And so, another year comes to an end. And what a f$&%ing year it’s been. That, by the way, is the second year in a row I’ve said that. What a f$&%ing disaster. But there’s a new year coming now. I know that doesn’t actually MEAN anything. The difference between one year and the next is just an arbitrary line chosen basically at random by some crusty old Romans and then tweaked by some ancient Pope. To the left of this date is last year. To the right is next year. But nonetheless, they are significant. We don’t live in reality. We live in what think reality looks like. And we impose beginnings and endings and patterns and shapes on reality. And that affects how we react to it. So, if we tell ourselves there is a new goddamned year filled with new possibilities and maybe it won’t be as bad as the last year, we’ll make it so.
Well, f$&%, I didn’t mean for this to be so introspective. And I’m not sure if it’s good introspective or bad introspective. It’s pretty bad when you can’t tell the difference between cynicism and optimism anymore. That whole argument for looking forward to the new year is basically a non-religious Pascal’s Wager, isn’t it? Well, maybe it is. Who cares. What I do know is this: I’m actually looking forward to SOMETHING right now. And that’s a huge change.
What am I looking forward to? I’m starting a new campaign. A for-fun campaign. Not that I’m not enjoying running on-line one-shots for the luckiest of my Patreon supporters on a monthly basis. They are fun. But running drop-in, drop-out missions for random groups of 25 people isn’t the same as running a campaign. And I’ve been going through the longest GMing dry spell of my life. For the last thirty years, I have managed to run regular weekly RPG sessions with no more than a four or five-month hiatus. And that stopped when I moved to Chicago. I tried to start it up again, but I ran into many obstacles. And the games I managed to start all fell apart fairly quickly. Eighteen months later, I’m going through some serious withdrawal.
Well, as of this month, I’m done with that s$&%. I recruited four players for an online D&D game. Yeah, online. I’ll take what I can get. And honestly, I’m not as critical of online games as I once was. You just have to learn how to run them right. And that means basically NOT using all the electronic tools that various virtual table-tops offer to “expedite the game” and just run a game the way you would at the table. But that’s neither here nor there. The point is, two weeks ago, I sat down – virtually – with four pretty cool players whose names I am withholding for a Session Zero. And from that Session Zero, I developed a Pitch and sent it to the players. And they agreed to it. So, in about two weeks, we’ll be starting a six-month D&D 5E campaign. Well, six months or however long it takes me to score my first TPK. We’ll see.
Now, I’ve been talking a lot about the THEORY of designing and starting an RPG campaign. But theory can only get you so far. And try as I might, I can’t explain absolutely every possibility. And it is also almost impossible to explain the creative process. And that’s when it’s time to get EXEMPLARY. Right now, while the Campaign Zero is fresh in my mind and the Pitch hasn’t been relegated to some forgotten computer folder, I can actually SHOW YOU my process. Sort of. Basically, I can tell you what happened at the Session Zero. And what happened in my head during and immediately after the Session Zero. And then show you what my Pitch actually looked like. And hopefully, that will somehow help some of you start your own campaigns. And if not? Well, at least I f$&%ing tried. What have YOU done for ME lately?
A Brief Review of My Process
Although I’ve explained this in detail in previous articles, let me just quickly reiterate the process I use to start a campaign. First, I note anything I have already decided about the campaign. Scheduling, game system, any ideas for the campaign itself, whatever. Usually, I start with very few decisions made. Then, I recruit the players – assuming I don’t already have some – make sure that they are onboard with the firm decisions that I’ve already made. After that, I have a Session Zero with my players. During the one-to-two hour bulls$&% session, I get the players to talk about various gaming experiences so I can get a sense of what they enjoy. Then I start lobbing ideas at them and thinking out loud to see what they respond to. I take notes about anything they latch on to. When the Session Zero is over, I read over the notes and think. Within 24 to 48 hours, an idea for the premise of the campaign magically appears in my head. I then massage that idea into a one-to-two page description of why the campaign will be awesome to play and send that to the players. If they like it, I figure out the details they need to create characters and then develop the campaign while they are creating characters. And then we play. And then everyone dies and I win. And I laugh. And I have cake. And then I have to make a new campaign.
