Excitement. Buzz. Anticipation. Enthusiasm. How best to create these for a new campaign?

Ask the gamemasters

This question comes from BlueNinja, who wrote:

“I have an idea for a campaign, that follows off the plot of a popular CRPG [Computer RPG — Mike] (set a few centuries later, of course, so that the PCs don’t have to compete directly with the game’s PCs). While I am enthused about the idea, most of my gaming group has not played the game and know virtually nothing about it. Without finding them a copy to play, or otherwise mandating it, what is a good way to put out the background of the world to try and give my players the enthusiasm that makes for good gameplay?”


Saxon Brenton contributed to this article.

It was my initial impression that this was a tricky question to answer, because it was actually asking for two things that may be at cross-purposes.

The first is the best way to deliver Background information to the players, and the second is how to generate enthusiasm for the proposed campaign. The goals and purposes of these two activities are not necessarily mutually compatible.

When I consulted one of my fellow GMs, he thought the same thing. But we all have new campaigns to launch from time to time, so…

Today’s answer is going to be broken into three parts.

  • Ways to deliver background, and their respective pros and cons;
  • The best ways to generate buzz/enthusiasm; and
  • A wrap-up considering What common ground, if any, can be found between the two.


Mike’s Answer [incorporating Saxon’s Solutions], Part 1: Imparting Background to prospective and confirmed players

There are lots of ways to impart campaign background to players. Most of them have major potential downsides. After all, you can lead a player to information but can’t make him read – and even if he does, he may not understand. I’ve categorized the different approaches that I’ve experienced (or can conceive of) into 8 broad categories, and after looking at these in detail, I’ve got a little general advice on the subject.

1. Major Info Dump

“I’m starting a new campaign, here’s 700 pages of background to read. And 300 pages of House Rules to go with them.”

There are some out there who would accuse me of the above, but even at my most extreme, I never went that far. But I do know one GM who required his players to have read the Eberron setting – ALL of it – before play began. They didn’t, of course.

And that’s just the start of the problems with this approach. With so much, things get lost – we refer to it as information overload.

Nevertheless, there are rare occasions when this is the best way to go. When you have a lot of information to dispense, for example, and your players are all avid readers – and you are an avid writer.

Cross-referenced, Indexed, Searchable, Annotatable
These are all tools for making information accessible to the reader. They are also areas where RPGs are notoriously deficient. The more of these that you can provide with your Info Dump, the better off you are.

Campaign Wiki
One alternative to the prose dump is to create a campaign Wiki. If you grant players the appropriate privileges, they can annotate to their heart’s content, and it’s usually easy to incorporate a custom Google Search if the Wiki doesn’t have that sort of function already. A variant on this theme is to start a Google+ Group for the Campaign. Cross-referencing and Indexing still have to be done manually, though, however the use of pages and sub-pages can be an automatic poor-GM’s substitute, at least to a minimal extent.

A free WordPress Site
Using Blog Software as though it were a Wiki not only provides all the advantages of a Wiki, but by providing multiple ways of indexing – keywords, internal links, categories – provides greater flexibility and multiple layers of indexing, as I pointed out in Have WordPress, will Game.

Upside for Mind-Mappers
An upside for anyone who uses mind-mapping to organize their thoughts and notes is that the information to populate these sites is already organized appropriately to at least some extent!

As I discovered when I went to do a reasonably minor update to CM several years ago (“Reconstructing the Campaign Mastery Blog), it’s massively inconvenient to change your taxonomy in mid-stream. On this occasion, less than two months into what is about to become a Six-year existence, it still took six-and-a-half hours to update a mere 20 blog entries. Even granted that my system was slow at the time, that’s still just under twenty minutes per blog entry. These days, with 642 blog entries – including this one – we’re talking about 210 HOURS of work to do the same job.

Spending a whole day (or even a working week) preening your taxonomy might seem like a lot at the time, but it’s trivial compared to the time it would take to correct a flawed design.

ALL such work is an additional overhead, campaign prep that needs to be done and done right before it gets used by anyone, including you. So that’s a downside.

2. Major Info Dump In-Game

I tried this; the idea was that by roleplaying the delivery, I could break up the info dump into more digestible chunks. You can read all about how it worked out here: My Biggest Mistakes: Information Overload in the Zenith-3 Campaign, but the title alone should tell you all you need to know.

