A Glossary of RPG Campaign Terms for New Gamers


What’s the difference between an adventure, campaign, and a story arc, anyway? Words that experienced gamers bandy about when referring to a tabletop role-playing game can be confusing to a new player or Game Master, and in my personal experience it’s the hierarchy and relationship between the words that can be really tricky. I wrote up an email explaining the most common meta terms and how they relate to each other for my boyfriend, who is starting his first role-playing game campaign on Saturday, and thought I might share it with any other fledgling GMs out there who may find it useful.

A gaming group is more or less the highest level of the hierarchy. It’s the group of players that stays the same from week to week, more or less, with some inevitable turnover. A gaming group will play one campaign, and then another when that one finishes, potentially, or the group might only last the length of the campaign.

A campaign is what we call a series of interconnected game sessions. An old campaign ends and a new one begins when either the cast of Player Characters change, the story premise shifts dramatically, or when the gaming group changes game systems (like going from Star Wars Roleplaying to Legend of the Five Rings; each has its own set of mechanics called a “system”). The boundary between campaigns is a subjective one, and it’s possible that all three of the aforementioned things can change and you still have the same campaign. There needs only be some level of continuity that makes the sessions seem to fit together.

A game session is when you actually sit down and play, encapsulated by a start and finish time. For instance, one Monday night game of Dark Heresy 2 Beta is “one session” that lasts from 6:30-10:30p, usually. Sometimes game sessions can last a whole weekend if the players don’t go home and they continuously play.

Multiple game sessions will make up a “story arc” (or plot thread), kind of like a television season, which typically features a main villain, conflict, or location. Once that defining thread has been resolved sufficiently, you typically move on to the next story arc. A campaign can be made up of multiple story arcs played one after another, or they may be several story arcs/plot threads running at the same time simultaneously.

An adventure (or scenario, or module) could be defined by a singular story arc (as seen in a short story), however, there could be multiple story arcs in a long and complex adventure that features multiple themes and plot threads that connect a number of villains, conflicts, or locations that comprise a coherent story (like your typical novel). Typically adventures are what you would call a pre-published set of villains, conflicts, and locations, like Beyond the Rim or the Star Wars: Edge of the Empire Beginner Game, while a scenario is what you might call the shorter ones, such as the one found at the end of the L5R core rulebook. The term module has an old-school bent to it, and used to refer to dungeon delves that you would run in succession, but the term has broadened to be more like scenario today.

Adventures have a beginning, middle, and an end. You “run” adventures. There may be multiple adventures done one after another in a campaign, or just one adventure that comprises the whole campaign. Adventures may take many game sessions to complete, even years, or only one session.

Adventures and game sessions are further broken down into what’s called encounters, which are analogous to scenes in a TV show or movie. Scenes can be nebulous in terms of when exactly one scene ends and a new scene begins, but encounters are a bit more straightforward. If you run a combat, from the time you roll initiative to the time the last monster dies is usually classified as one “encounter.” Usually an encounter will be more structured, focusing more on the rules and mechanics of the game (and often rolling initiative), whereas a scene would likely be mostly role-playing or storytelling with the occasional roll or check.

During an encounter, there are sometimes rounds in order to make sure everyone has an equal opportunity to act. If an encounter were a baseball game, the rounds would be the innings. Each player and NPC typically takes one turn in a round. There will usually be multiple rounds required in order to resolve a combat.

A turn will be broken down differently depending on the game system. If an encounter were a baseball game, each batter going up to the plate would have his own turn. This is usually referred to as the “action economy.” In Dark Heresy 2 Beta you have 4 AP to spend during your turn, which can be spent any way you like to move, attack, or do other things. In Star Wars, you have an action (like a skill or combat check), and a maneuver. In Legend of the Five Rings you can do 1 Complex Action + Free Actions or 2 Simple Actions + Free actions.

There could also be social encounters or skill encounters (sometimes called skill challenges). A skill encounter would be like trying to solve a puzzle, chase someone down, or climb up a cliff, and is usually multiple checks or rolls that all need to be successful in order to accomplish the overarching goal of the scene. A social encounter would be like going to a masquerade ball, meeting with a daimyo in his chambers, or talking to the various patrons of an inn to gather information. Once the primary objective of that scene/encounter is complete, a new scene or encounter begins.

You take turns over the course of multiple rounds to complete the encounter. A series of encounters form a single game session. You may need to play through numerous game sessions to complete one of the story arcs in the adventure. The adventure finished, you may continue on a new adventure, or begin a new campaign entirely depending on the whims of your gaming group.

It doesn’t help that there are multiple terms to describe the same gaming meta-concept, sometimes with only slight nuances to distinguish between the two, but looking at the terms as they comprise a whole compared to just individual definitions should help new Game Masters decipher the terminology hierarchy.

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