We interrupt your regularly scheduled series of articles about campaign design for a life lesson: never ask the Internet what topic you should cover next in your series of articles about campaign design.
In case you can’t tell, I made a mistake. A big f$&%ing mistake. I was ready to continue my series entitled “How to Build a F$&%ing Campaign.” So, I posted a simple question on social media: “if you were starting a new campaign, what one thing would you advice about.” Holy s$&%.
Someday I’ll learn.
It started off innocently enough. A lot of folks brought up Session Zero as a good topic. And I agreed. That WOULD be a good topic. If not for the OTHER folks. See, there was a whole host of people that I realized couldn’t handle the topic of Session Zero without a goddamned primer about HOW TO BE A NORMAL F$&%ING HUMAN BEING AND LIVE IN THE REAL WORLD.
Okay. Let me calm down before I have that stroke and prove my doctor right. Besides, his office has a pool going about my upcoming stroke and it’s Amy’s week. I don’t want HER making any money off of me. She knows why.
After posing that question, I got a lot of “what’s better, this or that” style questions. “What’s better,” for example, “running the campaign you know you want to run OR running the campaign the players want you to run.” Or “what’s better? Letting the players play the characters they already have in mind and writing a campaign around them OR giving them the premise for the campaign and telling them to create characters around that?” Stuff like that. And those all basically come down to one of two things, “in the gaming group, whose desires win” or “when I’m faced with an obstacle, should I change myself or blast through the obstacle.”
The problem is that those AREN’T Game Mastering questions. Those are questions about how do deal with other human beings and live in the real world. And I realized that if I’m going to discuss how to have a Session Zero as the first step in campaign design, I was going to have to start with Remedial Humanity 101. Now, don’t worry. I’m not going to try to turn you into a better person. F$&% no. If I know you – and I do – you’re beyond my help. I’m just going to tell you how to handle GAME MASTERING from a practical perspective. And if any of this ends up sounding like a life lesson applicable outside of the game, IT ISN’T.
The Thing We Aren’t Discussing
I realize that some of you might not know what Session Zero is. And since THIS discussion is a prelude to the Session Zero discussion, I might as well at least define it here. Session Zero – which, shockingly is one of the only made-up bulls$^% gaming community terms that I don’t outright despise – Session Zero refers to a pre-campaign meeting. Now, definitions differ a little from person to person. Some say it’s a collaborative campaign and setting design meeting. Some say it’s a character generation session. Some say it’s sort of campaign pre-pre-planning. And that’s where any praise I had for the term falls apart and it becomes as useless as every other bit of Internet gaming bulls$&%ery like “GNS” and “railroading” and “murderhobo” and “game balance” and “narrative control” and “yes, and…” Because no one agree on the useful definitions for those things either.
For right now, let’s just agree that a Session Zero is a pre-campaign meeting between you – the GM – and your players to hammer out the goals, expectations, and desires for the upcoming campaign. N’est-ce pas? Good.
False Dilemmas and Zero-Sum Role-Playing Games
I promised myself this wouldn’t turn into yet another rant about how people – especially the f$&%ing 18-to-35-year-old crowd – how people can increasingly only see things in black-and-white absolutes these days. Well, actually, I promised the Angry Brand Management Team. They think the “old man screaming ‘get off my lawn’” image I’m developing is hurting my brand. Fine. F$&% it. Whatever.
The thing is, people do like things binary. They like sides. They like either-or. That’s just how people are. And that’s for a lot of reasons to do with biology, psychology, and sociology. As a consequence, we tend to pose questions in terms of “which is better, this thing or that other thing.” And while there is nothing wrong with a good “either-or” question, context is everything. For example, “which is better: shooting a person or running away.” It depends, right? If the person is threatening you and you can safely escape, it might be better to run away. But if the person is threatening a baby and running away will leave them to harm the baby, shooting them might be the better choice. Grisly? Sure. But I don’t believe in sugar-coating examples.
My point is that either-or questions NEED context. Trying to answer them in any sort of a general way is just hopeless.
