Campaign Creation - Part 1: What Kind Of Campaign?

Last week I wrote an article asking you to send me an idea that I could build a campaign off of. After sorting through all the submission (of which there were many), I am happy to say I found one that definitely jumped out at me.

The winning idea for the brand new campaign we are creating is...

+Luis burset! Luis wrote: "I've been struggling with this one for a while, mostly cause I can't seem to lock the idea down. I want to start with a prophecy foretelling the rise of the PCs and the fall from grace/betrayal of one of them, and making that PC the BBEG"

The premise of this interested me. The idea of a player character foretold to fall or betray their companions is pretty . Most players would try their best to avoid such a fate, but what kind of pressure would that create? Would there be a snapping point? Right here, I think we have the heart of the campaign, the dark cloud that will hang over the heads of our players for a good chunk of the game's run.  

But how do we turn that into a campaign? How do we transform an idea into a multi-session story? That is what we're going to try and figure out today.

Step 1: What Kind Of Campaign?

The first thing you want to figure out what kind of campaign you have here. There are dozens of different kinds of campaigns, but in the end, they all boil down into two delicious flavors for your running pleasure:

  • Sandbox Campaigns: Sandbox-style campaigns focus on giving the player absolute freedom to go where they want and do what they want. A lot focus on exploration (wilderness, dungeon, urban, etc.), with a few story hooks thrown in here and there. This kind of campaign lends itself to more of an "Adventure of the week" style of gameplay, with a few larger storylines sprinkled in. This style is perfect for long games because it keeps things consistently fresh and new for the players. These are best prepped week-to-week (or however often you folks play) because the unlimited freedom you players have can lead them all over the place, making it difficult, if not impossible, to predict what they will do more than a session or two out.

  • Story-Driven Campaigns: These are more focused on a singular, overarching story that the Game Master is trying to tell. These campaigns have a definitive beginning, middle, and end, with plot points the players hit through the course of the game. Most Adventure Paths and multi-part adventures fall into this category, with Pathfinder's "Rise of the Rune Lords" and D&D's "Rise of Tiamat" being good examples (wow, lots of rising these days). These can also be long-running campaigns, but work best in shorter, more plotted out games. The major story points are best plotted out well in advance of actually playing so that you as the Game Master know what direction you want to head in. This isn't railroading, per say. The players still able to make their own decisions, but if gives you an idea of where to steer their ambitions towards. With major plot points set from beginning to end, it gives you the ability to see the bigger picture and lets you alter things to tailor the play style of your characters. 

What Kind Of Campaign Am I Creating?: The nature of the idea lends itself to be used in either a Sandbox or Story-Driven game. For the purposes of this series (in which I show you the step-by-steps of creating a campaign), it makes more sense to delve into more story-driven material. Sandbox is great, but that relies more on World Building rather than Campaign Building, and I have another series for building settings (which certainly needs an update).

Step 2: How Long Do You Want It?
"I like long running campaigns... I'm not compensating."

The next think you want to do is come up with a ballpark figure of how long you want the campaign to run. You should note that the actual length of the campaign will vary quite a bit between growing the campaign and actually running it. This number really is a reflection of how much material do you think you have, and how quickly you want to pace it.

Pacing is important when deciding the nature of your campaign. When I write games, I typically do so in the style of an American television season, and I find that is the best way to structure your campaigns. Observe:

  • Long Running Campaign: These bad boys are built to last. They can go forever. In fact, I was just recently listening to a podcast detailing one man's 34-year D&D campaign, which he ran two sessions a week. Without any breaks, that's 3,536 sessions. I suddenly feel very self-conscious.... but I digress. Television seasons! Good games, especially long running ones, work really well as television seasons. Here is how a season breaks down. The first couple episodes (or sessions for us Game Mastery folk) focus on the large story, introducing characters pertinent to that. Then you have a few fun stand alone episodes (side quests, one-off adventures and so on), while still leaving hints to the greater story to keep it fresh in the viewers' (players') minds. Then comes sweeps.

    Sweeps are when networks want to crank up advertising revenue by getting more people to watch. They typically do this three times a season (November, February, and May). During sweeps, they pull out all the stops. The large plot lines they have been teasing for a few episodes (sessions) develop and reveal something big (plot, BBEG, etc.) that they can't quite deal with right away. Then we return to a few more stand-alone episodes (side quests, one-off adventures and so on), usually while on the way to, or trying to figure out how to deal with the big problem. Then comes the next sweeps. The major plot resolves somewhat, but something bigger happens (The BBEG isn't the BBEG, it just works for him), propelling the plot forward toward an inevitable confrontation with the big problem. This typically happens around May, when the story is winding down (or ramping up, as the case often is), with a month of story-driven material that culminates in the season finale, where the current storyline is resolved, but another may open up (cliffhangers!). The best part is this can be implemented multiple times to create a long series of stories. After all, it is not uncommon for shows to run for multiple seasons, and the same goes for games.

