IN THE SHADOW OF THE SPIRE
In which an innocent elf finds herself in the company of ruffians, a multitude of musty tomes are methodically mused upon, and our hearty heroes ennumerate the enigmas which confront them…
As I write this, In the Shadow of the Spire has been running for more than one hundred sessions. The complete campaign journal for this enormous saga, although not currently complete, has just crossed the 500,000 word mark.
Half a million words obviously represents a tremendous amount of labor on my part. So why do it? What’s the function of the campaign journal? Why take the extra effort to create it?
Primarily, it’s because I’ve found that a well-executed campaign journal improves the quality of the game. It can also help sustain the campaign: Having a detailed journal makes it substantially easier for a campaign that’s been placed on sabbatical to come “back from the dead” because players can rapidly get back up to speed on what’s happening by reviewing the journal. For similar reasons, the campaign journal can also make it easier to integrate new players into a long-running campaign.
So, what are the necessary functions of the campaign journal?
First, it’s a record of events. It’s the official canon of the campaign which can be consulted when memories become dim. It, therefore, needs to accurately record a totality of significant events that occur at the gaming table.
This poses a couple of interesting challenges: First, it can often be unclear whether or not something will become important to the campaign until several sessions later. (For example, I don’t find it unusual for a random NPC created off-the-cuff in one session to suddenly be one of the most important characters in the entire campaign ten sessions later.) So you need to adopt a fairly permissive attitude about what does and doesn’t merit inclusion.
As the GM, you also need to watch out for favoring the “true account” when mysteries are present in the campaign. For example, if the PCs are trying to figure out which noble scion is secretly a werewolf it can be a little too easy to only include that clues that point at the true culprit (because you know that those are the only things that are actually “important”) while leaving out all the red herrings the PCs are pursuing.
I find I’m particularly liable to do this when including various theories posited by the players: If the players posit a theory that’s true, I’m partial to including that in the journal because they’ve “figured it out” (even if they haven’t actually confirmed that theory yet). So I make a conscious effort to include a wide sampling of the various theories they posit during a session. (The material in the “Research and Development” section of the journal this week is an example of this. In this case, recording all of their unanswered questions also served as a helpful reference for the players.)
Second, it’s a piece of fiction. I believe that reading a campaign journal is a form of entertainment, albeit one which can often only be enjoyed idiosyncratically.
On a few occasions I’ve had players suggest that I should take a campaign journal and publish it as a short story or novel. I take that as a compliment, but it wouldn’t actually work: The journal’s role in faithfully capturing the events that happened at the table preclude its functioning as a proper piece of narrative fiction. But I do attempt to relate those events with effective prose, vivid descriptions, and dramatic moments.
I don’t think that you necessarily need to have played in a campaign in order to enjoy a well-written journal of that campaign. But I think that reading (and enjoying) a campaign journal is a very different experience than reading a novel. In fact, I think it has a lot more in common with reading a piece of non-fiction. I’d suggest that a good campaign journal in many ways blends the skills of a newspaper reporter with those of a fiction writer.
Third, the journal is a memento of the moment. Like yearbooks and diaries and photographs, one can revisit the journals from bygone campaigns and relive the memories of time well spent. When I read through the campaign journal for In the Shadow of the Spire, for example, I have a very different experience from virtually everyone reading this because I am not just recalling the experience of the characters but also the experience of the game table.
Capturing those memories of the table itself in the journal can be somewhat difficult to balance with the desire to create an immersive piece of fiction. In some cases, it’s impossible. (I maintain a small file of memorable, out-of-character quotes, for example, in a separate document.) In other cases, I try to find ways to capture in the fiction a reminder of what was happening beyond it.
For example, in the journal for the first part of Session 4, you may have been wondering why I included things like:
(Ranthir, with his keen vision, quickly found the book he was looking for.)
(Ranthir narrowly avoided dropping a priceless and delicate volume of ancient poetry… thus averting potential disaster.)
These a rather poor reflection of something that was truly hilarious in the actual session: As described in the journal, Ranthir remained behind at a library while the other players went off to watch Helmut Itlestein’s political rally. When the rally devolved into a riot, I began calling for various group skill checks: Spot checks to notice what Helmut was up to. Reflex saves to stay on their feet in the midst of the mob. And so forth.
Since I was calling for “everyone” to make the check, Ranthir’s player started making the same checks… and then he or I would interpret how the check was relevant to his research back at the library. And since, of course, the checks were radically inappropriate for the sort of activities you’d normally engage in while in a library, there were two layers of humorous contrast at play: The sharp cuts from the riot back to a quiet library and the implication that Ranthir was facing jeopardy to life and limb from musty tomes.
Of course, some people will only be interested in a subset of these three goals.
There are also journals written by players. These serve similar functions (keeping notes, etc.), but the difference in perspective often results in a completely different sort of document. Such journals can also serve as extended acts of roleplaying, allowing players a unique avenue for exploring the thoughts and opinions of their character in depth.