Much like any other creative endeavor, there are a lot of things that you have to get right to make a good campaign. You need good players who are both reliable and engaged. Those players need to be playing characters that they find challenging and fun. You need a setting and a story that gives those characters something cool to do. And as a GM, you have to be prepared and on your game. You have to keep the action moving, keep all of the NPCs and details straight, and set the tone.
If you do all of those things, you’re going to have a good and enjoyable campaign. But even if you accomplish all of them, is doesn’t guarantee you a great campaign. You know that it was a great campaign when people are reminiscing years later about their characters and those awesome things that they did. Part of that is that the GM did a good job of maximizing rockmost – they made decisions and created situations that enabled fun things to happen. But there’s more to it then that. A really great campaign has a heart. The heart of the campaign is the overriding theme, the thing that gives it continuity and makes it feel like more than just a series of events.
Examples of Success
In Ver Jattick, one of the campaigns that Dann ran, the heart of the story was its history. The setting was one that he had played in years before with his friends. For our campaign, he moved the setting forward a few hundred years, so that the actions of his old players were now history and legend. When he described the city, it sounded like an old local giving directions: “Well you go up to Old Barney’s place, and turn right. Then you turn left where that barn used to be before it burned down.”
By itself, that history would have been a cool feature, and would have made the setting more interesting. But the thing that made it better, that took that history and made it the heart of the campaign, is that it pervaded everything. The characters all had dark pasts that tied them somehow to the larger story. The larger story involved uncovering atrocities that happened thousands of years ago. Some of the characters that were PCs in the old campaigns were still alive, though transformed by the years. The history of the place was inescapable. Consequently, when the story reached its epic conclusion, we felt as though the things that we were doing mattered. We felt like we were writing a new chapter in the history of Ver Jattick, and that our actions would determine the fate of generations to come.
In Kjemmen, the campaign that Ben is currently bringing to completion, the heart of the campaign is the feeling of deceit and immorality that pervades the setting. It’s a city built around the corpse of a fallen god of death, run by dark priests and warring nobility that more closely resemble mob bosses than refined lords and ladies. Every person in Kjemmen has a vice; no one is pure, everyone can be bought and no one can be trusted. There are no good guys, just some people that are less bad than others.
Ben did a terrific job of making this feel real for the players. He gave the NPCs believable vices, and let them be revealed without being too obvious about it. The players were betrayed on all sides, and learned the hard way that no one could be trusted. In time, they internalized this feeling, betraying and distrusting one another. In most cases, having a pervasive aura of evil and distrust between the players would be a bad thing, but in this case it was a terrific success.
The heart of the story doesn’t have to be an abstract idea. I ran a fantasy campaign a few years ago in a setting called Bakad. The original seed for the campaign was that I wanted to try a world with unusual fantasy races and no humans. The whole story took place in and around a single city, and that city was ruled by an undying vampire named Toruf-Tar. I always felt like that campaign was kind of a failure. I had two threads in mind for the story, and I totally screwed one of them up and ended up dropping it. The final battle at the end mostly had the PCs standing around and watching while other people did things that were important. My players, on the other hand, loved it, and I’ve never really understood why.
I think it might have been that I accidentally gave the campaign a heart, and that heart was the vampire mayor. From the beginning, he had a certain badass mystique about him, and the players were always excited when the story involved him or one of his two vampire lieutenants. The branch of the story that I didn’t abandon, and that I originally thought was the less important one, was about one of his former vampire lieutenants that had betrayed him and was thought dead. As that story became more and more central, the campaign became more fun. In hindsight, it was obvious. Toruf-Tar was the heart of my campaign. He was what it was about, whether I recognized it or not. As events moved closer to that heart, they felt more significant and more fun.
