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Planning the Start of a New Campaign – My Process

I was having a conversation about campaign planning with a friend the other day. Soon afterward the GM Question of the Day on RPGGeek addressed the topic of adventure planning. While I was reading some old notes I came across some adventure planning tidbits. I took this all as a sign that I need to discuss this particular topic further, so I decided to write a post. Since I am about to start a new campaign (on Sept. 15th) I thought this would be a good time to talk about how and why I plan a campaign the way I do. I’m going to talk about the game system I will be running (and what went into that decision), how I am planning the beginning of the campaign (along with some resources I use to help with that), and how I decide on the main story arc.

What Game Should I Run?

I am currently preparing for a long campaign with a group of players that do not have a lot of tabletop RPG experience. One of the players (Ryan) is a very close friend of mine and we had several discussions about what system to play. Talking about different games and the level of experience of the players made some criteria come to light for this group. Three out of the four (or possibly five) players are new to RPGs but have played cRPGs like WoW and Dragon Age. Ryan has experience with 2e D&D (or maybe it was 3e). After talking about various games and styles (and even some retro-clones), the systems we discussed as true possibilities were the DCC RPGHackMaster 5e (full, not basic)Castles & CrusadesAD&DBasic D&D, and Pathfinder.

The criteria the game system must satisfy were:
1) It must be relatively rules lite
2) It must be still in print
3) it must be fantasy based
4) It must be easy to teach

Pathfinder and Hackmaster were too crunchy for this group (that is, they violate #1), and AD&D and Basic D&D are out of print (so they violate #2). The choice came down to Castles & Crusades or the DCC RPG. I was really pushing for DCC because I would love to try out that game – it seems fantastic. In the end though, DCC seems a bit too strange and unknown for the newbie group (this is due to the group’s general demeanor, not because DCC isn’t a newbie friendly game). So we settled on Castles & Crusades as the game to play. Ryan and I made sure the other players were still committed, we set a date for the first session, and I set out to start planning a campaign.

Planning a Campaign – Where Do I Start?

In a very general way I plan three things at the beginning of a long campaign:

1) The Main Villain: At the beginning of  campaign, this is still mostly just an outline. I jot down some notes regarding what this person can do (i.e. are they an evil necromancer that can raise the dead or are they a very powerful and corrupt politician? or both?), what their motivation may be, and their main goal. That’s it. Oh, and I give the NPC a name. I don’t create statistics or a large back story yet because that will be determined by the PC’s actions during the game.

2) The Location: This is the starting location of the campaign. I usually flesh out the starting town to some extent, as well as the region and general area around the town. I also jot down notes about the people who live in the town and some general characteristics. I just want to get a main idea of what the town is about, not go into great detail regarding the townsfolk and their motivations yet.

3) Recent Events: I write a very brief (1 or 2 paragraphs) synopsis of recent events in the area in which the party will be traveling/exploring/adventuring. This is nothing very detailed, just some simple history of the region. This way I have a broad idea of the level of crime, political involvement, and danger in the area.

Planning for a Session – How Much Detail?

So you see I do not start out with a huge binder full of details about the adventure that will take place – heck, I don’t even really know what adventure is going t0 take place yet! What now? Now I start to plan for a session with these new PCs in this new region. I used to plan out adventures extensively, but in recent years I have become much more loose with my preparations. The problem with making an outline or flowchart, or even planning several different events, is that I put a lot of time and energy into all of that and much of the time the PCs go somewhere else, investigate some other clue, or explore some other area I hadn’t planned on. That isn’t the end of the world since I can always use the prepped stuff some other time, but it was frustrating to come up with something and then not get a chance to experience it. Or worse, I could end up accidentally railroading the party into doing what I want them to do 9a big no-no in my book). Luckily, I am pretty good at coming up with ideas on the fly and making up cohesive stories and bits of lore at the drop of a hat.

So I don’t really make an outline to prepare for a game session. Instead, I prepare several things that will help me when the players have their PCs go places and investigate things in the game world :

1) A list of hooks and reasons why the party/individual PCs may be in a particular town: Although I usually make them determine how they came to be together and what their motivations are via cooperative party building, I still make sure to have some ideas on hand in case one of the players needs help. Some players are uncomfortable coming up with ideas on the spot, so I make sure to have ideas with which to seed their background and give them some motivation.

2) Short blurb on the town with a few things that are happening there that might interest the PCs: This is derived from that paragraph of recent events that I wrote when I was first thinking of the campaign and the adventure area was taking shape. This time it is a bit more specific to the village/town/city the PCs will be in during the first session.

