Monday, April 30, 2012

Otherlands - Campaign Workshop

Building a campaign from scratch can be a difficult task. Building and running a successful campaign to its natural, satisfying end can be even harder.
We all participated (as players or GMs) in campaigns that started good and solid but lost momentum or had their main story line dissolve after a while. The GM might burnout and stop pushing the story forward, or the players might lose interest in the story and pull the campaign in every other direction, tearing its original plot apart. Either way – the campaign is probably doomed.

While there are many articles, blog posts and forums dedicated to campaign building, there aren't many real-life examples of the process of building a campaign. I'm not talking about examples and methods for creating the story arc for a campaign, or ways to manage that information (although eventually I'll touch on these subjects as well). I'm talking about how to build a successful campaign that will run for many sessions while keeping the players and the GM engaged.
So here it is, my own Otherlands Campaign workshop, in which I will build a complete campaign from scratch in a series of posts, sharing the process and the end results with you.
What does the process look like? 7 simple steps:
1.       Talking to the players
2.       The campaign slogan and the single-page campaign note
3.       Using character backgrounds as a basis for the campaign
4.       Sandboxing and Circles of Knowledge
5.       Building an episode guide
6.       Dealing with change
7.       Ending a campaign
Let's start with the first step of building a campaign (yes, this step should occure before you even jot your first GM note):
Talking to the players
It's important to understand that players drive the campaign's story. A GM can create a great story arc, interesting locations and unique non-player characters, but the players can ignore all that in a whim and head off to an entirely unexpected direction. There's nothing to stop them, and a GM that tries to force the players back into his own image of the campaign might make them feel cheated and railroaded.
The M in GM stands for Master, but it does not mean we GMs own the game. Therefore, it's very important to talk to the players and try to understand what interests them, what do they find boring and what do they find engaging.
If the main idea behind your campaign is fighting an undead infestation, but the 3 out of 4 players had enough of battering mindless zombies, then your campaign is in trouble. If your idea was to spend hours negotiating at the king's court but your players are only interesting in a slash-n-hack dance with the nearest Goblin clan, the campaign will dissolve and leave you and the players unsatisfied.
By talking to the players and understanding what they like and don't like, you can start storing bits of information that will be used in the next step - the campaign slogan, which I will discuss in an upcoming next post.
Here is an example of an e-mail format I use to send to the players before the game even began:

*  *  *
Hi Guys,
Before we create the characters and schedule a meeting, I'd like to get some information that will (hopefully) make the campaign more engaging and fun.
Please send me an e-mail with the following information:
1.       General character concept (one or two sentences about your characters, like race, profession, interesting background if you have one)
2.       What interests you as a player (politics, combat, mystery, etc.)
3.       Is there something you'd rather not see in the campaign, or is there something you had enough of (saving young dragons from evil princesses, or the other way around)
4.       Is there anything you want your character to achieve through the course of the next couple of levels (a title, a specific magic item, land and followers, etc.)
5.    One important note: I really appreciate it when players tell me what they would like to see in the campaign. It helps me build adventures tailored to your needs and desires.
E-mails saying "I would like to smash my way through hordes of rotting zombies in search for great magical artifacts!" or "Political intrigue in the King's Court!" or "Leading armies of Dragonborn in a crusade to rid the world of Demons!" will not be ignored!
*  *  *
As you get replies, you'll be able to get a better understanding of your players' interests, likes and dislikes. It may sound like a hassle (come on, we just want to throw some dice…), but a short e-mail exchange, a phone-call or a face to face meeting can be a tremendous help later on, when we move to the next step of developing the campaign slogan.
To be continued...

Friday, April 27, 2012

D&D Next: Conquering the World (Part Two)

As mentioned in my previous post, I usually start designing a campaign with the villain in mind. Taking into account that my players might have their own way in my world, I plan for them to get the bad guy eventually, but I also plan and prepare for that rare occasion in which the bad guy wins.

More often that not, the bad guy is the story initiator, while the characters (and the players) drive the story from that point. But what happens in the characters fall behind and make a blunder with their attempt to stop the villain? What happens (to the campaign, to the world, etc.) if the characters drop their quest to stop the villain, searching instead of other hooks and side-quests?

What happens in the bad guy wins?

Let's think about Emperor Palpatine as an example. What would have happened if Luke and his friends (the characters in our fictional tabletop campaign) failed to stop him, or more interestingly, didn't even care? What if they were happy staying at the Mos Eisley Cantina, enjoying the music and the occasional bar-fight, coming out for a short hack-n-slash skirmish with imperial forces or strange aliens?

As the DM, you could force the storyline you prepared down the group's collective throat, but that would just make the players feel like you're forcing a pre-generated script on them. They won't feel as if they are in charge of what's happening to them.

A better solution would be to let the bad guy have his way. As long as his way does not include total annihilation of the entire galaxy population, the campaign can still go on (and I can see ways for it to work even if the goal of the bad-guy is total annihilation...).

The key element that will allow you to do that is to ask yourself a single question about the villain:


Why does he (she/it/they) do what he does? Why trying to rule the world? Why trying to kill a god? Why spreading war and disease or do any of those things done by villains?

If you (as the DM) can answer that question, that the campaign does not end when the bad guy wins. After all, winning was all part of his plan - the first step in his plan.

What if Emperor Palpatine - using his dark side of the force powers - learnt of a threat to the galaxy, a threat so dire that he needed a strong dictatorship that will last for eons in order to prepare mankind?

What if he was planning to war another galaxy?

What if he planned to become a god made of raw force power?

So you see - even if your entire campaign was designed so that the heroes will stop the emperor and his brutal ways, after he wins, they get to see his real plan. Depending on the reasons for which he was allowed to win, you can design his real goal to better fit the players taste or abilities.

If the players ignored your story because it was boring for not enough engaging, its an opportunity to stop and think about what can you do to make them more engaged and interested.

If the players allowed the emperor to win because they fumbled in their way to stop him, because they made the wrong decisions or (and it happens) ran out of luck in critical moments in the story, now is the time to present another challenge and show them that they still have a chance.

If you like, instead of why? you can ask yourself and then what?

  • Apple's stock will reach 1000$ per share. And then what?
  • Microsoft's new operating system will be installed on 95% of the world's desktops. And then what?
  • Android will take over the tablet market in 5 years. And then what?
  • True AI will be created before the end of this millennia. And then what? 
  • D&D Next will be the most successful RPG system ever. And then what?
Just remember that your villain current goal is just the first step in his plan, and the campaign lives on even if he wins.