Friday, December 6, 2013

How to Build Your Campaign: A Step-By-Step List

A roleplaying game is about story. A session is a chapter, an arc is a novel, and a campaign is a series of collected adventures showing the full breadth and depth of how a party grew and changed, struggled and strove, eventually going from humble beginnings to perhaps challenge the gods themselves.

For those willing to step behind the DM screen, I salute you.
You poor, foolish bastards.
You have accepted the challenge of taking four or more disparate characters over whom you have only the most infinitesimal amount of control, and decided to weave them into your epic narrative. That is a colossal task, and one that is very, very easy to lose your grip on. Don't worry, Improved Initiative is here to help by providing you with a handy checklist to get you from start to finish without losing what's left of your mind.

Step #1: Choose Your World
Any time, any where. But seriously, you have to pick one.
Where is your game taking place? Are you in Paizo's Golarion? The Forgotten Realms? Perhaps you're taking a spirited romp through the Grimm Lands, or you've decided to see how well your players can handle the Deadlands of the weird West. You can choose whichever world you want, but this is the fundamental building block you need to start with.

Pre-made worlds are the easiest ones to use. These worlds already have rules for how games function, they have histories, countries, deities, and a list of creatures that do and don't exist. These worlds can be thought of as training wheels for the creative process; if the world is already fleshed out, then that takes a huge burden off of the storyteller. It's sort of like fan fiction in a way; the world is already set up, and all you have to do is tell an exciting story within that world. And learn the rules. Always familiarize yourself with a setting before taking any further steps.

Also, because we're talking about realms of fantasy and the power of the imagination, there's nothing that says a storyteller can't just make up his or her own world. Commonly referred to as homebrew worlds, this is what happens when a storyteller wants to stitch a setting from whole cloth. While there's nothing wrong with doing this, it isn't for everyone. If world-building and rules balance aren't your strong suits, then it's a better idea to stick with pre-existing worlds rather than trying to make a certain game's rule set adhere to your private creation.

Step #2: Choose Your Conflict
Choose wisely.
Before your campaign can get started there has to be some driving force; a conflict that kicks off the adventure. The black knight's undead army is marching on the capital city. The Maltese Falcon has been sighted and everyone's trying to get their hands on it. An evil cult is stealing children and sacrificing them to awaken ancient, eldritch gods. In short, a thing is happening and adventure awaits!

What often gets overlooked is that a storyteller has to plan out not one, but many conflicts. For instance, the big, overarching, end-game conflict might be the heroes attempting to stop the unleashing of a bound god bent on the destruction of the entire world. That's a pretty heavy load to lay onto a 1st level party. In fact chances are good you will completely snap their suspension of disbelief right then and there. So what you need to do is to create a chapter plot, and then a novel plot, that feeds somehow into the over-arching series plot that is your campaign.

So what does that even mean? Well, examples work best, so that's what I'll give you.

Your first-session chapter plot is an easy one; your heroes are in a town when it gets raided by goblins. The heroes fight off the goblin threat, and find out that this has been going on for some time, and a plot hook is dropped to persuade the party to trail the goblins back to their lair. Over the next several sessions the heroes cross through the woods and into the mountains, then go on a dungeon crawl through the caves. The party slogs through fetid tunnels, dodging traps and battling ambushes, and in the end they square off with a bug bear and his hobgoblin lieutenants. The party finds some stolen treasures and supplies... but not many. Not enough. Where did they go?

That's the end of an arc. A fairly big threat has been dealt with, and the party has probably gained a few levels. They've come closer together as comrades-in-arms, and there's a hook for the next arc. Who took the treasures? Where did they take them, and why? Were the goblins really acting on their own, or was a greater force using them as a cat's paw?

The next arc deals with your heroes getting more involved. Perhaps they managed to recover some treasure of modest value. Black-robed agents ambush the party days later to reclaim a statue which, on the surface, seems like worthless junk. The assassins are unknown to anyone, but the leader carries a letter commanding they bring the statue to Lord Aaron Vaile once recovered. More information could be had from captives, and from knowledge gained about local happenings. Does the party disguise themselves as the assassins and infiltrate the Lord's manor? Do they report the happenings to the constabulary, who asks the party to come with on a raid? Does the Lord flee into a hidden escape tunnel, or offer bland excuses? Is he a member of a secret cult, or is he just a middle man who might provide more information if leaned on? When the party discovers his masters, how deep will the plot go?

