5 More Tips For GMing A ‘Local’ Campaign
From Johnn Four
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #238
As discussed in Issue #237, a local campaign is my term for a campaign wherein the PCs don’t travel far from their home base and most of the adventure takes place within a small, central region. Such a campaign has numerous gaming and GMing benefits, not the least of which are reduced prep time and deeper roleplaying opportunities as the campaign progresses. Following are a few more tips to help GMs run a local campaign.
Have The Enemies Come To The PCs
You always run the risk of boredom in games where the PCs are supposed to stick around a single area over the long term. And when players get bored, their feet will get itchy and they’ll take it upon themselves to seek out excitement on their own. To help stall this need to wander outside the local campaign area, try bringing the bad guys to the PCs. As mentioned in Issue #237, you want to avoid a constant parade of foes landing on the PCs’ doorstep like they’re on some nasty conveyor belt of evil.
A healthy compromise though, is to import a limited number of powerful adversaries to conflict with the player characters. Because the foes are too tough to tackle immediately, they’ll settle in and start to cause some havoc. This will give you lots of adventure and encounter possibilities as the PCs try to deal with some or all of the consequences of the foes’ actions.For example, a clan of giants might take a liking to the hilltop near the player characters’ village. Initially, the giants camp on the hill and party.
Combined, the giants are able to repulse any character attacks, so they party on. Soon, the giant leader orders a fort to be built. This requires lumber, building and craft supplies, and food, lots of food.The giants decide to raid the area for food and supplies. The raids cause lots of headaches for the PCs. They can’t be everywhere at once, and peasants need saving from collapsed buildings kicked in by the marauding brutes, scattered herd animals who escaped hungry giant hands need retrieving from a countryside now fearfully full of wandering 12? tall menaces, and so on.
Soon, the fort is built and more formal demands are made by the giant leader to all the nearby farms and communities. The peasants must bring livestock and loot or the giants will attack.Enterprising and morally dubious NPCs might step in and work for the giants as agents, causing mischief of their own. Enemy giants might try to seize the fort, trapping the peasants in the middle of a large battle played for keeps (puns intended). Water supplies, trade routes, and other aspects of civilized life could be jeopardized, requiring PC intervention.
The idea here is to bring in a single foe and then to forge game sessions out of the consequences until the PCs get smart enough or powerful enough to make a direct challenge and end the threat once and for all. This technique minimizes the number of new game elements you have to introduce into a local campaign, reducing any potential ‘zoo’ feeling, and makes things interesting for the players at the same time.
Intelligent, socially inclined villains are perfect for this role. By socially inclined, I mean they gather and use lieutenants to carry out their vile schemes. The lieutenants form a buffer between the PCs and the villain, giving the whole plot thread some mid to long term campaign life.
Ideally, the lieutenants will gather flunkies and minions of their own to provide more challenges for the party. While all these lieutenants and minions are new elements, the potential ‘zoo’ situation is offset by a couple of factors:
- Once the loyalties of the foes are tied to the main villain, all the threads and threats will gel and it won’t feel like the GM is just trying to fill the area up with adventures. The players will understand the reason and the connection between all the bad guys.
- Hopefully, a lot of the recruiting will be done locally. While it is cool for the villain to bring in “the big boys from the city” to take care of his new operation, it’s also cool to have NPCs the player characters know get recruited and rise in power and evil prestige.
Some examples of importing a powerful foe to keep the PCs occupied, interested, and planted:
- A demon lord who interferes from afar through local agents
- A teleporting wizard who appears periodically to meddle in local affairs
- A god’s followers show up and start preaching and/or scheming
- A monster (and its family, clan, group) fleeing a more powerful adversary makes the PCs’ area its new home
Reveal A New Aspect Of The Game World Regularly
This is a tip that’s appeared in the ezine before, so I’ll be brief. Make an effort to reveal something new and cool about the game world or campaign setting each session. This will help keep player interest high, the information will greatly appeal to certain player styles, and it will build up world knowledge over time in a consistent, fun, and highly consumable way.
Example methods for introducing world lore:
- Plot hook. The setting information you reveal serves as a hook into a new plot thread or single encounter. In this case, the information is quickly introduced and noted, and then the game moves on.
