6 Tips For Starting & Planning A Campaign

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0097

A Brief Word From Johnn

Green Dragon Blood Bath Feedback

Thanks to everyone who responded to the Green Dragon issue (#95). It was certainly a love-it or hate-it issue, judging from the responses. A fellow Tips reader has graciously volunteered to put all the responses into a coherent Supplemental Issue, and I’ll make a brief announcement here when it’s ready.


Johnn Four
[email protected]

6 Tips For Starting & Planning A Campaign

Decide That This Will Be Your Best Campaign Ever

Make a decision, quietly to yourself, that this will be the best campaign you’ve ever game mastered. Though this might seem like a lofty goal, it will help keep you focused on what’s most important when plot threads, NPCs, PCs, and all sorts of other things start running amok on you.”The best campaign ever” almost always boils down to your players. If they think it’s awesome, then it probably is for you too. Therefore, make all decisions with your players topmost in your mind:

  • What will give my players the most enjoyment? Here are some potential factors:
    • Rules, game system choice
    • Genre
    • Game world (many, many factors there)
    • Choice of PCs
    • Choice of stories and adventures
    • Types and mix of encounters
  • What is best for my players?
    • Game frequency (once a month, every month, without fail is better than trying to go weekly with frequently cancelled sessions)
    • Mood (i.e. maybe your players have stressful jobs and need a good tension reliever campaign, or perhaps they want a serious, realistic game where they can feel like masters of their own fates…)
    • Is what your players ask for different than what they want? (i.e. do they ask for the “same old” campaign just to make things easy on you, when they really want something new and exciting?)

Another trap to avoid is to get so excited with your own ideas and plans that you forget to consider how your players and their PCs will fit in.

For example, at the very beginning of my last D&D campaign I had planned for the major villain to be Orcus, lord of the undead. However, after getting well into the first session I realized that the characters had little in the way of anti- undead capabilities, and that future PC progression as undead-hunters looked bleak. Though I was quite excited about my campaign plans, I changed them after the first story to better suit the characters. In fact, if I had been thinking earlier, I could have avoided the whole undead thread all together and created something better attuned to the PCs.

Also, by deciding that your campaign will be the #1 of all time in your group’s opinion, you will find yourself naturally looking at the big picture between sessions, rather than focusing too much on the micro details. You will be less likely to fall into the trap of “not seeing the forest through the trees”, and be more conscientious of making continuous mid-course corrections on a campaign level.

What Does “Campaign” Mean To You?

Be clear to yourself on what you mean by the word “campaign”, and how that impacts your planning and game play.Here’s my definition: a series of interactive stories where the sum of the players’ experience and enjoyment is greater than the sum of the individual stories’ parts.Huh?

I borrowed this definition years ago from the word “gestalt”: a structure or pattern so integrated as to constitute a functional unit with properties not derivable by summation of its parts.

Basically, all it means is that the overall experience and fun of a campaign should be greater than if I had simply GM’d a bunch of stories. Five stories in a campaign should create something more special than telling five random stories using the same characters.

How does this wacky definition affect my planning? Well, in my humble opinion, a campaign should take long-term advantage of these types of things:

  • Recurring NPCs
  • Several minor villains and a master villain who is involved in most of the individual stories
  • Foreshadowing and symbolism
  • Character change, development, growth in terms of abilities, relationships, personalities and possibly even beliefs
  • Game world change and development
  • An overall campaign goal that the PCs develop and nurture

Anyway, these are parts of my personal definition of what a campaign is. There are other definitions out there, probably better ones in fact, but because I’m clear on *a* definition, I can plan faster and more efficiently using my mental checklist of what should and should not be part of a campaign.

So, be clear on your own definition of what a campaign is, and be sure you don’t miss any parts or aspects of it during planning and play.

When Do You Usually Face “The Wall”?

Drawing from my personal experience, I find that most of my campaigns start off quite well, falter during the mid- portion, and almost never reach a (satisfying) conclusion. Therefore, just like athletes who compare their current physical and mental limits to a wall that must be broken through, I’d say my wall appears at about a year — real time — into a campaign, when the PCs reach about mid-level.Just discovering this is an important campaign planning step. So, figure out what your wall is, then plan on how you will break-through it this time around.

