How to Start Starting a Campaign: Preplanning the Premise

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The hardest part about writing these f$&%ing things week after week after week is figuring out how to start the damned things. I s$&% you not. Once I get started, I can belt out 5,000 words. 7,000 words. Whatever. But it’s that first f$&%ing sentence that drives me crazy. Why do you think you’re getting such a crap opening paragraph?

Fortunately, at least that crap opening paragraph ties into the actual subject of this article. See, now that we’ve covered the basic elements that lie at the heart of every campaign – the shape and the glue – it’s time to answer the question everyone keeps asking me “how do I actually START a campaign?”

Well, sort of. I can’t do anything easy, can I?

Here’s the problem. Campaigns actually have at least TWO starts. Sometimes, they can have THREE. Or even more. But they very definitely have at least TWO, and mine always have THREE or FOUR.

Okay, okay, obviously, I’m splitting hairs. But I’m splitting hairs to make a point. The point is, you have to be really clear about what you mean by “start” or “beginning” when you ask for advice. Do you mean, for example, how to run that first game that introduces the whole campaign and brings everyone together? Or do you mean how to plan that first game? Or do you need to know how to plan your campaign? Do you want to know how to handle character generation? And, for those of you real clever-clods out there who can already see this one coming, are you talking about PRE-PLANNING? Are you talking about the so-called SESSION ZERO?

You see what I mean? Which one of those things constitutes starting a campaign? The short answer is: all of them. And more if you do what I like to call a “delayed start” campaign.

Starting a campaign – even a simple campaign – is a big, complicated affair. And I can’t cover it all today. So, I’m going to cover the most useful bit today. The bit I call the preplanning. That will lead us nicely into the topic of plotting out the campaign. After that, we’ll come back and backfill some of the other bits of planning. Then we have to discuss some stuff about setting creation. Then, we can talk about character generation. And FINALLY, we can talk about creating and running that first session.

Settle in kids. This is going to be a long series. But before we do ANY of that crap, I’m going to talk about how I generally start off a campaign. And how you should too.

A Campaign is Born

First, remember that a campaign is basically any ongoing at game with any sort of continuity. By that definition, almost every game that is meant to last beyond one single adventure IS a campaign. If you aren’t sitting down to run a one-shot adventure (which might last just one session or span several sessions), you’re going to run a campaign. Now, most GMs don’t think of it that way. They just run an adventure. And after that adventure is over, if everyone wants to get together and play another adventure with the same characters, an impromptu campaign is born. In fact, that’s the most common type of campaign in the entire world. That’s the first campaign almost every GM runs.

Now, you’re smart enough to recognize that as a plate of meatballs campaign, right? Just a loose collection of “adventures of the week.” And you are also smart enough, now, to recognize that those impromptu campaigns are lacking an extremely important element. They have no glue to bind them together. And that isn’t good. That’s asking for the game to peter out someday.

That’s why I always assume that every game that I don’t specifically limit to a single adventure is going to be a campaign. And I plan it accordingly. And you should do the same.

So, here’s what happens. First, I get this desire in my brain to run a campaign. I don’t know where it comes from, but I suspect I have a tumor pressing on a key brain lobe that keeps making me forget that running games is a thankless, plain-in-the-a$& task that basically amounts to a full-time job without the paycheck.

Now, I might have inspiration for a story or I might not. That doesn’t matter. Inspiration is bulls$&%. But it does happen. Sometimes, your brain says, “I’d like to run a game, let the suffering commence.” Other times, your brain says, “I have a neat idea for a campaign about the kidnapping of the goddess of death and winter and the search for her true name, I need to run that.”

If I have an idea for the campaign, I bang that together into what I call a PREMISE. If I don’t have an idea beyond wanting to run a campaign, I still need a PREMISE. The PREMISE is the first real step in developing a campaign. And it comes as a result of what I call PREPLANNING.

Apart from a PREMISE, the other things a campaign needs are PLAYERS. Sometimes, I will have a group lined up already. Other times, I won’t. In other words, sometimes the PREMISE comes first and then the PLAYERS come along. Other times, the PLAYERS come first and then the PREMISE happens.

Now, gathering players is something I will cover in another article. But there’s a very important point here. The PLAYERS will affect the PREMISE, as you’ll see. So, if you don’t have a PREMISE and you don’t have PLAYERS, it’s usually better to gather your PLAYERS first and then figure out the PREMISE. If you have the PREMISE first, you use the PREMISE to gather PLAYERS. The PLAYERS have to agree to the PREMISE. And the PREMISE has to be based on the PLAYERS.

