In line with the New Year, New Game challenge, and as a way to break out of my slump, I have started up a new campaign in an old game system: Underground. My plan to break the slump was to change things up and get out of the old habits I used to run my sessions and campaigns. To start that off on the right foot, I changed up how I put together the campaign by making a stew of some of the best campaign setup techniques I have come across from other games.

The Campaign Framework

There are a ton of different names for this, but it is sometimes known as ‘The Pitch’. This is the collection of decisions that are made about the campaign you are going to run. It includes things such as what rules are used, what the setting is, what role the characters play, and the initial story arc that you are going to tell. The framework informs everyone about the campaign you will be playing. There are many different ways of coming up with the framework.

My Old Way

In the past, after coming to a group decision on the system we were playing, I would come up with the rest of the framework and make a traditional campaign pitch. It was not a one way street, but I was more than happy to take input from the players and adapt my ideas to incorporate theirs. This technique served me well in many campaigns, and one of my best campaigns – Elhal – was created in this way.

The New Way

To push me out of my comfort zone, I wanted to change things up and come at the framework in a more collaborative manner. While re-reading the rule book, I kept my head clear of any story or any role the players would take. Underground is a game that has a very rich campaign setting, with the ability to play within it in a large number of ways (e.g Criminals, Law Enforcement, Corporate Raiders, etc), so there is potential to take the game in many directions. I informed the players (both of them) that as a group we would determine the role of the players and the goals for the campaign.

Stealing Is The Highest Form of Flattery

There are a lot of modern RPGs that do a great job of involving players in the campaign setup. My RPG (and Kickstarter) addiction has netted me a nice collection of games to pull from. I have not had a chance to play all of them, but I love to read them and see the different ways that games approach this area. I decided that I would “borrow” from a handful of these games, putting together a mashup of these ideas with the intention of creating a campaign setup that had a lot of player input.

Here are the games that I borrowed from and how I implemented them into my own campaign setup:

Dresden Files — City Setup

Dresden Files has a great set of rules for creating the city where the characters live. Each player contributes locations, faces, themes, and threats to the overall city setup. This way each player has an investment in the city, and it also informs the GM about what things are important to the player/character.

For my Underground game, I had the players create three locations within the city, in our case the fictional neighborhood of Jessup Hill, in LA. One location was to be friendly, one neutral, and one hostile. I then had them do the same thing with three inhabitants: friendly, neutral, and hostile. We shared these as a group, and as a group asked questions and embellished upon them through discussion.

Technoir — Playsets

In Technoir, the game is run through a web of characters, locations, and events. The GM does the initial prep to set up the center of the web, and then as the game progresses pulls in new nodes based on the characters’ actions.

For Underground, I wanted the game to be about the characters of Jessup Hill, and so I created my own relationship maps similar to Technoir. These maps included people and locations. I have one map that is centered on the characters, and several smaller ones for different groups that are not revealed to the players…yet.

Dread — Player Questions

In Dread, the GM gives a questionnaire to the players that is more pointed than the traditional 20 questions [LINK] that I have used in the past. These questions are pointed so that there are not any safe answers. They push the player into creating interesting facets of their characters.

In Underground, I created a pointed set of questions with the exact same purpose. I wanted to stress parts of the setting through the questions. One question asked was: “What atrocity did you commit while in the wars, that would not want anyone to know about at home?” There is no safe way around this one, rather the player has to accept the horrific parts of being a soldier within the setting, and to have something that may come up later in the campaign.

Apocalypse World — Factions

In Apocalypse World, the GM creates factions: people or events that countdown to some conclusion. A faction could be a tribe of cannibals who are on a path to attacking the players’ town. As the countdown ticks down, events escalate until either the players disrupt the faction, or the faction reaches their climax.

In Underground, Jessup Hill is in a struggle with a number of factions acting against one another. Each faction has their own agenda, and each is counting down. Over time the players will discover the factions and their agendas, and will have to decide who will be their ally and who will be their enemy.

But Did It Work?

After the players made up characters, I sent them a message with the things that I needed them to prepare, as well as the questions for their characters. We then met face to face and went through everything. As we talked things began to fall into place. One player created a base of operations for the two characters, another created a rival faction, and together we created some additional NPCs that inhabited the area.

When we were done, I had pages of people, locations, and hooks to piece together. I took everything home, and created the relationship map. I then came up with an initial idea for the first session, and through the relationship map was able to tie the event to multiple NPCs and locations, with no effort. As I developed my notes for the session, I pulled in a few other locations and people until I had a full session’s worth of material, all of it created through a collaborative process.

