5 Post-Session Player and Campaign Development Tips

From Keith Earley

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0178

5 Post-Session Player and Campaign Development Tips

For any good gaming group, the campaign and the characters within both grow and thrive over time allowing the game itself to take a life of its own. This development, while mostly seen during the game session, has an influence away from the game as well that the DM must work with. This article will try to highlight some areas that a DM can use to help this process along. Each area will address changes for both players and the overall campaign.

Player Needs

As much as you want to have it your way all the time, this is just as much your players’ game as it is yours, and their needs should be addressed. This may even help your campaign development along the way, so lend them an ear.

Player Effects: What does everyone want to accomplish in your game? Are they holy crusaders, or merely out for some quick fame and fortune? Once these needs are established, are the PCs striving towards or away from them?

What kinds of players are in the group? Are they a bunch of dramatic actors hinging on every word and action? Are they just there to roll some dice and kill things? Somewhere in- between? This step can be taken before the campaign even begins, and by “gauging” your players, you can get a feel for what they’re wanting from your game.

What the DM can do here to accomplish this:

  • Give the players a checklist of what they want their characters to do during the game.
  • Give one-on-one interviews with the players about what they want and expect.
  • Ask the group as a whole what they want to do, either before or after a session.

Campaign Effects: If your players want to merely go out and kill at will, having them face moral and ethical issues every session simply will not work. This may be at odds with what you wish to accomplish with your campaign, so be prepared to make some negotiated points with your players. However, if it gets too far out of your control, it may not be able to be brought back. This may also play into your hands by giving you the opportunity to throw a wrench into the grand scheme of things every now and then, which can lead to some interesting sessions.

What the DM can do here to accomplish this:

  • Make the actions the PCs take have consequences further on in the campaign.
  • Keep track of the various enemies they’ve dealt with and maybe plan an “alliance of evil” to plague the characters later on.
  • Change a typical “hack and slash” session: Property damage must be kept to a minimal level, the villains have several innocent hostages, they attack the wrong village, etc.

Resources and Materials

This may not seem that important in overall development, but is a factor to be addressed nonetheless. You may find yourself in need of some things for your players or your world that you may not have previously thought of, and it should be addressed as soon as possible when the situation arises.Player Effects: Not everyone is going to come fully equipped to a game session with every single book and printout for the game system to be played that day.

Whatever you’ve brought is all you have to play with and it may not be what everyone has access to. If a player wants a special power, spell, item, etc., and the text is not available, this needs to be addressed. It could be as simple as saying “Sorry, but no”, or actually looking into getting access to that unbought or overlooked book that may hold a treasure trove for both you and your players.

This does not mean that you have to buy everything out there, but if you know someone that may have access to that missing piece of information, a little research time could go a long way.

What the DM can do in this case:

  • See if any of your players own the missing book in question.
  • Work with the players and see if you can “wing” the item in question, with existing materials on hand.
  • If everything else fails, there is always the trip to the game store to buy that missing item.

Campaign Effects: This is definitely the “hitting the streets” area for any DM: mapping, creating, calculating, and just prepping for the next session. There are a ton of handy guides, programs, and information sources out there that can help you, many for free. These are great to help quickly fill in the blanks, in case the pesky question comes up of “Well, what’s on the other side of the river?”, when you haven’t had the chance to map or create that section of the world just yet. This also shows your players that you are prepared to deal with the unexpected.

How the DM can prepare in this area:

  • Pre-map unknown regions that the players may realistically head towards in a session or two.
  • See if there are any important NPCs, villains, or allies that need to be fleshed out.
  • Expand on any main or sub-plots based on the players’ activities.

Effects and Results of the Game Session Just Played

This is the most constantly changing factor to deal with since unexpected changes can come up in almost every session. This requires flexibility for the DM, especially if he or she has a set goal or idea for the overall campaign.Player Effects: The most important question here is the simplest one: did a player die during the session? This can easily cause the game to shift focus for at least a session or two, due to resurrecting the fallen comrade, or bringing in another comrade-in-arms to replace the recently departed.

That DM-planned trip to the abandoned temple may have to be put off due to this unfortunate circumstance.But as players often do, they can emerge victorious from a session. What does this get them? Money? Items? Favors? Level advancement? These need to be factored into the next session by the DM. For example, if the players’ years-long quest to liberate the homeland of one of their companions has just been accomplished, the focus is going to shift a bit from here on out.

