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Drinking the Kool-Aid: Campaign Research

Posted By Phil Vecchione On December 2, 2011 @ 4:00 am In GMing Advice | 9 Comments

I love starting new campaigns. As a GM it is so exciting to be learning the rules to a new game, and to start to think about how the campaign is going to be run. When I am learning a new game, I like to absorb as much information as I can about the genre and setting. In a way I treat this aspect of campaign prep like a method actor. I want to understand history and the role of the setting. So I immerse myself into the genre, seeking out, consuming, and analyzing anything I can for a setting or genre. There are a few common places I go to get information, and some standard activities I perform while reviewing this information. So let me show you what goes into my Campaign Kool-Aid, and then you can mix your own.

What To Look For

My most recent campaign is an All For One game, which is a game of French Musketeers with a touch of horror. I had a passing understanding of the genre which started and ended with the 1993 Three Musketeers movie (the Disney one). It was enough to spark my interest in the setting and the game, but was not going to be enough to be able to assemble a campaign from it. I was going to need more information.

When I am researching a new setting/genre (from now one I will use these interchangeably), I am looking for a few types of information:

Setting Details

What are the important elements of the setting and what do they look like? I am looking at locations, clothing, items, etc; the things I am going to have to describe to my players as the campaign unfolds. The better my descriptions are, especially for settings my players are familiar with ,the more the setting will feel real to them. I need to be able to describe specific things to them (e.g the One Ring) as well as to be able to describe things on a general scale (e.g the interior of any Klingon ship).

Tropes and Themes

What are the common tropes and themes that are used in the genre? Certain genres have established tropes, which can be used without jarring the players. For instance in comic books if the villain falls off a building but the body is not found, she can come back in a later story. Understanding the common tropes will be essential in being able to create stories that have some familiarity within them, allowing the players to form a connection to the campaign.

Types of Stories Told

When you are sampling multiple sources about the genre such as comic books, movies, and TV shows, one of the things you can do is look for the common types of stories which are told. These are a clue to the core themes of the genre. There is a reason why a Chambara film and a Western have a similar feel, they have the same themes within them. When we like a type of genre it is often because we have a connection to the themes that are present within it.

Understanding those themes will be a guide to some of the types of adventures you may want to include in your campaign, and using them, like tropes, can strengthen your campaign as you are tapping into what people like about this genre.

When I was researching for All For One, all the Musketeer movies have some common themes within them: loyalty to the King, brotherhood between the Musketeers, and that a small group of individuals can make a difference. These then became key elements into my campaign design, and areas that I wanted to explore through the adventures I am going to write.

If I don’t want to be faithful to the themes or even want to turn the campaign on its ear and do something “different”, my understanding of those themes and tropes will allow me to create something different, either by exaggerating one of the themes or taking the opposite of it. A warning though sometimes changing one of these themes can change the entire tone and knock you out of the genre. What would a Chambara film be without the theme of honor?

Possible Hooks

What interesting elements in the way of persons, locations, or stories can I pull into my campaign? Sometimes this is as simple as saying, I want to include Taladas in my campaign, or it can be extrapolating a story such as what would have happened to Hugh the Borg after Lore was defeated? These elements create shortcuts to connecting the setting and campaign to the players. It allows them something familiar to grasp as they work to understand the rest of the campaign.

A great example of this is the latest Star Trek movie, where the old Spock is that element we are all familiar with, and acts as a transition for the viewers to the new crew and setting. When we the viewers have become comfortable with the new setting, that element can be removed.

Where To Look

When I am looking for information about a genre it typically falls into one of three categories:

  • Historical -- Not always possible based on the game, but if there is a historical counterpart, I will want some understanding of what really happened, no matter how much or little historical accuracy I want in the game.
  • Fiction – What are other writers (print or film) doing in this setting/genre.
  • Game – How are the game designers writing for this setting, what kinds of stories do the rules encourage, etc.

Here is a quick list of some of my favorite places to look for information:

Wikipedia

There are countless arguments about the accuracy of Wikipedia, but for getting some quick information, it is my first stop. I will typically hit Wikipedia for two reasons. The first is to get some historical reference for a specific event or time period. I did this for my All For One game, where I used Wikipedia to get a crash course in the 1630’s. The second reason is to get a summary of a movie or book. If I don’t have time to read a book or don’t care to see a specific movie, I hit Wikipedia for a quick summary.

