state of the world and what the other campaigns experienced. Most of the dungeon crawling elements were only seen in “sidequests”. So, for instance, during downtime some characters might team up to visit a shrine or explore a rumor. The problem with the game was the Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 was ill suited for a campaign featuring that many player characters…even play by post just tracking buffs required a spreadsheet. Also, many of the active players had characters in each group. Sadly, the game fizzled out by the end with only a handful of active players and had an anticlimactic ending due to that. I was one who went inactive in the third quarter but returned for the finale. But, credit to the Dungeon Master, he did finish it.

    Broken Covenant: This is a campaign that I’ve run twice now. It’s focused on raiding the ruins of a continent wide ancient city. Each player had three characters who were members of an adventurer’s guild and visiting players could roll up a fresh character as well. I kept a calendar that included recuperation and travel time, so certain characters would be unavailable while they were returning from an sitting. This wasn’t quite a Grand campaign because, in the end, it was all the same players…just different groups of characters…but their actions did have an impact. I love the reaction of players to realizing that their other characters caused something to happen that their current characters were dealing with but had no idea why.

    I’ve been tempted to try running two groups for my upcoming Starfinder campaign but it’s quite a commitment. I’m more likely to run one group through Starfinder consistently and have another occasional Pathfinder group. But this article has me reconsidering… I love exploring player cause and effect.

  3. Ilbranteloth

    This is similar to how I run my campaigns as well, when I can. I don’t stick to the “real time = game time” clock, but otherwise the idea is to allow players to come and go as needed. I will say I’m still considering that approach, simply because I’m looking for a better way to extend the time of the campaign. Basing it on recovery, though, isn’t likely to work (and never really did for us back then) with the availability of several clerics and paladins in the larger group.

    Right now one group has three different arcs in play and all three are related by the events going on in the world. Which group of characters is played at a given session is dependent on who can make that session, and all of them are available if they aren’t tied up in another part of the campaign, so new arcs are starting fairly frequently.

    I’m probably going to start a second night shortly because we have more people who want to join, and I’m still toying with a third night at a local store. But the reality is that you don’t even need to do more than a single night. By setting up the campaign this way (everybody has at least 3 characters, they all come from the same village, and most of the activity is happening around there for now), it allows us to jump into what ever story arc (or start a new one) with characters for the players that are there. We don’t have to worry about what to do with the PC for the player that couldn’t make it that night. Sessions have been anywhere from 3 to 8 players.

    The biggest advantage (and reason I shifted back) to this approach is that the campaign never ends. If some people can’t make it anymore for whatever reason, then it’s no problem. If you’re playing a more linear story, an AP, or something like that, and a few people drop out, then it often grinds to a halt and you’re looking for new players. I recently ran a campaign for a group that preferred a more DM-generated narrative and a bit more epic in scope. Due to some personal issues with some of the players (whose characters were integral to the epic nature of the story, like the rest of them), the campaign just petered out near the end of a 2-1/2 year campaign.

    I find that I need far less prep with this type of campaign, although ironically I often do much more simply because there is so much going on with the multiple groups. It really sparks the creative juices and I have to react to what’s going on in multiple arcs that might both interrelate to the same scheme, dungeon, or whatever.

    The “problem” is that I’m finding that people are so drawn into the campaign that the second night might get filled by the first group that wants to play more. Which still doesn’t allow the additional players.

    I definitely recommend the “Grand Campaign” approach!

  4. Rick Stump

    My main campaign, Seaward, is 38 years old this year. The current players are running 24 PCs (and 32 henchmen and 40 hirelings!) in something I call ‘jazz band adventuring’. With every player running multiple PCs and multiple adventures going on concurrently yes – strict time keeping is essential! I keep close track of encumbrance, food, healing, etc. AND maintain “realistic” travel times and keep track of the weather so a party that has to, say, travel to the County of Banath to kill a witch may very well mean 5 PCs and 10 NPCs unavailable for 3 months and 5 adventures. In a pinch a player might have to run a henchman.
    The Grand Campaign idea has led to player-founded magic guilds, Free Companies, and even a burgeoning university.
    I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve written about some of this; feel free to edit out links as you wish.


  5. Dan

    The natural healing rules in D&D are brought up here, but I have to ask – do they actually become relevant in very many campaigns? Every game I’ve played in or run, there has been at least one PC with access to healing magic, so in between adventures he or she would just memorize as many healing spells as possible and rapidly bring the whole party to full or nearly-full hit points – say, within a few days, as opposed to the weeks that natural healing might require.

