If you’ve followed the advice that I proffered in the first part of this article, your proposed sequel campaign is now brimming with ideas but they are scattered and incomplete. Some of these campaign seeds will flower and bloom, others will wither and lie dormant and unused. They are not yet part of a campaign. Culling, compiling and hammering them into a unified shape is necessary before the campaign can be made ready for play.
The place to start is with some major decisions. Because there are quite a lot of items to consider in this context and at this time, I’ve subdivided these decisions into four subcategories – Big Picture Decisions, Theme Decisions, Interval Decisions, and Campaign Structure Decisions. Some of these will come naturally and immediately to the GM, others may require considerable contemplation.
The Key to making these broad general decisions is knowing what the players expect from the campaign. I made a big deal of this in the first part of the article so I’m not going to rehash here the points that were made earlier. In general, there are three ways of handling those expectations, and as a general rule you will want to employ all three. The first way of handling expectations is to meet them.
There are going to be some expectations on the part of the players that you want to satisfy, hands down. For one thing, you don’t want to marginalize the achievements of the precursor campaign – and that means that the sequel is going to be all about consequences and reactions to consequences. You won’t want to make any major changes to the style of GMing that you employed in the first campaign, so that means that the campaign structure will be largely similar. Favorite NPCs, especially the ones that the players love to hate, shouldn’t be changed. So many of the key components of the campaign are fixed.
At the same time, there are some expectations that the players may have that you will want to deliberately turn on their heads. In particular, any notion they may have that the previous campaign solved all the world’s problems, that an evil figure will have somehow become an angel following the defeat of his plans, that allies and friends will be steadfast, and especially that any relationships with NPCs that their former characters had will survive intact. Friends fall out and drift apart all the time. People make well-meaning mistakes all the time. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, as the saying goes, and while everything that the PCs may have done in the big finish may have been done with the best of intentions, the outcome was what it was and not what wishing would make it.
Some former enemies may be revealed in the course of the new campaign as having good reasons for what they did, and may become allies – especially if social or political circumstances within the campaign change. And some characters do reform, or attempt to reform.
My rule of thumb is for characters to always be true to themselves. If they are villains, there is a good reason for that behavior – even if it’s just that they are evil! The better you understand who your NPCs are – or, in this case, were – and how they think, and why, the more easily you can interpret who they will be and what they will do under the changed conditions following the precursor campaign.
A favorite technique of mine is to take a couple of selected expectations that the players hold and twisting them. This comes under the general heading of “Be careful what you wish for”. This takes an expectation, especially one that’s outcome- or consequence-related, and appears to satisfy it while delivering a wholly unexpected and undesirable / desirable outcome. In The Hobbit, Gandalf and his allies drive the Necromancer from his lurking place in Mirkwood – only for him to stand revealed in The Lord Of The Rings as Sauron, and more dangerous than ever.
One of the most valuable tool that you have in your arsenal is the reminiscing session. Get your players together after the campaign for a post-campaign party. Play games, eat, drink, be merry – and above all, reminisce. If there’s a revelation or two about the previous campaign that you can finally reveal (even if it makes you look a little foolish), do so. Then listen to what the players have to say very carefully; the conversation will tell you volumes about their expectations of the sequel.
To some extent, players will be unsurprised that things have gone to hell in a hand basket since the preceding campaign; they will expect you to twist and manipulate events to create the scope for a new adventure. So you have a certain latitude. Above all, if the new campaign is to invert or twist expectations of the precursor campaigns’ outcome, part of the new campaign must be the reforming of that outcome; if the players can see the potential for this, they will forgive and accept an awful lot.
There are some expectations that you want to encourage, if you can possibly deliver on them. Insights into what happened in the preceding campaign are a good thing to promise. Try not to encourage the expectation that the new campaign will be “bigger and better” – or even that it will be “flashier” or “grittier”. You can probably promise an interesting plot twist or two, since every good GM throws these in as a matter of course.
One useful technique for throwing the big picture into perspective is to sum up the previous campaign as analogous to a historical period, then look at what came next. You might decide that the most appropriate analogy is between Imperial Rome at its height, for example – in which case, the sequel campaign should have a theme of increasing decadence and corruption, “barbarian” incursions, and decline preparatory to the fall of the Empire. There are two ways you could play such a campaign theme – either the PCs are going to be the key to reinvigorating the Empire, or they are going to ultimately become its executioners, a mercy killing after it has undermined and abrogated every principle that made it worthwhile. Of course, the “invading barbarians” don’t have to be from a well-established neighboring Kingdom or rival Empire, they could be from another plane of existence!
These progressions seem “natural” when they are encountered, they are inherently recognized as plausible and believable.
