Running A Campaign: Reflections on Crimson Skies
Updated: Mar 1, 2019
By Ben Porter
About six years ago I became involved in organising a narrative-driven campaign for my local Games Workshop store (now Warhammer store) that we called ‘Under Crimson Skies’ (edgy). Using the now largely obsolete Warhammer Fantasy Battles 8th Edition rules (RIP GBNF), the aim was to facilitate a large-scale, map driven campaign spanning several months that would encourage players to engage in the story-telling aspect of the hobby. Looking back, it was to be a very significant campaign for me in many ways.
First of all, I met a lot of people who are now lifelong friends, many of whom I stood before on the day I took my wedding vows, and one of whom I may or may not have founded Unlucky Frog Gaming with. I also learned a lot in those 8 months (yes, 8 months), and to that end have decided to commit to writing what I consider to be some of the most valuable lessons in running an analogue gaming campaign. I have broken down, what I believe to be, most of the key issues in running a campaign into three areas. They are:
1. Managing Players
2. Creating Incentive
3. Keeping Things Fluid
It is my hope that in sharing some of the lessons I learned from Under Crimson Skies, and tying those lessons into the themes outlined above, that I can perhaps lend some valuable insight that may stand others (you!) in good stead for future campaigns and similar efforts. Also, I like writing my thoughts down. So, there’s that.
1. The Revolving Door
When we had the first meeting in the pub where the three main organisers put to the group our vision for how the campaign would work on a practical level, and what the desired outcomes would be, I think there was about 20 people there. When the campaign got up and running, we had 16 (including admins), and by the end we had about 8.
In retrospect, we were extremely ambitious with everything that we were trying to achieve with this campaign, and have never since attempted to replicate anything similar on the scale that we did Crimson Skies. However, I have since participated in a number of narrative-driven campaigns – both for wargaming and TTRPGs – and can confirm this; you’re probably not going to finish the campaign with everyone that you started it with.
I can remember speaking to one of the older guys that frequented the store back then and he actually said when we were sketching out ideas that we could expect to finish with about half the folk that we started with. At the time I thought it was pretty pessimistic, but realise now with hindsight that he was genuinely trying to offer some helpful advice. It was bloody-well prophetic.
Why this happens is fairly obvious, but I’ll explain anyway because that’s the type of guy I am. The first and more obvious reason is that life happens – people have to shift their priorities. A family member takes ill, shift patterns change, they move away… the list goes on. You can’t really fault folk for that.
The second – and probably somewhat more frustrating reason – is that people just lose interest. Though it’s usually the players, I’ve actually been involved in one or two events where the organizer(s) have just given up part way through. Weird, I know.
2. The Double Edge
Solution to these problems? Accept that you probably won’t finish with who you started with, and that there’s nothing wrong with that; everyone can still have fun for the time that you have. If you’re a facilitator, make sure that you’re investing in and giving priority to those who are most invested in the campaign, rather than trying to “herd cats” all the time. Ensuring that your core of enthusiastic, invested player remain just that is key to the longevity of a campaign or gaming group.
The last thing that I’ll say before I move on is this; we lost a lot of players, but many joined us along the way. Josh was actually a later addition to the campaign roster, as were a number of people who finished Under Crimson Skies with us. Don’t be averse to tagging some new folks in along the way.
1. Telling a Story
We wanted to create an immersive story experience with Crimson Skies, and we definitely managed just that. The Facebook group for the campaign was full of players’ short stories about the machinations and ambitions of the characters in their armies, and some deeply engrossing narrative threads emerged just from people chronicling what happened in their games.
Whilst not all the players wrote stories, most of them read what was happening, which is fine because people engage in different ways. The key thing was that we managed to maintain momentum with these short stories because we had 2 or 3 players who were very enthusiastic about weaving the narrative, so it was only a matter of time before others wanted to jump in on that. This harkens back to what I said earlier about ensuring that your most invested and enthusiastic players remain just that. And if you can ensure that, it incentivises others to follow suit, and everyone is having fun.
2. The Painting Problem
What we were definitely not successful at was incentivising folks towards was painting their models. This is a problem because it’s so divisive, and because all the differing opinions on the subject are right in their own, weird way. They include (and are not limited to):
‘Unpainted models detract from immersion.’
‘Some people can’t paint.’
‘Showing up with unpainted models is disrespectful to those who put the effort in.’
‘Painted models always perform poorly.’
‘Pay someone to paint them for you, then, you lazy bastard.’
In the end, we decided not to have any rules about painted and unpainted models. The trouble was that over 8 months there were a number of people who started and finished with lots of unpainted models. And it definitely does detract from immersion in a campaign.
What we’ve taken to doing in subsequent campaigns is not penalising people for not painting, but instead giving small rewards to those that do. Most recently, we decided that for every campaign week in which a player successfully presented a newly painted unit, character, etc, they would be allowed to take one additional Magic Item for their army. And it worked! Players who hardly ever painted a thing started showing up with fully painted characters.
To summarise, if you want your players to do something, don’t punish them for going the other way – incentivise them down the path you want them to take.
