The First Campaign
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Continuing our updates on favorite adventures, here is the next installment. This time we focus not just on adventures, but the origin of the "campaign" concept in the history of D&D - and some of the great campaigns of the ages.
The First Campaign
By Kevin Melka
What was the first campaign you ever played? Roughly defined, a campaign is a group of individual ongoing RPG adventures (or nowadays one extremely large adventure) that your favorite Game Master runs on a regular basis. During such campaigns players typically use the same characters, building them up from 1st level to some of the most powerful heroes in the land. In the past two decades, the concept of an RPG “campaign” has become commonplace. However, for those of us who began gaming in the early years of D&D, the concept of a campaign was difficult, as was finding players to join you.
When myself and my friend John discovered gaming in the early 80's, D&D adventures often came out in a scattered variety of levels, making it difficult to find something to play that fell into the correct level range of your favorite character. We didn’t want to have five or more characters to play whatever varied-level adventure TSR published that month or printed in Dragon Magazine, and the consensus was to stick with one character (maybe two) while we tried to learn how to play this crazy game. Since at the time we didn’t know how to write our own modules, this made finding adventures to play frustrating.
To supply a bit of historical context – in 1978 TSR published the two single-series adventures based on tournaments run at Gen Con – the G-series (Giants) and D-series (Drow). However, these adventures started at 8th level (Steading of the Hill Giant Chief), ranging all the way up to 14th level (Vault of the Drow), concluding with the classic and deadly Tomb of Horrors. While all great adventures, by starting strong out of the gate with 8th level adventures TSR made it difficult for players brand new to D&D, like myself, to find 1st level adventures to play. So, in 1980, with a brand-new Players Handbook and Dungeon Masters Guide, I found in the Toy Department at my local Shopko Department Store. But my gaming life sat idle and my fascination with fantasy gaming lingered in a lethargic state because we didn’t have anything (so we thought at the time) to play.
It wasn’t until a year or so later when a hobby store in my home town began carrying a small amount D&D that we found a copy of B2: Keep on the Borderland, and suddenly things were back on track. I’m not sure how many times we played through the adventure (it wasn’t until later I had learned of B1: In Search of the Unknown) with my friend John and I swapping back and forth between being player and Game Master the summer before our junior year in high school. Somewhere, I don’t recall where, we stumbled upon a copy of X1: The Isle of Dread which also added to our gaming entertainment for a while. However, two things once again stalled our gaming lifestyles – high school, and the lack of available adventures.
Between getting our drivers licenses, unending homework, and a part time jobs (and John got a girlfriend, how dare he!) our gaming lives sat idle for over a year. Adding to this agitation was the only adventures we could find to play were 5-6 levels above the only characters we had, which in those days was intimidating for novice gamers in a small Wisconsin town far from Lake Geneva.
Then it happened … we saw the “sign-up sheet”.
Remember that this was the early 1980’s and there was no Internet to bring gamers together like today. With this sign-up sheet, two gamers were suddenly more than six who were all looking for the same thing – more adventures to play. Not long after this gaming group began to take shape, we discovered the adventure that would lead us to our first real campaign: the release of A1: Slave Pits of the Undercity.
This adventure and its brothers that followed (A2–A4) allowed us the option of having a character as low as 3rd level and play a series of sequential themed adventures up to 7th level, something none of us had ever done before. Coupled with fresh reprints of the G-series (Against the Giants, 8th-12th) and D-series (Descent into the Depths of the Earth, 9th-14th), and suddenly our gaming group was neck-deep in our first RPG campaign in the World of Greyhawk. We loved it.
Soon after in 1985 the second campaign for our group took shape in the form of Temple of Elemental Evil, the 128-page adventure that would later become known as the first “mega-dungeon.” Coupled with the familiar Village of Hommlet, T1-T4 was the first adventure to take our gaming into a single, massive underground complex filled with enough tricks, traps, and treasure to vault us all the way to 8th level. By the time my Unearthed Arcana barbarian defeated the demoness Zuggtmoy (that’s how I remember it), TSR had released enough single adventures for our group to fill the gaps before and after modules like ToEE, but by this time gamers like myself craved the more complete campaign than the lone, scattered level adventures.
Two years after we crushed the followers of Elemental Evil who were storming the eastern continent of Oerik, and after a change in TSR’s ownership, a Canadian game designer named Ed Greenwood created a little world called the Forgotten Realms that would change our gaming group forever. This popular campaign setting quickly became the proud father of dozens of adventure modules and source books, novels, and computer games that continually emptied our gaming group’s collective wallet. More importantly, the vast lands of Faerûn also gave us something that had never been done before – new adventure-campaign settings within itself. The oriental Kara-Tur: The Eastern Realms, the Aztec-themed Maztica Campaign, and Al-Qadim: Arabian Adventures quickly filled our gaming shelves, and everyone in our group wanted to be either a ninja or samurai.
Let’s also not forget some of the other classic campaigns and adventures that sprout up in the wake of The World of Greyhawk and Forgotten Realms’ success – Dragonlance, Dark Sun, Ravenloft, and Birthright – and we eventually played them all. Of course, we enjoyed the adventures modules, but we loved the campaigns more. The adventures we played helped build our D&D memories, but it was the campaigns that brought us together over the months and years that followed. Without the concept of campaigns, D&D may have grown up much differently. I know I would have.
Kevin Melka was hired as the RPGA Network’s Tournament Coordinator after a decade of writing and running adventures . He then won first place in the DM Invitational Writing Contest two years in a row. He was instrumental in the development of the Living City, and creator of the Living Jungle Organized Play worlds. He also has design credits in the Forgotten Realms, Dark Sun, and several d20 worlds. Kevin is writing adventures and participating in organized play events today, and still enjoys role-playing games with the friends he met in the basement of a hobby shop in 1983.