Monday, April 18, 2022

Prep for Starting Campaigns

 Players wanted this post so I vomited it forth in like a few hours, I'm mildly dissatisfied with it but oh well

I definitely had my share of campaigns dying after 3 sessions back in the bad ol days of being 12 years old. But in my time as an online GM, I feel like I've had a pretty good success rate in terms of campaigns I make being fairly long-lived and usually reaching conclusions of some kind rather than fizzling out. Part of that is simply that, apart from random freelance word and art stuff,  this is what I do, so I have far more time and energy to devote to a campaign compared to people who have jobs or relationships or children or whatever. 'Become a minimalist neet freegan D&D ascetic' isn't really applicable advice for most people, but I feel like it should be mentioned as a caveat or disclaimer.

I have an advantage of having slowly grown a group of regulars, one or two from each new game, who seem to generally enjoy my GMing style. There is a level of trust and shared experience here that random roll20 or OSR discord pickup games don't have, heck, even when my players run for each other, the dynamic changes and so there's more chances of flaking. It could be that there's no meaningful procedural difference in how I start games compared to how others start games, and it's more a matter of social dynamic than anything.

And as final caveat is that players will sometimes just lose the ability to play for whatever reason. We've all been in games killed by scheduling, I've been the player in games who just came less and less due to diminishing interest even in games I thought were good (Acodispo and Spwack's games come to mind), etc etc. Games are not immortal* and I think a good step one when making a campaign is to think 'what would be a good point to end this game on' because if you know roughly where it is going, you may get an idea of where a good place to start it off at might be.

*the open table flailsnails multi-gm shared universe meta-game my server engages in might be immortal as it doesn't have the same death-conditions as regular campaigns but I digress

But for what it's worth, here's the process I've gone through

Initial prep for campaigns usually is a sort of slush pile of handwritten notes written while I donate plasma. This initial slush is anything... 'anorexic centaur noble shamed for her natural weight by human villain who is a toxic friend' 'alternate dungeon entrance is gay pirate brothel' 'time loops for free character revives' 'biomechs actually are nanite swarms mimicking life' 'hot frog' etc etc

I think it's helpful to get these half-formed ideas noted down, so your brain can either move on, or properly start to develop them further. My brain, at least, can chew on a half-formed thought for a very long time without really advancing it anywhere or seeing problems to fix.

Then comes the more serious prep- where 'castle overrun by frog cult' has to actually become a map with notes on what's in each room and so on, 'fairy forest' has to actually get an encounter table and some hex fills, and so on. While you can go wild with big hexcrawls and megadungeons prepped in advance, I think it will usually pay off more to go more in depth with nearby stuff first- prep some town NPCs in the starting village instead of the next town over, add some small 'quests' the players can do, and let distant lands be more vaguely sketched so as not to expend prep.

Also, have minidungeon modules and/or procedural content generators ready for when the players go somewhere less-prepped. Random encounters go here I suppose, but I think they're very good shorthand for populating a world. If I could only prep one thing, I would prep a wandering monster table and treat everything I roll as though it was something I placed on purpose, with motives and backstory and connection to other known things.

Similar advice applies to games with more linear story arcs- prepping the whole thing in advance leads to railroading, so having a vague idea of story beats, but only actually prepping 1-3 sessions in advance lets you keep things reactive to the PC's actions and allow for them to execute their own plans, while still generally heading towards things like 'defeat Ser Hotsalot in the Volcano Tower' or whatever without being opposed to 'players ambush Ser Hotsalot at the pub' instead because you already had Volcano Tower prepped 6 months ago.

I think it's easier to prep as a campaign is being run rather than in a void, because your ideas bounce of the players and they inspire you and you can insert personal moments to shine as things go on.

Uh... speaking of ideas in a void, I'm just going to throw down some specific prep examples for games, then see if there's any keyrecurring features.

