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So, as seems to frequently be the case with me, more players wish to be a part of my new campaign than I'm comfortable putting around one table (maybe 8). I toyed briefly with the idea of running two campaigns with different parties in parallel in exactly the same world (their actions can affect each other and the world in general, etc). I'm not likely to go down this route - it would require a substantially greater investment of time I don't have - but it made me curious.

Has anyone ever run two campaigns in parallel? How did it go? What were the pitfalls you experienced, and how did you work around them? Were there any really cool moments that came about because of it? What special considerations would you make in planning such an undertaking?

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Running Parallel Campaigns

My experience with running parallel campaigns mostly involves the World of Darkness games, Aberrant, and Call of Cthulhu. Some ran longer than others. The WoD games lasted years of real time, and were designed to be open-ended.

I used Vampire: The Masquerade as the baseline game, with players in three separate factions (Camarilla, Anarchs, Sabbat). Added to this game were additional weekly sessions with different players in a Werewolf Chronicle in the same setting, monthly sessions with different players in a Mortals Chronicle, a weekly Mage Chronicle in the same setting, an infrequent Mummy Chronicle, and a small Wraith Chronicle. In Aberrant and Call of Cthulhu, I ran sessions designed to be of a more structured and much shorter duration using the same settings but with players in various locations both in reality and in the game world. This was a method of maximizing preparation time from my D&D days where I had several small, regular groups of players that could not meet at any set time or place to play together.

Problems common to each campaign

The biggest issue overall I had to face was one of keeping the rate of progress between each group consistent. Many elements can be recycled for each group, such as news reports, rumours, signs, portents, and so on so background preparation is less intensive than you might expect. Your main story threads do need to be very distinct to allow your players the freedom to operate without conflict from the storylines of the other group(s).. Geographic separation is often essential for this to work, but vastly different social status or networks can accomplish the same goal.

Cautions for characters in a shared universe

When storylines overlap there are pressures to use PC characters from other groups as a temporary NPC. This can upset some players, so it's something to be discussed beforehand. From the outset, it is best to decide once and for all if the game universes are the same or separate. You have the most freedom and safety if you choose to have them exist separately, but miss out on the very exciting opportunities for cross-over. There are pros and cons to using and not using PCs as NPCs in other groups, having guest appearances by members of the other group during nights of heavy involvement with that NPC, and developing alliances or rivalries. These decisions are not ones that you should make on the fly. Consider them carefully, and consider the personalities, and personality interactions among your players.

Cross-overs: A useful, short-term benefit

Some examples of manageable and useful cross-over between groups from TV are X-Files and Millennium, the various characters from CSI visiting one or more of the other cities, characters from one Star Trek or another mingling with another crew for reasons of age, change of service, transfer of assignment, time travel, etc, and federal law-enforcement working with characters in a state or municipal jurisdiction with locally based characters.

A great moment from my joint Vampire, Werewolf, Mortal, Mage , Mummy, Wraith Chronicle was when characters from three of the five distinct storylines all came together to either support or oppose the return of a rival Vampire Prince. Players went into the session knowing that there might be PC vs PC interaction and that the session would change many things about all the settings for good or ill (from their perspective). It was like a combination of sweeps week and a season finale. Those not comfortable with going up against other players given equally important tasks to do, but away from the 'danger zone.'

Competition: A benefit or a curse

Either in a cross-over or in indirect competition by working on the same puzzles and storylines in games with the same setting, but in a different game universe competition can be a wonderful motivator, or a massive problem. Not everyone likes to compete, and many who choose to roleplay do so because they enjoy games, but do not enjoy being in direct competition with each other. Introducing members of another troupe of gamers operating in the same universe can backfire for out-of-game reasons, or it might light the spark which really gets both of your groups invested in the tale. Communication and observation are the keys to discovering which you are likely to get.

Final Tips

This style of campaign will require you to set up the world as a sandbox, and be very aware of relationships, the passage of time, and the rate at which information can reasonably spread. The more you develop the world as an open sandbox with its own events, actions and reactions, the easier it will be to manage in the long run.

It is definitely worth trying if you have the interest and the players.

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At home I have a fairly large following of shadowrun players. When I first started my current campaign I had WAY too many players to manage in a single session, so rather than turn them away I ran parallel missions.

