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Bottling Lightning: Coming Up With the Core Idea for a Campaign

Posted By Martin Ralya On August 16, 2010 @ 1:10 am In GMing Advice | 19 Comments

In le Pot de Suggestiones, Gnome Stew reader scoopsy asked this excellent question:

I’m fairly good at coming up with adventures and adventure hooks (and Eureka! is there for those times when I’m not), but I frequently find it difficult to tie them into a larger, compelling campaign. If we spend more than 2-3 sessions on a villain or plotline, it seems I start losing people and then it’s time for something completely different.

My question is this, then: what makes a campaign more than just the sum of its adventure parts? How does an idea for you go from “Hmm, that could be an interesting idea” into “Oooh, that could be turned into a larger campaign.” Or is there some other genesis of a campaign idea that I’m just not seeing?

And while your first instinct might be to look at this the same way a writer looks at the question “Where do you get your ideas?,” GMing being what it is — a mix of craft, science, art, and crazy sauce — there are some structured approaches to coming up with good campaign ideas.

Here’s one of them.

Stick a Fork In It

It all begins with a forked path, because ideally you want to start with one of two things:

  • A bolt from the blue — inspiration!
  • A core concept created by your whole group

If you have a flash of inspiration, sometimes that’s really all there is to it — the ball is rolling, and you just go from there.

But sans flash, an all-options-open discussion with your group is a great way to come up with a campaign concept. You don’t have to drill down to the level of what color the master villain’s cloak clasp is, but asking your players what kind of campaign interests them is a great starting point.

Some RPGs bake this right in, like Burning Wheel: Thanks to each PC’s Beliefs, you literally can’t build a party of BW characters without also creating a sketched-out campaign concept. Most games don’t do this, though, so you need to do it yourself.

Talk to your players. See what they’re jazzed about. Ask for stuff in their backgrounds that they’d like to see come up in-game, and then weave it together. There are lots of ways to skin this halfling, just remember that player buy-in trumps GM interest.

Speaking of which…

It’s Got to Be Fucking Awesome

Merely good campaign concepts are boring — you want your concept to be fucking awesome. Settle for less, if you like, but for best results make with the awesome-sauce.

It’s hard to be more specific, because awesome is like porn: You and your group will know it when you see it. And it’s your group’s buy-in that’s the most important factor.

Everyone at the table should be excited about the concept, including you, and since you likely don’t want to spoil the details for your players, that means they need to be excited about the GENERAL stuff. If the general stuff is exciting, think how awesome the specifics will be!

So: player buy-in: you need it. Get everyone to sign off on the core idea (regardless of whether it came from you, a player, or a collective mish-mash), and your game will be likely to rock.

Plan Ahead

There’s no wrong way to plan, as long as you do some planning of some sort. If you want to end your campaign on purpose down the line, take that into account. Similarly, if you want to build in story arcs that make convenient “Hey, let’s try another game for a little bit” points (like my group does), remember to factor those in as well.

How you plan also depends on the core concept, of course. If the heart of the concept was a badass villain, then you need to start subdividing your idea based on how the villain’s plot or plots will unfold. How far along is his sinister plan? How much can the PCs disrupt it prematurely? How can you work them up to the Big Bad by way of power-appropriate encounters along the way?

If you know your group well, consider how much you can fit in the average session; then consider how many sessions you want in your first story arc, or in the whole campaign.

Block those out in a new document/on a piece of paper, and start filling them in with stuff that sounds cool. Don’t hide the cool stuff, either — lead with it. Why fight rats when you could fight mutated rat-cultists, or get kidnapped by space pirates when the pirates could instead scuttle your ship and set it on a course for the sun?

Once you’ve got X number of sessions loosely blocked out, step back, sleep on it, or otherwise give yourself a short creative break. Then come back to your list and see how it strikes you. You’ll likely need to tweak a few things here and there.

…But Don’t Shackle Yourself or Your Players

Planning out a whole campaign is great, but doing it loosely is the key.

Your players will surprise you, even if it was them who suggested the core concept. You’ll surprise yourself, too — and if it’s ticking along really well, the game itself can be a source of surprises.

So in your planning, whatever form that might take, be sure to consider alternatives, be prepared to improvise, and be ready to kill your darlings. If the plan stops looking like fun, or sounds less cool than something that takes the game in a wildly different direction, rewrite the plan.

So Many Ways

This is really a huge topic. I’m pushing a thousand words, and I’ve just skimmed the surface. I’ve also only outlined one approach — genesis, analysis, planning, flexibility — out of many. This one might not work for you, scoopsy, or for others who think and approach GMing and gaming differently — it’s the nature of the beast (though I hope it does work for you!).

If you’ve got a better approach, please share it in the comments!

About  Martin Ralya

A father, husband, writer, small-press publisher, former RPG industry freelancer, and lifelong geek, Martin has been gaming since 1987 and GMing since 1989. He lives in Utah with his amazing wife Alysia and their awesome daughter Lark in a house full of books and games.




