Campaign for Glory

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!

The Game Plan

The first of our four steps is planning and setting up the game itself. It’s very easy to overlook this step, especially if you already have a well established gaming group, either in real life or online. If you have already found something that works for you all, then you can simply just review this step and move on, but for those who are establishing an entirely new game, as I am, then read on.

There are many decisions that need to be made when you try to establish the game, and each of these discussions can be talked about at length in articles of their own, as the logistics of the actual games themselves can be just as complicated as any campaign planning, if not more so.

The key thing to remember is that if there is no game, there can be no campaign. It doesn’t really matter what work you do as a GM on creating an epic campaign, adventure, or encounter, if you don’t a game to play it in.

First, the Players

The first thing to consider when setting up a game are the players who make up the rest of the group you will be hopefully playing with. this will determine a lot of the possibilities regarding the game itself, and place limitations on future decisions regarding how the game works.

There are many different types of gaming groups, and the discussion of how to recruit players to your game has been covered many times by many people. The majority of groups will feature people who know each other and come together in order to play the game. As such, the game is the central focus of why everyone gets together. This may not always be the case, especially if your players come from your other social groups.

Then There Were Three

For me, I already have two players in mind, whom I know fairly well. Two players and a GM, for a total of three people, is a bit on the small side for most roleplaying games, as they tend to recommend a party of between four to six player characters, in addition to a single GM, and it takes a lot of skill and effort to adequately play multiple characters, especially using more complicated rules systems. As such, I will keep my game open for new players, but if I keep the early games simple and roleplaying light, having each player playing two PCs gives us the minimum party level needed for a reasonable game.

Getting Everyone Together

Your players will often determine how, when, and where they can all meet up, and one of the trickiest aspects of organising a game can be sorting out a time when everyone can get together.

Playing a game is a big commitment, and it can often take a lot of effort for people to make space in their often busy lives for a gaming session of any reasonable length. Planning the session might be the fourth, and final step of this series, but even now it’s worth considering what sort of time frame you are looking for with each game session.

It’s important to understand and accept that not all the time in any gaming session is going to be used for the actual gaming itself. You will need to allow for a period of time at the start and end of each session for the players to set up and to clear up.

Setting the Standard

A standard session length, which is often used in conventions, is a four hour time slot, that includes half an hour at the beginning and end of each session for the players to get ready and pack up respectively. This standard means that a quarter of the time you allocate for the session will often be taken up by non-gaming activities.

This is a good guideline to use in most cases, it is worth remembering that four hours is equivalent to an entire morning, afternoon, or evening. You may find that this might be too much of a commitment for everyone, and as such might want to consider shorter sessions, such as two-hour session with only a quarter of an hour to get ready and pack up.

Commitment Issues

You will also need to consider the fact that many games will require a commitment of more than one session, and many campaigns can run for months, years, or even decades. Changes in real-life circumstances for the players is often the biggest cause of the death of any gaming group, and whilst these cannot be avoided, it is worth considering the minimum commitment required for everyone involved.

Game Time

For me, the game is likely to take place in the evening, during the week, as this is often when my players and I have the most free time. Commuting back from work can be an issue, and long gaming sessions would be undesirable as chances are that we will all be required to be ready for work the following day.

With this in mind, we will be looking at a session length of about two hours, with a quarter of an hour to set up and clear up at each end. This would equate to roughly one hour and a half of game time per session. Because of the nature of our sessions, there’s a good chance that we will get together earlier, for socialising and refreshments as needed, depending upon issues like commuting.

How Do We Game?

You might have noticed that I asked how we will get together to game. This is important because there’s many different ways to get together and play a game in the 21st century.

Early in the hobby, options were severely limited, and it was almost taken for granted that setting up a game would require sorting out a physical place for everyone to meet up – be it at one of the players’ homes or in a community space.

However, we have seen many changes over the previous decades, especially regarding computing technology, communications media, and the evolution of the internet. Now, it’s just as common for many players to get together to game online, often using a communications package like Discord or Skype, and/or virtual tabletops like Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds.

This means that it isn’t always neccessary to get everyone together at the same physical space in order to play a game, as long as you can get them together online at the same time. This has led to more opportunities for gaming, and many groups can often stay gaming together even as they move about the globe.

Online and Feeling Fine

For me, the majority of my games these days are online. One of my players, a good friend of mine who is known online as Ouroboros (or Ouro to me), I have know for over fifteen years now, despite the fact that he lives in the Netherlands. As myself, and my other player, my missus, live in the UK, we need to consider that there is a one hour time difference between us, which is another reason why long sessions late into the evening are undesirable.