This was great in that it meant I could cap my sessions without feeling bad, but it made scheduling twice as hard and resulted in some particularly addicted players rolling up alts to play in both.

Each mission lasted a week in game time. One mission could usually impact the other so that one ran first. They took place in completely different parts of the sprawl so that players would not directly overlap without going seriously off course. I kept track of when specific things happened, either events or when players interacted with various NPCs and then had them impact things as appropriate in the second game. It was a lot of work, more so than simply running two standalone missions. The overall impact was that the second group typically had a small reduction in freedom, though it could be mitigated through carefully choosing what went on. The players seemed to like it, but it was too much work planning and scheduling for me to continue...

My friend Matt is currently running a game with two adventuring parties in the same world. We are separated by IC time and distance though... I will try and get him to post his thoughts on that.

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Interesting tie-in of real-world time. Welcome! –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton May 2 '12 at 18:32
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I have run two campaign in parallel and several where it was a small part (*).

The main one we did was not only run with parallel parties but was also a shared world with several referees. When I ran it I tended to run it as a one game world for the three different groups I was running for at the same time. This was a lot of fun but the set up of the background was carefully crafted so that session must start and stop each week back at a central location and all the player characters where all on the same side. There was very little in the way of interaction between the groups but there was a meta plot starting to build up between the groups about management of resources and the Central location. Because of the shared world aspect there was not the real over arching campaign plot line which allowed all the referees to know that the main town would not be destroyed and they could rely on that NPC still being there. So this was more like a TV serial where there was a lot of movement but little progress.

In the second I ran Babylon 5 for two groups at the same time in the run up to the arrival of Ambassador Kosh and his attempted assassination. Each group was actually split into factions as well and I went a bit like an extended Amber session. It was kind of cool. At one point IIRC we had one faction from one group helping out another faction from the other group and freeing them from the B5 brig. Just like running Amber you just have to be able to manage this all in your head and run with what the players do. Keep the plot simple and let them create there own story. You also need to sometime put up walls and say, sorry you can't do that as I have no idea what will happen until I discuss it with the other group, I will get back to you next time ... now assume something happened what else did you want to do. This does break the flow but after a while the groups tended to relax and then start hedging there actions. This helps with playing it for the other groups, as you kind of know what the first group will do in response to the seconds actions.

Basically a lot of fun but kind of hard work. Worth it if you can keep it all in your head or you are a note taker. I would suggest a lot of sleep as you will need a large amount of brain down time to refresh your creativity ;)

(*) One of the ones where it was not important, I have one set of player characters as the main heroes in the world doing the normal plot and one set as growing in power bad guys. I never planed for these two groups to meet but I did have one sets events be seen by the other via rumors and news stories.

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I have never run two campaigns in parallel, but I can think of various situations to take advantage of when doing so:

  • If both groups visit the same locale, have them interact with the denizens alternatively so that when one group leaves, the other arrives.
  • Plan an occasional "mega-session" where both adventurer groups can team up together to take on an epic threat.
  • Give players the option of swapping members so that one character can leave and join a different adventuring group for in-game reasons.
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I've been there (two or three groups playing in the same timeline iin the same world), and it's great fun!

One option is to have two (or three) different groups doing different things, indipendently and meeting each other for business or politics (or swapping characters) once in a long while. Interesting, but nothing too special.

Another option is having two "similar" groups (i.e. similar experience, strenght and objectives) playing at the same time in the same place (for example, two groups aiming at the same treasure in the same dungeon, starting from two different entrances far away from each other). This requires two (or better three: one for each group, plus a co-ordinator) Game Masters, but it is definitely funnier, with the only problem that sometimes you have to "stall" a group, waiting for the actions of the other group (in another room) to be completed: it's fundamental to keep track strictly of turns and rounds etc.

The funnier (and more complicated) option is to have groups competing directly against each other (for example one group wants an evil artifact to destroy it, the other to protect and use it...).

I found the first idea of this kind of scenarios (that can become very complicated) in The Orcs of Thar, where they propose a scenario with three high level groups competing against each other, and I replicated the idea several times with great success. This often involves having orc and goblin characters (or "bad boys", anyway), that is pretty fun in itself, and it's the best scenario for fun and roleplaying, but requires proper facilities (more indipendent rooms) and a great team of Game Masters as it can become really confused (great players will be required as well to avoid turning this into a mess). Again, there may be problems with some group getting "stalled" while another is completing the actions of that particular turn.

