This entry is part 3 in the series Lessons From The West Wing


In the first part of this article, which is itself just the first installement of a series of articles, I discussed the execution and delivery of uniqueness in an RPG campaign, and derived a definition of doing so “to perfection” that was achievable in more than a hypothetical sense – that was actually a practical goal:

“Perfection in an RPG is achieved when Player contributions synergise with the original vision to produce a sum that is greater than the sum of its parts”.

I then went on to list four elements that were required in order to achieve this goal. The second part examined the first of these elements, The initial Vision, and how to achieve it, before running out of room. In this, the third installment of this first article, I will turn my attention (hopefully a little more succinctly!) to the remaining elements – a common foundation; an evolution of vision; and an evolution of character. (It should be noted that this article is a LOT bigger than was originally intended!)

A Common Foundation

The second element that I identified is a common foundation between players and GM. This means that everyone has to know what the rules are, what the campaign concepts are, what the campaign background is, and so on.

That does not imply that players have to know everything – what they need is the “common knowledge” of these areas, the things that most people know. Essentially, this is simply a matter of communication between players and GM – you all have to be on the same page as to the concepts of the campaign. The tricky part is achieving this without revealing any of the surprises and twists and revelations that the GM wants to bring out in the course of the campaign.

The easiest approach that I’ve found is to base the process of achieving this on the easy editability of electronic documents.

Starting Point: Master Documents

The information generated in step 1 is usually organised into a number of master documents:

  1. Campaign Conceptual Summary
  2. Campaign Master History
  3. Campaign Master Map
  4. “Known World” Campaign Map
  5. Campaign Political Summary
  6. Racial Guides (if appropriate)
  7. Nationality Guides (if appropriate)
  8. Character Class Guides (if appropriate)
  9. Social Class Guides (if appropriate)
  10. Technology Guide (if appropriate)
  11. Campaign House Rules
  12. Campaign Plan

While most of these are fairly self-evident, there are a few observations that are worth making about a few of the items on this list.

1. The conceptual summary is a simple summary of what the campaign is intended to be all about. It might be an idea for a particular game world or environment, or a political structure, or a confrontation/conflict, or a metaphysical concept, or a particular philosophy. It’s the starting point for everything that I described in the preceeding part of this series.

2. The Master History is not inclusive, its a collection of key dates and events, which was generated in the preceeding part of the series.

3. The Campaign Master Map shows the whole world that the PCs might be able to reach. Everything that matters should be marked on it – eventually. It might start off being very sparce.

4. There are two ways of generating a “Known World” map: Either by erasing the parts the characters don’t know about yet, or by putting a mask on a seperate layer of the image and erasing that to show the parts that they DO know about. I prefer the latter approach because it can be updated as the campaign proceeds, and because there are some neat tricks with fills and transparency that can be used to “corrupt” the information on the edges. I also always use a copy of the master map, because I can use various types of “rubber sheet” deformations to build errors into the map. That doesn’t matter much in any sort of modern campaign, but in a fantasy campaign it’s vital!

5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10: Most campaigns will only need two or three of these categories. A few rare campaigns may require a fourth. I have never known a campaign yet that needed all six. These start out as empty documents and slowly fill up with everything that a member of the race/class/whatever needs to know in order to roleplay that race/class/whatever. The conceptual development described in the previous part of this series will create the first entries in each of these master documents, but at least half the content is yet to be derived.

12: The Campaign Plan starts out with a general summary of what is going to be occurring during the course of the campaign’s actual play, and then lists a number of scenario ideas. Each time I come up with a new scenario idea, I’ll add a 1-line summary of the notion to this master list. Whether or not the PCs will follow this “map of adventures” is entirely up to them. I’ll be discussing the campaign plan in a LOT more detail in the next part of this series.

Involving The Players

I start by getting the players to indicate what classes they are interested in playing in the new campaign, in a d20 style game, or what archetypes they want to occupy in a classless system like Hero. I will also ask for indications of desired species/race/nationality, and for any plotlines that they particularly want me to incorporate if I can. For example, a player might want to explore the psychological effects of continually being surrounded by unreality and distortions of reality with an illusionist character. Or he might want to play the “Noble Savage” with a Barbarian, or the conflict between reality and ideology with a Cleric or Paladin.

Since these choices and suggestions are being made “blind”, save perhaps for a one-line summary of the campaign premise, the first thing that I do is check the documentation of the Initial Vision (from Part 2 of this article) for any of these choices that is radically different in concept or nature in comparison to the standard game. I’m not interested in fluff differences, only in the things that might make a significant difference.

“Druids are suffused with the spirit of the World Tree” is fluff and doesn’t change the fundamental nature of the class.

“Mages must make pacts with Dark Powers to gain the power to cast spells”, or “Japan is an underwater empire, New Atlantis, populated by a mixture of mermen and humans” are significant changes that will radically transform characters wishing to play a mage or who were thinking of running a Japanese character.

