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Hitting the right spot: Campaign Design

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 [1] 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) [2] to adequate effect; if I was going to do it again, I’d pick a different structure, probably The Setting Session [3].

World Building

Now that I had the pieces in place, I wrote up the house rules [4] 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.

Character Creation

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.

In Play

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.

Over Time

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?

How did you do it?

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?

16 Comments (Open | Close)

16 Comments To "Hitting the right spot: Campaign Design"

#1 Comment By Rafe On July 28, 2008 @ 6:14 am

>>> 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. <<<

I haven’t looked at the pdf yet, but can you explain how you built the world and history as a group? That might be worthy of a separate blog entry. Getting players involved is always a good thing!

I have to admit that I don’t really have goals for my games. Something I’m trying hard to implement is allowing the players to follow up on their own background hooks and settle issues that exist for them, outside of anything that has happened since the game started. By a certain point, I’d like the players to have worked out or made good progress towards working out their PCs’ backstory hooks/issues.

If by “goals” you mean “keep it simple”, “allow PCs to explore their own pasts” or “minimize political intrigue in play”, then I definitely have a few. Two have been mentioned (“explore pasts” and “keep it simple”), but I also hope to let reason guide my decisions for things. I don’t like to just insert “town X is having undead problems. The PCs beat the undead. Problem solved.” I like to have there be a reason for it and have it make sense. My players are very rational, and things in the game world can’t exist in a vacuum or with a “just because” explanation.

#2 Comment By Cole On July 28, 2008 @ 7:27 am

This time around, I wanted the PC’s working for a vampire. The players said he had to be a good. So I created a good vampire as the main NPC
. Funny thing is that I never planned to explain to the players the vampire’s background and was pretty happy when they asked about it in detail, nitpicking everything he said. The first half of the first session was pretty much an interview with the vampire NPC.

#3 Comment By Scott Martin On July 28, 2008 @ 10:13 am

Rafe: Dawn of Worlds begins with an outline of a landmass on a map. Each round players roll 2d6 and add the result to their power points, which they spend to alter the terrain or climate, add races, create leaders, found cities, etc. As the game goes on, the prices for things change; in the first phase changing land and climate is cheap, while later changing land is expensive, but creating races and cities drops in price. In the final round, creating new races or altering the land is very expensive, but forming armies and fighting wars is inexpensive. The time each round takes drops as the game goes on; the first era is 500 year rounds, the second is 100 year rounds, while the last era is 5 or 10 year rounds.

Your examples, keep it simple, keep it coherent, and explore backgrounds are great goals. It sounds like your game should let the PCs make their choices freely and anticipate what’ll happen pretty well. That’s a style of play I enjoy.

Cole: That sounds like a great example of collaboration; together you came up with a good vampire in interesting detail. It is rewarding when the players take an interest in your NPCs like they are people, not quest giving props.

#4 Comment By Rafe On July 28, 2008 @ 12:27 pm

@Scott: That sounds like a great way to build a world! I’ll definitely check out that PDF once I get home. I was actually lazy and downloaded a good size image of Europe (topography only), inverted it and rotated it. The players might recognize it if I showed them the whole thing but I don’t. It works nicely for realistic terrain since it is, in fact, realistic.

I’ve always found it funny when a DM would ask for a nice, in-depth background… and then never use it. So I thought I’d ask for a background that had some meat in it, but that didn’t have to be long. Some of my players are less proactive, though. With those, I simply take them aside as we’re doing character creation or after they have a concept and say “How about this?” “This” usually tends to fit into a broader theme of the game, or into another PC’s background. It tends to work well.

One character’s background is being explored inadvertently in the first “chapter” of the game, and two others can have theirs done almost simultaneously in another chapter. A new player is actually the disillusioned apprentice (Wizard) of a main villain, so the villain will have an appearance (and thus bring the apprentice around to face him again). One of my players just doesn’t care, though, so I’ve helped her create goals around her character’s race and class: Dragonborn – find a way to bring the fallen empire back and, Paladin – find the Fist of Bahamut. Has nothing to do with personality, but since the player isn’t too interested, pushing for that would just make her reticent.

@Cole: That sounds great! It’s a lot of fun to break a stereotype by using one as a main figure. It keeps the players guessing and wondering what else may be different. Should we just smash this werewolf because we assume he’s evil or is he merely a victim? Maybe marauding goblins are only doing so because a dragon drove them out of the hills where they were perfectly happy to leave the local settlements alone. Etc.

#5 Comment By Cole On July 28, 2008 @ 1:31 pm

@Scott: To tell you the truth, I was surprised myself at how much they wanted to know about this vampire. Mostly it had to do with having a good cleric in the party. This cleric plays good to the utmost and he had to be convinced this guy was indeed what he said he was.

Funny thing is that the other players started acting a bit crazy and forced the cleric to do a lot of stuff against his own nature. At the end of a few sessions the party has done more harm the good in the campaign, which I thought was funny.

@Rafe: It is funny you mentioned about the stereotype. The players that have played with me for awhile already know not to assume too in the campaign. A rich lady shopping around in the city may be way more evil than some kobolds attacking them in the woods.

#6 Comment By Swordgleam On July 28, 2008 @ 2:10 pm

At the start of my last campaign, I passed around a very brief campaign survey that asked, among other things, the players to split 100 points representing their relative amount of interest in Intrigue, Action, Exploration, Shennanigans and Overarching Storyline.

Everyone put most of their points into Shennanigans and Action, and almost no one put points into Exploration. That being the sort of game I have the easiest time running, anyway, things worked out. We ended up with a bit more intrigue and storyline than I had originally planned, but the players seemed to like it.

