A wee while back I got some comments relating to the way I like to design campaigns
. Now that I am in fact in the prototypic stages of designing new campaigns (for Eberron) I thought others might like to share ideas about campaign design and such forth.
Running a roleplaying game
I've now been DMing various roleplaying games for a long time, about 13 years and I started back in high school. I started with 1st edition DnD and moved to AD&D, then to other systems like storyteller and Call of Cthulhu. During this time I learned a lot about DMing, storytelling, designing combat encounters and generally "people" skills required to keep a group of disparate individuals at a gaming table. As a DM (Dungeon Master)/ST (Storyteller) you are taking the most responsibility for the game and also the most difficult role. In no particular order your job involves:
Being the "referee" of the game.
Essentially the core job of any DM/ST is to provide a way that the PCs (Player Characters) interact with the world, what it looks like and the results of the PCs actions within that world. This is different depending on the system that you choose to use, for example Call of Cthulhu tends to have enemies that border on the invulnerable side or drive PCs (Investigators in that game) mad at the drop of a hat. On the other hand, characters in DnD are more than likely to stick their axe through the monster in question.
Despite the numerous differences between systems, no matter what you are using this point still remains the same. The core of a roleplaying game is the players tell you what they want to do and with a combination of the games rules and your judgment they can affect the world you've created.
In the same vein, you also decide how the rules often work and what rules are allowed or disallowed. This is by far one of the most complicated parts of DMing and takes a lot of finesse. Too restrictive and you risk denying players the ability to play the characters they want. Allow anything and often you can end up running into some problems.
You're also responsible for managing your players, setting the time the game starts and resolving conflicts. This is often the most or second most difficult task, especially when players take a direct exception to one another to the point of outright attacking one another or just storming out of a session. There are also issues about if people don't attend sessions, what to do when you have a player with a really problematic character and other things.
The main thing with DMing is that you are telling the story. You make the characters and world that the players interact with, or you get it from somewhere else like a setting like the Forgotten Realms. You then decide what characters are important, what NPCs inhabit the world and overall how the plot is structured.
Often you use a set setting like in Forgotten Realms or Eberron. These come complete with a world already mostly built, NPCs and other things established for you. Sometimes you'll want to make your own and this obviously takes a considerable amount of effort. Sometimes you'll be using the real world, maybe even your own city with a darker twist (Call of Cthulhu and Vampire are examples of systems that make great opportunities for this sort of thing).
With these points in mind, I'm going to start going over some of the things I do when designing a campaign. I'm not going to be able to cover every aspect in one post otherwise you'll be dead of old age by the time you're done reading, but instead I'm going to talk about how I do things. Bear in mind that this is simply my method, I've never found two DMs who agree on exactly how to do this and everyone has different ideas. You should ideally take anything purely as advice and nothing here is supposed to be set in stone or the "right" way of doing things. It's simply how I do things and I hope it can provide a starting point for your own campaigns.
Bear in mind as well there will be a bias to 4E DnD especially during the more mechanical sections of this thread, but a lot of the advice I give will be applicable to multiple systems and I will be bringing up experiences with my past games routinely.
The first step: What do I want to run?
The first thing you need to do, assuming you have a group of people who want to play some roleplaying games and you have decided to take up the mantle of running the game is what
to run. There are a lot of different systems and the mechanics are very divergent. Something like DnD is very good for a combat orientated game, while something like Call of Cthulhu is designed from the group up to make for very lethal combat and a slower paced game. So you need to decide what you'd like to run and what your players want. A group of players wanting to hit things while pretending to be fantasy elves may not be impressed with playing Call of Cthulhu. A group that likes immensely lethal combat and slow intrigue based gameplay may not be enthused with 4E Dungeons and Dragons.
Once you've made that decision you have your first two issues when starting to run any game:
A) What world are you going to use? Is it a twisted version of our own reality, maybe even your own city? Is it an official published world? Did you make it up from scratch?
B) What books and supplements you are going to use; essentially you need to make it clear to your players if you don't want particular races and rules being used. For example, if you're running a Dungeons and Dragons game and you don't think Warforged fit into your setting, you need to state that to your players.
Both of these decisions inform people playing how you are going to run the game, both in what sort of characters they play and in how they will perceive the way you are going to run the game.
Choosing a setting
This should ideally be the first thing you do, if you want some generic high fantasy than I think the Forgotten Realms is good for that. Often though as a new DM you may either not know about these or have any on hand, as they can be a big investment for something you are not even sure you will even enjoy. So often the easiest thing to do is draw a small map, plonk a town on it and then radiate the gameworld out from there while keeping the "core" assumptions and world (which nearly every game system has).
Let's work through an example for DnD; the first thing to do is maybe pick a map that someone else has done like from the cartographers guild
pick a town and then start to populate it. You need a selection of basic shops, an inn, some basic NPCs to give your players some direction in life and from there somewhere to adventure. Ideally, pick a place near mountains, hills, a forest, the ocean or similar. This means you can put in a bandit camp hidden among the trees, a cave full of orcs or whatever else you require nearby easily.
