My 4 Step Recipe for Creating Great RPG Campaign Seeds
A friend once told me his philosophy on work and projects: “Begin as you would end.”
By this he meant a crappy start would put you on a course for a crappy end. And a great start puts you on a path for a fantastic end.
I believe it works this way for campaigns. Nowadays, I work harder on the campaign concept and a few important ingredients before a campaign launches than on any other aspect of the campaign, even after it’s started.
I want an interesting concept with big story potential that seizes the imaginations of my players so they’ll want to play to find out what happens.
Start this way, and you have much better chances for an epic ending.
So, those important ingredients I mentioned => let’s talk about those right now.
Ingredient 1: A Rat Bastard Villain
If your players don’t hate the villain, they’ll hate you. Just kidding. But a dastardly villain with nasty minions does make great gameplay. So inject a bastard villain into your campaign seed.
For example, riffing off current news, maybe a local group of religious fanatics, lead by an evil high priest, is kidnapping children to become soldiers in their army.
Or, borrowing from my Chaos Keep campaign, perhaps a faction of demons lead by a ruthless Demon Lord plots to take over the region, enslave its people, and pillage and ruin the land.
Four quick villain tips:
Make It Personal
Connect the villain to what the characters and players care about. Avoid targeting friends, relatives and contacts for termination – that just discourages the players from giving background details and making friends.
Instead, craft complications. Instead of killing the PC’s family, drop a blight on them caused by the villain. Instead of killing a character’s friend, blackmail him into becoming a snitch on the PCs.
Respond, Don’t React
This might be mere semantics, but to me a reaction means you’re on your heels, parrying and doing what you can to recover from an event or attack.
Responding, however, means you recover and then you try to take the ball away.
Reacting is reflex and getting back to the status quo. Responding is pausing for a sec, gathering yourself, and making the best possible next move.
Reacting is using your will to get through. Responding is imposing your will to get back on top.
Have your villains respond instead of react. Instead of creating time-wasting brittle plans that won’t survive contact with the PCs, let the PCs throw the punches and then have the villain respond to each jab.
In this way, villain and PCs leap-frog through the plot, creating natural story advancement and tension escalation.
For example, the PCs whack thugs who are on a mission for the villain. The villain finds the bodies, raises them, buffs them up, and sends them back after the party.
Evolve Your Villain
Between sessions, decide what your villain has learned. Change his approach and tactics accordingly.
Use an encounter with the PCs through direct confrontation, spying, or minion contact as a learning experience for the villain. What will he do different next time?
In this way, your villains get smarter. And doing this makes you a smarter GM over time as you ponder what there is to learn, trying to see thing through the villain’s eyes and considering how a villain might change things up.
Instead of game crunch escalation or minion inflation, you learn how to play the game smarter. Any GM can rev up the monster generator and crank out tougher foes.
But if you learn how to make villains cunning bastards with great roleplaying, better strategies, superior tactics, and nastier tricks, you will be a great game master.
Give Your Villain A Specific Goal
SMART goals are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, on a Timeline.
But who says villains need to be SMART? They’re often insane. They don’t have to have realistic plans, just evil ones.
The only part you should nail is Specific. This will guide you throughout the campaign and keep you and the villain on track. It’ll help your bad guy respond better, stay on-plot, and keep your game focused.
For your campaign seed, include a blurb about who your villain is and their specific goal.
This way, if you ever get confused about a villain’s motive or next move, re-read your campaign seed to remind yourself what the end game is for the bad guy.
Ingredient 2: An Interesting Milieu
The dictionary defines milieu as:
The physical or social setting in which something occurs or develops.
You need interesting people and places in your campaign to make it exciting, mysterious, dangerous and entertaining.
Here is a quick recipe to do this.
Step 1. Start With An Index Card
Constraint creates creativity. Limit space for your initial notes to enforce concision. This makes you pithy and saves time, too.
Brainstorm cool people and place concepts.
Put each NPC and location idea on an index card or Post-It Note.
Build up a stack of cards so you have a pool of super ideas to flesh out and draw from anytime.
Meanwhile, you’ve now got all these potential people and places for your campaign seed.
Choose one place for the overall milieu. It might be a kingdom, continent, plane, mega dungeon or simple village.
Step 2. Create A Cool Name
The jerk who terrorized our PCs in a Cyberpunk 2020 game was called Umgumby Po. Say that name out loud, slowly. It’s like chewing taffy. It’s fantastic.
One of the best NPC names I created was Lugubrious Shadows. Again, just ’cause I liked saying it out loud in the game. Also, the words themed the NPC well.
Give your campaign, locations, NPCs, and especially your villain, cool names.
For you campaign seed, give your campaign a great working title. You can change it later, but try for something cool right off the bat.
For example, I got the name Chaos Keep by combining Keep on the Borderlands and the Caves of Chaos from D&D Module B2. It’s also thematic. It was just a working title – a shorthand way to reference the campaign in my notes – but I liked it and made it official soon after.
Step 3. Connect Your Ideas
Use mind-mapping software, put your Post-Its on a white board, or just draw diagrams on paper.
Connect NPCs to each other in interesting ways. Create conflicts, secrets, and personality-driven relationships.
