I had a hard time with this blog post. And it was not because I don’t see value in writing a campaign, but because, for the most part, I am an improv GM and typically don’t write campaigns. To get this blog post written, I had to cast my mind back many, many years to the year I met Josh and when I first started. Then pull those memories forward to share them with you. This is not going to be a bible on how to write, but this is how I wrote my campaigns.
I will also state this: Josh and I go about preparing campaigns completely differently, so I am only going to talk to my personal perspective. First, I like outlines. They are just as useful in my writing as when writing a one shot. Outlines are important because they can help you keep things organized. However, I’m not an A B C outline kind of girl, not for campaigns. I start with the bad guy. Who are they? What is their motivation? What is their overarching goal? Then, I expand from there to location and friends/allies, Where is their lair? Do they have minions? What are they and how many? Once you answer these questions it gives you an idea as to the scope of the campaign and how dark it’s going to be.
Then, I like taking one of the minions and plucking them up and answering the questions. Who are they? What are they to the Big Bad? Then dropping them at or near the beginning of the campaign. After all, the player’s can’t go off and defeat the Big Bad without information. Outside of the Minion NPC I add location, where are the players starting, then I add other NPCs.
After the first and the last pieces are in place, I will add the other pieces, more minions and NPCs that both help or hinder the party. Locations, clues and treasure can be found along the path, no matter what path they choose. The actions and decisions of NPCs that are “nearby” the main plotline because the PCs are not the only other people in the world of the bad guys. The other part that I like to incorporate are consequences, or parts of a living world. For example, they clear out a cave of a nest of goblins, something else will be living there when they get back. Or if they decide not to rescue the princess, well the princess is no longer available to be rescued, the world moves on without their interference.
To make my improv last an entire campaign, it comes back to the first part: Who is my villain and what do they want? To make it feel connected, I put myself in their mindset and made sure that each part that the players faced either advanced their enemy’s plans or sent them on red herring chases to give their enemy breathing room while they worked on advancing their plans. This also requires taking copious amounts of notes, not just what they’re doing but how the Big Bad will react to their actions.
One of the big things we’ve talked about in previous posts is Session Zero and how important character backgrounds are. You’ll want to leave space in your campaign write up to include their stories too, such as their home town being razed by the Big Bad’s group, or one of their favorite NPCs being hurt or killed by the Big Bad. While I will never advocate a GM vs Player game, I will state that the Big Bad is actively working against the characters, so you want your campaign to reflect that.
When I use modules or campaigns other people have written, I have in the past changed bits of it to fit the characters, and just because you wrote this campaign doesn’t mean you can’t change things to fit better. I definitely wouldn’t expect a group of young kids to respond or react the same way adults would. In fact, the last campaign I wrote that was for Dungeons and Dragons involved revolving around a fairy who didn’t like killing and instead wanted to capture. The player of that character was a seven year old at a table of teenagers (one of which was her brother). So that took some serious out of the box thinking.
When it comes to campaigns versus short shots or even one shots, I prefer the latter over the former. Mostly because short series or one shots allow for more fluctuation of time and players over the course of a year or two. I’m not Matt Mercer (the Critical Role guy), Zack Norton (the GM for the Hole in the World on Mana Pot Studios) or Lucas Santana (the GM for Infinite Horizon on Rule of Lore), I haven’t had much luck guaranteeing a set group or a set series of times for a game, so a campaign typically doesn’t to work for me.
In summary, my approach to building a campaign is similar to the one I use for one shots or short series. I personally like to allow myself maximum flexibility so I keep my preparation low and focus on logically what the actions of the player characters would do to affect the world around them and then how intelligent enemies would react to those events happening. This means that my campaigns tend to evolve more organically than most. While this may be an uncomfortable approach for some, it is the one that has worked the best for me and the way that I think. Happy gaming!
- Joann Walles
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