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Thread: Ask a GM [07/22/08]: How much do you plan a campaign?

  1. #16
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    I created a map years ago with basic ideas of where I wanted what and who populated those areas. As each new game comes online I place PC's in a new location but near the other so that as they travel more detail comes with their passage. I started in a very Medieval English area for th players to have an idea of what things should look like then as the game progresses they will wander out into stranger areas.

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    Planning a detailed game

    I find it easiest to plan a big campaign based on a main character. This gives you a beginning and an end and lets you map out where you want the PCs to go. From there you will run into questions about the usual;
    What do they need?
    Who will they meet?
    Pre-roll some heavy encounters and fit them into the scheme of things. you know, make it all come together. By filing in some of the major and important pieces you can see how it all looks on paper.
    When you see it like this you can see what details you need to work out. Common races and weather. Cities and towns, travelers and heroes. They will all come out with room to spare for in game atmosphere... which is what we all really need to be worrying about. Less details and more game atmosphere. Let it go where it goes

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    Based on ONE main character? Sort of de-rails your plans if they die doesn't it?

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    Quote Originally Posted by bltzkrg242 View Post
    Based on ONE main character? Sort of de-rails your plans if they die doesn't it?

    If it is based on one of the party characters, and that character dies before the party achieves the "objective", then yes, I would also agree that would tend to de-rail things somewhat.

  5. #20
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    I ussaly start with a single idea, goal or quest and wing the rest of it. From a combination of players actions and my own creativity can move the game along fairly well.

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    I suppose that I've tried pretty much everything. Top-down and bottom-up. Centre-out and both ends towards the middle. Working out timelines, starting at "Fiat Lux."

    Eventually, I found myself creating star systems that I knew were never, ever going to be used in a game, and decided that I should try to concentrate my efforts on things that were going to be seen.

    So, in recent years, I start more with a general feel of a world. Figure out the basic politics, technology, sociology and magic required to get there. After players have created characters with goals, I then develop the parts of the world that will affect them in achieving their goals. Friends, family and foes. Geography, politics, cults, cabals and organizations. Whatever. Anything that is not closely related to the characters' interests, I tend to ignore as much as possible.

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    My campaigns generally start with a meta - plot, the overarching storyline which becomes the glue that holds all the parts together. I try to define about 10 - 12 major plot point objectives before I start any in depth design work.

    These major plot points are the individual goals for a series of scenarios (usually 4-6 per plot point), but get combined with side ventures, red herrings, McGuffins and opportunities created by the players.

    I also like to include sessions specific to each of the PCs, where some aspect of their pre campaign back story gets explored. I find these are really enjoyed by both the PC in the limelight, and the rest of the group, as they know that their day will come as well.

    At the beginning of the campaign, I try to have at least the first set of scenarios done to plot point #1. While playing these sessions out, I keep a notepad handy to make notes of ideas and directions to explore that come from PC actions. Usually, I find that the players will unknowingly give me directions to travel which helps craft the next journey along the story path. My goal is to have each plot points scenarios written by the time we complete the previous one.

    Generally, a campaign with 10 plot points will become about 100 scenarios total before reaching its natural end.

  8. #23
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    I ask the players.

    Generally, most of the games I GM anymore, the characters have some kind of built-in hooks... i.e. in the current Exalted campaign, there are Motivation and Intimacies. That stuff practically writes itself.

    I start with a location, generally a region, take a look at the characters and their motivations/goals/etc. and decide on a first encounter. Then I wait....

    As they interact with the NPCs/situation/puzzle/whatnot their questions and activities point the way to what they are interested in. I then quickly improvise a couple of leads to see which ones they want to pursue, play off their known desires and run as fast and loose as possible.

    Ta Da!

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    How much do you plan a campaign?

    I'm a worldbuilder type referee, so when there is the potential to build worlds, especially in a science fiction genre game, I go with the top down approach.

