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Three Questions To Start A Campaign

Posted By Phil Vecchione On October 21, 2011 @ 4:00 am In GMing Advice | 9 Comments

I just recently kicked off a new campaign, running Triple Ace Games’ All For One. I had the fortune of having two months to plan this campaign before I ran my first session, while I was closing out my most recent Corporation game. While I was getting ready for this campaign, I had some discussions with my players about our views of how the campaign would run, the types of stories to tell, themes, etc. I wanted a way to easily capture and document the output of those conversations for reference, and that is when I recalled something I had read in John Wick’s Houses of the Blooded.

In the opening of HoB, John talks about something he called Jared’s Three Questions. Jared, in this case is Jared Sorensen, designer of Lacuna, and co-designer of Freemarket. Jared came up with three questions to have designers succinctly explain their games (a pretty awesome idea in and of itself). After reviewing the questions, I realized there was nothing about them that could not apply to describing a campaign, and so I sat down and penned the Three Questions for my All For One campaign.

What Is My Game (Campaign) About?

I wish this question was printed on the inside cover of every RPG. In many cases as GM’s and players we have to read through the game trying to understand what the designer intended for this game. Some games do a better job at this than others, but few games are explicit about this question.

Looking at this question for All For One, I started to think how I wanted to run my campaign. What kinds of stories did I want to tell? How did I picture the Musketeers, in general? What elements of the Musketeer mythos were going to be important in the campaign? What was I expecting of the players? I put together my thoughts, and many of the ideas from early discussions with my players, and came up with:

This is a game about the adventures of a group of the King’s Musketeers who protect the King, Queen, and country from various threats both mundane and supernatural.

The Musketeers are a combination of special forces and rock stars. They are brave and undertake their missions with daring ideas, trusting in their skill more than they spend planning. They are not cautious and they are always brave.

The Musketeers are about loyalty: to the King, to the Queen, to France, and of course, to each other. They have many enemies seen and unseen that surround them, and their loyalty is what gives them their strength.

Musketeers are on the side of the law and for justice. They fight evil and deliver justice in the form of the law, not their own personal laws. They are not vigilantes.

They are expected to operate in many different locations, from the woods of the French countryside to the inner halls of the Palace. Combat will take place in exotic and dangerous locations.

Each Musketeer is their own story, with their own backgrounds and desires, elements of these are woven into the stories which are told.

With this defined, it was now clear that there were going to be some things that would be taboo from the campaign, Musketeer betrayal for example. There were also some things that I would have to make sure showed up in the game, e.g exotic locations, plots against the king, etc. The answer to this question would aid the players in their design concepts, and aid me in thinking of adventures.

How Does My Game (Campaign) Do That?

So here is where the rubber meets the road. Its fine saying in the first question what the Campaign is about, but if the campaign or rules are not structured to do that, then you run the risk of deviating or failing to deliver your vision. In this question I looked to the answers from the first question and simply asked exactly how will I do that? I tried to do at least a one-to-one for each of the answers in the first question. I came up with this…

The Musketeers are often given assignments to perform to protect king, queen, and country. They are given great leeway in carrying out their missions, and receive support from the organization, as long as they are performing in a heroic manner.

Their enemies do not have elaborate traps prepared. They are smart, but they do not take advantage of the players not planning. They may have a fortress with guards, but they do not have 12 random guard patterns or some impossible death trap waiting. Traps are meant to be defeated, but failure has consequences.

The enemies of the Musketeers are not as loyal, if at all. Some will rout in the face of danger, others will turn upon one another, some will surrender. Only the most dangerous opponents will wield loyalty as weapon.

The general populace and many of the nobles like and admire the Musketeers. Women are attracted to them, men envy their skill. Those that do not like the Musketeers are equally vocal.  Friends and enemies will be black and white.

The Musketeers will be bound by law, and while small infractions will be tolerated (taking someones horse, carriage, etc.), larger infractions will be dealt with by the organization. Some leeway will be granted but blatant or habitual disregard will result in being removed from the organization.

Stories will be told in many different locations, and action scenes will have interesting environments using an adaptation of the Iron Heroes zones rules.

Elements of each Musketeer’s background will be used in a plot map, and characters from ones background will be linked to others backgrounds as well as to the plots that are being used in the game.

The answers above became a sort of checklist and guidelines for me. These were things that I would have to do in the setup and during the course of the game. Doing all of them will keep me aligned to the vision of what the game is about.

What Behaviors Does My Game (Campaign) Reward and Punish?

This one could be a bit tricky, but lets be honest, on some level every GM does this, and in most cases we do it without necessarily being overt in our intentions. Here was a chance to be clear with the players how the game would regulate various in-game behaviors. By setting expectations at the opening of the campaign, the players knew exactly what to do to earn rewards, and what would result in penalties.

In All For One, there is a built in reward system during play: the Style Point. Very little tinkering was required, though I did add in a special Style Point that the players could grant to each other, as I wanted the players to be able to complement their fellow players for good play. What I did clear up was how I could handle dishonorable and cowardly acts, and how they would tie to the Style Point economy.

