Idea Seeds: A Campaign Design Method

From Mike Bourke

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0341

A Brief Word From Johnn

Temple of Elemental Evil Waxes Strong

Over the holidays and early this month my group had a chance to delve further into our Temple of Elemental Evil campaign. We even managed to claw our way out of real life for 14 hours one day to game. In the last couple of sessions, the various factions have revealed themselves. The Temple is attempting to recruit the powerful creatures in the area, such as a black dragon and some special ogres. If the Temple can’t recruit the creatures, it uses cunning words and deeds to set the monsters upon the PCs and the village the PCs are based in.

The Temple has also renamed itself the School of Elemental Enlightenment, and has approached various settlements in the region to spread its teachings and “enlightened” ways. It seems the tactic is working, for the Temple has made allies of the gnomes and elves, with the dwarves soon to reach an accord as well. It looks grim for the agents of good who see the Temple gaining more power and influence each day.

The heroes are currently hunting down the black dragon, which has attacked their village and destroyed the inn. They seek to eliminate a powerful ally of the Temple and make the area safer for their friends and stored possessions. A big battle with the dragon should be coming up, possibly next session. If they are victorious, the PCs will likely drive on to assault the Temple directly. Interesting times are ahead!

Reader Has A Question About GM Mastery: Adventure Essentials: Holidays

A reader wrote in with this question about my new ebook:

  • I do not really understand the point of this manual. Is it
  • to help to play during player’s holidays (vacation) or is it
  • to help to introduce the notion of holiday (vacation) and
  • take profit of it in a character’s life (in the world’s game)
  • CM

In case you were wondering the same thing, here was my answer to CM:

GM Mastery: Adventure Essentials: Holidays is about creating fantasy holidays for your games and playing them out as adventures. Thanks for asking!

More information here:


Johnn Four
[email protected]

Idea Seeds: A Campaign Design Method

There are a lot of techniques for campaign design and construction out there. I’ve offered several in past issues of Roleplaying Tips. This is yet another one – a variation on some of the previous ideas. What makes this technique different is it lets the subconscious desires of the GM flavor the campaign directly over time, through the process, so the campaign more closely resembles what the GM wants to run – whether he realizes it or not.

This one builds on two core components: idea seeds and process iterations:

Idea Seeds

The GM starts with a clean sheet of paper (or better yet, word processor document) and writes down a number of one-word nouns. These words are the idea seeds from which the campaign design will evolve, like mighty trees emerging from a small acorn.

Process Iteration

Small, simple steps performed repeatedly make light work of large tasks. There might be more powerful tools out there for developing ideas, but this is one of the easiest.

Phase 1 – The Idea Seeds Sprout

Follow these steps to craft the idea seeds:

List three to twelve nouns on the page. These should be words you expect to have significance in the new campaign.

For example:

  • King
  • Goblin
  • Sorcerer
  • War
  • Assassin

Add a single adjective to each word, before or after as you see fit.

For example:

  • Frozen King
  • Heroic Goblin
  • Sorcerer vile
  • War Melancholy
  • Assassin Guild

To spur your creativity, write adjectives on separate scraps of paper and draw them at random, rejecting a combination only if there is no way the pair could go together.

Add necessary adverbs and linking words so each item is the start of a proper sentence:

  • The frozen king
  • A heroic goblin
  • A sorcerer vile
  • The war against melancholy
  • The assassin guild

Pick two or three of these and pluralize them:

  • The wars against melancholy
  • The assassins’ guild

Pick half of the results and tag them as referring to the campaign’s past and the other half referring to the campaign present.

  • The frozen king (past)
  • A heroic goblin (past)
  • A sorcerer vile (now)
  • The wars against melancholy (now)
  • The assassins’ guild (now)

Complete the sentences appropriately. Think of them as summaries of a status report by an intelligence advisor. Try to make them event oriented, as well.

  • The Frozen King awaited release from his icy grave.
  • A heroic goblin slew the great beast and claimed dominion.
  • A sorcerer vile demands the slaves be freed.
  • The wars against melancholy fair poorly in the Western Wasteland.
  • The Assassins’ Guild awaits their commission.

