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

  1. #31
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    I guess my approach is different from everyone else's here. I used an inside-out approach.

    I spent a number of years using Greyhawk and other settings, and while good, they had me asking questions they could not answer. So I spent time thinking about those things, and finally came up with some answers. I then started to build a new setting around my answers.

    From there I did things from the top down. I created several planets, each with their own topographies and environments. And for the primary planet, I created a "known world" area, and many "unknown" areas. I then added plot elements in a descending scale. and tied everything together with a central starting point.

    Games always start in and around this point. But from there the players are free to choose for themselves where to go and what to do. And as they explore different areas, those areas get more fleshed out, which creates more plots and sub plots for the future. Many of the plots and sub plots have their own time lines, where things will happen even if the players are not involved in them, and those things can affect the players in the future.

    Most of the time it would seem like a pretty normal D&D world. But if players dig a bit, they can find some unusual things. One unusual thing is right on the surface tho.

    I never liked how campaigns always matched threats to the players. First level characters would never run into high level threats. That always struck me as totally unreal. In the real world, it is very possible for a person walking down an alley at night to run into people they would never be able to defeat. I made my world to be the same way. There are some areas, where low level characters could easily run into very high level threats. So sometimes running or bending over backward to avoid a fight is the best thing to do. A player sure wont last long if they go around trying to attack everything in sight. So in my setting there are some very real threats the players cant beat, and that gives it a bit of realistic tension that other settings lack. That person in the tavern that the thief is thinking of pick-pocketing, might be just a normal merchant, or they might be a 20th level adventurer, so the thief really needs to think about whether or not they want to try it.

  2. #32
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    Your image of what a game master is, is the primary influence on your storytelling style. Although I have done campaigns with elaborately crafted worlds and meticulously planned story arcs, this isn't my usual style.
    I see the game master role as more of a director of character-based improvisational storytelling. My job as a game master is to present an interesting scenario for the characters. The players don't have scripts telling them what to do or what to say, so I should not have a script telling me or them what to say either.
    This style presents a lot of work initially as the onus of initiating the scenario lies with you, but as the characters develop and their motivations are explored, the work lessens as things become more focused.
    The hard part as others have espoused is staying alert and aware. You have to be aware of where they are looking to go and alert and ready for when the characters go where you never anticipated. These unexpected turns are often often some of the most engrossing and rewarding situations in gaming.
    As to concretely answer the OP, I will often spend time preparing roughly equivalent to the amount of time we spend playing, with the first session of a campaign spent creating characters together with set premise, tone or theme. Depending on resources and experience this takes about 20-60 minutes per character.
    I require more time if I am less familiar with the game system.

  3. #33
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    Quote Originally Posted by Farcaster View Post
    In this week's Ask-A-GM, fmitchell asks,

    How much do you plan a campaign?

    Unless you're using a third-party product, coming up with a gigantic Tolkien-level history for a campaign seems to be going out of style. But how do experienced GMs plan their campaign?

    Do you start with a home city/village and plan out from there? Or do you create the entire kingdom, continent, or planet?

    Do you decide what nonhuman races/species exist in the area, or do you simply grab whatever the game gives you as you need it.

    Do you plan out a whole story arc, or simply sketch out themes and possible end goals, with an initial adventure to get the ball rolling?
    It really depends on the Players that I have when the game starts.

    For the most part, there are areas of my Game World that are very detailed because of past player exploration, and others that are still completely blank, waiting for Players to move the game in that direction, thus defining it. When creating a new area, I start small and work up to big: Start with the village/town where the players will start, and the nearest threats: other Races and Creatures and their locations.
    Then the Realm, the Region, the Kingdom, and then how it fits into the rest of the World.

    I grant as much Freedom of Choice as possible to my Players.
    I will sometimes grab old Moduals as well as personal Adventure Quests, and place the Plot Hooks for two or three of them into the starting area - which is usually a (fairly) safe place to be.

    The Players define the Game from the choices they make - and the successes and failures of their Characters as they Explore the Area.

    How far the Game goes really depends on the Players:
    On how often they play - and how successful thier Characters are;
    Their goals both In, and Out of Character.

    While I will plan the over-all Goal(s) and ending of Plot Arcs, I leave as much open ended as possible - so that changes can be made as the Players make their Choices and succeed or fail in their attempt.
    Underestimate No One.

  4. #34
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    The methods used vary from DM to DM. My initial influences of DMing helped shape how I approach a campaign today. One of my early DMs used his in depth knowledge of World History and Cultures to create a vividly detailed setting. At the time, I didn't realize it, but he created a campaign based upon William Wallace alla Braveheart. Another DM was absolutely merciless. If you made just one bad choice, you were toast. And the list goes on and on.

