What I Bring to the Table #1: How I Start
The first part of a series of "How-I" articles. This specific article covers what I (as a GM) determine regarding the campaign before I invite players to it. An ambitious, generous, or ambivalent GM might discuss these things with his/her potential players and collect feedback, but it's not a democracy; the GM should enjoy the game also. Some GMs refer to the topics covered within this as a prospectus. "How-to" implies that there is a best way. There might be, and this might be it, or maybe not. This is how I do it.
When an individual, in this case, me, decides to run a role-playing game, several things must be determined. In this article, I will discuss the framework that I use in constructing the campaign. In part 2, I will discuss what players bring need to know and do. Part 3 will be more geopolitical factual material. Parts 4 and beyond will deal with more specific items. Please leave comments regarding issues presented here, either as questions, or comments regarding how you go about these aspects, or if you think I've over- or under-stated the values of certain things. If you are shy, or think your question is stupid or needs to be kept secret, feel free to e-mail me (whutaguy8205 (at) yahoo.com) but have relevant subject line. Where some things require more explanation, but is beyond this article, I will mention when I think I will get back to it, it terms of part 2 or whatever. Most things will be within the first 3 parts.
This part is written with the belief that potential players will not automatically play whatever the GM whips out. There are still some points in this article that may be helpful if this is the case, but far fewer.
Space, Fantasy, Cyberpunk, and Old West are examples of genre. This is a combination of setting and style but should inform the audience to some degree, what to expect. The 1920's is an era, but Horror, Cliffhanger, or Gangbuster are genres. The distinction between these types is important because it tells the potential player what to expect. It prevents the Revenue Agent from finding himself stalking Cthulhu in darkest Africa. If someone said Space, the questions of Star Wars, Star Trek, or Firefly would pop-up as would dozens of other similar, yet very different shows. The genre does not necessarily need to be defined by 1 or 2 words. Referencing a series of books or TV show works also.
Some players will not play certain genres; others will only play certain genres. In between are the people who will play anything, but preferences will still exist.
Hard Science versus techno-babble? Arcane, divine, spirit, or no magic? Psionics or cinematics? These questions may need to be answered before a player will desire to join a campaign or will just join. These points also come up in character creation (Part 2) and Crunch (Part 4, tentatively).
This is a sort of sub-set of Role-play. Will the typical adventure be a mystery or puzzle to solve? Will it be "a bug hunt" with clear killable goals? Will PCs find themselves at cocktail parties with diplomats? Will they be limited by legal, professional, or ethical codes?
This is a greater consideration in Part 2 where character concept and creation are discussed, but should be decided while recruiting players, so they know what they're getting into. Usually this is determined early in the concept phase and not a point of deep contention, but again it is something potential players need to know.
As an example, if the genre is "three musketeers", there needs to be the distinction between the book, with almost no fighting, or anything with an actor which involves a fight every 3 minutes with lots of leaping, swinging, and witty repartee.
Following closely on the heels of style is system. What rule set will be used? For 25 years, I've been a devoted Gurps maniac, but I recently realized that some systems do certain things better than others. Gurps rules for example are generally quite detailed as far as what can and cannot be done and what skill rolls need to be made, but this may interfere with a more social style game. A more open system such as PDQ may work better for many things. This is especially true if a group is more narrativist (story based) than gamist (optimal strategy).
Like the previous section, a lot of this decision depends upon the potential players. If players devote more of their character sheet to weapon statistics than to character description, go with a rules heavy system. If they wear rings given to them by their grandfather who received it from the Queen of Somewherefaroff for saving the life of her favorite razorbeast, go with a more open system.
Following on the heels of system, are variants and house-rules. While much of this part falls into Part 2 (Characters) some of it needs to happen here. In some high-powered games, mooks are automatically defeated, or are out of the fight with just one hit, regardless of damage. This sort of thing should be decided early and if its relevant to character concept or creation, needs to be made clear. If the game is d20 modern, but taking place in the 70's, players should know that cell phones and the Internet haven't been invented yet, and not take related skills.
At some point, there should be an end goal of the campaign. Where is it going? Will this farm boy, deposed princess, wisecracking smuggler, and his muscle-bound sidekick with a heart of gold determine the fate of the galaxy? Or will the streets of Hometown, USA be safe for one more day? Bearing in mind that this is long term goal, not each session, will help resolve some later issues in this article and many more in Part 3 and a few in Part 2. There is also some relevance to how well known the heroes are? The citizens of the world never know how James Bond saved their way of life in every movie, but everyone in town thanks the journalist who exposes the local politician's mistress.
Tied to scope is range. This is how much of the reachable multi-verse is available to the PCs. Are they all from the same small town and unlikely to voyage outside the county? Can they be from different planes of existence or be expected to travel to those places? This matter is discussed more in Part 3 (Geopolitical Factuals), but if it's hometown heroes, this needs to be known at creation.
A final consideration when planning the campaign is term, time and frequency. When setting up your campaign, recruiting players, etc. it helps to have an idea how long the game will run. If your group is mostly college students, 9 months is about maximum, although there is no reason summer hiatus needs to end it. If this is the case, the campaign should look more like a series of movies with complete story arcs in each year. For the rest of the world, term depends upon frequency. Frequency can be daily (usually high school students in the summer) to weekly (college) to biweekly or monthly (people with fuller lives).
In high school I relished the 12 hour marathon sessions of gaming, followed by 4 hours of sleep, 3 hours of trying to wake Todd up, 2 hours of foraging for food and 12 more hours of gaming. Now my mind wanders after about 4, maybe 6 hours, and every group has a thresh-hold, and it needs to be taken into consideration. A GM who wants to play 12 hours with a group that lasts 4, is going to be frustrating and the reverse is disappointing when the GM spontaneously has 200 Banana trees attack your star-ship, and you are playing Vikings.
I run a lot of games at conventions. I plan 4-hour sessions, with pre-generated characters. This works well for my sanity, the con scheduling, and hunger checkpoints. I usually try to take a break at about 2 hours for players to check their fluids. Because of this, I also try to schedule my regular games around the same time frame. 5-6 hours (including travel) every other week is within my realm of reasonable.
- Run a campaign your players have interest in.
- Use a system you like, and that is appropriate.
- Have an idea where the game is going, and how to get there.
System: I started playing in Aeon's Ninja Burger game this year and have just learned the value of an open system and am actually working on a couple campaigns with this in mind. This is after 25 years of near-fanatical devotion to the mechanical precision of GURPS. I've played and run other things but felt that GURPS was the pinnacle. Thanks Aeon. I don't write this to suck up, because he publishes all my babbling anyway, even the lame TV crossover crap.
Scheduling: I don't say this to knock the younger groups. In many ways, I envy them. The fact is, for me, that I am not willing to ditch my family every week to play a game for 6 hours. Every other week is the most I will commit to.