- How to work PC backstories into your campaign
- How to get the players engaged and interested in the setting
- Other things to consider preparing
9. Head into the Game
Now, once you have prepared all the documents necessary for my style of campaigning (and remember – it’s only the Gunmen list and the Entity Cards with optional Relationship Grid and Plotmap, after all), you are technically ready to run the campaign. This is also the degree to which I prepare my campaigns when I don’t know for which players and PCs I will run it, and you can perfectly start with this.
But for a bunch of different reasons you might want to prepare some additional material (or at least get some improvisational helpers ready) that will soon prove valuable.
In order for your players to feel relevant and connected to the game world, it’s always a good idea to weave their characters’ backstories into the setting. Depending on the amount of information they gave you about their characters, you can gain a lot of input from what they make up.
Hard-code integration of PC background in your campaign setting is a win-win situation: Your players will feel what they came up with really matters and is deeply connected to the campaign, and you will get free input to use as a base material to craft your part of the story with.
Although I usually make sure to get PC info beforehand, even when you get it after preparing your campaign you can follow some simple steps to mold it into the setting:
- Substitution: Try to not forget this step before considering the others, because it can save you a lot of work and will also result in a deeper relationship between PC background and setting. Whenever you see something in a PC’s story that resembles an element or Entity you already prepared, don’t hesitate to replace what you created with the player input. Sometimes, only minor adjustments are necessary to yield good results. You can even replace Entities with player characters proper, thus providing an even deeper integration to the plot (be careful, though, lest you force unwanted character information on your players – and also be cautious to not make one character more important than another).
- So the son of the merchant princess was abducted and a PC does not know who her parents are? Why, just make her the unsuspecting offspring of this missing son.
- You had an old shaman prepare a grand ritual, but one of your players listed a magician of no further description as a character connection? Let shaman and magician be the same person!
- Plot Map: This is the easiest type of integration, but usually makes for very interesting input already. Just add all people mentioned in the PCs’ backstories to your Plotmap. Then, try to connect them to at least two other nodes on the map and think about what this connection might be. You can already flesh these relations out and write them down on your Plotmap, or you can save this for a later point in time, where you might want to improvise the exact nature of the relationship in lights of recent events. It also proved very rewarding to make at least one of these connections unobvious, as it tangles the PC already up in the network of intrigue and conspiracy they are about to experience. Once you have all player connections linked to the setting, you will probably have enough additional material to quickly draw your players into the plot.
- Add the smith brother of a PC to the Plotmap, and you might want to connect him to the criminal underground society (that he pays protection money to) and to the king (whose secret lover he is).
- Say one of the PCs owns a djinni. You draw a connection to the antiquarian that sold the lamp to the player, and another one to the ancient dragon in the woods that you decide will be fleshed out later. Then, once your players first encounter the dragon, the djinni suddenly turns against the player for one last wish that he still owes to the dragon, his former master that he was stolen from by the antiquarian.
- Entities: Sometimes, PC backstory elements are so outstanding or fleshed out that they simply scream to become an integral part of your setting. Do not hesitate to have them become just that – your players will be very thankful that you incorporated their input in such a welcoming way. Of course, this will bring about additional work (making it rather part of the Entity creation step), but also multiplies the possibilities of your campaign, and will rear players that put lots of work into their characters’ backgrounds, since they know it will be valued. This will save you a lot of work in later campaigns – almost half of your Entities can probably be taken out of the character descriptions you got. Make sure, though, that you stay faithful to what your players disclosed about their relationships. Of course you can add dark secrets and occult plots to all of them, but the nature of their relationship should stay as close as possible to what the player decided it to be like.
- Say a large part of a PC’s backstory tells how he lost his family and was nurtured by a local gang that he grew estranged from later. This local gang is perfect to turn into an Entity of its own, so you write up an Entity Card (including all information you got about them from the backstory) and connect it to the setting.
- Let’s assume one of your characters was always a kind of lone wolf (which isn’t a really good character trait for RPG characters, I know). Her only important connection is her father, that you decide is worth turning into an Entity. Of course, he has to have his own (secret?) agenda and needs to somehow be tangled up in the overall setting, but with him as an important linchpin for that character, the story will feel much more personal and relevant.
- Aftermath: Whatever strategy you chose to make the PCs’ backstories part of the setting, you will now have to take it through the same considerations as your other Entities. So for new Entities you will have to include them in your Relationship Grid and Plotmap, and regardless of the method you will now be able to derive plenty of new Gunmen from the input. You can use these Gunmen whenever you want to color the events with something a pinch more personal and relevant, or to illustrate what’s at stake for the characters.
Depending on the kind of stories you want to run during your campaign, having a fair bit of material ready always proves useful. For example, at some point you want your characters to explore a mansion, warehouse, or cave in the fashion of a traditional dungeoncrawl – then you will need maps and a key for that. Or let’s say your campaign is set on a big ocean cruiser, and at some point the PCs will take over navigation – you would probably need some kind of overworld map or hexcrawl ready for them to explore. The same could be true for a party they attend (where it might prove confusing to you if you improvise the knowledge of each and every NPC), a murder mystery they try to solve (where inventing clues and the exact progression of events are even harder to improvise), or an infiltration (where exact security measures might be crucial for failure or success of the PCs).
Therefore, a bit of foresight is needed in order to not be over-prepared, but still have the necessary material available. (For useful tips about similar situations that are a bit more arbitrary in nature, check out the next section.)
A good solution for this is to prepare crucial locations and events for important Entities beforehand (a blueprint of all major organisation’s strongholds or the exact circumstances of a crime you are about to introduce in the next session) and have them ready should the PCs decide to interact with them. For location plans, you can even keep the map key vague, spontaneously adjusting it to your needs in light of recent events. This way, strategically important information and clues more durable in nature can stay the same, but some locations can be adapted to your needs.