A Plurality Of Civilizations
Of course, it’s always fun to have several different civilizations at different stages within their evolutionary cycle. If the Elves were learned and wise and socially or politically strong in the previous campaign, perhaps they have slipped into decadence – just as the Orcish civilization is starting to emerge from the tribal stage and forming city-states, and the Human Kingdoms are beginning to dream of Empire.
I’m a big fan of the concept that organizational structural change becomes inevitable through growth and efficiency demands. The first Fumanor Campaign was all about recovering from the apocalypse that took place a century earlier in the campaign background and discovering the true cause of the collapse of the old Empire. In the course of the second, the Kingdom of Fumanor (for which the campaigns are named) had grown too large for effective administration from a central position; it was being held together by baling wire and good intentions and not much more. On their estates, the Nobility was more or less independent and the situation was ripe for civil war. That war was the big finish to that campaign, and its outcome dramatically increased the size of the Kingdom beyond any hope of central administration; it is falling apart at the seams in the third and fourth campaigns. One of those campaigns focuses on the never-ending task of putting out increasingly-damaging forest fires in the dynamite factory, holding the Kingdom together despite the inevitability of it flying apart; while the other is dealing with the confrontation with an empire that emerged from the apocalypse more powerful than it had been previously and has since slipped into decadence. Ultimately, both campaigns (and they started off as a single campaign) are about the growing pains as the Kingdom Of Fumanor becomes the Fumanorian Empire – or collapses into warring city-states and a new age of barbarism.
Golden Ages make dull settings
As a general rule, Golden Ages are dull. There’s not enough internal division to make a political campaign interesting, there’s no external threat big enough to threaten them. Expansion is both easy and inevitable. The average citizen can live out a life of moderate prosperity and never be endangered. If the outcome of the prior campaign was an expected new golden age – or even a promised one, if the GM got carried away with his flavor text at the wrap-up – either the sequel campaign is in trouble or the GM is definitely going to have to undermine that rosy promise. Systemic political and social flaws must be uncovered and brought to light, new threats must appear from the outside and internally, and in general, there’s got to be trouble afoot.
That’s not to say that there can’t be a fun campaign set within a golden age if the GM is creative enough. It will simply be radically different to the preceding one. An age of exploration and discovery and progress, an era of prosperity and opportunity and civil liberties, can carry the seeds of its own inherent demise. Human flaws and failings and ambitions won’t have changed all that much – some people will feel threatened by the prosperity of group X, some people will see the opportunity for personal gains beyond the general, and there’s always the potential of an even bigger enemy on the outside, or even simply an evenly matched rival that’s come out of nowhere. There’s still plenty of scope for adventure – don’t let the difficulty put you off. It’s going to be a harder campaign to run than if everything was falling apart, but in part that’s because it’s an unusual setting – and uniqueness of campaign is always good.
Having nailed the general concepts of the background of the new campaign, and how it is going to differ from both the expectations of the players and from the old campaign, it’s time to think about themes for the new campaign.
A Theme, in this context, is an element or transition of style or content that will recur throughout the campaign. It can usually be summed up in a relatively pithy and very brief statement.
“All things must pass”. “Some things are inevitable”. “The road to hell is paved with Good Intentions”. “One Man Can make a difference”. “We’re all more than the sum of our parts”. “There are things man is not meant to know”. “Evil cannot help itself”. “All men carry the seeds of their own destruction within”. “Into every life a little rain must fall”. “Death is a dangerous business”. “Winter always follows a Summer”. “Be careful what you wish for”. “Anarchy is its own reward”. “Individualism is Solitary”. “Even a fool can be wise after the fact”. “No-one in Babylon-5 is exactly who he or she appears to be”.
Think of them as taglines that sum up all or a significant part of the campaign – or, in this case, are intended to. As game play proceeds, the interaction between plot and player, between PC and environment, will generate new themes, some of which may supplant the themes the GM initially had in mind.
For example, my current Zenith-3 campaign has fourteen themes (and there may be more that I’m not going to reveal here):
- In order to be a hero, one must do heroic things. Even if no-one is watching.
- A Villain is someone who does villainous things. No matter what their reputation or intent.
- Black & White morality can be fuzzy around the edges.
- For part to be saved, sometimes part must be lost. But who decides which part is which?
- Everything you thought you knew is wrong – except the parts that aren’t. Twists and turns await.
- Perspective or Insight can be more valuable than expertise.
- Technology can be useful or user-friendly; it’s rarely both at the same time.
- There’s more than one way to skin a cat.
- Nothing is forever, and the more permanent it seems the more suddenly it can be swept away.
- We are all flawed. Sometimes those flaws can destroy us.
- Inevitability says nothing about Duration.
- There are more things in heaven and earth than exist in ANYone’s philosophy.
- All victories have a price.
- A team is more than the sum of its parts and no stronger than its weakest link.
Virtually every adventure of significance in the campaign will play into one or more of those themes. The planned big finish to the campaign will involve almost all of them.