  6. simontmn

    My Wilderlands campaign has developed into a Grand Campaign over the last 8 years, I currently have 2 or 3 online adventurer groups and 2 tabletop adventurer groups active, 1 being overseen by a co-GM. These days I use 5e D&D with Long Rests taking 1 week in order to get time moving forward, and roughly match the progression of real & game time.

    I don’t find prep time an issue at all*; I mostly use Dyson’s Delves, Stonehell, and other minimalist OSR materials for dungeons/adventure settings. Dynamic plots arise organically from play, eg the campaign recently concluded a 6 year arc – the struggle against the Black Sun Necromancer Borritt Crowfinger – begun long ago by different players.

    *Prepping a Paizo AP is FAR FAR more arduous than this kind of sandboxing IME.

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  10. Dave Dalrymple

    As a teen in the 90s, the Grand Campaign, which consisted of both High Adventure and significant periods of downtime or personal time, was always the aspiration. The people I played with were invested in their characters, and wanted to explore their daily lives as well as their adventures. In those days, we never tried to run the kind of Single Epic Adventures that spanned a whole campaign, like you get in 5e’s hardcover books. We focused on smaller adventures that could be completed in one or two sessions; those were more appropriate for low-level characters.

  11. Romidar

    I keep a strict campaign calendar that I update after each session (viewable to the players). In addition to keeping track of player actions, it lets me track what is going on in the world separate from the players (politics between kingdoms, progress of the BBEG, etc.).

    I also feel like knowing the season, the phase of the moon, upcoming feasts and holidays, etc. makes the world seem a little more alive. (I also have things like the solstices have in-game impacts). (I use a real world calendar but of course it is quickly out of sync; in-game the date is June 14 of the year 971 currently. :))

    I like to give my players choices while letting them know that they have impact – going to go deal with the orcs in the northeast mountains means they aren’t dealing with the goblin raids in the east (or vice versa). They also can send messages and packages and I can estimate when they will arrive and when they might get a response. They can order armor made and the shopkeeper can give a date when it’ll be ready for a fitting. (Currently the players are due to return to a green dragon who demanded they bring tribute every week – knowing when that week elapses keeps a ticking clock.)

    It takes extra effort, but I feel like it pays dividends. Online tools have made it much easier than it was in the old days.

  12. Christopher Gandy

    Interestingly, the intermingling and conflating of the terms “Game, campaign, adventure and session” have been something that I think causes confusion and sometimes a different outlook on how RPGs are approached and the goals and scope of a world/setting the DM (and/or players) choose to use. But adding the “Grand Campaign” descriptor actually brings home to me my first and continuing goal as a DM – the world that goes ever on, includes MANY characters that interact, and events that have interrelationships that any one PC may never even see, but some other character will. The concept of buying a hardbound book that railroads a set of 4-7 characters through a forced and finite story which will end the “campaign” hurts my heart. Give me the unfettered freedom of any character going anywhere at any time, as the world lives, breathes and evolves around them.

    My “campaign notes” have actually always been written on old calendars (so my world has 12 months of differing days, etc.) and when one character or party heads off on their own, I know when and where they could POSSIBLY run into other characters, etc. To me, this is bliss.

    Thanks for the article and the memories of how it started (and probably still should be) 🙂

  13. Sable

    I wonder how the evolution of this can now evolve with the advent of online gaming, YouTube gaming culture, and things like Patreon. Could being a Grand Campaign mastermine be a gig supported by the community?

    And – and as much as TTRPGers like to scoff at them – what can we learn from the LARP communities and their attempts at running Grand Campaigns of their own?

    1. GavinRuneblade

      In my experience, it is definitely easier thanks to the online evolution. I cannot speak to the LARP influence but I’m very interested in hearing from people who have more experience with LARPing.

      Styles of complex living campaigns like Westmarches certainly have become easier with online play, they resolve the final challenge that was mentioned in the article where the DM doesn’t have enough time to run so many sessions per week. In Westmarches games people take turns running sessions and everyone is a player and (almost) everyone is a DM, you just play with whomever shows up that day. This is really easy with online tools to track events and do the documentation so everyone can read it easily before they show up to play next.

      Worldanvil, campfire, obsidian portal, etc are super helpful here, especially with their visual tools for timelines and NPC/PC relationship maps. For myself, I love Fantasy Grounds. With the ne player advocacy tools, and the super powerful campaign calendar, tracking what happened when, and linking it to images, maps with pins that players can interact with, etc. really just makes long and complex campaigns so much easier than it was only with pen and paper.

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