This second arc draws the party in more deeply, providing them with enough challenges to level them up, but at no point in time putting the fate of the world on the shoulders of some fairly average people who lack any special powers. You as the storyteller can choose to have your entire plot linked together as if it were one story, or you can have arcs which are separate, individually-wrapped books that just happen to feature the same party growing in power. Maybe the goblin raid leads to corrupt lords, which leads to an evil cult, which leads to a plot to awaken a god. Maybe the goblins were completely separate, but the fame and notoriety the party gains from defeating them leads a knight to offer a place in his service, which will lead to even more adventures. That choice is up to you.

Step #3: Fill Your World

There is nothing, and I mean nothing, more unforgivable than empty world syndrome.
I go and talk to... someone.
This is where you put meat on your story's bones. You need to name the head bad guy, and all of his cronies. You need to decide what their motives are, what spells they know, what items they have, and who knows about them. You need to work your way down the line, expanding outward until you know the towns, the bars, the shopkeepers, the old hermits, the sheriff, the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick makers as well as you know any character you've ever made. Take a look at a few campaign modules to get a feel for how much information you need to have.

Do you need to know why Broke Tooth, the goblin berserker decided to leave his brood and become a bandit? Probably not. Generally speaking you don't need to name every NPC and face in the crowd players will come across. You should have a list of names and attributes for NPCs which you know for certain the players will talk to, and you should probably work out what these characters sound like, along with a general gist of what abilities they do or don't have. Is Solomon the dwarven barkeep a veteran of the Green Tooth Orc Wars? Or is he just a guy who serves drinks and enjoys a good smoke at the end of a long day? Is he both? These are the sort of things you need to know, and you need to know them for a disproportionate amount of your cast. Don't be afraid to draw up characters, take notes, draw out maps, and write timelines. We call that being a good storyteller.

Step #4: Choose Your Heroes

Some storytellers leave this completely up to the players. They say "just make whatever you want, first level, anything in the core rules." That sounds like enough guidance, but trust me on this one, it isn't.
Unless you're okay with an entire party of this guy?
If there's a certain story you want to tell, you have to look at the kinds of party members you want to have. If you want to have a low magic game then you have to tell your players up front there are no spellcasters allowed. If you want to have more of a sword and sorcery feel rather than high fantasy you may need to inform your players that it's humans only, other races by special review only. You might need to say there are no evil-aligned party members allowed, no worshipers of certain gods, and no one is allowed to take the Leadership feat.

Players don't traditionally respond well to a list of thou-shalt-nots, though. So what you should do instead is get everyone together and pitch your idea to them as a group. Let the players ask questions, make suggestions, and get a feel for what you're doing. If your players agree, then have a character creation night where you work with each player on build and character motivation, ensuring that they will fit right into your game and that you as the storyteller know what will pull a given character in a given direction. You aren't the author, and you can't generally make them do anything, but you can nudge the story one way or another if you're tactful. More on motivation at Kobold Quarterly here.

Step #5: Roll Out
I had to.
Once you've detailed your world, the plot, and you know who the heroes are, you are ready to get going. All the prep-work is done, which means one thing.

Your players are going to make everything you planned irrelevant.

Don't get upset about this, and don't try to force your players to follow heavy, iron rails in the direction you want them to go. Running a roleplaying game is not a choose-your-own-way adventure; it's more like a chess game. There is a board, and the players can move all over it. They each have different abilities, and different methods of getting to the other side. Maybe the party decides to storm the gates and fight the ogre king like you pictured. Maybe they opt to climb over the mountain and scale down from above Mission Impossible style. Maybe they poison the king's food, and walk away without a single initiative check. Maybe they negotiate a peace, allying the nation of ogres with the elf kingdom.

Give your players a goal, but don't dictate how they get there.

As always, thanks for dropping by Improved Initiative. I hope that all my fellow players and storytellers find this checklist useful, and that it enhances every game you play from here on out. If you want to show your gratitude then share the links with your friends, or toss a couple of nickels into our "Bribe the DM" cup on the upper right side of your screen. For advice on how to be a better writer, check out the Literary Mercenary, and to keep up to date with what's going on follow us on Facebook or Tumblr.

1 comment:

  1. I talked to you before about some ideas I had for a campaign... then I looked online for a guide for creating said campaign. As I suspected, one of the most concise and most encompassing suggestions came from you! Thank you!