In smaller doses, this might still work, so the technique must still be considered viable – but lose the “Major” from the technique description.

caption text

A reduced-size example of the Fumanor Website

3. Tailored Info Dump

This is a variant on the Campaign Wiki / WordPress Site approach mentioned above, and one that worked a treat for the original Fumanor Campaign.

I constructed a website designed for off-line access, using custom links at the bottom of each page to string separate pages (and even variant forms of some pages) into a coherent narrative that was tailored to the characters. There was a Common/Everyman thread, a Priests-and-Mages thread, an Elves thread, and a GM-only thread. This enabled players to read the Common/Everyman thread and decide what character class they wanted to be, and – if they decided to run a Mage, Cleric, or whatever, they could access specialist knowledge that these groups had preserved that had been forgotten by the everyday man. Of course, there was heavy bias at work in the various groups, and it was made clear that this was all being delivered “in-game” and not ex-cathedra – meaning that there was no guarantee that a single word of it was true. Distortion, Bias, and simple Error were all built-in. Then I bundled the whole thing up in a self-extracting Zip file small enough to email around. What’s more, I could (and did) annotate and expand and correct it from time to time.

The downside to this approach is that it takes a lot of prep time, and you need to know your way around a website editor capable of producing off-line web sites. Frontpage Express has always been my weapon of choice even though it’s zonks old, now. I also know basic HTML, and know the trick of renaming HTML files as .rtf to enable direct-editing of the code with wordpad (somewhat more powerful than notepad, but not so powerful that it gets in the way), so I had and have the know-how to use this approach. If you don’t, go for something more WISIWIG that will do the job for you.

4. Limited Info Dump

Or, here’s an idea, Don’t Tell The Players Everything. Restrict yourself to The things they need to know at the start of play, and plan on educating them as things come up.

This puts even more responsibility on the GM’s shoulders than he had already; it means that every time he has information that the PC would have and the player doesn’t, he is honor-bound to make the player aware of it. This can interrupt game-flow, but that can be the lesser evil.

Synopsize the campaign world’s history onto a single page or less. Use another page for the society, politics, crime & punishment, money and trade, etc that the players need to know. Produce a one-page map with just the bare bones on it. Produce dedicated half-pages for each of the races available to players for PCs, and another for each of the major class types (if you’re talking D&D or Pathfinder), using copy-and-paste if necessary. The result is a four-page dossier that is theoretically unique to each character and gives them just enough knowledge to start play.

Depending on the campaign, you might be able to go further. Try halving that – you can’t reduce the map much, but that’s 4 pages down to 2-and-a-half. Halve it again, and you’re down to less than a page of text and a page of map. That’s the target most people aim for when designing Tournament Adventures.

Of course, if you’re using standard races / alien species from the sourcebooks, or classes, you need not do anything but point people at the appropriate pages and maybe offer a URL or two.

The Downside to such severe restriction might be an apparent lack of depth and originality. The more you rely on other people’s sources, the more “canned” the campaign can feel. And there is always the danger of leaving out something important. For an ongoing campaign, I think four or five pages is about right, most of the time.

5. Introductory Campaign Phase

One way to limit what you need to tell players about up-front is to design a phase of the campaign that is about nothing but bringing the campaign background to life and presenting it to the players. With the exception of the most recent adventure, that describes exactly the technique being employed in the Zenith-3 “Earth Regency” campaign – and it was supposed to apply to the most recent adventure, too, but the players decided to get clever on me and pre-empted a couple of adventures intended to take place much later in the campaign. What was supposed to be a quick introduction to a background character who would eventually become significant ended up taking most of the year. You can read more about that next week.

You can design an entire phase of your campaign around imparting necessary information to the PCs in-play instead of in advance. Don’t tell them about Drow, have them encounter Drow. Or have them meet someone who is frightened by Drow. Or who was once attacked by Drow. Or who wants to attack the Drow. Build an adventure around the concept of making each “chunk” of the campaign background essential information for that Adventure, and let the players start to build up their own “Big Picture” – before the main campaign starts in earnest.

