Friday, August 14, 2015

My Approach to Making Tabletop Campaigns

How my players see me.

 Designing a tabletop RPG campaign is one of the most rewarding things I've ever done and it's something that's devoted a bunch of my time over the last eleven years. After fumbling around for about eight years I found something that works really well for me. Always remember that, if your players don't have fun with my approach that's OK. Different people have different priorities, so you really have to cater to their tastes. My method's pretty simple: I decide what type of story I want to experience with my players, find a song that gets the feel that I want to experience with my players, pick a game that make that type of story work the easiest, decide what the major themes of the game are, design a world that reinforces those themes, and come up with an opening scenario that'll kick-start the group into the adventure. These steps aren't necessarily in order, although I like to believe that I work in this order, more or less.

When I first start making a campaign I ask myself  what sort of story I would like to experience with the players. Contrary to popular belief a huge load of pre-session prep work does not help all that much if you don't know what you want the game to be about. Decide what it is about your concept that grabs you. This is what we will call the theme of the game. Make sure it's something specific so you know what you want to go for. "Trying to make the best out of a bad situation" is better than "hope", since with one you now know you'll be throwing really crappy situations at the players that they'll be unable to completely solve, whereas with the other you're a bit unfocused. And while that meandering sense may be fine for some players and games it's not really what I like to GM. I like to get right to the point and hammer it in as hard as I can.

The concept for campaign number one is pretty simple: the players are in a sequel to a previous campaign we'd played through, living in a city that was built to imprison an arch-demon. My twist on this idea was very simple: what if the arch-demon they thought they were imprisoning was free and there was a completely different demon they were guarding? That's a pretty horrible situation, so I figured that the game would be about coming to grips that they had the wrong dude and needed to adapt if they needed the save the city. I thought about it being sort of like the first season of Arrow or Eden of the East: how do you save a city? What actions must you do to save a city? What must you become to save others?

This is example number two. In this example the game comes first, not the concept: I really wanted to DM a 4eMOD game. DnD games have always been a very difficult thing to nail down: character classes make character creation much a more individual than group activity and it's always been one of the challenges of the d20 system. So this time I wanted to make a game where that was the strength of the story: disparate characters finding a common cause. 

My next step is to pick a game that mechanically reinforces the theme I just outlined. This usually means that I start with a game that I own  and, if it generally fits, modify it to until it gives me what I want. I modify with extreme conservatism unless I'm very familiar with the system. And, if I am familiar and need to hack it to bits, I do so. I never ever pick a game that doesn't have what I need at the core, however.

Since the previous game was a Burning Wheel game and since this one centers around character development and growth the obvious go-to is Burning Wheel again. This means that Burning Wheel is the defacto game to go to. I usually use every single bloody optional rule in Burning Wheel, so that's pretty much all the thinking I need to do about that. 

In the second pitch I hit a snag: all the stuff that I really wanted to do story-wise just couldn't be done in any version of 4th Edition. Heartbreaking as it was to do, I realized that I couldn't get the cooperative story-telling that I demand as a part of my games and play 4th, not without a whole lot of extra work that really turned 4th into 13th Age. So that's what I decided to do: play 13th Age instead. The good news is that anything from 4th that I really want mechanics-wise is very easy to port over to 13th Age, as opposed to the other way around, where 4th (even 4eMOD) would be unrecognizable to me. 

Now that I have actions that I want my players to do and a game that'll give them the ability to do those actions to the fullest extent I go and find songs for an interior soundtrack to help me keep the mood of those actions going. This is pretty loosey-goosey, but generally I'm starting to find that the song I start with is rarely the song I'll finish with.

For the Burning Wheel game I found a song that really inspired me in ways that I'd never even counted on: Falling Down by Oasis. It was so influential that I even named the campaign after the band! The game really fell into focus here: this was a tale of the miseries of trying to be a savior when you yourself needed saving. And that feel has stuck with the campaign ever since.


In the 13th Age example I've only just begun to think about the concept, but the song Politicians by Switchfoot really strikes me. It's not so much a case of finding something that "fits" as it is about finding something that inspires me to process the game more. And who couldn't get fired up from this song, really? I think I'll name the game "C'mon and Break Me". Certainly captures the feel that I want!


This is when I start working up a world that will facilitate the actions that I want to have the group do. To make players do the actions you want you need to create a universal need for that action in the world around them. Want a game of intrigue? Make the problems more subtle, harder to suss out without going into serious information delving and thus doing a lot of talking and politicking. Want high falutin' action? Blowing up stuff frequently and often, while introducing villains who don't want to talk, and you're on the right track.

In Oasis the setting is a long-running project that I've been working on for years: it's set in your "typical" pseudo-medieval world, but the catch is that there is a giant blue flame in the center of the planet keeping all good things alive.  Other flames exist that for various reasons, but the Flame is the reason why everyone gets to stay sane for another day. I decide that, in order to drive home the idea of interior corruption, to design a "zombie plague" that, as the players progress, find out really isn't necromancy, but is something much more sinister and terrifying. The central conceit of the setting is how to save a city, and thus yourself. So the threats need to be more centered around how to save people. Obviously the characters are gonna need some friends to save.

In "C'mon and Break Me" I decide that  I want to pick the 4e Forgotten Realms Setting, a vastly under-appreciated gem in 4e's crown that lets me screw around while sticking this story inside of the same universe as Oasis (the blue flame from the Spellplague ain't a coincidence). Threats don't care about salvation, they have a goal to accomplish that means everyone's death. Enemies are then nameless entities that you can knock over.

The opening scenario is the hardest part of this whole process for me. You have to make something that'll kick it off in the right direction. This sometimes means taking the time to set up a good situation, even more than what you spent prepping the rest of the game!

Prepping the opening situation for Oasis took a very long time! I had a lot of ideas but couldn't figure out how to best set up the situation. Eventually I decided to go with the grenade approach: threaten everyone and everything all at once. The town the campaign's set in riots after taking in so many zombie survivor refugees that the locals have had enough.

The 13th Age game is a bit easier to gauge: it's a combat game, therefore it should probably open up with a fight! I'd want the nature of the threat showing pretty quickly, so I'd just open it up with a fight with ghosts from the Shadowfell, intent on fulfilling their evil schemes. Right out in the daylight. Yeah, shades in the daylight. That'll work.

The last thing you have to do? Be ready to change your plans on the turn of a dime. No campaign scheme survives contact with the players, and frankly their plans combined with your plans makes for more fun than just one or the other. Learn to incorporate their actions and reactions into your long term plans, because you'll seriously enrich everyone there for doing so. Do not forget: you are not the writer of the story but the director. You take what the players do, add your own vision to it, and make it all one cohesive whole. Never, ever, ever, go against the players for the sake of story unless they're trying to destroy everything out of spite. Then you have a different problem altogether. But that's for another blog post.