Phase 2 – The Saplings Grow

Now the fun starts. Do exactly the same thing again, but each time you complete a new sentence, append it to a previous one of your choosing.

Continue until you have twenty to thirty separate items. Build up the story, one sentence at a time. This not only creates new ideas, it forces the evolution of new ones. By the time you have started this phase of the process, the initial sentences should already be sparking ideas and interpretations.

With some statements, you might have no idea how they are going to fit in. That’s okay, these won’t go anywhere and will ultimately be discarded.

Also, look for ways to connect one statement with another. If necessary, change what you’ve already got.

The statements generated above, for example, suggest a number of things to me:

“A heroic goblin slew the great beast and claimed dominion,” suggests goblins have somehow conquered everything, perhaps by seizing control of a dragon’s hoard.

“A sorcerer vile demands the slaves be freed” implies a brewing slave revolt.

“The Frozen King awaited release from his icy grave” might be talking about necromancy, or it might be that the rightful ruler of these parts had been frozen and his body hidden in a glacier somewhere. Or both.

Right away, we have the makings of a number of campaigns – perhaps the party is to be goblins and quislings, seeking to maintain the status quo by putting down the rebellion. Or perhaps they are to be escaped slaves who are to join the rebellion, and the ultimate goal of the campaign is the overthrow of the heroic goblin (or his successor). Perhaps it’s more of a P.O.W. campaign in which the PCs primary goal is just to stay out of goblin hands, and in which all the other adventures are side issues. Maybe the goblins are good and enlightened rulers who permit their nominal “slaves” a great deal of freedom, a sort of blend of the first two interpretations.

Phase 3 – The Canopy

Trees without leaves are just bare bones. When you have enough ideas, take each one and rewrite it from start to finish, attempting to flesh it out with all the ancillary information – who, what, when, where, why, and how.

As you finish each one, attempt to jot down several adventure ideas for the PCs, again as one-sentence statements.

“The PCs must overcome the ice hydra that guards the Frozen King.”

“The party encounters the sorcerer vile and finds he is not what he appears to be.”

If there is a question or implication of the sentences, this is the time to explore it.

Phase 4 – Pruning

One advantage of having so many ideas is you can happily discard those that don’t fit and just retain those elements that are useful. “The War against Melancholy goes poorly in the Western Wasteland” sounds good, but most of the ideas it generates in my mind are insipid. This would mean it got little or no expansion in phase 2 and was ignored in phase 3. Now is the time to dump it, and retain only the useful idea – a Western Wasteland, some sort of badlands or desert region.

Phase 5 – Seeing The Forest Instead Of The Trees

When you have finished all of this it’s time to get a rough idea of the campaign topology. Just from our initial ideas, we have a Western Wasteland, a frozen (arctic) region, a power base for the goblins, a former dragon’s lair, the remnants of the former kingdom -fortresses, cities (perhaps laid to waste by the Dragon), and so on – all manner of landmarks. It’s time to do a rough map of the campaign area. Check each statement in your idea write-ups to ensure consistency.

Phase 6 – Run Through The Jungle

Finally, take your scenario ideas and rank them in order of difficulty and emotional appeal. Fiddle with the list if any would be disrupted by the outcome of an earlier idea. If an idea suggests itself, throw in a plot twist that enables the scenario to proceed in order, despite the earlier events.

For example, it would be difficult to have a scenario involving a mission for the goblin king after the PCs have overthrown him; you have to move the overthrow to later in the campaign structure and toughen it up, or you have to throw some twist into the outcome of the earlier scenario. Perhaps the goblin king escapes or is exiled instead of being killed, and is then forced to call upon his greatest enemies, despite his animosity toward them. Emotional appeal suggests the first solution – but perhaps you have an even bigger climax in mind in which the overthrow of the goblin king is only a stepping stone.

Keep in mind you can’t force a future outcome. The PCs should dictate the course of gameplay. You can, however, anticipate and plan accordingly, and revise as the campaign matures.

It is also worthwhile trying to identify any themes that are suggested, trying to encapsulate them in a single pithy statement or two.

By the time you have finished this process – and it need only take an hour or two – you are ready to start writing scenarios and rolling up player characters.