To drag this, kicking and screaming, back to something resembling role-playing gaming, there are all sorts of questions that GMs have to answer. “Which is better,” for example, “allowing a player some leeway with the rules or adhering to a strict reading of the book?” Now, you might have an answer right now. A general answer. Hell, I have an answer. But I guarantee you I can come up with a situation that will make you rethink your answer. What if the player wants to make six attacks instead of one during combat? What if the player wants to run up and tackle the villain off the cliff, plunging both of them to their deaths, but is exactly one space of movement shy of being able to do it?
Stripped of their context, either-or questions ask us to make absolute pronouncements about situational things. Basically, they ask us to give us ALWAYS or NEVER answers to questions that are highly sensitive to the situation in which they are asked. In that way, they present a false dilemma. Because a GM does not have to make such a pronouncement. Hell, the idea of making such a pronouncement goes against the very existence of the GM. The GM, as a GAME MECHANIC, exists because the game NEEDS human judgment more than it needs absolute rules.
Look, I realize that most GMs do have leanings and patterns and tendencies. They answer similar questions in similar ways. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t considering things on a case-by-case basis. And that doesn’t mean that they have to give the same answer every time. A GM does not have to choose one extreme position and adhere to it absolutely. That’s just in-f$&%ing-human.
And THAT is why the people arguing about whether the “rule of cool” is inherently better than the “rules as written” are utter and complete f$&%wits who do no one any good. Whereas, people like me who talk about how to THINK about these questions are f$&%ing awesome and deserve your respect and reverence and also candy bars. Send me candy bars.
Campaign Building in Three Easy Dilemmas
Assuming you’re not a complete moron yourself and haven’t already skipped down to post an impassioned defense of “rule of cool” in absolutely every circumstance in my comment section, let’s discuss the three major dilemmas that almost always arise when it’s time to start building a new campaign. That way, when we discuss Session Zero, we can discuss it like actual, rational human GMs instead of shrieking internet idiots.
The Me vs. Them Dilemma
Let’s begin with the dilemma that inexplicably confounds the hell out of lots of GMs. I literally do not understand why so many GMs are so incapable of handling this dilemma. But they are. I know. BECAUSE THEY ALL KEEP ASKING ME TO RESOLVE IT FOR THEM!
The dilemma is this: “what’s more important: what the players want from the game OR what you – the GM – want from the game?”
When you’re designing a campaign and a setting in which that campaign will take place, you are constantly making decisions about the themes, the tone, the style, the mechanics, and the content. You can probably rattle off a dozen or so decisions you might have to make. Serious or casual? High magic or low magic? Fantastic or gritty and realistic? Action focused or cerebral? “World spanning or focused on a home base? Adventure of the week or ongoing plot? Epic battle against evil or complex morality play? Optimistic or nihilistic? How much freedom do you give the players to create their own stories in the world? Are the gods important? Is your game challenging? Can the players lose the campaign?
When we talk about Session Zero, we’re going to revisit a concept called The MDA Design Approach which will help us take all of those questions and lump them into broad categories that help describe the style of a campaign. But what’s important to understand now is that every game – INCLUDING YOU – come prepackaged with a set of preferences toward certain styles of game. You’re happiest when the game FEELS a certain way.
A good game is one that satisfies everyone’s preferences, at least a little bit. And that usually isn’t too hard. Those sorts of preferences are broad and fuzzy and cover a lot and a game doesn’t have to be perfect one hundred percent of the time to make people happy. If you like action, for example, it only takes one or two good action scenes in each session to keep you happy. If you like mysteries, you don’t need to solve a complicated mystery every single session as long as there is something going on that make you think underlying the big plot.
But, it’s not always that easy. Preferences – positive and negative – have degrees. Some preferences are favorites. We’re hungry for those and can rarely get enough. And some preferences are game-breakers. They f$&%ing ruin the game for us. And in between those are the things we like, but can live without, the things we dislike, but can tolerate, and the things we don’t have strong feelings about one way or the other.
Sometimes, it just so happens that you get a group of players whose favorites and game-breakers are utterly incompatible. For a simple example, imagine you have one player who loves elves and only ever plays elves and another player who hates elves to such an extreme that he won’t play in a campaign world unless the elves are extinct. Now, your instinct might be to pick one of those players and explain why their attitude is wrong, but that’s stupid. You’re stupid. These sorts of preferences are all purely emotional and there is nothing you – or anyone else – can do about them. And if you have trouble wrapping your head around the elf love and the elf hater, replace elves with “combat” or “role-playing” or “mysteries and puzzles.” Not so simple now, is it?
