- How I prepare Campaigns with maximum scope, but minimum effort
- What documents and references are needed
You are free to skip the fluff part and go right to the crunch below.
Earlier, when I started with long-term campaign GMing, I mostly relied on bought adventure modules. Soon, I found these wouldn’t fit my intended style of running a game, as they would often make illogical conclusions and presumptions and would not present me with what I really needed in order to run them.
Then, I started to write my own adventure modules for my group. But since I only knew the bought modules, I started copying their mistakes and ended up with but a slightly better situation (as I knew my players and could evade some of the original problems). But still, my preparations would only be the skeleton of a story. That was when I realized that this is not what roleplaying games are about. They are not about a GM telling a story – they are about a bunch of friends experiencing a story together. Which makes both the final result fundamentally different from a written story, and – and this is the important part – renders preparing a story instead of an experience highly inappropriate.
First, I started to circumvent the problem by adding branches to my story. In some cases this worked well, but all in all it resulted in lots and lots of material that got prepared but never used, which was not only a waste of my time, but also a pretty confusing situation when the story branched more and more later on.
Then I discovered the phenomenal blog of Justin Alexander and familiarized myself with his Three Clues Rule and Plot Preparations. It really helped change my mindset about what to expect from a role-playing game. I realized that it was not my story the players where moving through (or occasionally derailing) – if anything, it is my world I invite the players to explore, and to interact with it the way they feel fit.
It also shifted my emphasis from preparing to improvising, which is the most useful tool you can have as a GM. Of course, to successfully improvise, a GM has to be really familiar and comfortable with the plot they prepared. Therefore, a solid bit of preparation work was of course necessary. Just not the way I used to do it.
I prepared some campaigns and One Shot games using Justin’s system when I started to explore. Over the years, I came up with my own system that fits my style of GMing slightly better and really helps me experience intriguing stories with almost 100% of player freedom.
This series of blog posts is dedicated to introducing my system of campaigning to you.
What is most useful for me in my system is that I really feel I only prepare the seeds and soil of my game, and once the players start interacting with it, a wonderful story that I could never have foreseen (or manufactured) starts to bloom and grow into a thick forest of dense intrigue, adventures, freedom, and secrets. I would like to invite you not only to this forest, but rather to my arboretum to teach you the art of growing them yourself. This is a possibility that is exclusive to the medium of role-playing games, and so I try to find new approaches towards the genre than I would towards more linear media like books or movies – I want to enjoy what’s special about games, and that is non-linear, interactive stories that have not been pre-written, but emerge from interaction and thus are more personal and possibly more memorable.
The main idea behind my planting system for campaigns is that I never prepare a story. I prepare a world that my players are free to explore and interact with. There is not one single story to follow – instead, there are a million potential stories out there, born from social dynamics in between the plot elements and from the exposure to the player characters.
I use this system mostly for local gameplay in a city, but it can certainly be adapted to any type of situation, be it a travel adventure, a megadungeon, or a whole world. It starts off with a bunch of people and organizations that all have their own agendas, but fit a unifying theme. Once the players start to interact with the game world, they encounter more and more of the intrigues and stories behind them, can decide to take their own actions, and are free to ignore each and every story hook I throw at them – because there are so much more. There is no unused material, because I generate the material on the fly from the motivations of all acting Entities in connection with the players‘ decisions.
Whenever there is a downtime or the players are unsure what should happen next, I let something happen that fits the unifying theme of the game. Whenever the players change something to the status quo, I generate appropriate reactions from all acting Entities. And I only disclose information to the players that their characters are able to perceive – this way, even interacting with an organization can turn into an intriguing mystery, as the players uncover more and more of the syndicate’s true motives. It also reduces preparation times before each session to a minimum.
But don’t be afraid – although this all sounds pretty improvisation-heavy, it really relies on a solid system of flavorful preparation that you can always fall back on. Which is the following.
My system basically relies on three to seven different documents, depending on the type of game I am running. Once you get a general feel for the vibe of your game world, they will develop pretty naturally and can help you both during preparation and during actual play.
These documents are:
- The Entity Cards
- The Relationship Grid
- The Plot Map
- The Gunmen List
- The Consequences
- (The Material)
- (The Hook)
The Entity Cards
I refer to all actors inside my setting as „Entities“. An Entity can be everything, from a wild animal to a force of nature to a single person to an interest group of people (though it is mostly the last two). Entities are entities (ha!) that have a place in a game world, follow a personal agenda, are tied to other plot elements and might act on their on. They usually also carry the unifying theme of the game or consciously contrast it.
