Tips To Design A Campaign

images-451. Create Events And Timeline

Designing a campaign can be so overwhelming that GMs prefer to make it up as they go and hope they can somehow hold it all together. I have found simple tricks to make a light, simple campaign that is elegantly flexible but fleshed out just enough to maintain cohesion. Even when your players take the long way by making random choices or throwing out odd-ball suggestions, you’ll be ready.

Start by laying the groundwork for your game sessions with this checklist:

What major events happened in the past? What major figures – real, legendary or mythical – exist?
Example: There was a peaceful kingdom, ruled by a generous Queen, loved by all her people. One day, the kingdom came under attack and was taken over by a tyrant and his armies. Some say the Queen still exists, somewhere. Others say she is a ghost. Still others claim she has become some sort of enchantress: part human part wylde thing.

What major events are happening presently – and how might that affect or hook the PCs?
Example: Some say there is a rebellion and rebels plan to cast down the tyrant and the lawless, bloodthirsty people who follow him. Mayhap the PCs can join this rebellion and help. If they do, over time, they can progress through the ranks to lead and possibly become advisors to the new monarch.

Offer them a choice to join the rebellion. They can fight for freedom against tyranny, try to stay safe without taking sides while still looking out for themselves, or join the bad guys and fight the rebellion. Once the PCs decide, new choices emerge for you, such as helping, hindering, traveling to distant lands to escape this tortured kingdom.

What impact might the PCs have on the future of their world – and what choices does that mean you will have to give them as GM?
Example: The PCs can save the kingdom, become adventurers or mercenaries working for whoever pays them top-dollar,- or become part of the evil horde and work to take over the world.

Define the political system. This is critical. Is the country a monarchy, democracy, republic, anarchy, federation, feudatory? What is the judicial system and system of law and police like?
Example: Political System: Monarchy. Martial Law dictated by Dark Knights and the Corrupt Lords and Ladies.

Types of stories: Skirmishes, ambushes, rescues, and so on. In my example, the PCs could hunt rebels to take away their caches and resources. If they pick the evil side, they will also vie for power and struggle for survival. If they stay neutral, either type of story can work, possibly leading them out of the kingdom, bringing new adventures.
What is the terrain like? Desert, grass, charted, uncharted, mixed?
Example: This is the only known kingdom. It is surrounded by an almost impenetrable wilderness on the north and desert and glacier on the remaining three sides.

What is the time span of the campaign? This is critical. Sometimes we forget that things like travel and getting things to progress will take time. So it’s possible that weeks, months, seasons or years can go by while required background events happen off-screen. The PCs come on when the interesting bits happen.
Example Campaign Time Span: 5-10 years, either the tyrant is unseated, or not.

2. Design The Campaign Plot

Now you know the basics of what has happened, what is happening and where it could potentially go.

You know the most important choices you will give players, and you are still open to possibilities players may offer for how to explore this world and its story, and you can still keep your campaign on track. Right now you have just a few rough notes. You have to craft them into a vehicle for an actual campaign. I suggest you keep these as short as possible, and let the detail come in during actual session play. I break this campaign plan down into five steps. More gets too detailed, less isn’t detailed enough.

Step 1: The PCs either enter into this kingdom, or get the offer to join the rebels, because they’ve got enough of a reputation or are perhaps related to someone and are considered to be a potentially viable asset. They make friends and enemies depending upon which side they choose. What groups and leader they deal with is based on their choice.

The PCs do some light legwork, which lets them get a feel for the world and the people in it. They learn about the problems that it faces – shortages, violence, thieving, oppression, festivals, or whatever you want to populate it with as GM. Experiencing the world in play through adventuring will ground the PCs in the game world reality, and give them a bias for or against different things based on their characters’ reactions to what they experience and witness.

Step 2: While the PCs are pursuing their agenda, the resistance is ticking off the tyrant, who is hunting anyone who might be related to them or helping them. There is a rumor of underground smuggling of those who have their faces up and have been identified by the police/Lords/Ladies. This underground helps any who seek escape.

The kingdom is falling into a shambles. There are refugees appearing in other untamed and uncharted lands. Leaders are needed in those areas: people like guides, explorers, and hunters. Yet those who choose to stay in or are unable to leave the kingdom still suffer.

Step 3: Someone in the outlands comes back and says they have found an almost magical stone that will make weapons unbreakable, and almost always strike critical areas. Others claim there are riches, but the animals are too wild or the lands too hostile. They want to come back to the kingdom and help the resistance. This has mixed results, because many are untrained peasants. And yet someone else comes back and says there is a kingdom far to the north over a dangerous sea and that maybe diplomats should go and ask for help from this kingdom. A third party comes back and clams there is a desert fortress, empty except for the singing of its warrior ghosts. If they can but find a magician or some means to entice these ghosts to join the fight against the tyrant….

