Why is it interesting?

Campaign preparation with ADHD can be challenging. Especially when circumstances keep delaying the start of the campaign and you have plenty of time in which you can’t keep your creativity occupied by building and expanding upon what’s happening in the current adventure. Instead, thinking of alternative ideas that you could use becomes a very inviting creative outlet.

When I started working on my “current campaign” (whatever that might actually mean at this point?), I wanted to make it a Classic Dungeon Crawl West Marches sandbox running Old-School Essentials, because that’s a very simple campaign structure to apply. The PCs go to places holding old treasures, overcome the obstacles in the way, carry out the treasures, and gain XP to become more powerful and able to go into more dangerous and fantastical places to search for even greater treasures. It’s very much a game structure. The mechanics of the game provide the incentive for the players that makes engaging with the obstacles attractive. But three months ago, Dragonbane was released and it turned out to be just the kind of game that I had wish existed before I settled on starting an OSE sandbox campaign. And with not being able to get a campaign launched for still two more months at least, exploring how a potential Dragonbane campaign in Kaendor could be set up is just something that I literally have to do.

Among the many differences between Dragonbane and OSE is that Dragonbane does not have the mechanical incentives that OSE does. Characters advance their skills by using them and may gain an additional Heroic Ability whenever the party has completed a significant goal. This does not in any kind suggest or incentivize any kind of objectives for the players to pursue. When anything you could do is as good as anything else, then nothing is inviting to engage with. And at the start of a new campaign, especially when playing in a new setting, the players don’t really know anything about the world and what kinds of activities are even feasible or will lead to interesting and fun outcomes. When starting a new campaign, the players need to have some kind of guidance which goals and activities will be the most likely to lead them to the most interesting and exciting parts of the setting. In a Classic Dungeon Crawl, that suggested starting point is to look for old ruins and search them for treasures because of how the game mechanics work. In a Dragonbane campaign, and many other games, you have tell the players how they can set out to find the most interesting things in the world that you have prepared.

This reasoning led me to my first question to pursue to hopefully lead me to an answer on how to reach an overall concept for a campaign: “Why is any of this interesting?”

Why would players want to play a campaign in the Kaendor setting? What are the elements of the world that are the most interesting to engage, explore, and interact with? Now I can’t read the minds of players I’ve not even pitched the campaign to yet, but instead I can ask “What are the elements of the Kaendor setting that I find the most interesting?” As these will of course be the elements that get by far the most attention and details during its ongoing creation. The things that I find the most attractive in my concept for the world are the old ruins of the various ancient civilizations, the different typed of spirits and demons that lurk beyond the borders of civilization, the mysteries and possibilities of sorcery, and the numerous secret societies and cults.

Playing RPGs, and what makes them so fascinating and unique as a medium, is all about interacting with things. Questioning and negotiating with other people. Poking at things to see what they do. Opening doors to see what’s behind them. Investigating what the enemies are doing and interfering with it. So after having identified those most interesting elements, a logical next question to ask is: “How can the players interact with these things?”

All these elements have in common that they are things that the people currently inhabiting the world really don’t know that much about. They are mysterious and either inherently supernatural in nature or strongly influenced by it. So the very first thing to do on encountering them is to find out more about them. What is it that players could learn and would want to know about these things:

  • What is inside this ruin?
  • What was this ruin originally build for?
  • What is this unknown creature?
  • What is this creature doing here?
  • What does this magic item do?
  • Where does this magic item come from?
  • Who is this secret cult?
  • What is this secret cult trying to do?

And looking at this list, a possibly very interesting and compelling campaign concept already suggests itself. This is a world that very much lends itself to provide a lot of interesting material to engage with for characters who are a combination of demon hunters and archeologists. Which really isn’t that different from the typical Classic Dungeon Crawl PCs. They go into ruins to explore, looking for relics of ancient civilizations, and confront the supernatural horrors from the past.

But the incentive structure is rather different. It’s not so much to personally enrich themselves and gain a life of luxury, but because the PCs believe that it is important to learn the secrets hidden in the wilderness and understand the supernatural forces and entities at work in the world. They can be motivated by being worried about possible threats to the mortal peoples, or a deep personal curiosity about the supernatural unknown. Or, if a player wishes so, by the fact that the powerful NPCs who also share these motivations are willing to pay a lot of money to anyone who can bring them such knowledge.

