A healthy crop of adventure seeds is necessary to creating a great sequel campaign

It happens to all GMs if they stay behind the screen long enough: a campaign comes to an end, and the players insist on a sequel – but the whole reason the campaign has come to an end is that the GM has run out of ideas for the original campaign (or at least, out of ideas that were as good as the ones already used).

There are often good reasons to say no, or at least ‘not yet’ to such a request. The GM might want a change of pace, or might want to run a different game or genre for a while. He might have a new idea that he’s been developing in the meantime. Some players may be more enthusiastic about a sequel than others. The GM may feel that the ideas on which the original was founded have run their course. The campaign may have reached the point where it feels more like work than recreation. There may have just been a big finish which has left the GM feeling burnt-out. Or he might be unsure about what made the first campaign so popular that a sequel is demanded in the first place – and so, not sure of what to keep and what to throw away.

At the same time, there are some tremendous attractions. The GM has invested a great deal of time and energy on the background and NPCs of the existing campaign – being able to recycle some of that material into a new campaign obviously gives him more bang for his buck, more reward for his effort. Any props, maps, or game supplements bought specifically for the old campaign also get reused, increasing the gaming value for dollars invested. A lot of the work of a new campaign is already done.

On top of that, there will always be things the GM feels he could have done better, or that he got wrong – a sequel is a way to get that monkey off his back, and that can be a powerful inducement.

But sequel campaigns are scary propositions. There are a number of pitfalls – I’ll be discussing some particular ones in the paragraphs that follow, but there are others.

Preplanned Potentials

The first time a sequel is demanded can come as a shock to the GM, and an extremely flattering compliment that makes him want to say yes, even if he has no ideas on tap for such a campaign. Then the doubts set it – Was the campaign really that good? Or did it go through a painful initial awkwardness that the players want to avoid? Is it just that the players finally have the GM housetrained? Does the GM even have any ideas left that are any good?

After it’s happened a time or two, though, you learn to anticipate the possibility. Throughout the course of a campaign, I’m thinking about the campaign that will follow, and storing ideas for it. I will often deliberately pre-plan the potential for a sequel into my campaigns from word one, which can make the process of implementing such a sequel a much happier one.

The First Decision

Whether you have done so or not, when you are faced with the question, you have three immediate choices: To say ‘yes’, to say ‘no’, or to say ‘eventually’.

It’s easy to say yes when you’ve already prepared for the possibility, and don’t feel like you need a change of pace. It’s easy to say ‘eventually’ if you have the sense of a campaign idea but it needs more development, or if you want to actually have a brief change of pace while working on the sequel campaign – and that at least keeps the gaming group going in the meantime, even if all you do for six months is play board games. It’s very hard to say no in the face of player demands for more, but sometimes that is the right decision.

Before you can make that decision properly, you need to consider the major potential pitfalls.

Lightning in a bottle

For any campaign to run its course and reach its conclusion, ending with a bang rather than with a whimper, it must have had some magic in the alchemy that went into its life. Running a sequel is rather like trying to capture lightning in a bottle – it’s possible (you need a leyden jar and a kite) – in other words, some very specific preparation.

Knowing the specific preparations that need to be made depends very much on knowing what it is that you are trying to capture. Exactly what was it that the players enjoyed so much that they want more? Was it the game setting? Is it some of the NPCs, or the style of the adventures? Are there unresolved questions that they want answered? Do they genuinely want to know what happens next – in other words, was it the plot? Was it the way their characters became entwined in the plot? Only if you can identify the particular brand of lightning that you captured the first time around can you know what the sequel must keep – and what can be thrown away and replaced with something new.

At this point, I recommend that you pause for a moment and read ‘Why Movie Sequels almost always fail‘ (link opens in a new window).

Now, I don’t agree wholeheartedly with the article; the very example offered of eight heads in ten flips of a coin argues against the core point, because while the article is using all ten coin-flips to describe just one movie or book, the metaphor is inexact, and it is equally valid to call each flip a different movie. So eight heads in a row would be eight out-of-the-ballpark successes – with two flops (tails) somewhere in the run, of course.

Another flaw in the arguement is that no-one covers unsuccessful songs, and while that’s somewhat true of shows like American Idol, and to a lesser extent of shows like X-factor and The Voice, as a general rule it’s not true at all. There are four sources of successful songs:

  • Original Songs written by the artists
  • Original Songs written by other artists but not used by them
  • Covers of songs that the new artist feels didn’t achieve the success or attention they deserved, or were album tracks that were not released as a single by the original artists
  • Covers of successful songs.