There are at least seven types of theme. There may well be more, but these were all I could think of when planning this article.
Social & Political Themes
Social and Political Themes deal with relationships in general, and how people interact within those relationships. Things people agree on, things they don’t, and the confrontations that result. A sub-theme of one of my current Fumanor campaigns is the emergence of the Orcs as a politically- and socially-progressive influence. Yes, you read that right.
If the supernatural is going to play any part in your campaign, you should tie it to one or more Mystic Themes. Most of the examples from my campaigns need a lot of contextual explanation, or would reveal secrets about those campaigns that I don’t want made public, but here’s one from the Shards Of Divinity campaign: “Magic has no conscience.”
Some campaigns have cosmological themes, indicating that “what’s out there” is significant. A common theme to all the Fumanor Campaigns is “Order Vs Chaos”. One of the themes of the Shards of Divinity campaign is “Creativity comes from God.”
Many themes will be emotional in nature, dealing with the relationship between individuals. “We are all flawed. Sometimes those flaws can destroy us” is definitely emotional in nature.
Sometimes a theme is simply a common emotional connection. “Hope is eternal”, “Sadness is inevitable”, “We all do things we regret”, and “Despair is self-defeating” are examples.
By far the majority of themes will be philosophical in nature. You don’t have to look very hard through the list of revealed themes from the Zenith-3 to see the truth of this fact.
Finally, there are conceptual themes. These encapsulate a big idea that will be explored at length within the campaign. I often use these conceptual themes as the basis of a campaign’s title – “Seeds Of Empire”, “One Faith”, “Shards Of Divinity”, “The Tree Of Life” being a handful of examples. You could probably add “The Adventurer’s Club” to that list – before I named the campaign, it was simply referred to as “Blair’s Pulp Campaign” or “The Pulp Campaign”. An exception that you might think belongs in this list is “The Rings Of Time” campaign – “The Rings Of Time” was intended to be a one-off adventure that the players insisted on continuing, and which lent its name to the overall campaign.
How big an interval?
The third of the big decisions that has to be made is how large an interval will separate the sequel from the precursor campaign. There are essentially five options, and each have their own strengths and weaknesses, advantages and flaws. NB: I’m excluding prequels and other such variations from consideration here. The topic is already quite big enough, thank you!
The least-common of the five is the Retrograde Beginning, where the new campaign starts prior to the conclusion of the precursor campaign, overlapping with it. This permits the establishment of characters prior to the in-game spotlight landing on them, permits the exploration of a different aspect of the big conclusion of the precursor campaign, and emphasizes the continuity between the two. Setting the new campaign in a location close to, but not part of, the big finish locale – so that the new PCs can look apon their old character’s achievements from a distance – is also useful. Another benefit is that there is very little work needed on the campaign background, because the entire precursor campaign IS the background. And finally, the overlap pretty much guarantees that the new campaign will get started with a bang!
If you choose this interval, be sure and make it work for you. Take advantage of this temporal setting, or you will find yourself saddled with the flaws without receiving any real benefit in compensation.
Those flaws: the new PCs may try to get involved in events that were ‘settled’ in the prior campaign. The players will be put under additional pressure concerning player-knowledge vs character-knowledge. There won’t be time for new seeds and plotlines to sprout unless these are also inserted retroactively into the old campaign.
All of which makes this type of campaign harder to set up and to GM in its early stages, which no doubt is the reason why it is so uncommon.
The more leftovers from the old campaign that you have, especially in terms of unresolved plotlines and unused adventures, the more useful this approach is. But there is one final caveat – why did the old campaign wrap up? If it was for any of several possible reasons, including having grown to complicated and unwieldy, you may find those problems perpetuated into the new campaign from day one.
Pretty much all of the above also holds true for the second time-interval option: starting the sequel campaign the day after the previous one wrapped up. It avoids or mitigates some of the flaws, but also fails to take full advantage of the benefits. In many ways, it’s a “nothing” solution. It’s much harder to surprise the players under this arrangement; the foundations of the campaign will be too well-known. There are times when this is the right way to go – I chose this approach for the interval between the Zenith-3 campaigns, because several of the characters were crossing over from one campaign to the next, and because there was a radical change of location involved.
A better choice is to set the new campaign in the near-term but definitely after the conclusion of the previous campaign. That means that the GM has to fill in the blanks of what’s happened in the meantime, but this gives him the chance to “clean house” and write out plotlines that were becoming counter-productive. The big advantage of this approach is that it gives the GM a little elbow room and a cleaner sheet of paper at the start of the new campaign. But it’s somewhat more work to set up than either of the preceding campaigns.
There is a sub-question, of course: what exactly is the “near-term?” Generally, it can be conveniently measured in months, and it is certainly less than 2 years, but that covers a lot of ground.