It has always been bothering me a bit that the generic oldschool treasure hunters are only motivated by getting rich, which doesn’t lend itself to interesting social complications. And the typical adventuring heroes who constantly risk their lives to fight evil for strangers out of a sense of compassion or chivalry don’t very much lend themselves to players being proactive and determining goals for themselves. Such characters are kind of compelled to help every possible person in need they encounter, which doesn’t leave them much choices in setting out their own path. But PCs whose guiding motivation is to learn about the unknown and to determine if something might be a possible threat that could cause great damage in the future seems like a nice middle ground between those two extremes. They are characters who you can simply let become aware of a secretive society existing and it’s something that they might want to investigate. You don’t need to have them see the cultist murdering people or stealing a magic artifact to make it clear that they are an evil that needs to be smited immediately.

It’s an interesting approach to what PCs could be and how a campaign could be structures that I am eager to explore further. Any maybe it will be useful to other people to develop a concept and structure for new campaigns by asking “What about this world is the most interesting?” and “How could the players be interacting with it?”

FHA Advanced and Improved Map

I hadn’t been quite happy with how the first draft of the map for the Forest of High Adventure campaign came out and so I did some big revisions to it that still mostly stuck to the original sketches.

It’s still a 10-mile hex map, but the area it covers has now been reduced to one quarter the original size. This is still a very sizable area about the size of Northern Germany, but I feel that the density of major settlements feels now much more plausible at this smaller scale. It’s still a 300 mile journey up the river from the coast to the northwestern mountains. Going there and back again could easily turn into a two month expedition. It’s not Lewis and Clarke scale, but actually still a really major undertaking when you think of it.

The black dungeon markers now look much more dense as well. This sandbox feels packed. There’s a pretty empty region on the eastern side of the coast, but that area is supposed to be the region that’s been somewhat settled by civilization, so there’s not being a whole lot of exploration adventures to be done there doesn’t seem like a problem.

And so far this really is just the big impressive ruins and cave systems with a backstory. I have not even added any regular small monster lairs yet. With so much stuff going on, I feel I’m probably not even going to need to skip over the middle part of long journeys. One random encounter check for every hex of travel still shouldn’t result in an overwhelming amount of encounters when traveling between any two hexes.

Short thoughts on condensed Hexmap travel in Sword & Sorcery campaigns

As I outlined in my previous post, I really do like the general idea of hexmap travel through the wilderness, but also think that Sword & Sorcery adventures have their focus on the most exceptional events in the travels of their protagonists and don’t concern themselves with the regular day to day stuff, like the majority stetches of long distance journeys.

Reading up again on Chris Kutalik’s great introduction to Pointcrawls, I’ve been considering that system as an option, but couldn’t quite get myself to fully leave the hexmap behind. I don’t really need it for what I now plan to do with campaign I’m preparing, but it still just feels really right to have one, especially since I want to capture a bit of a retro-feel of how I perceived fantasy RPGs in the late 90s. (I’ve even been playing around with a neocities site as a compendium for world information and play reports.)

One thing that is easily done is to draw a Pointcrawl map on top of a hexmap. After which the hex grid basically becomes purely decorative and serves no more mechanical function. While that would provide the useful additional information as described in the page linked above and simplify things for me as GM, it would still not actually do anything to deal with the question of how to play out long distance travel in Sword & Sorcery campaigns. But it gave me the following idea.

The upper path is an example of regular pointcrawl notation laid over a hexmap grid. Going from the blue site to the read site means going through six hexes between them, costing six time intervals to travel through, and perhaps causing six rolls for random encounters.

The lower path shows the same situation, except that the markers for random encounter checks are placed only within two hexes of the blue and red sites.

The idea here is to only have the players actually play out travel on the solid path sections with random encounter rolls, supply consumption, and whatever else your game of choice might include. The dashed section of the path represents a time skip during which the world still turns and the sun rises and sets, and the PCs might even have some side adventure or another, that isn’t of particular relevance to their main tale. Events that didn’t result in meeting NPCs who make later reappearnces or in any of the PCs being meaningfully affected, and their supply situation will be about the same when they reach the other side.  It’s only when they are getting close to the red site again and the path resumes being solid that the whole procedures of covering one segment of travel are being played out again. It still preserves some of the aspects of hexmap wilderness travel, but can greatly reduce the play time of long distance journeys as I am planning for. Any random encounters with NPCs or monsters will happen relatively close to a site where they can have some kinds of effect or connection to the inhabitants of that site. If the players encounter a group of bandits deep in the wilderness, nobody will care about what happed there in the towns they left or are headed to. But if the encounter happens within one or two travel segments from a town, people there might have had problems with the bandits in the recent past, or might be friends of them. The random encounter in the wilderness could very well be quite important to an adventure that happens at that particular site later.