Esoteric Oroboro (Or Esoboro) 
had some procedures I could start off with, rolling an underworld, both as dungeon map and faction relationship web. Esoteric Enterprises has a LOT of tables that help carry the weight of ensuring there is a world to interact with, and was actually a fairly low-prep game thanks to that. I was able to use my older campaign's lore as prep for this campaign, which is such a neat trick that I highly recommend GMs try to set their subsequent campaigns in the same universe unless you absolutely must discard it for a fresh start. 

As mentioned, I had a megadungeon and many factions rolled up via tables.

I had to make spell lists for my local gods for the sake of Mystic (Cleric) players, which doubled as spell lists for potential rival cultists.

I had a bonus 'ancient evils escaped from the Reliquary super-prison' running wild through the city- essentially a random encounter table that made a new major threat each session. I was fairly excited for all of them, which is good advice for encounter tables- if you the GM aren't thrilled to roll a result, maybe change the tables to be less realistic and more dramatic.

I had 3-5 jobs lined up for the PCs to introduce them to factions, get them into the dungeon, and get them paid.

Heleologos Academy
Prep for this game took about 2 months and included the following-
A poll offering different campaign choices to the players to ensure there was buy in to the premise before prep started in earnest
A map of the island and mainland, re-used from Betrayal at Queen's Coast
Encounter tables for all regions
Weekly 'events' for the school, a 1d20 table I would roll on 3 times
A megadungeon beneath the school, just some sloppily generated online dungeons maps populated with a simple '1/3 chances of monster, trap, or treasure'
Monsters being drawn from a custom wandering monster table to give the depths a wizard-school basement being raided by supernatural thieves' vibe- animated furniture, flying books, sneaky fey gremlins, and nightmare wizards hinting of something more
Traps being a similar list, and treasures being from my own treasure tables, which were just modified AD&D/BFRPG tables
The incredibly tl;dr glog wizard post a few posts back, made to make glog wizards less self-contained gimmicks and more like a 'wizard' who can potentially learn more things, as well as offering some milestone goals to incentivize behavior beyond money grubbing to increase personal power
Some playtest games with the players to ensure said glog wizard post wasn't complete hokum
A list of tasks they were to complete by the end of the year- 12 spells to form the new 'true' glog class, various dangerous wizards to defeat (again drawn from a past blogpost), 3 abstract goals of solving mysteries and teaching students, and a couple of bonus side quests
And a list of students they were to teach

Betrayal at Queen's Coast
Had a map and random encounters, to make traveling the land recruiting noble aid more exciting
Had a starting scene of being pursued across the land, only to be caught in a haunted mansion and the menaces of the haunted mansion ready
Had some 'villain' counterparts of the heroes ready as minions of the villainess

But then mostly prepped ahead of the players 1-3 sessions in advance as mentioned, reskinning modules and dungeons, making or improving scenes...

It becomes difficult to reconstruct what was prepped before-game and what was prepped mid-game as I gaze upon older campaigns, but there does seem to be some reliable markers of what I prep

What I Prep
-A starting SCENE to start the players in the action without mucking about getting to know each other in a tavern
-A starting DUNGEON, usually tied to the above, to give the players something familiar to do immediately.
-Starting CHARACTERS and/or FACTIONS for the players to roleplay with and be made aware of existing power structures and motivations
-A starting TOWN with SERVICES or at least downtime activities, so the players can prepare
-a MAP and ENCOUNTER TABLES to give a sense of a place and a buffer of content to allow the players freedom of action.
-EVENT tables, or a TIMELINE of expected events. At a minimum this is a weather reaction roll and my calendar blogpost to track time, but events of politics, looming threats, or local flavor all are useful.
-An OVERARCHING GOAL,  that, while not immediately pursuable, gives direction to the game. It is essentially the diegetic version of the pitch for the game- if you the player want to play this game, you the character should be interested in this goal somewhat.


  1. Personally, what I consider the main issue in starting a new campaign is "how to deal with the gap between what the Players know and what the Player Characters know about the world where the campaign takes place".

    This is especially problematic now, because, as you say yourself, "Become a minimalist neet freegan D&D ascetic' isn't really applicable advice for most people", i.e. even if you are a Player and not a DM, there are limits to how much stuff you are willing to read before starting.

