Ask Angry: Starting a Campaign

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Do you have a question for The Angry GM! Well, because people can’t get it right, I had to set up a separate page with instructions. About how to send a f$&%ing e-mail. Ready How to Ask Angry to learn how to submit a question.

Leo G., Who Talks About Books a Lot, Asks:

When you’re starting a new campaign, what information do you send to your players? Do you make a player’s guide of information they/their characters should know, do you include the hook (“Your character must have some reason to work for the Church of the Golden Octopus”), restrictions, etc.? Basically, what information do you hand your players so they can start creating their characters?

First of all, Leo, let me compliment you for two things. First, you told me how to credit you EXACTLY F$&%ING RIGHT! I don’t know why so many people struggle with “Call me Leo G., and here’s a link to my blog thing.” But, there’s plenty of Care Bear and Porn Name generators out there for all those other yutzes who can’t handle such a simple thing. Secondly, your brief little book reviews are well done. They are just short little snippets that say exactly why someone should read (or shouldn’t read a book). Keep it the f$&% up.

On to your question. I’ve talked about this a few times in bits and pieces, but I don’t think I’ve ever put it all in one place. And it’s also a question I get a lot. So, I’m going to spell it out.

It depends on the campaign.

Anyway, thanks for writing. Have a great day.

Okay, okay, you deserve a better answer than that. I’m just f$&%ing with you.

I actually follow a really simple rule when starting off a new campaign and deciding what to give the players. And it’s a rule that I recommend that absolutely everyone follow. Because, of course, I’m a f$&%ing genius. I do it right. So why wouldn’t you follow my rule?

Here it is: the players need to know to be able to create legal characters that will get together, do the thing that the campaign is about, and will continue to work together to do the thing the campaign is about despite minor to moderate disagreements. AND NOTHING ELSE.

First of all, the truth of the matter is that players won’t read or absorb more than a very small amount of information. They want to play the f$&%ing game. Not read an encyclopedia. I know lots of GMs write these long, complex histories for their worlds. And then they give them to their players. That is a f$&%ing mistake. Players won’t read it, except in some very rare cases. I’ve done it once or twice for some very complex campaigns with some very serious players. I do actually have one campaign player book I wrote that is about 60 pages long. But, generally, you can’t do that. Sorry.

Once you understand that rule, you understand that absolutely everything you give your players must be totally necessary. You can’t include empty narrative calories. You can only give them the absolutely minimum. And the absolute minimum is “whatever they need to know to create characters, start the game, and play the game.”

If your game has any restrictions, list them. Put them on a f$&%ing piece of paper and hand them out. Can’t play evil? Can’t play half-elves? Can’t play sorcerers? Write that s$&% down and hand it to the players. And, while you’re at it, if you’re doing any optional rules, list those too. If you’re not allowing variant 5E humans to start with feats, write that down to.

Basically, I actually like to give a step-by-step guide to character generation. And for each step, I list the things that I’m doing differently from the book or listing the options you can use.

Step 1: Generate Ability Scores – Use the standard array (15, 14, 13, 12, 10, 8). You may not roll for ability scores or use point buy.

Simple as that. That way, it guides people through character generation. Even if you’re going to do a character generation session, still spell it all out so people can read it BEFORE the session and start thinking about their character.

Next, you want to explain the premise of the campaign. Whatever it is, explain it. Even if it’s totally simple.

Here’s two examples of premises from some of my more recent campaigns.

Your character is murdered before the start of the game. You are then resurrected in a catacomb by a mysterious artifact under a city state ruled by wizard guilds whose founder has vanished. Each time you die, you are resurrected in the same place by the mysterious artifact. You don’t know why and you will have to discover it during the course of the campaign. You will also have to protect the secret of the artifact and the secret magic that keeps you alive. There are many factions vying for control of the city and they will be seeking to use or destroy you or the artifact. Thus the party will be forced to work together and trust each other. So, create a character who can function in that sort of forced pact of secrecy. At some point, there will also be a major threat to the city and the characters. You will have get involved with the city’s various factions to help confront the threat or else it will win. In so doing, you will also have to solve the mystery of your own identity.

As the campaign begins, your character has come to the free city of Daggerport on the Sundered Coast. Your reasons are your own. It is a city of refugees, fugitives, privateers, and adventurers and it lies on the gateway of an unexplored frontier filled with ancient ruins and exciting adventures. At the start of the campaign, you will be approached by a mercenary and adventuring guild and they will provide you the first few adventures so that you can get to know your fellow adventurers and build friendships. Over time, you might decide to stay with the guild or to go your own way and pursue your own goals. But you’ll continue to work together. So, build a character at a loose end or with a vague future goal, but who is willing to join an adventuring guild to start a new life and then who will work well with a group of allies to help everyone accomplish their own goals.