For longer joureys between towns and famous big dungeons, there can also be squares for minor sites to break up thr long journey between the start and destination into multiple smaller adventures. These can also have their own random encounter check ponts near them.

I think this could be a quite interesting solution to having most of the aspects of hexmap travel and pointcrawls on a map that is at continent scale and doesn’t really try to map and describe its whole area at a 6 or 10-mile scale. You do lose a bit of it, like getting lost deep in the wilderness and running out water in the desert while one PC has to be carried. But in a Sword & Sorcery themed campaign, there probably isn’t even the time to spend much focus on these things, so I think it might be a pretty good trade.

Sword & Sorcery Sandboxes?

I was planning to write this as presenting a concept that I have worked out, but the more I’ve been getting into it, the more it morphed into sharing a question I am pondering.

As I mentioned in previous posts, I’ve recently become very excited about Dragonbane, which very much matches all the things I was looking for in a game system for the last 8 years or so. I had settled on OSE as the next best thing, but Dragonbane looks like the Fantasy Heartbreaker that I would have made. And I’m now much more interested in launching a Dragonbane campaign in my Kaendor setting than running it as an OSE wilderness exploration campaign as I had planned while working on the regional map and the towns and ruins contained in it. Dragonbane is of course a different game than OSE, and does not have the underlying mechanical framework that makes classic dungeon crawling and wilderness exploration work. Without XP for treasure, or even a mechanic for XP, the typical incentive structure falls away, and resource management also works out rather differently. So a different approach to structuring the campaign is needed.

And of course when this question comes up, my first thought is always “Would this work well in a Sword & Sorcery style?” And I think with Dragonbane the answer is very much yes. If you do the presentation right, the default rules of Dragonbane should work effortlessly with almost any Sword & Sorcery setting.

The longer I’ve been playing RPGs, the more I’ve become convinced that sandbox campaigns are really the only way to play heroic adventure games. The ability to go to any place on the map, try anything, and negotiate with NPCs in any way you think makes sense because you have a GM right there who can have the world and it’s people react to the PCs in real time is the great promise of the RPG medium. The aspect that you can never get from any other. Any campaign that doesn’t put this front and center seems like a waste of amazing potential and a lack of understanding of the medium. RPGs are where you can make stories and experience them at the same time and there’s always more world outside of the current frame. I don’t want to accept anything less when playing an RPG.

But what does a sandbox campaign even mean in regards to the Sword & Sorcery genre?

One major, and perhaps defining, element of Sword & Sorcery is that it’s a storytelling style that isn’t about an ongoing continuity and overarching narrative arcs where everything exists to build up to one big final conclusion that resolves everything. Instead of a heroes entire journey from beginning to conclusion, Sword & Sorcery storytelling is much more like a highlight reel of the most dramatic and fantastic moments in the lives of the protagonists. How their journey actually started is not really that important, and how it all gets resolved eventually even less. We’re here for the cool parts.

Because of this, I think that having a whole Sword & Sorcery sandbox campaign as a single continuity that tracks the events of the PCs lives day by day might not really be that appropriate. “On day 183 the party rested in town. On day 184 the party had one random encounter with bandits on the road and traveled 24 miles. On day 185 the party had no random encounters and traveled 30 miles.” No, that really doesn’t seem right. The same goes for equipment and money. You really don’t have to keep track of how much money precisely the PCs have at any given point and whether they might be 12 gold pieces short for buying a new suit of plate armor after the old one got destroyed.

However, when you play a campaign purely as a series of one-shot adventures with the same characters, then you lose out on one of the great aspects of a sandbox campaign. Making long term enemies and allies and getting to live with the consequences of your actions. I think choices always become so much more interesting when you have consider how they might impact situations that the characters will encounter much later. We don’t generally see that much in Sword & Sorcery fiction, but old enemies coming back to take another shot at you really cool in a game. Especially when you know that these are enemies that you made even though you had other options available to you at that time.