    I look at myself as an amalgam of all of those DMs I had the privelege of participating in their games, shaping the stories. So, here's 'my' approach:

    I sort of write the campaign backwards - I determine where I would like to bring the campaign to a close - usually the final level of the PCs and a line about the end game scenario. Usually, I aim for an average group level of 18 - 20. I then determine if the campaign is going to be man vs. 'man', man vs. nature, or some other basic conflict that can be made into an epic story. And then I try to pick what I'd like the final conflict to be. Those three decisions are 70% of my planning. Here's the kicker, the basic conflict and final conflict are not set in stone. I allow them to change and evolve as the story develops, based upon how my player's direct the story.

    I then pick a starting point, usually an adventure based around background details of the PCs. After that it's all flying by the seat of my pants. My planning for a night's session up until the end game of the campaign is usual at most one or two sentences, sometimes scribbled down only a couple of minutes before the session begins. Most times, its me just winging it throughout the night. And then at the end of the night, I jot down a few notes about what occurred and see where I can present a golden apple that will draw my group in the direction of the end game. One thing I learned a long time ago though, as it's sort of become a running joke in the group, is to have a list of readily available names for random NPC interaction.

    For me, the most important thing is to follow Bruce Lee's advice and 'Be Like Water', find the path of least resistance for your campaign that will create the best story possible; no matter which way it twists and turns or it heads in a direction you hadn't forseen.

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    I believe this is an excellent approach. I've often placed characters in situations that required them to run, hide, or strategize rather than fight an impossible foe. Learning to assess situations accurately is a useful skill for players to develop. Have you come across many difficulties with running your campaigns this way? I know I've found it may take a much longer period of time to get the players where they need to be to start their low-level quests, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

    Quote Originally Posted by Bansheguy View Post
    I guess my approach is different from everyone else's here. I used an inside-out approach.

    I spent a number of years using Greyhawk and other settings, and while good, they had me asking questions they could not answer. So I spent time thinking about those things, and finally came up with some answers. I then started to build a new setting around my answers.

    From there I did things from the top down. I created several planets, each with their own topographies and environments. And for the primary planet, I created a "known world" area, and many "unknown" areas. I then added plot elements in a descending scale. and tied everything together with a central starting point.

    Games always start in and around this point. But from there the players are free to choose for themselves where to go and what to do. And as they explore different areas, those areas get more fleshed out, which creates more plots and sub plots for the future. Many of the plots and sub plots have their own time lines, where things will happen even if the players are not involved in them, and those things can affect the players in the future.

    Most of the time it would seem like a pretty normal D&D world. But if players dig a bit, they can find some unusual things. One unusual thing is right on the surface tho.

    I never liked how campaigns always matched threats to the players. First level characters would never run into high level threats. That always struck me as totally unreal. In the real world, it is very possible for a person walking down an alley at night to run into people they would never be able to defeat. I made my world to be the same way. There are some areas, where low level characters could easily run into very high level threats. So sometimes running or bending over backward to avoid a fight is the best thing to do. A player sure wont last long if they go around trying to attack everything in sight. So in my setting there are some very real threats the players cant beat, and that gives it a bit of realistic tension that other settings lack. That person in the tavern that the thief is thinking of pick-pocketing, might be just a normal merchant, or they might be a 20th level adventurer, so the thief really needs to think about whether or not they want to try it.

  6. #36
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    The Full Game World of mine is very much like Dytrrnikl's and Rooks.
    There are other People (NPCs, Hero-PCs, Villain-PCs, etc) of every level out there.

    Now, if a PC Party runs into a person that is more of a Challenge then they can deal with, personally - there are still options out there.

    Once, I made a High Level Party go through a Dungeon and clear out all of the "powerful" monsters (keeping them about the CR as the party, with a Boss Fight five CRs higher) but leaving anything that was below a certain HD/CR value alone. For them killing these creatures, not only would they not have earned any EXP, but they would have had Treasure taken away from them by the Higher Level Mage that sent them in there, to begin with.

    Thankfully, they did as asked, and when they returned to the Mage, they asked him why he had them do that. For a response, he showed them the recording of a party of Low-Level Heroes that were only a few chambers behind them the entire game! If they had backtracked - they would have known that they were being protected (which would have lowered their moral, and perhaps turned them against the Higher Level Adventurers, becaue they did not want to be 'babied'), or if they had left any of the more powerful monsters behind them, these low level PCs would have died.

    While these things are always possible in my game, they are not always used. In other words, I do my best to suprise the Players as much as their Characters.
    Underestimate No One.

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    Oh yes, I have had issues with my approach!