6. The Preliminary Campaign: PCs as Youths

A variation on this approach is to get the players to give you a summary of the life events they want their characters to have experienced prior to the start of play. Use the “Limited Info Dump” to give them what they need for that, and require them be generic. Then, in a series of solo game sessions, and compressing time in between key events as much as possible, roleplay the actual events, filling in background as you go. “You want to be orphaned at a young age and raised by an Elf? Okay.” “You want to be taken under the wing of a legendary fighter and trained by him? No problem.”

The notion is that each of the player’s chosen life events gets filtered by the GM, adjusted and altered to be accommodated within the campaign setting. The player doesn’t need to know in advance how the game society treats orphans, the GM can show him. This can bring a character backstory to life in a way nothing else will.

I would even contemplate using a different game system, one designed for more narrative interaction, ie a “storytelling” game system. I’ve never used one, but several have been recommended in comments here at Campaign Mastery in the past – FATE and FUDGE have both been mentioned in this context in the past (and thanks to Brent P. Newhall of brentnewhall.com for supplying the links, way back in May, 2009!)

7. Information Osmosis

The absolute best way to give information to the players is as they play. It’s not easy, but as I demonstrated in Yesterday Once More, the Campaign that I gave away a couple of weeks ago, it is possible. A key part of each adventure is telling the PCs what they need to know about the game world and the physics and the tech involved and it’s limitations as it becomes relevant.

In practice, it’s rare that the whole background can be imparted in this way; but combining this with the “Limited” or “Targeted” information-dump techniques can save you a lot of grief.

8. Exotic Solutions

Create an Infographic, or a video trailer, for the campaign. This sort of thing is way beyond my level of expertise but if this sort of thing is up your alley, take advantage of it!

The assumption of Ignorance

To paraphrase what I said earlier, “You can lead a player to information but you can’t make him read.” One of the decisions that should be made up-front when you deciding how to disseminate the campaign background to the players is “How am I going to handle someone not having read it?”

There are lots of alternatives. Peer pressure, holding up the game while you educate the player on what he should already know, is one approach. Assuming that if the player doesn’t know, neither does the character, is a fairly brutal but effective solution. Even more brutal is requiring the character to “buy” the background they should already know, one word at a time, with XP, is even more brutal. Still another is simply forcing decisions onto the character when they were made in “willful ignorance”, though I don’t recommend that as a technique. Assuming that none of the players have read the relevant information, or that at least one will have forgotten it, is another, rather more generous approach, because it leads you to build “educational reminders” into your adventures that get everyone on the same page when it’s necessary.

The degree of harshness should depend on how reasonable your expectations are, which is hard for you to judge. It’s utterly unreasonable to expect anyone to have memorized that proverbial 700-page magnum opus that I mentioned as an extreme example at the start. But if you were more reasonable in your expectations, it provides less reason to be forgiving – though you should always take individual circumstances into account. Letting the other players choose the punishment to be applied is sometimes the best policy, because they are in the best position to decide how reasonable you were being in the first place.

It’s all about Them

You should always remember that you aren’t writing Campaign Background for yourself; any benefits you get from being able to use it as reference material is a bonus. It should be an extract from your Campaign Planning Notes aimed at telling the Players what they need to know, and that means that the delivery method and depth should be something that suits them. There are worse ideas than providing a limited background and permitting them to ask questions for more information in things that interest them, or that they think their character should know a little more about.

The players define the standards of what is acceptable, what is required, and how success in delivering the background is to be measured. You’re just along for the ride.

Mike’s Answer, [incorporating Saxon’s Solutions], Part 2: Enthusiasm

But all that presupposes that you have players in the first place. How do you get potential players interested enough to sign up in the first place? This is a LOT easier said than done. I’m lucky – I’ve never had to actively spruik for players, and there have been times when I’ve had to do everything short of beating them off with a stick! At one point (in the mid-90s, I think it was), I had 23 players on the waiting list for my Superhero campaign!!

