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I'm relatively new to D&D, only having tabletop experience with 5e and a bit of 3.5, along with some scattered exposure to earlier editions through video games.

I've heard references to characters adventuring through multiple campaigns, sometimes a large number of them. But as I look through the published campaigns for 5e I see a lot of suggested level references which suggest that a character might properly fit up to two adventures. For example, the introduction to Descent into Avernus expects PCs to start at level 1 and be at least level 13 by the end.

Of course different editions have very different properties that touch on this-- 3.5 had a lot of postgame content published specifically to take characters beyond the "maximum" level (whether they were good mechanics or not), while 5e doesn't (as far as I'm aware). And published adventures are hardly the core of all D&D games played across all tables. But the basic 5e approach, and the adventures published for it, suggests to me that a PC might only see 2-3 non-oneshot adventures at most.

It's not a problem (there are any number of ways to fiddle with adventure length and character progression) but I'm curious about whether or not the game has changed in this respect.

Has D&D always had this structure of relatively few adventures/campaigns per character (as either a game design element or by popular play style), or did a transition take place at some point? If there was a transition, when did it take place and what was the motivation?

(A valid answer can also be that I'm using terms like adventure and campaign imprecisely)

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Are you assuming that in general, groups abide by the suggested levels of adventures? (My point is that it might vary in actual practice despite what the text suggests; I wouldn't know.) \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Dec 9 '19 at 21:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ @V2Blast They may or may not, I know I've seen at least a few questions here about adjusting adventures for parties of abnormal levels. I think that players would generally get more adventures out of slower leveling/other PC development, and as mechanical character development seems like an important element of the game for many players I would be interested to know if that's the way this circle was squared. \$\endgroup\$ – Upper_Case Dec 9 '19 at 21:54
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I think that you're using "campaign" and "adventure" somewhat incorrectly (or, at least, atypically). So is WotC, though. Or maybe the meanings are shifting a bit.

A Campaign is a series of game sessions with continuity. Typically, that means that most of the same players are playing mostly the same characters and are interacting with mostly the same world - it's the same campaign "if you can describe all of the events in the game in terms of the fictional narrative of the game" (Angry GM, about 1/3 down).

An Adventure is an individual chunk of story: an incident that occurs in which the PCs are active participants.

Continuing to quote Angry GM:

The Lord of the Rings [...] is a good example of a campaign. You can break it down into adventures like Flight from the Shire, the Battle at Weathertop, the Mines of Moria, and so on. Each adventure serves, in some way, to advance the larger story.

Then came the Adventure Path: a published set of connected adventures which together tell a story. Game publishers could publish stories for GMs to slot into their campaigns, or even whole campaigns for them to run (this is more or less where Paizo started with Pathfinder, incidentally). LotR could be an Adventure Path, but so could The Mines of Moria (telling the story of getting through the mines: the attack by the water monster at the puzzle door, avoiding getting lost, encountering Balin's tomb, fighting the goblins, fleeing the balor). A GM running "LotR: the campaign" could slot in Mines and avoid having to plan those sessions, or could even run Mines as an entire campaign (it would probably be written so that the exact reason that the PCs needed to traverse the mines was abstract so that the GM could pick those details; as a campaign, "get the McGuffin to the other side" would likely be sufficient).

So, Descent into Avernus is more appropriately an adventure path, which was designed so that it could be used as a full campaign: the first-level PCs meet in a tavern, descend into Avernus, kill the dragon, and return to tavern to regale the patrons with their tales (I've never actually read Descent, so it might not be a dragon). When that's done, the players retire those characters and start new ones for a new story in which the events that the Avernus characters experienced didn't necessarily happen.

Descent can also be used as a part of a campaign: the same-ish party could continue on to new adventures after returning from Avernus, with those events having happened to them explicitly.

I mentioned Paizo earlier: their early works included adventure paths which were, themselves, interlinked - the second assumed a particular resolution of the first had happened relatively recently. Each of their adventure paths assumed PCs started at level 1, though, so it is highly probable that there are groups which have run through multiple adventure paths with narrative continuity: the PCs from the first path retiring or going off to do other stuff after completing the first path and new PCs starting in on the second in a world where the first's events had happened as backstory. Whether that counts as a single campaign or multiple is a little fuzzy, though.

TLDR: PCs make the Campaign

Since a campaign is a series of adventures which share a continuity, a PC can only exist within a single campaign: by itself, that PC provides continuity even as it moves from one adventure to the next. And, WotC is publishing adventure paths and calling them adventures, but it's possible that they don't want to call them Adventure Paths because that's Paizo's shtick.

PCs have always existed in a single campaign and have always encountered many adventures in the process (barring the PCs who die immediately, game groups that fall apart after the first session, etc.).

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  • \$\begingroup\$ When you say "always" I think you are missing how it worked in the original game, and in about the first 15 years, where PC's often moved from one campaign to the other. (One DM's world to another DM's world) and the published adventures were not "from start of PC to end of PC" in nature. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Dec 10 '19 at 0:24
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast: I would argue either that that PC experienced one campaign filled with a bunch of "then they fell through a hole in the world" events when they moved to the next DM's world or that they weren't the same PC but an alternate incarnation - the version that had always existed in that new world (like Star Trek's Mirror Universe: there's a Sisko there, but it's not the same one we have; or, maybe the Abramsverse version...). \$\endgroup\$ – minnmass Dec 10 '19 at 17:53

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