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Hitting the right spot: Campaign Design
Posted By Scott Martin On July 28, 2008 @ 3:55 am In GMing Advice | 16 Comments
When you first think of running a campaign, there’s probably one overwhelming motivation for your game. Whatever you do, don’t forget it under the weight of all your research and preparation. Design your campaign to satisfy what you’re aiming for.
My group’s current D&D3.5 campaign was conceived with two strong motivations in mind. We knew 4e was coming, but we had lots of supplements for third edition. We decided that rather than chasing the new, we’d revel in all the choice and complexity of the current (at the time) edition’s end. The second goal was to design a more straightforward campaign. The previous D&D campaign was a mix of styles, but a couple of players were frustrated with the lengthy political subplots and sessions lost to planning.
With those two goals in mind, I started discussing the idea of a new D&D game with the group. It didn’t catch fire right away; we were in the middle of a tense and engaging Shadowrun game and didn’t want to dilute the experience by alternating games. Enthusiasm was high enough that I continued prepping for it on a low key basis.
Because I wanted everyone to easily revel in the options, I combed through Dragon magazine’s Class Act articles and other books on hand, like Complete Mage, and jotted an alternate/variant class features index . With that character generation would be eased– instead of digging through every magazine and book, players could flip straight to the issues related to the class they were investigating.
Over the next month additional I made further refinements. For skills, I knew that I wanted PCs to fill the expected core competencies, but also have some unique “background” type skills that sparkled every once in a while. I had heard a lot about Iron Heroes skill groups and decided to make similar groups for the classes in D&D, so that skills would stretch further. I also gave out a few skill points for apprenticeship and childhood skills unrelated to class.
Part of the simplification was reducing the game world overhead. We have very different reading patterns for the existing D&D worlds and I wanted a level playing field. I have found that I enjoy reading world and setting stuff… but doing so sucks up the time I should be using to prep. (It tricks my “get prepped” sensor because it is game related.) I also think that a good way to make things more interesting is to involve the players– don’t give them a handout with a history of the world, have them quickly play it out. Our first session, then, would be building the world together, not standard character generation. I used Dawn of Worlds (pdf) to adequate effect; if I was going to do it again, I’d pick a different structure, probably The Setting Session.
Now that I had the pieces in place, I wrote up the house rules for the game. When our Shadowrun GM started having scheduling problems, we agreed that we’d look into getting the proposed D&D game on the table. I explained the ideas guiding my prep and mentioned some of the variations I had planned, which they reacted to enthusiastically. We scheduled our world creation session for the following week.
I handed out the three character design sheets (linked above) and a Dawn of Worlds quick reference. From there, we built a world. Dawn of Worlds plays like a light board game version of the old computer game Populous. We got a late start and had to finish up early, so the game only went through two eras instead of all three. That was inconvenient to me as GM, because the third age is when the empires and societies get fleshed out and start nudging each other with sharp elbows. Despite that, everyone was engaged with the world; I didn’t have to ask if anyone had read my beautiful world handout… I didn’t have one. We had made it all together.
We agreed to run a campaign that wrapped around the choices of the players instead of limiting their party makeup to fit some ideal. They liked the idea of being a group of stealthy types, so I wound up with a Rogue, a Ranger, a Beguiler, a lightly armored Fighter, and an elven Wizard who wore forest leathers and carried a longbow. During the generation session there was even less variation, but by the time we started playing, those were the classes they’d settled on.
In the time between the world building and character creation sessions, I’d advanced the timeline a bit and inflated one of the player’s contributions into an evil empire, well worthy of hate. Our world was a little short of the standard non-human races (no orcs, goblins, kobolds, etc.), but they’d handed me an evil empire of Dwarves. I let them know about the Dwarves’ conquests and occupation and we picked a location for the campaign to begin.
We started the session with some place and scenery description and let the PCs interact with each other and the town normally for a few minutes, but quickly had word of war reach the PCs. The town implored them to scout out the problem and, if possible, slow the dwarven advance so the town could get some defenses in place. The PCs set out to do so… and did brilliantly.
The first several sessions were about their conflict with the invasion force; at first they encountered skirmish groups and outriders, but soon they were plotting a counter assault to throw the dwarves back and rescue the enslaved population. We did a good job of keeping the time spent on strategy down; a ten or fifteen minute discussion was fine, but any longer and we pushed on to the next confrontation. When their plan involved off screen forces, I let them know that we’d roll dice at the beginning of the session to see how well their allies came through it– don’t waste too much time planning their actions, the dice might make their improvisation brilliant… or horrible. It worked out very well; planning was quick but thorough, then the dice ensured that nothing went as planned.
We’ve been playing the game for a six or seven months and it’s still working pretty well. While tweaks have been made along the way, the core ideas still guide us. We don’t spend a lot of time plotting; kicking down the door is a good choice most of the time. While there are options and possibilities, the main options are clearly marked. Politics have driven some of the plots [it is a nations at war setting], but the PCs don’t have to figure out noble’s motivations and bargain and scheme… they just get set upon by assassins as another type of encounter.
Keeping the choices and complexity is still a significant factor. As overlapping roles result in squashed toes, some characters have swapped class features to better delineate their core concept. A couple of players started picking up classes from Book of Nine Swords, which has given them nifty stances and strikes to play with, increasing complexity. Meanwhile, the enemy has Warlocks and Clerics who use spells from across the supplements. A Warmage defector is cause of great concern… who knows what ill the dwarves will inflict with the new training backing their armies?
Did you set goals for your current campaign? How have they come out? Is there anything about the way your game is running that you’re planning to fix before you start your next campaign?
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