Perhaps the most important decisions in a campaign occurs before the first die is rolled, before there even is a campaign when the would-be Dungeon Master/ Game Master/ Storyteller decides the overall thrust of his story. No, not the nitty-gritty adventure hooks, or the villains, or the individual conflicts, but an overall idea of what this campaign will be about. This series of articles will examine these crucial choices. First up, the pre-game.
Primary Conflict: What is the big bad problem that the players are going to have to confront? Most of the time this does not even need to be revealed in the first part of the campaign, in fact it could be purposefully obscured in the beginning, but it should be on a good DM’s mind so that he can build on this from the ground up and that when the major story arc becomes apparent the players feel that this is an organic natural direction for the story. The alternative is to NOT have a primary conflict and instead plan on one or more smaller conflicts that scale with the PCs level and experience. The danger of having an overarching plotline is the tendency to be overly rigid and railroad your players in a direction that either they or (even better) their characters have no desire to take. On the other hand, having no overall story can leave PCs feeling rudderless and without direction. Characters and players alike like to feel important to the world. Sometimes going from town to town with progressively more difficult dungeons isn’t even enough. Even so, a kind of ‘monster of the week’ style campaign can easily progress to having a story with a reoccurring villain or some clever retroactive continuity explaining a link between the threats de jure.
Means of Resolution: Conflicts and solving them form the core of role playing challenges. Every game will have many, many conflicts both big and small, but a DM should consider what options the PCs have as viable options. Some games and game systems, like Dungeons and Dragons, have an obvious bend towards combat. Parties are expected to have characters that not only are poor outside of combat, but downright incompetent. This skew obviously makes D&D parties more inclined to fight. On the other hand, certain games emphasize the risks and unpredictability of combat such that PCs try to avoid risking their lives. World of Darkness often has this element as Elder Vampires do their damnedest to AVOID risking their unnaturally long lives at all costs. Original Legend of the Five Rings had plenty of rules on combat, but you still died VERY EASILY. Overly combat intensive games encourage min-maxing and encyclopedic knowledge of the rules. It also makes some skills and concepts pretty much useless and damages the meta feeling of the story: after all, why even talk at all if you’re CERTAIN you’re just going to kill the goblin/vampire hunter/space pirate. Games with an extreme lack of combat, on the other hand, encourage obnoxious character behaviors and offer few risks. Sure, losing that vote to become CEO would suck, but its not like you’re risking your characters very existence.
Source Material: Do you want to create your own game world or use a setting provided? The advantages of creating your own world is uniqueness and freshness, no player has an inside knowledge of the game, unless your world has been used by them before. Even that (drawing on old game knowledge) can help create a sense of history and nostalgia amongst players. Using a campaign setting gives you loads of ideas and pre-made characters, but players in their excitement tend to read to the same things you do and perhaps learn too much. Moreover, sometimes the pre-existing relationships and locations can be a tad constraining if players know about the setting. Do you REALLY want to argue with a die hard Dragonlance fan about whether Sturm Brightblade would stab the goblin disengaging from combat?
Conclusion: Most campaigns come into the world with serious defects some of which are fatal and others that can be worked out as time progresses. Considering these simple choices can help minimize stillbirths of a campaign. Tune in next week for a look at the next big step: figuring out your players!
The Pain of Campaigning I: Story and Pre-Game Decisions
The Pain of Campaigning II: Starting the Game
The Pain of Campaigning III: The Plot Thickens
The Pain of Campaigning IV: Put a Little Politics In It
The Pain of Campaigning V: Suitable Villains