    Right at the start of my present game, a beginning group decided to explore the sewers right outside a huge "Wanderer's inn" (Read adventurer's guild home.). Well, being an adventurer's guild home, they of course had a thieves guild, along with the rest of the guilds. And the thieves couldnt always leave by way of the street doors, so they have a sewer entrance as well. Well, as the group was exploring, they came across some feint tracks the barbarian noticed. so they attempted to follow those tracks. Those tracks were left by a 17th level elf thief/assassin, who was specialized in the short bow, and who had night vision. And he didnt like being followed. the groups first warning, was the sound of a bowstring being pulled back. He then spoke with them. One character wanted to attack first and ask questions later. Now 5 or 6 1st-level characters would be no match for that guy, so I was afraid the group would be slaughtered when they were just starting out.

    Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed. But I dont know who was more nervous at the time, the group, or me.

    And right now one of my characters--a half-elf warrior--has a vendetta for goblins, such that she is spoiling to fight any she can find (Goblins killed her family. But they were working for someone else.). Now if it was JUST goblins, there might not be much of a problem. But goblins in armies are just the little guys, and they have a lot of more powerful humanoids backing them up. So this character can very easily get in WAY over her head. And the rest would have her back, so she could easily get them all killed. The druid has been trying to moderate her thinking, but so far with little effect. The future could be VERY interesting, and maybe very short. For now tho, they are on a mission to rescue and return her brother, so he can take the family throne (Minor nobility).

    But even now, threats are on the horizon. The group is going to be getting danger close to some of the most powerful NPCs in the setting. NPCs that have a bad habit of shooting first, and not bothering to ask questions later. One mistake on this mission, and it could be game-over in a heartbeat.

    The big thing the group now has in its favor, is that they now KNOW that some threats are far above what they can deal with, so they usually try to play things safely. LOL, and they have a powerful flying ship that can usually get them away from trouble fast!
    Last edited by Bansheguy; 06-04-2009 at 12:10 AM.

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    For the past several years, I've always put my fantasy games in the same setting. Of course, most of those games are my own actual game, so it makes sense to put them there. By doing so, and by applying what I know about economics, politics, religion, and geography, I have made a very detailed world complete with special ideologies, backgrounds, myths, histories, and more. It makes for some unique scenes.

    As for the rest of the game... I make scenes, and I make a list of events. Sometimes I put the events in a particular scene. I also make notes in each scene of possible ways to arrive at that scene. Then I let the players make their way through them.

    Of course, I do set goals, both major and minor, and I even put in planned setbacks after certain key event combinations. I give it everything a story needs in order to be a story except the actual telling.

    So, yes, I put a lot of detail into the setting, the world, and a lot of detail into the places in story skeleton. Sometimes I use everything in the catalog of scenes and events, and sometimes I don't. Often I don't have to make new events even if the scenes change because I make most of them independent of the scene.

    For me, that approach works, and having a detailed and polished world around the campaign lets me dip into notes for more detail for unscripted scenes, or even for developing the scenes in the first place.

  9. #39
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    My initial setup for a game is, draw a map, think of the main plotline, a few secondary plotlines, populate my world with themes, and then I'm pretty much done.

    So when game time comes along, I make it up as I go.
    "And then you wake up."

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    I know my villains, I know what they are thinking/expecting. I know what their goals are, in essence I know who they are and that is really all I need. This is what I have planned for next game;

    File Five: This Game:
    -The seven cultist survivors, will be extremely remorseful. 2 will kill themselves, 2 will turn themselves in for treatment, 2 will seek out Phobos for worship and validation, and one will eventually find Donovan and give himself up to him for penance.

    -The Devel will seek to help Donovan hunt down the cultists and perhaps some innocents just for fun. She will do so in her mortal form, masquerading as a former, yet innocent cultist.

    -Donovan’s older sister calls to find out what has happened to the their parents, as they have not been showing up at the restaurant. She is contacted by Oscar, Donovans old lover from last year, and tells Oscar what has happened.

    -Oscar will arrive looking for Donovan and want to take care of him

    -Vlada will track the devel woman down and “seek to assist” Donovan and his people to take her down.

    -Donovan’s younger brother, Scott, is also taken by IMEP.
    --Daniel’s older brother from the BS is lost within, kidnapped by IMEP attempting to duplicate Daniels experiment, and does so. Daniel will get notification that his brother is missing He will come on scene trying to show that he is a better man, but he isn’t.
    --The duo team up to take on their brothers, make their lives hell.