I also really like the aspect of travel on a hex map of the players being free to chart any course through the wilderness with the possibility of evading encounters with dangerous enemies because of good planning on their part, or running into difficult situations because they were trying to avoid something else. But if you go hex map, then you really need to track the miles traveled every day and the food and other supplies running out and being resupplied through interactions with the environment. My thinking on this situation is that the most interesting choices are the likes of “Do we try to sneak over the pass through the mountains guarded by the villain’s soldiers or do we try to take a detour through the Spider Woods?” Soldiers or spiders? Which hexes through the Spider Woods specifically and the speed at which to travel won’t really make that much of a big difference compared to the initial decision. So I guess that perhaps the old Pointcrawl approach might be the best option here. The pointcrawl adventures by Chris Kutalik are set up quite similar to outdoor dungeons, being a large space to explore, with the implication that players likely might try to check out every point. But the principles should work just as well for tracking long distance travel between more detailed sub-regions and offering a great range of possible paths that the players can take to move between them. This system for travel should keep the most interesting and impactful choices for the players as part of the game, but it greatly compresses the majority of the total journey.

As I said at the start, all of this turned out as mostly just sharing what is currently on my mind about the subject, rather than any real system or plan. But maybe something interesting to think about for others as well.

Heroes and Monsters

In much of fantasy, particularly RPGs and videogames, both hero and monsters are very generic terms, typically applied to any protagonists and fictional creatures. But historically, in ancient myths and medieval tales, the concepts of a “Hero” or a “Monster” have much more specific meanings that give them a greatly heightened significance on a metaphysical scale. Heroes and monsters are not merely exceptional people or creatures, but typically unique individuals that exist outside the common rules of the natural world. They are supernatural beings that break the rules of ordinary life.

Conan the Cimmerian fighting the ape-beast Thak in the mansion of the Red Priest Nabonidus.

While I was looking at the spells available to mages in Dragonbane and how their existence would impact the worldbuilding of a campaign, one spell in particular that stood out to me was Resurrection. It is of course a very powerful ability to raise the dead, but under the rules of Dragonbane, an animism mage focusing on healing powers could get access to it very quickly after just two advances in the Animism skill. And there are no limits on who can be resurrected other than the time that has passed since the target has died. To counter this potency, each casting of Resurrection permanently reduces the Willpower attribute of the mage, which can not be recovered.  If we take the rules of the game as they are written as the internal logic by which the campaign world operates, then any mages with healing spells find themselves in the situation where they could save any 8 to 16 people brought to them from death by sacrificing their own mind. How would they even make the choices which people to bring back to life and to which ones they refuse this service to? And even if a player playing a mage with this spell comes to a decision, this would be a philosophical problem with gigantic implications for the worldbuilding of any Dragonbane campaign. Which I am pretty sure the writer of this spell had no intention to be relevant. There are surely many ways to work around that, but something that came to my mind is that perhaps the Resurrection spell does not work on most ordinary people and can only be used to resurrect a small number of exceptional individuals.

Which brings us back to Heroes. At the most basic level, classical heroes of myth are larger than life individuals who have an exceptional impact on their society and regional history. Quite often their exceptional cunning and wisdom and their superhuman fighting skills and resilience are attributed to a divine heritage, being the children or grandchildren of gods. They are not just brave or lucky or unusually well talented and trained, there is something about their inherent nature that is supernatural. This supernatural quality could be what is necessary for the Resurrection spell to work in a Dragonbane campaign. It can work of course on all PCs, but also on powerful priests and sorcerers and even kings and famous knights. And as it happens, there already is a mechanical element in the Dragonbane rules that establishes such a difference between minion and boss NPCs. Willpower Points are something that only PCs and boss NPCs have, but minion NPCs don’t.

Similarly, not every creature in Dragonbane is a monster. A dragon, manticore, or giant is a monster, while orcs, goblins, skeletons explicitly have the Non-Monster trait. The rules for monsters are quite different from those of non-monster creatures and ordinary animals. They never have to make attack rolls and can not be parried, so any PCs attacked by a monster have to either use their action for the round to attempt to dodge or automatically take damage. Monsters also typically have several actions per round, a table with several different special attacks that usually has at least one fear effect, and players can not use the Persuade skill on them. Monsters are clearly something very different from large and ferocious animals.

