Behind the Screen – Issue 1: Big Planning

Behind the Screen is a look at many aspects of tabletop roleplaying from a Gamemaster’s perspective.

Planning out your campaign can be a fun, time-consuming process.  I’ll give you a few tips that will, hopefully, help you streamline this process.  We have stories to tell, and interactive stories are a lot more fun.  At least I think they are.  But planning a campaign is wildly different from writing a story, and there are many things you need to keep in mind when doing this.

Firstly, always take to heart the words of Helmuth von Moltke the Elder: “no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.”  This can easily be changed to “no campaign plan survives first contact with the players.”  I cannot stress how important it is to accept this and roll with it.  Adaptation is one of the most important skills a GM can have.  But we can plan for this!

Let’s take your game idea and jot down a broad scope.  How shall it start and how shall it end?  For a game, this is the important part, as the middle will flesh itself out.  Get yourself a good hook, something that will pull the players in either by choice, with a tasty worm, or by force, the steely hook.  Do they all end up imprisoned together?  Maybe on the same ship when something happens, or shipwrecked together.  Are they all invited to a party or for employment?  Perhaps a great reward of power or a very, very shiny object is waiting for them.  Find a way that encourages them to work together.

Talking with your players can make this really easy.  Get a feel for their characters, or at least what they want to play.  Sometimes the players will want their characters to know each other ahead of time, be friends, co-workers, lovers, whatever.  If it helps bind them together, it helps you.  This whole process can also give you great ideas for little side quests or asides, but we’ll cover that later.

Now you have a good idea how the game is supposed to start, and you have your ending.  You do have your ending, right?  Give yourself a goal, something that will finalize the game.  You may have a whole bustle of ideas, but before you get carried away, focus on a solid end.  Think of it like a season finale to a show, not really a series finale.  You can still think of ideas much further down the road, but you need something solid to aim for.

Right!  Start and end are done; now for the juicy bits.  Clearly you can’t have your players step out of the tavern where they just met and have a showdown with the BBEG (Big Bad Evil Guy/Girl) on a dark precipice during a lightning storm.  Okay, you could, but it would be a very short game or the players would be upset that you started it off with them getting stomped into the ground.  So how do we flesh out the middle when I just told you that plans go to shit once players encounter them?  With the careful use of story points.

If you overplan, while it means you seriously fleshed out the game, it also means that you’ll end up railroading your players.  This means that you have a direct line to where they should go next, and it will cause serious pain to have them stray.  However, this is the glory of the tabletop game and why it’s superior to a video game.  They’ll want to explore, they’ll want to stray, or they’ll get too interested in that NPC (Non-Player Character) you made for a single encounter.  They may encounter a gazebo.  That’s okay, let them, and relieve yourself of the heartache that comes when your five pages of dialogue goes into the bin because the players never went into that library.

Story points are key moments in your story that you really want to happen.  A wise old man that offers the key to a riddle or a sub-boss that will provide the players with key information or an artifact.  These are needed as they help you develop the proper arcs to get your players to the end.  Having these as just points on a map, as opposed to steps in plan, allows the players much needed freedom.  If they start to stray, plop a hint or an NPC or something in the new area they went off to that tells them where the next point is.  This gives you the ability to guide the players without forcing the plot down their throats.

My second most important piece of advice I can give you: listen to your players.  This can save you a surprising amount of brain power when it comes to your campaign.  Remember when we asked them about their characters and their history before the start?  Use that.  The character backgrounds and things their characters have done in the past are great ways to flesh out your world and let the players feel like they are part of it.  Let them talk amongst themselves, let them guess and plot and scheme.  While they explore, they’ll be looking for things and hints all on their own.  Incorporate it into your story.  Maybe they come up with a reason the BBEG is doing what they’re doing that’s wildly different than what you thought of.  Sure, you could ignore it and hold to your plan, but incorporating part of it will benefit the game and the players.  They’ll feel accomplished and you’ll have more material to play with.

Also, listening to them and paying attention to their asides will help you flesh out your campaign with side quests and story bits that you may not have thought of.  There is nothing wrong with taking a player’s idea, reshaping it, putting it into your game, and claiming that it was in the plan all along.  It’s your game. How would they know otherwise?  It also gives the players a chance to shine.  If it was their idea, they may know just how they’d work through it, and they feel savvy being able to jump right into the solution.  This sort of thing is where the interactive storytelling excels, as everyone adds to it and makes it more than it was at the start.  Don’t be afraid of this; this is how it gets really good.

With a solid beginning, an end, some story points, and the ability to flow with the players, you’ll have a great campaign that everyone will enjoy.  Flesh out your world ahead of time.  Not just the path the players will take but the surrounding cities, points of interest, and a stable of NPCs.  This will allow you to adapt more smoothly.  Should the party stray, you’ll already have a general idea what is in that area and what might interest them.  Key NPCs that can be randomly placed are also excellent for getting the players back on track.  Again, don’t force the issue, but do pop in with the occasional reminder.  If the hook was good, the players will want to finish the story.  If they don’t, maybe you need to have a chat and see what happened.

The object, as always, is to have fun, so let them have their distractions and avoid setting yourself up for regret and disaster.

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