There are some definite advantages to having even more elbow room. This weakens the bonds between the campaigns substantially, giving the new campaign a life of its own. That makes it harder to reuse props and maps from the old campaign, but also means that the GM has had time for new seeds to be planted in consequence of the old campaign which have now sprouted into whole new plotlines.
This is so far removed from the precursor campaign that the two have very little in common. That can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your perspective. I once designed a campaign using this interval that was all about the dark and dirty little secrets of the intervening years and the price that the then-rulers made with ‘Ye forces of Darknesse’ for the last 300 years of peace. Never got to run it and the notes are now long-lost. What those rulers didn’t know was that the PCs in the preceding campaign had locked ‘Ye Forces Of Darknesse’ away until certain things took place so the place was safe from the Vile Horrors for that period of time in any event – nor did they realize that the price (in citizens to be handed over to the Evils) was gradually fulfilling the conditions of release of the Evil Lying Horrors. (I don’t remember much more about that campaign design).
The example works because it leverages the timeline – the fact that it is generations after the original campaign is a key plot point. And that’s the key to all these big decisions: make an informed decision after considering the alternatives and then put it to work for you.
The last of the big decisions is one that’s relatively easy to make, because you made it for the precursor campaign and probably don’t want to change it. That decision is whether or not to have overarching plotlines that extend from the beginning of the campaign to the end. My style is very narrative and plot oriented, so I usually answer ‘yes’ to this. Others prefer a less structured approach where things don’t happen until the PCs get involved with them. Like most big decisions, both have their advantages and their drawbacks, and there is also some middle ground to explore.
In the ‘yes’ case, the goal is to turn all your campaign ideas into a series or list of events that are going to occur around the PCs, who can then choose to get involved in them – or not. If they take too long to resolve something, another problem rears up to further complicate their lives. One plotline leads to another, or sets up circumstances in which another plotline becomes more significant than it otherwise would be. Railroading is the big danger here. It takes more work in advance, but at the same time adventures are faster to write because they always have a context and a direction. The campaign can be likened to a road map for the campaign, in which the GM is going to wash out certain bridges and cut certain roads and may even have set one or more intermediate destinations – but the actual navigation is up to the players. Because the GM is setting the destinations, his campaign structure need only concern itself with the dual alternatives of whether or not the PCs find a way to reach that destination or not; everything else is contained within the individual adventure.
In the ‘no’ case, plotlines don’t exist until a PC interacts with them by going to a certain place or talking to a certain individual or making a certain decision. The GM never develops any plotline beyond the basic concept until it becomes clear that this plot idea will be part of the next session of play. This is less work in advance (but more work for each session), is a lot more flexible, but runs the risk of feeling static. From time to time, a GM can be caught out when the players unexpectedly zig instead of zagging and shoot off in a completely unexpected direction for which the GM has no plotlines on standby.
There’s an intermediate position in which there are some overriding general plotlines, general directions that everything is going in, but within which the individual plot ideas are left undeveloped until needed. The notion is that the general direction will provide an interpretive context for the plot idea at the time that the plot idea gets used, so that it automatically updates the plot idea as necessary.
To be honest, I find this approach to be half-baked and more work – with more potential for leading yourself up a blind alley – than either of the others. But some people swear by it.
The Random Element
In all three cases. it should never be forgotten that PCs are wild animals, untamed and unpredictable, capable of licking the palm of your hand one minute and ripping the head off your campaign the next – sometimes for no better reason than ‘because they can’. No matter how carefully planned, the PCs will do something unexpected – sometimes brilliant, and sometimes crazy; sometimes insignificant and sometimes critically important. The more rigid your planning, the more vulnerable to the Wild Card your campaign becomes.
With that vulnerability comes the fact that everything listed in the campaign plan is there for a reason, and if you carefully noted that reason at the time, you can fill in the blanks and get the campaign back on track relatively quickly. You may be more vulnerable to the unexpected, but you can recover more easily.
In contrast, the GMs without a master plan can be left floundering when their minds come up blank. They bet the farm on their ability to improv a plot development no matter what the PCs did, and their bluff has been called. It happens less frequently but when it happens it’s a lot more severe, and can even bring the entire campaign crashing down.
And the GMs with a vague master plan but no concrete details planned in advance? They are somewhere in between. The PCs will always constitute a random element that needs to be taken into account.
I solve this problem by making allowances. While the high points of the next adventure may have been written down months or even years in advance, its the current situation as defined by the past decisions and actions of the players that place the internal details in context. By always framing the adventures from the point of view of what the NPCs involved are doing, I have the freedom to let the players tell me what the PCs are doing.
The advice presented below is generally relevant regardless of what type of campaign structure you choose; some structures require additional steps in the creation process, that’s all. It will be fairly obvious which ones those are, and when they don’t apply.
No campaign is ever the same all the way through – unless it ends prematurely, of course. Instead, campaigns can be subdivided into phases or stages. The larger and more complicated the campaign, the more stages it will have. If a campaign is considered to be one long story, phases are the equivalents of volumes within that multivolume plotline.