- A ferry from The Silver River Ferry Service is on fire. The PCs rush to help out. They didn’t know the Silver River had a ferry service–but they do now. ? They meet the ferryman, check out the ferry, and learn that a fire breathing monster caused the conflagration. The PCs decide to track the monster down before it causes more mayhem and bid the ferryman goodbye.
- Location. An encounter takes place in a location that the PCs have not visited or heard of before. In some cases, the location will be known to the PCs and, in the course of their visit and the encounter, they might have their curiosity about the place finally satisfied. They get to wander the place, snoop around perhaps, and learn about the location’s role, history, inhabitants, and so on.Alternatively, the location is well known or familiar, but it ends up holding a surprise secret or revelation that makes the trip memorable and casts the location in a new light for the party.
- The mage has been to the town’s small library on numerous occasions. However, during the latest visit, he heard voices coming from behind a doorless wall! Now, the party intends to return and investigate.
- No one knew the grove near the city was the site of an old graveyard until the PCs stumbled onto it while taking a shortcut. Toppled grave markers indicate soldiers are buried there from a mysterious battle.
- The PCs are excited because they’ll finally get to see inside the Lord’s keep. Their invitation says the feast starts soon and each PC hopes to do a little exploring if the opportunity presents itself.
- Major plot element. An Adventure Revolves Around–And Thoroughly Explores–A World Element. As The Adventure Unfolds, The PCs Get To Learn A Lot About The Element. Some Of This Information Is Valuable And Relevant To The Plot, And Some Is Simply Interesting To Know And Helps Make The Game World Seem Deep, Real, complex, and/or alive.
- The players all know the names of the world’s gods, but they’ve never directly interacted with the Church of Memnon until now. A priest of the church is accompanying the party on a church quest and the players get to learn about the Church’s town network, who the movers and shakers are within the organization, what the religion is about, and more. After the adventure is over, the religious order has transformed from a name on a page of player notes to a well-known and understood organization, and an important game world element.
- The PCs are captured by goblins. The tribe’s shaman rubs a poison into their wounds and he controls them thereafter with access to a daily antidote. As the days go by and the PCs non-poisoned wounds slowly heal and their escape plan takes shape, much about goblins and goblin tribal life is revealed. The PCs learn there’s more to goblins than meets the eye (or the tip of one’s sword) and, after their escape, they never regard the creatures in the same, naive way again.
Name Your Community Well
Names are important things. Give some serious thought about the core conflicts surrounding the community and the PCs’ future role(s). Then pick a name for the community that conjures up a compelling image as to why it is exciting to be a community member and campaign participant. Also pick similarly fun and interesting names for nearby regions.If it’s inconvenient or difficult to encapsulate a campaign hook into the PCs’ community name, add a tag line:
- Gnarlwood, Land of Untamed Nobles
- Braemlyn, City of Howling Souls
- Englehorn, Civilization’s Last Stand
A name gives the players an instant bond. For example, when they talk to others about your game they’ll refer to it by name, versus “Johnn’s campaign with me, Bill, and some other guys.” And that name will be much more evocative for everyone to bandy about and help keep your players interested in the local campaign.
Give Your Community Three Hooks
You want your community to be an interesting place or else the PCs will wander off to look for excitement elsewhere. You can’t serve up action, combat, and adventure every second of the game session though. There’ll be times when the pace slows, when character administration is required, and when there’s a lull between encounters.During these times, it will be the players’ imaginations and motivations that will keep them interested and pressing to continue onward.
If the players know there’s more excitement and adventure to come, they won’t lose interest or focus, and they will want to stick around.
To help accomplish this, give your community three hooks, each one at a different level of game interaction:
- Community level. The region or community has a mystery, secret, or conflict that the PCs learn about and dwell on. The players won’t have all the information or an immediate solution, so it will engage their imaginations and they’ll be thinking about it often, assuming the hook is pretty interesting.
- Adventure level. With each new plot thread, there’s an unknown or conflicting element that the PCs try to figure out as the story unfolds.
- PC level. Each PC should have a hook that ties them into the region. Ideally, the hook will emerge from the characters’ backgrounds, such as a family secret, strange dreams, a weird birthmark, and so on.