The conflict between two players is easy enough to handle. You ask each player whether they are willing to compromise. Elfy McElf-Face might be willing to play something else. Elfsucks Hateypants might be willing to tolerate an elf in the party. If neither is willing to bend, then you look for creative solutions. Maybe elves ARE extinct and Elfy McElf-Face is playing a character who reveres the lost race and is trying to live like one while simultaneously trying to solve the mystery of their disappearance while Elfsucks Hateypants grinds his teeth over his lunacy. If you can’t find a creative solution, then you have to make a call. You have to decide which player is unhappy and tell them to suck it up. Or find another game.
THAT’S REALITY. You can’t force a compromise in every situation. And you can’t always find a creative solution. Sometimes, people won’t bend. You can piss and moan about how unreasonable they are, you can wish they wouldn’t be so stupid, but you’re not going to have a game until you make a decision and tell someone to live with it. And, as a GM, you usually make the decision that makes the largest number of players in the group. Or upsets the fewest number of players. Usually.
I hope none of that stuff is news to you. It really shouldn’t be. I have to believe most GMs understand at least that much. Because that part wasn’t even the dilemma.
Here’s the dilemma. What happens when it’s you – the GM – whose favorites and game-breakers – are incompatible with some or all of the players’ favorites and game-breakers. What if YOU are Elfsucks Hateypants and you have a table of Elfy McElf-Faces? What now?!
That’s the Me vs. Them Dilemma. It arises when there’s some aspect of the game that you have strong feelings and that puts you in conflict with the strong feelings of your players.
Let’s use a concrete example. A more serious one. I was talking to someone who considers me a friend and whose presence I tolerate. There needs to be a name for that sort of person. I have lots of those sorts of people in my life. And it’s too long to type out every time. Maybe I can just call him “someone I allow to call me a friend.” No. That’s still too long. But I don’t want to give away his identity either. I’ll call him Steve W. No. That doesn’t flow very well. I’ll call him S. Wilcox. No. That doesn’t work either. I’ll call him Queens, because he’s from Queens, New York. Wait, no. F$&% it. I’ll just call him S.
S wants to run a game. He likes a specific game system called Labyrinths and Lizards. But the gaming community in his area favors a game called Trailblazer. Those are completely fictional, made up game systems. I swear. S doesn’t HATE Trailblazer, but he does find it too bloated for his tastes and he feels there are too many options to keep up with. He could limit the options he allows in play, but most of the people who want to play Trailblazer are specifically drawn by the frankly ludicrous numbers of options in the game. IF S doesn’t offer all of the options, he won’t have any players. They’ll just play at someone else’s table.
Dilemma, right? What should S do? What would YOU tell S to do?
Your answer is wrong. Only S can figure out what to do. The simple fact is this: if S runs the game he wants to run, he won’t have any players. He’ll be running the game for stuffed animals and furniture. If S doesn’t want to find himself saying things like “good job, Mr. Desklamp, now roll for damage and then it will be Stuffy Bearington’s turn,” he’s going to have to run a game he absolutely doesn’t want to run. Those are his options. And there is nothing easy about that choice. And anyone who has an easy answer is an idiot.
Some people really do think running any game is better than running no game. Some people say it’s the GM’s job to run the game the players want. But that’s all a load of c$&%waffle. The truth is that GMs put in a lot of time and effort to make the game happen. That’s the plain f$&%ing truth. GMs put in more effort than players. End of story. And if the GM isn’t enjoying the game, then running that game is a f$&%ing job. An UNPAID job. Moreover, the GM sets the tone for the entire table. Everyone brings their moods to the table. But if the GM brings a consistently s$&%y mood every f&%$ing week, no one is going to enjoy that game. It’s important for the GM to enjoy running the game. And even if the GM does manage to run a game every week that isn’t s$&% despite not enjoying it, the GM is eventually going to burn out. See, there’s a law of diminishing returns at work. The first donut is infinitely better than the fifteenth. And if that first donut was only tolerable, the fifteenth one is going to taste like f$&%ing poison.