A Few Idea Seeds Design Tips And Ideas

Application Of Technique: Off-The-Cuff Campaigns

I’ve had great success with off-the-cuff campaigns. One has run for more than 25 years, another is currently in its 9th year, and still another is 8 years old. The idea seeds technique works for off-the-cuff campaigns because you can do lots of the work after play has started!

For example, with just the initial ideas – which took all of ten minutes to devise – I could run an “escape from the goblins” scenario, perhaps ending at a cliffhanger as a voice from the darkness calls, “Throw down your weapons – you’re surrounded!” I can then decide in the gap between sessions who the voice is – agents of the “sorcerer vile” perhaps, or maybe the PCs have blundered into the hiding place of the ‘Red Guild’ -whatever that is – and fill in their back story.

This sort of “mosaic” campaign design has the huge advantage of minimising advance work, a huge time saving for the busy referee, but it relies heavily on the GM’s ability to improvise.

Extending The Technique – Towns & Other Communities

You can put the same technique to use in a number of other areas. Since these uses are generally smaller and less important than the whole campaign, you can get away with fewer ideas.

Three ideas are ample to generate a small town – I generally use the dominant terrain for one, a prominent citizen for a second, and something the town takes civic pride in as the third. Instead of generating scenario ideas, I’m looking for encounters. Building the list along these lines permits the generation of a small, unique town in no time flat: “Little Morton, the cleanest community west of the Pichanto Marshes, home of the annual Strawberry Festival”.

Cleanest community can have all sorts of meanings, from the obvious physical fact to the cultural (20 lashes for swearing) to the business (bars serve only goat milk and must close an hour after sunset). Throw in an enchanted still in someone’s basement and the Strawberry Festival can get well and truly out of hand just in time for the PCs to visit – or perhaps the festival is the only time the town permits alcohol to be served (strawberry daiquiris anyone?)

Cities tend to be larger, and frequently are home to power struggles of various types and other contradictory drives. Perhaps the shabbiest part of town is also the richest because hoarding is a way of life here (an idea described to great effect in “The Revenge Of Anthalus” by David Eddings). Use five or six ideas for a city, six to ten for the capital.

Guard towers and garrisons and the like only need three or four ideas, the same as a small town. Here the emphasis is on the threat that the landmark exists to repel, the geography, and the attitude of the commander. My fourth idea is usually related to how the outpost is supplied – and how often.

Extending The Technique – NPCs

You also use this method to give yourself a basic description of NPCs. Three to four ideas again suffice. I choose from personality, ambition, appearance, dress, and occupation. If you want, you can do each of these, though it’s generally better to work from three, prune one if necessary, and decide the rest based on the concept given – simply for consistency.

It has been suggested to me that basing the number of attributes examined in this way on the intelligence of the character is more realistic. Hobbies, politics, history, family, relationships, and crimes can all be added to the list of attributes if you want. This has the advantage of giving intelligent NPCs more complex personalities, while the village idiot gets only one or two dominant characteristics – more might be wasted on such a one- dimensional character.

Extending The Technique – Rewards

Using the same technique can be useful when it comes to hoards and treasures and other rewards and can add lots of color and uniqueness to the goodies you hand out. Perhaps instead of ion stones you hand out enchanted butterflies which perpetually flap around the character’s head, or a box kite of flying, or a stairway of slipperiness, or a lyre of stone giant strength. It might be a password into a rival’s computer system, a gift card instead of a financial reward, or being listed as a government contractor with an unusual department (a false identity), or…well, you get the idea.

The advantages to generating rewards this way is the themes of the encounter and its locale can be incorporated; treasures tend to be more consistent in nature with each other and with the encounter situation that leads to the reward, and the uniqueness of the reward makes things more interesting in and of it.

Which sounds more interesting to you: $10,000 or a Platinum Gi-mex Trading Card with $10,000 credit? Linking the rewards to the situation helps maintain the realism of both the encounters and the campaign as a whole. And besides, it’s fun!

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That’s not the end of the utility of this simple technique. I have also used it to generate battle strategies, emplace dungeon traps, design monster encounters, invent ecologies, devise weather patterns, concoct alien societies, and create themed dungeons. You name it. Whatever you need, this technique will help you design it.