Draw lines between NPCs and label the lines with a word or short blurb about the relationship.
Create a timeline or history document. No need to go back far unless it’s important. Note recent events and put your NPCs and locations in them.
Now you’ve connected people and places – your ideas.
For your campaign seed, write a few words about the major place(s) where the PCs will adventure and a couple of notable NPCs to be encountered early in the campaign or who are pivotal to the plot.
This is now your milieu. The setting where bad stuff’s gonna happen.
Ingredient 3: The Stakes
What are the PCs supposed to do in the campaign? And what happens if they fail?
These are the stakes. The central conflicts and consequences.
In many games today the PCs must save the world. This is fine fantasy tradition, but it’s hard to get good characterization happening when the focus is so big. It’s also hard to get the players to care about their world “just because it’s in danger…again.”
So in addition to the big picture and long-term play goal, narrow your campaign seed down to something personal and intimate in the milieu. Use relationships and factions as core conflicts. Then trap innocents in the crossfire.
For example, I recently watched the TV series Hatfields & McCoys. Two families who really hated each other and caused all kinds of grief in their war. The conflict started during the civil war between best friends. They brought that conflict home and it poisoned their families and friends.
The TV show did a great job in bringing the feud down to the level of each character and making it personal.
Your stakes might be to save the realm from a terrible dragon, vile necromancer, or evil cult leader. But so what if the bad guy wins? The players just roll up new PCs and you create a new realm to save.
Instead, think about who will get affected and how. Then pin your adventures on those folks and the PCs’ struggle to save them. This brings the game down to a personal level.
You can’t just roll up new relationships and a milieu the PCs instantly care about – it takes time, attention to detail, and bringing things down to the level of specific NPCs and locations.
For example, I just re-read Dragons of Autumn Twilight, the first book in the Dragonlance Chronicles series. In the starting town, Solace, the PCs gather at the Inn of the Last Home. We meet Tika the barmaid there. We grow to care about the character and the place, both having special qualities and both getting roughed up by the villainous draconians.
While the heroes are supposed to save the world, you really want them to save Tika, the inn, and Solace. Then you want them to save each other, and additional people they meet.
In Chaos Keep, the early stakes are PCs saving the last people of the keep from demons and devils who have backed them in a corner and are in their last days unless help arrives. The bigger picture is to save the land from The Blight, a mysterious encroaching plague of chaos, destruction, and rot.
If you GM Chaos Keep once I’ve finished it and the adventure’s been published, your PCs won’t care so much about The Blight. They’ll care about the people in the keep, and in the nearby village of Mysty Cryk (old world for Misty Creek).
When The Blight hits, the PCs will want to save their friends and the people they rescued from the keep. I’ve structured the plot this way on purpose so your group will bond with NPCs and locations first, before the big danger and villains arrive.
Ingredient 4: The Left Hook
When you’ve got the PCs looking right, what will your left hook be?
I feel great GMing is all about evoking the emotions of excitement, fear, and surprise in your players.
The left hook is a twist or plot complication embedded in your campaign seed sure to catch your players off-guard. Hit them with your left hook when the time is right and your players will be jumping up and down yelling at you to find out what happens. Great gaming!
Your left hook is not a gimmick or one-time surprise. It’s gotta turn the campaign on its head and affect play thereafter. It’s BIG NEWS.
For example, one of my favourite left hooks is in the movie The Matrix. Neo learns about the simulation and I’m riveted, watching to see how things turn out, while being constantly entertained with the implications of being in a virtual reality.
Another awesome one comes from the movie Unbreakable. Once we learn the protagonist’s secret power, and the motive of the villain, we see their world in a whole new way and eagerly watch to see what happens next.
I have a left hook for Chaos Keep, but I’m keeping it under wraps. No spoilers in case your players also read this newsletter. 🙂 However, be aware I’m spending a lot of time mulling over the milieu and my left hook. They’re two sides of the same coin. And I want your players to go WOW! when you finally reveal the twist and then have them bugging you daily to GM again to find out what happens next.
Build your left hook in your campaign seed with the same goal in mind.
Putting It All Together
Before digging into world building, adventure design, NPC crafting and location creation => before doing all that => take a few moments to write the campaign seed.
Write several campaign seeds or re-write one campaign seed until it all comes together into something you are excited about GMing. Because if you’re excited, you’ll be enthusiastic and infect your players with a desire to play.
A great campaign seed doesn’t have to be long. 100 words is a great length. The brevity will force you to be creative and get to the heart of what will make your campaign an awesome experience.
You could write a longer campaign seed if you like, but I wouldn’t do much more than a page. If you exceed a one-pager, likely your concepts aren’t tight enough or you are not writing a seed but the campaign itself. 🙂
A campaign seed ideally has the following ingredients:
- Rat Bastard Villain with a goal.
- Interesting milieu with cool name, a great setting concept for adventure, and 2-3 notable NPCs who will stir the plot.
- Stakes: what are the PCs supposed to do and what happens if they fail? Make it personal.
- Left Hook. Knock’em off their chairs.
Thanks to Brad D, Jesse Cohoon, Dave Sherohman, Alan Kellogg, and Mike Elston for thoughts and ideas about campaign seeds.