Monday, November 8, 2010

The Campaign, and Starting from Scratch

The setting was far from optimal. There I was, playing my first ever game of Gamma World, trying to get the hang of the system and wondering if my new spreadsheet was indeed doing all the math correctly. (I'm still thinking of improvements to add to that, but that's a story for another time.)

Then several people approached, and I was dividing my attention between the gaming table and prospective players for that new campaign I was talking about before. It was an inconvenience right up until my character got knocked out and I could talk shop.

So what's this all about?

The phrasing may vary, but the focus and scope are usually pulled all the way out at that point in development. Consequently, it's the first question one asks when creating a campaign: "What is this all about?" And the GM can answer this question one of two ways: without player feedback, or with it.

The GM who can create the campaign without player feedback usually does so either because he knows the players well—what they do or don't want, what they will and won't put up with—or because he's confident he can pitch it, sell it to a group that might look at lesser efforts with dubious and wary glares.

The GM who insists on player feedback doesn't necessarily lack the edges mentioned above. That GM may want to guarantee that the game is something the players want to get into. Assumptions are all well and good, provided they're correct. Or if that GM is working with strangers, he has no assumptions to start from. The enterprising GM can view bending a campaign concept to fit the player's whims as a worthy challenge, not simply giving up creative control but actually encouraging creative solutions within externally imposed restraints. But sometimes the GM feels lazy and simply doesn't want to make those decisions himself. That works too.

In either case, though, the question demands an answer. What is it all about? Get more specific, and that one question can become dozens, if you let it. Where is it set? What will the player characters be doing there? How powerful will the characters be? How much influence will they have on the setting? What will be happening there if the players aren't doing their thing?

Others have asked these questions before you...

And fortunately, some of them have worked for game companies. Generic systems thrive on these sorts of questions, because the first step when someone wants to play anything using one of those is to create the world. Naturally the first two names that pop up are GURPS and HERO. GURPS always was, and HERO has become, the quintessential generic systems.

Among the GURPS Resources & Play Aids, you'll find the indomitable Campaign Planning Form, a staple if you plan to roll your own world.

There is a HERO version too, but it'll take a bit more digging to find. There was a Hero System Resource Kit for 5e which contained a campaign creation form, but there isn't yet a 6e version yet (Or a GM screen, unfortunately).

In general, I'm irked by the situation: specific games have their own system-specific campaign creation forms. Some questions will work with all systems, and someone should compile all those questions into a general purpose form. Then system-specific details could be tacked on as an addendum.

It could also make a great future posting, hint hint.

And others have made the question the ultimate purpose

I'd mentioned back in an earlier post, the exploration of off-beat settings called The Road Less Traveled, that some systems allowed you to explore odd settings by not simply allowing or requiring you to create them at the start of play. I thought about this, though, and I can only cite only two games which are definitive examples of this: Burning Wheel, and The Dresden Files.

The GM can take the reins of campaign creation in Burning Wheel, or it can be hashed out through discussion with the players. Once that setup is created, it will remain in play for as long as the players want to go down that particular rabbit hole. And in The Dresden Files, part of the character creation process is getting characters involved in each others' backgrounds, but also there's the creation of the major tags and issues which are part of the city in which the campaign is set. These will have an effect on the

In all other cases that I could think of, the game is episodic, and there is little in common with a "campaign." In shock, for instance, the creation of the campaign is literally part of the game, as the players have to brainstorm and then select the aspects of the game that will contain each protagonists' plot. To create a Fiasco campaign, all you need is to create a list with 144 unique items on it. Anyone can do it, and the author recommends that everyone should do it. Characters are created from the information on those lists, and play continues from there.

The problem is that at the end of each of those games (and it is more often the "story" games), the set resets. By the end of the game, it's the end of the story, and each main character has either achieved his or her goal or been forever turned aside from it. Characters don't proceed from the ends of those games. And while it doesn't have to be that way, the default condition is unfortunately rather uncampaignly behavior.

Ask your players if Planitol is right for you

Naturally, the assumption is that the more detail you have, the more canon you have to draw on and the more precise plotting you can come up with. Right? Certainly. But better? Maybe. Take into account how long the campaign is really going to run.

Is it going to run for several years while the player characters grow from fresh newbs into hell-on-wheels professionals? Then a full campaign work-up would deliver. Just going to play four or five scenarios and move on to something else? Then deciding who's on the janitorial staff is probably not the best use of your time.

Is it going to run as a demo for a group of people you've never really met before, with a goal of four or five scenarios but the option to keep going if they like it? You'll need to ask yourself how much you like running the thing, and then settle for a happy medium.

The available approaches are, in order: Light, Heavy, and Light With Room To Grow.