And here’s the real kicker: a player can leave a game, but the game leaves with the GM. If the GM gives up, it’s GAME OVER, MAN. GAME! OVER!
So, GMs should always put their preferences above the players, then? That’s what I’m saying, right? Well, forgive the Pokémon reference, but YOU ACTIVATED MY TRAP CARD! HAHAHAHA! That isn’t what I’m saying at all.
Different GMs run games for different reasons. And those reasons are different from the reasons that players play games. For example, some GMs run games for purely social reasons. Most of their enjoyment comes from entertaining friends and being the center of attention. Those sorts of GMs have a much higher tolerance for running games that don’t match their OTHER preferences. For them, any game is better than no game.
The reason why this is a dilemma is because the answer varies from GM to GM. No one can answer for another GM. And so, there is no absolute rule about whether the players’ preferences or the GM’s preferences are more important. There is no axiom that says, “the GM’s needs are ALWAYS more important” and there is no rule that says, “the GM’s job is to run the game for the players.” There is no general either-or rule. It’s ALL personal and situational.
The Dream Game Dilemma
The Me vs. Them Dilemma pits your desires – as the GM – against those of your players. But the Dream Game Dilemma is a little more serious. It pits your desires against the entire goddamned universe. Pretty serious, huh?
Every GM has preferences, right? Every GM has a game they want to be running, right? Please tell me you remember that. We just discussed that. You’re afraid to answer now, aren’t you? Good. Fear is good. It gives you power. Or, rather, it gives me power over you. Keep that fear.
If you – as the GM – add up all of your preferences, you’ll get some vision of an ideal game. A perfect game. A Dream Game. If you get very lucky, all of your players will be on board for that game. Great, right? WRONG! Unfortunately, your dream game might not be possible.
Take, for example, my friend Steve Wilcox from Queens, New York – who we’re still calling S to protect his anonymity – take S. Even if he was willing to open the floodgates and allow his Trailblazer players to use every option from every sourcebook ever, he would have to buy all of those sourcebooks and read them all. And he doesn’t have the money or the time to do that. That’s the Dream Game Dilemma. It’s what happens when reality is in the way of you running the game you want to run.
You might want to run a two year long, political intrigue campaign that puts the Game of Ice and Fire franchise to shame, but if your players are unreliable and you know that every one of them will be missing at least one session out of every three, that game won’t hold together. You might have the most reliable players in the world, but you might also have a full-time job and a family and therefore have only two hours a week to devote to game prep. You might have reliable players and you might be a lonely loser with nothing to do but prepare for games, but if you can’t make your complex reputation and faction rules work because you’re a piss-poor amateur game designer, that game is not going to happen.
Just as with the Me vs. Them Dilemma, creative compromises might be possible. You might be able to get around your limited time by pulling one massive, marathon game-prep all-nighter every month. Or you might divorce your wife and let her take the kids and then quit your job so that there’s nothing the court can take for child support. But, those compromises all come down to figure out how to work around the limitations the world is imposing and deciding which dreams to give up on. WELCOME TO ADULTHOOD, B&$%#!
Resolving the Dream Game Dilemma is about accepting that the world is unfair and sucky, but that you still have to live in it. It isn’t fair that I receive horrific death threats over a riddle game I reposted from a contest I ran four years ago. It isn’t fair that someone posts 2,500 words about how they are having sex with my mother for money because I talked about pretend morality in a world of imaginary elves. But pissing and moaning about how unfair that s$&% is and how it shouldn’t be allowed and how it sucks that people are like that? That’s not going to accomplish anything. However I think the world SHOULD be, I have to live in the world that actually IS.
With the Dream Game Dilemma, I’ve watched lots of GMs get bogged down with pissing and moaning about how things SHOULD work. At best, it doesn’t get them anywhere. A worst, it leads to stupid decisions like “I’m going to do whatever I want and the world can just FALL IN LINE because that’s how it should be!”