Step 4: News comes that the tyrant and his people came from the east and there are more of these barbarians there, and they plan to rule the world. With this new information, will the kingdom to the north help? People claim there are places where magic exists, and that some become magic when they go there, almost as if they drink it in. They claim a person can be magical for a while, but then they run out of magic and must return to these magical areas and refill their power. If this is true, this secret and these sacred sites must be hidden and protected from the tyrant and his people! Many say they have seen the Queen in the city and in various places all around the world. Is it true that her spirit lives on?

Step 5: This is where push comes to shove. By this time, the PCs have something to gain or lose, because the whole world is going to be at war. The barbarians are making their move. The northern kingdom may also fall under the reign of terror just like the southern kingdom. The rebels may help the north by attacking the barbarian’s eastern stronghold. They may fight the barbarians in the south because the barbarians can’t get any backup and they will be spread too thin. The PCs may add to the equation of these or any number of plans.

And the end? Well, you don’t write the end to the campaign, because it ends in play. Successes, losses, loves, hates, friends and enemies all have progressed through dynamic interplay. We do not outline what the PCs do. We outline what’s going on in the world, that which the PCs may interact with, or that which will affect them, give them opportunities, or maybe take opportunities away.

3. Outline The Most Important Groups

Finally, you outline the most important groups and their leaders.

For example:

The tyrant king of the southern city and his most favorite lords and ladies, generals/admirals, police and knights.

The rebels: members the PCs will interact with, and possibly even the leader if that information is shared with the PCs.

At least one enemy group of the PCs who will last throughout the entire campaign. Maybe they help the tyrant or the rebels, depending on the PCs’ choice of associates. Possibly both, if the PCs are free operatives. In this case, it could be a rival group of mercenaries.

And that’s really all you need to start.

Leaders and other people in these groups may disappear, be jailed, dethroned or killed, with the structure remaining in place. Perhaps the tyrant is poisoned by his horrible niece, and upon his death she takes his place on the throne. The barbarians are still in charge of the city.

Or the rebel leader is arrested. There is a huge capture operation based on information he gives up under torture, and many rebels flee the city, but the rebellion goes on.

Or the mercenary enemies take heavy casualties, and for some reason blame the PCs. Now the survivors are gunning for the PCs.

Make your cast dynamic. Characters may come and go for any number of reasons – they get lame, go insane, quit, and so on. In all likelihood, the groups will last long. Cast members may come and go, but if you introduce a group, you can reused it time and time again.

Be careful when introducing groups because they may help your campaign or work against it. Consider the five steps of your plot, what group will compliment your campaign, and when to bring in that group. You may need to drop a group at a certain step because it’s redundant at that point.

During play, don’t be afraid to change or drop a group if it’s not working. You can always introduce a new group or reintroduce an old one that works well.

Special individuals should be considered valuable or dangerous because of their unique status. They may belong to a group, be targets for assassination or capture, or be feted to join a group because of who they are, what they can do, what they know, who they know, or what they represent. Even if this person dies or disappears, their memory, teachings, lessons and influence may live on, for better or worse.

I hope these ideas help in your campaign.

For Your Game: 10 Unsettling Moment

Although Benjy the grey cat likes everyone else in the tavern, it hisses whenever a certain PC passes by.
The children start to sing a song about beheading whenever a certain PC enters the vicinity.
A strange smell follows one PC throughout the month, a pervasive graveyard stink that is commented upon behind his or her back by others.
Throughout the week, the same scarecrow seems to turn up in fields the PCs walk past.
How come the children’s nursery rhyme keeps referring to one of the PCs by name? And worse, why is the rhyme about eating slugs, bugs, and thugs?
The same face keeps appearing in crowds everywhere — a rotund, somewhat ruddy complexioned fellow with a huge, flat, red nose. Chug Hoppwell is actually the PC’s biggest fan, and takes great joy in following their exploits — he’s merely admiring them and has given up his job and home to see them in action as much as possible.
In the graveyard, the PCs each find a grave with their name upon it, most dating from the same year a century ago.
A seventh daughter of a seventh daughter claims she has seen one of the PCs in two distinct dreams she’s had. In the first dream, three things happen: he meets her, avoids her, and is then eaten by a huge six-headed crocodile at midnight. In the second dream, he meets her, marries her, and they live happily ever after. After telling her tale, she smiles toothlessly up at him.
The wicker men, whose numbers match those of the heroes, are “merely ornamentation” the locals claim…
The man in the ancient portrait in the Lord’s House does indeed look exactly like the character. His name? Deathly Lord Rache the Slayer of Innocents, the devil who swore to return.