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...

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