Having just finished the “New Beginnings” series only a few weeks ago, I had no intention of publishing another article on the subject of campaign design for quite a while. Plans changed…
An Endless Vista
All campaigns start on a blank sheet of paper, which presents an endless vista of possibilities. This is not all that dissimilar to a sculptor working with a block of stone or wood; every choice narrows the possibilities, slowly revealing the shape that was always hidden within the source material, by eliminating everything that was extraneous to that design.
Each block has its unique attributes that make it more suitable for this shape than that, more amenable to one set of artistic expressions than the others that are possible. In campaign design, the limitations – of experience, desire, and style – of the GM and the players serve a similar function, limiting the endless vista and imposing a horizon beyond which the campaign cannot go – at least initially.
A genius sculptor can look at a block of material and see the possibilities within before a single stroke of their hammer. The results of their efforts are polished and nuanced with implied content and context that goes way beyond the superficial perceptions of shape and line. An expert can chip away at the block of stone with some broad preconceived ideas and then refine the revealed shape as best they can, eventually achieving something that looks pretty, and may even have one or two novel perceptions to offer that make it unique. A novice hacks away almost at random until a shape emerges, then does his best to polish away the imperfections – but can never put back any pieces they have torn away and that should not have been.
Campaign design is a similar process. A genius can consider all the possibilities and craft a series of campaigns that are unique and distinctive, with philosophical meat underpinning the superficialities, and nothing that does not contribute to the overall experiencing of that uniqueness. An experienced craftsman can create something that is playable and even somewhat interesting, but which may have a kitchen sink on one side for no apparent reason. And the novice starts with a rough idea and no real underlying logic, and polishes this aspect and that until a contradiction – a flaw – brings the whole lot crashing down.
The early design steps of campaign creation are therefore the most important to defining the shape of the final campaign. They should be the most carefully considered and should always be decided with the final objectives in mind. Fortunately, campaign designers have a huge advantage over our hapless sculptor; we have no trouble at all re-attaching something we’ve discarded, provided that we recognize the need to do so.
It follows that any campaign can benefit from being re-imagined through any creation system or guideline offered to the GM. Every campaign generation technique, from any source, offers the opportunity of asking the GM questions that he has not considered previously, and assessing their relevance and impact. The very least outcome from such processing is a reality check on the campaigns’ foundations, but very few of us – myself included – are geniuses; it is infinitely more likely that at least some of the questions raised by such processes will reach into unexplored territory.
The answers to such unanswered questions provide two benefits of unquestionable value: A better understanding of the campaign and the “world” (history or cosmology or whatever) that serves as its backdrop; and a new source of adventures intended to explore the new territory.
What objectives should a GM Choose? What path leads to the optimum result, and how can a GM strive to unleash whatever genius he can bring to his creation?
There are three decisions that should come before any others:
- A central idea that inspires your creativity
- A conceptual focus that can give the campaign a name, and around which all other campaign elements can be framed
- Something that will make this campaign different or unique.
With these decisions made, you can write a campaign premise – a single paragraph on each of the three decisions made, and another on how each relates to the other two.
- the first idea might be “The spirits of nature have awakened and seek to reclaim their domination over the world”;
- the second might be “The Source Of All Evil”;
- and the third might be “Devils and demons abide in a hellish underworld – not because they were corrupted or fell from grace, but because they have been serving as the jailers of spirits of this nature. Because of the psychological effects of acting as a prison guard, their behavior has become violent, destructive, and evil. The only reason the forces of Good oppose them is to prevent them from inflicting this behavior on innocents.”
Right away in this example, a cosmology and a Theology is starting to suggest itself, in which Devils and Demons are not so much “fallen angels” as “angels doing a thankless job”, they are both part of a larger society of heaven, and allied to those more frequently associated with the Divine. The campaign would be easy to develop from this starting point.
Questions Not Considered
It is equally important to note what decisions have not been made at this point.