Am I going in circles? Yes. Yes, I am. I’ll try to spell it out simpler.

If you have a PREMISE, be up front with it when you’re gathering players. Tell them outright, “this is the game I’m running. If you want in, you have to agree to this game.” If you have no PREMISE, sit down with your players and have a discussion with them about your desires and expectations AND theirs. After that discussion, you can come up with a PREMISE. Offer that PREMISE to your PLAYERS. If they accept, the game goes forward. If they don’t – or some don’t – you can decide whether to come up with a new PREMISE or seek new PLAYERS that are a better fit for your PREMISE.

Once you have a PREMISE and PLAYERS, the next step is the planning phase. That’s where you make the big decisions. You choose the SETTING, plan any PLOT you have to, and decide on a STARTING POINT. You also need to decide how to handle CHARACTER GENERATION. Now, SETTING, PLOT, and STARTING POINT are all what I consider part of the PLANNING PHASE.

Okay, so you have PREPLANNING which involves developing a PREMISE. Once you have a group of PLAYERS that agree with the PREMISE, you start PLANNING. In PLANNING, you come up with details about the SETTING, PLOT, and STARTING POINT. Follow all of that?

Now, meanwhile, the players have to create characters. That means CHARACTER GENERATION has to happen. And that is going to happen sometime DURING the PLANNING. Why during? Well, the players need certain details to create their characters. At the very least, they need to have enough SETTING details to create characters that fit the world. But depending on how you’re handling the PLOT and STARTING POINT, they may need details about those as well. But, at the same time, to make decisions about the PLOT and STARTING POINT, you need details about the characters.

Long story short, you start PLANNING. And you focus your efforts on the things the players need for CHARACTER GENERATION. Once those details are available, you have CHARACTER GENERATION. And based on what happens during CHARACTER GENERATION, you finish PLANNING. Are good so far?

Now, the PLANNING phase can be simple or complicated. That depends heavily on the campaign you’re running. Fortunately, the PREPLANNING will help you figure out how much PLANNING you need. We’ll cover that as well. Eventually.

At some point in the PLANNING, you will break off and develop your FIRST ADVENTURE. And then you will run that. Note that that doesn’t mean the PLANNING is over. It can. For some campaigns, PLANNING ends when the FIRST ADVENTURE begins. For other campaigns, PLANNING can continue beyond the FIRST ADVENTURE. In fact, the difference between PLANNING the campaign and RUNNING the campaign is very hazy and fuzzy. And the reason for that is that the campaign really exists as a planning tool for future adventures. A campaign is just a roadmap for an ongoing game.

So, one more time, here’s the process. PREPLANNING leads to a PREMISE. Once you have PLAYERS that agree to the PREMISE, you begin PLANNING. During PLANNING, you determine the SETTING, you might plan the PLOT, and figure out the STARTING POINT. Once you’ve done enough PLANNING to allow it, you have CHARACTER GENERATION. After CHARACTER GENERATION, you keep PLANNING until you’re ready to develop a FIRST ADVENTURE. Then you run the FIRST ADVENTURE. At that point, you’re running a campaign, even if you’re still PLANNING.

Now, some people might think I overcomplicated a very simple process. Others might think I may be grossly oversimplifying what is otherwise a complex process. Either way, you’re right and wrong. The complexity varies a lot from campaign to campaign. You can handle the entire process of “starting a campaign” in minutes if you decide to just run an “adventure of the week” for a group of “mercenary adventurers” in the “core D&D setting.” But if you decide to run a complex, multithread plot about five heroes with complex character arcs uniting to help shepherd a unique, homemade world through the Day of Judgment and into a new era, that’s going to take some time.

What we’re talking about today, though? At least for the rest of this article? We’re talking about PREPLANNING and PREMISES. We’ll cover all the other details later.

Don’t Tell Me About Your Story

Before we talk about what goes into a premise, I want to make a very important point here: your story doesn’t matter. I don’t give a crap if you have brilliant ideas for your setting and story. That isn’t what your premise is about. So, forget it. The dirty little secret is this: the campaign you will run is the campaign you are able to run, not the one you want to run. Sorry to burst your bubble.