The first three sources are especially important for first and second albums, before the artist develops the confidence and ability as a songwriter.

The truth is that people generally like the version they hear first over other versions – even if the version they hear first is a cover version. It’s only when they are already aware of a song that they know that the comparisons become valid, and the performance is judged on its own merits. So it comes back to expectations, and to capturing that lightning in a bottle for a second time.

‘Been There Done That’ syndrome

Keeping the wrong things can lead to the new campaign feeling old and stale right from the beginning – in other words, to “Been There, Done That.” The worst mistake a GM can make in preparing a sequel is to make it exactly the same as the successful campaign. Even new characters aren’t necessarily enough novelty value to keep a campaign sequel functioning. Only if you are sure that this won’t be a problem should your answer be a ‘yes’ or ‘eventually’. Later in this article, I’ll offer some specific techniques for avoiding this, but the bottom line remains – know what cards to keep in your hand and which to throw away.

Player Expectations (In General)

A key issue is the general question of player expectations. The sequel campaign will have to be bigger and better in all the areas that made the precursor campaign shine so brightly, but that’s not enough.

Star Wars I-III

For proof of that statement, all that needs be done is contemplate the reception of the second Star Wars trilogy. With the exception of the unmitigated loathing felt by many for the character of Jar-Jar Binks (which I’ll discuss separately in a moment), there were a number of other problems with this trilogy. Little things like the so-called “prophecy of the one who will bring balance to the force” that were never explained, and were then totally ignored. The whole transition from movie #2 to #3, and especially the ease with which the big bad villain of the intervening animated series was dispatched, which showed completely inconsistent power levels. But, there were arguably as many holes in the older trilogy (though they were less prominent). No, the real problem with the original trilogy is that it failed to satisfy the expectations of the audience.

That was an inevitable risk, of course – because Lucas had a choice: to tell the predictable story, or to try and keep the plot at least a little surprising. In other words, it was the fact that these were prequels that was the handicap to be overcome – and doing so resulted in a lesser story than what might have been. Personally, I don’t find the movies as bad as most people seem to think – ignoring the irritation factor of specific characters and overlooking the plot holes and inconsistencies, they are as good as “The Empire Strikes Back” in my opinion, and I didn’t expect them to be any more than that – due to the problems inherent in everyone already knowing the basic plot in the first place.

The Necessity Of Jar-Jar Binks

By far the biggest criticism of that trilogy, and one with which I absolutely agree, is the incredibly annoying character of Jar-Jar Binks, and it was all about the vocal characterization, which I found offensive and demeaning to African Americans – even though it was a member of that race who was providing the vocal.

But what all the criticism of Jar-Jar fails to mention is the absolute necessity of a character to fill that role, specifically someone well-meaning but manipulable and yet part of the inner circle. The leading characters couldn’t do it, they had to be too heroic to be the tools of the true villain. The entire first movie is about getting Jar-Jar into that central position, the entire second movie is about setting up the (poorly-explained) conspiracy – with (unknown to anyone) the same person playing both sides against the other. And the third movie is about the transition from Anakin to Darth Vader and the ultimate delivery of power to the true villain by the foolish Jar-Jar.

The biggest problem of all with Jar-Jar is that he is absolutely essential to the plot; and, knowing this, it becomes even less comprehensible how none of the people working on the film could fair to realize just how annoying the characterization was going to be. I am absolutely convinced that if they had told Ahmed Best to use any other accent, Jar-Jar would have been funnier – and far more acceptable.

All this is relevant to the question of sequels in general. Certain characters, events, or plot devices may be absolutely essential to explaining the transition from old campaign to new – but if those characters are too annoying and distasteful it can contaminate the entire sequel. Taking an especially beloved character and ‘ruining’ them can have the same effect.

The Psychology Of The Sequel

Many of these issues are inherent in the vary nature of a sequel, and they all boil down, in the final analysis, to player expectations, what the players want in a sequel. Deliver that core and the rest is yours to play with as you see fit.

