I know there are many ways to play a tabletop RPG. For some, it's all about combat, or dungeon delves, or living a novel where you travel place to place in search of an ultimate goal. In many ways, that's what new-age gaming is about.
For others, however, once those limitations are lifted they go straight for what I'd call the 'Complete Campaign.' The game where anything goes, where people truly live in the world around them, and expect it to grow with and react to not just who they fight, but what they buy and how they live. This is I think illustrated no better than what happened at my own table last week.
In that GM's last campaign, we never left the dungeon. We went from level 1 to 18 following the same storyline, in the same dungeon, and mostly delving with the same equipment (he worked out a system we could still craft magic items on the go, and we milked that mechanic for all it was worth.) In his second campaign though, the one we're in right now, we had a degree of freedom: we were working for a mercenary company without much direction other than to go on missions and wait for the GM to start the 'main storyline.' We just reached level 2, and had a collective total of 10,000 gp after selling the loot and earning money from our last mission. Last week the table conversation went pretty much like this:
Me: "I know traditionally we should be buying +1 weapons or something, but we have a lot of money here. I'm thinking real estate."
GM: "You already have free lodging in the barracks."
Me: "Or we could make a trade expedition up north to double our money."
GM: "There's no one up north to trade with."
Other Player 1: "Then we'll move to a new city and open our own mercenary company, franchising out the name of our parent company for PR reasons."
Other Player 2: "Can we get a ship and be pirates too?"
And from there, in less than 10 minutes, we'd planned out how we would build offices, run a tavern and inn, our process for hiring future henchmen, our plans for eventually opening our own port and controlling shipping in the northern sea, and how we hoped to expand past mercenaries into a full adventurer's guild (not a party, but a guild) sending out adventurers of our own. Again, this planning session was going on while we were still level 2.
Now I know not every group is like this. Heck, one guy actually left our group because going a session without a combat was just not enough fighting for his taste. But still, I've noticed a trend recently among professionals and fans toward this sort of complete fantasy world package.
I've heard that in the old days, the expansion products were almost exclusively dungeon-related, because that's just the kind of game people seemed to want. In WotC's 3.5 Dungeon Master's Guide II, there were some rules for running a store and training an apprentice, but the assumption was still made that players would want to move past those 'boring' parts, if they ever came up at all, and get back to killing things as quickly as possible. And yet when 4th came around, declaring combat alone the focus of the game and was firmly rejected by much of the fanbase, it seems people began to pattern the game not around what it could do with combat systems, but what it could do beyond the miniatures and combat rounds.
Pathfinder is releasing their new book Ultimate Campaign May 22nd (the hardcover is on preorder,) which from what I understand is a lot of info on this very subject. Kingmaker, their series about how to run your own kingdom, is still a fan favorite, being adapted and readapted for many home campaigns. Adventurer Conqueror King has recently come out to much acclaim, as it's a system designed specifically to help you organically grow from sellsword to monarch in a single, seamless transition. And now on the new WotC-endorsed comic Table Titans, you can read people's stories about their most memorable game moments, with a surprising number of which detailing how surprisingly fun it was when a PC decided to run a farm, or that following the local's love lives was more fun than killing monsters.
This trend isn't exclusive to tabletop RPGs. Computer RPGs have been focusing more and more on this side of things. It's not just things like Skyrim's Hearthfire expansion (which some people thought was horrible, but others didn't think went far enough,) but even Paizo's biggest hook for why their upcoming Pathfinder MMO would be great was the way it would let you own homes, run shops, build communities, etc., and actually change the game world through your actions. Shrowd of the Avatar is looking like another record-breaking Kickstarter campaign, and it's big pull is the same thing: a world you can live in, not just dungeon-delve in. Even Project Eternity made a big deal about your ability to build a personal home and affect the world around you, and had to actually announce that you WOULDN'T be able to get married, as romance options were one of the things fans were clammering for. In fact there are those out there who complain that all modern CRPGs are turning into dating simulators, but at the same time there are those fans who keep demanding games where anything, including complex romances, is possible, claiming it adds a depth of realism and investment that they need to truly be able to get lost in a fantasy world.
I love killing monsters as much as the next man, but even I'll admit that with games like Skyrim and the Fable series, it was the game's limits, rather than its capabilities, that most stood out to me (Fable gave me marriage options with no emotional investment and the ability to own businesses without any control over their operation. Skyrim is a gorgeous game with a living world, but other than buying a house and picking the NPC to inhabit it, there really isn't much you can do to really, truly live in the world except keep on exploring and finding new quests to do.)
Yes there are many reasons to play tabletop RPGs and many different gaming styles, but may I make one argument in favor of the complete campaign? For many of us, isn't this freedom to do whatever we want, limited only by our imaginations, one of the big pulls of tabletop RPGs in the first place? I am in no way saying a good mega-dungeon is an inferior gaming style- in fact, I wish I could do more of them. Rather, I'm just making the observation that both GMs and Players might find it worthwhile to give this a try and invest in the game world beyond where the next encounter will be found. After all, few things raises the emotional stakes and gets players invested faster than when it's their own tavern being overrun by goblins, it's the castle they build and designed themselves being besieged by orcs, and it's their own wife-not from a backstory, but one they married at level 5 and had a child with by level 10- who's been kidnapped but dark wizards.
Just a thought.