Now, I’m not talking about that bulls&$% like “if you can’t get the players to agree to your premise, you won’t be able to run the game.” I mean, that IS true, but that’s not the biggest factor. If you’re willing to shop around, between game stores, real life friends, and the plethora of online games, you can usually find at least three players willing to go along with just about any campaign.

What I’m talking about is entirely practical. See, no matter game you want to run, you have to run it in the real world with real people. And you are also a real person. If you work a part-time job and attend classes full-time at college, no amount of dedication will give you the time you need to run a long-running, extremely complex campaign in a completely original world filled with unique monsters and races. If you only have two weeks to get your campaign together because everyone wants to start playing, your brilliantly complex setting isn’t going to happen. Sorry.

The biggest mistake most GMs make when starting campaigns is that they try to run the game they want to run instead of the game they can run. That is, the game they can manage to keep together and the game the players can keep up with.

Basically, as we discuss choosing your premise, we’re going to focus on entirely practical concerns. And you probably aren’t going to want to hear what I have to say. Tough. Running a good game is about recognizing what you can and can’t do.

What Is a Premise?

So, what actually is a premise? A premise is a short description of your intention for the campaign. Some folks like to use the phrase “elevator pitch.” If you’ve never heard that term, it comes from screenwriting. Imagine you’re a screenwriter and you have a great idea for a movie. One die, you find yourself riding in an elevator with a major movie producer. You have the length of that elevator ride to tell the producer your idea and get him to produce your movie. Now, you obviously can’t go over every detail of the entire script. Instead, you have about a paragraph to describe your intentions and sell the movie.

While it is true that you WILL be trying to sell your players on your premise, I don’t like the term “elevator pitch.” See, a premise isn’t just a sales pitch. The sales pitch is a part of it. But the premise is also a planning tool. It has to spell out certain things to be useful. At minimum, a premise MUST spell out the shape of the campaign and it must provide a sense of the glue that will hold the campaign together.

My premises follow a pretty standard format. First, describe WHO the characters are and WHY they will come together. Then, explain WHAT they will do during the campaign.

For example:

“The players are a group of unlikely heroes who come together to save the world. During the campaign, they fight the minions of the demon king and eventually defeat him.”

Or:

“The players are a group of adventurers in a city of adventure who are all members of the guild of adventuring adventurers. During the campaign, they have adventures.”

Now, you don’t have to stop at WHO, WHY, and WHAT. Those simply define the structure of the campaign and the glue that will hold it together. You can also answer two other questions: WHERE does the campaign take place and WHY is your campaign awesome?

The where question refers to the setting. This isn’t something you always have to address in your premise. And even if you do want to address it, you don’t have to come up with too much right off the bat. But we’ll discuss that more in a little while. As for the why question, the why question refers to something called the USP: the unique selling point. A unique selling point is a feature your campaign has that no other campaign can boast about. Again, they aren’t necessary, but they do help get people excited about your campaign. THAT’S where you do your salesmanship.

Now, let’s look at how you might answer each of those five questions.

Who, Why, and What: Practically Speaking

Who are the heroes? Why are they together? What do they do? The answers to those three questions are going to grow directly out of two decisions: what shape will your campaign take and what is the glue that holds your campaign together. And this is where that tricky practicality thing comes in. Before you decide what shape and glue you WANT, you have to think about which ones you CAN HAVE.

When it comes to shape and glue, the fact is that most campaigns suffer from limiting factors. And those factors almost always come down to practical concerns about attendance, reliability, and effort.

In general, the more your campaign relies on strong plot threads and the more of those plot threads you’re going to have, the more effort your campaign requires to run AND play in and the more disruptive any attendance problems will be. The most extreme example is the plate of spaghetti campaign, the one that involves multiple, interwoven plot threads. Especially if those plot threads are character driven threads. Those games require very regular sessions with short time intervals and reliable attendance. If too much time passes from session to session, people lose track of the plot threads. If characters will be dropping in and out due to unreliable attendance, that’s going to derail the ongoing plot threads. And because you’re going to have to write all those adventures and keep track of all those plots and run very regular games, that’s going to take a lot of work. Hours of work for every session, probably.

If you have any doubts about the reliability of your players or the amount of effort you can put into the game, you want to stick with a plate of meatballs. If the players will mostly be reliable and you have some time to spend, you can get away with a sausage or noodle campaign. If you have very reliable players and you can put in a lot of effort, you can do the plate of spaghetti.