"Special thanks to Joss Wheadon for... well, you know. Being God."

  • Short Campaign: Short campaigns are a little more concise. They focus on more story-driven elements because they lack the luxury of being able to spread things out, but are able to hit plot points more consistently keeping the overarching story fresh in the players' minds. The pacing is fast, the payoff is quick, and the events are easier to recall. To accomplish this, I usually prescribe to the same season-based formula as I would for a long running game, save for one thing. I removed the stand-alone sessions, keeping everything within the story arc wheelhouse. This creates more of a serialized progression, with each session tieing directly into the next. Some Game Masters write long running campaigns the same way, and while there is nothing wrong with doing it that way, I personally like a little more adaptability. 

How Does One Determine Length?: Length can really be a hard word to nail down. How does one determine it? The number of hours played? The number of weeks or months or years? I prefer easier units of measure, sessions or levels.

Length by level is a great way to determine a scaling challenge for your players. Right from day one you can determine the challenge rating of the final battle, and major challenges along the way to climactic confrontation. It allows you to see where our characters are, where they need to be, and how much XP it will take them to get there.

Length by session is a more story-intensive, focusing primarily on the plot than on how powerful the player characters become. The number of sessions determines how much story and plot development your are willing to indulge in. It is more of a way of deciding how much story you have, and crafting everything around that.

How Long Will My Campaign Be?: For the sake of the guide here, I intend to create a Short Campaign, limiting the campaign life to about 15 sessions. I am confident that with what I am plotting I can hit that 15 session benchmark with ease, but as I said before, the actual length is a ballpark estimate. The number of sessions I am planning is subject to change depending on how the story develops. I could end up with a few sessions less, or a few sessions more, but fifteen is the goal.

Step 3: How Do You Want XP To Work?

 Unless you're running a quick adventure or a convention game with no ties to organized play, XP is important. The PCs are going to gain levels and become more powerful. That's like... 60% of the game right there. How you distribute that XP, however, can determine how your campaign progresses quite a bit.

You can dole out XP like the good old fashioned way, after every encounter. This is a great way for you players to see that little gap between this level and the next shrink. There is nothing quite like the excitement of knowing that the upcoming level is only a thousand XP away. It creates a sense of anticipation. It gets your players vested in continuing on. I've had players beg for extra game time or extra sessions, just so they could level up sooner.

Another way of doing things is milestone-based. This kind of XP is awarded after a certain number of sessions, encounters, or at important milestones hit within the story. As such, it is often very story-oriented, allowing the characters to level up when the story deems it necessary to do so. Again, this isn't railroading, as these milestones often come sooner than the actually accumulated XP thresholds are met. It also makes the story more dynamic, raising the stakes (and challenges) as it unfolds.

What XP Method Will I Be Using?: Becuase this is looking to become a more story-centric campaign, I will most likely be implementing Milestone XP. It feels like a better fit than having my players keep a record of the XP they receive after every encounter. If this were a long-running campaign, I might feel differently, but considering this is nice and short, I think this is the best choice.

Now that we have the sort of campaign we want, we can move onto the juicy stuff. Next week we start building the skeleton of our story by finding the perfect place to set it.

 Just a heads up. This series has been underwritten by the fine folks over at Scabard. The campaign in all of its glory will find a home there. With the ability to add NPCs, session summaries, and the ability to house an UNLIMITED number of campaigns, the site has me a bit smitten. Not to mention the coolest feature, the campaign connections, wherein you can connect pages in your campaign with relationships like 'Father Of', 'Enemy Of', 'Birthplace Of' and assign categories like Race, Class, and Gender. Unlike wikis, which need links and back links, connections between pages on Scabard only need to be made once.
 The stuff you get for free is almost criminal, and the stuff you get for the paid subscription is beyond badass. And as far as a subscription goes, I've done the math, and it factors out to about $2.50 a month (that's rounding up, by the way). The best part is, only the GM needs to pay. The players you add have the full run of all the nifty paid features. Hell, if you are running a game for 6 people, you all only need to cough up $0.37 a month. What else can you get for $0.37?
Check them out, and tell them The Bard sent you.

Roll well, my friends,
+Ed The Bard 

And thanks to my Epic Adventurer-Level Patrons
Levi Davis

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