One of my players asked for advice on setting up his campaign. Here’s what I told him…
First, decide what kind of campaign you want. I work with three types; episodic, story arc, and sandbox.
Episodic campaigns are like Star Trek: The Original Series or your average cop show; episodes are independent, it doesn’t matter whether you saw the one before, you can still join in. Pro: Easy to set up, as all you need are individual adventures; easy to cater for infrequent players. Con: Unsatisfying for players who want a grander storyline; becomes harder to keep going as PCs level up; long-term, hard to maintain player interest as the sessions don’t seem to lead anywhere (because they don’t).
Story Arcs are like Babylon 5, or later series of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Each episode has its own plotline, but it also advances a storyline that spans the whole series or campaign. You can plan the arc out from the beginning, or you can let it emerge from the characters and adventures. Pro: Players become more invested in the storyline; can be more satisfying. Con: Players who miss too many sessions can lose track of what’s going on and why, and so lose interest; careful planning needed to avoid railroading the group; some characters have to have plot immunity; more work than episodic games; eventually comes to a natural end once the main storyline is complete – after you’re thrown the One Ring into Mount Doom, anything else is an anticlimax.
Sandboxes are the most work, and typically start with a map. You work out what encounters and plotlines exist wherever the PCs might go, give them a sketch of the map and some rumours, and let them wander about as they wish. This is how campaigns used to be done in the 1970s. Pro: The campaign is always about what the players do. Con: Players occasionally stall, unsure what to do next; “EE Doc Smith” syndrome sets in as villains become ever more powerful to match the PCs.
I’m sticking with episodic at the moment because most of the group aren’t that interested in the larger story, they just want to keep having adventures. The exceptions are Athienne, who prefers a story arc, and Garstrewt, whose focus on resource management and experimentation would be best suited to an Old School sandbox. Eventually we’ll lose interest, but experience teaches me I will reach that point before the players do.
(I keep getting excited about doing another sandbox, but the amount of work involved puts me off. I ran a really big and complicated story arc game about ten years ago, and that completely burned me out on those, so I don’t think I’ll do it again for some time, if ever.)
ACTIONS HAVE CONSEQUENCES
It’s important that the PCs and their decisions matter. There are two ways to do this, in my book.
Initially, look at the characters and use their peculiarities and contacts (if any) as hooks for adventures. This has become a lot easier since games started using advantages and disadvantages, especially the latter. For example, in our Shadowrun game, Zanshin has the Erased quality. Who is erasing his data, and why are they doing it? That could be revealed and explained at some point, either in an adventure or as clues dropped in over the course of the campaign. You will probably get 1-2 such questions to answer from each PC, and probably you’ll be able to link them together. Is the Eraser our technomancer’s Evil Twin, for example? Is he part of the Refined European Troll’s privileged family? Not only does this give you more complex plotlines, relevant to more PCs – and they each need a chance to shine – but merging the NPCs in this way means you have fewer to detail.
After a few sessions, PC actions will start to generate plot. For example, our Refined European Troll is collecting Red Samurai helmets. That’s bound to get noticed, and the Red Samurai can’t afford to let him get away with it – it undermines their reputation.
Generally, I find this and enduring elements like recurring villains generate more than enough plot. I usually close the campaign with a number of questions left unanswered, which sometimes trigger later campaigns.
EXAMPLE: SHADOWS OF KERON
My goals here are to explore the Dread Sea Dominions as a setting, and use the published adventures that have been sitting on my hard drive for some time. I started with a map of the Dominions and a pile of adventures; I decided on a goal for the party, namely travelling from the Independent Cities to Gis, and marked suitable adventures on a copy of the map. Since then, the party have been moving from adventure to adventure.
I think of my campaigns as TV shows; in this case, Season 1, The Road to Gis, takes the PCs to Gis, with (hopefully) a slam-bang finishing scenario; I have enough adventures for Season 2, as yet untitled, which will take the group southwest into Caldeia; and if there is a Season 3, it will be set in a single city, probably Jalizar.