These three levels of hooks are a powerful combination to keep player interest high. When nothing is happening at the game table, players will often turn to think about their hooks again and again. The expression, “when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail” definitely applies here. The players will try to link each plot line, encounter, and clue to the different hooks that are present in the campaign at any given time.
Even if your plans have nothing to do with these hooks, the players’ imaginations will be churning and they won’t have any thoughts about leaving your local community.
As time goes on and hooks turn into adventures and secrets are revealed, you replace them with new ones. Hopefully, the hooks aren’t all linked to the same game element so that they all get resolved at the same time. This will put heavy pressure on you to come up with a lot of replacement hooks at once!
Having the hooks operate at the three levels also ensures you’re taking care of the big picture (the campaign region) and the micro picture (individual PC needs, spotlight opportunities, and interest levels) with one easy process.
For more about this, see Ryan McHargue’s great tip below about offering players multiple goals in Readers’ Tips #2: Give PCs A Niche.
Advantages of Local Campaigns
From: Steve Higginson
Many years ago I ran a Local Style Campaign using the City of Greyhawk as its base. The campaign arose as the result of our current GM not wanting to play late. Many of us were still interested in playing so we would gather at my place and play the rest of the night. Basing the PCs in one quarter of the city I was able to GM on the fly. The PCs would show up at their favorite tavern.
They knew the owner, barkeep, waitress, and regular patrons. Some days they would leave the quarter in search of something or someone. Every once in a while they would go find a crypt to explore. And once we played poker all night with the players using their characters’ wealth as money.
Advantage #1: Roleplaying
Your characters get a chance to develop deeper personal relationships with NPCs. They will begin to care about that pretty young wench at the bar and be devastated to learn she’s a werewolf. They can be motivated to action by just being friends with an NPC.
Advantage #2: Reality
PCs can establish a business, participate in politics, join guilds, and so on. I had a PC wizard, who bought a tavern and started a thieves’ guild just so he could take over the town.
Advantage #3: Easy Configuration
This is a great campaign type for a group who is not reliable. Playing a local campaign, it is easy to have a session where there are only two, three, or eight PCs, because you can adjust the game to fit the party.
Tip: Use Index Cards
Keep all NPC info on index cards. These cards can then be stored in a recipe box and organized by location and such. Then, it is fairly easy to grab the cards that you need and go from there. In a local campaign you can wing it more often. Any time you need you create a new NPC or location, just write down what you are ttelling the PC’s and organize it and place it on index cards later.
A Brief Word From Johnn
—Does Anyone Have Dune CCG Cards?
Howdy! I hope you like this week’s issue about additional local campaign tips. I feel these tips are actually applicable to just about every type of campaign, so even if you aren’t GMing an ongoing, local type game, check out the tips and see if any are useful to you.
On a different note, do you have any Dune CCG cards gathering dust? A friend introduced me to the game recently and I find it complex, challenging, and a lot of fun. However, the game is out of print and I’m finding it hard to get cards for it. If you have some you’re willing to sell or trade, drop me a note.
Have a game-full weekend!
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Horror in Roleplaying
From Cannibal Monkey
When designing a scenario like this, remember that (in general) a building up of the tense atmosphere is usually much more worrying than a sudden “Ragh! A monster!”. Think about any good horror films you’ve seen, and (I expect) you’ll find that the “BOO!” parts aren’t as nerve wracking as the bits leading up to them, with the creepy music, the silence, and the slow moving investigator/victim.Also, humorous moments can be used to put players’ guards down so the big scare around the corner has more impact.
This can very handily be put into RPG plots. To use a Call of Cthulhu analogy, don’t use Cthulhu razing a town – go for a Star Vampire, a Flying Polyp, or the Hastur Mythos. Anything subtle, invisible, warping. It’s all good. This is where the system you’re using can get a little important. If a simple ‘Purge Invisibility’, ‘Detect Alignment’, or ‘Cure Insanity’ spell will instantly uncloak the horrors, then the horror’s just buggered off. Doubt is the word of the day, my friends. Are you seeing things? Are you sane? IS ANYTHING THERE AT ALL?
