Today, I wanted to talk about something related to campaign design, as well as the running of ongoing campaigns…
Similar to my last article in the series, I wanted to put forth a list of pitfalls that can come up when designing or running a campaign. These pitfalls are things to watch for, or things that can have a huge impact on your campaign, from both conception to mid-execution.
Let’s jump in!
#1: Have a Campaign Plan
When you’re going to write for—or GM—a new campaign, be sure to walk into it with a game plan. It’s one thing to say “I’m going to run an urban campaign where the PCs are a part of a mercenary company.”, it’s an entirely different approach to say “I’m going to run a campaign where the PCs are the first recruits in mercenary unit called the Steel Lions out of the capital city of MadeUpLand. This unit is going to uncover a deep rooted conspiracy started by the great-grandfather of the current queen to ensure his spirit would rise out of the MacGuffin Stone on the eve of the queen’s 30th birthday to steal all the tea from MadeUpLand.”
Ok, maybe that’s a bit silly…
Running a campaign is like building a house. Every session is another brick being added, but you can’t really make a house without having a plan—lest you get some kind of mad Escher drawing home. Knowing the story for your campaign gives your a guide on how to fit each brick into the ever-growing house. Unlike a real construction site, you—as the GM—have the liberty of placing bricks in any order you want, assuming you know the final layout of the house. In this, you can indulge your player’s random desires to explore things you’d not anticipated, while still firmly knowing the (current) end goals of the campaign.
Personal Anecdote: I’m currently running a Tian-Xia based Pathfinder campaign. It’s a historical game set in the past, during a time when an older empire was the biggest force in the region. When I started the campaign, I had a basic idea that the game would encompass a few generations of players and tell the story of this empire’s collapse and the rise of new nations. What I failed to do, was come up with the spinal storyline that kept the whole thing together. After several sessions, and the players going WAY off what I assumed the campaign would be like, I had to start thinking of stuff on the fly. While not ideal, I made it work, and eventually forced myself to sit down and come up with a full ‘campaign plan’, which I thank myself for every time I prepare a new session.
#2: Seed Your Future
Campaigns are not timeless things; eventually, players leave, characters die, or plot lines get boring. Be sure to think about this early in your GM planning for a new campaign. Always daydream 5 or so sessions in advance on ‘what could happen’ so you have a basic idea on how to prepare for it. That being said, don’t be afraid to scrap everything you’d been thinking of, if the PCs go off your script and towards something even better. Heck, if the players want to explore an avenue that you don’t think is as exciting as what you’ve prepared, let them explore it; your ideas shouldn’t have an expiration date and you can always recycle good stories or encounters.
Early on in a campaign, make sure you take the ideas from your daydream scenarios and put them into the game. If you plans on sending your PCs to a remote region in several sessions time, have one of the existing NPCs talk about that area in casual conversation, or have someone who’ll show up as a major NPC later in the game show up for a quick cameo. This mentally prepares the PCs for the region in advance, and maybe even gives you some advance warning on what their thoughts about that location could be. If you seed in an eventual major NPC in a quick social encounter earlier on, and the PCs despise that character, you have an excellent opportunity to adjust your future ‘day dream scenarios’ to compensate.
Personal Anecdote: Way back in the day, I ran a campaign set in the regional capital of the viking-themed region of the Pathfinder campaign setting. I’d planned out pretty much the whole campaign background and plot well in advance. I knew that one of the villains was going to be a mimic that took the form of the throne for a rival trade group, so in the first session I made sure that group played a major role. By doing this, I had the PCs learn about this group, eventually meeting the false leader of the group, and seeding the idea that this guy had a ridiculous throne. When the PCs left, they even commented to each other about how this NPC was ‘compensating’ due to his ridiculous throne… if only they realized!
#3: Learn to Accept Character Death
This is an odd one that people may not agree with. Character death is a form of natural progression in a campaign—characters die and new characters get introduced. This applies to both PCs and NPCs, though more so to NPCs. I want to address it specifically for player characters…
Now, I’m one for bending the rules and trying to keep player controlled characters alive as long as possible, but in some games it tests the limits of player immersion when one of their party members miraculously survives everything that comes their way. By continually letting a character survive encounters that should realistically end their existence, it cheapens the choices of other players in the group, especially for players who made tough characters at the expense of raw power or skills. Depending on the rules system you’re playing with, there are some ways to circumvent this a bit, including options like Mythic characters for Pathfinder, or fate points in the Warhammer RPGs. Still, there should be moments when player characters die.
As long as the player is OK with the death and it suits the story, I think the death of a character can be a big stepping stone for campaigns. This type of development truly shows if the players are invested in the game, instead of just the ongoing adventures of their character—and yes, there SHOULD be a difference). A campaign can get a breath of new life if the player in question gets a chance to bring something new and shake up what may be fatigue with their previous character. Again, consult with your players and find out if this is an acceptable solution. If it is… learn to accept character death!