Movies & TV

I am a visual learner, and any time I can see something, it gives me a solid mental picture that I can then describe to my players. Some games provide a list of movies that are inspirational, making this task easy. If not, I then do a few google searches to see what movies fit into that genre. I have streaming Netflix, so I will start adding movies and TV series to my Watch Now list to get up to speed. For All For One, I watched the 1973, 1993, and 2011 Three Musketeers movies as part of my immersion.

Books

Depending on your reading habits, where you get your books, etc, one can drop considerable money in getting books as research for your campaign. I typically will read a few books related to the genre that I am running. When I wanted to run Blood & Honor, I read Shogun to get a feel for the general setting. My library is not vast, and my free time is somewhat limited, so I may read a book or two, or in many cases re-read a book I have. If I don’t have time for reading the book, I can hit Wikipedia.

Comic Books/Graphic Novels

Not every setting has a comic book associated with it, but with the rising popularity of graphic novels, you would be surprised on what you can find. I like comic book and graphic novels because they are a combination of visual and written imagery, and are often faster for me to read. The Burning Empires RPG is based on two amazing graphic novels called Iron Empires.

RPGs

It goes without saying that you would read the gaming supplements for the game you are running, but there are also RPGs that are in the same genre that have useful information. It can be very insightful to see how other game designers addressed elements of a setting or genre. For my Blood and Honor game, I dug out copies of Legend of the 5 Rings and Bushido and looked through those rules to get a feel for how those games modeled the setting.

A Bit of This a Pinch Of That

Researching a genre or setting for a new game can be a fun exercise. It is an activity I love to do, and I love the after effect of some of the trivia it leaves behind, long after the game is ended. I will forever know what a koku is or just how filthy Paris was in the 1630’s.

How do you research a new genre or setting for a campaign, and what are some of your go to sources for information?

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.




9 Comments (Open | Close)

9 Comments To "Drinking the Kool-Aid: Campaign Research"

#1 Comment By Patrick Benson On December 2, 2011 @ 6:05 am

I’m knee deep in researching Star Trek right now as I am about to launch a series of campaigns based upon the television series. The original and animated series will be the first campaign, followed by a Next Generation campaign, the a Deep Space Nine, then Voyager, and I’ve decided to try to wrap it all up with something completely original of my own design. Yeah, I’m skipping Enterprise which I just can’t get into for some reason.

All I can say is that the research is incredibly rewarding. I’m watching all of the shows in the order that they were released. I’m also watching all of the movies. But that is just the tip of the iceberg, really. I’m acquiring the various RPGs that have been produced under the Star Trek license (FASA, LUG, & Decipher) and some open source RPGs too, and I’m comparing how each one interpreted the series. I’m reading up on Star Trek’s history and influences. I’m picking up the stray comic and book from time to time. I’m learning about what didn’t make it into the series. It is pure sci-fi geek joy for me!

Research of something that you are passionate about is such a joy to do. I hope that I have as much fun running the games as I am having researching for them!

#2 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On December 2, 2011 @ 6:12 am

A bit of this, a pinch of that — I think that headline best summarizes how to effectively blend historical (or any other field of) research into a genre game. It’s the small bits, the little details, that players latch onto in placing themselves “in the world.” Last time I researched the Restoration period, I was simply amazed at how comparatively small living spaces were; even great palaces generally had small rooms. That made it easy to convey a closed in feeling. Question: Did you have a movie marathon with your players to help them get in the same mood?

#3 Comment By Tiorn On December 2, 2011 @ 8:09 am

@Patrick Benson… I understand what you’re saying about Enterprise. It was poorly put together, for the most part. But there are some nuggets here and there that are worth a little bit. And the final season of the show was clearly going in a direction that finally made sense, leading up to the Romulan War in the timeline. If the show had continued for another year or so, the Romulan storyline would’ve been dominant. That was already showing true in the final season as it was. Who knows? If they hadn’t wasted the whole 2nd season on the Xindi storyline, and started building up for the Romulans instead, they might have stayed on air a few more seasons and provided decent material for gaming.

#4 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On December 2, 2011 @ 9:41 am

For me, it’s watching a movie or reading a book, and then my mind starts processing how to emulate the events in a game. When it all falls together, I’m pretty hyped about the game, and have the energy to follow through with it.

For example: My current 1980s Monster Hunter game was initially inspired by Larry Correia’s “Monster Hunter International” books.