In fact, there are multiple different criteria which can be used for this breakup, and they all distinguish phases of the campaign by differences in the treatment of one or more criteria within the campaign. Some coincide with phasing by other criteria. When I’m planning a campaign, and especially when I’m planning a sequel campaign – for reasons that I’ll get to, shortly – I carefully plan out the phases of the campaign.
Logical Phasing distinguishes between parts of the campaign based on in-game events and locations. If the campaign is about the founding of a new nation, on a newly-discovered continent, for example, it would break down logically into:
- Discovery Announced: An expedition of exploration returns with news of the new discovery. The decision is made to colonize the new world.
- Outfitting the Colonizing Expedition: A leader is chosen and several officers appointed to the expedition (the PCs). They supervise the outfitting of the expedition, deal with attempts to undermine or cancel the expedition, attempts to use it politically, attempts to cut its funding, and so on.
- Making The Voyage: Finally, the expedition is ready and sets off for the New World. Before they can get there, severe challenges will have to be overcome.
- Establish The Colony: Landfall at last! The colonies are established, but the new colonists face unexpected dangers from natives and wild animals the like of which they have never seen before. To make matters worse, the climate is turning against them. And then they discover that another nation has also landed colonists and layed claim to the continent!
- Growth and Confinement: Having survived the initial phase of settlement, the colony is booming. It has several neighboring colonies, some allies, some enemies. But rule from afar is beginning to grate, and decisions are being made that favor the home country over the colony – something the colonists are beginning to resent.
- Revolution and Independence: Eventually, things boil over into a revolution, something the mother country won’t take lying down. Will the colonies succeed in uniting with each other and winning their independence?
Does the above sound familiar? It should – it’s a narrative describing the colonizing and independence of America, compressed to fit within the single lifetime of a band of PCs.
Logical Phasing breaks the campaign into discrete logical stages; the adventures that fit within each stage are often radically different from those that are sensible in a different stage (some ideas will work in multiple stages, though).
Sometimes a campaign’s themes change and evolve in the course of the campaign. If handled well, this approach can yield a grandeur and epic sweep to the campaign; if handled poorly, it’s just confusing. You could summarize the themes of the “America” campaign as “Politics; Exploration; Politics; Revolution” for example, where these are successive and not parallel.
Another one might be “Signs and Portents; The Coming Of Shadows; Point Of No Return; No Surrender, No Retreat; The Wheel Of Fire”. This should sound familiar to anyone who has watched Babylon-5…
Here’s another criteria to consider. “Inconvenience; Passing Difficulties; Direct Threat; Life Or Death; All or Nothing”. This is an example of phasing where the dramatic significance of the outcomes is the distinguishing factor. When the campaign starts, the worst that can happen is inconvenience, a temporary setback of no real note. Through progressive stages, plotlines become more and more critical and the risks ever greater until finally the point of playing for all the marbles is reached in “All or nothing”. This could be about alien invasion, or the zombie apocalypse, or the fall of an empire, or any of a dozen other subjects and settings in almost as many genres. There are worse ways to structure your campaign.
Another choice is to look at the emotional overtone that you want to dominate the plotline. A great example would be a campaign whose emotive overtones follow the Five Stages Of Grief because a deity was killed during the climax of the precursor campaign, or at the very least, his death became inevitable. (The stages are Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance). Or perhaps the campaign is the life story of a particular ruler, as viewed through the eyes of the PCs.
Most people will recognize the stages of general phasing. They are components of virtually every large narrative work.
- Introductions: Establish the foundations of the situation and introduce the key players.
- Developments: Something happens that makes the live(s) of the key players ‘interesting’.
- Reactions: People react to the changing circumstances. But consequences continue to mount until:
- Things Get Worse: It’s only now that the real seriousness of the situation becomes fully apparent. Friends often become enemies in this phase.
- Revelations: Heading toward a climax, this is the GM’s last chance to reveal who the real opposition have been all along, or what’s really been going on. Former enemies may become allies.
- The Chips Come Down: The enemy makes his move, or the PCs move against the real source of their problems. Either way, both sides are now fully committed.
- Payoffs & Conclusion: the big conclusion, and everything that’s been leading up to it yields a payoff or resolution. The plot threads all come together, and are wrapped up in suitably dramatic fashion.
As such, it makes a great model for a campaign phase structure, and will usually exist in parallel with any other phasing.
Plot Arcs & Threaded Narratives
One of the great strengths of the plot arcs and plot threads system is that each plot arc and plot thread can have it’s own set of general phases. Some plot arcs may wrap up completely in the Introduction and Developments phase; these can be said to exist purely to lay the foundation for complicating another plot thread that follows.