But I won’t let my lack of direct experience get in the way – I’m used to winging it and pretending to be an Expert In Everything. I’ve given the subject some thought, and I have twelve specific thoughts, and three pieces of general advice, to offer. But I’m warning readers up front that this is likely to be far from complete or as robust as usual – apply grains of salt at your own discretion!

i. Be Enthusiastic

Smiles, and enthusiasm, are contagious. If you are excited by what you’re doing, share that excitement! Describe your campaign with zest and gusto when speaking to prospective players.

ii. Track Record

The better your established track record of running interesting campaigns with lots of fun and solid foundations, the easier it will be to persuade players to join your next one. The implications can be profound; if your prospective players think you are biting off more than you can chew with the proposed campaign, the smart move can be to set it aside and run a number of smaller campaigns designed to ensure (and demonstrate) that you have the skills needed to pull off “the big one”.

So far as I am concerned, those smaller campaigns are as much for the purpose of generating enthusiasm for the Big Campaign idea as they are for the removal of perceived impediments to the success of that campaign.

A negative reputation can also have a significant effect, and may need to be countered specifically. Graham McDonald was a good friend, but he had developed the reputation for starting campaigns and then dumping them in three-to-six months. As a result, he found it hard to attract players to his later campaigns, and found it even harder to persuade them to invest any sort of effort in their characters. Any enthusiasm for those campaigns was in spite of his reputation, not because of it.

iii. Originality

Originality is always a great selling point for a campaign, especially if the players think the GM knows what he’s doing. Like Track Record, though, it can also be a double-edged sword – if the prospective players lack confidence in the GM’s game mechanics, they may be less inclined to sign on for anything more than a one-off trial run.

iv. Marketing Your Campaign

Marketing, at it’s most fundamental, is about creating a perception of need that the product being marketed can then be shown to satisfy. It doesn’t matter how necessary the product really is, or how real the need is – perception is more important than reality in the world of marketing.

A key element of most marketing strategies is about generating enthusiasm for the product, and that means that the full range of marketing techniques (or some reasonable facsimile) can be applied to the task of getting players to sign up to the campaign and be happy about doing so – until they see whether or not it lives up to the hype, at least!

I won’t go any further into this, having already written an article on this specific subject – Cause And Inflect: Marketing your way to a better game. This Google Search might be helpful if this route is something you want to consider.

v. Salesmanship – Put Yourself In Their Shoes

The key to selling something is to put yourself in the customer’s shoes, identify why they need the product in question, and then impart that knowledge in a convincing manner to the customer. If you’re “selling” participation in your next campaign, or enthusiasm about it, the principle still holds. (I’ve never been a fan of the hard sell; while it may work at the time, it can also produce anger and disappointment if the product doesn’t live up to expectations. This is a soft-sell technique that is almost as effective and is much less prone to arousing anger.

Of course, the more you know about the person you’re trying to “sell” to, the better your chances of success. That’s why cold calling is such a painful occupation for anyone with half-human empathy – you are required to make assumptions about the person you’re selling to, and they immediately resent that. To compensate, hard-sell tactics are forced on the seller, who then forces them onto the prospective customer.

Having done both, I’d rather sell Vacuum Cleaners door-to-door than cold-call people from a marketing call center.

vi. Mind Games & Teases

The more interesting you can make the campaign seem, the more interested and enthusiastic the prospective players will be. When you put your promotional material (or equivalent) together, pay special attention to arousing some intellectual appeal. Don’t make it all about this, of course, but don’t neglect it, either.

vii. Mysteries & Mayhem

Don’t explain everything. Include some teasers for the first couple of adventures. Try to arouse curiosity about the campaign – curiosity that can only be resolved by joining in. The more you hook the prospective players’ curiosity, the more enthusiastic they will be about getting answers. Then make sure that as each solution is delivered, a new question or mystery gets raised. “I don’t know what’s going to happen next, but I know it will probably be fun” is what you want to aim for.

viii. A short story

If you’re a good writer, use a short short story to make players connect with the campaign. If you aren’t, try using someone else’s and building your campaign around it. That four-or-five pages length that I mentioned back in the first part of this ATGMs answer is a good guideline. Even better, you can use it to deliver (and immerse) your prospective players in the campaign background.

ix. Campaign Blurb

Try to come up with a campaign blurb – a one-sentence synopsis of what the campaign is going to be about. Load it with things that you know your prospective players like as much as you can, but that will probably have to wait for a more comprehensive description.

