Friday, June 6, 2014

Assembly Required: Development Step One - Campaign Foundation

Figuring what you want to run for your players and what your players actually want you to run can be an intimidating task. Hell, I've been running the same core group of people for nearly 20 years, and they still manage to surprise me with what they like, though they consistently go for modern or contemporary campaigns. Another huge hurdle can be a GM's lack of experience with a genre - or worse, ineptitude (as is my case with Science Fiction). I don't know why, but I can't run science fiction campaigns well. I think part of it is the tech (there are so many freaking options, and it can be overwhelming) and the other part is a lack of maps. In most sci-fi games, you really need to have star charts and system maps or your players are going to be confused, and that's going to confuse you. But let's get back to the subject at hand - "Campaign Foundation." What exactly do I mean when I say "foundation?" Well first off it is and isn't what you think. Essentially, it is your campaign's thesis statement and what you, and your players expect to get out of the game. It can be as simple as "Form an adventuring party, kill monsters, and take their stuff" or complex as "Play a group of characters who are investigating a scandal in Washington D.C. only to find out that the rabbit hole goes so much deeper than they thought." Whatever it is you should try to define it as well as you can and present it to your players. I've seen people do "campaign prospectuses" before - and these do work just fine if you have new players or are not as familiar with your players as you should be. The only thing that fixes the latter is by hanging out with them more and running games for them. I'm going to assume that you're fairly familiar with your players, how their tastes run, what they enjoy, etc. because I just don't have time to try to come at this from another angle. Most GMs are going to be able to figure this sort of stuff out on their own and if they can't there are excellent books out there (*cough* Robin's Laws of Good Gamemastering *cough*) to help you with that. Once your players take a look at what you want to do, ask them what they want to do. Get the discussion going, maybe they want a political thriller, but they don't want it to stay that way - they want some paranormal elements mixed into it - just not right away. If there is a disagreement about what is wanted ask for them to come to a compromise or get them to vote on it (I use majority rule when I need to). If you've got a good group of players, the voting/compromising will be quick, and you'll be able to get back to the designing of your campaign. Now, over the years, I've seen GMs who want to create their games in their own vacuum - no player input until it begins. This can work, but I've run a lot campaigns for a huge number of players in my twenty years of gaming. Many of them short-lived or once or twice off LARPS and in all of those games, I've found that if you let the player in at the start, your game is going to last longer. See, if you're the only one invested in the beginning you could start with a dud (this has happened to me a LOT in my early days), but if you start with the players already invested...well, you can see the benefits of that. So, to sum up:
  • First, figure out what you want to do as a GM.
  • Second, figure out what your players want you to do. Get the players to compromise or vote on things they disagree on.
  • Third, combine the two into a workable whole. Compromise with your players if need be.
  • Fourth, come up with a workable short (or short as it can be without losing its intent) sentence that describes what you are trying to do.
It's that easy. The best campaigns I've ever run started out from a 20-minute  conversation with my players followed by character creation and then a quick-started campaign. I personally like to do this as a session - a "foundation session," but your mileage may vary.

The Worked Example: Something, Something Kill Monsters Urban Fantasy Secret Magic
Yes, that was the first thing I came up with when I decided on my upcoming campaign. Hush, it's not funny. The idea came to me when I was half asleep and in need of the rest Mr. N. Somnia was keeping from me. I thought "Man, wouldn't it be cool to run an urban fantasy campaign?" I personally love the genre as it has exploded on the fiction scene. It hits all my buttons as it were. One of the first things I thought of when I read Kim Harrison's Hollows series was "I can totally do something like this as an RPG." Even though that series is great, I personally like a more..."hidden world" theme. It appeals to that part of me that loves superhero comics and how the hero always has to balance his secret identity against his real one. So, I took this idea to my players and said, "What do you think?" eight fucking hours later they had told me in the minutest of detail what they wanted, how they wanted it, and what they expected. They gave me detailed lists of what sort of pop culture they wanted to be included, what types of characters they wanted to play, how they wanted to start off, and so on. It was amazing. A colossal cascade of collaborative creative content. Imagine you're writing a book, the first thing you do is (if you're smart) write an outline. This was like getting five authors together to outline a book and damn near every idea they had fit with the other in perfect synchronicity. I was excited, overwhelmed, encouraged, and stressed about living up to their exceptions all at once. I started with "Something, Something Kill Monsters Urban Fantasy Secret Magic" and ended up with "A group of characters who know/don't know about the supernatural world come to grips with it in their home city and get involved in the power plays between multiple races of paranormal beings." And that's how SSKMUFSM (ska-muf-sim) came to be.

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