Example walls:

  • Campaign stages
    • Campaign beginnings (bad starts can disrupt entire campaigns)
    • Middle
    • End
  • PC stages
    • New, weak, only simple challenges required
    • Experienced
    • Powerful
  • Story stages
    • Beginnings and endings
    • Making transitions between stories
  • Game world stages
    • The world before the PCs’ meddling
    • The world during the PCs’ meddling
  • Real life
    • Players move or change
    • The GM moves or changes
    • Campaign frequency diminishes
  • Interest
    • GM loses interest or always wants to start something new
    • Players lose interest or always want to start something new
    • Loss of interest in the characters
    • Loss of interest in the stories
    • Loss of interest in the game world
    • Loss of interest in the game system

Do any of these walls appear in your campaigns? If so, the question then becomes, what will you do differently this time around to break through? Perhaps it’s simply a matter of perseverance. Or maybe more drastic changes are in order. Either way, consider all of this before you start your campaign.

Avoid The Same Old Things

Gaming groups can definitely get into gaming ruts: the players make the same types of PCs, no matter the game system or setting; the GM comes up with the same villains, stories or challenges again and again; the same conversations, situations, and results repeat themselves over and over.The bad news is that there’s really no story out there that you have not already told or watched or read. There’s a finite number of themes and plots, and you’ve experienced them all. :(The good news is that the remedy of fixing a rut is simple. The obvious tip is to try something new.

But, I’d like to add another part to that tip: try something that’s just 20% new.Assuming you don’t decide to go headlong into a whole new gaming system or genre (which would definitely help fix a rut), but want to continue with the same players using your favourite game system and/or setting that you’ve invested so much time learning and playing in, you only need to change 20% of the same-old-stuff in order to make things different and exciting again.20% is not a lot, but that’s why it’s so effective.

The new stuff will stand out clearly from the rest, and everyone will focus on that and enjoy the new experiences. They can comfortably rely on the good old 80% that’s still familiar, and have a blast with the new differences.

Also, 20% is a manageable change. You get to keep 80% of your old knowledge and experience while planning, and can focus on making the new stuff sizzle.

20% is the same as saying 2 out of 10. So, consider changing 2 out of the 10 sample roleplaying elements:

  • PC skills
  • PC classes
  • Type, goals and plans of villain or enemy
  • Campaign setting terrain
  • The victims, employer, or story catalyst
  • PC equipment
  • Rewards, treasure, magic items
  • NPCs, relationships
  • Nature of missions, jobs, quests, or adventures
  • Technology

For example, you’ve just planned out your favourite kind of campaign: a medieval fantasy setting. The players have made a wizard, warrior, priest, and rogue; an evil necromancer is raising an undead army and has kidnapped the princess to be his bride; and the king’s agents are combing inns and taverns throughout the realm looking for heroes brave (or stupid) enough to rescue his daughter.

You suddenly realize though, that this is pretty much the same as your previous four campaigns. So, you decide to make a couple of changes:

  • The evil necromancer and king have a powerful enemy in common who has just cast a curse upon the land so that all worked metal turns to rust.
  • You give all the PCs, as a bonus that you work into their backgrounds with their approval, an extremely high skill level in riding/trick riding on unusual mounts: giant cats.

Things are a bit different now, even though you’ve only changed a couple of things from the list above. With no metal, life has transformed dramatically for the realm’s inhabitants–good and evil, PC and NPC. And with giant cats and a bunch of fancy riding tricks, the PCs are sure to behave differently and choose new approaches to challenges during play.

Start With The End In Mind

This is an old tip from the archives, but worth repeating here. Great campaigns have memorable and exciting endings. Before you start playing, try to imagine the perfect ending for your campaign, even though that might be months or years down the road. What combination of events, situations, and circumstances would you like to see come together for a legendary finale?

Though you can’t script such an ending because your players will do many unexpected things during the course of play, just by having an ideal ending in mind you’ll be better able to gently guide things to an optimum conclusion. That alone is worth spending a few minutes before the beginning of a campaign dreaming up the ultimate ending. And be sure to update your vision every few sessions, taking into account recent actions and events.

