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Let’s start by talking about the most obvious campaign structure, the serial campaign. A serial campaign is a series of adventures strung together with no overarching structure at all. Our heroes go on an adventure, that adventure tells a self-contained story, and then next week do something different. There can be recurring villains and some locations may come up again and again. A single recurring villain might turn out to have been behind most or all of the conflict so far and the result of one adventure might end up being the plot hook for the next one.
A serial campaign doesn’t mean there’s no continuity. What it does mean is that there’s no bigger game being played. The players follow whatever plot hook is put in front of them, and in some cases there might be more than one, but ultimately the adventure they go on is mainly selected based on what the GM is prepared to run right now. This is dead simple and flexible enough to work with almost any theme, but it pays a cost by being constantly nailed to small scope. It’s difficult for players to feel like they’re accomplishing anything grand or earth-shattering in this structure. Saving the world in the last adventure doesn’t feel much more compelling than if you saved the world in the first adventure, because none of the adventures you had before had any kind of direct impact on the game state of the last adventure. In a more structured campaign, winning or losing an adventure change the state of the map, or the intrigue, or whatever. In a serial campaign, winning or losing an adventure will generate different plot hooks probably, but whether the recurring villain cackles about how he’s beaten you before and will again or swears that this time he will be the victor is ultimately a pretty trivial difference.
This is not to say that adventures are meaningless. Just because the Shire being overrun by orcs has no particular impact on the next adventure when you help the dwarves of the Blue Mountains and the elves of Lindon put their differences aside doesn’t mean that it’s not a tragedy that the Shire was lost. What it means is just that there is a cost to the simplicity of a serial campaign, and that cost is that the grand scale of a D&D campaign (which is, by its nature, an endeavour that requires a minimum of several months to complete, and that is no small time commitment) isn’t put to full use. We want to be very clear that we are not bringing up serial campaigns just to tell you that you should not use them, like we did with railroad adventures back in the Art of Adventures. There are many good reasons to run a serial campaign. If you only play once a month or less, it’s usually best to keep individual adventures as self-contained as possible. If you’re new to GMing, serial campaigns are easier to run than others, and it’s usually wise to start with a serial campaign and then add in a greater structure later on if you feel like it. If you barely have enough time to write adventures, stretching yourself thin by fleshing out a campaign structure to slot them in might be really harmful to the quality of your adventures. Serial campaigns can be perfectly enjoyable so long as the adventures in them are good, so don’t be afraid to run one.