Of course, if your group is stable and you’re willing to work, you can choose any shape you want. But you should also consider your own experience level and your tolerance for burnout. If you haven’t run a lot of campaigns before or you are prone to burnout, you also want to stick with meatball campaigns. Alternatively, if you’re brave, try running an adventure path sort of noodle campaign.

If the group is stable and you’re experienced, you can choose any shape you want. But you might also consider discussing the game with your players to get an idea of what they might want. If the players are after a casual experience or they are focused on gamey challenges like killing monsters and gathering loot, they probably just want a plate of meatballs. If they want to experience an epic quest, you want to run a good noodle campaign. If they want complex character building and the opportunity to pursue their own goals, that’s a plate of spaghetti.

And if you aren’t sure, remember that you can always ADD plot threads later. A plate of meatballs game can transition to a noodle campaign, which can become a sausage campaign or a plate of spaghetti campaign. It’s much harder to REMOVE plot threads and convert a plate of spaghetti to a noodle campaign or a plate of meatballs.

Once you have the shape of your campaign down, you need to choose your glue. And, once again, this is based on entirely practical considerations. I don’t give a f$&% what you want or what you feel. You must accept the reality of the game you’re running. And that comes down to a few considerations.

First, the shape of your campaign itself has a lot to do with the glue that holds your campaign together. A noodle or sausage campaign, by its nature, includes a single overarching goal. There’s no reason not to make that your glue. But that doesn’t mean you can’t strengthen it if you have to.

On the other hand, meatball campaigns have no overarching goals. Obviously, they need glue. And they need strong glue. The reason they need strong glue is that any given adventure in a meatball campaign might be unimportant to some of the characters or might only appeal to weak motivations for some characters. That’s unavoidable. Every adventure can’t appeal strongly to every character all the time. Trust me. Strong glue, in those campaigns, helps explain why the characters don’t just split up and pursue their own goals rather than occasionally taking on adventures that don’t pay off as strongly for them.

And, as strange as it may sound, spaghetti campaigns also need very strong glue. By their nature, they are made up of multiple plot threads. And just as with meatball adventures, spaghetti plot-threads might vary in importance from character to character. Strong glue explains why the characters don’t split up as soon as a plot thread of lesser importance gets the focus of the story. Now, spaghetti campaigns can benefit from a common goal if one of the plot threads dominates the others in a sort of a-plot, b-plot setup. That is, if one of the threads is about saving the world, that’s a goal everyone can get behind. The other threads come to the fore only when the saving the world plot calms down a little bit.

But shape isn’t the only consideration when it comes to picking the glue for your campaign. Stability and attendance is another issue. The more unstable your game is, the more unreliable your attendance, the stronger the glue that’s needed to keep the game together. But, if your game is unstable or unreliable, there are some glues that just don’t work. Common goals don’t work well for unstable groups or groups that go a long time between adventures for the same reason that certain campaign shapes don’t work well. Instead, external glues work quite well.

Beyond stability and attendance, another factor rarely discussed by most GMs because most GMs don’t think in practical terms like I do because I’m a f$&%ing genius – sorry, an important factor is group cohesion and player relationships. In general, groups that have been playing together for a long time tend to be more cohesive. They can tolerate weaker glues because they tend to supplement weaker glues by forming personal bonds between their characters that match their interpersonal bonds in real life. In fact, these are the only groups I would advise relying solely on personal relationships or common means to hold the group together.

On the other end of the spectrum are wildcard groups. Those are groups of complete strangers, people who have never played together before. Because you never know what you are getting into, strong glues are needed and external glues work best. Employers and organizations can hold together any group of strangers that doesn’t have a common goal.

Personally, I’ve reached the point now that I pretty much rely on common goal games OR employers and organizations OR I invent some other external glue that ties the players together. And when I don’t know the group well, I make sure to strengthen the glue. I’ll ensure there are restrictions in place to forestall major conflicts (no evil, for example) and I’ll add extra types of glue. For example, in a save-the-world campaign, I might forbid evil and I might also require each character to have some sort of preexisting (but usually long lapsed) relationship. Childhood friends, reuniting for the first time after ten years is one of my favorites.

The shape and glue together answer the who and why. And that leaves you to answer the what. And this is where the story comes in. The what part of the game is actually an excuse for the who and why. Yeah, the story is an excuse for the structure. You heard me. Suck it up.