- There has been no consideration of game genre; this plotline would work for a fantasy genre, or an early-20th century horror (such as Call Of Cthulhu), a modern horror, an action-adventure set in modern times, a western (heavy emphasis on the tribal Indian mythos), a superhero campaign, a post-apocalyptic campaign, or possibly even a near-future science-fiction campaign. It wouldn’t work all that well as a high-tech/hard science fiction campaign, as a pulp campaign, or as a super-spy campaign though, and there are other choices that might be problematic, such as a Pirates campaign.
- There has been no consideration of game system; it could be anything from Empire Of The Petal Throne to Pathfinder to D&D. As with the first undecided factor, there will be some game systems that are less than felicitous in providing a vehicle for this campaign – Traveller is a little doubtful, and The Lord Of The Rings would be downright dubious.
- There has been no consideration of what type of campaign the players want to play in.
- There has been no consideration of what style of game the GM will feel most comfortable running.
Genre & Game System
Only once the campaign premise has been defined should answers to the four questions above be considered. Again, I would start by listing all the genres that are suitable, and making a note on how the genre would influence the ideas given. Once I was satisfied with that list, I would then define for each any special requirements of the game mechanics. The game system for the example offered would need to be able to handle beings of divine power, and an abstract combat system would probably suit the campaign better than a very detailed, complex one.
What you are looking for is the genre that offers the greatest scope for adventures set within the campaign, i.e. the genre with the greatest creative potential; and the game system that (a) works best within that genre, and (b) meets the specific criteria. Only then can player desires and GM confidence be taken into account – there will usually be one obvious winning combination.
In effect, the analysis of potential genres and rules systems (questions 4 and 5 respectively) creates a pair of shortlists that preferential differentiation (questions 6 and 7) can then choose between.
Abandoning The Design
And it might be the case that what you’ve come up with is an interesting idea in which none of your players will want to participate, or that you are not able to GM, or confident in GMing, for whatever reason. When that’s the case, it’s usually best to file the concept away for use some other time, and start over with different answers to the three big questions.
Subsequent Design Decisions
Assuming that the campaign design premise is suitable, the design process can move ahead. The next decisions are equally basic:
- Who are the PCs going to be (in general)?
- What sort of local environment will offer that general type of PC the maximum opportunity to interact with the campaign premise in interesting ways?
- How much of what the campaign is all about should the Players be told in advance?
- And, in a related question, how much should the PCs know?
For a modern campaign built around our example premise, I would probably go with the personnel of a military base, including a PC chaplain and at least one PC officer. For a post-apocalyptic take on the premise, the crew of a nuclear submarine – again, with chaplain and officers – might be a better choice. Both offer opportunities to compartmentalize and restrict character knowledge, confining the scope of what needs to be prepped before play can begin, without restricting the scope for adventure.
Perhaps equally interesting might be intelligent talking animals – either inspired by Planet Of The Apes or by Komandi, or some combination. A Fantasy Campaign would use experienced adventurers. A Call Of Cthulhu campaign might revolve around an elite team of specialists brought together by a half-mad librarian or detective who has figured out part of the background situation.
In terms of location, I would put the military base (modern campaign) close to some mythic or theological location – Greece, Egypt, Jerusalem, or Stonehenge, for example – to give the maximum potential to interact with religion and theology. The submarine crew (post-apocalyptic) would be a traveling campaign using the Sub as both central base of operations and vehicle to travel from one location to another (read: one adventure to another,) and so on.
These decisions are sometimes sufficient, but usually you will need some kind of campaign background to tell the players what their characters know about the world, and that will require further campaign decisions. How much to tell the players is a more difficult question, and the obvious starting point for the next phase of campaign design. The more you can keep up your sleeve, for discovery in-play, the better, but at the same time, you have to be careful of the expectations that can arise from the choice of game system – players will expect something specific from D&D, and something quite different from Call Of Cthulhu. If you have chosen a game system with such expectations, you should make certain that the players know what’s different from the usual up front premise, even if they don’t know why those elements have changed.
