Having completed the important decisions behind our first step, we can move on to the next task – setting up the campaign itself.
For those new to roleplaying and it’s terminology, a campaign refers to the overall storyline and adventure arc of any given game. This story can be as simple as simply being the adventures of a shared party, or it can be as complex as a grand narrative regarding facing off against a giant conspiracy set in a vast world of political intrigue, vast exploration, and psychological thriller. A campaign is the essential backbone upon which any roleplaying game is set – it sets the expectations of the players and their characters alike.
Discussions on campaign development can be an entire series in itself, and one of the most important, and often most engaging, aspect of being a GM. It allows the GM to demonstrate their creativity, as they create the sandbox within which the later steps can improve upon.
It’s important to understand that for many campaigns, they are often a work in progress right up until the end, because the GM will often wish to adapt them to the actions of their players at the table. GMs can rarely anticipate every decision their players will make, and should be somewhat flexible with decisions they make whilst creating their campaigns. The campaign is there to facilitate the game, and if the campaign prevents people from having fun at the table, then both the campaign and game has failed.
With this in mind, there are three main considerations when it comes to creating a campaign:
- The Rules System
- The Characters
- The Setting
If you recall, the biggest mistake that a GM can make is to overplan, and as such, I will be focusing on an inside-out approach to design, where I will create only what we need to play, and then make it up from there. This will not only minimise my own work, but also allow my players to collaborate of the creation and development of the game as we progress.
Making The Rules
One of the key decisions to be made at this stage is what rules system we will be using. This decision is key in determining how conflict resolution is handled, and shapes a lot of the expectations regarding the sort of things that the players can hope to achieve. The mechanics may also impact the narrative outcomes of the stories being told, and simple mechanical tweaks can make two otherwise identical campaigns vastly different in the way they play and the tone they impart.
It’s not wise to significantly adjust the rules during the game itself, as this can create confusion over the expectations of the players and their characters. However, the GM is advised to focus on the key rules of the game, such as the principles behind conflict resolution, so that they can come up with fair rulings for various situations that come up during the game. If such events become commonplace, they can be developed into something that can become a solid houserule at the table at a later time, but often it is better to come up with a quick and fun resolution at the time to keep the gameplay moving.
The D20 System
There are numerous rules systems available commercially, or simple conflict resolution mechanics that can be adapted to any form of campaign. One of the most prevalent systems is the D20 System, the basis of the widely popular Dungeons and Dragons game. It’s a highly flexible system with a very simple conflict resolution mechanic at it’s core:
If 1d20 + modifiers => Target DC, then action succeeds.
It’s simple, sublime, and very easy to understand and adapt to. It’s also one of the most comeprehensive rules sets covering a wide range of actions and situations, in various degrees of complexity. This had led to a huge library of material that can be used in games, as well as a number of key evolutions in many different systems.
My own history with roleplaying started with the simplistic “Easy to Master” Black Box version of Dungeons and Dragons that was released in 1991. Whilst the full comprehensive version of the D20 System can be somewhat overwhelming to new players, the streamlined version presented in many basic boxed sets make for ideal entry points for newer players, and as such I will be looking to developing a hybrid between the D20 System and Basic D&D.
I could speak forever on the actual rules mechanics of the system, but one of the best features of the Black Box set, and other basic sets, was how it eased new players in over time, using practical demonstrations to teach the system. These systems often focus on intruding new elements step by step, and I can use a similar method to develop and present the system we will ultimately be using. As such, I can focus more on developing the rules being used as we plan our first adventure and session in later steps of this series.
Enter the Players
At it’s core, any roleplaying game is based on the adventures of a shared party of PCs, or Player Characters. These are the stars of the show, and it’s the decisions and reactions of these characters, and their players, that drive the storyline.
Like campaigns themselves, the PCs can range from simplistic one-dimensional stereotypes, to complex narrative creations formed through the dynamics of the player, interactions with the rest of the party, and the sandbox world provided by the GM.