Obviously, if the game includes a common goal and is based on noodles or sausages, the what part IS the goal. If the goal is to save the world, the what question is “save the world from what.” On the other hand, if the game is a meatballs campaign based on common means – adventurers each having ongoing adventures for their own goals – the what is much hazier. It’s basically just “have adventures.” And if you find yourself having trouble coming up with a good what, that might be a sign that your premise is weak.

Remember, the key is to tell the players who the characters are, what they will be doing in the game, and why. If you can’t answer those three questions, you aren’t ready to get your players to want to play the game. Are you.

Either way, the what part is the story part. If you started this process with a good story idea, now is the time to bring that in. If it fits. And if it doesn’t, you either need to make it fit OR you need to discard it. For example, if you sit down and realize you have a group of unreliable strangers, limited time to spend on campaign work, and can only guarantee two sessions every three months, your brilliant intrigue campaign with five interwoven plot threads with each character a member of a different noble house working toward their own goals is NOT GOING TO WORK. If you aren’t willing to get a whole new batch of players, THROW IT THE F$&% OUT. Or, at least, save it for later. But DO NOT try to force a campaign you and your group CAN’T SUCCESSFULLY PLAY. You’re just going to be sad.

At this point, your premise is technically done. At least, it’s minimally done. You know the shape of the campaign, you know what’s holding it together, and you know vaguely what it’s about. That’s enough to see if your players want to bite. But, there’s a few other questions to think about.

To Setting or Not to Setting

Now, even though you don’t really have to work out any setting details just yet, it IS worth thinking a little bit about the setting. Specifically, you want to decide whether to use no setting, use a published setting, or build your own setting. We’ll talk more about these options when we discuss settings and setting building. But let’s run through the basics.

First, there’s the non-setting. Did you even realize this is an option? Well, it is. The non-setting is the setting IMPLIED in the core rulebook of whatever game you’re running. It’s the one that follows the descriptions of the races and classes in the book, makes use of whatever gods and magical rules are already laid out in the core, that kind of thing. Most people think of this as a specific setting. But it isn’t. Even if it has a name and even if it seems like a setting.

For example, in D&D 3.5, the default setting was based on the world of Greyhawk. And in Pathfinder, the default setting is based on the world of Glorantha. I think. But running in the non-setting IS NOT the same as running in Greyhawk or Glorantha. Those books don’t provide enough information to run in actual Glorantha or actual Greyhawk. They don’t substantially describe any specific locations, they don’t give you any real story threads, they don’t go into detail about any NPCs, and the information you get about things like gods is pretty sparse.

The point is, when you choose to run in the non-setting, what you’re really doing is choosing a blank slate. You can conjure up cities, towns, kingdoms, NPCs, backstories, story hooks, and anything else you need as you need them. The non-setting is a sort of template. It spells out a hazy world that you can detail as you need. And there’s enough spelled out that you really don’t have to do any work beforehand. The races, the classes, their roles in the world, the gods, all that crap that players need to know is already spelled out.

As far as a homebrew game goes, the non-setting is the easiest, lowest effort startup you can get. And there is ZERO shame in it. My-go to campaign setting, which I have dubbed the Angryverse, actually started as the D&D 4th Edition non-setting.

Believe it or not, using a published setting – like the Forgotten Realms – is actually MORE work than using the non-setting. The non-setting requires nothing on your part or on the part of your players to use. Just use the details from the book and add whatever other details you need. Published settings include a lot of details in addition to those already in the rules. Lots of extra gods, locations, NPCs, storylines, and lots of history. And published settings almost always include extra character generation options and extra layers of detail for character generation. All of that adds complexity to the game. And it also adds to the cost. After all, all those setting books have to be paid for.

The payoff, of course, is that published settings are loaded with ideas and hooks and published adventures and all sorts of detail you can draw on. They provide easy sources of inspiration and fallbacks in case you need an adventure, an NPC, or some other detail on the fly. But whatever you want to invent has to be worked in and it has to make sense alongside all the other details.

The other thing that a published setting provides that the non-setting doesn’t is a richly detailed world. If it is important to you and your players that the world feel vast and rich and deeply detailed and have an answer for absolutely everything right out of the gate, a published setting can’t be beat. If you want to provide that kind of experience with your own setting, you need to do A LOT of up front work. The secret is, though, that it isn’t THAT important to have a richly detailed world most of the time. Not up front anyway. And just by playing in the non-setting, you’ll fill it out as you need to.