That’s the basic process. And the part that is the hardest to describe – the part that I’m hoping this article will shed some light on – is the part where a campaign idea magically appears in my head based on everything that we discussed. So let me walk you through what happened in my brain before, during, and after the Session Zero. Buckle up. This is going to be pretty “stream of consciousness” type stuff. And my consciousness can be pretty strange. Let’s get started.
I Want to Run a Game and I Don’t Care What
Basically, this whole process started at the beginning of December. I decided that I wanted to run a campaign. For reals. A fun one. For friends. Not strangers. But the reality of my situation was that it would have to be an online game. For now. Maybe that will change in six months. Who knows? I had a short list of people who I considered friends to approach. And that was basically it. I had nothing else. I didn’t even give a thought as to what system I wanted to run. I just wanted to run a f$&%ing game.
Unfortunately, it’s difficult to recruit players with absolutely nothing. I knew, at the very least, that I’d need to have some idea about the schedule for the game. Otherwise, I’d run the risk of recruiting a bunch of people who couldn’t fit a schedule together. And, the thing is, scheduling is pretty much the BIGGEST factor when it comes to starting a new game. Not system. Not player compatibility. It’s the goddamned schedule. That’s what adulthood is all about. Making f$&%ing time.
First, I knew I wanted to run a weekly game. I don’t like running campaigns less often than once a week. See, I’m all about immersion in the world and the story. I like rich details, strong characters, and emotional investment. And those rely very heavily on the sort of familiarity with the world that only comes from playing every f$&%ing week. My own schedule pretty much knocked out the weekends. So I settled on Thursday as the best night to play. I’ve always had good results with Thursday night games. It doesn’t force people to give up weekend engagements. And if you go too late, you only have to get through Friday at work a little tired. I kept Tuesday as a backup possibility.
Second, I knew that I was going to run sessions that last at least four hours. Three hours is just too damned short to build any momentum. Five hours is pushing the limits of people’s endurance. I tend to get my best results in the four-to-five-hour range.
Third, I knew that I was going to be making a major move in August of 2018. And that meant I should plan for the campaign to finish up in July. So the campaign would run six-to-seven months.
When all was said and done, I knew the time commitment I’d be looking for. And that was enough for me to approach the players on my short list of Internet “friends.” Basically, I sent each of them a message that said “I want to run a weekly campaign for about six months starting in January on Thursday or Tuesday nights. Do you want in? It will be awesome because this is me!” And eventually – and very quickly – I had four yesses.
Oh, right. Four. See, I wanted four players. Generally, in real life games, I find four-to-five players is a sweet spot. But online games are a little slower and harder to manage. So I’ve had better results with three-to-four. Four is a nice number because you can still run a game even if one person is absent. So that was my target. And the seats were filled.
Getting Ready for Zero Hour
Now, the four players are all people I’ve had enough conversations with online to call friendly acquaintances. And I’ve actually run one-shot games for each of those players in the past. And the players even had some familiarity with each other. And let me tell you something, that greases the wheels a lot. A blind session zero with a bunch of strangers can be a very difficult thing. You don’t have to know much about the people sitting at the table. And they don’t have to know each other too well. But they have to be able to chat comfortably. Remember, the key to a good Session Zero is comfortable chatting about anything other than the actual game you’re going to run.
But before the chatty part could happen, I knew there were some questions we’d have to settle. First, we’d have to finalize the schedule and a starting date. Then, we’d have to decide on a rules system. And the rules system would, to some extent, make some choices about the genre and type of game. We already had a basic idea about scheduling. So I needed to be ready to talk about the system.