    I go to the largest scale of the campaign, one step beyond what the characters will ever do in a few years of play, and work down from there. The process could take months, so I plan ahead, and start the design work, and detailing it. When I have about two months of work left, I start recruiting, releasing some of the details of what I have done, so that by the time I'm finished, I have a group of players.

    If I'm doing a science fiction setting, like Star Trek, Alternity, Space Opera, Star Frontiers, Mechwarrior, or Traveller, I generate the very rough details of a few sectors, define stellar locations, and major planets and military or trade bases in the area. Then I pick a sector to focus on, in which the campaign will happen.

    From there, I pick a subsector, and generate all the worlds, their trade routes, population, and make rough notes on the ecology of inhabited worlds, and major NPC political figures.

    After that, a half dozen worlds are detailed, including weather, planetary maps, sunrise and sunset tables, seasonal weather charts, details of major planetary-influence NPCs, and specific animals for each planet are designed.

    That done, I'll design the starports of those worlds in detail, drawing a map, detailing volume of traffic through the spaceport, specific laws, etc.

    When it is all done, I know it all cold, so then, when anything happens in game, I can run what I had planned, or make it up, based on knowing all the comprehensive details I've done to this point.

    It's a huge amount of work, but it pays off in the end, because the characters can go literally anywhere, and do anything, and I'll be ready.


    For fantasy, I might draw out a continent, from a rough continental drift diagram of the world, that shows seismic and geological factors. This gives me mountain ranges, and volcanoes, and areas of earthquakes. Mountains, and latitude give me weather patterns, and those give me vegetation, forest, and agricultural patterns.

    From the areas where crops grow, I establish kingdoms, large and small based on the food supply. I pick a spot in the far past, figure out where the first settlers were, and establish small towns of the first civilizations.

    I then make jumps of about a century at a time, showing where cities evolve, and when those come into conflict, decide where wars were fought over what resources, what empires thus rose and fell, and bring it up to date, which gives me a history.

    From there, I go back to the past and establish legendary items, swords, armor, artifacts, etc, along with major and minor NPCs.

    Then I do the map, either with campaign cartographer, or paintshop, or a combination of ways, it depends.

    Here's a map of my "Land of Etarnon" 2e campaign:
    http://www.adrive.com/public/744d2a7...1f847421e.html

    That's the process.

    It's definitely not for everyone to do it this way.

  10. #25
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    How much do I plan for a campaign? Argh, I have never stopped since I started back in 88. I just keep adding more details, locations, NPCís and plots.

    When I first started to GM I would just wing everything, Traveller, Star Frontiers and 2nd ed. As much as the players enjoyed it, I found the incongruities were driving me personally nuts. One canít have this many inconsistencies in life and stay sane I thought.

    So, since I pretty much wanted to focus on a fantasy world (because I knew this was too big of a task on a galaxy scale) I came up with an entire planet, land forms with tectonic plates and weather patterns. The landmasses were then populated and civilizations were then set in motion. A history was then put in place.

    Finally I set in place groups of players to fill in the details of a given situation. Generally all of the groups have been placed in a general area to make it easy for me to stay one step ahead of the group but this last group is over a thousand miles away from where any other group has been placed so that it would not conflict with another group that is currently using the continent. This world has been in use for about one hundred years game time. It is hardly even discovered by the players though one player has now been to three different areas of the map.

    While I have spent a good deal of time making this area of the map fit together in so many ways I still donít really have the entire planet mapped or planned out. If the party decided to do nothing but travel I might find myself in trouble, as I havenít given enough thought to what exactly is on the other side of the planet. Would hate for it to be more of the same. But there is so much to do in the parts where the players play I guess I just hope they never want to wear out their shoes for the sake of wearing out their shoes.

  11. #26
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    For the most part I follow what Darelf does. I have an overarcing plot point for my game. I have a beginning, an end (or several) in mind, and some important points along the way that I want to get done. That's all I have until I get characters from my players. Once I have that, I use the background they've provided, their desires for their characters, the sense of personality I got from the character, what I know about the player's own preferences and whatever I think might be fun to toss in to flesh out the story. I do a lot of customize as I go, as well, which is made easy by the fluidity of the story I set up. Yeah, it means I've got to come up with a lot on the fly, but with the years of practice I have at it and the planning I have done ahead of time, it starts to become natural.