Where the DM can get a grip in this case:

  • How will the money and items be allocated or spent?
  • Is there a way to bring that dead character back to life?
  • Was the main plot concluded, and can the campaign continue from here?

Campaign Effects: These are more of the background changes as a result of the session, and definitely the DM’s domain to contend with afterwards. If the players met an NPC, will this come into play later, and if so, how? Were the goals for the session achieved? What was the impact of the session played on the local and/or global level for the world?

An example of this could be the following: if the players made a new enemy, who just happened to have influence in the small barony that the players want to build their headquarters in, this can make life very interesting for all involved.

The DM can maintain order by asking:

  • Are there any new enemies or friends to add or subtract from afterwards?
  • Has their reputation benefited or detracted from their latest adventure?
  • Will the world be affected by their escapades during this session?

Overall Storyline and Plot

This area is definitely one that can be developed after a game session. The DM may have a very intricate, structured plot, covering the course of several years. Or the campaign could be just as simple as having a “working outline” to start from, and taking things from there.Player Effects: How do they fit into the overall plot? Are they the “main” or “supporting” characters?

Do they deserve to be in the position that they are in? Often a simple change in dynamics can shake things up a bit for both the players and the campaign itself. Imagine the shock when the lowly, silent, stoic spell caster is suddenly revealed to be the lost heir to an ancient empire. This would definitely change some attitudes very quickly.

What needs to be seen here:

  • If they are the “supporting” characters, just where do they fit in overall?
  • If they are the “main” characters, how important or big do you want them to end up being?
  • If there’s a mix of “main” and “supporting” characters in a group, will one or more characters change their status during the course of the game?

Campaign Effects: This is probably the first area the DM looks at when starting the campaign, so it is also the easiest to deal with between playing sessions. Progress along the storyline can be noted and seen as the weeks go by, giving the DM an idea of where to take everyone for the next session or two. If things are going smoothly, there is not much of a need to tweak things to get them back on track. But if the players are really getting off of the plotline, you may need to rein them back in, which could distract from the overall flow of the storyline.

What the DM needs to keep up with:

  • Do you have a set, non-changing structure for your game, and how much are your players in agreement with this?
  • Are you keeping up with important notes from session to session, in accordance with the plotline?
  • Are you prepared to change the structure of your plotline if you need to, and if not, what are you going to do in that case?

Notes and Continuity

If you have a nice long-term campaign you are going to have to keep your facts straight. Things change in both the party and the world around them, and as DM, you need to stay on top of this. There’s not a right or wrong way to do this, however, so use whatever works to keep the flow of things going in your head every session.Player Effects: Definitely make sure that key events of each player’s life are addressed to a greater or lesser degree.

If the fighter misses his wedding date with the baron’s daughter, it will not go over well for the groom-to-be. Having a list or history of a player’s relatives, friends, and rivals can help refresh the flow of the campaign from time-to-time as well, and maybe give some needed stage time for a neglected character from sessions before.

The DM can manage this by:

  • Keeping track of the characters important NPCs on his or her sheet or in a separate notebook or folder.
  • See who has been visited or involved lately; a trip back home may be needed for someone.
  • If something major has happened to a character make sure that it’s noted. It’s a bit embarrassing when a player remembers the loss of a hand and the DM doesn’t.

Campaign Effects: The world will change as the players explore and adventure in it. This is the basic truth of any game. Their deeds, good and bad, intentional and unintentional, have an impact. Keep track of this because it may very well come back to help or hinder them at a later time.

If they vanquish an evil overlord, who’s to say that he or she didn’t have a sibling or lover, away at the time of their loved one’s death, ready to come back for revenge later on down the road? Plus, it’s just good form to make sure that you don’t have the “revolving door effect” of having the bad guy accidentally pop up the session after the players killed him:

“Wait, that can’t be Angst the Awful, we just killed him and his undead legions last week!!” the players yell at once, while the DM searches madly through his notes from the previous few sessions. This does not look good for the DM in this case. Don’t fall into the same trap.

This can be accomplished by the DM by:

  • Keeping several notebooks or folders for the overall campaign.
  • Giving the players a summary of the last session before the next session begins.
  • Refreshing your memory of what happened before you sit down with you players at the next session.

Development for players and the campaign can be very fluid and non-frustrating if these few steps are taken. None of the tips I listed above are complicated and can be followed or used as needed. The goal here is to have the DM run the players and the campaign, not have the players and the campaign run the DM.