The second survey question was, “At some point, I would like to fight…” and then a blank. One of the players filled in, “A princess,” so the second session, that’s what happened. I would never have come up with it on my own, but it was definitely one of the most memorable sessions of the game.

The final question was, “At some point, I would like to” followed by a list of options. I asked them to circle anything that looked interesting, and star the most important ones. I tried to include at least 3-4 of each player’s circled options in the campaign, and all of the starred options. I mostly succeeded, though some of the more divergent ones never came up. Oddly, every single player circled both “Be on the right side of the law” and “Be on the wrong side of the law.”

Having both specific and broad goals helped me a lot in terms of planning. If I didn’t know what to do for the next session, I would just look at the players’ lists, and see what I hadn’t crossed off yet that might fit in with the current plot. Then I’d just make sure the session included the requisite mix of action and shennanigans (never difficult), throw in a bit of story and intrigue, and I was done.

I want even more of a kick-in-the-door feel for my next campaign, so I’ll probably warn the players in advance. Other than that, I’m up for anything, though I am partial to that “anything” including pirates.

#7 Comment By Scott Martin On July 28, 2008 @ 5:26 pm

Swordgleam: That survey sounds like a solid and direct way of getting good guidance– I’m not surprised it’s working out so well for you. The second survey question reminds me of Spirit of the Century’s Aspects… the players tell you what interests them and you work it in where it makes sense.

And Pirates make everything better. Arrrr!

#8 Comment By Daenu On July 28, 2008 @ 9:32 pm

We’re in-between campaigns right now, but I’m slanted to run the next one. Do you mind if I borrow your Zero Level idea for it? It’s just so… tasty.

So far as planning goes, it’s pretty hazy right now. Not even sure what kind of setting to use. The group world-creation might help with that – we could keep adding ‘ages’ until we get to a ShadowRun level of technology (+3 ages), stop at DnD Modern (+2), Steampunk (+1), or straight-up medieval fantasy. The Dawn of Worlds link will probably start to creak from overuse 😉

(By the way, I really like Related Articles links – it reminded me of a couple posts I could use right about now, and introduced a few new ones.)

#9 Comment By MoonHunter On July 29, 2008 @ 10:26 am

I tend to keep a bit more overview of the game and world, rather than make it a full troupe creation. My process is not that long, but I didn’t want to post it all here. The steps are:

1) Start with the tease: Preview a number of possible campaigns.
2) Poll your players I: Get bits and pieces they want to see in the game.
3) With a ruler and some tape: Preliminary World Building
4) Buy the Tickets Choosing the campaign.
5) With a ruler and some tape II: World Building
6) World Pack: Campaign Write Up
7) Casting: Group gets together to create characters
8) Poll the characters II: Get bits and pieces they want to see in the game.
9) Polish the work.
10) Start the game.

The whole article is found here: [5]

#10 Comment By Scott Martin On July 29, 2008 @ 10:56 am

Daenu: Great, please take and use anything. A lot of my ideas are just refinements of something I saw somewhere else– [6] put that idea in my head. [It pointed out that a few early HP and skill points make low levels much more survivable and don’t change high level balance much at all.]

Moonhunter: That sounds like a solid way of doing it. By getting some input you can make sure that you’ll have something they won’t hate, but you have more control than fully collaborative world building would provide. That’s very handy, since you can ensure that it’ll be compatible with modules or other resources you intend to use.

#11 Comment By nblade On August 1, 2008 @ 5:51 pm

After reading this post, I went and downloaded and read the Dawn of Worlds rules. I have to say that it would be a rather interesting way to start a campaign. I might have to actually try it out so time for a future campaign. Although, I’d like to know roughly what size a large piece of paper should be.

#12 Comment By Scott Martin On August 8, 2008 @ 10:31 am

I have played with an 11″x17″ piece of paper and an about 24″ square piece of paper. I don’t think the raw paper size matters much– though for much larger paper you might consider upgrading the size from 1″ diameter (mini bases/quarters) to 2″x2″ areas of effect.

#13 Comment By Taellosse On February 13, 2009 @ 11:03 am

I recently finished going through the archives (came here thanks to a link from Wil Wheaton’s blog), and this post in particular stuck out for me, since I’m between games and have a couple of things that might turn into a game, and a definite desire to run something, but I wasn’t sure what to start with. The “Dawn of Worlds” thing is a really nifty idea, but when I tried to look at the “Setting the Session” thing, I found only a dead link–the whole site seems to be gone. Was it moved elsewhere, so that I can look at what you linked, or can it be found somewhere else?

#14 Comment By Whimsy On December 3, 2009 @ 10:57 am

“Setting the Session” has moved to [7]

#15 Comment By Taellosse On December 3, 2009 @ 1:35 pm

[8] – Thanks! I’ll have to take a look at it in depth later on and see if I can find it useful in my current situation (which, while it isn’t the same as when I made my last post, still obtains, oddly enough).

#16 Comment By Chando42 On September 7, 2010 @ 9:50 pm

My group’s campaign is very loosely designed, inasmuch as I haven’t really designed it yet. ^^ I didn’t truly know whether the group would take to the game or not, so I did very little prep on the overall campaign. However, now that they have solidified their desire to play and see the barely set campaign mission through to the end, I find myself revisiting my hastily compiled campaign background. By letting the characters do some of the work of determining goals, I have a lot less original material to think up and more reactive plot points for the party. It’s working pretty well so far.