The current Zenith-3 campaign consists of 36 plot arcs, each with a beginning, middle, and end, and many with more complex substructures of the full general-phasing variety. The overall campaign has been structured into 13 phases, each of which has it’s own distinguishing features of the types discussed above. In the diagram below, campaign phases are in rows and plot arcs are in columns.
The 13 phases are grouped into six overall stages. Phases 9 to 6 are “Pre-apocalypse”; Phases 5 and 4 are “Apocalypse Stage 1″; Phases 3 and 2 are “Apocalypse Stage 2″; Phase 1 and 0 are “Apocalypse Stage 3″; Phase -1 is “Apocalypse Stage 4″; and Phases -2 and -3 are Apocalypse Stages 5 and 6, respectively. The whole campaign has been mapped out into 130-odd parts. Only four of the plotlines are unresolved until the big finish – though one that the PCS thought was resolved will make a surprise return at the very end.
Pre-apocalypse – that is to say, phases 9 through 6 – occupy about 2/3 of the campaign. Apocalypse Stage 1 occupies about 2/3 of what’s left, and Apocalypse Stage 2 about 2/3 of the balance. Each of the boxes in phases 1 through -3 represents a single adventure or less. “Apocalypse Phase 0″ is the beginning of the cataclysm itself, something I don’t think will surprise anyone. Earlier phases are preliminary skirmishes, maneuvering for position, and so on.
I’m starting to get sidetracked, so it’s time to move on.
The Relevance to a sequel campaign
It might seem obvious, but here it is: the combination of the precursor campaign and the sequel campaign can be viewed as ONE BIG CAMPAIGN.
Instead of the climax to the precursor campaign being an end-point, it suddenly becomes a mid-point. Things the players thought they understood in the precusor campaign can prove to have a completely different meaning by the time you’re finished with them. Making the precursor campaign (at least nominally) part of a broader structure carries a lot of advantages.
It totally does away with the ‘blank sheet of paper’ problem. It automatically builds in player and character expectations. It predefines the answers to a lot of the big-picture questions – and does so in a way the GM should be reasonably comfortable with, because he ran the entire precursor campaign that way.
It’s like saying “The Hobbit” is Book 1 of “The Lord of The Rings” – the plot connections between the two become immediately apparent, as does the whole backstory of the ring (so far as it is known to Frodo at the start of the latter book).
But the sequel campaign, viewed in this way, also has all the advantages of a reboot of the series. Anything that didn’t quite work in the old campaign can be tweaked and adjusted as desired, so long as a few core elements remain.
Here’s another way of looking at it: The precursor campaign was the TV pilot, and the new campaign is the TV series. Very few shows make the transition from Pilot to series without a few tweaks along the way; sometimes the changes are dramatic, with a largely different cast, and other times they are barely noticeable. And, once you have planning for the new campaign underway, you can set aside the old one without even mentioning its existence to the players.
Plots or encounters in each phase
Each phase in the campaign will have certain preordained plots and encounters in addition to those isolated adventures. These will stem from one of three sources: Conflicts, Confluences, and Continuations. These encounters and plots all exist simply because NPC A or Plot Circumstance B came about in an earlier plotline.
For example, if you establish a rabidly anti-religious villain, who likes to run around burning churches to the ground, he’s likely to put in an appearance if a plotline in the new phase involves constructing a new temple of special significance or opulence. If you have established a Kingdom with a vested interest in controlling the trade routes between two rival nations, they are likely to react when the PCs start a shipbuilding industry in one of those nations, giving them a capacity they never had before. Anyone of special significance to a campaign should react to any development within it – whether that reaction manifests as an event of significance to, or is even noticed by, the PCs.
Every adventure should be reviewed before, during, and after it is run with a view to answering the question, “Who’s going to have a problem with these events / this outcome?”
Events which occur in-game will represent opportunities to some established figures – who will take advantage of those opportunities if they can, and may try to do so, regardless of the likelyhood of failure. If you only have a 1% chance of success, you only have to try 100 times to have a reasonable level of hope that your ship will come in. Heck, every time after the first 49 should be an overall 50-50 shot or better – the chances of any one scheme succeeding remain miniscule, but persistence will win in the end!
Every adventure should be reviewed before, during, and after it is run with a view to answering the question, “For whom do these events / this outcome offer an opportunity – and what will they do about it?”
And some plotlines simply occur because the main plotline hasn’t run its course yet. KAOS will still go after Maxwell Smart; it’s simply what they do. ‘More of the same’ should always be on the agenda!
Organizing your ideas
This advice will apply generally to all campaigns, but especially to those that don’t employ the threaded-narrative approach. For campaigns in that style, I have actually spelt out a specific approach suited to your specific needs in an earlier article, Back To Basics: Campaign Structures (about 3/4 of the way down, look for the heading “My Campaign’s already running…”). Of course, your campaign isn’t already running, but it’s easy enough to adapt the approach spelt out therein. Of course, the more you know about the PCs who will be inhabiting your campaign (even though play has not yet started), the better.