Luckily, we have a common set up for our games – we tend to use Discord to talk in a group chat for our games, and use Roll20 as a virtual tabletop to play our games. Whilst we might lose the visual and tactile aspects of gaming, such as body language in roleplaying, or the feel of actually rolling dice, we still retain enough of the experience to make it worthwhile.

Plus, because of the limitations we have with our games, we often focus on simple roleplaying light games anyway, so we don’t lose out on too much, and often focus on what we can achieve with the platform that we are using.

The decision to play a game online using a virtual tabletop like Roll20 is important, because it will shape much of the planning for the game itself in future stages, as a virtual tabletop can often require slightly more preparation and planning, as you often need to find the appropriate assets to use in your games.

Anyway, this week has a been a long one, and we have only just sorted out the basics of our game, including how many players we will have and how we will all get together to actually play the game. There’s still plenty more decisions to go, as we move on to the second step – Planning the Campaign – next week.

Four Steps to Gaming Success

Last week, I mentioned that I want to run a new roleplaying game in the New Year, and as such I will be writing a four-part series on how I set up and plan for any new game.

Now, you might be asking yourself – why only four parts? There’s a lot of detail on what is needed to set up and run a campaign, and how is it possible to only cover that in four parts?

The answer is that it’s not possible to cover everything you will possibly need in just four parts. It would be a struggle to cover everything in forty parts. In fact, a GM might find themselves working on their campaign for years and years, depending on how long the campaign goes on for.

As such, I have no intention to even try and cover everything. Instead, I will be focusing on the basics, fully aware that my game will be a work in progress. I just need enough planning to get started, and can then flesh it out as the game develops.

The Four Steps

The four stages I have identified are, as follows:

  1. Game Planning
  2. Campaign Planning
  3. Adventure Planning
  4. Session Planning

This process increases the focus of the planning at each step, bringing it down to what is needed to do what is most important in any game – the actual PLAYING of the game.

The Biggest Mistake

Many GMs make the mistake of forgetting that the ultimate aim of any game or campaign is to be played, and therefore it’s what you can actually bring to the table that matters. A key mistake is to plan too much detail that never really sees the light of day unless you share your campaign notes with your group.

I will attempt to tackle each of these stages, in order, and detail them her on this site. There may be spoilers for my players, but if they really want to read this and get a heads up on what is coming, then that’s their choice.

So come back next week for when we tackle the first step of planning a new game – actually organising and setting up the game in the first place!

Back in the Saddle

It’s been a while since I updated this website with my activities . If you recall, my last series was about looking at my self-destructive boom and bust design cycle. I was only going to take a few months off, but instead it became a few years – three years in fact! A lot has happened in that time, as I have moved on to different focuses, many of which were not even related to gaming. But now I am back, and it’s time to look at my next new project.

One of the things I did during that time was manage to run and play in a few online roleplaying games with an old friend of mine. I even managed to get my fiancé interested in gaming, by encouraging her to join us. We played around in a Dungeons and Dragons game set in Barovia, as well as a campaign using our own Legend of Zelda Roleplaying Game material.

Now, with the New Year approaching, I am looking at running a new game online. Given my experiences working with Johnn Four of Roleplaying Tips, I thought that writing about how I plan, set up, and run my new campaign might make for a great series for this website. At the very least, it will allow me to return to a routine of writing.

What’s The Plan?

So, what’s the scope of this series? Because of the open-ended nature of the campaign, it’s far too easy for me to plan too wide of a scope and never successfully end this project. As such, I will instead be using a series of milestones to help manage myself and prevent me from overworking myself.

I intend to start a new campaign in the new year, so my first milestone will involve a four-part series looking at how I set up the game. There are several key decisions that need to be made before we even run our first session, and a good foundation will make for a great campaign.

The Future

Following that, I will look at a series demonstrating how I record my campaign, and plan future sessions and adventures, as I respond to the events of the game itself. This will be a continuing feature, for as long as the game itself runs.

It can be easy to get lost in recording and logging a campaign, but I will look into doing further series of how I develop adventures, explore new ideas, and generally evolve my campaign. There’s no planned end date at this time, as I am hoping that the campaign itself will evolve over time to cater for how we play.

So join us here next week, as we kick off with planning a new campaign from scratch!

Interesting side note – I discovered that sometime in the past three years, Virgin Media finally got around to nuking my old Cult of Da’ Vane website, taking with it the originally hosted copy of the Legend of Zelda Roleplaying Game. This prompted a thorough web search, where I found a copy to rehost here on this site. Seems that the Legend of Zelda Roleplaying Game has some dedicated fans, and is noted as the FIRST full conversion of the franchise. We even have an entry on RPG Geek, which I wasn’t even aware of!