My advice is this: unless you’re telling a story that can only be told in a setting OR you and your players are particularly passionate about a particular setting, stick with the non-setting. It’s easier on everyone and, even if you do find yourself struggling to invent locations, NPCs, plot-lines, and adventures, you can always import them from a setting and just shave the serial numbers off.

As for the third option, the homebrew setting, well… if you want or need the homebrew setting, you’ll probably know it. A homebrew setting is a detailed setting, like a published setting, but it’s one you’ve invented yourself. It is distinct from the non-setting in that it deviates from the core rules from the book. It may involve custom races, custom classes, custom deities, or unique rules. We will discuss developing your own setting someday. But if your homebrew setting doesn’t change any of the details in the rulebooks – if it’s just a world map – that’s just the non-setting. Which is fine.

Remember though that this is just PREPLANNING. You don’t have to make a whole lot of heavy decisions at this point. You just want to think about whether you need a specific setting or not and whether you plan to write that setting yourself. And you want that as part of your PREPLANNING because it will tell you how much work you have to do before CHARACTER GENERATION can happen and it will also let the players know how much they might have to invest. The non-setting is easy for players. A published setting is more complicated. A homebrew setting is a heavy investment for players.

Oh, and just because you choose a non-setting, that doesn’t mean you can’t make some tweaks. It’s not unusual to remove a few options or even add a few from other sources. And you can decide on those things when you start PLANNING.

What Makes Your Idea So Great?!

At this point, you’ve figured out the shape of your campaign and decided on the glue. You’ve worked those things in a very basic PREMISE that describes who the characters are, why they are together, and what they will do during the campaign. And you may have either decided not to decide on a setting or you may have decided you need a serious setting: published or invented. And if you came into the campaign starting process with nothing, then guess what? You’re done PREPLANNING. Take your PREMISE to your PLAYERS and see if they will bite.

BUT, maybe you came into this process with an IDEA. Maybe you did have a story to tell or a setting to tell it in. Now, assuming your idea survived the process – that you didn’t discard it as impractical for you and your group – assuming your idea is still viable, you have one more job to do. And it’s a doozy. In one or two sentences, you have to tell the players the coolest, most awesome thing about your campaign idea. The thing that will make them want to play it more than anything else.

That’s hard. I know it’s hard. Because your ideas are big and complicated and your players really need to hear everything to understand just how cool your campaign is going to be. What you should really do is type it all out in a three-page e-mail and see if they like it.

No! Bad! Stop! Wrong!

The point of the premise is not to give the players everything. It’s just to get them interested enough to want to know more. And the point of preplanning is not to design your whole goddamned campaign. That’s why it’s PREplanning and not PLANNING. You can never be sure your campaign idea is going to fly. And you can never be sure that your players aren’t going to drop a whammy. I once worked up an entire treatment for a two-year epic only to have three of my five players reveal they were all moving out of state within the next six months to one year. PLAN RUINED.

No matter what you think you know, you don’t. Don’t assume you do.

I can’t give you any advice here. This is hard as f$&%. Trust me. I know. I don’t write anything short. I don’t do brevity. But I’m telling you: find a way to say it short. You’ll have time to fill in all the details later. For now, pick the most interesting thing and sell THAT.

For example, I ran a campaign a few years back where the players discovered they were the reincarnated spirits of dead adventurers from the long past who were plucked from time by a powerful mage and bound to an artifact that would keep resurrecting them every time they died so as to protect the mage’s city from a prophesized cataclysm but then the mage disappeared before she could explain any of this and the huge city state was left in a state of political chaos as seven different magical guilds all tried to seize control and meanwhile history was changing because the mage had pulled the heroes from their proper place in time and the cataclysm they were meant to stop was only going to happen because it hadn’t been stopped in the past by the heroes because they were suddenly pulled out of time and the whole world skewed into two different worlds – a right one and a wrong one – and the heroes had to decide whether which world to preserve and whether to sacrifice themselves in the process assuming they even figured out this whole thing before shub niggurath woke up and destroyed everything.

The pitch I sold the players was:

What if every time you died, a magical artifact brought you back to life and you didn’t know why? And what if seven magical guilds vying for control of a powerful city-state were all trying to use you to gain power and none of them were aware of a coming disaster only you could prevent?

There you go. Done and done. The rest could be explained later.

That isn’t even the most complicated campaign I’ve ever run. Believe it or not.