I really like this approach to super-human people and supernatural monsters to create a stronger feel of Sword & Sorcery in a campaign. It encourages to use “Monsters” more sparingly and have each of them be at least a major setpiece of the adventures they appear in, rather than as a simple way to avoid too much repetitiveness in long stretches of repeated fights. Dragonbane is not a system meant for classic dungeon crawls like B/X, where going from room to room to deal with a new threat behind every door and corner is the name of the game. I’m really looking forward to see how this will play out in practice and how it will impact the feel and presentation of Kaendor.

Making RPGs live up to their promise

I’ve been running campaigns for 23 years now, but it’s only been in the last ten or so since I really started to think about roleplaying games and the process of running them conceptually. There’s been a lot of discourse about what games like these actually are and what makes them tick below just the immediate surface level of specific rules since the early 2010s, and following other people’s thought on the subject has taught me a lot of things that are now widely considered to be common mistakes and bad practices. There’s been a lot said and written about how to not run a bad campaign, but to this day I still really don’t have much of a clue how to actually run a great campaign.

For the last couple of years, my focus as a GM has been primarily on the Classic Dungeon Crawling approach of early D&D in the 70s and early 80s. This is a style of game that is highly structured and procedural as RPGs go, taking place in dungeon corridors and on wilderness hex-maps somewhat reminiscent of board games, with a gameplay that largely revolves around exploring the environment and trying to work out solutions for one obstacle at a time as the players move from one clearly confined area to the next. In a good dungeon or wilderness crawl, things get a bit more complex with useful tools being scattered around the environment that can help with solving the obstacles in complete different areas and multiple possible paths to progress through the environment, but that’s still basically it. It’s a relatively simple form of game in which you mostly just have to create dungeons with good variety of obstacles and then simply follow the procedures spelled out by the rules. It does not require any further thoughts or preparation on dramatic arcs, tension, or narrative pacing. It’s much more of a puzzle game than a narrative thing, and as such relatively foolproof. All the tension and drama is focused on the moment and the scene, but the scenes do not have to come together to constitute a an ongoing, coherent narrative.

However, in recent weeks, I’ve become once more interested in roleplaying games in which the player characters are assuming the role of protagonists in an unfolding story. Which is what I believe is now commonly assumed as the general concept behind the term of roleplaying games and really took off in the mid 80s. Games like these don’t really have the underlying structure of dungeon rooms and wilderness hexes that you can follow through the entire campaign. It’s more about story and story can be anything, and as such there really is no step by step flowchart that you can follow for creating a campaign. And most advice on this subject that I’ve come across over the years I’ve felt to be vague and nebulous and not really helping me in any way. (There’s probably still a lot of things I learned gradually in the form of small bits and pieces, but I don’t remember any big moment of sudden insights or understanding.) I think that there’s actually a fair number of really decent pieces of advice around about things that you really shouldn’t do as a GM because they are counter productive and only cause more problems than they are mistakenly believed to solve. But compared to the many pieces of “do not do those things!”, there seems to be very little around in the way of “do these things!”.

I really am no experienced expert on this subject on running great story-focused campaigns in RPGs. The whole reason I’ve started thinking about this problem is because I want to return to the world of narrative roleplaying games and feel that my old approach from when I started running games is severely underwhelming and I should be able to do way better than that. And in situations like these, when I can’t find any good guides that answer my questions and have to work out something by myself, I always find it really useful to first start by making a list of the things I already do now. This post is me sharing that lists with others and explaining what I mean with the different points.

People always say that there is no wrong way to play roleplaying games, and I guess perhaps there is some truth to that. If something works for people and they are having fun with whatever they are doing, I’m really not going to try telling them to stop and do things the way I think they should be done. But even if there is no wrong way to play, there absolutely is bad advice on how to run games well. And a lot of very widespread and common practices that still get promoted as the default way to run campaigns by the writers of many rulebooks are such bad advice. They are practices that I think nobody should ever adopt, but which just keep hanging around because it’s the way that new gamemasters are still first introduced to running games. The frequency at which you still encounter people in the wild defending railroading and illusionism as actually useful devices to make it easier for GMs to stun their players with amazing scenes is just baffling. When anyone first tells new people about roleplaying games and what makes them such a cool activity, it’s nearly always about how you can play characters who are free to do anything and go anywhere, and how your choices create a unique story as the GM has the NPCs and the world react naturally and logically to whatever you can come up with. This is the promise that RPGs make to players, and I think that we all should expect these from any campaigns we play and don’t accept any campaign that doesn’t. Because what’s the point of all of it then anyway?