The most scary things can also be complete duds. In any corny horror film there will be a scene involving a cat making a spooky noise, just so it can jump at the protagonist. If the players are jumpy enough, just having a door blow open or a house naturally creak can be enough to have bullet holes opening up in the walls post haste. In a similar fashion, the most horrifying things can look innocuous. Imagine a fur coat that eats its wearer!
Anyway, after a while you should have been able to hammer out some sort of plot, the scares that you want to go in it, ways of the mystery to be solved (if any), puzzles to be overcome, and ways to ensure the players aren’t being railroaded (all too easy in a horror scenario – the temptation is so great to force them to run into your best scares. RESIST THE URGE! If a scare is really good, I daresay you can slot it in elsewhere in the story).The end of the scenario can also make or break it.
A Scooby- Doo ending (“Gee, it was old McDonald all along!”) really sucks the tension away. The players feel secure that nothing more will happen. This is good for some games, but in others feel free to leave the ending either still loose (“It was the evil ventriloquist, but he’s escaped to wreak diabolical mayhem somewhere else!”) or unsolvable (“I don’t know what it was, but AAGH it’s still out there!”). Really keeps the pressure on, and gives a nice reoccurring thing for the rest of the campaign.
Okay, so you’ve got a plot. But even the scariest story in the universe will be a pile of badness if it’s not GMed right. Of course, different people want different things from their GMs, so that’s a little subjective, but overall, I would suggest the following pointers (Some applicable only in certain instances, of course):
- If you’re GMing a game face to face with a player, your job is easier in some ways, and much harder in others. Having one player to yourself is probably the best way – you can keep the pressure going. Never stop until the spooky bits are over. This makes play-by-post games just about impossible to make scary. If there was a spooky film that had adverts every 10 seconds, the effect would be much the same.
- Also only for f2f games – lighting and sound can make a difference. There’s the marvellous anecdote I was told of a priest who GMed Call of Cthulhu games in the church, at night, which made his players jumpy, to say the least. Soundtracks are hard to use, and I’ve never been able to get there use right, but that’s not to say they can’t be very effective. Other things, like having windows open, can be nice as well. The room I normally GM in has a very dodgy door that opens and closes itself when the window’s open. It’s very unnerving, even when you know that it does this. Imagine what you could do if the players didn’t, though!
- Description is also the word of the day. If the players see “a ghost with a screaming face that jumps at you,” they’re unlikely to be shocked. If they see “a half seen figure merging with the shadows in a hunch-backed crouch that seems to cower away and then springs suddenly forward, launching itself at your face, it’s visage that of a soul in anguish, teeth gnashing for your blood,” then they’re more liable to be falling over each other screaming, “I dodge, dammit!” (I hate it when players do that. Just by shouting at me, I’m not likely to make their characters move any faster. Bah.) When playing via a chatroom or similar, this is slightly easier. When playing f2f, I find that I start talking in circles, saying very little. Just a failing of mine, I suppose. It still seems to work on occasion
- A feeling of helplessness makes things more dreadful. Had any good nightmares recently? I bet you were either running too slow, your arms were like lead, or you were tied down or something. Well, it works in RPGs too. Of course, this ranges from the mechanics of monsters (most Cthulhu Mythos creatures are relatively unaffected by weapons, for example to emotional things (don’t move or we kill your daughter) to physical things (trapped in a cell with Nyarlathotep).
- The ultimate lesson for any GM – don’t always bother with dice. If the evil spirit makes a leap for a player, don’t roll the dice and announce that it misses… Of course, don’t cheat the players. Just make sure the creature is competent enough to cause worry for the players. Unless, of course, it’s an inherent part of the creature or something.
Give PCs A Niche
From Ryan McHargue
This may be an isolated issue that only the group I game with has, but essentially we have several different types of roleplayers in our group. We have those that enjoy comedy, those that like serious tones, and then there are those that enjoy huge back stories. Oh, and I can’t forget the players that aren’t really there for one reason or another. So, this creates some oddly paired characters. Over the years (yes, I have been gaming with some of these guys for 16 years), I have come to the conclusion that player characters need a niche to bring them into the group better.
A niche is a perfect way to give the group an instant cohesion. When each player has a role to play in the team of characters then they become special and important to the group’s success. Ok, yes you are correct, there is one vital part to this niche plan that has to be implemented: the GM must write adventures that utilize all the players’ niches.