You also have to bear in mind the sensibilities of the players; each time you think you’ve explained enough of the world to them, the following questions should be silently posed:
- If I were a player in this campaign and only knew what was in this briefing material, would I be satisfied with the state of my knowledge?
- Would I feel short-changed or cheated, when the content that isn’t provided is discovered?
- Can I tell what the style and general substance of the campaign is going to be, from this material?
- Are there any classes or races or occupations or other character choices which are going to be undermined in this campaign – and how can players be warned against these combinations without tipping the GMs hand?
- Are there any classes or races or occupations that are going to be more important than usual in this campaign – and does something need to be done to prevent them dominating it? How can that be done without giving the game away?
Only when the answers are all at least satisfactory can the campaign be considered ready-to-run, i.e. ready to generate adventures and accept PCs.
Deferred Questions, Hidden Answers, and Open, Closed, & Linking Decisions
All decisions in a campaign background can be simplified to a question and an answer. Each of these answers will be one of three possible types: open, closed, or linking.
- A closed answer does nothing but restrict possibilities.
- An open answer might close the door on some possibilities but open a window onto another.
- A linking answer ties two seemingly-unrelated answers together.
The objective is to confine and constrain the campaign as little as possible, gradually working from the general to the specific.
Let’s say – as the basis for discussion – that the world in question is one that has been overrun by immensely-powerful, immensely-dangerous, demon-worshiping Goblins. This decision is clearly an open one, because it immediately implies a string of further questions: Which Demon is worshiped? Or are the Goblins polytheistic? How did this situation come about? What abilities do the Goblins actually have? What impact did this have on Goblin Society? What Impact did it have on Human Society? What Impact did it have on Elves, and Dwarves? What impact on Theology and Clericism? and, last but not least, How will all this affect the PCs? When you have an inspiring foundation, like that one initial statement, it throws shoots off in all sorts of directions.
The first step in answering this myriad of questions is to decide whether or not each question can be Deferred until a later time – i.e. in-play.
If it can’t be deferred, the second step is to decide whether or not the players need the answer right now, (prior to character generation) or if it can be revealed in the course of the campaign. A related sub-step should consider the possibility of a false or misleading answer to the question being served up to the players in the campaign briefing. These add a lot to the nature of the campaign, because they build a plot twist into the very fabric of the game that you are going to run; but this plot twist must not be predictable or it will be just plain boring. At the same time, this again raises the prospect of player expectations and the risk of them feeling deceived; it is a fine line to tread.
The final step is to answer each of the litany of questions using one of the three decision types summarized in bullet form.
Closed Answers In Detail
Closed answers are the ones to use when the answer pulls a campaign in a direction you don’t want it to go. They circumscribe the limits of the game, indicating “this is not what the campaign’s about”. They take a short, immediate, and declarative form.
An example might be in answer to the question, “What impact did it [the changes to Goblins] have on Elves and Dwarves?”; a closed answer would be “the Goblins killed them all in a terrible war 300 years ago”. This means that you will accept no Half-Elves, Elves, or Dwarves as PCs, at least so long as this answer is in effect. If the PCs discover a lost tribe or something, that can change at some future time, but for the moment, this answer is closed, it reduces the number of options available for the campaign, and it is essential information for the players to have so that they don’t waste time generating Elves and Dwarves.
Open Answers In Detail
As a rule of thumb, early decisions will tend to be either closed or open, with very few Linking Answers. Later in the campaign development process, there will be few Open Questions and a preponderance of either Linking or Open Questions.
An Open answer is one that mentions a new subject or noun. They open up new lines of questioning. I’m a strong advocate for an organized, hierarchical, approach to questions; anything else risks leaving things out.
In D&D, for example, a suitable format for such a hierarchical approach might be:
- Race Relations
…and so on
- Same list as humans
- Same list as humans
- Same list as humans
- Same list as humans
- Same list as humans
- Same list as humans
- Same list as humans
…and so on through the entire list of sentient races and some of the more significant non-sentient species.