There are two good aphorisms to keep in mind. The first is the famous Serenity Prayer: “Lord, grant me the strength to change the things I can; the serenity to accept the things I can’t; and the wisdom to know the difference.” The second is “wish in one hand, s&%$ in the other, and see which one fills up first.” The first is more poetic, but the second really speaks to me for some reason.
So, resolving the Dream Game Dilemma is about accepting the external limitations that the universe is irrationally imposing on you, figuring out which ones you can work around, and figuring out which ones you can’t. It’s about running the game you CAN run as opposed to the one you WANT to run. Or, deciding that the game you WANT to run is so far removed from the one you CAN run that you’d rather just not run a game. Because, sometimes, this dilemma really does boil down to “is it better to run THIS game or NO game?” And, once again, you have to decide for yourself.
The Comfort Dilemma
The Comfort Dilemma is an odd one out. Both of the previous dilemmas boil down to accepting the things you can’t control and deciding whether the benefits of running a game are worth the costs. The only reason they trip people up is because they get caught up on ideals like “whose happiness is worth more” and “this is how the world should be; I give zero f$&%s about how it is!” Once you grow a par and learn to accept the parts of reality you can control, you can distill those dilemmas down to straightforward choices. Not easy choices, necessarily. But, straightforward.
The Comfort Dilemma is fuzzy and hazy. It’s hard to weigh the costs and benefits because they are difficult to predict. The basic form of the Comfort Dilemma is “do you run the thing that is familiar and comfortable and easy or do you push yourself to run something new and innovative and unproven and unique?”
GMs constantly face this dilemma too. It’s not unique to the start of the campaign. But it usually first rears its head right at the start of the campaign. You might ask yourself whether you’re better off using the races and classes presented in the rulebook as-is, for example. Or the default assumptions of the core Labyrinths and Lizards game setting – or whatever game you’re running. Or you might ask yourself whether it’s best to just start your game off with all of the players meeting in a tavern and being offered a quest by a mysterious stranger.
There are a lot of advantages to easy, comfortable, and familiar. First, you know they work. They are tried and tested. Second, they are familiar. Everyone understands them. That means they are approachable. Those clichés let you get right into the game.
But most GMs sneer at things like the Tavern Trope. Why? Because it’s overdone. Because it’s nothing new. It’s not going to impress. It’s just a reliable old workhorse. And reliable workhorses don’t ever win any prizes. Racehorses win the prizes. The folks who just show up every do and do their job without making waves? Those people win attendance awards, but they don’t win Nobel prizes.
It’s natural to want greatness. Inside every GM, there is at least a small bit of desire for attention and renown and applause. Some GMs want that s%$& more than others. Some GMs won’t admit they want it at all. But it’s there. GMing takes too much effort for anyone to stick it out if it weren’t doing something for their ego. And that’s okay. It’s okay. You can admit it. Hell, call it altruism if you have to. Tell me you want to run a great game because you want to give your friends a great experience. One that comes from you. One that they will thank you for. You wouldn’t have read the last 5,000 words of yet another of my articles if you didn’t want to run the best game you can run. And workhorses can never be the best. Attendance awards are not greatness.
But there’s something else racehorses can do that workhorses can’t. They can lose the race. Most racehorses do. For every racehorse that wins, there’s twenty that lose. Or however many there are. I don’t know how many racehorses are actually on a team. Only one person gets to win a Nobel prize every year, but every scientician is trying for it. That means there’s a lot of losers who failed at chemistry. And only one person wins the gold medal at the Olympics. All of the rest of the racehorses and scientologists and figure skaters devoted a whole lot of time and energy into accomplishing NOTHING! LOSERS!
These games are about fun. And there is nothing inherently unfun about clichés. In fact, clichés are clichés because they work. Everyone is fine with meeting in a tavern because it’s familiar and it’s easy and it lets the game start quick. Everyone understand elves as magical woodsfolk and dwarves as grumpy miners and halflings as fat, hairy-footed thieves because those archetypes make for good stories. And because we don’t need to do a lot of homework to understand them.
The Comfort Dilemma is the same dilemma that leads Hollywood executives and video game companies to focus on reboots, sequels, prequels, and franchises over new, unique things. Movies and video games require HUGE F$&%ING PILES OF MONEY to make. And the executives have to turn a profit or else movies and games will stop existing. And when those executives know that audiences will put their a$&es in chairs for anything Star Wars, that’s what they are going to make.