From here you can simply expand outwards to bigger cities, making new locations and similar as you go. You can gradually expand the "world map" outwards as well. For example, you start with one town, then maybe another and then make a city as your campaign escalates. This provides you with a way of designing things gradually, so you don't become overwhelmed or burn yourself out. The last thing you want to do is try to make an entire campaign setting with the detail of say Eberron or FR straight off the bat from nothing. Combined with writing the story, planning encounters and other aspects you're going to end up with too much to do and a lot of stress.
If you're playing something like Vampire: The Requiem, you can pick your own town or city! Then you have your map, places and things already worked out. This simplifies your work, helps automatically ground the games verisimilitude in the minds of your players and provides you with something familiar to start with. As an example, I once ran a game of Call of Cthulhu where the game was based in my home city Christchurch. I used real world locations and even the format of the local newspaper the press to add verisimilitude to the game.
Depending on what you're doing, I like to choose a published setting in the end. Published settings already assume or conform to the rules and logic of whatever game you are wanting to play. They reduce work on your end allowing you to focus on the important bits and give your players an idea of what the game will be like before they begin. As I will discuss in the future, DMing is a massive amount of work and so things to reduce that will only help you keep on DMing; as opposed to growing frustrated and eventually having to stop the game.
Every DM has things that they either don't like or don't want in their games. Perhaps warforged doesn't fit with your setting, or perhaps you don't want Werewolves in the same role (or as a playable role) in your World of Darkness. These are things you need to decide after you've set upon whatever setting you've made and to make sure your players are aware. This will be the most varied thing between systems, but here are some general ideas for when you're starting:
A) Don't go editing the rules a whole bunch of stuff initially if you've started on a system you haven't used before. This can either frustrate players or have completely unintended side effects during play.
Example: When I first started running DnD 4E I made the big mistake of trying to change some of the core assumptions that 4E makes, particularly with the way the magic system worked. In 3E I always favoured low magic settings, as a way of resolving the issue that casters would frequently dominate the game at high levels. In 4E this had disastrous consequences because 4E is built inherently assuming PCs have certain increases to hit at different levels, their defenses increase certain ways and that they have extra powers from the items they carry. It turns out when you remove these things 4E tends to break down in several places, because the system was designed in a certain way and when you change that without compensating for it; you get issues.
Of course, I would now feel comfortable doing this but I have a year of DnD 4E experience now and firmly understand how the game works. It's important to realise even if I have been running games for 13 years, just strolling in and changing things with a new system wasn't a good idea. Experience with a particular system is the most invaluable thing when making changes to it.
B) Decide if you're going to put any restrictions (if any) on certain races or elements.
Example: I'm going to bring up my experiences using World of Darkness. Back in the old World of Darkness (which was basically a looming apocalypse type setting) one player wanted to play a mixed game, with him playing a mage in a vampire game. After some thought I went "well why not?" and allowed this. To be quite frank it was the biggest disaster I've ever run in a PnP game in the history of my time running games. The mage would literally derail the game and often completely overshadowed the vampires power wise.
Allowing classes or races with especially divergent power levels is a careful consideration. If you're not willing to deal with something like that, stick to say a mono-supernatural game in say World of Darkness or disallow things like monstrous races if you're playing Dungeons and Dragons.
C) Somewhat contradicting B though, make sure you are still open to your players ideas and suggestions. If someone has a truly great concept for playing a gnoll or warforged in my FR campaigns, even though I don't feel such things fit at all into the setting cohesively you should consider allowing it. The game once you begin isn't just yours anymore; it's everyones
. The better you integrate your players and make them feel like they are a part of the world you've created the more they will work with you on your plot hooks and other things.
D) Many roleplaying games are not a you vs. them situation. Don't view your players as the enemy and they won't view you as the enemy either. Sure, you control the bad guys but bear in mind you also control their allies, the innocent people they are trying to protect (well, not always...); but ultimately for a condusive and long running game you should not be trying to basically kill them. Killing your players is always easy, as you control the rules and decide what they can or cannot see anyway.
This of course somewhat comes under encounter design as well; making the game challenging (and fun) but not to the point where you're basically murdering people.
E) Don't be a dick.
You're in control of the game yes, you do most of the hard work but if you're a dick to your players you're going to make your life harder. The simple point here is that if you work with your players about things and listen to them, you're going to get much further than if you act like some sort of power mad dictator. This doesn't mean you should let players just walk all over you; you're still controlling the game and your decision *is* final. What I am saying here is to try to listen and be open to the ideas of the people you're playing with. If someone comes up with a detailed character background and history, try to find ways to reward that player by putting in interactions for their character.
A lot of information, especially in 4E Dungeons and Dragons terms, can be found in the DMG of course and I don't intend to reiterate a lot of that information beyond this post. The next posts will cover building a campaign more specifically with a focus on fourth edition Dungeons and Dragons. Starting with the basic building blocks of writing a story (what kind of plot); plot progression (thinking in relation to the three tiers in Dungeons and Dragons 4E); encounter design (which will be largely 4E focused) and then dealing with other problems that can arise with a campaign (such as "What do I do if I get bored or don't like how the plot is going?").
Campaign 101: Theme
Campaign 102: Plot Progression 101 and Encounter Design 101
Campaign Building 103: Telling a Story
[url]Campaign Building 104: Module and Encounter Design: Part 1[/url]