Personal Anecdote: One of the reasons I bring this up, is because my aforementioned Tian Xia game recently saw the death of two PCs in one session. Now, normally I’d have some caveat to have saved those characters, but as the encounter began, one of the players clearly told me not to pull any punches. Also, the two PCs who ended up biting the big one had decided to dump Constitution in their character point-buy. Hopefully, LESSON LEARNED!
#4: Avoid “My Way or the Highway”
To fly a bit in the face of my first topic, while you should have a campaign plan, that plan needs to evolve. Even when running the most detailed of printed adventures or campaign paths, there should be the some allowance for deviation, lest the players find themselves ‘stuck on the railroad’. There’s a time and a place for railroading—most often during printed adventures—but be aware that players can smell weakness a mile away, and if they find some side thread that they enjoy, they’ll keep tugging at it. The true test is how willing you are to indulge your player’s curiosity in these side ventures. My suggestion here, is to never say ‘no’ or bully the players into stopping their meanderings; instead, let the players explore whatever odd thread they’ve discovered and work it into the greater story of the adventure. While such a feat is incredibly difficult—especially while sitting around the table with no prep—you need to trust me, you’ll look like a wizard if you can pull it off. Seriously, a wizard with a hat and beard and everything!
Another key point is to consider the story you want to tell, versus the story of the characters. Sometimes—read: MOST times—it’s better to adapt your story to work with the story being told by the PCs. Even simple changes, such are replacing one major NPC you have planned with a minor NPC one of the characters has introduced through their own in-character discussions or via a mechanic (such as Leadership), can work to give players investment in your game. By letting the players know that they can build upon the game world by throwing out references that could one day come back to them, is a beautiful way of building a world.
Personal Anecdote: So, in the first session of my Tian Xia game, the players came across a weird jungle idol belonging to a faith that had fallen into obscurity in the region they were adventuring in. Now, over ten sessions into the campaign, the spirit the idol represents has become a large story arc in the game. All of this, is because one of the characters became enamored with the idol—a bone carving of Isht’ao, “The Devourer Who Weeps”—going so far as to give it the nickname of ‘Little Ishi’. Because I went along with this in lieu of other plans for the campaign, I now have one of the two characters who recently died thinking about coming back as a worshipper of Isht’ao.
#5: Fighting Fatigue
Finally, we come to fatigue. This happens in every campaign, especially when there’s been a long break between sessions, or the plot seems to be stalled on some gameplay aspect. Players can get stalled on all the wrong plot elements, and get frustrated when they can’t piece together the bread crumbs you’ve left them. Alternatively, players can figure out everything but take a _wildly_ different course of action than what you as the GM anticipate, leading to a potentially longer running set of encounters you’re not necessarily thrilled to be running. Remember, fatigue affects both GMs and players, and since RPGs are a group experience, it’s important to work together to identify when the group is experiencing fatigue.
One potential solution to combating campaign fatigue is to shake things up. Before you make any radical changes, it’s important to see who in the group is experiencing the fatigue; is it a specific player, all the players, just yourself, or everyone at the table? Identifying this gives you the power to find solutions. Character death fits into single player fatigue, where that specific player may be looking to kill off or retire their character to try out something new. For group issues, change up the campaign dynamic; if you’ve been doing dungeon crawls for three months, switch it up and try running a hardcore urban political intrigue. Just be sure to check with your players, before you make these choices!
GM fatigue is harder to combat, and I’ve often found that it requires a massive dynamic shift in the campaign, potentially even asking the players if they’d be interested in trying a new game for a while. For longer running games, or games where the players have a long-term investment they don’t want to see abandoned, changing up the dynamic by introducing major changes in scenery or game types can really help get the creative juices flowing. If all else fails, check to see if any of the players want to step up and try their hand at GMing; getting on the other side of the screen can be a great tool in reinvigorating your creativity and desire to GM.
Personal Anecdote: I’d been running an Iron Kingdoms campaign off and on for several years. After a particularly arduous story arc, I knew that I wanted to change things up. In order to spice up the campaign, the PCs needed to travel across the breadth of their country to a distant city across a lot of war-torn forest regions. While I was sure the switch would be good for the campaign, I knew that simply ‘jumping ahead’ without any details of the journey would stretch the player’s belief in the game. As a result, I ran one of the most memorable gaming sessions I’d ever concocted.
In this ‘special’ session, I had every recurring/major villain the PCs ever tangled with, end up at a bar. Through exposition, each of these NPC’s recounted some encounter they had with the main party during this long trek that I wanted to avoid GMing. Each time one of the villains told ‘their story’ we’d roleplay a particular scene that happened during the PCs trip. The twist, was that the PCs found themselves changed by the opinions the villain had of them. For one group, the PCs were all giants who breathed fire. For another villain’s tale, that villain was the hero and the PCs had to all play Chaotic Evil alignments. Finally, one villain had no respect for the PCs, so they had to play 1st level commoners with intelligence well below normal human standards. At the end of this retelling, the bartender kicked all the villains out of the bar for a ‘special arriving party’, which of course ended up being the PCs, . The party sauntered in just a few minutes after all their enemies had departed. BAM, the mood for this new location was set and the campaign was re-enlivened for us for several more months of play!