9 minute campaign design

Maldoor has a good post about collaborative world-building, which asks how a group can distribute the world-building process, and also, how to bring a new player up to speed quickly.

There’s no answer to the last question other than to present relevant information clearly and concisely.  But that sort of presentation can be enormously helpful in the initial stages of campaign design!

I’ve been fooling around with my old Alternity sci-fi RPG books, where they present a quick way to design campaigns.  This way of presenting the material is mine, but the ideas are courtesy of Richard Baker and Bill Slavicsek of the Alternity Gamemaster Guide, published by TSR, Inc.:

  1. What is the Look & Feel of your campaign? Forget about cosmology and rule modifications: what’s your campaign about, in emotional terms and general aesthetics?  Crucially: what are inspirational novels, movies, comics, etc. that put players on the same wavelength so they’re ready to collaborate with you?
  2. What’s the high concept of your campaign? If question #1 is about evoking an emotional response, this one’s about your 30 second elevator pitch.  What’s going on in big picture terms?  Here’s one possible way of doing this for Star Wars: “A tyrannical galactic empire has finally eliminated the last defenders of the old regime, but a new generation of revolutionaries are preparing to strike back.”
  3. What’s the core story? (or: “Lovable misfits who…”) Where do the players fit into that high concept?  What do they do in a typical game?  In Dungeons & Dragons, players are lovable misfits who delve into the depths of the earth and attempt to win treasure by overcoming fiendish traps and (usually) must slay horrific monsters; rinse and repeat.  The core story of Mouse Guard is that the players are lovable misfit mice who patrol a harsh wilderness, protecting the Territories from predators and natural disasters; rinse and repeat.
  4. What rules will you be using in your campaign? Self-explanatory: game + house rules.  I’m of the opinion that house rules should be minimal and carefully designed to provoke an emotional or thematic response, but YMMV.  (As a recovering rules-tinkerer, I find it crucial to ask: why does this change matter vis-a-vis items 1, 2 and 3?)
  5. What are the big-scale social institutions or groups in the campaign? This is stuff like churches, cultural institutions, corporations, governments–movers and shakers which plug into the High Concept or the Core Story (preferably both).  People generally glaze over after about 5-9 options.  A sentence description of each is a good idea.
  6. Who are the major supporting cast? These NPC’s could represent the socio-cultural forces listed above.  In any event, they’re men and women who want things relevant to the High Concept and who will get in the way of the Core Story, preferably sooner rather than later.  These guys are designed to be big-leaguers, who are relevant across several adventures and whose desires span most of the campaign.  (These characters don’t need to be high-level or powerful demigods like Elminster, but there ought to be some people with long-range goals and staying power to serve as foils, allies, and antagonists to the players.)  A little goes a long way here.
  7. What are the major threats in the campaign? Perhaps a sub-set of the socio-cultural institutions or the supporting cast.  What are the campaign-wide problems?  They don’t have to be immediate threats, but urgency always helps focus the mind.   Note that “threats” should be relevant either to the High Concept (what the campaign’s all about) or the Core Story (what the heroes do in a typical adventure) – but preferably are relevant to both.  Pick a few of the supporting cast, and figure out how they react to the various threats – no need to be super-detailed, just a general notion.
  8. Draw a map of the campaign setting. Self-explanatory, but it’s better to start small.
  9. Draft up your first adventure. Make sure to get immersed in your Core Story right away, and try to introduce your major threats, major supporting cast, and socio-cultural stuff early on, and in easily digestible pieces.

Here is an example of a nuclear-winter setting I whipped up using these guidelines.  A friend used the same format to design a futuristic dystopian allegory (based on the DMZ comic book by Brian Wood).

Here is my attempt to catch up on the Tavis White Box campaign:

  1. Look and Feel – lighthearted picaresque fantasy farce.  Emotional influences include The Dying Earth and Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
  2. High Concept – It’s a half-civilized barbaric wilderness, and in the center of it are the Caverns of Thracia, a holy site dedicated to a vanished culture, now overrun by generations of freakish half-human oddities.
  3. Core Story – Players are lovable misfits who delve into the Caverns of Thracia seeking treasure, striking faustian bargains with the monstrosities therein and slaying monsters when necessary.  Much carnage ensues.
  4. Rules – OD&D + player-created classes + bizarre hit point rules + drunk-friendly ability modifier rules
  5. Socio-Cultural Stuff – There are the Churches of Law and Chaos, a Syndicate of Wizards, a Thieves Guild, and a long-lost throne.
  6. Supporting Cast – Celerion the Eagle-Charioteer, Bassianus the Half-Orc Merchant-Gangster, Patriarch Zekon, the Verdant Paladin (deceased), the Ninth Menegril of the Nameless City, Philomena the Enchantress.  (This list is just about too long.)
  7. Major Threats – the Beast Lord, the Gynarch, Evil High Priestess Maxielle, Ashur-Ram the Necromancer, Patriarch of the Dark One (deceased, thanks to the genius of Maldoor).
  8. Map – Outdoor Survival Guide
  9. Intro Adventure – Caverns of Thracia, by Paul Jacquays

Easy enough!  The hard part, for a newcomer, is working out the relationships between items 5, 6 and 7 – but this comes with time.  The absolutely crucial thing for a brand-new player, namely figuring out how to play this campaign in the first place, is all about the synergy between between items 1-4, which for most D&D games will be very similar.  (Late 1980’s 2e campaign worlds differ considerably on High Concept, but the other items are in broad agreement and I suspect play style didn’t vary too terribly much.)


6 Responses to “9 minute campaign design”

  1. November 25, 2009 at 5:52 pm

    Fantastic post, James. I plan on making a wiki page with these Q&As as an intro to my campaign instead of the bland semi-synopsis I’m using right now.

    By answering these questions for myself, I realized a couple of things that are missing in my game, which are probably the reason why my players aren’t very interested in engaging with the setting in any meaningful way.

    1. My Look and Feel isn’t consistent. In the setting, I’ve got the Tolkien-inspired Dwarf homeland, complete with Elves, Men, Goblins and the Dragon. But at the table, I run the game more like a picaresque fantasy, where PCs like Rael Peniswhistle and Lawton Trucknuts face off with caricatures of villainy who do everything short of twirling their mustaches.

    2. My High Concept hasn’t entered into the game in any meaningful way. If you read the wiki, you’re aware that there’s a power vacuum that various factions are rushing to fill, but other than a local Dwarf buying back recovered heirlooms from the Lost Mine, it’s never come up.

    7. There aren’t any Threats, other than: MONSTARS!

    9. My intro adventure doesn’t introduce the Concept very well. That is, there are bits of information related to the Concept, but they’re mostly hidden behind secret doors, on the other side of traps, or buried under treasure–things that tend to get more attention in my game.

    Although my Black Peaks game has diverged from yours, I’d be really interested in seeing what you intended to do with it, as described by your questionnaire.

  2. November 25, 2009 at 10:41 pm

    [Troll and Flame] and [Ode to Black Dougal] have both posted their own nine-minute summaries! A popular concept – but did it actually take nine minutes, James? The inquiring minds of the Adventure Cartography Society want to know!

  3. November 26, 2009 at 2:41 pm

    Well – it CAN take 9 minutes, if you’re extremely clear on the inspirations and know your game pretty well. The [Fimbulvinter Campaign] took about 9 minutes to write, but that’s because The Road had a huge effect on me.

    But I confess adjusting things a little for a catchier post title.

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Past Adventures of the Mule

November 2009

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