    -BoA want the disc? destroyed as it has names and contacts for SCRET members who are agents for the BoA

    -The BOA sees Kaylona as the evidence of freak-tures, and begins an all out terrorist campaign against it

    -Daniels mother wants to attend his sister’s graduation, inviting her+1

    -The Fireball collapses and Michael falls to earth

    -The Dark Tribunal wishes to recruit the duo

    -Mortified Gods are sent to earth

    -Phobos, agent of Pluto, begins rounding up new followers to summon Pluto to earth, to search for the portal to Tartarus, to release Prometheus and gain power to destroy Dark Olympus, and then take on the true gods
    --He has brought a shard essence of Jupiter to begin a new race of vampires, Plutonian Vampires-Increased HF

    -Verdant has convinced Absinths mother to grow some “odd plants”, exotics, which are really Verdant’s seedlings. He has been seeding all across America

    -MoCs take over a mall

    -Blood Master is sent to take out Talisman, who has been staying in Kaylona as a high level freelance computer consultant. Talisman will use anyone and anything to deflect the attacks of BloodMaster. He appears as a hairless man wearing a black trench coat and bolted sunglasses. He was hired by the government of Georwell.

    and each game I take something away and/or put soemthing else on as the character progress and affect my world

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    In my world...

    Quote Originally Posted by Farcaster View Post
    In this week's Ask-A-GM, fmitchell asks,

    How much do you plan a campaign?

    Unless you're using a third-party product, coming up with a gigantic Tolkien-level history for a campaign seems to be going out of style. But how do experienced GMs plan their campaign?

    Do you start with a home city/village and plan out from there? Or do you create the entire kingdom, continent, or planet?

    Do you decide what nonhuman races/species exist in the area, or do you simply grab whatever the game gives you as you need it.

    Do you plan out a whole story arc, or simply sketch out themes and possible end goals, with an initial adventure to get the ball rolling?

    When I started my world; and just so we understand eachother. My world covers my whole living room wall (5' by 20') I started out with one piece of paper; drew in the city, a coast line and what I wanted (vegitation wise; trees, rivers, lakes, mountains, etc...). From there I just expaned as the group adventured more.
    When it comes to races/species, etc... I figure everything exists; it's just a matter of if and when the party runs into it.
    When it came to the whole story and theme, I was smart and kept it simple. I knew I wanted a huge battle at the end with a main enemy. So I named him and just figured I'd start dropping hints/clues as we went along.
    But my best advice is this...
    If you go by the book as far as challenge ratings (and ofcourse I'm playin' D&D 3.5) when choosing creatures it makes it so easy to flesh out a dungeon. Always remember that obsticles and terrain up the CR.
    Also, for thinking long term (and I always see DM's forget this) for levels 1-7, these are your levels to let your players know what you plan on throwing at them later in the game. That is, if you plan on using undead, water terrain, flying creatures, etc... they better have met them or have dealt with it within the first 7 levels.

    Now, this is what's worked for me. I'd think generally, if you keep this stuff in mind you should do alright. Either way, all DM's make mistakes. You'll learn from them, hopefully, and move on.

    Charles

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    I usually flesh out a continent but I can't draw so I usually end up duct taping mutiple maps I find off the web and stick em together and then drop cities and roads where I think it makes sense. At the same time, I am doing a world's history starting back to about 1 million bc and moving up to present day for D&D anyway. The history usually includes all of the races history and the histories for all of the nations/kingdoms/city-states/etc.

    I then work on an overall plot. I have a huge overarching plot. Historically, I've been able to start the campaign really well and everyone is interested but the problem has been... How to maintain the mystery until you get relatively close to the finale? I don't seem to have enough "meat" in the middle of the story and I use too many side adventures to get the party where I need them as far as levels go. The other problem is I tend to focus on one race for a particular campaign and what usually happens is that one of the characters ends up becoming the "Chosen one". It's not what I wanted but it seems that I am in a rut and everytime I write a story, one of the characters ends up being more special than the rest.

    Ah well, keep working on it... I guess.


    "but hey, that's just my opinion... I could be wrong!" - Dennis Miller

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    What I've done more recently, and which has worked out very well, is by using an established community, and setting up half a dozen short adventures and dropping hooks for them through the town. The characters choose one and head out. Then I just pay attention and see what they are doing, what they like and what is really ticking them off.

    One campaign started off with an NPC cleric being kidnapped and the party having to track down some orcs to get him back. A comment was made early on about "Men In Black" and black helicopters, and the entire party ran with the aside for about five minutes before I could get them back to the table. The straight-forward "save the cleric from the orcs" turned into an alien (extra-planar) invasion of psionic albinos that dressed in black and used hover-cars, that had paid the orcs to kidnap a local human.

    Three years later, the campaign arc ended when I got transfered.

    I usually have the next step in a campaign fully fleshed out, a crappy outline set up for the second step, and a germinating seed of an idea for the next. Only in rare situations does that third step actually bare fruit...

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