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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.
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:
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).
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.
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?
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.
When I am looking for information about a genre it typically falls into one of three categories:
Here is a quick list of some of my favorite places to look for information:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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