View Full Version : Thinker's Guide to Running a Campaign

2016-11-21, 03:34 PM
When I am planning a campaign, I prefer to enable a high degree of player freedom. I'll solicit ideas for a genre, provide some basic information about the setting - my take on the genre (wild west bounty hunters, space opera smugglers, fantasy mercenaries, modern-day monster hunter entrepeneurs, generic pirates, etc.) and I'll provide them with a few basic facts. It varies a bit, depending on how different the world is from our own - for my wild west game, I didn't have to do too much except come up with pre- or post-Civil War and pick a frontier state, but for my space opera game, I had to come up with a few notable powers, technologies, and recent history. At this point, I don't know much more about the campaign than the players - I might have some ideas about threats or people or a settlement, but nothing besides what I've provided to the players is set in stone yet as the setting's fiction.

I like to do character creation as a group activity - it's session 0 where we hash out everyone's characters. I'll ask a few questions from each player about the setting during creation to help get them involved in the game and to provide myself with certain viewpoints. Some questions are designed to imply additional facts about the setting, such as, "Who caused the massacre at Delli-8 three years ago?" I've just stated there was a massacre and that it was perpetrated by some entity that the characters are probably aware of. The players sometimes go with information I've already provided, but will sometimes come up with some new faction or something supernatural. That's fine. The new answer is added to the truth about the fiction so long as it doesn't contradict something else.

Once I have the few answers from every player, the players will make their characters. I insist on everyone already knowing everyone else and ask more questions as the characters are made. "Your character can cast fireball? Where did she learn that?" or "How did your character get into smuggling?" Things like that. Once that is finished, we do character histories. This is history with one another and players can impact one another's history to some extent. Questions like, "Pick another member of the team. She saved you from a monster one time, pick a monster and ask her how she saved you." This reinforces the bonds between the characters and adds to the fiction. If the character picks a mummy, now my setting has mummies. I might use that later on. Also, it suggests that at least one of the characters knows a weakness of mummies and so you can ask the player for a mummy weakness. The whole point of this session zero is to get the players invested and to establish some truth about the established fiction.

Contradicting the established fiction isn't normally good, but it can be useful. Anything that I say as a GM should be factual. Anything I say as an NPC can be open to interpretation. Anything that the players provide is submitted as the truth, which will normally be correct, but the truth is always based on a viewpoint. Viewpoints can muddle the facts. Everyone knows that the Delli-8 Massacre was caused by the Surgeos Confederation! But, later, the players might discover that it was planned by someone else to look like the Surgeos Confederation.

During and after session 0, I can really start thinking about what sort of challenges I want to throw at the characters. I come up with some main factions, their ambitions, and their resources. I can usually do this part during session 0 so I'll ask the players for a detail or two about the factions and their relation to a couple of them. Then, I come up with some threats. These threats can be categorized based on what sort of game I'm running - for monster hunting, I'm concerned with monsters, monster minions, normal people, and locations; for a survival game, I'm concerned with natural hazards, weather, animals, and people. In any case, every threat has a motivation - the fire wants to consume everything, the investation wants to breed and consume. The motivation is a guideline so that I keep consistent as the GM. The threat will always act towards that goal.

Speaking of goals, I will determine what happens if the characters don't meddle. I plan out in 5 stages what will happen.
Stage 1, goblin scouts arrive in the valley from the nearby Mount Hull.
Stage 2 (2 weeks later), goblins attack and destroy Millford Abbey and Count Russo appeals to the Duke for aid and instructs the sheriff to raise a militia to deal with the interlopers..
Stage 3 (4 weeks later), the goblins overrun the count's forces and sack the town, running off with food and slaves.
Stage 4 (2 months later) the Duke marches in to retake the valley, but is overwhelmed by the number of goblins. The last anyone recalls is seeing his horse riding away rider-less.
Stage 5 (1 year later), the kingdom is reeling from constant attacks by goblins and its economy is in ruins, refugees flood out of the land like a river crashing through a dike.

The players can choose to intervene at any point along these events (except maybe Stage 1 unless they're really vigilent or looking for trouble). But, they don't really have to. If they succeed in saving the Abbey, the goblins might not attack again, not considering it worth the effort. If they overrun the count's forces because the players didn't get involved or failed before, they can still help the Duke to retake the valley later or they might try to infiltrate on their own before the Duke ever goes in. Heck, maybe the players will even come up with a way to create a deal between the goblins and the Count. The point of the stages is to give myself a plan, but I don't have to stick with it. I don't know what's going to happen at this point, but it's fun to find out along with the players.

I'll also come up with a few basic stats for the goblins for when combat breaks out including the goblins' abilities, their attacks, their defenses, etc.

So, what if my players don't take me up on my threat? No worries! I'll usually have a few threats available at the same time (after all, they only take 10 to 15 minutes to come up with). The players will see the consequences of their inaction or failure in-play. From the above example, if they decide to skip town instead of standing up to the goblins, they'll likely hear about slaves being captured and eventually the collapse of the kingdom. By having multiple timelines through various threats, I can also present the players with a choice for which threat is more important to deal with. Can the Count hold off the goblins for long enough for the players to investigate all of those grave robberies in the city?

Lastly, I come up with arcs. Arcs are like my threats in that I come up with a timeline for them, but they often have their own 5-stage threat for each stage of their own. Maybe the goblins are just stage 1 of my awakening dragon arc. Maybe the reason they're so frantic to occupy a new land is that something worse has forced them to flee from the mountain. I don't normally come up with arcs until we've already finished with at least one threat, just so I can figure out how things are working out in the team and give everyone a chance to flex their muscles on some small fries.

The main purpose of my method is to stay flexible, let the players have a large impact on the game, and to find out what will happen together.

2016-11-22, 08:25 PM
I like this approach very much indeed, especially the PC creation together/session zero ideas, and the "background happenings" that you sketch out as something that will occur if the PCs do not intervene.

2016-11-23, 08:59 AM
Thanks. That's the idea...build everyone up together and to keep the world vibrant.

2016-11-23, 11:41 AM
This sounds a LOT like Dungeon World.

2016-11-23, 12:37 PM
This sounds a LOT like Dungeon World.

I haven't yet run Dungeon World, but I have run other Powered by the Apocalypse games (and it's my favorite system), though I was doing a lot of these things before I discovered Apocalypse World earlier this year and they're pretty system-independent.