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

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

Rumors Tips

From Yonni Mendes

Rumors can serve as excellent plot drivers, especially when based on players’ actions and deeds (or mis-deeds).

For example, I ran a party where the characters were searching for a batch of magical components. Each component was represented by a riddle and they went in search of the answers. One of the riddles they answered incorrectly and went in search after an object their own imagination invented: a precious gem called the Dragon’s Eye.

After searching throughout the local cities, pounding doors, and searching every jeweler and tavern for clues for this non-existent object, I decided to spread a rumor throughout the local countryside of this Dragon Eye.

Fairly soon, the characters began hearing rumors about a band of villains that had stolen the Dragon’s Iris, a magical emerald, as big as a man’s fist that can transform its wielder into a mighty dragon.

Figuring they’ve finally struck luck, the characters set out in search of the villains, only to be trapped, kidnapped, and framed for murder by a thieves’ guild master and his cronies who assumed they knew where the gem was. It ended with the party having to run for their lives with the local military, police, thieves, assassins, wizards, peasants, and a few monsters on their tails for hiding the mighty, legendary item that, up till a month ago, didn’t even exist in anyone’s imagination.

Just one rumor on a silly side quest put down the grounds for an entire campaign. 🙂

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Encounter Prep

From John Eikenberry

Encounters are sometimes the hardest thing to run smoothly in a game. I’ve tried GMing encounters under several circumstances – with lots of preparation done before hand and also completely winging it. While doing an encounter off the cuff can be successful, it usually has a slight feeling of one dimensionality. This isn’t to say you have to spend hours prepping a 5 minute encounter the group is going to have with a barkeep, but it does help with the important encounters.

I’ve always found a checklist to be somewhat helpful. Below is a checklist that I used in one of my campaign worlds. With some adaptation, I think it can be of use to help setup some great encounters.

Setting Up For General Encounters

For each encounter:

Write a brief description of the encounter

  • What is the goal of the encounter (i.e. give information to the players, introduce an NPC)
  • In the ideal world, how would you as GM like to see the encounter go?
  • Given the players, what do you expect their reaction to be?

When would encounter normally occur? (Day or night? Early, late?)

Look at your master timeline to get a feel for power levels, weather, and other factors

Write possible reaction scenarios

  • Will the encounter attack immediately without warning?
  • Will the encounter challenge the party?
  • What will the encounter do if the party does nothing?
  • What will the encounter do if the party attacks?

Write an initial description

  • What do the characters see, hear, or smell immediately?

Write a detailed description of what the characters might find out, eventually, from this encounter

  • Valuables
  • Names for key NPCs (i.e. leaders of patrols, intelligent creatures, gate guards, merchants)
  • Notes
  • Results of searches

Be sure to answer the question, why does it do what it does?

For objects:

  • Prepare answers for psychometry analysis
  • If magic, be ready for divination of type of magic
  • Detailed description
  • Special powers (if any)

For people:

  • Initial emotion feeling
  • Name
  • Clothing
  • Weapons
  • General attitude
  • Mannerisms
  • Secrets?

For places with knowledge of legends & lore (libraries, sages, etc.) be ready to answer questions on topics of interest to the players

  • NPCs and people heard about
  • Objects of interest
  • Places
  • Events

Setting Up For Combat Encounters

Generate creature stats and weapons

  • Use random_character generator to get base character or create NPC
  • Edit through to get appropriate number
  • Choose primary weapons

Determine what they are carrying with them

  • Food, clothing, money, booty from earlier raids
  • Special items needed for mission

Determine how they would use what they are carrying or why they are carrying the stuff

If there is a group of NPCs, plan out group tactics

  • Missile weapon users will try to stand off at a distance and fire
  • Stronger fighters might try to outflank

Write down the information and store

Just a note, once you’ve put the effort into setting up an encounter, it is tempting to make sure the encounter happens. Try to avoid this, for the players usually do see through it and feel like the storyline is pre-ordained. Instead, if an encounter doesn’t happen, save your notes. Maybe there will be another opportunity later.