    The current campaign is Fantasy, which lowers the bar somewhat (because in ancient or fake-ancient times, people had no access to lots of knowledge for places far from their own home village), but I still took some extra steps to ensure that "you do not really know much about the place you are in" would fit the theme.

    I asked my players to create their characters as freely as possible. And *after that* I told them they were part of a commercial expedition to the equivalent of Sinbad "Arabia".
    They were all part of a selected group of specialists hired by three merchants to try to establish a trading base in a distant land. So the one who created a thief became the "security expert", the vaguely Chinese kung-fu herbalist was hired to provide Medical support and so on.

    Then I generated a town using (which also creates interesting places and NPCs), and wrote a concise introduction about local uses and customs.
    This text had a common base for things like religion, social traditions, taboos, then a part which was more personalized (so the thief had a few more details about laws, and crime).
    Finally I gave each PC 2-3 notable NPCs they had interacted with (the campaign started 1 month after having arrived in the city).

    Armed with all of these, the game started with the three merchants calling in the players for an emergency meeting: one of the members of the trade expedition (the one who was the most fluent in the local language, having spent some years in the area before coming back to the Western part of the world) was missing, and his help was crucial to close a deal with locals merchants... in the next three days.

    So the players, armed with some contacts, limited language proficiency, a general idea of how things work in this place had to try to find/rescue him, and in doing so they learned more about the place, and most importantly started the series of events that would culminate in the actual campaign theme.

    1. That's a great observation- finding the balance between 'no knowledge required, easy to jump in' and 'lots of lore to be interested in, but effort is required' is one that's hard to strike since it's so player-group and even individual player specific. I think those pre-existing ties to NPCs are a good idea to get initial investment without requiring too much exposition.

    2. I think that the idea "you know something/someone already about/in this place" has always been a theme in most if not all of my "career" as a DM.
      For this last campaign it was probably even more prominent because I have been an expat for a few years now, so I have some personal experience in the "well, we are not in Kansas anymore" department.

      I know that more modern systems (Powered by Apocalypse, etc.) distribute the "burden" more equally between players and DM, but so far I always stuck to older systems so I have no real experience on how this would work for me.
      I try to be always receptive to inputs from players, but I am not ready (yet?) to relinquish narrative control to them.

      At the same time, I have the same problems of my players: I do not have huge amounts of time to devote to pregen lots of stuff, so I do tend to improvise a lot and maybe reconnect stuff *after* having introduced it during play.
      I am also leveraging published adventures much more than before.
      Again, Fantasy is the easiest genre for this.

      When we finally switch to Modern/Cyberpunk/SciFi I will try to adopt the "Looking Glass" concept from Gumshoe ( ), but for sure I will also try to give each PC a couple of contacts in the area.

    3. "there are limits to how much stuff you are willing to read before starting" .. so true.

      The method I've taken with this is to take the (multi) page lore dump reading homework that I know no one will read, and to slice it up into dozens of lore tidbits. Like, a rumor table on steroids, only it also includes things like information on the local sherrif, the fact that there's a big market in ten days, the blacksmith is always interested in purchasing scrap iron, etc.

      Then I hand out 3–6 tidbits to each player — it's up to them if they want to share. I've found they work as a conversation starter, especially since I often give only half a story on one card and the rest on another. They start joining the pieces together (and sometimes making completely wrong connections too). I also let them know more will be coming down the line, and more can be sourced by carousing in the tavern (once they get some loot to spend).

    4. "Then I hand out 3–6 tidbits to each player..." - yes, this is close to what I did. As I mentioned, each of them had specific notes that made sense based on their class/career. A Thief would be interested in the penal system, and how the city guard would work.
      Of course not in enormous detail, but I expect this would be second nature for her, so I provided some details about that (and about the women's role in the society, because both the player and the character are human women).

  2. Just by coincidink, I was trawling the archives over at nagora's corner. This ancient post of his is most useful.