It is extremely dangerous to go into a question like “what rules system should we use” with a blank sheet of paper. Group decisions are hard enough when they are constrained. Unconstrained, they can take forever. So I decided to come up with a shortlist of systems I’d be happy to run. Obviously, at the very top of that list was Dungeons & Dragons. But, to be honest, after analyzing 5E to death and seeing a lot of holes and flaws and limitations, I wasn’t super excited about jumping back into the current edition. That said, I didn’t want to go back to the kludgey mess that was AD&D 2E. Or worse, AD&D. So I put D&D 3.5, D&D 4E, and D&D 5E on the list. I also included Pathfinder. However, I made it very clear that, in any case, I didn’t want the game to get overwhelmed with sourcebooks and options. So, whatever system we were going to use, we’d restrict ourselves primarily to core rulebooks with very few additions. I then included a few other systems I’d be willing to run. I wanted to try out both Starfinder and Shadow of the Demon Lord, so I threw them both on the list. And I enjoy running Savage Worlds, so I included that as a more open-genre option. So, we had D&D fantasy, gothic horror fantasy, science fantasy, and generic action-adventure. That seemed like a good list of options.
Now, I’d be lying if I said that was all I had. The thing is, I also know myself. And I know the things I like to run. I’m a world-builder, first of all. I like to build fantastic, detailed worlds with rich histories and interesting characters. And I like for those details to come out during play. As a result, I like games that involve a high degree of exploration and discovery. I’m also pretty old school. And that means two things. First of all, I like action. Not just combat, all sorts of action. But also combat. I like building exciting challenges. And you can see how those two factors informed my list of systems. As a GM, I run a pretty balanced mix of exploration, interaction, and combat in an engaging and detailed world. Perfect for D&D. Second of all, I like epic quests and grand adventures. I like battles between good and evil. Save the world. Destroy the empire. That kind of crap. And for a campaign that has to end on a certain date, it’s very helpful to have an end-point in mind. Epic quests and grand adventures provide that end-point. They also provide a very obvious through-line for the campaign and a strong glue that holds the group together.
So, armed with the schedule, the list of potential systems, and my own knowledge of what I like to run, I was ready for Session Zero.
And so, my four players and I gathered one night in a Discord group chat to have a Session Zero. And, right from the beginning, it did not go according to the script. The problem was that my four chosen victims all read my s$&%. And so, they knew exactly what kind of bulls&%$ manipulation I normally pull during Session Zero to get people talking. And that was going to make things hard. I was afraid they might have sat down and thought about the things they wanted to say beforehand, thus preventing me from getting the most natural answers from their emotional lizard brains. As a general rule, when it comes to talking about what people like, you don’t want them using their conscious brains. People are good at knowing what they like when they see it, but terrible at thinking about what they like.
But I don’t want to get ahead of myself. First of all, the schedule thing came and went. We settled on a schedule. Technically, I totally forgot to settle the schedule thing until the very end when one of the players reminded me that we should do that. So it came and went at the end of the Session Zero. Whatever.
The system discussion also came and went without incident but with a little disappointment. Everyone pretty much agreed that D&D 5E was the easiest and the most approachable. I couldn’t sell them on anything else, but then, I didn’t try too hard. I just shut up and let them explain why 5E was the best, admitted it wasn’t my first choice, and then accepted it. Oh well. At least the game would be easy to run.
But the system discussion did bring up one thing that became very important. I mentioned that I wanted to restrict the options to core only. Further, I also mentioned that I tend to come up with a subset of the races, classes, and backgrounds that suit the campaign I’m running. I wanted to make sure they would be okay with that. Most of the players were perfectly happy with that. One explained that she was open to playing anything and would pick from whatever was available. Another had very old-school leanings toward the traditional classes and races of the old days of D&D. A third expressed a preference for humans and clerics and specifically mentioned that his favorite cleric had been a servant of Kord – the god of storms and strength and the sea. The fourth, though, asked about genasi. Just, in passing. If you don’t know, those are humanoid part-elementals. Like tieflings, but descended from djinn and s$&% instead of from fiends. And while I explained that genasi weren’t generally something that fit into my conception of elementals, I did make a note all the same. In the end, the players showed a strong leaning toward humans and were quite happy to have a shorter list of options that were tied to the game world in a particular way.
And that’s when the fun began. With the system question settled, it was time for me to figure out just what the hell game these people wanted me to run. And figure out how to also make it fit the game I wanted to run. And I couldn’t just get them babbling about video games or books. So I started by asking them about the one-shot games they had played with me. Specifically, I asked them what had been missing from those games that they thought a campaign would do better.