Notice that I spell out the major themes of the campaign. I want people to know what they are in for so they can make a character who will play that game. In the first scenario, if you made a selfish person who has no interest in confronting a major threat and who will instantly run away from the city and won’t care about the mystery and the factions and stuff, you would ruin the game. You deserve to know that.

After that, you can add some setting details that allow the players to create story hooks for themselves. For example, in the Daggerport campaign, I described the Sundered Coast and the mysterious ruins and some of the theories about the lost civilization and the strange treasures. And I also described how the city was a pirate and smuggler city that had grown to “respectability” but was still basically semi-lawless, like the old West.

And THAT is usually enough. But, the more detail you add that affects character generation, the more you need to spell out. And because you want to give as little information as possible, you want to be really careful how much you change. That said, you CAN give out rules and mechanics for things like races, classes, and new spells. People will only read that s$&% if they need it.

For example, in the city resurrection campaign (a Pathfinder campaign), I rewrote ALL of the races. The campaign had custom dwarves, two different custom elves, city goblins, urogs (civilized orcs), halflings, and custom humans. All with their own racial traits. I also modified the way magic worked, favored class rules, multiclassing, and a few other odds and ends. And THAT is why that campaign book was 60 pages. But it did also have a highly detailed mythology and world history.

I’m going to say this: EVERY campaign should have a premise. Every campaign should START with a reason for the characters to be together and a basic idea of how they meet and why they stay together. You CAN’T rely on the idiot players to just work that s$&% out. I’ve seen too many GMs start their campaigns with “just go make characters and then you all meet when the village is attacked while you’re in the tavern.” The players make all sorts of random crap, fights start, the group falls apart, and nothing good comes of it.

Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the idea of Session 0 and The Pitch. See, it’s all well and good to just hand players a thing and say “this is the game we’re playing guys, so follow this.” And you CAN do that. There’s nothing wrong with inviting people into a game with a specific premise and saying “this is the game, if you want to play it, go make a character.” But, if I’m sitting down with a group I want to stay together for the long term, I tend to go with a Session 0 and then give The Pitch.

The process begins with the group sitting down and having a guided discussion (guided by me) about the sorts of things everyone likes to play. I ask people about what gaming experiences they’ve enjoyed in the past, favorite books and video games, I talk about some of the games I’ve run, and I generally let people babble while I try to tease out what types of game experiences people are looking for. I try to fit them into the eight basic kinds of gaming engagements. I also pay attention to any specific race and class ideas and backgrounds or hooks people discuss.

Meanwhile, I’m also thinking about the things I like and I usually have a few themes or ideas in mind I want to play with when I start. For the resurrection campaign, that started with the question of whether I could remove death from the game and still make a compelling, challenging, and tense game. For the Daggerport campaign, that came from playing Uncharted and wanting to run something with jungles and ruins.

So, I’ve got my ideas in mind and I listen to what the players say. I let them babble, for the most part, but if they get too distracted, I guide them back onto the subject of things they like (and don’t like). And then, I send them away. And I think about a basic idea. A pitch. A short couple of sentences that came from what they said.

“What if you guys couldn’t die because a weird artifact brought you back to life and tied you to a city of magical guilds?”

If all of the players approve the pitch, I write up the campaign document (all that s$&% I told you to write down and give to the players) and then let everyone build characters and send them to me for final approval. I also encourage the players to talk amongst themselves about what general things they want to play, but I also encourage them to keep background and story details to themselves. That way, the players discuss the roles they want to fill in the game.

Some GMs run character generation sessions. I don’t, unless the players are new and need help. Because character generation sessions are boring as f$&% and one of the reasons I became a GM is so that I don’t have to get involved in character generation crap. There’s nothing for me to do at character generation and I don’t want to spend any extra time with the players if I don’t have to. In this day and age of e-mail and text messages, the players can talk amongst themselves without having to be at the same table.

Anyway, that’s it. That’s how I start a campaign. And it’s the right f$&%ing way. It ensures the players have the barest bones of the information they need to start playing without a bunch of extraneous crap they won’t read (remember, a good storyteller works backstory into the exposition anyway so the players don’t need to know the history of the Bloodaxe tribe until they encounter them). It ensures the players will make characters that will play the game you’re running. And it emphasizes the fact that D&D is a GROUP GAME and the players have to make characters that can FUNCTION AS A TEAM!

Good luck, Leo. Keep writing about books!

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10 thoughts on “Ask Angry: Starting a Campaign

  1. I needed this. Thank you. I’ve been the GM who’s so enamored of his own story-telling ability that I’ve written these long-ass prologues to give the players, half of which they forget or ignore. Likewise, way too many of my campaigns have fallen apart in Act I because I thought my beautiful narrative up front would provide the impetus for the “six strangers” to bring it together in the proverbial inn/tavern/intergalactic space bar. No more of that. I’m taking this advice to heart.