- Power Source
- Society & Organization
- Economic Profile
- Social Class
- Class Relations
…and so on
- Same list as Clerics
- Same list as humans
…and so on through the entire list of character classes
- Game Physics
…and so on
- Same list as Magic
- The Afterlife
- Same list as Magic
- Same list as Magic
- Same list as Magic
- Same list as Magic
…and so on through the entire list of overarching concepts, including some racial/class special abilities.
There are, quite frankly, so many questions to be answered in this list that most campaign designs don’t even think about most of them. Applying the list to the initial concept – “a world that has been overrun by immensely-powerful, immensely-dangerous, demon-worshiping Goblins” – is the equivalent of asking what impact that concept has upon the specific subject.
The example went on to ask how the concept altered Elves and Dwarves – in the previous section, the GM attempted to close that door in order to confine his campaign to manageable proportions, but its not that easy. Stating that “the Goblins wiped out the Elves and Dwarves in a terrible war 300 years ago” (as I did as an example of a closed question) immediately brings up new questions anyway, such as “Why were the Elves and Dwarves targeted? If they weren’t specifically targeted, why were the Goblins more successful against them than they were against other races? What did the Elves and Dwarves leave behind?” and so on.
Linking Answers In Detail
Closed and Open Answers can be viewed as threads in the tapestry that is the campaign. Sooner or later, those threads will start to connect with other threads to form patterns. For example, the question “What did the Elves and Dwarves leave behind?” (just posed) could be answered: “Ruins – Abandoned mineshafts and fallen towers and collapsed forts, keeps, and castles, all of which have since become lairs for monstrosities and other creatures”.
This immediately connects the new inhabitants with a Dwarfish or Elven Legacy, not to mention the concept of Dungeons in general. It wouldn’t take much further development to connect Elven Forests that have now gone “wild” with the concept of Druids and their source of power.
Linking answers are vitally important because they unify the campaign concept and its implications; they interconnect different elements of the campaign, so that it doesn’t matter from which direction the PCs approach the campaign world, one question about its nature will lead to another, until ultimately the entire concept of the campaign is accessible.
Static vs. Dynamic campaigns
If that was as far as the campaign went, it would be a “static” campaign, one in which the subject is to explore and interact with the existing campaign world. But players have a bad habit of wanting to get involved, of seeking ways to change and manipulate the circumstances they encounter to achieve outcomes more to their own liking. As soon as the GM permits a change in the campaign environment – social, political, theological, economic – to go beyond the arms’ reach of the PCs, his campaign is on the verge of transforming from a static to a dynamic frame of reference.
A dynamic campaign is one in which a change or plot development occurs, instigated by either a PC or NPC, and others react in response to that change, and others react to that initial reaction, and so on. While it is possible for campaigns to be dynamic only in response to PC-initiated actions, these tend to feel limp and lifeless; it is far better for the GM to initiate at least one stimulus via an NPC for each action initiated by the Players.
There is, in fact, an entire spectrum of possible degrees of evolution within a campaign, from ‘static’ at one extreme all the way through to a campaign in which every group within the campaign either reacts to an existing stimulation or initiates a new stimulus in order to achieve some ambition of their own.
Directed vs. Undirected evolution
Most campaigns will fall upon some central point upon the Static-to-dynamic spectrum rather than at an extreme; in other words, there will be some ongoing evolution of the campaign background and premise as play proceeds. The game world that the next group of PCs enter will have been altered somewhat by the prior existence of the last group of PCs.
This evolution can take one of two forms: it will either be anarchic and chaotic, with each group attempting to advance its own agenda and the plotlines manifesting as events swirling around a central focus; or it will have an overall trend that has been dictated in advance by the GM in order to create a vaster, more sweeping plotline. The anarchic approach can be termed “Undirected Evolution” while the more disciplined, pre-planned, approach can be termed “Directed Evolution”.