But do not fear – since you deeply understand your campaign and the underlying connections, you will probably have rather easy a time to fit the circumstances to your campaign history. Sometimes it’s enough to ask your players for a break of 10 minutes in order to sort things out and prepare the next step. And even if it isn’t, you can still end the session and have whatever you were struggling with prepared for the next one, instead spending the rest of the evening with other joyful activities, like board games or movies.
Sometimes – rather often, actually – will you find yourself in a situation where some piece of information is needed that is not included in your Entity Cards or Consequences. This of course is no problem – the heart of this campaign plantation is improvisation after all. But every once in a while you need something to kickstart your brain and help you improvise what you would otherwise take from your notes.
Having lists with random, meaningless material that you can provide with meaning whenever you have to is not only a handy tool taking some work from you, but will also give the impression of an ingenious mastermind that has prepared for everything (which is always a desirable outcome).
Depending on the system I run, I usually have some or all of the following ready:
- Random Names: Whenever I have to make up an NPC, I pick a name from the list and write the description of the newly created NPC right next to it (for later reference). I used to split the list in male and female, but recently I realized that having a mixed list actually forces me to think outside the box more often and prevents me from imposing stereotypes on NPCs. You can use random name generators on the internet for this purpose (or use some of those that I might provide on this website later on), as there is usually at least one for every setting conceivable. Sometimes, I even use random character trait generators as well and stuff every name with three traits that I will try to incorporate in my portrayal of the character (which is another handy tool to coerce yourself to embody a greater variety of personas). It can also prove very useful to list a character from a movie, book, tv show, or game you like as a portrayal guideline – although a gender swap may be necessary in order for the similarities to be not too apparent. For some games I even prepare lists of ready-to-go NPCs, should the setting make it necessary.
- For example, for my Changeling game I use a list of NPCs that each have a name, age, kith, and three character traits, as most of these attributes do not impact a changeling’s status in Kithain society and thus can be imposed on almost any changeling NPC they encounter to make them more varied.
- Street Addresses: For games set within large cities, I print a list of street and park names, so that whenever I have to name an address, I can just pick one from the list, add a description to it, and run with it. When playing in real cities, I stick to real street names, and usually also use an additional list of neighborhood names as well.
- Map: Some games profit greatly from having a map of your game area and adding each important location to the map. This can give the players an easier time to understand and memorize the connections of everything, and can make for a lot of very interesting situations regarding tactics, synchronicity, and schedules. For games run in fictional worlds, I definitely recommend using a map.
- Dungeons: Most of my campaigns include dungeoncrawl. Of course, these are not always literal dungeoncrawls – but I really enjoy the decelerated, location-based, exploration-focused, tactical nature of them so much that at some point the PCs will enter some kind of interior with multiple directions, a generally perilous atmosphere and a high content density. Whenever I can, I prepare these dungeon-like structures beforehand, but more often than not, my players demand access to an area I have not drawn a map for. This is when this most useful improvisational bonanza steps in. I usually keep a collection of “one page dungeon”- and “5 room dungeon”-PDFs on my phone, so that whenever my players enter an area that I feel a high-intensity crawl would be most appropriate for, I scroll through the document and run one of the dungeons there (with adjustments for my campaign, naturally). I can highly recommend having such condensed modules with you – and again, they provide a nice external input you can learn from and extend your toolset with.
For the first session of your campaign, I recommend preparing a hook adventure to draw your players into the setting. This way, you ensure that you don’t place them in front of a blank canvas, instead providing them with the incentives and means to engage with the scene.
For such an initial hook, it is important to keep some things in mind:
- Party: If the PCs are not already affiliated, you will have to find a way to bring them together (which is never easy). You can do this by giving them a common immediate goal or enemy – or you can elude all this by starting in medias res. Just put them in a situation where the action is already happening, and they already have bonded together. Such a start-off does not only present a good opportunity to show off and explain the conflict resolution mechanics of your game, but also draws the players into the plot and connects them to at least one Entity. If the PCs are already friends, though, then you can just have them start together or arrive one by one in whatever situation you have prepared.
- Spotlight Time: Especially in the hook adventure it is very important to give every PC the ability to shine. Each character should at least once have the opportunity to show off their skills and probably save the day. None of them should feel dispensable or considerably weaker. That also means that you will have to include social situation for socially oriented characters as well, even though this might break some of the action you intended.
- Personal Affairs: Try to include situations that make a certain threat or circumstance personally matter to the PCs. Include elements from their backstory or try to act upon character traits you feel they have in order to make them really care.
- Entanglement: Within this initial adventure, you want to have the PCs touch upon as many different Entities and aspects of your setting as necessary to arm them with the insight and personal connection they need in order to independently progress through the world and follow up leads. Also, you probably want to present the variety your setting offers, so that your players can pick whichever theme they like and pursue what suits their interest. This again is a win-win situation – since you hopefully only prepared things that interest you, once your players picked something that sparked their interest it’s guaranteed that whatever your initial scenario happens to be about, everyone will be involved and interested in it.
- Closure: It might prove valuable for the hook adventure to have some kind of ending. Like a tutorial in a computer game, your players know that from this point on (at the latest) they are free to roam the game world in whichever manner they like. Closure for the hook adventure might only mean that the immediate danger is gone, or it might mean a complete story come to an end. The exact nature of this is for you to decide, but avoid leaving the impression that this campaign is about linear and closed stories one after the other. Still, if you start getting your PCs into trouble, then you should present them the means to get out of it (possibly without starting into the campaign with a SWAT team on their heels). But the end, although lending closure to the hook’s storyline, should still be enough open end with the suggestion of infinite possibilities. It’s a mere means to get the players started with the setting.