  2. tell us more about the ressurection campaign, the idea is awesome. What happened during the games? And how do you managed to keep the tension alive?

    • I agree, i have always wanted to try something similar to that and i’m curious how it worked and went…

  3. Great advice, Angry! As a novice GM, this is really helpful to get me started, and to get players the info they need without giving the entire campaign away.

    If I may ask, do you typically write segments of your campaign as you go, between sessions? Or do you have everything planned out by the beginning of the first play session? I suppose that may depend on the campaign, but it’s a lot to do before you even begin playing. It may take me months to write up a full campaign before we could even play. (Then again… I am a novice, so…)

    • I would create an outline for the campaign, then add detail in segments, finally fleshing out each adventure as the campaign progresses.

      The outline should list the ultimate goal of the campaign. Destroy the Dark Portal, overthrow the Lich Tyrant, restore the Blasted Lands to life. Then add the major milestones required to reach the end goal. To destroy the portal the players have to create an anti-portal, made of a rare meteorite mineral, spread all over the world. They need to find someone who can work the metal, and convince them to do it. They need to overcome the dark portal masters’ army to get close to the portal.

      Now you can break these into segments, with each segment comprised of one or more adventures. So one segment could be discovering how to destroy the portal – the players need to find hidden knowledge from a lost book, an outcast sage, or the creators of the portal themselves. The next segment would entail them looking for and collecting enough meteorite fragments. And so on.

      With that in hand, you can now flesh out each individual adventure. The players go to a library which requires them to perform a fealty quest to be able to access the Secret Vault. Or they need to traverse the Foul Swamp and the Impassable Mountains to find the sage.

      This way you don’t have to create every adventure right off the bat. If you know what the goal of the segment you are in is, you can plan the next adventure between sessions.

      • Thanks! That definitely helps. I sort of figured this would be the way to do things, because plans could be altered depending on how the adventure progresses. Maybe add in new details, or throw in a twist, based on the choices the PCs make in each adventure.

  4. Wow, was not expecting all the praise from the self-titled Angry. Thanks for the answer! It really helps.

  5. As I DM, I run games under a couple of simple principles; 1) You get out of it what you put into it and 2) My job as DM is to lay the foundation, it is the player’s responsibility to invent the story. If I, as DM, dictate, it won’t be nearly as much fun as when the players get the chance to be creative.
    I have started campaigns a number of different ways. The most successful campaign, that went 8 years of monthly adventures and 3 chapters, was born from the idea of having PCs that were “small”; i.e., they weren’t affecting the world at 3rd level. We had just finished another long-term campaign that petered out before the end because the PCs were too strong. This time, I created a small village with a history, fleshed out most of the NPCs, then took 10 interesting NPCs, added some back story, and handed them to the 5 players to chose which one they’d want to run. I aimed at least on character towards each player’s interests, and had no issues with them selecting. Then I worked with each player to create more backstory, detailed NPCs that were important to them (family, etc), and off we went.
    I recently started a new campaign where the criteria was that the players were 18 years old, and had grown up together in the same neighborhood, went to school together, etc. Each player detailed the race, some basic history, etc and I filled in family, friends, relationships, etc. THEN, I had a 0.5, 30 minute introductory adventure that set up the whole campaign, where they were 6 years old, and something very horrific happened that affected them throughout their lives (including killing the younger brother of one of the PCs). Each PC was then allowed to modify their childhood and teen background based on what happened. So far so good.
    I’ve found that the more background set up for the players, with more NPC relationships, makes for better games and allows the players to do as much of the creating as I do.

  6. I’ll definitely have to try spelling things out this explicitly in the future. In particular, vaguely describing some of the intended future flow of the campaign is not something I would’ve thought of on my own… in part because to me it’s counterintuitive. In a railroaded game I would expect players to want to be surprised within the confines of the genre agreed to, while in a game that’s supposed to be more open-ended I would expect players to want to feel like there are no plot points that are predetermined. However, I can definitely see logic in presenting that kind of sketch of intent; if nothing else, it communicates tone better than just stating an intended tone outright does.

  7. One option for exposition info is to give different parts of the story to different players… That way it’s in more bite sized chunks, and the exposition can be given to the party as a whole in the voice of the characters and only when it actually comes up.

    This can look something like making sure the wizard’s backstory has several elements concerning the structure of the wizard orders in it, and then having an early npc be involved with one of the orders. BAM, the wizard PC scrambles for his notes, because he knows he should recognize this (it’s easy to keep track that you know a single category of things, even if it’s hard to remember the details), and gets to tell the party about how he knows something about the NPC.

    Just make sure none of this is required… 😉

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