Guest Blogger Article for Feb 3rd, 2010

Writing for five: How to avoid developing a campaign that only appeals to you

by Chgowiz

This week’s Guest Blogger Article comes to us once again from old school enthusiast, freelance game writer, and all around nice guy, Chgowiz!

You’re a new player in a campaign. You have your character all rolled up, you’ve dotted your I’s and crossed your T’s and you’re all set to have fun. You sit down and the Game Master begins. It might be the same session, or it might be a few sessions later, but you get the feeling that the GM’s amazing story has become more important than the actual game that everyone is playing!

GMs who run great campaigns really love the worlds they build. They spend a lot of time and thought into writing them; it’s similar to the creativity that goes into writing a novel. At some point, the GM can fall in love with their creation so much that it can lead to player frustration. They begin to feel like all they are is a scripted actor in a story instead of being a full participant in the GM’s world with the ability to shape it.

If a GM keeps the following 5 tips in mind, they can make sure that the game remains relevant and fun for everyone to participate in, GM and player alike.

1. Just in time Game Mastering – have big brush strokes to keep the campaign “on track” but allow for a lot of freedom and discovery.

I call this my “coloring book” approach. I like to create the broad concepts that will define my campaign going forward and then invest the time to develop things as they’re needed. This does two things for me: 1) I don’t get overwhelmed with the amount of prep-work needed. I don’t have to think about things until they’re needed and I don’t get derailed on some hare-brained idea that only I’m going to like. 2) It gives me the freedom to adapt to how the game develops, rather than forcing everyone down a specific track. I may think that exploring the issue of halfling racism seems like a good idea, but nobody else might. Painting broad brush strokes means that I have the room to flex on what story unfolds, as the players adapt and grow.

2. The campaign exists in the players’ heads as much as the GMs – leave lots of holes for everyone to fill it up.

Players who invest their imagination into a campaign become more engaged. A Game Master who allows the players to color in the campaign “coloring book” prevents him/herself from becoming too enamored with the details. This means I may like the idea of elves being jungle primitives, but if I leave the reasons “why” and the details open for the players, they get to develop the race in ways that I might not have imagined. This has the added benefit of making the game as much of a discovery for me as it is for the players. I can keep them roughly within the lines, but they add in the details.

3. NPCs are meant to be killled. Kill them often. Make more. The players deserve to be awesomed up.

This is one of the more common GM complaints that I hear about – the GM falls in love with a particular NPC (called a “Mary Sue”) and makes them the center of the campaign. The NPC can never be killed, always has the answer or the means to defeat or escape the players. Ugh! Players hate this.

There’s only one answer to this… allow the players to win! NPCs are like M&Ms, meant to be eaten fast, crunched down hard and then you go to the bag for the next one. Players want to be awesome and your NPCs are the XP path to their awesomeness. That doesn’t mean a GM shouldn’t make them challenging! I think GMs should play the NPCs as hard as one can – but when the PC rolls a crit right in the middle of the villian’s exposition – WHAM! Down he goes and the players cheer. Now it’s time to roll up that new villain…

Of course, if a GM’s NPCs die, what happens to that campaign plot or storyline that depended on the NPC? A GM has a couple of options. One, let the players win. Tada! They headed off the evil guy at the pass and saved the kingdom – about 6 sessions earlier than planned! Now it’s time for the GM to take those threads and weave them into a new story. Alternatively, there are other NPCs, right? Nature abhors a vacuum and the monsters hate a power vacuum even worse. Now’s time for a new bad guy to take the reins… and wreak his revenge on the players!

The bottom line… don’t make the NPC a bottleneck, make them opportunities for more awesome things.

4. If there is a plot, make sure it’s a player driven plot.

The most important thing to a GM’s story and campaign… is the players! It’s not the finely-tuned plot that they’ve created which nobody really cares about. Pulling players into the world also means allowing them the freedom to explore the world and find the things that they want to care about.

It’s a fine line between creating a dynamic world that will continue to move forward despite what the players do, and proving enough ways for the players to affect the world IF THEY CHOOSE TO. Some players want to have Dragonlance-like stories, where they can be involved in a sweeping plot. Other players just want to loot tombs and get filthy rich. By allowing the players to move their own plots forward independently, a GM can create a reactive, rich world where he or she gets to see how the twists and turns develop by the players’ devices.

That’s not to say the world can’t be dynamic – I can have the big bad villain working on the Death Ray Machine while the players are fiddling around with mustard farming, but at some point the hammer will fall. That’s OK too, because the players drove their own story to now deal with the outcome.

5. Know when to say “Yes” and “No”. Do more “Yes” than “No”.

Players will always want the cool stuff. They will always want to get that +1 or +2 advantage. They will always want to push for the cooler options, the add-ons and the magic items that will awesome them up more. The trick for the GM is to not fall in love so much with their world that they can’t allow the players to get those advantages; rather it is to make obtaining those options a part of the game so that it becomes something of real value.

Here’s an example. I have a player who has an 18/73% strength. He’s amazingly strong and his damage bonus just splits creatures in half. So now he wants to take advantage of an optional rule that would allow for a bow that can reflect his strength bonus. Rather than say “No” or just “Yes”, I’ve said “Yes, that’s possible. There are legends of bows such as these – and you might be able to find them in the lost city that’s probably full of undead and horrific creatures.”

So now I’ve created a quest in his head, a possible hook for both of us to flesh out but I’ve set up the boundaries of my campaign – yes, you can have these neat things, but they are the extremely rare exceptions, not the rule and you’re going to have to risk much. I’m not so much in love with my campaign that I can’t let the players rock, but I’m going to make it a challenge for them to get there.


What do you think? How do you keep yourself in tune so that you don’t end up with Mary Sues and plots and worlds that only a GM could love?

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