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View From The Big Chair

III: T-7 Days. How Did You get into this Mess?

by Matthew Webber
Sep 16,2004


View from the Big Chair

III: "T-7 Days. How Did You get into this Mess?"

You don't remember quite how it happened. It was late one night, the current campaign had stalled, you had been hitting the Mountain Dew pretty hard and in a fit of caffeinated zeal, you volunteered to helm the next game. In RPG terms, this is either like winning the lottery or like waking up after the party to find yourself buck naked on the train to Moosejaw.

So now you have a week or two to throw together a campaign that would shame Tolkien for scope, Salvatore for adventure and George RR Martin for detail. Three words; good frelling luck.

The good news is that you are not totally boned. If you have something in mind, even if its only the rules system you want to use, start by re-reading, or at least skimming through everything you've got. You might be surprised at the ideas you can sometimes take from the basic rulebook ("hey, I've never used that monster/treasure/class before"). Jot down the ideas as they occur, because otherwise there is enviably going to come a point when you do sit down to plan things out when you are scratching your head trying to remember why have the rules for domesticating reindeer mentally flagged.

If you have a specific game in mind, but don't have the time to plan out a whole campaign, or are just plained stumped and decide to buy a pre-made adventure, read it from cover to cover and pour over the maps and encounters. Because I'm notoriously bad at forgetting the details, when I run a store-bought module I try and make notes in the margins as I go, even highlighting important details that I know I'm going to miss in the heat of the game. There is nothing worse that a GM stopping in mid-game and saying, "Oh, wait I forgot something .. I need you to roll some saving throws."

If you have something more epic in mind, start small. How many novels, movies and TV shows have started with that small, seemingly simple event, only to have it spiral into a quest to save the world? Even the Hobbit was only a forerunner to Lord of the Rings. Plan out a simple one or two session dungeon-crawl as an appetiser and use it as a tester. Use it to see how the players react to the setting and their characters. You can use it to tweak or familiarize yourself with the rules, and more importantly it gives you time to work on the real plot that is bubbling up in the background. And if you throw in some experience points and goodies at the end introduction campaign, the players will swallow that hook and follow it at least for a little while, no matter where it might lead.

And if the campaign ends up tanking anyway, the players won't feel like they have left something unfinished. Every group has that story about those characters that are still wandering around in some dungeon somewhere, looking for that rare and powerful item that you just couldn't care less about anymore. And as for you as the GM, if the starter-campaign is a bust then at least you know before you have drawn up a trunk full of maps and encounters.

Finally it is judgement night and it is time to climb into the Big Chair. Kick things off nice and easy by letting the players roll up their characters. Pay attention to what they are have in mind, the types of skills and feats and special-abilities they choose, and feel free to use this knowledge to trip them up later ("Can't swim? That's too bad!"). Once the stats are rolled, ask the players about the character's backstory and family, coax them into fleshing out the characters to be more than a few numbers on paper. This will make the character a little more real for the player, and give you even more information to use later on. Heck, all this is even good Gamemastering because you will be incorporating the characters directly into the campaign planning, even if you are doing it just to screw with them.

Once the characters are made, you want to start with a fight or an opportunity for the characters to start talking to each other. A fight gets the blood pumping and the dice-a'rolling early And its not a bad way to draw the characters together if that is what is needed. Otherwise get the players talking in-character to each other as quickly as possible. This is nice work if you can get it since it draws a lot of pressure off of you, but you gotta give them something to talk about; a shopping trip is a good idea, the classic waiting in a bar for a mysterious benefactor, or my personal favourite, start with all of the in a jail cell and leave it to them to explain how they got there ... anything to get them yapping and building character connections.

With any luck, by now the first night is drawing to a close and you haven't been driven completely round the twist. Clearly I've covered a lot of ground here, jumping from trhe first stages in developing a campaign to the actual opening night. In future columns I hope to examine these steps in more detail, but until then I hope I've given a quick over-view of how to go from the vaguest idea, to surviving the toughest part of any campaign with just getting it started, and allowed you to come out of it with enough idea and enthusiasm to make it to next week.

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