An Illustrative Failure
A few years ago I ran a Fantasy/Old West campaign. The idea was to make it feel as real-world as possible, but with the addition of magic and fantasy races as stand-ins for the old west tropes. The Dwarves were the train engineers and barkeeps, the elves were the city folk from back east, he emancipation proclamation freed the orcs from slavery, the centaurs were the Native Americans, and so on. The campaign story was about a large, secretive construction project outside of town that was supposed to be an aqueduct but was really a cover for a secret gold mine. Oh, and the miners were being being tricked into unearthing an ancient hidden city full of terrifying monsters. The setting was cool, and the characters were great, but the story was weak. In hindsight, it just kind of felt tacked on.
The reason that the story was weak was that it had nothing to do with what made the setting interesting. The most compelling aspects of the setting were the racial and class politics represented and enhanced by the fantasy races. Not surprisingly, a lot of the best moments in the campaign came from scenes where that theme was central. If I could go back and do it all over again, I would try to find a way to make the story be about that instead.
For me, the lesson going forward is to add another criteria to the list of things necessary for a good campaign. Before play begins, I need to figure out what makes my campaign setting special. Then I need to make that a theme for the whole campaign, and come up with a story that emphasizes that theme. If I can’t find a theme, a heart, for my campaign, then it’s time to go back to the drawing board.
Secondly, once I’ve found that theme, it should become a guiding principle going forward. In the same way that, when faced with a choice between two options I should be asking myself “What rocks most?” I should look at every major decision through the lens of the overriding theme, and make sure that I’m not straying too far off course. If I can accomplish that, I can hopefully turn a good campaign into a great one.
SPOILER WARNING: I’m going to make some references to the plot of the movie Serenity below. Continue at your own peril.
In recent planning of my upcoming campaign set in the Firefly universe, Stewart and I realized that we had a scene that needed to happen pretty early on in the campaign, but we weren’t sure what shape it should take. To clarify, when I say “scene” in this case, I’m using it in the sense of, “A scene where the PCs learn about the ruins outside of town.” or “…where the Big Bad’s henchman makes his first appearance.” Knowing that something like that needs to happen still gives you tons of leeway in how it happens and that’s what I’m going to discuss today.
In our case, the thing we were worried about was Reavers. Basically, Stewart and I feel like Reavers have Been Done. They were pretty central to the movie and as space boogey-men go, they’re sort of played. So we’re removing them from the universe. Not in a meta-game, retcon kind of way, but in that the Alliance went and cleaned them all out after having gotten egg on their face. We wanted to convey this to the players in an in-game way, rather than just say it once before we got started. So we need a scene where the players learn that Reavers are over.
The First Idea
Our initial idea was to have them overhear someone using Reavers as an excuse; sort of like the dog ate my illegal cargo. We envisioned a scene where they go to meet Badger or some equivalent and see him finishing up with a previous meeting during which the hapless NPC captain says something like, “B-b-but we was attacked by Reavers!” and then for Badger to say, “Oh. Sure. Everyone’s attacked by Reavers these days. They must be slipping, though. Their victims’ mortality rates are suffering greatly. No, you prat! Everyone knows the Alliance cleared them all out months ago! You’re just late with your cargo and you’ve broken our agreement.” That conveys the information, certainly, and it’s passable, but as it was our first idea, we kept going.
The next idea was that cliched scene from all movies where you cut in and catch the tail end of a news report. I imagined the anchor saying something like, “–enate’s Private Security Liaison Office has announced that the government sponsored bounty on Reavers has been rescinded citing the fact that there have been no confirmed Reaver sightings in over a year.” That’s a bit more concise, but that is the only thing it’s got going for it. The first problem, and this is a big one, is that the news is going to be immediately untrustworthy to PCs in this setting. They’ll assume the station is an Alliance mouth piece and it might actually convey that Reavers have not been cleaned out.
Secondly, and this is a failing of the first idea as well, it is a major shopping cart. If you tell the players about something they’ve overheard, it’s almost as big a signal as a prop that this thing is Important and probably a Clue. They will likely perceive it as you going out of your way to make sure they heard something. If it is a clue and important and you want to make sure they know it, then maybe that’s a good tactic. In our case, we don’t want to give them that red herring. We want them to know it and not be distracted by knowing it.
