How To Make A Campaign
In writing my post about Campaign Structure, I kept wanting to also talk about building the campaign world its self and the story that you intend to tell therein. It was initially not a very cohesive post, so I pulled all that out. But they’re useful thoughts and, I think, interesting. So let’s get into how you build a campaign world and the plot of your campaign or, at any rate, how I do it and, thus, think you should.
So the first step is to pick out your setting or campaign world or whatever you want to call it. This is, of course, assuming you’re not using a system that also dictates your setting. One of the things I like most about using GURPS is that it doesn’t get in the way of my making my own settings, so this step is really important to me. You can harvest inspiration for any number of sources.
The obvious are books, movies and TV shows you’ve enjoyed. There’s some risk, if you cleave too closely to the source material, that your players will see it coming a mile away. There’s also a debate for me: Do I want to run a campaign in the Firefly ‘verse or do I want to run a campaign that feels in many ways like Firefly? If you’re in a settingless system then the former will mean you can crib creatively from the source and trade on the players’ existing familiarity with the setting. On the other hand, you might have to fight with their interpretation of the source and there might be a hefty amount of conversion to do as far as stats go. If you go the other way, there’s a lot of analysis to be done about what makes the source feel like the source, etc. Without feeling so much like it that you create cognitive dissonance amongst the players with the things you change.
I have some unconventional ideas, too. For instance, the song “The Statue Got Me High” by They Might Be Giants always seemed to suggest an awesome plot for a sort of investigative horror campaign where people are vanishing out in the woods, etc. The PCs play the part of the “screaming fire engine sirens”, more or less. Similarly, this desktop of children fighting zombies on a playground had me musing about a campaign world where that would come about.
My point is, almost anything can inspire a campaign world, so keep your eyes open. I’ve sort of gotten to where I’m almost always shopping for good campaign ideas. Even ones I don’t use offer interesting trains of thought or ideas that can be harvested later. This way, too, my players don’t feel like they’re constantly playing variations on the same two movie franchises.
Inventing Your Plot
It’s clear, I should hope, that plotting out a movie and plotting out a campaign are quite different things. So what are the steps we go through when plotting out the actual story for a campaign? First, consider that there are three major stages or, rather, one major event that cuts your planning in two: you start working on the campaign, you and the players make the PCs, you finish fleshing the campaign out.
The next step, for me, is to figure out what about the setting is exciting to me. Or else poll the players and see what seems coolest to them (if I’m torn or whatever). If I can’t figure that out pretty quick, then it’s a sign I should consider another idea. The goal, here, is to figure out what you want to highlight about the setting. This should be treated like a core theme. Keep it in mind whenever you’re making decisions and see if you can figure out how to serve it as often as possible. It should be something along the lines of “all magic is evil” or “beating bad guys up with super powers” or “camaraderie on the battlefield” or “awesome spaceship battles”, for instance. Once I have this picked out, I generally reality-check this with the players. If they like zombies for a different reason than I do, that’s something I need to know before I get too far into things.
Once you’re that far, you want to figure out your main conflict. This involves, quite often, figuring out who the Big Bad will be, what they want, why they want it and how they think they’ll go about getting it. You’ll also probably end up inventing people who don’t want that to happen and people who do. At the least on a high level. Go ahead and give them names and what all, but you don’t want to get too tied down. Similarly, you could start thinking about geography and factions and governmental systems, etc. You want to get a pretty good picture of the parties involved in whatever the big What’s Really Going On thing is and probably a grasp on whether and how you’ll obscure that from the players (remember that Stewart and I assume that a sort of mystery or conspiracy is the default plot structure).
The Player Characters
Then, you’ll want to tell your players about the world and work with them to come up with their characters. This process deserves it’s own post, so I’m going to give it light treatment here: You want to have a good enough understanding of who the player expects his character to be and comfortable enough with the ideas in your setting that if you were suddenly forced to play that character in your own campaign, the player would be able to at least recognize your portrayal. This is so that, in the next step, you can accurately predict what will motivate that character or cause them to be in conflict with themselves, etc. Communication is paramount with this process and, of course, it’s impossible to get it perfect.