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

The more players in a campaign, the more likely it is that some of them will have differing expectations and desires of a sequel campaign, and satisfying all of them leaves the sequel as an insipid copy of the original. The mere fact that you have more people to satisfy leads to compromise, and each compromise sucks some of the vitality from the ensuing sequel. This is one of the ongoing complaints about the Hollywood Studio system. An excellent example is the story of Star Trek V, as recounted in ‘Captain’s Log: William Shatner’s Personal Account of the making of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier‘. This movie started out as an interesting premise, but was eviscerated by studio demands and rewrites and budgetary limits until it was a morbidly-decaying corpse of a plot. The philosophical issues raised by the original plotline were deemed too controversial, for example, completely ignoring the fact that Star Trek had tackled the core issue a number of times. It might never have made a great movie, but it would have made a good one – instead of being the worst of the entire franchise (and I include Star Trek The Motion Picture).

The mistake that was made here was in trying to salvage parts of the plot after the original premise was ripped from it, and would have proved far too expensive anyway. It would have been better to start afresh with a new idea than to proceed with a half-baked and shallow copy of the original plot. (These days, with CGI, the original could probably be made – but would still have been too controversial for the studio, but that’s a different arguement).

Sequels Are Hard

There is an expectation amongst GMs and Players alike that a sequel campaign will be easier to create than an original, and to some extent there is a certain validity to that statement – because some past creativity can be recycled, the workload in those areas is reduced. What few people take into account is that what’s left is a LOT harder than it usually is. When the necessary effort is put in, however, the sequel can be greater than the sum of its parts.

I make the above statement not to discourage GMs from creating sequels in response to player demand, but to inject a little realism into the expectations of both sides of the GM screen. Don’t expect it to take only a few weeks – it will usually take as long as creating a new campaign from scratch would have taken, if not longer. The best approach is to start working on nuts and bolts for a sequel campaign (if there is going to be one) as soon as play begins in the precursor campaign – and to develop the two in parallel. The ideas can always be recycled if no sequel campaign manifests.

Something borrowed, Something New

So much for generalities. Lets now move on to the heart of the topic – how to escape and avoid these pitfalls. I’ll assume that you already have some idea of what your players enjoyed most about the old campaign – enough to request the sequel in the first place – and what elements are free to be reinvented as necessary.

Campaign Seeds

History has a continuity that makes it different to fictional stories. Organizations may be dead, broken, or scattered – or simply bereft of leadership. Their original purpose may no longer be fulfill able, but their ambitions (in general terms) will continue. Political Factions won’t go away, and ideas are even more pernicious. So the place to start planning a sequel campaign is always to sketch in a rough outline of who and what are left after the big finish to the old campaign, and how those groups might react to the changed circumstances following that climactic conclusion.

If you have five organizations left over, devising a plan for each for them to achieve their original goals, or something equivalent, gives you an excellent foundation. Since there is no action without a reaction, even in writing, these groups will be opposed by others for various reasons – if they have no opposition left, one will immediately start to gestate.

Another thing to note before you begin is exactly what the PCs – and players – expected would be the washup from their final battle in the precursor campaign. While deviations from this should be expected by the players and intended by the GM, it remains the starting point. Remember, the Road To Hell is paved with Good Intentions!

There are some specifics to dig out and throw into the idea heap for a sequel campaign. These are the seeds from which the new campaign will grow, so lets look at each of them in some detail.

Accumulated unused Plot ideas

Every GM accumulates plot ideas that don’t fit their current campaign for one reason or another. A good example of that is shown by Johnn’s article here at CM a few years ago, Undead Are Taking Over… What happens? and my reply, The Undead Are Coming!.

Some people just forget these; other, wiser, heads put them in writing. Who knows when they might an idea? The are all grist for the mill in a new campaign, especially any that derive from the precursor campaign!

Leftover Plotlines

Almost every campaign also accumulates its share of leftover plotlines that were never wrapped up. It’s easy to get diverted. Like a snowball rolling downhill, these – no matter how minor they were at the time – can become major elements of the new campaign.

Leftover NPCs of importance

Significant NPCs who survive the finale of the precursor campaign will continue to hold the same basic ambitions, modified as necessary to take the finale events into account. This can be especially important if the finale leaves any sort of power vacuum, as is often the case.