And before you start screaming about “artistic integrity” and how “you’re better than that,” think about your own time investment. You don’t pour piles of money into your game like Hollywood studio execs – though, given the price of the f$&%ing rulebooks for these games lately, it might feel like you do – you don’t put as much money into your game, but you do put in time and passion. And if your game falls flat, your time is wasted, you’re disappointed, and you get to watch five people graciously pretend the game you just ran didn’t suck. And don’t tell me that doesn’t hurt.
Every new, unique thing you try – be it story elements, narrative or game structures, or rules mechanics – each new thing you try can fail. Each one is a risk. And that’s not all. Each one also adds a cost to your game. Every new element is something the players AREN’T familiar with. Which means you have to make some effort to show it to them. New rules have to be taught. And tested. And rested Motivations and personality traits have to be made clear. New races and classes have to be explained. Look, no one is going to be confused by the evil vizier trying to seize power. Everyone knows Jafar. But the good vizier with a fundamentally different view of good from the good king is far more complicated. That s$&% needs to be explained.
Every new, unique thing involves an increased cognitive load, an increase in complexity, and a risk that it’s going to suck. And the only reward is that it might turn out to be really great. If you’re lucky.
While we’re on the subject, let’s talk about the player’s Comfort Dilemma. I am always getting questions like: “how do I push my idiot players out of their comfort zones and make them try new things.” Holy s$&%. If I had a dollar for every GM who has b$%&ed at me about how this player will only play one race or class or character type, I’d have dozens of characters.
Guess what: building a character is a big thing. That character that the player is designing? They are going to be stuck with it for months. Maybe years. Players only get one character at a time. And if they keep changing characters every week, their GM is eventually going to slip the motherloving s$&% out of them. Not to mention the fact that in games like D&D, every class f$&%ing race and class has its own special f$&%ing rules and resource mechanics and progressions and s%&$. So, it’s natural for players to stick with the rules they know and the characters they know they like.
The Comfort Dilemma is the choice between the easy, approachable, sure thing and the new, complicated, risky thing. And, as with the other dilemmas, there is NO right answer. But I will say this much, many GMs overvalue innovation and uniqueness. Lots of GMs use the word “cliché” the way I use f$%& and s$%& and c$&%waffle. They use it as a swear. As a slur. And that comes purely from bulls$&% snooty artistic elitism.
Give that view up. Look at this s$&% rationally. Understand the risks. Decide when it’s really worth it and when it isn’t. And decide on a case-by-case basis. Let me tell you something: I start almost all of my campaigns off in a goddamned tavern and I start most of them off in the default Labyrinths and Lizards core world. The one whose races and classes are described in the Players Handbook. Why? Because it’s easy to start the campaign. My players and I can get a game up and running in one session. And once the campaign is purring like a kitten in a car engine, THEN I start f$&%ing around and taking risks.
Of course, the other way is fine too. Sometimes you want to open with the big, unique setpiece that shows off why your world is wonderful and amazing and different and special. I’ve done that. At least with that, if the idea is going to explode, it’s going to explode in the first session. It’s easier to clean up the car parts and kitten bits and start again after only one session than it is to do it after fifty sessions.
Oh, Were You Hoping for Advice?
I can’t tell you how to resolve your dilemmas. I know you’re used to me doing all of the hard work for you so you can run great games with less effort, but that just isn’t going to work here. Sorry. The only thing I can do here is tell you HOW REALITY IS and try to equip you to figure things out for yourself.
But, guess what? Teaching people how to think for themselves instead of just giving them pat answers? THAT ACTUALLY IS THE HARD WORK. Actually making choices, once you can see the choice for what it is? That’s easy. After all, this is just a game. It’s not like any of this crap has any relation to making every important, real-life decisions you might ever have to make. Just like how that other article had nothing to do with real-life morality or anything. Because I write a f$&%ing gaming blog. If anyone comes here looking for grand life lessons, they deserve to have their lives f$&%ed up by some a$&hole on the internet. Are we clear? Good.