The main currency for reward and punishment in the game is Style Points, both temporary and permanent.

Common Rewards:

  • Playing to their Motivation
  • Succumbing to their Flaws
  • Heroic actions: Cool tricks, daring stunts, brave acts
  • Being In character (good role playing, humor, etc.)

Players will be given points they can reward their fellow players for good playing, and players will be encouraged to remind the GM when to award other players.

Acts which are dishonorable or cowardly will result in the loss of Style Points. For minor actions a point will be lost from their current pool. Greater infractions can result in a loss from their permanent total. In all cases, the player will be warned first. In the case of a permanent loss, the player can earn that point back through a later story.

In addition to style points, other in-game benefits will be awarded to players who exemplify the Musketeer. These include: favors from NPC’s, material gifts (horse, sword, money), etc. These will be story driven, and not random gifts.

With this defined, I know exactly when to reward the players and for which actions. The players also know that there will be in-game penalties for certain behaviors which go against the directions of the campaign.

It Was Not Mine Alone

While the writing of the answers was an activity that I did alone, the ideas that went into it, especially the first question, were from several discussions with my players. Once I finished writing all three questions out, I then put them into an email and sent them to my players for their review. All agreed that answers to the questions were reasonable and fit with their ideas for the game as well. Now that text is posted on our campaign wiki.

Few Questions…Many Answers

Often when a group approaches a new game to run, they each bring their own idea of what that game and the campaign should include. Simply saying I am running a D&D game can invoke so many possibilities from: Game of Thrones, The Lies of Locke Lamora, Dragonlance, etc. Even when a setting is pinned down, there is still a great amount of variability in how a game could be run. When those details are pinned down, there is still a risk that the GM may not have a plan for how to run the game to reflect the shared vision, creating confusion among the group.

Jared’s three questions are simple questions that provoke deep answers. Their power is that they force into words our random thoughts and feelings about a campaign, and create a foundation that through collaboration, places the entire gaming group on level ground and with a set of expectations for what is to come.

How do you communicate what your campaign is about? Have you ever had a campaign where you had one idea of what it was about, and your players had another?

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 "Three Questions To Start A Campaign"

#1 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On October 21, 2011 @ 8:01 am

Anything that brings our disjointed ideas into cold hard reality is great. This came at a perfect time for me. Thanks, Phil!

#2 Comment By Razjah On October 21, 2011 @ 8:21 am

I really like this idea. It is a great way to keep a social contract short and a way to be upfront about how the campaign should play out. It helps players not feel like there was a bait and switch. I’m starting to back burner my plans for the spring semester campaign and using this would help me make sure the game I’m planning is something that could see the top of a table.

#3 Comment By Patrick Benson On October 21, 2011 @ 8:50 am

This is the second of your ideas that I am going to be using for my Star Trek game, Phil. Great stuff!

#4 Comment By Redcrow On October 22, 2011 @ 3:27 pm

Good article! I learned the hard way how important it is for the GM to be very explicit about their expectations for a campaign.

For the “What is the campaign about?” part, I like to write up a couple (3 to 5) prospectuses for campaigns in different settings or genres and then let the players vote on which one appeals to them the most.

#5 Comment By MaW On October 23, 2011 @ 1:16 am

Great advice for starting a campaign. What I’m curious about is how you’re getting around all the inconsistencies in the rulebook which my group have been finding very frustrating with All For One. Although it’s also very interesting that you’ve ended up with a very different feel to your campaign than we have. But then, we do tend to err on the side of silly.

#6 Comment By DNAphil On October 23, 2011 @ 9:53 am

@MaW

We ran into a few rules issues that we had to clear up. What I do for every game that I run, is that I start a Google Doc with house rules and clarifications. When we run into an issue, I will make a ruling on it, and then enter it into the Doc.

We use the TAG forums to research issues, as somethings have been discussed there. Also Gnome Stew’s Walt is a developer for All For One, so I have used him for questions as well.

What matters is that when we come up with a ruling, it goes into the Doc so that we have it written down, and accessible for every one.

I am sensing an upcoming article…

#7 Comment By Scott Martin On October 23, 2011 @ 1:15 pm

I really like this, and how it coordinates visions. I keep hearing people talk about campaigns with one “evil” character, or betrayal, and we talk around and around about 1 player’s fun versus the group’s.

With a solid document like this, you can setup whether betrayal is interesting fun, or verboten.

#8 Comment By MaW On October 24, 2011 @ 1:58 am

@DNAphil – Ah well that’s cheating if you know one of the developers…

We resolve problems largely by thinking about them, having a discussion and then making a decision. What we’re not so good at is the central place to write down our house rules for any given game (and there are always house rules). We probably should do better than that, as it does lead to confusion from time to time when people forget what our customisations actually are.

Although to be fair, we forget the normal rules too sometimes…

#9 Pingback By Haste – Episode 22: 3 Questions to Kick off A Campaign, Revengers, Geek Seekers | Words in the Dark On November 7, 2011 @ 7:13 am

[…] a pretty good article over at Gnomestew about the three questions you’ve gotta ask when starting a new campaign. We delve into the […]


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