The Player Characters are the Protagonists

This should be completely obvious and go without saying. But when you look at any published adventures or campaigns, this is almost never the case. Adventure writers typically want to write out a decent story in advance, and since they pretty much know nothing about who the PCs are going to be and how they would react to things that are going to happen, the stories are simply written to revolve around NPCs instead. Typically villains who do their villain thing and have a tragic backstory, but occasionally an allied NPC who turns out to be a missing princess who needs the help of the PCs to reclaim her kingdom from the villain. And that’s one of the many reasons why almost all published adventures are really bad. Who wants to play in an epic campaign about a great struggle and play henchmen? That’s not what the roleplaying game medium is promising to us! That’s not how people pitch their campaigns! Whatever the story of the campaign turns out to be, it should be the story of the PCs and their deeds. They are the center piece all the events that happen during play are about and they should be the stars of the show.

The Players decide what their Characters do

Again, this is also something that should be completely obvious. But you don’t usually see it in any published adventures, and GMs tend to use those as templates and reference frames when creating their own campaigns. Typically adventures seem to be designed as a sequence of scenes, with the general things that happen in each scene being planned out before the adventure even starts. These scenes are going to happen in a general order of events, though occasionally there will be passages in which a handful of scenes can be played in any order. And in the end it will lead to a final scene in which the PCs face the villain, defeat the villain, and then somehow the villain’s army are no longer a threat. For a structure like this to work, it has to be really obvious what the players need to do in each scene to progress to the next one. Until the players do that specific thing, the story can not continue. And players know that. Typically they have no interest to waste everyone’s time doing stuff that will go nowhere, and so they simply do the very obvious thing that they are supposed to do to continue. Those aren’t choices. That’s not the players making decisions that affect what happens in the story and where the story goes. That’s the players being spectators who roll dice to make the narrator continue with the story. This is not why anyone is excited to get into roleplaying games.

Roleplaying games are completely unique as a medium because they can have stories that develop based on what the players do and decide. Books and movies always have the same stories, and videogames let you pick one of several paths that all have already been written in full. (Sandbox games that have no written story are the notable exception.) Yes, of course you can use roleplaying games as a medium to tell the players a story. But when you got a group of players together and they all learned the rules for a complex game, then why would you choose to do that if instead you could have a game in which the players create a story through their choices? The pre-written adventure completely wastes the unique possibilities of roleplaying games and does not fulfill the promise of the medium. In my view, that makes them inherently inferior and using this format is choosing to play something that is less fun and rewarding than it could be.

The Players decide where their Characters go

This point does overlap with the previous one and is kind of a subset of it. Do not only let the players decide how their characters respond to situations they encounter face to face, but also give them the freedom to choose which of the main areas of the game world they want to investigate further and which of the local conflicts and problems they want to engage with. And also very importantly, give the players full freedom to simply walk away from things when they feel things get too dicey or they have a change of heart about the righteousness of the things they had gotten involved in. Saddling the horses at night and high tailing it out of there to let all the insane idiots fight each other to their own demise could be presented as a proper resolution to an adventure with the PCs taking the moral high ground or saving themselves from a tragic unstoppable doom they were unable to prevent. It does not have to be framed as the players abandoning the adventure halfway through. If the players hear about events elsewhere that interest them, or get caught up in a situation that completely distracts them from what they were originally working at, don’t discourage them and try to get them back on track. At the end of the campaign, the story of the PCs does not have to make for a good novel with clear buildup and resolution and good pacing. When playing an RPG, it’s the tension and drama of the current scene that matters. Let the players chase after whatever has them excited right now. Don’t make them feel obliged to see through everything they started to the end. Cowardly fleeing into the night can be the conclusion to their story. The story they created, with the conclusion they made happen.