Build Up Your Plans In Stages

If you do all of your campaign planning in one shot, you might be taking a big gamble with your time because you have not taken the time to do some reconnaissance. If you lay everything out and just show up to the session, then player choices and actions, or the reality of the situation, could render many of your plans useless and therefore become a costly use of your limited time.You are better off building your plans over time, in stages.

Here’s a couple of examples:

  • You think, make some notes, and chat with your players. Then you think some more, add to your notes, get the PCs made and in your hands. Then you study the PCs, think more, and make more notes. Finally, you create and run a short adventure, and then assess game play before fully fleshing out your plans.
  • You outline or read-up on the game world, perhaps starting with a map. You zoom in on the local starting campaign area, and figure out many details. You give a brief introduction to your players, perhaps by phone or email, and get their thoughts. Then you fully flesh out the campaign area, and add extra, long-term details to the setting’s more distant areas (and possibly future campaign locales). Finally, with the game world — and campaign area specifically — all fleshed out, you can make decisions about the campaign’s conflicts, how the PCs fit in, and what your first story will be.

No matter what your plans are at the beginning, you’ll have to change or update them as the campaign proceeds. However, by taking a little extra time at the beginning to plan in stages instead of all at once, you will get a better long- term picture and can plan more accurately for the future. This means less initial planning goes to waste, and a more enjoyable campaign overall.

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

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

Battlemat Dry Erase Marker Solution Found!

From Ted O.

A while back I e-mailed Johnn that I’d ruined both sides of my Battlemat with dry erase markers and now those marked aren’t allowed in the same room as the mat. I still like dry erase for other things, but it’s just not allowed in the D&D room. I also asked if anyone knew a way to get dry erase off of the mat, as everything I tried either didn’t work or it also erased the lines on the mat. Johnn posted my query in an RPT issue, and here are some of the responses.

They fall into two groups:

  1. Suggestions to do something else, that don’t fix my ruined mat:
    • Jessica W. suggests washable Crayola markers. I actually had those in the very beginning, but prefer the wet-erase “overhead” markers such as the Vis-a-Vis pens by Sanford. I found that the washable children’s markers had too much water in them, and the ink tended to bead-up and never “settle” into the mat, so it was always smearing if someone touched it. The wet-erase dry onto the mat, so you can move around it, then erase with a wet rag or paper-towel.
    • David M. suggests “painting” (i.e., with permanent markers) my hexes (or squares) onto a dry-erase board, then sticking with dry erase markers. Not quite as portable as a Battlemat, but still a good idea. BTW, shower stall board is available in most hardware stores, works well as dry erase board, and is very cheap (i.e., $8US for a 4×8? sheet).
    • Scott A. uses a piece of glass with gridded poster-board attached to the back. Nearly anything can be cleaned off of glass, and it can be had cheaply from a variety of places. Again, not terribly portable, but a fair idea.
  2. Suggestions intended to help get the dry erase marker off my mat:Many of these suggestions are from friends and other DMs on my e-mail list. I tried each idea, and here is my report:
    • Water & lots of elbow grease: eventually I was able to scrub the mat until it fatigued, but the dry erase never came off. Mat-destructive.
    • Isopropyl alcohol: no effect.
    • Windex/ammonia: slight effect, but also dissolves the lines on the mat itself, so you have to redraw them. A minor pain for squares, a major one for hexes.
    • Shampoo/aftershave/dog-food/laundry soap: No go. You guys are weird!
    • Aqua Velva (clarification on “after shave”): Doesn’t clean mat, but now it smells pretty.
    • Seabreeze(tm) (further clarification/correction): that’s alcohol with perfumes, I tried that already.
    • David M. suggests “Goof-off.” I’m unable to find this product to try it. I think I remember seeing it in an automotive store. Maybe.

And The Winner Is:

Several suggested using dry-erase markers. That is, you draw over the “bad” lines with new marker, and erase while the new ink is still “wet”. Skeptical, I tried this. Amazingly, it works! Thank you, thank you, thank you! Nat said it best with “Get yourself a white-board marker and draw over the marks you made with the dry-erase markers on the battlemat. Then rub them out with a dry cloth, and they should come off.”