19 Comments (Open | Close)

19 Comments To "Bottling Lightning: Coming Up With the Core Idea for a Campaign"

#1 Comment By evil On August 16, 2010 @ 1:28 am

I find that the best ways to begin a campaign always come from real life. Find out what your players are interested in, and use those real life hooks. Big sports fans? Why not a Running Man (from the King short story) type campaign? Big history fans? Why not echo Hitler’s ambition or the first Crusade? Science people? Follow Jane Goodall’s exploits through the jungle and see what would happen with an intelligent species being noted. If you can catch players’ interests, then it should grow organically.

If you find that things are slowing down, it’s once again time to make the players do the work. I’ve found that if players aren’t connected to the game, then they quickly lose interest and give up the flare for the dramatic. Ask them to shape their world, not just follow what you’ve given them.

I agree with the above statement to lead with power, too….Metroid knows how it’s done. Give your players a taste of real power first, and then have them build from teh beginning. Ever think of starting a game by having the players take down a god and moving backwards from there?

#2 Comment By E-l337 On August 16, 2010 @ 5:24 am

The best campaigns I’ve ever run were generated by player ideas. “Let’s do a Space opera that’s like Cowboy Bebop meets Outlaw Star.” God was that fun for everyone involved. Sure we had the inevitable drop out here and there, but the basic framework was there from start to finish: Mercs are hired to rescue a girl back for Some Corporation Bigwig, only to find that she wasn’t kidnapped, she ran away. The game ended with them… well, fighting gods in a sense. It was pretty freaking awesome from start to finish, and everything connected nicely. Only now do I recognize the source of its success fully, which is outlined in this article.

My current game is similar, but I’ve felt it’s been sort of stuck in neutral for a long time, and now I think I can see why: sure, the basic concept is there (bunch of people just trying to get by on a spaceship in a post-apocalyptic world), but while the premise is sound, the campaign-fu on my end is a beat weaker. Not that the players seem to mind – they rather seem to be enjoying the whole day-to-day-ness of the situation, but asking them for campaign ideas is kind of like pulling teeth sometimes.

So if you can manage to generate a fucking awesome idea based on what you know your players want to play, then hell yeah your game will rock. But on the other hand, if you can’t generate a kickass over-arching campaign idea based on those initial ‘what I want to play’ stuff, then you may wind up stuck in neutral, like me.

Thanks for giving me something to think about, Martin!

#3 Comment By Diceman On August 16, 2010 @ 5:39 am

When I saw the “stick a fork in it” – I thought “hey! that’s a great idea!” – but then, to my surprise, came a completely different good advice. So here’s my version of “the fork”:

When the current plotline is nearing it’s end – stick a fork in it. Put a real, big choice for the players to make – witch must be made by the party together (or you’ll just split them). A choice connected to the dying plotline, with some new adventure hooks. That way you get a “rolling” campaign. The big advantage here is that with each new fork you get a new chance to make the game and the plotlines better adjusted to the party.

As you go along turning the consequences of the player’s choices to new adventures (all connected) – slowly a greater story arc will emerge.

#4 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On August 16, 2010 @ 8:29 am

There’s something to be said for just starting a campaign without a overarcing plotline. If the events in the campaign turn into a plotline, follow it and turn up the volume a bit, but don’t force it.

Call it a “reverse sandbox”?

#5 Comment By LordVreeg On August 16, 2010 @ 8:53 am

First off, I just want to say that this is an underappreciated idea.

Secondly, in campagn design, the CBG often talks about Divset vs Conset (diverse setting or consistent setting) Conset describes what you are talking about; one overarching theme for the campaign.

#6 Comment By E-l337 On August 16, 2010 @ 11:29 am

@Kurt “Telas” Schneider – Your comment about the ‘reverse sandbox’ is pretty much how my current game has been running. Slowly but surely, things are shaping up to become something, but what, I have no clue.

I think my players appreciate the choice to go “Hey, let’s go check this place that we haven’t been to in awhile and see how that’s developed” even more now, because it seems like everywhere they go, they’re helping people/settlements (and adopting every child NPC they come across on the face of the friggin’ planet!).

#7 Comment By Kikatink On August 16, 2010 @ 11:47 am

This couldn’t come at a better time. My current campaign is soon to end (only a handful of Episodes left). I’ve open a discussion to my players through our website about what they’d like to see/do next. Only comment so far was interesting; “make combat a real threat”! Should be noted we’re currently playing D20 Saga Edition Star Wars were combat is really, really pointless against the PCs.

#8 Comment By Scott Martin On August 16, 2010 @ 11:49 am

I like @Diceman‘s idea above– in many ways, that’s how my open ended campaign became an epic struggle against the Empire of Iron. I kept offering other juicy subplots and forks, but the PCs focused like a laser on the destruction of their enemy. In the end, their repeated choices made the game all about the grand war of liberation.

#9 Comment By Razjah On August 16, 2010 @ 7:00 pm

The only problem with a “core concept created by your whole group” is that the whole group needs to create it. Many players are not very active in the planning of a campaign and need to be begged to create any character info, backgrounds, development, etc.