The Players choose who they side with or against

Something that had been troubling me for a long time is how you can make any preparations for a campaign so that it will be ready to start playing immediately after the players have made their characters. I’m not a fan of the generic Elfgame Fantasyland in which the players start killing rats and goblins because that’s the kind of things that beginning heroes do out of compassion, and that means it can well take a couple of weeks or a few months to have enough content ready to unleash the players on. And unless you’re thinking ahead to the next campaign with an established group of players while the previous one is still going, you can’t have such a delay between character creation and starting to play. And when you’re recruiting a completely new group of players, you have to have your pitch ready before you can even announce that you’re looking for players. I need to have the campaign played first and then I can start asking who would want to play in it. That means custom tailoring a campaign to the motivations of the party of PCs is not an option.

Then how can you plan ahead what kind of factions you set up in the game world that will be allies and enemies to the players? What if the players think their allies are idiots and they don’t think their enemies are deserving of being stopped and destroyed? The answer is: You don’t. Simply populate the game world with NPCs who are faction leaders, control access to resources, or can provide information and services useful to the players. And then let the players decide who they like or hate, who they trust and who they want to stop. Don’t designate a specific NPC to be the wise guide to the party or the main villain of the campaign. Wait and see which NPCs the players respond to the most and make them appear more frequently and prominently in the future. This way the players will end up with their favorite NPCs as their main allies, and have their most hated NPCs as their main rivals and central villains of their story.

The Players pick which Causes to pick up

Similarly, let the players decide on their own which of the larger issues they encounter in the game world they want to focus their attention and efforts on. There is nothing wrong with having some factions fighting for goals that are clearly noble or evil, but it should also be fun to have several conflicts going on where there could be a story about the players supporting either side. Say you have a charismatic preacher stirring up the peasants to rise up in rebellion against the duke and his soldiers. There could be a story about the PCs joining the peasants to overthrow the monarchy and establish an Anarcho-Syndicalist Commune and dealing with opportunists who plan to subvert the rebellion to make themselves the new lord. Or there could be a story about the PCs coming to the aide of a besieged peaceful duchy that is being threatened to be taken over by an evil priest and his fanatic cultists. Both stories could develop from the same initial setup, depending entirely on how the players perceive and interpret the situation when they first encounter it, and how their first interactions with representative of the factions play out.

Just create a social environment for the game world that has a handful of different factions that have different backgrounds, goals, and methods that puts them at odds with each other. And then let the players decide among themselves which factions they think are deserving of their help and which ones they think need to be stopped. The players need to work out what kind of party they want to play before they make their individual characters, so that their characters have similar ideas about where they stand morally, but that’s a discussion that might take five to ten minutes and is part of the character creation process. If the players think the Necromancer King is super cool and they want to become his undead lieutenants and conquer the great valley of the elves, awesome! If this is a choice that the players make themselves on their own initiative without being prompted that this is what they are supposed to do, it will make all the adventures that follow from it all the more amazing. Worst case scenario the players decide to play goody-two-shoes and decide to ally themselves with the oppressed peasant faction. The players might assume that this is what they were supposed to do, but even then there’s no harm done.

The Player Characters are the Champions of their Cause

Once the players have decided what cause they want to pursue, let their characters be the leading figures who are driving the efforts of the struggle. If they want to see the evil king toppled, led them become the leaders who are uniting the various existing groups of rebels. Don’t relegate them to ordinary soldiers who are getting send on missions that are decided by their higher ups. This goes back to the first point of letting the PCs be the protagonists of the campaign. Let them be the Luke Skywalkers and Princess Leias of the campaign. Let them be the people whose actions and choices will determine the outcome of the struggle. Let them be the heroes.

