The Theater Metaphor Underlying Campaign Theater

Last modified by Rob B on 2020/05/18 15:14

 Hero Lab supports a wide array of game systems that continues to grow. The diversity of those games and the differences between their use of various terms makes it impossible to standardize on a single set of “traditional” RPG terminology. So, we sought a conceptual model that is both well-suited to RPGs and understood by everyone who plays them.

Virtually every gamer is at least tacitly familiar with the movie industry, the theater metaphor fits tabletop RPGs perfectly. Even better, core aspects of movie production closely parallel RPG campaigns, allowing us to adopt those basic concepts and terminology into the way we present campaigns. The parallels might not be immediately apparent at first glance, but once users see the similarities, the theater analogy becomes natural.


In a movie, actors comprise the cast of characters telling the story. Within the cast, there are the major characters (protagonists and antagonists), the supporting cast (helpers for the heroes and lieutenants for the villains), and let's not forget the extras (mooks for the villains, background folks for the heroes, etc.).

A movie is constructed of scenes. Each of those scenes starts with a script. Within the script, there are stage directions of varying types. And once the director and cast get their hands on the script, there are tweaks and adjustments, with each principal contributor making notes.

When the director yells "Action", everything plays out on the stage (or set). Sometimes a scene goes exactly as the script says. Other times, the stars improvise, and it goes wildly different than expected.

Once the director yells "Cut", the scene is complete. In the movies, scenes often have numerous takes that are edited into the final product. In classic theater, each show is a unique performance with no do-overs. RPGs are very much like improv theater in this respect.


In an RPG, the GM prepares the overall script for the entire adventure, mapping out each individually planned scene (frequently called an encounter). The PCs are the protagonists, the villains are the antagonists, and there is a huge supporting cast of NPCs, ranging from pivotal characters to disposable extras (e.g. tavern patrons, beggars on the street, etc.). That ought to sound pretty similar to the movie outline.

When a scene begins, the GM chooses the appropriate NPCs. He determines where everyone is placed, what their motivations are, and how they will react in varying situations. Then the PCs step in and the action starts. From there, the PCs write the story within the framework of the overall adventure the GM created. The GM can shape it, but the choices the PCs make ultimately dictate how everything unfolds.

So, the GM is essentially the primary writer, director, and producer of a movie (aka the adventure). And it all plays out on a stage that frequently doubles as the dining room table.

Campaign Theater

Let's look at the mapping of RPGs to Campaign Theater more concretely.

Within Campaign Theater, each campaign is an independent production, with its cast and collection of scripts for the various scenes. The PCs are the protagonists - the stars of the film. All of the NPCs are supporting cast members of varying importance. Each scene has a script that identifies who's in it and any associated notes1 that contain staging directions, motivations, etc. Cast members (NPCs) that have recurring roles are kept in a pool that can be drawn from at any time. A cast member that only appears in a single scene will exist solely within the script for that scene.

Everything in Campaign Theater plays out on the stage. The stage presents an overview that is visible to the GM and players alike, keeping everyone aware of who's involved in the current scene, and what state each actor is in. The GM gets to see the full details for everyone, while the players see only the basics of other cast members (the NPCs). In story mode (i.e. outside of combat), the stage presents a convenient overview for everyone. When it's time for initiative, tactical mode handles all the bookkeeping so everyone knows details such as whose turn it is, who's up next, and who's holding their action.

All the PCs are automatically added to the stage when the GM starts a game session. The GM can then enact prepared scripts for each scene with a few clicks. All the supporting cast members (NPCs) in the script are added to the stage, and the scene can be played out efficiently. When a scene is completed, the GM can resolve it into a permanent record of the scene. Combined with completed sessions, both the GM and players now have a history of the campaign available for reference2.

Tabletop RPGs are sometimes referred to as "theater of the mind", and we're simply building upon this with Campaign Theater to help gaming groups in general, and GMs in particular, prepare and manage their games. Our goal is a framework that is both familiar and intuitive, where a consistent set of terminology can be used across a diverse range of game systems. Most people love movies, and gaming groups are essentially producing their own movies every time they play.


1. Notes have not yet been introduced at the time of this writing, but they are absolutely on the roadmap and form a critical piece of the overall Campaign Theater design.

2. Similarly, the session history mechanism is not yet in place, but it is also an integral part of Campaign Theater.

Lone Wolf Development, Inc.