  • Light is the glossing-over approach. Don't worry too much about continuity, you can easily bend it around your plotting and because it's going to be a short campaign, nobody will know the difference or care.
  • Heavy is the deep approach. You know the campaign is going to last a long time, you'd like it to touch a whole lot of places in the campaign world. This allows you to set up all manner of tricks like foreshadowing, and pulling switcheroos—if the players remember someone in a given position, and suddenly someone else is there, they might want to know why, and this could lead to fun. Or disaster. But mostly fun.
  • Light with R.T.G. involves, sadly, more planning than light. Given that the game could go on longer than a system demo, you need to plot out the general sweep of history. You don't need the finely tuned history yet, but you'll want a plan to create future details by, so that you don't paint yourself into a canonical corner.

The group I'm working with doesn't even know the system I'm proposing they jump into, so the campaign might not even make it past one or two adventures. This would suggest I need Light campaign planning.

But then, they're willing to try something new, they are. They're giving it the old college try, which is a reason to hope. And once in a while I do have a clever turn of idea as a GM. There might be a lot to like in this, so I should plan on Room To Grow. I don't need all of the canon now, but I need to know the general flow so I can make up details that don't later fly up and hit me in the face.

That is how I'll proceed, then. The goal is to plot just enough of the history that I can make up reasonable answers about how things went down in the past, and only after I know I need a more detailed history will I set about writing it.

A Perverse Parallel to a Different Milieu

You've decided that you want to create a campaign. All well and good. You've even read through the suggestion above on how much detail you'll need at this time.

But what do you start with first? There are two answers, both of which are valid, and they're cued from of all things the video game industry.

Polygon Count

Here's an awkward truth of video games: the average console, even these days, doesn't contain enough processing power to simulate all the details within a stage or scene. The enterprising game designer has to pick and choose what details are important. If an area is never going to be seen by the players, then that area will likely not be fleshed out in any strong detail. You may see one or two moving parts to denote action, but the inner workings won't even be there. That's the crux of the lesson: something happens, and the players get to see the end result. But the internal workings will never be perceived, so why bother rendering them?

Likewise, the campaign designer has to pick and choose what details the game history and setting are going to contain because there's no way to keep track of every single last one of them with paper and pencil. It may be enough to hint at the action—report on the news that something has taken place—without even bothering to map out the mechanisms that made it happen. What happens could affect them, but the internal workings aren't important, so don't bother fleshing them out.

When players of either game see something like that happen and get curious, they may want to investigate. The tremendous difference between video games and tabletop games, and this will be the case for a very, very long time, is that in the tabletop game, the GM may create the extra levels of detail on the fly, so the player can get into strange places like that. What happens next is, of course, up to the GM.

Level Design

When designing a video game, one of the big things to consider is the general shape and layout of each level: where the player is starting, where the player is supposed to go, and the challenges that must be faced along the way.

This is comparable to "big picture" planning, deciding on that "sweep of history," deciding what institutions the player characters are likely to encounter and how much trouble they're going to be. This means not just enemies and opposition but government agencies, neutral observers, allies, and interested third parties.

You'd best start crafting such a "big picture" from the top down, too. Start with the biggest items: government, the threats that said government has had to respond to, how the threats responded, when the government changed and what it changed into, etc. And from there you can start plotting smaller details, the whorls and eddies caused by these large sweeps, on down.

Levels of Detail

This is kind of an offshoot of "Polygon Count" above, but it has other uses. Level of Detail refers to the complexity of a mesh (character or object) as it relates to the proximity of the viewer. This is a way to reduce polygon count, but even if the mesh has the polygons available, there's no reason they all have to be shown unless the viewer gets close enough to see the added details.

Similarly, the campaign-building GM can use this principle as a guideline when designing the campaign. Add the greatest detail to those things the PCs will be rubbing up against on a regular basis. Things farther away don't need as much detail unless you know they'll get closer later. Things they'll never get close too will not need that much love and attention at all.

To recap...

  • Don't sweat the stuff they'll never encounter, but do think about indirect effects.
  • Plan the big picture, from the top down.
  • Plan those details that the players will encounter, concentrating on those they'll encounter first.

This works with any setting: fantasy, contemporary, science-fiction, science fantasy, contemporary fantasy, contemporary science-fiction, contemporary and spam, spam fantasy science-ficton and spam...

Next time, on This Old Campaign...

Thursday I'll be meeting with a lot of these players to hash out character generation and pin down more definitively what they'd like in a campaign. After that, I'll probably have some notes to share about character generation with a large number of willing but rules-light players.

1 comment:

  1. Of course, we had our first character gen session the previous Sunday, and finished it up the Thursday after. Then again, my character concept was a little...baroque.