The Antagonists of the Story are within the Player Characters Means to challenge

However, letting the players be the champions of their cause and heroes of their story does not mean that the PCs have to be the most powerful important people in the game world. They only have to be the most important people in their story. And the story of the campaign could very well be one small part of much larger events that are affecting the greater world. Take for example The Seven Samurai. It’s set in a world of constant civil wars with raiding armies and roaming bandits destroying and plundering all the villages they come across. There is a tale happening somewhere in that world about one warlord rising to the top, defeating and subjugating all the other warlords, and establishing a strong state that cracks down on the bandit problem. But The Seven Samurai is not that story. The heroes of that story do not have fight and defeat all the warlords and their armies to be victorious. They are just seven samurai with no resources and there is no way for them to win the civil war for the control over all of Japan. But that is not their story. Their story is about destroying a gang of some 30 bandits raiding a single unprotected village. This is a threat that the seven samurai are perfectly able to deal with and win against. Great warlords and their armies exist in this world, but they are not the antagonists of the story. When creating adventures for a party of PCs, I think this is something very useful to keep in mind. Look at what kind of opposition the PCs could possible be able to deal with and let them encounter factions (or sub-factions of greater organizations) that are within that scope. Create faction leader NPCs who are of a power level both in game terms and social standing who the players could realistically achieve victory against. They can’t defeat the armies of the great God Emperor and overthrow him, but they might be able to defeat one company of soldiers that occupies a frontier town and slay its commander in battle. If you frame the adventure as a fight against this specific commander and his company of soldiers, instead of focusing on the God Emperor conquering the known world, then defeating them can be an amazing and heroic great victory for the players.

Failure is always an Option

“Well, well, well. If this isn’t the consequences of my own actions.”

When we are dealing with a campaign that does not have a pre-existing script for which scenes are happening in which order and with what outcomes, then any way that a given scene ends up playing out is just as workable as any other. As GM, you are right there at the table as things happen and you have the mental capacity to put yourself in the heads of the NPCs as they are being confronted with events and situations they did never anticipate to happen. No matter how badly things go for the players, nothing will force the story to stop or get caught in a dead end because the story is not written yet. If plans fail spectacularly, battles are lost, cities fall, or major allies get killed, simply roll with it. Yes, in many situations it will feel bad for the players to be faced with failure. But every failure the players experience only reinforces the understanding that every victory and success that follows later was not a given, but the result of their own work. When the players miscalculated and their plans shouldn’t work out, let them fail. When the dice say that a PC or important NPC receives a fatal wound, let them die. This is drama! The players might not be happy about it in the moment it happens, but in the long term, it is these defeats, setbacks, and tragedies that make the campaign memorable and dramatic. Try to be objective and disinterested when making calls on what happens next. Don’t kick their characters down the stairs when you think it would be dramatically appropriate in the situation, and don’t catch them when they slip and fall because it would upset them. Let the players and the randomness of the dice be in charge of the fate of their characters. The game is being played not to tell your story to the players, but to let the players create their own story. If they fail to discover important pieces of information to properly set up their plans, or misinterpret the information that they have, then these failures are on them. Those are mistakes they could have avoided and as a result they have taken risks that they could have seen coming. Let them feel the pain of their own mistakes so that they can truly enjoy the pride of their successes.

False Conclusions are the Fault of the Players

As the GM, you are the connection between the senses of the characters and the minds of the players. The players do not have direct access to what their characters see, hear, or feel, or what common knowledge they have about the world they inhabit. For the players to make reasonable and meaningful decisions, it is absolutely vital that they can have complete trust that the GM is transmitting these pieces of information as accurately as possible with no attempts to manipulate them into false conclusions or foolish actions. The players have no means of any kind to detect or confirm if there’s any kind of trickery or deception going on at this gap between their characters’ minds and their own thoughts. There is nothing clever about tricking players into believing or doing anything by intentionally giving them false or incomplete information at this interface. That’s just plain out lying to your players. And being a dick.

(General GM Advice: It’s always possible that the way you describe something to the players can result in the players getting a different image in their mind than what you’ve been imagining yourself, without any malicious intent involved. This is something that just happens on occasion. The players don’t really have a way to notice a discrepancy between the two mental images. But when you as the GM notice that the players are trying to do something that seems really weird and nonsensical, there is a very good chance that they are making reasonable choices based on wrong information about the current situation. When that is the case, it’s your duty as GM to confirm that everyone is on the same page. It’s your misleading description that caused the situation after all. The easiest way I found to do this is to simply ask the players what they believe their plan or action is going to accomplish. This will usually make any existing misunderstanding very obvious.)

Closing Thoughts

Of course, this is not a comprehensive guide on how to properly set up a campaign for greatness. As I said in the opening of this post, I’m not really sure how to run great open-ended campaigns either and I’m digging into this whole topic precisely because I am trying to discover how. But in my opinion, all these points that I made should make every campaign more interesting and fun compared to not doing them.

I am eager to see how these things will work out for me when I try to apply them in practice.