Each Entity Card presents a brief description of an Entity’s background and agenda as well as one or two roleplaying hints. It also might contain a picture of the Entity for easier reference, a place for notes, a secret or interesting feat they have, and a reminder in what way they contribute to the campaign’s theme and mood. Although this all might sound very much, my Entity Cards are usually no larger than A6 paper (4.1*5.8in).
The Relationship Grid
This is only a quick reference. I create a spreadsheet with all Entities as both columns and rows. Into each row, I enter the relationship of this Entity to the respective Entity indicated in the column. This is a one-sided viewpoint and might not reflect the opposing Entity’s perspective on the connection.
During actual play, I mostly use this document to see if a certain Entity knows another or is friends with them. I color-code each cell to reflect the general nature of their relationship as well. Once the Entities are all designed, the Relationship Grid almost writes itself, but it really helps build a dense network of connection and intrigue, as it forces you to enter some relationship to every cell. „Does not know them“ of course is a valid entry as well, especially for secret organizations, but you should not leave too many blank spaces – after all, everything is connected!
The Plot Map
The Plot Map is a mind map of sorts that shows all connections and ties between Entities, PCs, and PC connections. Just as the Relationship Grid, the Plot Map is no document you need to refer to very much. Its true value lies in its role during preparation. It will help you discover dead-ends, under-connected PCs and undiscoverable secrets and allows you to create relationships and secrets you might not have thought about.
The Gunmen List
This is one of my favorite documents, as it is the one that provides the best security net during actual play. The name is derived from a famous quote from pulp novelist Raymond Chandler, which goes like this: „When in doubt have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.“ The quote has since outgrown its original meaning, and is today referred to as an advice to writers who experience a dead end in their story and need to have something interesting happen. When I say Gunman, I mean a sudden and/or unexpected event that adds a new, interesting element to the plot.
From everything I developed during preparation (and later from everything that developed from Consequences, see below), I write down Gunmen. This way, whenever play even remotely feels like beginning to grind to a halt, I throw in a Gunman to shake things up. My players are now free to choose to ignore the gunmen (as the background plot will also progress without them, but will have them face the potential consequences later on), or to interact with it, adding a new element to the story for them to explore or overcome.
Now, this is actually the best part of my system of planting campaigns. The forethought employed during campaign creation now lends you a hand in preparing a new session. Presumed you keep notes of important elements during play, you will probably need no more than 5-10 minutes (at least I don’t). Just quickly go through your notes about what the players did and encountered and mark every entry that you think might have consequences. It is no problem if you end up with all or almost none entries marked. Then think about the different Entities, and how these significant events might impact them. Write down any reactions you imagine the Entity to show. Afterwards, update your gunmen list with events that let the players face these reactions and consequences. Done.
For some games, having a list of game material ready might be very handy. This could be a list of maps and locations (for games like Shadowrun), a list of NPC names, street addresses, or monster stats (though I tend to tie each and every combat encounter into the overall plot instead of using them as random digressions). These can be referenced all the time and serve as rich and juicy improvisation material.
For this type of Material, I can heavily recommend random name generators from the internet, as well as the collected One Page Dungeon Contest-entries – they can always be used to improvise organization headquarters, monster lairs, nightmare digressions, and so on.
For name and address lists, don’t forget to jot down some notes once you use one of them. This way you can easily refer to them and even turn them to an Entity Card of their own once the players or the natural flow of the game give them enough importance.
For initial preparation, this is a very important part of the game. You will need to get the players interested in the plot and have them familiarize with the theme and mood you intend. To this end you should either prepare an initial adventure (possible using the Three Clue Rule), or start the story in medias res, with the PCs already connected to the plot and possibly up to the threat in trouble.
Thank you for reading this first part of the series. The next parts will guide you through the process of developing a campaign in my style, closing with instructions on how to start and run such a campaign. There will also be an appendix with peripheral topics and an example of actual play.
As a disclaimer, I would like to add that I do not use the presented system for each and every game I run. I also GM dungeoncrawls, scene-based horror one-shots and mystery scenarios, but for developing a free-form campaign in an alive and breathing world, I found this system works best for my style of play.