Index Cards or Post-it notes
The best approach is to use index cards or post-it notes. TV shows do this all the time to decide how to structure their scenes in an episode and how to structure their episodes into a season.
On each, use about half the card or note to summarize, as succinctly as possible, one of your plot ideas. Then put them on a table or stick them to a whiteboard so that you can move them around as necessary to group them. I like to number each one as a reference point. How you are going to group them depends on the type of phasing you’ve decided on. Some adventure ideas will work better early in a campaign, others may be better placed later. But I’ll get into that after commenting on a couple of alternatives.
These are the computer-based version of your yellow post-it notes. You will want software that lets you put them anywhere you want and move them with just a mouse-click – I’ve seen some that always places them at a fixed point on the screen and some that won’t let you move them at all. Neither is useful for this purpose.
I’m not a big fan of virtual cards.
Same idea, different interface. ‘Nuff said.
Cut and Paste
One of the simplest approaches, and one that I have used many times, is simply to open two documents in your favorite word processor and put them side by side. One contains all your unorganized ideas, and the other is empty. You’ll create headings in the empty one as necessary, and then cut and paste ideas from the master list until they all have a home in the new, organized list – except for the ones that are left over and don’t fit, of course.
The major way of organizing these cards / post-it’s / notes is by plot thread (if you’re using a threaded model) and campaign phase. I like to note six things beyond idea number and the synopsis:
- Campaign Phase: If you’ve decided that you want your campaign to be phased “Happy, Sad, Angry, Hopeful, Desperate” then the first thing you will want to do is identify which, if any, of these categories the adventure idea fits into. You will often get more than one answer. To save space, I will use a numeric code or an alphabetic one – “Ha, Sa, An, Ho, De” would do. Use a row for each phase and do a special card which prominently identifies the phases of the campaign to use as a heading for the row.
- Theme: If you’ve decided on one or more campaign themes, consider each idea for whether or not it represents one particular theme from amongst those listed. Unless you have deliberately chosen to have your thematic structure evolve during the course of the campaign, you will want to have at least one example of each theme in each phase of the campaign. Use a column for each theme, and do a special card which prominently identifies that theme to use as a heading.
- Content: I’ll use a one-word summary for the style of adventure. “Drama, Action, Twist, Emotional, Soft, Talky – whatever comes to mind. You don’t want two of the same thing in succession. If necessary, I’ll use two words. I may then add one more word if it’s justified: “Necessary”.
- Fun: A rating (none, 1, 2, or 3 stars) for how much fun I think the adventure idea will be. If I’m pressed, I might use two different colors and rate each for fun from both GMs and Players points of view – but I usually don’t bother. You’ll obviously want to prioritize the ones that are going to be the most fun.
- Completeness: How complete and ready to run is the idea in its current form? Some of my ideas are multipage, detailed affairs that could probably be run without further development, others are nothing more than a single line: “Killer Computer, twist is….” This permits you to pick and choose between your ideas based on the amount of prep time you have available at the time that you are doing prep. I usually rate them 0 to 3 stars, where 0 is the least complete and 3 is almost ready to go.
- Participation: Finally, if there’s a specific character type or race who is going to find the adventure particularly significant or interesting, I note who they are on the card/note. If you know who the new PCs are going to be, you can restrict yourself to them as individuals, otherwise you will have to be more general in your approach.
So, rate each adventure and then stick the card or note in the appropriate spot. If there is already an idea in that space, the order (front to back) should be: any that are “Necessary”, followed by “Highest combined Fun & Completeness rating” (break ties with Fun rating).
Some spots will fill with multiple ideas, some might not have any. When you’re finished, you will have a row of ideas for phase 1, and another for phase 2, and a third for phase three, and so on. After any “necessary” ones that are there to set up the big finish or communicate a key theme, concept, or plot development, the idea on top will be the one that is most fun for the least effort.
Don’t be surprised if your ideas reveal a development line as the campaign unfolds, in which one theme starts out as dominant but another comes to the fore as that one fades out. Don’t be surprised if particular campaign phases show a preference for different types of adventure or for different themes. You can identify and analyze all sorts of patterns and progressions within the overall campaign.
Save your unused ideas!
It should probably not need mentioning at this point to anyone who has read the first part of this article, but save any discarded ideas – you never know when one will come in handy! I’ll even rate them in the same way that I have the ones actually in use for the campaign – just to make it easier and faster to pluck one out of the slush heap if I really need it.
Fill in the empty boxes
It does no good if all your ideas are in the middle, or at the start, or at the finish. It’s not good if all your ideas cluster around only two or three themes. But here’s the best part: since you already thinking along the right lines, this is the best possible time to fill in some of those empty boxes.