Playing a great PC is as much a skill that can be developed by time and practice as being a GM, and many players can easily be overwhelmed if they feel forced to create a lot of options at once, especially if they have little prior experience with roleplaying. Players can come from a range of backgrounds and expectations, meaning they might see their PC as a pawn or gaming piece, or want to see their PCs as widely developed and integrated into the setting as their favourite protagonists from epic literature.
As such, deciding upon and managing player expectations is an important part of any campaign. The players need to know if they are trained heroes, epic gods, bumbling fish out of water, or impotent specks of dust on the eyelids of eldritch beings. These decisions shape a campaign, and are often backed up by the rules system being used.
Given my desire to create an introductory game that can teach my players how to to play, it should be fairly clear that the PCs will be simplistic, but with room to develop alongside my players. It’s important that the PCs are competent enough to be engaging to play, but not provide too many options that overwhelm the players with decision paralysis.
A Stable Party?
However, whilst the characters themselves is a simple decision, I get to make a further decision regarding the party that will have a significant impact on the campaign itself. Due to the fact that I will only have two players to start with, playing with only two PCs will cause some issues that need to be covered.
In most games, players only get a single character at the time. This allows the players to dedicate their focus to their own character, and each character can have a reasonable amount of time in the spotlight at the table. However, this standard is based on games having between four to six players, often with a mix of character skills and abilities to help the party succeed. As such, a party with only two PCs is somewhat underpowered.
I have a number of options to go with here. I could just go with an underpowered party, and modify adventures and encounters to take this into account. Alternatively, I could go with providing NPCs, or Non-Player Characters, to help round out the party. Both are workable options, but will require more work on my part as the GM, either in preparation or at the table.
An interesting alternative could be to off-load some of this extra work to the players themselves, by allowing them to run two PCs at the same time. This will help keep my players engaged for longer, as they run more than one PC. It also means that they can try out more than one type of character, so that they can explore more of the game at once.
To further build on this principle, we can introduce a “stable” of characters in the party. This stable allows the players to develop multiple characters at once, gives them spares to use when other characters are incapacitated, and will allow them to develop their roleplaying skills at their own pace. The ultimate aim here is to instill the idea that the party survival is more important than PC survival, so that the newer players don’t feel like they have lost if misfortune affects a character that they are running. It also means replacement PCs can be brought in quickly so as to not slow down the game.
What’s the Story?
Finally, it’s time to work on the storyline and background of the campaign itself. This provides the context of the game itself, and gives the players something to work with.
The majority of the basic sets that exist often used simplistic settings, often built using an inside-out design principle. As such, they only provide enough information to the players as they need to play, and leave plenty of room for the GM to build upon the setting as the campaign progresses.
Welcome to The Vale
One of the more memorable such settings is The Vale, the setting of the D&D Fast-Play series of modules that TSR released to celebrate 25 years.
The Vale was a very simple, very generic setting, in which the PCs live in a simple river valley surrounded by mountains. This gives the PCs a simple area to explore and have early adventures in as they learn the game and it’s possibilities. The Vale provides everything that the party needs, including the vitally important feature of a civilised home base which they can use to rest and prepare, referred to as Haven. It even includes The Patriarch, a simple father-like patron figure used to provide adventure hooks for the party.
This simplistic campaign setting is idea for the teaching environment that I am looking to foster, whilst providing a blank canvas to expand upon as the campaign progresses. The Vale is both isolated and civilised, so the players can experience the safety of adventuring in a frontier environment without disrupting the politics of the wider campaign world too much.
I also have the option that I can use a lot of the assets from the Fast Play modules, and other basic sets, with minimal fuss. It means less work for me, as these modules are often less complex than normal, and focus more on teaching the rules step by step rather than providing complex storylines with many plot twists.
Return to Basics
In many ways, these basic sets keep the campaign focused on the core gameplay aspects of Dungeons and Dragons – exploring mysterious ruins like Dungeons, and fighting dangerous monsters like Dragons. This is the gameplay that got me hooked, both as a player and a GM, and I look forward to bringing this gameplay to my players!