Campaign Preparation - An Eight Month Journey
When most people think of our journey to the moon, they picture Neil Armstrong taking his first historic leap onto a new world. They never imagine the amount of work that got him there. In the same manner, players rarely consider the amount of work a Gamemaster, or GM, places into campaign creation. A GM must be the assembly worker, the engineer, and the astronomer if they want to create a successful campaign.
When most people think of our journey to the moon, they picture Neil Armstrong taking his first historic leap onto a new world. They never imagine the amount of work that got him there: the engineer who designed the landing craft, the assembly worker who fashioned rivets to fit into the Saturn V, or the astronomer who spent countless hours diagramming the place the crew would land. In the same manner, players rarely consider the amount of work a Gamemaster, or GM, places into campaign creation. A GM must be the assembly worker, the engineer, and the astronomer if they want to create a successful campaign.
A few weeks ago, I started my latest campaign. In many ways, it is my first campaign, although I have been a GM for nearly 9 years. For instance, it is my first fully realized campaign world; my first player-driven plot line; and the first time I had the opportunity to write a campaign while being free of the duties associated with being a GM. I had 8 months to create this campaign, whereas many GMs have barely a month between the end of one campaign and the beginning of the next. I learned a lot in the process and thought I would pass on the knowledge.
The World: While I find it easier to create my own world, it is not necessary. However, the world you choose is the single most important aspect of campaign creation. The world/region needs to be fleshed out before the campaign begins. A GM should know the major non-player characters, or NPCs, of the area and have them tied to the characters in some way. (For example, the big villains in my current campaign happen to be the stepfather of one player characters and the benefactor of another.)
A GM needs to be familiar with local landmarks, taverns, and places of business and government. Ideally, every such location will be connected to an NPC or group of NPCs. If your players encounter the same folk at the same places often enough, then you hook them into the world. The players begin to know the NPCs, make friends or enemies, and feel connected to the people. This helps later when you want your players to care about the events of your plot. Never feel you cannot kill off an NPC, especially a favorite, as it can be used for dramatic effect.
Make the work your own, even if you're going to use a prepackaged world. Add NPCs and locations, change the names of towns or countries, or kill off the major prepackaged NPCs of the world. A world you invest yourself in will make it far more believable for your players.
Character Creation: You may wonder why I would mention character creation before such things as plot and NPCs. Character drives the story. Before you create the plot, discuss characters with your players. Ask everyone what they want to play and work with the group to balance the party. For example, one person may want to play either a wizard or a fighter, while another is determined to play a wizard. If everyone discusses the types of characters they want to play beforehand, it becomes much easier to balance a party. In fact, your players may do it for you. Never railroad someone into playing a character they do not want. A GM should work around the desires of the players. If the party ends up with no cleric, then work that aspect into your campaign.
Ask all your players to write a short character history. It need not be more than one or two paragraphs. You should ask them to include their personal desires, goals or motivations, a few things that may have happened to them during their life, and a name. Once the character history is complete, the GM should take it and make it their own. I am not telling a GM to change the character, but rather add to them. Add the family, friends and acquaintances. Incorporate the towns or places of their birth into the world, or add them to the players' history. Absorb the creativity of your players and meld it to your own. In this way, you connect the players' lives to your germinating plot. Suddenly, the players are a piece of your plot and your world. My players loved it. In the latest game session, one player discovered his father had disappeared while tracking down an escaped traitor. The traitor was the father of one of my other players. It became a very dramatic moment and drew both players deeper into my master plot.
The Plot: Plot, the fabled story, the Holy Grail of GMs everywhere, can be the easiest or the most difficult aspect of any game. I have found it easiest to create an outline for my plots. Section one details levels one through five, etc. Each section should begin with a major event or conflict with subsequent parts branching from this titular event. A good plot should start with one conflict for the characters. As the players solve one conflict, two more conflicts may stem from the solution of the first. The story should be a web of events, people and conflicts. (For example, goblins are raiding villages along the Dryad forest. They steal any food that can be readily carried away. The players may go after the goblin menace or search for a reason behind their actions. After defeating/solving the conflict, the players discover that the goblins were starving because local game had mysteriously disappeared. In addition, the disappearing game is slowly spreading towards more civilized areas and will soon reach their homes. As many villages have already been hit by the goblins, a famine is set to cause the deaths of hundreds.)
A plot can make or break a campaign. A GM should never have more than a rough outline of the plot. Your players may decide that someone else should deal with the goblins. Of course, a crafty GM could then have a player's favorite dog or sister carried off by the goblins, or just select another branch of the plot leading back to the goblins. In the end, a GM may have to scrap their plot if the players have not responded to it. In this case, go back to their character histories. Take a potential conflict or goal from their past and present it. The player is certain to chase it, and you will have hooked them. Now you just have to reel them in.
In the end, you have managed to create a story from the three fundamentals: background, character and plot. Once a campaign has these aspects, the rest will fit into place. Remember to create NPCs and have stats for them, even if you use the same stat block for a number of NPCs. You never know what a player will do. Finally, have fun with it. Take your time getting everything together before you start a campaign. Compromise with your players. They are there to have fun, but so is the GM. For me, these rules have made for a successful campaign. Maybe they will help make your own campaign a success.