In general, games with groups doing actions at the same time, possibly interacting directly, require more complex resources (Game Masters, long scenario preparation, indipendent rooms, food and drink while you wait for other groups to complete their actions for the specific turn...) and, typically they require full days of gameplaying, as all this effort and preparation can't be put into just a short session.

But it's usually memorable.

What can be done practically is having a mix of the proposed options, with mostly gameplay away from each other (can be played in different sessions/days), sometimes a race against time to retrieve some object (better played at the same time, but you can still make it work if played in different times - just interrupt the session of the first group just before reaching the object and then you can sort it out depending on the timing of the second group) and once in a while a glorious session of deep, direct interacting / competing with each other (massive job, as mentioned, that requires at least a full day of gameplay at the same time, better a full weekend in full immersion).

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Firstly, I think you're right about the number of players. In my first group as a GM, I was running a 3.5e DnD group, that I had pieced together from two groups I played in that had had DM's leave at the same time. At first I had four people coming, but on our second campaign, we all of a sudden had eight. With more interested. In that case, we just fragmented and I and the other fellow there who liked DMing agreed to mostly run separate groups, with occasional player swaps for things.

However, I've run a dual campaign before, and my advice is really just a different flavor of the same things said above. 1) Decide for absolute certain if they're in the same instance of the world. 2) I strongly suggest keeping them geographically separate. I found that my PCs loved the idea of hearing about world events that might have been caused by the other group in a meta gaming sense, but disliked events being caused in their vicinity by the other group (even though they would not object to the same events caused by NPCs) - it is a somewhat irrational dislike of interference by real, living people. 3) If they are intended to do similar things, keep them on the same general timeline. This depends, though, on how much you 'railroad' for the lack of a better term. I agree very strongly with story arcs, and I don't intend to start a debate about it - but while I don't day to day railroad players, they, in many cases, expect to be hooked to do some things. That said, some groups may deviate. If you rig your setup around them performing parallel tasks, and one group derails and goes to X place while the others continue on to Z... have you thought about that beforehand?

Just some thoughts. Good luck with either the large group or the split.

PS - sometimes it's game system dependent as to how easy a big group is. I found DnD 3.5 and SIFRP to both be difficult with large groups.

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I do this all the time. I work with three groups of players, and the primary group often has at least half the players involved in another parallel campaign(s).

The trick as i saw it was to have the physical placement far enough away or the social circles related so vastly different as to not have the campaigns "aware" of each other directly. I can have events in one impact another, NPC's come and go, and events do intersect but they never touch directly. Yea, i had a few plot ideas, most never saw the light of day because plyers never do what you really expect them to... We currently have about 4 campaigns in a single time/place running and they've only touched each other a few times... for flavor more than out of necessity. But you have to be prepared to let one campaign go and another languish or run slower... you (generally) cannot rely on events from one to affect another. One of these is actually a sci/fi setting using the fantasy world (considered "off limits" by the Imperium and officially an protected planet). There are a few interesting events from one (Orkish smugglers trying to get to their brethren on the planet) that bleed over.. we even had a couple crash-landers for a few adventures. It takes a goof GM that can make it all run consistently and without a lot of contrivance or just everyone ignoring the time stream or technology "hiccups".

Another things we have every summer is a short campaign, 2-3 hours every couple weeks at the height, on a friends boat. Its the "Gladitorial Summer Games" - we make fun throw away characters ranging in starting power. Sometimes the characters that come out of there become NPC's. Its also a great time/place to test new rules before all the players in the main group get access to them.

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I have played a character in a campaign based on alternative history (2nd World War period). This "multicampaign) was based on a secret organisation investigating paranormal things. Having all the PCs work for the same organisation allowed frequent shifting of PCs between groups and helped cooperation. Most adventures followed tracks found in previous adventures; players were encouraged to write "agent's log" which was available to players of other adventures, and often played important role. A homebrew system designed specifically for multicampaigns was used, so it was easy to measure success or failure of one group and assess outcome for those investigating the same case or connected cases, as well as for the organisation as a whole. Frequent travelling helped to avoid having two different teams on the same place. Only pitfall of this approach is that it's a chain of episodic adventures, a continual campaign in a game like this is in conflict with most of its pros.

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