Have fun, good luck, and good gaming.

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Tips For Dual GMs

From Miguel V.

I sometimes co-GM and find that it helps us balance each other’s weaknesses. I am poor at running games and keeping up a plotline, but I love developing worlds and scenes. The other GM is poor at balancing encounters and characters – he tends to get caught up in a cool idea and has a hard time considering how it balances against the group.

By playing to each other’s strengths we have made a much better game. I can veto him when it comes to balance issues, and he is the ultimate authority while the game is running. Here’s how it works in detail.

We co-build the world. He is the type of person who sees things in grand scale details. When he comes up with a concept he sees the entire campaign arc ahead of him. I often build on his ideas sometimes curbing things that won’t work so well.

For example, he had a tendency to put in too many NPCs; they are great characters, but sometimes the flood of people in a scene becomes overwhelming. My ideas often help him focus on specific scenes and the motivations of background characters.

We often spend a day or so talking about the game and working off each other. One day we extrapolated an enormous power struggle between three sides from one of the character’s backgrounds. Most of what we developed will never surface in the game, but when plots revolve around this we know all the hidden motivations and plots that the PCs’ actions will touch upon.

When I can, I help him come up with the challenges that we’ll face, but I don’t always get a chance. When I do, I usually include a couple of ways to change the power up or down a notch depending on how strong the players are when they face it.

During the game, I revert to a player. I’ll sometimes call him aside for a conference between scenes, but I trust him to handle the game. I also have veto power over character creation to keep everything level and to make sure that each character has a niche to give them opportunities to shine in the game.

Usually my PC is just another party member, but sometimes I play somebody with special information, like a telepath, an oracle, or an expert. In this case we work out what information will get out and how quickly it does. This is much the same role that an NPC with these abilities would take. [Editor’s Note: now there’s a great tip! I wonder what other roles a player could fill in this PC/NPC, co-GMing sort of way? It would be a great tool for one-time players, guest players, irregular players, co-GMs, and special campaign situations:

  • Oracle
  • Sage
  • Telepath
  • Spirit
  • Guide or scout
  • Expert
  • Demon or intelligent being with unusual knowledge
  • Divine agent
  • Dreamer
  • Intelligent magic item]

Interactive Planetarium Program For Sci-Fi Games

From Buzz

Just read the Sci-Fi GM tips issue, and then I saw this: Celestia Space

“Celestia is a free real-time space simulation that lets you experience our universe in three dimensions. Unlike most planetarium software, Celestia doesn’t confine you to the surface of the Earth. You can travel throughout the solar system to any of over 100,000 stars or even beyond the galaxy. All travel in Celestia is seamless; the exponential zoom feature lets you explore space across a huge range of scales, from galaxy clusters down to spacecraft only a few meters across. A ‘point-and-goto’ interface makes it simple to navigate through the universe to the object you want to visit.”

The visuals are quite nice and could prove a useful visual aid for Sci-Fi games. It’s available for Windows, Mac, Unix, and Linux.


Thoughts On Low-Magic Campaigns

From Jason B.

I thought I’d send you a note about some thoughts that have taken place over at the Harnlist on Yahoo Groups.

My thought was: Why tell the players that your world or system is low-magic? In my game, which is more magic-rich than normal Harn, there are mages; but the laws of the land, and of the Mage Guild, tell them not to use overt magic. Peasants and the like are mostly illiterate and superstitious. Magic is something they hear about when they are small children, or from bards or returning warriors back from the Wars, but it is almost never seen first-hand. Mages and magic are generally unknown, and thus feared.

Peasants shun mages and point at them, hide their kids from them, and lock their doors. Thus, mages need to be more subtle in order to protect themselves from having other mages attacking them for bringing the brethren into disrepute.

I think that a low-magic setting helps us learn that magic, with the powers and abilities that it grants, is not the only way to play a game – or to scare the PCs! You can always throw together 30 goblins, with a few goblin mages and clerics to back them up, and prepare for a war, or you can do what I did.

In a manor, the PCs were set up for murder by a noble woman. She was the daughter of a Duke that they had supposedly taken land from when they saved the King’s life. The daughter, wanting to get some revenge on behalf of her dad, framed the PCs. She did it with a common healing potion, which makes you unconscious for 20-40 hours after which you feel great, but quite hungry. She also employed a servant woman, whose testimony is worth nothing compared to a noble, and her own feminine charms.

