Wednesday, June 15, 2005

In the Beginning...

The start of a new campaign is a heady time. Maybe you are gaming with new folks or you are gathering some old friends together for some fun. Perhaps you've got an idea for something merely amusing or maybe you have some mind shockingly great vision of a grand epic to tell.

The Beginning is the most formative time in the life of a campaign. The decisions you make at this critical juncture will set the stage for everything that comes after.

It's like that old saw in science fiction. A computer become sufficiently large and complex enough to achieve sentience. It has been my experience as a GM and player that Character are like this too. Give them enough detail, and give them enough thought and they will get up and begin living on their own. This is a fact that I've always tried to impress on people and I may have mentioned it in this column once or twice.

However, in writing this article, it became clear to me that this basic idea is also true for campaigns as a whole. The details given to a campaign often are the spark that gives it life. Think about it. Most gamers have had to deal with droning GM's whose idea of a descriptive phrase is: "You are in a 10' by 10' room. You see a door."

Instead of saying something like:

"The room is smallish and stuffy, spiderwebs fill the corners, rat turds are sprinkled about on the floor. The ceiling is almost uncomfortably low.There is no cot or chair. There is little light. Hundreds of hash marks score the walls. Along with graffiti written in blood and less savory substances. The door looks heavy,solid,and completely uninterested in moving. As the last dregs of sleep clear away and the hangover begins to make itself felt you begin to wonder...What happened last night?"

This is the way good campaigns are built.


One of the hardest things to do at times is to get players on board in so far as the mood and theme of a campaign. Some will be right there with you and others will be way out in left field.

It has been my experience that there is always some mook who wants to play the mad scientist in your film noir style game or some putz who wants to play a drow elf in your all-gnome AD&D Game.

They always have rational arguments about how and why they want to play this character but they almost always boil down to "It's my character and I'll play whatever I want." To which I usually reply. "As far away from my game as possible."

There is nothing that can derail your game faster than a character that doesn't seem to live in the same world as the others. There is nothing that will create destructive boredom in that player faster, than you not being able to handle that character. I've been down this road before and I've tried to accommodate these folks out of friendship or the misguided belief that maybe I can work with or around the problem. Put a Drow Elf in a game about Gnomes and when the race questions comes up for the 50th time, all of a sudden YOU are the asshole for not letting it slide. Even though, letting it slide compromises the reality of your game Damnit!

One of the better solutions, to this problem is to put together a list of possible character types and show it to them. They might find something on the list they like after all. Such a list also will make you think about what kinds of things and people are appropriate to your game. It might also be good to make a list of types that are not going to mesh well for you own reference. Do not show them this list because being the perverse people they are they will invariably find something they want on the bad type list.

When I was running Mage, I wanted a very down at the heels,street level, Dashiel Hammet meets Andrew Vachss, kind of campaign. I wanted something gritty and grimy and reeking of urban horror. One of the worst problems I had was trying to deal with a player who wanted a Son of Ether P.C. (a sort of modern mad scientist type) which flew entirely counter to the tone and mood I wanted to set. However, with a little juggling and a little patience we found a way to make it work. (giving him a job with the Medical examiner's office went a long way toward helping.) but for while there it really threatened to throw me seriously off.

Sometimes power gamer twinkishness is the culprit and other times it's just a matter of not really grokking what the chronicle is all about. Other times it's just plain old asshole behavior. When you realize there are different causes it gets much easier to tell them apart. Believe me.

The real trick is not to immediately stomp on ideas that can be made to fit, If you consider carefully and are willing to do a bit of work, many character ideas that seem out of place might still fly.


A lot of GM's feel like they have to know a world upside down and inside out in order to GM well. Some feel like they have to have names for every NPC and descriptions for everything from buttons to shoe-tops. Some feel as if they must have every single bit of the local politics thought out. Some who play historically based games feel as if they have to be total experts in that time and place.


I live in a very real world, (phenomenology notwithstanding) and I certainly can't keep track of it all, much less write it all down. In the beginning of a campaign, all you really need is to begin painting the world around the characters and those places where their worlds collide, (which become community property eventually.) If you start small you can create exquisite detail and then work your way outwards. Everything else in the world can get by with the most general sketching unless it has importance to the characters in some way.

To quote Steven Wright: "It's a small world....But I wouldn't want to paint it."