Campaign Setup is the Foundation

A good campaign framework is key to starting off your campaign with a bang rather than a sigh. As good as you think your ideas are alone, trust me when I tell you that when they are combined with the creative imaginations of your players, they will always yield something better, more rounded, and more interesting.

How do you set up your framework for your campaigns? Is your process GM-centric? Do your players contribute? What other games have great campaign setup rules?

About  Phil Vecchione

A gamer for 30 years, Phil cut his teeth on Moldvay D&D and has tried to run everything else since then. He has had the fortune to be gaming with the same group for almost 20 years. When not blogging or writing RPG books, Phil is a husband, father, and project manager. More about Phil.

8 Responses to Campaign Creation Stew

  1. I’m wondering how you approached your players in terms of the theme/style of game. Was the style (which sounds like dark, gritty post-apocalyptic) chosen by the players or by you? I’m wondering because had I come to a group creation setting expecting one thing, only to be presented with questions such as “what atrocity did your character commit?” I’d be extremely uncomfortable.

    • You are right. There was some initial talk about the overall tone, before I wrote up the questions, and before anyone made characters. We also talked about comfort levels, and both players were very comfortable running this game with an R or NC-17 level.

      Also, the Underground game has a pretty specific tone and setting, and just reading the rulebook conveys that. I was clear with the players that I wanted to stick to the corebook in tone and feel as much as possible.

      What the questions did then, was to reinforce the themes that were already present in the book. It prevented someone from reading the book, and deciding that they did not want to engage some of those themes and tones.

      You are correct, coming up with those questions out of the blue, with no context could have been disturbing.

  2. I’ve been considering Underground for a while now and have always regretted not picking it up from my local game-store/head-shop/marital-aide-emporium (now just a bong-store/adult-novelty-shoppe/trash-heap). Happy to see it’s available on Drive-thru. I’ll have to get it when money and I are on speaking terms again.

    How are the mechanics in actual play?

    I’ve also been considering the lifting the city creation mechanics from Dresden Files and modding them for an upcoming game. Did you find it still packed the same punch divorced from the ability to tag aspects? It certainly seems like it’ll induce buy-in. People get awfully protective of their own creations.

    • Underground has withstood the test of time rather well. I think that the game was ahead of its time when it was released. Once you get use to the Units (the scale for how things are measured) the mechanics are easy to learn and play well. Here are some highlights:

      — Exploding dice (2d10 on doubles)
      — Wound Ratings not Hit Points
      — Unit scale that covers everything from lifting a baseball to a battleship
      — Mechanics for creating social change on local, city, and national levels.

      There is also some great GMing advice in the book, that also is ahead of its time.

      As for transplanting the City Mechanics from Dresden, you lose a little in that you dont have aspects that are wired right into the game, but you do get the investment from the fact that the players created parts of the setting.

  3. I just wanted to say, tangentially, that I am unreasonably excited to hear about an Underground campaign starting. The setting is so, so good. As you remarked, Phil, a game ahead of its time.

    • I will post some more about on G+. I am two sessions into the campaign, and its running really great. I think that had I run this game in my 20’s I would have done an ok job of it, but after 20 years of experience, and understanding the real world, having a few crappy jobs, paying attention to the insanity of corporations and politics, I am in a much better position to run the game.

      I was very surprise to find out how well the rules held up, and how sound the GMing advice was in a 20 yr old book. Plus the social change mechanics are still an incredible system.

      I think there is a cult following of Underground fans out there.

  4. I think I am going to use the Dresden Files -City Set Up portion, as I am in the process of creating an entirely new world setting for my players. I am currently running a finite game, and the players are getting close to the end faster than I thought! So this will also give them something to do when the game ends, and I hope they will feel a connection to the new setting by writing some of it.

    But tell me, are they supposed to do this only for their starting area? (Home town?) Or do you think I should also give them license to do the three write-ups for the big city city they will probably end up spending a lot of time in? How much of this is too much? Also, I would want all of this done BEFORE the game starts, for fear they would be tempted to write up a situation/place/NPC that would concern their current needs later in the game. Not that I don’t TRUST them…well, most of them. 😉

    • The way I look at it is, any place you have the players create is going to be something that his interesting to the players. It is their way to tell you what things they find interesting about the area, and would like to see come up in future sessions.

      I would let them do both. Perhaps have them make one location for their home town (assuming their home town is smaller than the city), and two areas for the city. They then wind up with a connection to home as well as some places to look forward to in the big city.

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