The PCs had to go hunting for clues by themselves, and one of them was locked up for the murder of another noble. The PCs who were free to roam around had to present the info to the Lord while not pointing fingers specifically to the Duke’s daughter because they were not nobles and thus had no rights or political power.

And not once did magic come into it!

I think that a lot of people tend to use the magic aspect to enhance the game even though non-magic means can be used to completely throw off the PCs, making them think for a change instead of hack n’ slashing at everything.

Don’t get me wrong, I love magic and try to use it at every turn, but I think sometimes we need to take a step back and make sure that we are using some of the more subtle methods of GMing. After all, burnout is common for GMs and it really does help to slow down once in a while and smell the roses.

Just my two cents worth.

What To Do When You’ve Got Nothing Prepared

From Allyson Y.

I recently ran a game where, given a billion different reasons, I was unable to plan for my game whatsoever. So here I was on a Tuesday night, with writer’s block, and my players were ready to play.

My husband had the smart idea of having all the players write down plot threads that would interest them. Most of the answers weren’t really anything I could use, but one of the answers got my imagination going and soon I ran a pretty enjoyable game that left lots of room to continue next week.

Another idea is to have an suggestion box (physical or email) where your players can drop tips and suggestions.

Campaign Website Tips

From Ruben G. Smith-Zempel

One of the greatest ways to increase player interest and impart knowledge is by creating a campaign website. You don’t have to be a technical master to create a useful site, either. Here are a few tips to help with creating a gaming website.

Write a mission statement

Sit down and take a good 15 or 20 minutes to decide what it is you want your site to do for you and your players. Write a good, concise mission statement or outline detailing what you want it to do. Pick a theme and stick with it. You want to create a uniform theme and purpose to your site. Doing this in the beginning will save you from a lot of unnecessary work later on down the road.

Consider your audience

Is your site for only you, for your players, or for everyone in the whole wide world? Your audience will determine what you put on the site. If you want a mobile source of DM-only info, you should probably password protect your server. You can also do away with any kind of graphics or “window dressing”, as you are the only audience. If the site is for players, you need to make sure not to post anything that the players shouldn’t know (such as monster stats). Finally, if the audience is everyone on the net, make sure you provide some information that will interest everybody, and keep them coming back – easier said than done!

Consider your friends’ bandwidth

Ask your gaming group if they have access to the Internet and at what speed they have access. If most of your friends are on dialup, you should probably think about using very few graphics, which take a lot of time to load. Try to keep the files as small as possible. No one wants to wait around 5 minutes while your dazzling display of Photoshop prowess slowly creeps across their screen.

Spellcheck and proofread

Use a program to spellcheck what you write before you post it. I use Word, then cut and past it into my web editor. This will weed out any obvious spelling mistakes. BEWARE of the “Add” button and custom dictionaries. We tend to use a lot of words that come up wrongly spelled, such as spellcraft or spellcaster. If you add these to your custom dictionary, make darn sure they are spelled correctly before you do it, or your mistakes will not show up again. And lastly, once you run things through the spellchecker, read through it once or twice. You will often find things poorly worded or items that were missed by the spellchecker

Update frequently

Once you start a site, make sure to keep it up to date. Try to update it before each gaming session, to give the players a good chance to look at it. Usually, your players will remind you – I darn near get lynched when I am late updating.

Tables are your friend

When formatting your page, refrain from using frames. These can often do funny things, will not work on older browsers or PDAs, and generally tend to make a mess of things. Tables are a much better bet. This is a great way to make lists of items, and to lay a site out. Most websites you see (roleplayingtips.com included) use nested tables to lay things out. These will generally work without fail, and have the added bonus of being able to have a set width and height.

Make a template

When you create your page, make a template. This is a blank site that only has your banner and navigation menu on it. Save it as a template, and keep it on hand. This will come in handy down the road when you decide to add more new material.

Left to right, top to bottom

When designing a site, keep in mind that we are trained from a very early age to read things left to right, top to bottom. This gives you tremendous power over your readers. The more important a thing is, put it farther to the left and as high up as you can. This is also the reason that most people put a navigation bar to the left side of the page.[Editor’s Note – of course, this applies to those of us whose first languages are Indo-European. Speakers of Arabic, Hebrew, Japanese, Chinese, et al. should use the appropriate paradigm they grew up with.]

Some good things to include

Good things to include in a gaming website are campaign maps, house rules, past adventure synopses, NPCs, world information, and lists of what the party has. It is also a good way to introduce rumors into the game.