3) NPC stats, quirks, motivations, and knowledge about particular plots: This is where I flesh out the town more and decide on relationships between townsfolk, attitudes, skills, motivations, etc. This is important because I need to be able to create consistent NPCs in the town which is likely to become the homebase of the party during much of this campaign. I also make sure to write down if any of the townsfolk have special knowledge regarding anything in the area or any recent events.

4) List of names typical to the region so that I have a name at the ready when/if the party meets an NPC I had not anticipated: Just like it says, I write a list of names so that everyone in town is not named Bob.

5) Map of the town: Pretty detailed in terms of what businesses are available (i.e. is there a magic shoppe?) and where any important member of the town may reside. This is relatively detailed, but also short – think of the town description in the Village of Hommlet.

6) Map of the region: This should detail the locations of any of those recent events spoken of earlier as well as any strange or interesting places the PC’s may want to explore (e.g. towers, ruins, other villages, ancient forests, roads, etc.). This may also include any political boundaries, trade routes, and wilderness areas ( just in case the party wants to go hex crawling).

7) Any important background about the region that may relate to different hooks and plots that may be interesting to the PCs: This is more of a running list of brainstorming that I do about the area. I try to write down at least one or two new interesting things about the region after every session. I base them on the activities and knowledge gained by the  party during that session. This background/hook information is by no means extensive, just a short sentence or two.

8) A dungeon/castle/cavern/fortress/tower map: I always try to have at least one major dungeon/building type region mapped out so that the PCs will be able to experience that type of environment. The type of structure I create depends upon the region, the recent activity in the region, and the hooks created in the initial planning of the campaign.

9) I also have at the ready several random tables so that I can determine things on the fly if necessary: This is always a good idea, and even if I don’t utilize the table very often, they do make me feel that I can react/respond to anything my players may throw at me during the course of the session.

10) Resources at the Ready: I use several things for inspiration, depending on what I need at the time. Some books I use regularly are: The Ultimate Toolbox (Alderac Entertainment Group),  The Dungeon Alphabet (Goodman Games), and 30 Things Can Happen! (Creative Mountain Games).  And for some more in depth villainous motivations, macguffins to seek out, and events to endure, I look in on of my best recent purchases, the Tome of Adventure Design (Frog God Games).

 But… But… What About a Story Arc? 

As you can see from reading the above information, I haven’t yet laid out a grand plan for the campaign, haven’t listed the main plot and all of its offshoots, haven’t told you which 5 events absolutely must happen to move the story along, etc.  That’s because I haven’t determined those things before the first session. I use the first session (and sometimes the second) to get a feel for what interests the players. Paying attention to the actions and reactions of the PCs (and players) during the first session tells me what I need to know in order to craft a storyline that will be fun for them. As the first session is being played I jot down notes about various things, such as: With which NPC did the players most like interacting? What recent event made the group the most curious? Which NPC did the group really NOT like? Did they seem more intrigued by the opportunity for treasure or the quest for knowledge? Did they like the possible mystery that needs solving or the more straightforward ‘seek out the fountain’ quest that was hinted at? One important aspect I also look for is a reason for the villain to be so villainous.

I need to figure out why the villain became the villain. Once I see how the party interacts with each other, and with NPCs, I can start to create a villain that will test them and really challenge their notions of  themselves, their goals, and their motivations. Unless, of course, I find out that they just want a big bad evil guy to hack into small pieces, and then I can oblige them and give them that villain too. Once I have an idea of the type of villain in which the party is interested, I can create situations to weave the villain in and out of the spotlight as necessary to build up to the climax at the end of the campaign – this becomes the string that connects each session to the ones next to it and makes for a cohesive campaign story. Along the way I still fly by the seat of my pants mostly – once the players learn about the villain they will naturally begin to blame all the bad stuff that happens on him anyway, whether I planned that or not.

Well, there you have it – my way of planning a campaign. I hope what I have said helps you plan your game, or saves you time on prep, or at least gives you some food for thought. Let me know what you think in the comments!

Until next time, I wish you good gaming!



DM Samuel is the Editor-in-Chief here at RPG Musings as well as the podcast editor for The Tome Show. He is also a host of the gaming podcast Play on Target. He plays all manner of role-playing games and boardgames and continues to learn new games all the time (and new things about old games, too). Sam lives in Upstate New York with his wife and their game collection. You can follow him on twitter @DMSamuel.

8 Responses to “Planning the Start of a New Campaign – My Process”

  • Thanks! Very good post – I’ll be bookmarking your blog for further reading :)

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