Gamemaster’s Guidepost: What Makes a Worthy Campaign

I’ve talked about what makes a worthy GM and what makes a worthy player . . . but there’s something missing. And that something is . . . what makes a worthy campaign? Normally, a GM comes up with the idea he wants to run and plans the campaign out over days or weeks and then shows that to his players, who then create characters, and then actual play begins. There are variations of course. The GM might take months to create a setting or minutes. It all depends on the GM’s flow, but it mostly boils down to the GM doing the planning and then the players making characters. This isn’t always the best way to do things. I’ve found over decades of gamemastering that the following helps make a campaign worthy.

A Worthy Campaign Involves Players from Inception

A campaign that is worthy of playing involves the players from the beginning. What do I mean by this? I mean the GM talks to their players before they even start making notes. The the best GMs come up with multiple ideas they would like to run and then shares them with the players to figure out which ones they like best. This isn’t a one way street. The GM needs to be as involved and interested as the players or the game will simply collapse at some point. To this end, the GM may want to make a survey for their players so they can give their honest opinion without any pressure from their fellow players. (See here for my posts on framing preferences for PCs.)

After the players and GMs mutually decide what they want to do it’s best to discuss in a session zero (or two since it’s always a good idea to have a session zero for character creation as well) what they expect given the campaign parameters. If everyone is on board at the beginning there is no worry of railroading or quantum ogres since the GM has been upfront about their plans.

A Worthy Campaign Gives Agency to Players

Player agency is so important. In ye olden days the GM’s word was law and final and the players endured. (Of course, that’s probably not 100% true, it was in my case playing under my brother, but that’s a whole other story.) Nowadays players expect to have a say in how the game goes and how content is presented. They want to be in be in the kitchen helping make dinner, not just sitting at the table waiting to be served. And this is a good thing. Players deserve to have an equal share in what’s going to happen. Don’t just decide for them, give them decisions and options. And really, that’s not that hard to be honest. It’s breaking down the chain of play a bit, but it’s doable. You just have to train yourself to do it. Give your players the choice to do something and then stick to it as best as possible. Do not offer choices that will wreck your game outright – that way lay madness.

A Worthy Campaign is Flexible

Campaigns need to be flexible to succeed. What do I mean? Well there are three parts to this one.

  • The campaign’s premise need to be flexible enough to allow semi-related character concepts to be conceived and created by players. The GM should be able to make allowances within reason for concepts. For example, playing a furry in a superhero campaign when the GM wanted all superhumans.
  • The campaign should have limits. If you’re running an all pirate game but but someone wants to play a ninja ask them to to reconsider or give a good back story.
  • The campaign should allow for growth in both character personality and mechanically in a way that is flexible enough for PCs to color just outside the lines.

A Worthy Campaign has Documentation

Take notes. Take lots of notes. Make lots of documents. Keep up with your notes. Just DOO EET. (See here for the method I personally use.) Even if you plan on having it be a short term campaign make and keep notes. You’ll never know when you might need to go digging through them for something else. Plus detailed notes will allow you to make links between story arcs that you might not otherwise remember. Keep session reports if you can or foist it off on a player you bribe with unspent character points. (I give one of my players 1 point per session recorded and he keeps grant notes I barely have to edit.)

If you really want to dazzle your players create separate files detailing the world you’re running, how to create characters, and what house rules, optional rules, and sourcebooks you’ll be using. Make it so the only question that can’t be answered by the files is one you’d have to weigh in on as a GM. This works especially well for long-term campaigns where you anticipate multiple characters by the same PCs. (See my ruminations on a wuxia campaign for what you might want to note.)

A Worthy Campaign is Entertaining

When it comes down to roleplaying I try to remember this simple maxim: RPGs should be fun and entertaining. If they are not . . . it’s probably not a game you’ll want to continue playing. Now this doesn’t mean that everything needs to be happy and fluffy for it to be fun. A grimdark future game might be fun to the right group as might something like Toon, Paranoia, or similiar slapstick fun. Whatever the game is should be upfront and transparent on what to expect, but interjecting a little humor into the mix is just solid roleplaying convention.

A Worthy Campaign has Genre Appropriate Mechanics

Whew, this is a rough one for some systems and others (like Cortex Prime, FATE or GURPS) it’s so easy it hurts. This is one of the reasons why game engines that are spec’d to do one genre and one setting are so much more popular than universal systems. All the work for the GM is basically done. You just need to run. But it gets more complicated with universal systems that are designed to do anything. In such cases, you got more work to do.

More specifically, for GURPS this means starting with the genre you want, adding all the rules for that genre you deem appropriate and then removing rules for the same reason. There is no need for firearms or free fall rules in a fantasy setting. When building a campaign I like to to group rules into the following:

  • Genre Dampers: Rules that while not irrelevant do not add to the feel of a given campaign. For example, in a wild west campaign it’s probably a bad idea to add rules on from GURPS Tactical Shooting or similiar. You could do it, but it’s going to change the entire feel of the campaign in most people’s minds.
  • Genre Enhancers: Rules that add to the feel of a given campaign. For example, a wild west campaign using the additional shooting rules from either GURPS Gun Fu or GURPS High-Tech for TL5 firearms.
  • Genre Irrelevant: Rules that add nothing to the campaign and are just not appropriate. For example, a wild west campaign using the rules from GURPS Ultra-Tech. 
  • Genre Neutrals:  Rules that neither add nor take from the campaign.

A Worthy Campaign is Consistent

Consistency may be the hobgoblin of little minds, but consistency in a campaign is the sauce that holds it all together. A campaign must remain internally consistent if the GM expects to remain suspension of disbelief at all. Changing things suddenly will rip the players out of their immersion if not properly planned beforehand. A game depending on a bait and switch needs must have a GM who has warned the players ahead of time that things will change and if they don’t they might end up with revolting players who were expecting something else. Always, always, always warn players of these sorts of things – you can be vague about it. Just make sure they are aware that something might be coming. For other games, don’t change the tone of established facts in-setting without good reason. This never applies to games where the PCs are intended to peel away the onion a layer at a time. The whole point of such campaigns is that it requires detective work and research on the part of the PCs to determine what is going on. For most other campaigns the players (and GM) builds on the established facts of the setting to create a richer and more interesting world. Be consistent.

Picking Over the Bones

I could probably talk at length on what things a good campaign needs. I’ve had lots of failures and lots of practice to make perfect. One thing that should always be considered by the GM is that you will fail. Everyone does. And that’s ok. You’re not perfect. You’re just a storyteller trying to spin thoughts into a world your players can interact with. Realize that you are capable of failure to understand that you’re also capable of telling a wonderful story and running a great game.

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