The Actual Idea
We circled back to the idea of a contact and using Reavers as an excuse, but with a twist. See, one way you can slip in information without drawing attention to it (especially valuable for this sort of flavory, setting-establishing information) is to directly engage the PCs about it. Or, rather, bring it up in a conversation with the PCs. Now I’m envisioning a scene where the PCs come to Badger at the completion of a job and are late (or are simply accused of being late) and he says something like, “And what’s your excuse, eh? Wait. Let me guess. You were asked by a passing Alliance patrol to take some emergency medical supplies to Whitefall and, noble souls that you are, you couldn’t decline. Nono! It was Reavers. Were you attacked by Reavers? The last ship of Reavers, which has been pluckily dodging Alliance patrols and bounty hunters for months now came out of hiding to find you. Luckily, you escaped with your lives and managed to lose them before coming here or, clearly, we’d all be in very, very bad danger.”
This is hopefully elaborate enough (and we’d see if I could keep up his accent at the table for that long of a stretch) that it would embed the information in the players’ minds. Also, because we’ve directly engaged the players on the topic, they’ll feel more tied to the exchange than if they merely overheard it. Further, since Badger’s a snotty guy and his goal in this speech is to heap derision on the PCs there’s less chance that they’d get distracted into thinking that Reavers were some sort of plot thing. The more likely case, I’d think, would be that they’d start to think Badger being a jerk was a plot thing. What I’m saying is, the information feels just like flavor, as it should. It would also be at least a little funny.
Once upon a time, I was really into comic books. I know, shocking right? In fact, the way that I really got into RPGs wasn’t D&D (though it was the first thing that I played), it was the Marvel Superheroes Role-Playing Game. For those of you who haven’t played it, it has most of the standard components for RPGs – characters had attributes, powers, and skills and they gained experience* that they could use to improve their abilities. One of the things that made the game really fun was that the combat system did a great job of simulating the phenomenon of super-strong characters clobbering each other and emerging unscathed. They had terrific maps of city areas where you could stage battles, and it was not at all uncommon for a character to get knocked off of a building, go through another building, fall 20 stories and then get up and come back for more.
As I got older, I became more of a fan of the little guy. Thor was cool and all, but he was a pansy compared to Daredevil. So I tried to use the same rules system to play grittier stories, with heroes fighting thugs with guns instead of aliens with forcefields. It fell flat. Why? Guns.
“God created man, Sam Colt made them equal.”
Guns are a big problem. They’re cheap, they’re easy to use, and they are way more effective than most superpowers. In the comics, characters only get shot when it helps to move the story. Every other time, the bad guys miss, or the protagonist dodges. In the Marvel System, guns were assumed to be largely ineffectual. Daredevil could eat a couple of bullets and shrug it off. This means that in order to make common street toughs seem dangerous, they needed to be carrying blaster guns and the like – which breaks the gritty, street-level tone that we’re striving for.
So then you decide that you’re willing to change rules systems to get that gritty, 3-color comic feel. You pick up a system where guns and their damage are more realistically modeled. Now you have a new problem: dead player characters. Unless your characters are actually bulletproof, a fight with a few armed thugs is going to be lethal.
Let’s say that you’re playing Daredevil, or even my personal favorite, our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. He’s agile enough to dodge bullets, and he has a nifty spider-sense to make sure that nobody gets the drop on him. He’s in a fight with a few thugs – let’s say three. He’s in a dark alley somewhere and he’s rescued that poor lady who was being mugged, and now it’s time to deal with the bad guys. He spins a web at them, and they point their guns and shoot at him.