Gluing It All Together
The last phase is probably the longest (at least for me). You have all the pieces now, but everything needs polishing and filling out. Nail down your NPCs. Work on NPCs that are directly adjacent to your PCs. If they’re a member of a noble house, you’d better make their whole family and several key servants (or work with the player to make them). If they’re a member of a street gang, give them all names and a paragraph of personality. Really nail down world details and geography.
The real key is figuring out ways that What’s Really Going On will impinge on the goals or normal lives of your PCs. That, put simply, is the entire purpose of this phase of the campaign creation: weaving your PCs’ stories into What’s Really Going On. The easiest way to weave a character into that plot, to motivate them to care about it one way or the other, is to figure out what that character wants (protect their family, become CEO of the company they work for, feed their heroin addiction, etc.) and then figure out how the plot will stop them from being able to do that thing.
The other, also very important, purpose of this phase is to make the world as real as you can for the players, specifically with the creation and fleshing out of NPCs adjacent to their characters. They should provide a sort of layer between the NPCs you initially made up in the first phase and the PCs so that there are lines of contact (however circuitous) to those original NPCs. You might be able–depending on how your PCs fall out–to rework one of those original NPCs into someone who’s adjacent. That’s even better.
Let’s look at an example. In my current campaign I have a noble house named Paknejja. They were going to be embroiled in What’s Really Going On at the early stages and I’d made several NPCs within the House. Then, I had a Player Character, Lamario, who was a performer in some kind of entertaining troupe (he does juggling and knife-throwing). In order to tie them together, I invented Sihandu, owner/ring master of Sihandu’s Circus of Amazements, at which Lamario worked. I also made up several other performers within the Circus. And Sihandu belongs, more or less, to Paknejja. So we have at least a tenuous connection from Lamario to Paknejja via a new layer of NPCs. This is a relatively straight-forward example. Get as creative as you like.
There are a few other things that I like to do, but are really just icing. The first is something that I think Heinlein talked about, but I can’t find a reference. The idea is that you need to have more details and information than you show your readers (in our case, our players). This is something that makes Middle Earth, for example, feel very real and lived in; Tolkien was insane and had all this detail stacked in notes that never made it into the Trilogy, but you could sort of feel the weight of it, reading.
Contrast the Wheel of Time series. Jordan seems, in my opinion, to go out of his way to explain how and why everything in his world works. It takes out a lot of mystery and makes it all feel much more like a toy universe. So make up some things that are unlikely to ever matter or come up in the campaign. Have a legend with a special sword? Name it. What’s the name and culture of the next kingdom over? The next continent over? Why did the founders of this space colony name it this name? Who invented the FTL drive everyone uses? These kinds of things may never come up, but their presence contributes to the reality of the game world.
You might also consider a map or two. I’m not talking about battle maps, either. Not everyone can be like the veterans on The Cartographers’ Guild message boards, but you don’t have to be. I could probably do a whole post about maps, but for now, consider that if you get a bit creative, poor skills as an artist can play into your idea for a hand-drawn black-market map of the tunnels under the castle. If you’re gaming in an established setting, you could maybe buy a map.
Minutia that the players seem interested in is another place you can spend free brain cycles thinking up. If someone spent points in heraldry, make up colors and crests for all the major NPCs. I, myself, am a big language nerd, so I have been known to sketch out some phonetic or grammatical rules to the language of the game setting (mostly for use in proper nouns). Whatever strikes your fancy, however irrelevant to the plot, if it gets your creative juices flowing, make it True. Just make sure that, come game time, you don’t force it down your players’ throats; the way to make the world seem bigger than the map is to not show them all of it.
Where It Goes From There
So now that you’ve got all that, you’re ready to start playing. You’ve got your PCs who’re tied into an over-arching plot and a Big Bad who is trying to get something done. The story arc naturally becomes one where the PCs get hassled trying to live their lives, in trying to remove the hassle discover that it is part of some bigger event, discover the details of that event and then go about changing that event (stopping isn’t required, but is really common). This, also naturally, leads to a climax at a confrontation with the Big Bad and a satisfying ending. All the up-front work makes creating this structure during play fairly easy.