With Special Mention To Alex:
My favourite suggestion was from Alex, it began: “Step 1: Get a solution that dissolves dry-erase markers…” Not to pick on Alex or anything, but it made me laugh. It’s ok, he was really trying to describe how to not ruin the remaining lines on my mat, and had good ideas.


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World Geography Tips

From Andy Gryc


[Andy posted these geography tips on another list, and I got his permission to re-post them here as I thought you might find them useful.]
  1. Mountains almost always remove moisture from the wind. This causes a “rain shadow” effect, where the side of the mountains on the trailing edge of the wind is dry, and the leading edge is moist. The wet side will have a lot of mountain rivers that transport the sponged out moisture. The dry side will also have a number of rivers that carry away moisture, but the rivers will tend to be smaller, since some of the smaller creeks and tributaries will be evaporated and/or absorbed by plants en-route.
  2. Mountain ranges are created either by vulcanism or plate tectonics (or both). Sometimes a plate will subduct underneath another one causing a “crumple zone” of smaller mountains along the edge of the top plate, and about 100 miles inland a parallel chain of volcanos (extinct or not) where the descending plate’s edge is melting and providing a lava source for the inner range (ala Oregon’s and California’s coast). Other times two plates will collide and both will crunch up (ala Tibet and the Himalayas). So I’ll map out the general plates and their direction so I can see where they may be colliding or separating, and add mountain ranges as appropriate.
  3. Wind can either deposit or remove moisture. It will also deposit or remove land, but this effect isn’t as dramatic for determining whether or not the underlying land will become a desert or a jungle. Try to map the prevailing winds direction, their strength, and their humidity. If the winds are dry, they’ll end up parching the underlying terrain. If they’re wet, they’ll create clouds and deposit some of that moisture, creating a temperate zone or perhaps even a jungle.For the most part, winds will be the same direction in a hemisphere, but prevailing wind patterns can be altered by the terrain’s color (whether it reflects or absorbs sunlight), height (mountains or not), and large lakes (gives a large smooth surface for the wind, and a source for moisture). Some areas will have a strong prevailing wind that doesn’t fit the profile. So, this is one area where I’m a little more fast and loose. Draw in your winds, and follow the moisture wherever it goes, altering the terrain underneath as appropriate.
  4. Surface features like isolated volcanoes and swamps can be caused by single source lava vents or water springs, so don’t feel that you can’t just plunk them about anywhere and still have a mostly reasonable world. If you have a volcano vent in the ocean, that can result in a chain of islands (Hawaii), as the plate gradually moves over the hot spot.
  5. Caves are usually from limestone erosion. Areas that have a lot of limestone in the earth will tend to have large, well formed cave systems. Another source of caves is from lava tubes, but those caves tend to be rather uninteresting in gaming terms, since they’re a single tube cave, rather than a system (although the tubes can be pretty long). I don’t go to the trouble of mapping out the stone types in every area, but knowing that caves tend to be placed in the same region is helpful.
[Johnn: be sure to check out Andy’s Autorealm free mapping software. It’s amazing! http://www.gryc.ws/autorealm.htm ]
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Battlemap Tip

From Ryan W.

I’ve read several tips here as well as on the web about how to best represent combat with battle maps and whatnot. My group has used a particular system for years that works great.

Go to an office supply store and get a big easel pad of graph paper with 1? squares, approximately 24? x 36? ($8- $10), and a plastic, no-frills poster frame of the same size ($12 tops). Put a sheet of the graph paper in the frame and voila…instant battle map. You can write all over it with dry erase markers. You can even make two or three so that one is the “general map.” The DM can use the other two for pre-drawing major planned encounter areas or you can stack them for a multi-level effect (for multi-story structures or 3d combat).

And how about all those left-over sheets of big graph paper from the easel pad? Well, as the DM, I use them to pre-draw rooms in dungeons and the like where combat is likely to occur. I then cut them out and throw them in a file folder. When combat does occur, I throw the map on the table and it’s on!

This also works great with fold-out maps that are often provided with published campaign worlds. We play Planescape and I’ve mounted a map of Sigil and a map of the Outlands that we can draw all over with impunity!