A full automatic pistol can fire about three rounds in a second. So three thugs times three shots gives us nine rounds fired. Let’s say that our thugs aren’t all that good with their guns, and only four of the nine shots are on target. Let’s also posit that Spider-Man is agile enough to dodge the bullets 90% of the time. So, his chances of dodging all four bullets is 0.9^4, or about 66%. This means that 1 in 3 times, Spidey gets shot. Those aren’t very good odds for our favorite web-head.
Now hold on a second. People play realistic campaigns that use guns all the time, right? And those characters aren’t dying left and right, so something has to be wrong here. The difference is that in realistic campaigns that use guns, people use different tactics. They take cover. They provide covering fire. They wear body armor. Most importantly, they use guns themselves, putting truth to the saying that the best defense is a good offense. In a truly realistic campaign, you should only be rolling to dodge a bullet when everything else has failed.
So what does this mean for our hopes of a gritty, realistic campaign using superheroes? Well, it depends on what and how much you are willing to compromise. If the thing that’s important to you is feats of acrobatics and martial prowess overcoming armed men, you’re going to have to use a rules system that tones down the lethality.
If you’re most interested in a realistic setting that happens to have superheroes in it, then you either need to make sure that all of your player characters can survive getting shot several times and shrug it off or you have to accept that they are going to look like SWAT teams with capes. That’s the problem with realistic campaigns. The realism tends to get in the way of the fun.
*The experience system in the Marvel system actually rewarded karma points instead of experience. This system was particularly clever, as you could lose karma for doing evil things (including leaving bad guys to die), so there was an incentive for the players heroically. This did a lot to preserve the comic book feel of the game. Also, you were allowed to spend karma to affect critical die rolls. I think that this is cool in theory, as you could choose to sacrifice character progression for the sake of the story, but in practice it removed a lot of the drama. A lot of the suspense is removed when you know that you can ensure that you can’t fail that one critical roll. That’s why I’m a fan of killing your PCs.
It’s pretty common advice for new writers that they should read a lot. Similarly, reading good code makes you a better programmer and watching a great dancer will help make you a better dancer. In the spirit of those sorts of activities (practice through observation), this running series of posts will take a popular story from page or screen and see what can be learned about roleplaying games from it. Primarily we’ll look at the setting of the story as a campaign setting and the characters in the story as PCs and NPCs. We’re not evaluating or judging the “goodness” of these things, just looking at how well they would translate to the medium of RPGs.
Geographically speaking, the setting of Harry Potter is basically ideal for a campaign. The main location, Hogwarts, is a giant castle with centuries of history and secrets accrued over time. The main characters don’t have full reign of it, so some parts are off-limits and some are not, leaving plenty of room for hijinks. There is both a center of safety and home (their House common room and dorms) and a center of adversary (the opposing House’s common room) in close proximity and plenty of space for that rivalry to play out in neutral territory. Also, you could make a really killer map of the castle for the players to pore over.
There are a handful of secondary locations shown off at various times which can help break things up in case people are feeling stuck in the giant castle. They can go down to Hogsmeade or Diagon Alley. The stories generally start at Harry’s relatives’ house and/or the Weasley’s house. I suppose you could argue that the forest surrounding Hogwarts–home to centaurs, giant spiders and unicorns–is another secondary location apart from the school proper. This emphasis on one central location means that players could really get a sense of the place and feel like they know their way around. The fact that a handful of other locations are readily available means that they can still be made to go somewhere that’s not home turf once in a while.
In a less literal sense, the setting of Harry Potter has much to offer. The main thing, of course, is magic. Players, from the get-go, are allowed to play around with a special power that doesn’t exist in real life. Since the main characters are students at Hogwarts, they are watched over by a cadre of professors who are interested enough to keep anyone from killing each other, but distracted and/or trusting enough to let the protagonists get into entertaining trouble. Since everyone’s a magician, you might have trouble differentiating one character’s skill set from another (more on that later) and some players might feel stifled under the constant watch of the drastically more powerful administration.