When figuring out what kind of niches work best, look at TV shows like the A-Team or Mission Impossible. These shows offer a great example of teamwork. Each character has a specific roll to play in the plan and to the overall success of the mission.
In the A-Team you have the Leader (Hannibal), the Strong guy (BA), the attractive con man (Face), and the insane pilot (Murdock). Oh, and the token character that was their contact to the outside world (it was varied from episode to episode who the character was).
These niches worked well for the A-Team, but may not work as well for your group. The main issue with putting together a niche team is you need to look over the main skills that every group needs in the genre you play. In a superhero game, for example, you need your strong character, leader, range attack, socialite, patron, gadget dude. Of course, these are just some sample roles, but you get the idea.
The most important thing is to make sure that (at least in the beginning) none of the character rolls are doubled up. This can be a difficult thing to deal with if you have two players who enjoy the same type of character. Now this can work with some rolls like the leader roll. WARNING! Before I get into this let me just say that, if the two characters aren’t good friends or good roleplayers, then don’t attempt this.
Oh, and this really only works if they have a slightly different way of doing things, like one is a brash young leader and the other is a cautions older “Optimus Prime” type leader.
So, if you haven’t picked up on where I am heading with this, you have them play the role differently. This therefore adds some conflict in the game, but be careful to not let this conflict move outside the “characters” into the players’ relationship.
The second part of this A-Team example is that they all had a common goal. Let me repeat this; they all had a COMMON goal, and then personal goals, and an episode goal. All the characters need a Story Goal, like in the A-Team they were wanted for crimes they didn’t commit, or like in Star Wars the Good Versus Evil goal. This Story Goal gives a reason for all the characters to stay together and work together. Then, all the characters will have their own goals like in the A-Team.
Face’s goal was to be rich so he could reacclimatize himself into society, and Hannibal wanted to stick it to the man, whoever that was. He was more interested in messing with the “bad” guys then really caring about clearing their names. BA’s whole thing was more about friendship with Hannibal yes, I know it didn’t always seem that way, but he was not worried about being wanted, he just was there for the ride), Murdock was, well he was crazy and I am not really sure what his goals where. But I think you get the point. Everyone needs a few personal goals and motives.
So, in conclusion, let me just say that this seems really simple, but have you completely done it? That’s what I thought; it is only easy on paper. For some reason, there are those that just can’t get with it and be a complete team player. So anyways, there it is.
Give A GM A Break
I myself suffer from being a workaholic GM. However, the problem isn’t that I spend too many painstaking hours preparing stuff (I do – but that doesn’t bother me). The problem is that no one in my group ever runs games of their own.I am constantly the Dungeon Master, and once in awhile, a “break” would be nice and I would like to just play. I have expressed that to my players on many occasions, but only one has stepped up to the plate. That took some doing too – as I basically called off our weekly game and told people, “When someone else runs for awhile we will play again.”
That took 3 months.
Now I am ready to start again – but I am always aware of the potential to burn out. Players should help out their GM from time to time by taking the mantle of GM and running a game themselves once in awhile.
Idea For Bringing The PCs Together
From Chris Heismann
Each of the PCs had a separate encounter with the bad guy’s flunkies where they were poisoned with a rare and virtually unknown slow acting poison. One got hit by a poisoned crossbow bolt, one got scratched with a dagger, one got a poisoned ale in a tavern, etc. Each of them handily dealt with the flunkies, got healed, and went on their way, typically with the player snickering at me for such a lame encounter.Shortly after being poisoned, each of them got a letter from the main bad guy telling them what they had been poisoned with, and that they had only weeks to live.
Then he nonchalantly revealed that healing magic accelerated the poison. Since each of them had used healing magic, their time was limited. The bad guy closed his letter by telling them where they could find the cure, which happened to be a rare flower found only on a single island.
Now, in my game, the poisonings were a ruse, designed to get the PCs out of the way while the bad guy did his stuff. The PCs came together quickly, got their cures, then found out what the bad guy did and went after him.
It worked very well as a means to bring the PCs together in single location with a single purpose. By creating your own “poison” with a different effect, you can achieve a variety of things beyond bringing the group together.