Once I started planning, I realized that Savage Worlds combat feels like 1980s action films, so I moved the timeline to 1981. Since I wanted more of a paramilitary feel to the game, the characters are agents of a newly-restored Federal agency. At the exact right time Agents of Oblivion came out.

Voila! Instant game!

#5 Comment By BryanB On December 2, 2011 @ 9:47 am

I’m an armchair historian. When I’m not researching something from history to enhance a historically based RPG setting, I’m pulling stuff from history and pushing it into fantasy and science fiction games.

I had a villain in Ravenloft that was modeled after Jack the Ripper. His domain was a foggy metropolis with a giant clock next to a river. I’ve also pulled historical figures into my campaigns with a simple change of their name as well as the names of the places in which they lived and did their historical contributions in.

I once used Henry Ford to model an innovative shipwright that was trying to find a faster way to build a fleet of warships for a wealthy king. That was a lot of fun.

#6 Comment By Tomcollective On December 2, 2011 @ 10:47 am

Two words: Plague Doctor.

Coolest creepy historicly true outfit ever.

Endless NPC possibilities.

#7 Comment By Redcrow On December 2, 2011 @ 2:53 pm

I do enjoy researching a setting/genre to run a new campaign. But I sometimes have trouble conveying an early sense of a new settings flavor to my players without going overboard. I have been called long-winded before, but its only because I likes my details and I just want the players to have the right feel for the setting.

When I research a setting I’m able to take in details in big chunks, but when trying to convey the feel of the setting to my players I have to use bite sized bits and it doesn’t always seem like I’m doing as good a job as I should be. Fantasy settings aren’t typically as difficult as Sci Fi settings, though.

After half a dozen games or so everyone usually has a good feel for things, but those first few sessions can be… awkward if not all the players are ‘getting it’.

I wish more games included some type of brief summary of the important elements of the setting that the rest of the book details in depth that I could hand-out or read to my players and a starter scenario specifically designed to showcase the setting. Like WFRP 1e did with The Enemy Within campaign.

Anyone else have this problem? or am I just the odd GM out?

#8 Comment By hanliam On December 2, 2011 @ 7:47 pm

I follow many of similar routes for research: books, films / tv, and history. As an aspiring archaeologist and amateur historian, I enjoy bringing details about the cultures in to the game or focusing on material culture for the finer details of description. Whenever my wife or I run a game, we emerse ourselves in the media related to the time period or genre and often create a recommended viewing list for our players. There are some other avenues that I go through for researching a new game in addition to those you listed.

1. Forums: Reading forum threads on past games in the genre and discussions of the same tropes help me get an idea for the relevant dialogs going on in the gaming world. I also read and am a member on several research forum. Places like Sword Forum International or Paleo Planet have aided me in getting the perfect idea for a item, plot, or world flavor.

2. Experience the Genre: If I am running a game in a historical period or culture with similar analog, I listen to period music or its reconstruction, soundtracks from my favorite films and shows, and eat food related thereto.

3. Period Pieces: As stated earlier, I like to research history and archaeology. If I’m interested in musketeers, for example, I’ll look at period swordplay, rapiers, uniforms, musket drills, and duelling. As part of this, I’m going to find some antique or reconstructed weapons and gear to get a very good idea about the finer details. Not only will some of these provide great pictures for the players’ reference, I also get ideas from the items, such as plots around a dropped by-knife at the site of an illegal duel.

4. Gage Player Expectations: I always ask my players what they associate with the genre, setting, and tropes. I will want to use these expectations to guide my research and know which themes to focus on, which to challenge, and which references to recommend to the players.

5. Tropes through Other Lenses: I like to see how a genre’s tropes are expressed through other lenses. My wife is currently planning a campaign of courtly intrigue set in an a world similar to 1660s Europe. We are not only watching films about honor, family, loyalty, and politics that relate to that period in history. Intrigue laiden films on the Renaissance, Middle Ages, Classical world, or modern era often handle these tropes slightly differently, helping to spark new ideas and take these ideas in to new vistas.

Sorry about the long reply.

Hanliam

#9 Comment By Tsenn On December 6, 2011 @ 7:54 am

Mood and feel are things I like to research. Before a Transformers game set between the second and third modern films, I watched them again to remind myself what these modern Transformers were like. What they could do, how they moved, what the battles looked and felt like.
For anything 40k, I read some 40k. Gaunts Ghosts are my favourites, but the Inquisition War trilogy is outstanding for it’s baroque descriptions. Really helps impose the grimdark schitzo-tech mood for the game.


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