Experience Talks: Good Campaigns

Now that we have good players, heroes, and villains, we have to put them to work. A campaign is an ongoing series of adventures in a game world, made up of several ingredients. First, the campaign’s premise must be sound. Good campaigns are consistent with the world you adventure in and have clear and worthy objectives. A good campaign is built from a good premise. “What if” questions are good starting points for finding a good premise. What if aliens secretly contacted Earth governments during the Wild West era? What if superheroes were all created by a single time-traveler? What if the barriers between dimensions begin to break down? Take the basic premise, and follow it through in as much detail as desired. It is important that a campaign be consistent within itself. If magic was discovered to be a gift from the gods directly handed to man a few games ago, it shouldn’t be shown as a naturally occurring phenomenon in tonight’s game, unless the GM has determined a way for the two reasons to coexist. People will accept anything the GM throws at them until it defies what they already know.

A good campaign should have at least one overall set of goals. Maybe the players’ goals and the GM’s goals don’t coincide with each other, but they should at least be understood by all. Often a GM will be able to work characters’ dreams and  goals into the campaign so that removing characters really does have consequences. The goal of the campaign might be for the players just to let off some steam by killing some irredeemably evil bad guys, with no ramifications. The goal might be to explore what it is like to be underprivileged, or to learn to think quickly, or to understand how a real police department works, or to gain insights into the players’ own psyches, or one of a host of other goals. As long as the parties involved realize what they’re getting into, the game should be fun for everyone.

The single most important ingredient of any campaign is uniqueness. A campaign shouldn’t be just a conglomeration of clichés (unless that’s the specific effect that the GM is going for), but should have some kind of tweaking that makes it memorable. For example, changing the four-color superhero convention that superhero costumes are effective at hiding identities might result in a campaign in which supers have to go public, or hide from the government, or become super hermits.

Eventually, you might want to work the characters into the  campaign as central figures on whom hang the outcome of the grand conflict. This will not usually occur until the characters have advanced the overall plot. There should seem to be some overall progress even though there are occasional setbacks. At the beginning, their actions may not make a huge
difference in the campaign, but as they progress they should become more and more important.

Good Scenarios

Since a campaign is made up of series of scenarios, a good campaign must consist of good scenarios. One of the most effective ways of making this happen is to incorporate multiple plots into the scenarios. Look at any Star Trek episode, especially one of the Next Generation variety. Every character has something to do, whether they’re involved in the main plot or not, even if it’s only a few lines. There’s always a main plot and a subplot. Use the 80/20 rule. The main plot should get about 80 percent of the airtime, and the subplot should get the remaining 20. When you switch from the main plot to the subplot, try to change scenes at appropriate times, like when something unexpected happens, or the tension builds, or the tension breaks, or there seems to be a natural stopping point.

In my Star Hero game, my players were looking for a monster and had to split up to cover both of its likely next targets. It was dark, the heroes were unfamiliar with the territory, and felt outclassed by their unseen opposition. As I switched from one player group to the other, I tried to stop at a place that would either leave them wanting more, or give them plenty to think about until I got back to them in a few minutes. Both teams kept hearing strange noises, and seeing weird shadows out of the corners of their eyes, and when it all came to a head, each team chose to send one character to investigate. Group A’s character went into the bushes to see what was rustling about, and just as he moved a large branch out of the way… Group B’s character made an unusually stealthy climb up a tree to get a better view of… And back and forth it went.

Another ingredient to good  scenarios is a sense of time. By providing a strong link to the PCs’ past, the GM creates a more cohesive and self-contained game world. This is done by tapping directly to  the past—a villain returns, a favor gets called in, a NPC calls for a date, and so on. Good scenarios sometimes tie to the future. The use of foreshadowing in a scenario whets the players’ appetites. When hints dropped during a game show up later, there’s a sense of closure that might otherwise be missing. It’s even better when the players are forced to make a choice related to the foreshadowing. For example, if the White Wonder has the choice of following the escaping killer or of stopping a mugging that he passes by, it might later turn out that the killer went on to kill again, or that it was his own friend or relative that was getting mugged. A good scenario doesn’t always rely on the same plot entry point. If getting a call for help began the last scenario, this one might begin by an anonymous tip on an impending crime, a natural disaster, a device being stolen, or some other trigger. It is also important to vary the type and number of opposition. If the last scenario pitted the PCs against a roomful of agents, this time might be a handful of supervillains or a single megavillain. Some scenarios are designed to be lost. If the PCs are supposed to get captured by the enemy so that they can later escape with knowledge of the hideout location, have a backup plan on hand just in case the PCs somehow win. Remember that players don’t like to lose, especially if it is obviously forced on them. When you design a no win situation, make sure that the players feel that they did something to cause it.

A game should have both long-term (campaign) and short-term (scenario) ideas. When the long and short-term aspects meld together in a seamless experience, the game world has a depth and immersion level that other games only dream of. It becomes a world that the characters are a part of and feel they belong there. Good players who have created memorable characters and play them in a unique way work together with good GMs who have created a well thought out campaign to create a truly  enjoyable gaming session.

Journal of Slaine Northwind

Indeed, as father said the townspeople didn’t need my help in fending off the hobgoblin force. As it turns out the people of Eternities Steps are still a powerful force. I was told that the time had come for me to discover the truth about my mother. Father has sent me to uncle Twillith in order to learn who she was. He never told me why he couldn’t just tell me himself, but that is so much like him anyway. I was introduced to a small thieving guild consisting of a brother-sister duo, one of them is half-elven, the other is human. The human, a woman named Natasha, has joined me in my journey since she knows the woodland better than I. As we made our way toward the rift, I saw the most unusual thing I have ever seen. A huge owl, about six feet tall, sitting on a branch… an abandoned camp that appears to have belonged to a druidic group… and footprints that simply disappear… it was then we were attacked, not by the owl, but by something magical. A being made up of mosquitoes… Taken from an actual adventuring journal. 


This concludes the Experience Talks column as it was originally published in The Way, the Truth, and the Dice

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