And that brings me to:

Leftover Politics

Politics is usually larger than any one person. Once hostilities break out, for example, the death of the architect is usually not enough to restore peace; at best, it may make peace possible. Whatever political forces were at play will either be continued by the successors of those who were lost in the precursor campaign or will be usurped by opportunists. With additional time – and the question of how large an interval in game time there should be between campaigns is something that will be considered in part 2 of this article – some of these political imperatives will change, some will become muted or reduced in priority, and a few will be achieved, rendered impossible, or made irrelevant – and new ones will rise to take their place.

Backup Plans

Arch-villains rarely have just one plan up their sleeves. Even if the villain is apparently killed in the finale, one of his flunkies or aides can always step forward, usurp the title, and claim his predecessor’s backup plans as his own. And that totally ignores the possibility of someone figuring a clever way of surviving. So far as new PCs are concerned, they would not necessarily even know that there had been a change – at best, one of the villain’s plans was stopped by some adventurers making the ultimate sacrifice – or the ultimate mistake.

Exceptionally clever villains may even have anticipated the success of the PCs in the precursor campaign, even their own destruction in a final confrontation, and layed plans accordingly, for their own return. I used that trick for both the second and the third Superhero campaigns in my Champions universe, with a villain who simply would not stay dead!

Player Expectations (Specific)

The best way to avoid the “Been There, Done That” problem is to assume that ‘the perfect solution to all the world’s problems’ that ended the previous campaign is neither perfect nor the solution to all the world’s problems. At the time, everyone (including perhaps you) was seeing it through rose-colored glasses, and it was the best approach that they could find at the time. If you can reach the point where you are thinking “if the PCs only knew [x] at the time, they would have done [y] differently” in the prior campaign, then you have the foundations of a sequel. [x] might be something that was already in existence, or something that someone would do to try and take advantage of the situation during or after the big finish.

A key principle is that “it is possible for men of good conscience to disagree honestly”. In politics, it’s easy to become cynical – never forget that there are going to be some on the other side who are utterly sincere in their beliefs that [z] is the right thing to do, the best thing to do, and that they may have a point – no matter how much your own, equally sincere, belief may be that [z] is the worst possible thing to do. Everything that went into the decision-making of the PCs at the conclusion of the progenitor campaign should be picked apart and viewed with suspicion. Is there an assumption that can be twisted to the ends of a new plotline?

New Ideas

As you compile lists of these raw ideas, new ones will inevitably come to you. Add them to the list!

Allocated Plotlines

I will pre-allocate a number of plotlines from the outset. Substitutions are permitted, but these are blank spaces each of which I strive to keep filled until play commences.

Sometimes these allocated ideas are not big enough to sustain an entire adventure. When that happens, I look for themes, or associated subjects in common, or simply ways to take two small ideas and meld them into one large idea.

A Plotline for each type of PC

Every campaign and genre has its own set of archetypes. In Pulp, it can be detectives and mad scientists and secret agents. In superheroes, there are Psionics and Martial Artists and Energy Protectors and Bricks and Detectives. 3.x has its character classes, Star Trek has its bridge stations and the specialists who work at them. Then there are the questions of Races. Once I have the foundations of the campaign and a list of ideas with which to populate it, I start by deliberately choosing ideas each of which will feature one type of PC. Either the players will have someone apon whom that plotline will focus amongst their number, or they will have to find a way to handle a problem for which none of them is really suited – either makes a good start to a campaign structure.

A Plotline for each specific PC

Once the players start generating characters (if they have to), I also like to ensure that there is at least one plotline for each PC. These go beyond race and class and focus on the individual and his or her circumstances. This is an excellent tool for making each of them feel part of the campaign.

A Plotline for each specific Player

And, if I know them well enough, I like to have one specific plotline targeting each of the players, if there isn’t one already. The common thread might be plotlines that each player will especially enjoy, or plotlines that target a weakness or blind spot of the player, or that simply revolves around a subject of interest to each player.

Campaign Seeds

So you have a list of ideas, and the foundations of a campaign, and some initial thoughts about possible plotlines, but they aren’t a new campaign yet. These are Campaign Seeds, rather like adventure seeds but with a broader scope. Nurturing these seeds and growing them into a full campaign is the next stage in the process…

Sometimes you know, when you start an article, that it’s going to be too big for a single post. It’s going to take too long, or you have some intricate details to work out, or it’s just too big a topic. This was one of those times. Next week: Organizing your Campaign Seeds, Interval Decisions, Consequences to campaign structure, Managing player expectations, and more on sequel campaigns in general!

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