Get Off The Plot Train
A lot of GMs seem to strike trouble when they attempt Directed Evolution, especially in the form of plot trains; but these are surprisingly easy to avoid with a slight change in the way they prepare their campaigns.
The solution is to decide on the direction of the evolution extremely early in the design process, and then to build the desired “direction of evolution” into the ambitions of a number of different groups – whether they be races or professions. This permits the PCs to meddle as they see fit, derailing or interacting with the plots of each group as they encounter them, while the overall direction remains blissfully untouched. “When it’s time to railroad, everyone invents steam engines” is the general idea.
Let us postulate four groups – call them A, B, C, and D. Each of these groups, by definition of who they are and what they want to achieve, are sufficient to lead the campaign in the direction the GM wants it to go. The PCs can happily derail the plans of group A, stall the plots of group B, and discombobulate group C. The evolution will continue as a result of the machinations of group D. And, by the time the PCs have smashed D:
- group A will have had time to regather its forces and come up with a new plan to achieve their objectives;
- group B will be recovering from the setbacks dealt them by the party;
- groups E and F will have arisen from the ashes of group C; and,
- group G will have arisen after someone saw an opportunity for personal gain from all the preceding events!
The net result is that there are no plot trains, but the campaign arrives at the destination that the GM desired all along.
The key is ensuring that the ‘right’ goals, structure, and ambitions are built into those groups from the outset – and that’s easier to do when they are being created and defined in the first place, rather than grafting them on at a later date.
Let’s consider the example campaign with the Goblins: the GM’s ambition might be to maintain the status quo despite the best efforts of the PCs, or for things to degenerate into an ever-more-desperate struggle for survival, or for the PCs to be at the forefront of the recovery of society from the low point at which the campaign starts. Or perhaps the whole Goblin/Demon invasion is just a red herring to occupy the players while the real plot is manifesting behind closed doors. It doesn’t matter what the overall plotline is that the GM wants to incorporate; what’s more important is that it be built into the campaign from the ground up, inevitable and implacable, so that the GM can be an absolutely neutral and bipartisan referee when it comes to adjudicating player actions and their consequences.
And not a plot train in sight!
A Life Of Its Own
Leaving as many options open as possible means that a GM has the maximum possible scope for the players to influence the direction of events and of the campaign, shaping it towards what they want to play. As soon as a PC enters the picture, every campaign takes on a life of its own; not only will player contributions and actions shape the campaign, so will GM responses and reactions to those contributions and actions. No background element is set in stone until the players discover it, and sometimes not even then.
Leave your campaign design room to breathe, and it will also have room to grow, throwing off unexpected offshoots, unusual branches, and deep roots; becoming the sort of campaign that everyone remembers for years afterwards. The key is to give your own unique genius an opportunity to speak out, be heard, and be heeded, then filling in the rest of the design with as much professionalism as you can muster; don’t be a novice who hacks out his backgrounds.
It’s always a nightmare when you spend all day working on an article only to realize, too late, that it would be more appropriate for that article to be published a week later (you’ll see why that is, soon enough) – and there isn’t enough time to write a replacement. That’s what I’ve experienced today.
After scrambling through my “unfinished articles” file, and confirming my suspicion that none of them could be finished in time, I resorted to my “complete and unpublished” folder, wherein I retain articles written for other purposes.
I have to admit that I can no longer remember what the circumstances were that led me to write this article in 2011, or for whom it was intended. It’s possible that it was intended to be for Roleplaying Tips, or for another website – but an internet search failed to locate it anywhere. In the absence of any evidence or notes to the contrary, I have to assume that I just had it on tap for a rainy day – like today!
If this assumption is incorrect, if I have in fact assigned the copyright elsewhere, I sincerely apologize; no offense was intended, and I will be happy to add a prominent link to the site/product that contains it, or take the article down if desired.