I grew up with the scientific method. Before I was making Gantt Charts and writing risk plans, I was a scientist. As scientists, we are trained to: develop a hypothesis, design an experiment to prove or disprove, run it, and evaluate the evidence to see if the hypothesis is valid or not. Hey! Wake up! I am getting to my point. GM’s in campaigns can also be scientists. We can set up campaigns and sessions to test various questions and then see how they play out. Today’s article is about how to turn your campaign into your very own RPG petri dish.
There are a lot of ways to set up a campaign, enough so that I co-wrote a book about it (shameless plug). One way to set up a campaign is to base it on a question (let’s call this the Question Campaign). One of the goals of a Question Campaign is to explore one or more central question(s) through play; seeing how the players act and react based on the ramifications of the question.
Types of questions
While not an exhaustive list, below are some general categories of the types of questions around which you can base a campaign. These categories are not mutually exclusive. For instance, you can have a setting question and a character question in the same campaign. Questions like many other campaign components are best used in moderation, so try not to go crazy.
You can ask your questions at several layers of a campaign…
These types of questions look at exploring a world where a change has been made from either our world and history or the established cannon of another world. These types of questions are like the ones in the Marvel “What If…” series. Setting questions typically generate an alternate history, which is then explored through play.
These types of questions appeal to groups who have a level of understanding and appreciation for history or setting cannon, and are looking to explore the world further by altering events to see what deviations from established history/cannon will occur.
Setup: A Star Wars campaign where the players are Rebels in a world where the Empire defeated the Rebellion at the attack on the first Death Star.
Question: How will the Rebellion survive against an Empire with a functional Death Star?
These questions look at how the players and characters behavior are affected by events which occur in the game. The question is introduced and explored through the stories created during the sessions.
These types of questions appeal to players who enjoy immersive role play, and who like to get into their characters heads and react to the events unfolding around them. For the GM the excitement comes from reacting to the characters as they wrestle with the question.
Setup: A Fantasy campaign where the characters are stationed in a remote outpost which is under constant siege by the undead.
Question: How will the characters hold up mentally when attacked night after night?
This question looks at how the players and characters will act with some kind of constraint put upon the players during character design to create a specific group dynamic. This dynamic is then explored during the course of the campaign. Often, the dynamic is going to create some level of intra-party tension that is in opposition to the party’s need to work together.
These types of questions appeal to players who like to role play PC to PC interactions as well as those who enjoy intra-party tension/conflict. A variant of this question is the traitor mechanic, where a player or players may not be who they seem.
Setup: A Corporation game where all the characters must be from different corporations. The campaign will have them working as a joint-task force.
Question: How will the Agents with competing agendas and loyalties be able to work together?
Setting Up A Question Campaign
A Question Campaign is best set up during the early Campaign Concept (when you are first coming up with the idea for the campaign) or during the Campaign Framework (when you are defining the details of your campaign). As the GM you have the option of telling the players the question or keeping it hidden during the campaign.
The scientist in me says you should keep the question hidden so as not to create bias in the players; to get their natural reactions to what unfolds. For Setting Questions, you could start the campaign with the established cannon and then spring the change upon them within the first few sessions. With a Story Question, you don’t have to provide any up front information, and can create stories to generate the question you wish to observe. With Character Questions, it’s a bit harder. You will need to keep your players in the dark about some part of character generation. With the traitor question, you can secretly work with a player to make them the traitor.
There are two major downsides to this approach. First, it involves a level of deceit against the players. Depending on your group this may go over well or it could be a campaign or group ending event. Second, if you (the GM) are the only one who knows that a question is being explored, you are the only one who gets the joy of seeing it unfold.
Role Playing Games are not science and players are not test subjects. As a GM, it has been my experience that its best to be upfront with the players and let them know you want to run a Question Campaign. It is possible there will be some metagame contamination with your players aware of the question, but good players will get past the metagame and not let it create bias. At the same time, outside of the game, you can discuss with your group how the game is progressing, and what you are learning.
Back off man… I am GM
The Question Campaign is a fun campaign structure that lets you explore questions at various levels of the campaign. You can use these types of campaigns to explore alternate histories or the psychological effects on characters. In these ways campaigns become their own social experiments. With the right setup and buy-in from your players, these types of campaigns can be very exciting and satisfying.
Have you ever run a Question Campaign? Did you tell the players up front or run it covertly? How was the outcome? What did you and your players learn from the experience?