If there are any such major differences, I forewarn the player in question and give a hint as to the nature of the difference, giving them the opportunity to change their minds; but I also point out that this will make their characters representative of one of the fundamental aspects of the campaign and can be looked apon as an opportunity to explore that difference. I may also offer a suggested variation, if one is available, that may be closer to what they wanted.

Some players will reach for the opportunity with both hands, others will elect to make a more straightforward choice so that they know what they are getting into.

Constructing The Common Foundation

I then generate information packets for each player by editing a copy of all the master documents. There will be a common core that all players get, and a number of specific pieces of information available only to selected classes.

I start with a copy of the master documents and for each item of information, I ask the following:

  1. Is the information something that everyone has? If yes, then include it and move on to the next piece of information; If no, proceed to the next question.
  2. Is the information something that this character’s species/race/nation has? If yes, then include it and move on to the next piece of information; If no, proceed to the next question.
  3. Is the information something that this character’s class/archetype has? If yes, then include it and move on to the next piece of information; If no, proceed to the next question.
  4. Is the information something that the character might have learned from another source? If yes, then include it and move on to the next piece of information; If no, then the character does not get that information.

I usually use text colour coding to indicate the in/out/unconsidered status of a piece of text. The text starts out as Black text on a white background; if I rule it “in”, I will change the colour to blue; if I rule it “out” for that character, I change the colour to red.

When I’ve finished, I will open my master document and change the text colour of any information that none of the PCs is to recieve to red as mnemonic device.

Once I’ve identified he information that should be included and the information that will be cut out for a given character, I ask a couple of additional questions concerning the information that is to be included:

  1. Is this information distorted or vague by reason of species/race/nation? If yes, then I overtype the existing information in the character’s briefing book, and then annotate the relevant master document to note the misinformation that is common to that species/race/nation, so that future characters – PC or NPC – will be consistantly misinformed.
  2. Is this information distorted or vague by virtue of profession/class/archetype? Most organisations have a particular perception or set of values that they subscribe to, whether it be Theological or the Hyppocratic Oath. If yes, then I overtype the existing information in the character’s briefing book and then annotate the relevant master document to note the common misinformation or misconception that is common to that profession/class/archetype.
  3. Is this information distorted or vague for any other reason? Social Class prejudices, or a campaign of misinformation that has been or is being carried out by one or more groups, or state secrets, or simple failures of memory. If yes, then I overtype and annotate apppropriately once again.

I also change the text colour of anything overtyped into something else – it might be fuscia or green or grey – so that I can visually distinguish the accuracy of the information and see where I’m up to.

This diagram illustrates the results of the process. There are the common background that all the players get, and the house rules for the campaign, and then an assortment of additional information on various subjects. Player 1 gets almost all of the first such category, players two and three get almost all of the second, and so on. Note that the influance of questions 5 through 7 means that some or all of the information they might receieve is vague or missing, no-one gets the full picture. The sections marked with an asterisk are especially interesting: the first contains information that would have been available to one or more PCs if they had made other choices of character, while the third contains the material that the GM both wants to conceal for its surprise value and is able to justify concealing from the players.

Padding With Prejudice

The next step is to pad out missing entries. Clerics might have no particular information concernign Orcs, but they will know something. Sometimes I will produce a whole new master document, compiling all the misinformation – I did that for Fumanorian Elves, and gave “Elves For The Educated Human” to the non-elves as part of their briefing bundles.

Finally, I delete anything that’s still in red in the player’s documents (editing as necessary to maintain narrative flow) and change the text colour of everything that remains back to black. This effectively hides all your editorial decisions from the players, so they can’t tell what’s a falsehood and what’s incomplete from what’s true.

The Results

What results from this technique is that the referee knows everything, and the players know everything that they need to know, while the veil of ignorance is maintained over the subjects that a given character does not know about, either because of who he is, or because the GM has deliberately concealed the information – while ensuring that the logical consequences of the concealed information are on display, if the characters care to look for it.

The campaign has also begun to take shape – anything that’s been withheld from the characters can and should be relevant to a scenario at some point in the campaign.

It can be amusing at times, when characters havn’t shared their information with the group, and they react based on what they think a situation is, expecting everyone else to follow suit!

Input From Players

Armed with this information, the players can better customise and tweak their character designs. But the scope for player input is much broader than that; they are free to speculate and expand on anything that’s been mentioned, to flesh out the bare bones that have been supplied to them. Such player submissions can be judged on their merits and added to the master documents, either categorised as misconception or expanding on the game lore. Sometimes, these player submissions are contradicted by a fact that the player wasn’t provided in his briefing materials; in which case an edited version of the player submission can be returned to them and placed in Canon reflective of the unexpected turn of events. These changes are made without explanation, and give the players some minor mysteries that they can choose to investigate as opportunity permits. (There will be more to say about involving the players and any contributions they make to the campaign in future parts of this series).

In time, the full truth will come out – it always does, if the campaign lasts long enough. In the meantime, the initial vision is compromised as little as possible, without detracting from the adventuring potential contained in PC ignorance. It’s a little like having your cake and being able to eat it too!

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