The Pain of Campaigning I: Story and Pre-Game Decisions

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

Comments

  1. Note to all DMs:

    Never run a campaign in an oceanic world.

    Continents are very important. No player likes to sit on a boat for very long, nor to simply fast forward travel time between islands. Overland travel = FUN!…

  2. I must agree that the few times my players adventured into the sea I was quite at a loss. I like the ocean better in real life.

  3. I really like the part that says:
    “simple choices can help minimize stillbirths of a campaign.”

    New campaigns can’t always be great. It’s really about effort, and minimizing chances that’s it’s going to be a dud.

    Social life is important though. So not too much energy can go into your next campaign!

  4. A large sea-going ship or fleet can eliminate the boredom inherent in sea travel. A stow away creature, disappearing sailors, and strange happenings can make a ship a great place to play. Its just like a large floating dungeon. It can be fun so long as its large enough or you have enough of a fleet/visiting vessels to keep it interesting.

    Also don’t forget about undersea continents. They can be just as compelling to explore as any dry land.

  5. TheMainEvent says:

    I never ran sea-based campaigns, but I did find that Zaratans (islands size tortoises) and Krakens always were a good time.

  6. dberg – I suppose you’re correct…but I’m not sure you can use the large ship/fleet set-up too many times in the same campaign…undersea continents are, for the sake of my opinion, still continents, dry or no…

    I may have a bit of a bias having played in a campaign set-up similar to Waterworld with less guns and a just a handful of islands on the map…travelling unexplored territory was one of those things our DM didn’t like us doing, considering that he had several possible adventures set up on just about every island…problem also was, he kind of just threw us into the world without any real direction…and that’s almost never good for a campaign for an extended period of time…

  7. I look at oceanic campaigns very similarly to space based campaigns. You can do a lot on vessels or with interaction between vessels and other stationary locations.

    Oceans are vast places. Space is even bigger. I’ve seen some really good campaigns done in both places.

  8. As I go through my Google Reader starred list for entries – this one and the whole series in fact – is a sure fire MUST READ. I’ve submitted it to OPEN GAME TABLE for consideration in the 2008 Anthology. Truly excellent stuff here – I loved reading this whole series.

    Jonathan´s last post: OPEN GAME TABLE SUBMISSION FORM

  9. There’s been some concern over at the RPG Bloggers google group that the author’s work is being submitted without their consent – so I just want to clarify: Nothing will be published in Open Game Table unless the author releases the material for inclusion in the Anthology. This post was simply submitted for consideration; which is the first step towards identifying the best in RPG blogging. Let me know if you have any questions over at the The Core Mechanic or in the OPEN GAME TABLE google group. I hope that this clears up any confusion you may have.

    Jonathan´s last post: Open Game Table: The 2008 Anthology of Roleplaying Game Blogs

  10. Just a quick note voicing my approval of your unintentional rewording of my basic teaching message.
    “Make the system match the setting, or else the setting will end up matching the system”

    In other words, creating a role-playing, social-intrigue heavy setting and using a combat heavy system as framework, and you will end up with frustrated players (at best), or a game where a social reaction role ends in swordplay every time.

    LordVreeg´s last post: Dreadwing

Trackbacks

  1. […] at critical-hits started a series of articles called the Pain of Campaigning!  The first article, Story and pregame decisions, was well thought-out and well […]

  2. […] that the King is actually a Beholder, and even made a cute little NPC to travel with the players. If you were really smart you considered the campaign’s primary conflict, mean of conflict resolutio… However, now its time to consider where the rubber meets the road, and actually start the game of […]

  3. […] assuming you’ve considered pre-campaign decisions and successfully started your game its now time to keep running a campaign. Not just treading […]

  4. […] 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 Share and Enjoy: […]

  5. […] 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 The Pain of Campaigning VI: Give Your Villains Some Panache! Pain of Campaigning VII: The Finale (Part 1: What You Want the Adventure to be) Share and Enjoy: […]

  6. […] 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 The Pain of Campaigning VI: Give Your Villains Some Panache! The Pain of Campaigning VII: The Finale (Part 1: What You Want the Adventure to be) The Pain of Campaigning VIII: What About the Bad Guys? Share and Enjoy: […]