My point is, you have to go through your big, bold, awesome idea and pick out the one or two really cool things no other game has ever done. And that is what you sell to your players.

But honestly, if you’re not going into this process with big ideas, if you just want to run a game, you don’t have to sweat the unique selling point. Most players are totally happy to hear “you’re a bunch of mercenaries and freelancers who have joined a group of exiles and refugees settling an unexplored frontier land. You’ll work for the leaders of the settlement, exploring the wilderness, protecting the settlers, and establishing relationships or warring against newly discovered civilizations.”

At least it tells them what to expect.

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19 thoughts on “How to Start Starting a Campaign: Preplanning the Premise

  1. Wonderful! See, this is the sort of s*%# that should be in a “how to DM” chapter/book. Thanks, Angry

  2. And yet after all the words spent telling that setting or non setting isn’t much more that a personal preference, I’m pretty sure that there will be questions about the point when one becomes the other.

    I like the realistic look about the types of campaigns in that article: you can always plan for a meatballs campaign, but for anything else you’re risking failure, and the longer you plan ahead and the more likely it is that it will fail.

    However it shouldn’t prevent you from trying, first because there is a thing as too much meatballs, for you and for any player. Second because if you don’t try you won’t ever succeed, and one success is worth a good bunch of failures.

    That campaign idea about adventurers spirits sounds awesome. My bet is on shub nigurath’s victory. On both worlds.

  3. Pedanticus refuses to believe that ‘preplan’ is a word. Pedanticus also fails to notice the obvious humour of ‘start starting’.

  4. WARNING: This comment relates to a West Marches style campaign, and is part of a now growing series of comments failing utterly to be even half as useful or interesting as the articles they reside beneath.

    During the development of my campaign setting, I decided to tie character generation closely into my idea of how the world works. As I anticipated high character mortality (I have so far killed five characters across two sessions – it was all their fault, honest), I decided to create a system that would enable players to randomly generate characters based on demographic roll tables (making nobles less common than guild artisans, and tieflings less common than humans, etc.).

    Not only is this in keeping with my obsession with ‘realism’ (I did quite a lot of research into 14th C. England ), but it also reinforces key ideas, like the rarity of ‘civilised’ wood elves, on a frontier which recently saw a period of serious unrest (some called it ‘war’) between the human settlers, and the original wood elf inhabitants over farming and forestry boundaries.

  5. I am currently between campaigns and picking away at worldbuilding. One thing to consider there, if you’re doing your own setting, is how you might present multiple options for campaigns, if you’re not completely set on running Some Particular Adventure. One thing I’ve been doing, while laying out the historical timeline for my world, is identify points that would make for interesting alternate sub-settings and prepare pitch lines for them.

    For example, this year is when the Dead Legion invaded the First Empire, have the zombie campaign here; that year is when Fantasy-Japan ruled the seas, have the ninja pirate campaign here; this other year is when that one god went missing, have the panicking clergy campaign here; and so on.

  6. I may have it, I may be completely on the wrong page. Comment appreciated.

    My upcoming campaign started with “what if I had this device that makes infectious zombies and skeletons?”

    And became: What if once upon a time there was an ancient artifact, long thought destroyed, that brought an undead-creating plague? What if the legends who destroyed it had an immunity to the plague in common? What if you and a few others learned the hard way that you were immune to the plague? Get it or it’ll get you, but know that along the way you’ll also have to deal with demons, dragons, cultists, and the occasional spoiled noble.

    Too much detail?

    • You could probably shave that down to two sentences.

      For that matter, “once upon a time”, “ancient”, “long thought”, and “legends” are making me confused as to just how many past time periods I’m supposed to keep straight.

  7. A high quality article as always. For my (soon ending) campaign did something a little different than you, Angry, let’s call it “Collaborative Planning.” The quick version is that I planned half the campaign, then let the players’ backstories fill out the other half of the campaign.

    I wrote out my premise: “The players are a group of unlikely heroes who uncover evil acts performed by a shadowy cult. During the campaign they unravel the mystery of the cult and ultimately defeat it.” I developed a simple setting for the campaign, broad strokes without too many specifics, all general information anyone living there would know.

    I then sent my players the setting information and, instead of a pitch as you recommend, asked that they create detailed backstories (3-5 paragraphs) and, basically, anything they established in their backstories was canon for the setting within reason. I did not tell them what kind of adventure they were going on, but said that I was aiming for something Noble Dark with hints of mystery, intrigue, and horror.