Part of the process of creating a blurb is to give your campaign a memorable name. From my series on
, and past campaigns by other GMs from the days when I had to produce a game schedule, compare these (they’re in alphabetical order in each category, so don’t read anything into their sequence within each list):

  • GREAT:
    • Fumanor: The Last Deity
    • Fumanor: The Seeds Of Empire
    • Shards Of Divinity
    • The Adventurer’s Club
    • The Tree Of Life
    • Zenith-3: Earth Regency

    These all work because they tell you something about the campaign and it’s flavor or genre beyond the name of the game system. That additional meaning needs no interpretation, it leaps out at you. “The Last Deity”? The mortality of the gods is an obvious central theme. “The Seeds Of Empire”? Clearly, it’s about a political structure becoming an Empire.

    The only name that may not be familiar to regular readers of Campaign Mastery is “The Tree Of Life”, which was the Campaign that I devised to playtest what is now D&D 5e, and which was just “D&D Next” at the time.

  • GOOD:
    • Ars Magica: Triamore
    • Ars Magica: The Novgorod Tribunal
    • Champions: Zenith-3
    • Cyberpunk by Bill K
    • Fumanor: One Faith
    • Riddleport
    • The Carnus Campaign
    • Yesterday Once More

    These are not great, but are not bad either; in general, they tell you something about the campaign in addition to any info about the Game System, but the information needs context or explanation. Once that information is supplied, the name works.

    I’ve included three ringers with deliberate intent. The first is “Yesterday Once More“, which hasn’t changed since the last time I mentioned it. The name implies regular Time Travel, but also holds hidden layers of meaning that will only become clear to the players in hindsight (I almost titled it “Yesterday, but not as we know it,” but decided that this title gave away too much of the plot twist).

    The other is “Cyberpunk by Bill K,” aka “Bill’s Cyberpunk”. At first glance, this deserves relegation to the “Poor” category below, but what isn’t shown is that Bill had a rep for his Cyberpunk campaigns that elevated the meaning of the “name”. And now that the context has been explained, the name works – barely.

  • POOR:
    • 7th Sea
    • Mike W’s Game
    • Phil’s Game
    • Rings Of Time
    • Warcry

    I agonized briefly about including “Warcry” in this part of the list – but supplying the context (it’s all about a character formerly of the Champions: Zenith-3 campaign) doesn’t elevate understanding of the campaign; you need to actually explain the context of the context to get there. So for all it’s being a great name to anyone who knows the significance, and sounds nice and dramatic (as a superhero nom-de-plum should), it doesn’t quite make the grade on it’s own Merits.

    “Rings Of Time” took its name from the first adventure, which was supposed to be a one-shot game. The players insisted that it continue. While it’s a great name in and of itself, it actually has little-to-no relevance beyond that one adventure. Again, once you explain the meaning, you have to explain the significance of the meaning before you know anything about the campaign. Worse, this is actually misleading in its implications.

    “7th Sea” tells you most of what you need to know, IF you recognize the name of the Game System. Without that, it’s in the same category as “Warcry”, and for the same reason.

    And the other two are what you call a campaign when you don’t know what name it’s been given – or when it hasn’t been given one.

x. Art, Banners, Logos, & Game Aids

A great graphic can excite the senses, tease as to the content of the campaign it represents, and be worth a thousand words. More, because it can cut straight through to an emotional response, it can do things that those thousand words can’t unless in the hands of a GREAT writer.

Banners are like name-tags – stick one on everything to do with the game and simply showing them off generates some excitement.

A logo is simply a name-tag without an illustration.

Game Aids, like character sheets with the campaign’s logo on them, also grab attention and suggest that you’re serious about this campaign. That can be vital if commitment is thought to be an issue.

These are all variations on the giveaway gimmick, which has been a part of sales since early in the 20th century, maybe longer. They are the equivalent of Crackerjacks prizes and toys in cereal boxes. On their own, they don’t do much – but when coupled with other promotional elements, they can push you over the line and into a “sale”.

xi. Promises, Promises

Whatever you produce to promote your campaign should promise to deliver whatever it is that the players want. That’s the style of adventure/campaign, the type of genre, the type of location, the relative degree of action, the style of adventure, and so on. EVERYTHING they receive prior to the start of play should instill the notion that this is exactly what they want. And then, the campaign has to deliver on those promises.