#10 Comment By mattereaterlad On August 16, 2010 @ 8:46 pm

A method I’ve had success with in my current & past campaigns is to weave in a few different thematic elements (even possibly conflicting ones) early on as possibilities.

Whenever I do this, my players hone in on the theme and/or conflict that gets them most excited. And the leftovers aren’t wasted effort, either — I made a formal list of the various themes and conflicts at work in my homebrewed setting, and the things that I’m not focusing on are perfectly good concepts ready-to-use if I run another campaign in the same setting with different players who have different interests & tastes.

#11 Comment By Martin Ralya On August 16, 2010 @ 9:57 pm

@evil – The Metroid approach is nifty — have you tried that?

@E-l337 – Happy to help!

@Diceman – That’s excellent advice — keeping things rolling as the first arc winds down can be tricky.

@LordVreeg – Can you tell us more about Divset?

@Kikatink – I’d love to hear why that player made that suggestion! Realistic combat isn’t a SW hallmark, and bet s/he’s got a fascinating reason.

@Razjah – True enough. I’ve been there, but am now spoiled by having an excellent, proactive group. Driving the bus yourself is sometimes the only option.

@mattereaterlad – Solid! That kind of reuse is a great way to spend time wisely. :-)

#12 Comment By evil On August 16, 2010 @ 10:36 pm

@Martin Ralya – Yep, I’ve done it. Gave the players a boatload of awesome weapons, items, and spells and let them hack away at a god. At the end of the fight, they left triumphant only to lose everything in a shipwreck. They were rescued but faced a serious level drain. After the initial shock, they really took to getting back what was once theirs. I’ve done something similar using a time travel mechanic, too.

#13 Comment By Martin Ralya On August 17, 2010 @ 10:48 pm

@evil – I like it! I can see some players being annoyed, but it’s definitely a powerful incentive.

#14 Comment By Kikatink On August 18, 2010 @ 6:54 am

I’ll quote the player’s words exactly, “I just want to play something where it is more plausible that the players can die. Something more realistic where you can’t take 15 shots with a blaster and still be unphased, you’d be dead.”

I think he doesn’t like the “pulp” feel to Star Wars. Yet oddly enough he likes it for superhero-themed RP. I’m thinking that the challange of combat isn’t there for him and he likes feeling that “threat”.

#15 Comment By cassiecaine On August 18, 2010 @ 12:08 pm

I won’t claim my approach is better than anyone else’s, but it’s what works for me. Usually, I have some defining element or theme that I think is really cool. Sometimes it’s a location, sometimes it’s a twist on a classic campaign scenario, and sometimes it’s a moral choice of some kind – but most often, it’s a combination of these.

For example, the campaign I just started running grew out of a desire to play some in underused settings. My gaming group, like many of yours I’m sure, has been playing for well over a decade, and we’ve all played the standard Euro-centric quasi-medieval fantasy to death. I decided I wanted to run a campaign using little-known published AD&D settings, like Meztica, and also some custom areas based on the legends and myths of areas of our world that don’t get much attention, like Thailand.

Of course, these are widely varying areas, so I needed to come up with a way to combine them all with one story thread. One crazy wizard (isn’t it always a crazy wizard?) who literally wove the world out of song, a common thread in each area of the world involving storytelling/bardic legendary figures, and character amnesia (for plot reasons, I promise!), and I’ve got a campaign with enough potential depth to satisfy years of play, but enough flexibility within the individual areas to tailor them to what the players feel like doing.

Sounds so simple when I put it that way, doesn’t it? :) It was many hours at the diner, and only partially a flash of lightning ;-)

#16 Pingback By Ravenous Role Playing » Blog Archive » Friday Five: 2010-08-20 — Double Edition! On August 20, 2010 @ 4:38 pm

[…] Bottling Lightning: Coming Up With the Core Idea for a Campaign Got an idea for a campaign that you think is fantastic? There are ways to fail… epically. There are always ways to make the entire experience a tremendous one that will be talked about for ages to come. Which path do you want to follow? […]

#17 Comment By LordVreeg On August 21, 2010 @ 12:41 pm

@Martin,
http://www.thecbg.org/wiki/index.php?title=Theme_Wars

That’s the page describing the outcomes of the huge comversations. The definitions are useful. Sinkset is especially useful…as in useful to avoid.

cassiecaine’s setting notes above define Ethocentric or Conset.

#18 Comment By Silveressa On September 9, 2010 @ 7:07 pm

Sinkset = Palladium’s Rifts setting pretty much, with everything from magic and dragons to power armor and cyber-dragons and laser gun wielding insects and even lowly tech operators that can build you a techno wizard sink/dishwasher. All of it mashed together with varying degrees of success and power creep.

#19 Pingback By Evil Machinations » Blog Archive » Barren Air: Preparing for Creative Downtimes On November 4, 2010 @ 2:32 pm

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