Two of the players immediately fixated on my world-building. They knew I had a detailed world with a rich history and mythology. And they knew that they weren’t a part of it because one-shots just don’t let you be a part of the world. They wanted to become a part of the world. Attached to it. Of those two, one further elaborated that they liked to get attached to characters and build relationships. They’d like to get to know a specific setting and deal with recurring characters. And this led to a discussion about the size of the world.
See, that crap is nice, but it’s at odds with the fact that I like a wide variety of fantastic environments and world-spanning exploration and all of that crap. Those two players wanted to be homebodies. They wanted to live in a place and get to know it. To love it. Maybe to have connections to it. I wanted to show off a world.
In the end, with a little bit of back and forth, we discussed the idea of the campaign telling the story of a small, single kingdom. There would be a capital city from which the players could strike out on their adventures, but also a few smaller towns and villagers that the players would spend some time in. And with enough frontier to provide some adventure. I’d settle for that, even though it was a bit too traditional English countryside adventure for my tastes. And I was already thinking about different ways to pull off the same thing.
I sold the idea of a capital city as a home base and a small frontier kingdom as the setting. And that worked very well for one of the other players, the old schooler. He wasn’t as interested in getting attached to the world as he was to going out and having adventures in the wild frontier. And I made note of that. Because epic quests and old-school adventure are my jam too. And I’d have to figure out a way to make that work.
Now, when players are begging to be emotionally attached to something, it’s usually a good idea to make that a focus of the campaign. They wanted to be attached to their families and their kin and their home base. And I wanted a good, epic quest with a definite end-point. So I figured the kingdom itself should be the object of the quest. In this case, the kingdom was in danger. I floated the idea of a small, frontier kingdom being invaded by a hostile external force. The players responded positively, so I made note of that.
And then one of the players brought up a specific one-shot adventure I’d run for a few of them. It had been a mystery adventure. Ostensibly, it had been about a serial killer, but it turned out there was actually an ancient catacomb under a neighborhood in the city and a ghoul was dragging people down into the depths to feed on them. And at that, one of the other players brought up another mystery adventure I’d run. One about tracking down an assassin before he could fulfill his latest contract. Three of the four players were suddenly perking up about how fun it was to solve mysteries.
Now, when a bunch of players brings up mysteries during a Session Zero, I take notice. I don’t get to run good mysteries often. And, at the campaign level, you can do some fun s$&% with mysteries. Specifically, I can do something I call the “Layers of the Onion” campaign. That’s a campaign that centers around a specific mystery or a buried truth. There’s an ancient conspiracy, for example. Or a corrupt cult is gradually building its power. Or some long-forgotten event from the world’s past is about to be repeated unless the players can stop it. That kind of crap. And that is precisely what I said to the players. I said, “this is usually what I do for people who like a good mystery” and I explained the layers of the onion thing. I mostly positive responses, though my old-schooler was kind of quiet.
Now the wheels are spinning. We have a small kingdom. An external force. And a deep mystery that has to be unearthed. And it has to involve exploration of fantastic environments. And have a lot of good, old-school action. A mix of interaction, investigation, wilderness exploration, and dungeon crawling fun. So, what if the kingdom had a past. Or rather, the people had a past. What if they had been refugees from some past event. Some secret event only a select few knew about. They had established a new homeland on the wild frontier. The kingdom was young, just a few generations. Old enough to have a big city and a few villages, but young enough to still be surrounded by wilderness. And what if that past catches up to the kingdom. In the form of a hostile, external force. The heroes would have to protect the kingdom by digging into its mysterious past. Identify the hostile force. Understand what it wanted. Counteract it. Whatever.
But there was one problem with that idea that didn’t sit well with me. It wasn’t explory enough for my tastes and I was worried my old-schooler might not find enough to sink his teeth into. I wanted to map something in hexes, goddamn it. And have fire caves and ancient ruins and all that s$&%.
And that’s when one of those lucky breaks happened that clicked everything into place. See, I’d been watching this honest-to-God muppet named Arlo play through Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker on YouTube. And that drifted through my head and crashed into that brief mention of the god of sea and storms, Kord, and the answer came rising up out of the sea. What about an island chain? An archipelago. Wild, untamed islands with ancient ruins to explore. And a port city at the heart of it. The heroes could call the port city home and sail out to have adventures on the islands. That would allow me to pack a lot of small chunks of exploration of varied landscapes into a space that the party could still return home from every day.