Promising “Move and countermove in the minefield of pan-racial polytheistic fantasy politics” might get some players excited – but if what you want is to thump something every week, this isn’t going to cut it.

In particular, if you are an experienced GM, you have to promise that this campaign is not going to fall victim to whatever negativity is associated with the last one that you ran (or perhaps the last half dozen). But, it’s not enough simply to say “this will be different” – you have to actually tell the people you are trying to enthuse why it will be different. “My roleplaying will be better this time because I’ve been taking acting lessons.” “I won’t let this campaign bog down with rules arguments because I have a new protocol on how to resolve these problems.” “No more bunnies with sub-machine-guns, I promise!” “I’ve fixed every problem with the rules that came to my attention last game.” “Now, without added MSG!” Whatever it was, no matter what you thought of it, if the players were unhappy with it, it needs to change. And actions speak louder than words – so show that you have taken some action!

xii. Referencing Inspiration

In the case of BlueNinja, he wants to base his campaign on a computer game he likes, and wants to generate excitement for the idea, but doesn’t know how to impart the background he has in mind in such a way that the players will be enthusiastic without forcing them to play the game.

The last is a lousy idea – if they don’t like the game, you’ve blown any chance of hooking them, and since an entirely different skillset is involved, the results would be unpredictable at best.

What you need to do is translate the game into the medium that you need for an RPG background – then edit the results into something that stands a chance of generating enthusiasm.

  • Cover Art – Can you use the game’s cover art as your campaign illustration? DON’T try using screen grabs – instead, search for fan art of the characters, settings, locations, etc. Of course, this breaks copyright, so you won’t be able to publish it, and may not be able to publish the campaign, either – if you’re going to have to file off serial numbers, doing so before play starts is far better.
  • Campaign Name – Can you reference the source Game’s name in your Campaign Name? “Space Invaders: The Retribution” is it’s own hook. But this may also run you afoul of copyright and intellectual property law.
  • Logo – Can you photoshop out a copy of the cover art to extract the logo – then use that for your campaign (with additions, if necessary)? Note that this has the same problem as cover art.
  • Reviews – Assuming that you still want to go ahead, dig up every text review of the game that you can. Any review worth reading will describe the game’s setting and overall plotline, however briefly – and that makes it an ideal place to mine for content to insert into your background.
  • Wikipedia – Another great source is to look for a description of the game on Wikipedia. You might find nothing – but anythiA6FFA6ng you DO find could be gold.
  • Advertising – Advertising for the original game is designed to make a positive impression and make you want to play. If you are translating the game into a different medium, even if just as a campaign background for original adventures (rather than forcing the players to re-enact the computer game), advertising for the original can also do the job of making players enthusiastic about your adaption. Some of this advertising may be in video format, but most is likely to be print-based. The newer the game, the less likely this is to be true.
  • Video Reviews (youTube) – Similarly, look for a video review that you might be able to show the players.
  • Game Company – Don’t forget to look for goodies (text and visual) at the website of the game company!
  • Pop Culture references – Finally, look for any pop culture references that you can use to describe key aspects of the background that you have in mind. “Dirty Harry in the 1930s” tells people what they need to know with a minimum of verbiage.
  • Soundtrack – If the computer game itself has an antecedent as a movie or TV show, look for a theme or soundtrack recording. If it works for them, maybe it can work for your game, too.
“This isn’t the game they’re looking for…”

No matter how enthusiastic you might be, the available players might not be interested. I don’t care how excited my friends get about a Western, I’m just not into the genre. I can count the number of Westerns I’ve enjoyed on one hand – “Evil Roy Slade” and two episodes of “Walker, Texas Ranger” that I caught by accident. Full Stop. If you stretched the point, you could include “A Fist Full Of Datas” from Star Trek: The Next Generation. And maybe the Tremors movies, especially the original.

So, if I’m offered a Western-genre RPG, you will need to move mountains to get me to sign up.

I like a lot of Sci-Fi, but Avatar bored me to tears. Offer me a game based on Avatar, and I’ll wish you all the luck in the world – but I won’t be joining you at the game table.

