For a year now, I’ve been running a real-time, jazz band campaign in my Haven setting, so I thought now might be a good time to sit down and think a little about how it’s gone. To start with, let me explain some of my terms:
“Real-time” means that when we sit down to play on Saturday afternoon, July 21st, the in-character session activity will be beginning on Monday morning, July 21st in Haven. As we play the session, time will pass in-game far more rapidly than out-of-game in general with travel and things going relatively quickly and sometimes spanning many days in-character and puzzles and other obstacles often abstracting an hour if effort to a single roll. Combat is the exception, when hours can pass out-of-character with only a minute or two in-character. I have a forum set up where we do things like loot division and conversations that happen between sessions to save time at the table.
One major consequence of the “real-time” approach is that adventures with significant travel frequently last more than a week in-game or that the adventure, between wounds and travel, leaves the characters involved too exhausted for another adventure the next week. This means the player may need to run a different character week to week. That brings us to the next term.
“Jazz Band” is a term I’ve adopted from Rick Stump. He defines it extremely well in this article, I encourage you to check it out. The short version is that the campaign has a number of characters (usually multiple per player), who form a different party adventure-to-adventure based on which players come and what the adventure is. In the real-time campaign, this also depends on who is still abroad on a mission from a prior week. Given the number of players I anticipated for the Haven campaign and the difficulty of scheduling so many teenagers week to week, this approach seemed prudent. To this end, I set the campaign in a setting where it makes sense for every adventure to begin and end in the same place: Citadel.
With that said, I’m going to outline some of the thoughts I have about this approach so far. I have no intention to stop any time soon, for what that’s worth, though I do hope to improve it.
- The story of a settlement growing over a year so far has been something very different from what I usually tell. I’ve had settlements grow in long running campaigns, but nothing as engaged as this, where they’re involved in almost all of the efforts to advance the small community.
- No matter who shows up week to week, we pick up the story right where we left off.
- Circumstances have led to the unfortunate deaths of a number of characters in ways that would have been highly dissatisfying in a single-party linear campaign. In this, they’re just another player on a broad stage.
- Player choices shape the world over time and they have a real chance to respond to developing threats in real time while doing other things. In a more traditional campaign, these things would just be the next piece of the story.
- I’ve been able to introduce a lot of people to the game, more than I would ever support in a single party campaign.
- I get to play every week. No matter what is going on, if I’m available, we get at least a couple people.
- Astronomical features like sunrise, sunset, moonrise, moonset, and moon phase are easy as pie.
- With the change of seasons in real life, I’m forced to take weather and season into account more than I normally do.
- My options for including intense combats and dungeons are limited by the fact that if anything we don’t finish in a single session requires another trip out to wherever they were (except once when we knew they would all be back and any new arrivals the next week could be reinforcements).
- Since every session has to end back at Citadel (ideally), we rarely have time for dangers on the journey home, which are the kinds of dangers that really test party resource management.
- Some of our adventures are really filler. They don’t advance the story, they don’t expand the settlement’s horizons, they just help time pass until events proceed to their logical next point.
- Sessions have slowly been getting longer. With the need to get home before we can stop, it’s hard to say how long a session will run and it is human nature to fill all available time. At least one player has stopped coming all together as a result of this expansion. We’re hoping to fix this with better planning on the forums.
- It’s a ton of work. Since the world is just there for them to experience and I’m not guiding them along a linear story, I need to have the world fleshed out in all kinds of directions, all while preparing adventures week to week. This is true in any sandbox, but the real time nature of the thing makes me feel bad taking a break. This is something I need to get over and maybe we’ll play a different game or run an unrelated one-shot some weeks in the future. I’m not burning out, but I need to be careful.
I definitely don’t think this style of campaign is for every group. I think this has been successful enough that I will keep running Haven in this format (or something similar) for the foreseeable future, but I certainly won’t be starting a second campaign in this vein. It serves the needs of our large but sporadic group very well, but most groups aren’t like ours. If you do have a large group in mind and unreliable attendance, I highly recommend at least Jazz Band style adventuring. The real time thing might be a bit of a gimmick, but I still think it has a lot of potential.