    This way, I usually have fodder for a session or two built up ahead of time. Sometimes, I'll have something pretty set planned out and then something will happen, like one of my players doesn't show up, and it throws everything I had planned out of whack without that character. It can take me a lot to recover, so I tend not to rigidly plan things.
    Games: Exalted 2e pre-errata (hiatus), Recruiting for a Sci-Fi/Fantasy game (System TBD) in SF south bay area
    The Dolling Blogs (1, 2, 3 & 4)

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    Detail

    I tend to get very detailed, like Etarnon (howís it going, btw?; I havenít had the opportunity to agree with you by post in a year or so.)

    Iíve had a fairly stable group of players for the last 15 years, so I can use a lot of old material as ďbaselineĒ, though I almost always create a new world for every campaign. (I do not use 3rd party campaign material.) The stability gives me the luxury of leaving things alone: if I want the local elven culture in my new campaign to be like the one in the last campaign, I donít have to do anything.

    My primary focus is on a theme. Generally, itís about why this campaign is different from the last one. Thatís the part that needs the most work. My current campaign is all about dragons, which have been very rare in my previous campaigns. The campaign before was a Norse-feeling campaign, so sailing/rowing, winter, and paganism were strong themes. Before that was an iron-age campaign with a Roman-Empire feel, so the strong political framework with the ďbarbariansĒ threatening and slave revolts took up most of the prep-time.

    I do not write plots. I write power blocks. Each power block has some motivations and goals. They will attempt to progress those goals as the game goes on. The PCs can influence the goals and motivations, as well as the resources that the power blocks. By having nothing scripted, I canít fall into railroading.

    I like to have my encounters fully ready. I have several hundred dragons prepared for the current campaign, for instance. Once, during a campaign about ten or fifteen years ago, the PCs captured a goblin and I didnít have his name written down. That hasnít happened since. Thatís the kind of detail Iím talking about.

    Again, itís not for everyone.

  13. #28
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    In terms of filling a campaign with material, generally, I base a campaign off of a quasi-realistic/historic setting, and then embellish and expand it to a fantasy setting.

    Strange as this sounds, every single world that I have created has come from me first just randomly drawing lines on a scrap piece of paper and then somehow by chance having it turn into a continental-like arrangement, which I then give a story to...
    ...yes, I'm insane.

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    Top Down

    I like to get a good map of the world first so i can get a good idea of how far the PC's are going to travel from set point A to set point B. This ensures that I don't have weeks of travel time to come up with random encounters or fluff dialogue. To that end I've come up with a world that was close to the size of Texas with islands the size of large counties around it. This has been my primary world since inception back in 2004. Once you have a good world it seems easier to build a small area up for the characters to begin in and formulate areas as they begin to explore. Good note keeping in this is key. And when starting out I like to leave the players free. I don't set a plot, I just let them explore to see the play style of the PC's they'll be running and if I need to look out for surprises. Players have an innate way of getting themselves into something without your help.

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    On the rare instances (2) I've been coerced into running a game, I have always done it the same way I write: entirely by the seat of my pants. Both times it turned out irreverent, entirely overpowered, pandering to the players' unhealthy desires for instant level gain, and yet, somehow nobody complained either time that the game sucked as bad as I thought it did.

    I mean seriously, the second time I had the characters hunting down 30 Tarrasques with the 5 tools of the Incarnations of Immortality (Death's scythe, Time's hourglass, War's sword, etc.)!

    Also interestingly, it seems to work well for my stories (until the love interests actually get together, which unerringly ruins the flow of every story). But it's so much easier to control the power levels in single-authored stories...


    Sometimes the cheesiest cliches are the most fun to play. After all, how do you think they became so cliche?

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