Friday, April 28, 2017

DM Tips - Campaign Building: Of Cabbages, Kings, Languages, Trade Routes, Orcs, Pies, and More

In 1979 I started my own campaign world, called Seaward. It had a village (5 houses, an inn, and a trading post), a coastline, and where the pirates were. For 5 months that was it.
Thirty eight years later it is a 124 page book of rules, 5 active notebooks (1,000 pages), 14 GB of digital documents, and 4 GB of maps. Stuff out of rotation is about 20,000 more pages and 20 more GB.
But how much do you need to play a TRPG?


Personal Anecdote Time!
The year: 1986
The place: A Greyhound bus
The setup: Having finished my advanced training I was leaving for my permanent assignment. That meant riding a bus from west Texas to the Piedmont of North Carolina. Two days. In a bus. I had shipped all my gaming stuff ahead and only had enough with me to change uniforms if needed.
The game: On the bus with me was an airman reporting to Pope AFB and a 15 year old girl going to see her father for her visitation. The airman recognized me from Goodfellow and knew I ran RPGs and asked if I had my books with me. He hoped to pass the time. The girl asked about PRGs so we told her. She was fascinated and said she wished we could play without books.
So I asked - they had never read fantasy, but knew who wonder woman, batman, etc. were so I told them about Champions. The girl (I can't remember the names of either of them) had her journal and a pen (pink ink!) and the airman had $10 in dimes (for vending machines and dimes so cops don't think you're using a roll of quarters as a fist load).
Within 20 minutes they had characters: Lightning Fist (him) and Power Girl (she had no idea one existed). They wrote down the bare bones of their powers on journal pages in pink ink, they kept track of stun and endurance with dimes, and I used a takeout menu torn up in a styrofoam cup to replace dice.
In the amount of time we were trapped on the bus they;
-Foiled hostage-taking bank robbers
-Defeated Zombie Bruce Lee who had been animated by Fu Manchu
-Saved the mayor from Noface
-Rode a prototype spaceplane into low earth orbit and prevented The Dominator from activating his mind control satellite

By the time we got to Fayetteville they had decided to become the Terrific Two, had been deputized by the mayor, and realized they needed a base.
The airman shook my hand and thanked me, the girl swore she'd never forget how much fun she had. The lady in the row behind us (we played across the aisle in the almost-back) wrote down the name of the game so she could buy it for her grandson.

No rulebooks, no dice, no table, and we made a mini-campaign.

So, obviously, it takes very, very little to make a game or a campaign.

Another Anecdote!
The year: 2008
The place: Atlanta
The setup: My four older sons are now ages 11 to 6 (son 5 wasn't born). They have all read the AD&D books and grasp most of them. My wife is a HUGE fan of AD&D 2e Skills & Powers. Easily her favorite system. I have a ton of books, etc., for AD&D 2e S&P. So the Wife and I talk to the boys and decide we will start a full-fledged campaign in a few weeks and schedule a character making session for about 25 days later. In that little over three weeks I;
-Made notes about each character class I was going to allow
-Used the S&P rules to pre-build 4 unique versions of some classes
-Wrote up how to use the Spell Point optional system from Spells & Magic
-Sketched in a global map
-Sketched in a regional map
-Mapped the 5 largest cities in the main campaign area
-Made notes on the next 20 cities in the main campaign area
-Mapped 5 more important cities around the world
-Did a precis of history from the Upper Paleolithic through to the current day including major figures, named epochs and dynasties, etc.
-Wrote up at least notes for about 200 NPCs
-Conlanged basic syntax and word structure for 3 in-game languages and made 20-40+ words for each one
-Did an entire humanoid kingdom and associated sub-tribes
-Created two more full humanoid tribes
-Made a list of the most important/prized/useful non-magical books with names, skill effects, and how many copies existed
-Added things like major ocean currents, major trade routes, and such
-Wrote up the first 6 adventures
-Created a list of constellations, a calendar, and a chart to track the phases of the three moons
-Wrote up 4 multi-real-year campaign arc stories any one of which could take a party from 1st level to the domain game

Then the players rolled up characters. After the characters were made and the first session played I added;
-an entire Magical Academy with masters, teachers, and staff; maps; treasures; uniques spells; etc. as a source of adventure hooks.

Some people think my pre-game prep was excessive. I've even been told this was 'playing wrong'.
Far from it.
Let's dive in on the campaign prep I did;
-The Academy. The party has never, ever gone there. Ever.
-The ten cities I mapped. The party has visited 6 of them.
-The languages. The party has never encountered any of them.
-The ~200 NPCs. ~150 of them remain unencountered.

Total amount of effort wasted?
Zero.
It was actually one of the best time investments I've ever done in gaming.
The players are all well-aware that the bigger world of the campaign is very rich and detailed. The academy? Reused the NPCs for another adventure, the maps for a second one. The 'wasted' maps and NPCs? Here is an example - the party planned to go to Zangara, and did. Then they upset the wrong people and fled - in a direction I never anticipated. But! I had maps and NPCs for where they went so, not 'let's break until next week' and no 'uhhhh...... You meet Bob.' Instead, they had a seamless experience, and so did I. With the historical background and the books I had a consistent mythology from day 1 and that allowed a more immersive feel for them and me and gave me a ton more hooks to tie things together. Because of that Malakar the Maker, the Green Empress, and the Ruby Empire have been lurking the the background since the first session or two.

Just as importantly: I like doing it. You don't sit down for a couple hours a day every day for weeks sketching maps, rolling dice, making databases, etc. because you hate it. I spend time working on games and campaigns essentially every day. I do it because I like doing it for its own sake. Being a DM is an inherently creative process and I find if I do not indulge my creativity I have less fun and my overall level of quality can suffer. If the players had hated the setting I would have put it aside, spoken to them to learn what they wanted, and made a new one and still have thoroughly enjoyed making the first one.

So - advice on campaign building?
You can be a minimalist and it can be wildly fun, successful, and creative.
You can be obsessed with detail and it can be wildly fun, successful, and creative.
Either way can also lead to boring, clunky, and dull.
For me, and maybe for you, the key is to enjoy the process of world-building. Goofing around on a greyhound bus with two strangers was a ton of fun for me. Deep-diving into what phase the second moon would be in during the annual wool festival in Riverton was a ton of fun for me. The fun I had spilled over into the games I ran.
Another point about RPGs that is different from world-building for novels - you are building the world for other people to change. If you are a minimalist, great! But if your players want to add depth and you stop them, you might stifle their fun. If you pour in gallons of detail you have to let the players walk past it without noticing - if you force them to go into that academy and demand they care about the NPCs they probably won't have much fun.

 Your thoughts?