Gamer Chemistry

It is a sad fact that not all of us game the same way. Even people who have been friends for a long time have different approaches to gaming. This problem is compounded when dealing with people who don't know each other going in. Characters taking an instant dislike to one another can be game fuel (if not overdone) but players who take an instant dislike to one another is basically an insoluble problem. One or the other must go and it best to figure these things out before the difficulties become too deeply rooted. If you find yourself not wanting to go to a game because you can't take the Byzantine power politics that seem to crop up...Then the problem has gone too far.

Not with a whimper, but with a Bang!

In my completely arrogant opinion, campaigns and story arcs need to be goosed at the very start, very much like the opening sequence of a James Bond film. These opening sequences usually show lots of violence,derring do, speed, bullets, and through it all, Bond....Looking cool as hell.

Don't get annoyed but, if a book is dull. Then it gets put down. If a movie is dull, it induces sleep or ridicule. If a game is dull....Well. You do the math.

I have very experienced gamers and so I can at times create plot lines that will lay out over 6 months and inter-threaded with other things and start slow and tiny. But even I can't do it every time. Once you got them hooked though, you can take all day to reel them in.

The Forces of Destiny.

In the beginning of a campaign, do not be afraid to make decisions for your players that will bring them together. Perhaps your P.C.'s are all arrested together and thrown in the same drunk tank. Perhaps there is some puzzle that each of them has a piece of. Perhaps some greater power has need of some pawns and is bringing together people who have the right skills.(like Keyser Soze.) Perhaps the Characters know one another through family or are casual acquaintance with no knowledge of their professional adventuring lives.

The point here is this: Give your players a reason to work together. It's actually best if you give them several. But some people fail to do this simple thing. Players will be contrary and if you don't give them a reason to stick to together they will hare off by themselves,trying to play the misunderstood loner.

I once tried to game master a guy who played a character who was standoffish and aloof. While there is nothing wrong with this per se, this guy took it to extremes. Nobody knew where he lived,or what his phone number was. Every time we needed to find his character we had to go to his club and ask around. It got real tedious real fast. Finally, I had to game master a session where we couldn't get in touch with him and the rest of the players could play but he didn't know what was happening. It pissed him off royally. We argued over it until I pointed out that he had basically written me into a corner with this attitude of his. After that, he found ways to get in touch with the group.


It is perhaps instructive to look at campaign planning like scripting a television show. The Premiere/Pilot has to be punchy and interesting, it has to set up a workable premise, and it has to be involving enough to want to make the "network" (i.e. your gamers.) want to pick up the series.

It's a good idea to keep up this kind of pace at least in the beginning. In television, it used to be that a series had 13 weeks to prove itself in order to get renewed. Nowadays, since the public's attention span is much shorter, a show can be finished in 4 weeks. To believe that the gamer attention span is any different is a folly of some depth. If you look at most fantasy and sci-fi T.V. you see that much of the real serious character development doesn't happen until the second season. Star Trek: TNG is a perfect example of this.

The beginning of any good chronicle should start with a number of short self contained storylines. It's O.K. if you want to pack these storyline full of stuff to do and see. But any basic problem that the characters get into must be solvable in 1 or 2 game sessions. This will give you flexibility if you want to add a new player or jettison a bad player early on in the game. It also give your players an opportunity to run around in your game world and get accustomed to it's conventions without horrific consequences.

The Episode Guide

One of the things that will invariably be helpful to you is to get anal retentive early on in the process.Unless you video-tape game sessions, it behooves the game master to keep a running record of what happens at each game session. (players might volunteer to help with this but be sure you can count on them to actually *do* it.) I keep a few very important documents on my computer which help me very much:

- I keep a copy of each Character sheet ( which I update periodically from the players working sheets. Keeps fudging to a minimum and reminds me of all the little details like who's got what skill, and who's got the alcoholic NPC. It's good to update these things on a night when maybe the game is not going to happen.)

- I keep a copy of my plot notes (so they don't vanish into thin air...In my skull.)

- I keep a Dramatis Personae (for helping me remember who that guy was... That they met 3 months ago... For about five minutes...During the gunfight. Because inevitably, someone will ask.)

- I keep an episode guide ( to help remind me of how it all went, and to give me a chuckle or two.)

Believe me, Start Now! This kind of organization is damn near impossible once you are three or four months in. Your notes and records don't have to be large and elaborate but they do have to be accurate and capable of growth.

Sono Finito


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