I think it’s pretty clear there are three PCs in the Harry Potter stories. Harry obviously gets some top billing but not so much that I think it ruins everything. As the leader in crime (for the most part), Harry’s character is focused more towards cunning and non-magical skills, but he’s got a few powerful spells he can rely on in a pinch. He’s got solid balance for a PC and, really, the only down side is that he’s so central to the over-arching plot.
Hermione is more focused on magic than Harry, clearly. She knows more spells than he does and, in general, is better at them. It’s possible she knows more spells and better than anyone in her age group at Hogwarts. Basically, she’s a huge book worm and her greatest asset is her knowledge. When asking how Hermoine solves problems (without being specific about the problem), the answer is almost always magic first or else some other kind of book learning. She also has some interesting character traits that can be both an asset and a detriment (like her compulsive need to get good grades).
Ron is a bit of a problem. He’s pretty much balanced like Harry, but worse at everything. He’s the weakest candidate for PCdom of the three, but he’s always around so mere page count tends to counter-act that. It’s almost as if Ron were built by a very inexperienced GM and player together and ended up not using his points (or whatever character creation currency you use) efficiently compared to Harry’s player. One thing Ron brings to the table is his having lived in the magical world his entire life. It’s almost never used to good effect in the stories, but this could potentially let him know things the other players don’t and get to tell them about stuff now and again.
The NPCs are obvious: Dumbledore is, like Gandalf, there to act as a plot device for the most part and reveal Things to the players. Draco Malfoy is a wonderful non-lethal foil for the PCs and comes with Slytherin goons for when someone needs beating up (or whatever the verb is for magically abusing someone). The teachers range in their level of sympathy and depth from Snape and Hagrid to, uh… whoever it is that is head of House Hufflepuff and, you know, the teacher that’s a ghost. In general, the student body is large enough to hide important NPCs in until they become important (like Luna Lovegood or Cho Chang).
I’m not sure if we should consider one book or the whole series when talking about stories. Aside from the fact that people do less time for manslaughter than it would take to run the whole campaign, the structure of the entire series is nice in that there is a sequence of smaller story arcs that create and work within a much larger arc. Realistically, I can’t see a group of players being able to maintain the time commitment long enough to get through all seven years of campaign time. Luckily, any given single book is pretty self contained and could be a campaign to its self.
The formula is pretty close the typical Dann Campaign formula: The PCs start a semester and go to a few classes. Before too long it becomes clear that Something Odd is going on and they set about figuring out what that thing is, who’s behind if and thwarting it. In the course of things, they generally have plenty of sneaking about to do, learn some new spells, get side-tracked on some interesting red herrings and have a few opportunities to use their magic in cool ways. The one thing I’d be worried about would be the relatively low level of directly adversarial magic in most of the stories. A lot of players will really want to be slinging around those petrificus totaluses.
Alternatively, if you were going to run a Hogwarts campaign without Harry and the gang, that would be doable a few generations before or after them. Unlike The Matrix or Star Wars, by the end of the books Harry hasn’t drastically changed the setting as it is first introduced. In fact, he’s mostly protected a status quo. So if your players all played characters that were too young to really remember Voldemort at all, they could still go to Diagon Alley to buy wands and meet Nearly Headless Nick and narrowly avoid getting in trouble for being out of bed after hours by clever use of the Marauder’s Map.
One of my biggest concerns about this setting is that the PCs would all be kids. It seems like a real challenge for an adult (or someone in their late teens) to play a 12- or 14-year-old. Part of the stories rely on the scope of events and violence being scaled to kids and on the characters making childish, naive or immature decisions. So first off, you have to decide that your players will be able to do that well and then you have to decide that they’ll have fun doing it. Especially as the main characters start to get involved in romance plots, they routinely behave irrationally and immaturely. As well, magic is powerful and somewhat of a responsibility for which most kids aren’t going to be prepared, really. Is that something your players will have fun exploring, or will it get tiring quickly?