Keeping Things Fluid
1. Time Management
I seriously doubt that I would be able to commit to a project like Crimson Skies again unless I was getting paid for it. And I know that most folks I know are in the same boat.
We ran Crimson Skies on a weekly basis, taking time off for public holidays and such as they arose. That works just fine for a group of guys in their early 20s, but in more recent years we’ve opted towards running campaigns with turns that span a fortnight. This allows for an evening where the players all convene to resolve who’s playing who, whilst allowing for 2 weeks in which the players can sort out a time amidst their busy schedules to accommodate a game.
Crimson Skies was also – not counting any scheming and alliances! – a ‘battle royale’ campaign, with each player operating as a single entity. Again, fine for a group of guys who are young and have nothing better to do, not so great for folks with jobs and families. What we did to allow the busier members of the group to get involved was we instead used a ‘faction’ system; each player chose to pledge their sword to one of – in the case of Age of Sigmar – the four Grand Alliances. So, although there were really only 4 teams, we were able to accommodate the 6 people that all wanted to play, and in a rare exception to the ‘revolving door rule’ outlined earlier, actually started and finished with the same 6 people!
At the time that we were scraping Crimson Skies together, Games Workshop were still producing a supplement for Warhammer Fantasy Battles called ‘Might Empires.’ It was a box containing several plastic hexes with various terrain on them that locked together, and had little holes in the centre where you could place small buildings or flags to signify ownership. We decided early on to go ahead and use this, and the participating players all chipped in to buy what amounted to 2 or 3 boxes worth of these map tiles.
The map was huge.
It took up an entire table. A group of crazy, fanatical guys within the campaign group worked on it over several weeks. It really was something to behold, and it was an absolute joy to bang down a fortress on an area you had conquered and to physically see that represented on a fully 3D map. Over the months that ensued we watched the players carve little empires out on the table in front of us.
As with everything, however, familiarity breeds contempt.
The impracticalities of such a map sunk in fairly quickly. Storage was the main issue. Where in the name could we store such a huge map? How do you get it down stairs to the store room? How do you transport it to another site? How do you ensure that it doesn’t get damaged from week to week? How do you stop those bastarding flags from disappearing all the time, causing you to lose track of who owns what?
As sad as it makes me to admit it, we’ve had a much easier time managing 2D maps. They’re easily stored, and bits and pieces don’t go wandering. Recently, Games Workshop released a supplement for Age of Sigmar called ‘Season of War: Firestorm’ which utilises peelable stickers. So elegant was this solution that I will undoubtedly seek to adapt it in the future to other locations – perhaps even other systems. It allows for permanence for as long as you need it, doesn’t take up the space of a snooker table, looks fantastic and is still tactile whilst remaining practical. There are a number of companies out there who are now producing an array of reusable stickers for all sorts of games (our friends at Sinister Fish made a set for Gloomhaven). Get them if you can – they are amazing.
We wrote an extremely comprehensive rules pack for Crimson Skies. I remember the driving force behind the rules we wrote at the time was that we wanted to create a Total War-esque experience in the Old World (this was long before Total War: Warhammer, mind). By 2019’s standards, the Crimson Skies rules would probably be considered very cumbersome, and certainly not friendly to beginners.
I once again point to the fact that most all of us were students or recently graduated, and so were a lot freer than we are now; we had the time and the inclination to write a full rules pack with rules for resource management and army structure, random encounters and special scenarios. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with doing something homebrew. Certainly, nothing really excited at the time that we really wanted to use, so we created our own way of the playing the game we all wanted to play.
This was before the ‘tabletop boom’ that we’ve seen in more recent years. There’s now an absolute glut of supplements for all sorts of games – official and unofficial. I once again point to ‘Season of War: Firestorm’ as an exemplary piece of gaming supplement. It eschews all the accounting that many other campaign systems have by representing all of the player resources in the form of a deck that can be modified and added to over the course of a campaign. Players draw a hand from their deck (the cards have names like ‘Temple’ and ‘Barracks’) which determines the resources they have at their disposal for that turn, and thusly the size of their army and any other perks their buildings may bequeath.
When you find a system of rules that clicks with you and your players, why build something from the ground up? Crafting a narrative and a world for your players and their armies, characters, etc to inhabit is already a lot of work. Would we have used the Firestorm system if it existed at the time? I honestly think we were just dead set on creating something of our own at the time.
Always be mindful of the kind of players you have in your group. It doesn’t matter how enthusiastic and invested they are when they first come to the table; if they don’t enjoy account keeping and number crunching and your game is forcing them to, you will lose them sooner or later. Be mindful of who you’re trying to engage and make the game work for them.
Well, that about covers the main issues I feel tend to crop up with campaign gaming. I’d love to hear about some of your own experiences with campaigns, and I’m always happy to answer any questions should you have any. I’m not an oracle on the subject by any stretch; just a guy with too many plastic soldiers who got in over his head. Feel free to reach out to me on social media, or drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. May you roll dice in a manner favourable to the specific system you play.