The only Pirate movies that I like are the Pirates Of The Caribbean series – but I like a lot of action-adventure, and fantasy, so offer me action-adventure with a recurring comedic strand and a little fantasy thrown in on the side, and I’ll sign up for a buccaneering adventure or two, maybe even a whole campaign. In fact, I did.

The bottom line: unless there’s some predisposition that you can tap into, the success of your persuading a player to join your game rests on the genre and style that are going to underpin it; and if they aren’t interested at all, they aren’t going to become interested, no matter what you do or say. Save the idea for some other time, some other group of players. Or write it up and sell it.

It’s Never Going To Be The Same

Something that I’ve seen happen on a number of occasions: GM generates campaign based on some property – novel, TV show, movie – and expects their game to have exactly the same flavor. It won’t. As I pointed out in Layers Of Mis-translation: RPGs and Dubbed TV, the way any given campaign plays is due to the players as much as the GM, with the game system and campaign genre throwing their hats into the ring, to boot. If you expect to re-create the experience that you had when playing/reading/watching the original, back off now before the memories become contaminated – it WON’T be the same.

I’ve thought for a while that there might be something to be said for taking a series that had potential but squandered it and trying to “do it right” – I even did a complete outline for a “Babylon 5: Excalibur Redux” campaign on that basis, which had players signing up on the spot – but which I’ve never had time to develop, let alone run.

Rollerbladed Time-traveling Cyber-Ninja Hobbits On A Ship

Finally, there are always some concepts that just won’t work no matter how enthusiastic the originator might be. Not if you try and play them straight, anyway – there might be room in the above concept for a farce, though I don’t know how much longevity it would have. If you can’t get your players to be enthusiastic about your idea – and it does happen to all of us now and then – examine it closely. Is it a distant relative of the “Rollerbladed Time-traveling Cyber-Ninja Hobbits On A Ship”?

The Wrap-up: Mike’s Answer, [incorporating Saxon’s Solutions], Part 3: Integrating Buzz-Builders and Background

The campaign background exists to do a job, but there’s always more than one way to skin a cat. Using marketing and sales techniques to insert key elements into your background can be a way of achieving both goals at the same time. All you have to do is ensure that the marketing and buzz-building doesn’t get in the way of the essential purpose of the background.

That becomes a lot easier if you use something other than the info-dump as your primary technique for imparting background. After all, there’s nothing that says you can’t use the marketing technique analogies that I have described as your primary method of separating what limited information you retain from what you intend to reveal in play. There’s nothing that says that you can’t use source-related materials like covers and advertising to convey part or all of your background.

But it all needs to harmonize – what you leave out of the background shapes what has to be revealed in play, which in turn shapes the campaign’s adventures. It does no-one any good if everything you put into your background promises Black Forest Cake and you deliver the best Banana Bread ever, with cherries and chocolate on top. You only damage your credibility.

So: Use the marketing principles to design your background so that it appeals to your proposed player’s tastes and interests them; use the background – both what’s promised and what’s been left out – to shape your campaign plan, and hence your adventures; and have the whole package ready before you try and interest your players – and you might just have a shot at getting them on-board.

I have to thank my fellow GMs for their time and their insights. While I seem to have done most of the talking in answer to the question, I had virtually nothing other than the section on Assistant GMs until the others put in their two cent’s worth. Blair & Saxon: Much appreciated!

About the contributors:

Mike is the owner, editor, and principle author at Campaign Mastery, responsible for most of the words of wisdom (or lack thereof) that you can read here. You can find him on Twitter as gamewriterMike, and find out more about him from the “About” page above.

Saxon has been vaguely interested in gaming since the early 1980s, but only since going to university in the late 1980s has the opportunity for regular play developed into solid enthusiasm. Currently he plays in two different groups, both with alternating GMs, playing Dungeons and Dragons 4th ed., the Hero system (Pulp), a custom-rules superhero game (also based on the Hero System), WEG-era Star Wars, FASA-era Star Trek, and a Space 1889/Call of Cthulhu hybrid. When it’s his turn he runs a Dr Who campaign. He cheerfully admits to being a nerd, even if he’s not a particularly impressive specimen. He was a social acquaintance of both Mike and Blair long before he joined their games.

Next in this series: Creating cool spell components!

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