    I also asked them to answer a few questions in their backstories, two of which are relevant. The first was “Why are you willing to go out of your way to help people, even if it’s dangerous or you’re not getting paid well?” This served as glue and ensured to drastic ‘alignment’ issues – in the face of a dangerous cult they were all going to be characters who wanted to deal with it.

    The second was “What’s your darkest secret that would get you thrown in prison if anyone found out?” They were not allowed to reveal this answer out of character, and revealing it in-character would have consequences. I ended up getting a former necromancer, a half-demon, a soldier who had left some of his fellows to die in the wilderness years ago, and a player who just didn’t want to put down a dark secret – but whose family made ‘the best glass in the land’.

    I then adapted all of these dark secrets into the plot of the adventure. The cult is using and researching necromancy as part of its schemes. The fruit of its research (a magical potion) can empower dark magic, and every time they get near it the half-demon starts to hear voices in her head. Two of the main lieutenants of the cult are people betrayed by the soldier. The cult needs high-quality glass to house the potion, it corrupts anything else it touches, and that one player’s family has been supplying the cult for weeks.

    Is it contrived for the heroes to be so directly connected to the plot? Perhaps, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Giving the protagonists a personal stake in the adventure, or at least some kind of connection to it, makes players feel like their backstories actually mean something. I’m lucky enough to have a consistent group that can play together most weeks so this style of game can be much harder to pull off with drop-in-drop-out participation.

  8. I am thinking about a campaign with this as the pitch.

    What if you were a group of adventurers hired by an aging heiress to discover a lost city that would secure her fortune. Along the way, you would have to survive other treasure hunters, hostile tribes, traps, and jungle creatures. And maybe discover why the city became lost in the first place.

    Any ideas on how I could improve?

  9. Not sure about the pitch itself, except to point out it’s missing that “special ingredient” (the unique selling point designed to get players excited about the game before it even starts) Angry suggests should be present.

    As an employer (an external motivator) how does the heiress impose agreed norms of behaviour (resolve conflicts)? I’d suggest a group “redshirts” to act as mouthpieces of the employer–reminding the PCs of their contractual agreement. Perhaps an base camp set up by the heiress’s men some way into the jungle (reaching this should be an adventure milestone itself), with the ability to reward evidence of the PCs progress. Subtle reminders of the PCs obligations.

    You could provide players a list of personal goals/motivations to choose from in order to give each a more personal investment in the events of the campaign:

    *You are a secret agent of the inquisition (because nobody ever suspects…), joining the expedition in order to investigate a missionary who has supposedly gone “native”, and is now worshipped as a saint, or god.

    *Your evil uncle stole a map, gifted to you by your dying father, the sole survivor of a previous expedition claiming to have located the lost city.

    *You seek revenge for the death of your first love, who died at the hands of a cruel mercenary now employed by unscrupulous treasure hunters (the evil uncle, above).

    *An expert in exotic plants, you grew up mesmerised by legends of a mythical flower. One which only blooms once every 100 years and only deep within the ruins of a fabled lost city. The perfume of the flower is said to produce dreams and visions of prophetic power.

    *Kidnapped from your jungle tribe as a child, you never-less grew up to become an expert hunter and tracker. The emerald naga—your tribe’s spirit guardian—has begun stalking you in your dreams.

    *Your mistress is no fool, she recognises the temptations these adventurers will suffer should they be successful in their search. Your job is to watch for treachery and guarantee the heiress’s considerable investment in this expedition.

    These campaign specific character backgrounds may also generate additional excitement about the game by promising/foreshadowing future encounters. Just remember to make sure all roads lead to Rome — i.e. each of the presented motivations/goals should have the opportunity of being resolved simply by engaging with your adventure as structured. Or you could use them to generate conflicts and moral dilemmas by forcing the PCs to make choices between satisfying these PC-based “quests” and opportunities to more efficiently resolve the campaigns major objectives. Bonus points for figuring out how all these seemingly disparate threads interconnect!

    I hope this helps.

  10. “If they want complex character building and the opportunity to pursue their own goals, that’s a plate of spaghetti.”

    Let’s say I want to run this kind of a campaign. What kind of glue do I prefer? Common goal is the strongest one but I don’t understand how it’s applied in this case. Is it contradictory? Any thoughts?

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