And when I put forth that idea, one of the players ran with it. He said that it would be really cool if the party had a travel progression. That they started off limited to exploring the main islands that could be reached by rowboats or canoes. And then they got a ship. And maybe an airship. My old-schooler got more engaged at the promise of exploring ancient ruins on a variety of islands. And I got more engaged because I’d be able to get my exploration fix without taking the party away from their home base forever.
And that was it. The frontier kingdom became a tropical island archipelago. A bunch of refugees had landed there by accident generations ago, on the run from something. And they had prospered. Built a kingdom. And had been mostly forgotten by the world. Until… something.
The idea of the travel progression also encouraged the idea of a progression in the scope of the adventures. Early on, for a few adventures, the heroes would be accidental adventurers doing normal adventure things. Until they start to realize that their adventures are connected to something bigger. In the meanwhile, a threat would make itself obvious. A growing threat. Their adventures delving into the ancient ruins would empower them to discover their people’s only true past and to confront and drive off the threat to their island home. Perfect.
And that would have been where we left off. Except for one doorknob question. You know what I mean. A question someone asks just before they leave, with their hand on the doorknob. “Can there be a dragon?” That was it. One of the players wanted to take down a dragon. Fine. There would be a dragon.
And that was Session Zero.
From Zero to Pitch in One Night
By the next morning, I had a pitch in my head. Now, what you have to understand is that I didn’t have all the answers in my head. But I had enough of a pitch to sell the campaign. Basically, I knew I wanted a tropical island chain. But I wanted it to be pretty wild and untamed. And the mention of genasi and dragons and Kord got me thinking about wild, raw, primal forces. Raw elements. I envisioned a chain of wild islands, formed by elemental magic in the distant past and still teeming with primal energy. The people who survived and prospered there hadn’t thrived, they had fought the environment. They had tamed their own little corner. And it was a matter of desperate survival. An accidental arrival. Perhaps they had been waylaid there by a storm while on the run from something. An imperial army would work for a start.
But they weren’t the first to inhabit the islands. There were signs of an ancient kingdom. One that, in the end, had been consumed by the savage fury of the islands. Or some ancient cataclysm. Or something like that. I wasn’t sure what it all meant, but I sure as hell knew that I could run a campaign about an ancient group of refugees fleeing across the sea and getting stranded on the shores of a magical land. And an ancient magical force. And invaders. Maybe the invaders would want to control the magical force. Maybe the PCs would have to control the magical force. Or maybe the magical force couldn’t be controlled and would merely complicate the invaders. Whoever they were.
And that was all I needed. See, the secret to writing a good pitch is to show off a world that the players want to explore and leave a bunch of questions the players want to answer. And I wanted to BUILD this world. Which is the same as exploring it. And I wanted to FIGURE OUT the answers to these questions. Which is the same as discovering the answers. So, if I was sold, the players probably would be too. And so, I opened up a Word document and banged out a pitch.
After I got through all the minutiae about the schedule and the system, I focused on four key selling points: refugees forced to forge a kingdom after fleeing from invasion, powerful ancient magic, discovering the truth of the path, and a progression from accidental heroes to saviors of the kingdom. I pulled a few names out of my a$& and I sent it off to my players.
I’ll link to the pitch below. But there’s one last thing to clear up.
Where I’m At Now
At this point, a week later, I know the answers. After I dashed off the pitch and the players agreed to it, I started working out the answers for myself. But I can’t share them. That’s the other problem with knowing my players are reading this. They aren’t important though. What’s important is that I didn’t have many answers when I came up with the pitch. The point of a pitch is to sell the game you want to run, not to sell the one you’ve already written. So that pitch represented almost everything I knew about the game when I wrote it, barring a few minor details.
Oh wait, there is still one thing I don’t know. I don’t know how the dragon fits in. But he’s there. Or she. But I do know genasi ARE a playable race. Because they work now.
And with all of that said…