- Go to the first stack of ideas within that theme that you have (if any). Leaving the top one, reconsider the rest, in the order they are stacked – are there any that can be moved to an earlier phase, or a later phase? If not, put them back where they came from and move on to the next stack within the theme.
- Once you have worked your way through all the second-best-or-worse-within-theme ideas, if you still have empty boxes, look across the phase at adventure ideas that speak to other themes (leaving the topmost one in place). Can any of them speak to the theme that’s unrepresented? Can you add a twist to the plot idea to incorporate a theme that needs filling?
- If the space still needs filling, you have three choices:
- Leave it empty;
- Look further afield – check your slush pile again. Look in any related themes outside of that phase that have multiple entries for one that can be massaged to fit.
- Come up with a new plot idea right now. Look at the theme that is unfilled and ask yourself how that theme might show up in a plot during that particular phase of the campaign.
The one thing I recommend that you Never, Ever do is mark the space “TBIL” (To be Inspired later).
Tweak the Necessary Ideas
Next, look at any plot ideas that have been marked as “Necessary” and that have at least one other idea in the same pigeonhole. Do any of them have 1 star or less for fun? If so, can any of the more fun ideas underneath be tweaked to incorporate whatever element made this plot point “Necessary?”
Cull the excess ideas
Next, go through any stack with multiple ideas. Eliminate unnecessary ones any that have 1 star or less for both fun and work, and put them back into the slush pile. If there are still multiple cards / notes in a slot, repeat the process for any that have less than two-stars for fun. You only want to keep the best. (Don’t throw the cards away, you might need them back in a minute).
Do any of the ideas that are left feature NPCs who need to get what’s coming to them before the end of the campaign? If so, is there such a payoff plot point somewhere on the table? If not, choose an appropriate idea from the slush pile, mark it “Necessary” and add the notation “Payback (NPC Name)” – and immediately add one star of fun for the “just deserts” factor. Then put it in the appropriate phase and theme space.
Compile the campaign plan
Go across the table and on each card add the Phase Number. That adventure idea is now committed to taking place within that particular phase. As you finish each phase, gather all the cards in that row and put them in a stack. The final step is to compile these stacks into a document. This could be as simple as “Phase 1, Theme 1, Adv 07, 23; Theme 2, Adv 11; Theme 3, Adv 16″ and so on. You are now free to pick and choose these ideas for development into adventures as you see fit, right?
Sorry, not quite yet. You can’t have a villain doing something after you’ve written them out of the campaign. You can’t have a trading consortium make someone an offer after their ready cash was stolen in an adventure (unless the PCs recover the loot of course). With your ideas more or less in rough order, go through the stack one more time looking for any such continuity foul-ups. You need to fix them before your campaign plan is complete. If necessary, subdivide the phase.
The Campaign Creation Endpoint
So, if you follow the procedure, what do you end up with?
Plot Threaded Model
Instead of themes, these work on plot threads as the organizing principle. Otherwise it’s exactly the same. However, as an extra step, the threaded model requires you to actually assign each adventure an order in which they will occur.
So, what you will end up with is a structure something like this:
Themes and related notes;
Adventure 1 within the phase, with Plot thread or arc; themes; notes, rating
Adventure 2 within the phase, details as above;
…and so on. After all the adventures in Phase 1, you’ll have phase 2, then 3, and so on.
Every adventure is occurring in its allocated place for a reason. Make sure you note that reason, so that you know what you have to fix if the PCs Wild-Card messes up your plans.
The sandboxed model is just as simple. It will look something like this:
Adventure 1 within the phase, with themes; notes, & ratings
Adventure 2 within the phase, details as above;
…and so on. After all the adventures in Phase 1, you’ll have phase 2, then 3, and so on.
To use this list, simply look at the current phase of the campaign, find the adventure that fits the amount of prep time that you have available, choosing the most fun one first, and that’s the adventure that you write up for your next game session. But you can only get out of that phase after all the necessary plot points have been ticked off (and should only get out of the phase after all the three-stars-for-fun ideas are taken care of, at the very least).
Applying these principles to non-sequel campaigns
It should be fairly obvious that most of the difference between a sequel campaign and a non-sequel campaign is the existence of the precursor campaign. That means that the players will have certain expectations of the sequel that they would not have of a new campaign, and that some of the prep has been done already; but it also means that in some respects, the GM has a little less freedom. Hopefully, he will need less freedom anyway, because parts of the new campaign are preordained by the old one. Don’t be surprised if you need an entire phase or three of the campaign just to sweep away parts of the past that are going to get in the way of the new campaign later on – especially if you choose a short interval between campaigns.
Beyond these effects, the techniques described work for ANY campaign. Sequel, non-sequel, it makes no difference (some other campaign types like Prequels are a whole different kettle of fish).
Use the following links to look for other articles here at campaign mastery on the subject of campaign creation: