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Mid-size Campaigns (Part 1)

Right-sizing your campaign to save time and effort

Campaign building has always taken one of two forms: start small and build up, or start big and drill down. While the macro approach has broad creative appeal and great potential, practical considerations constrain most GMs to the mirco approach. Because the busy GM should do only the minimum work required to run his campaign, this isn’t necessarily bad. But size (in this case) does matter, and it’s possible that the best approach is a compromise between these two methods.

Traditional Approaches

The macro approach means starting with a big geographic area and then detailing a small portion for the actual campaign. The benefit is that the GM knows the length and breadth of the area the players can explore. From a GM’s perspective, this is good, because it creates “living space” for your creativity and allows you to rather seamlessly accommodate your players whenever they decide to move in a new direction. The disadvantage is that you must do a lot of prep work fleshing out areas that may never be explored, so it’s a good bet that you’ll waste a lot of time.

The micro approach means starting with a small geographic area and then creating new areas as they’re needed. The benefit is that the GM can concentrate all his energies on a discrete, well-defined locale. From a GM’s perspective, this is good, because it reduces the amount of work required to get the campaign started. The disadvantage is that you might be unprepared when the PCs move beyond their immediate borders. Another problem is that you have less space to contain your creativity, so ideas that don’t fit into the initial campaign area must be held for another time and another place.

In truth, very few GMs have the time to employ the macro approach successfully. Creating a whole game world (or worlds) is a great creative exercise, but it’s too time-consuming to sustain. Unfortunately, most of your effort will go unrecognised because it’ll never make its way to the gaming table—the PCs are probably happy where they are. After all, if you keep them engaged in their current environment, there’s no need for them to travel the four corners of the earth in search of adventure.

However, if you’re building a new campaign, there’s a strong temptation to at least try the macro approach. The concept does have merit—starting with a big world and drilling down ensures that you have, at the very least, sufficiently widespread geographic placeholders for all your creative concepts, including the new ideas that you haven’t even dreamed up yet.

Unfortunately, this is more a sign of disorganisation than creative accommodation. Even if you build a world to house all your great ideas, how will you know which to develop in detail? Please don’t rely on your players to answer this question. They don’t know, and—as amazing as it may sound—they probably don’t care. They just want to play. This doesn’t mean that the players’ input doesn’t matter. On the contrary, maintaining your group’s interest should be your primary influence when building your campaign. But it has little appreciable impact on the macro approach.

In fact, if you consider the players’ perspective, there almost never a good reason to use the macro approach. No matter what your players are interested in—from spacefaring explorers to Renaissance noblemen to dungeon delvers—the micro approach will always be more immediately useful. It doesn’t matter if your players are roleplayers or hack-and-slashers; whether they want deep character development or rapid advancement in power; or whether the game is about political intrigue, covert ops, or open warfare. Assuming the PCs stick together and can’t be in more than one place at a time, the macro approach is not the best use of your valuable GM time.

Still, there are all those creative ideas in your gaming head. And the initial campaign area won’t keep the PCs busy forever. You could keep building onto your micro campaign, but you want some cohesion between builds. And you need to be able to see more of the campaign than your players, just so you can plan ahead. The micro approach is fast, but it won’t necessarily create a workable campaign, even after years of growth.

The Mid-size Campaign

The trick lies—as with most things in life—somewhere between the two extremes. I call it the mid-size campaign, in which you create a whole continent or world to contain your ideas, find homes for all the ideas you have at the moment, and finally add some detail in the form of adventure hooks in the area where you have the most ideas.

Imagine you’re preparing for a week’s vacation, though you don’t know where you’re going. If you were taking the macro approach, you would start packing for every possible activity—swimming, dancing, skiing, fine dining, etc. You’ll be prepared for anything, but you’ll have to lug about a lot of baggage, and it’s certain that you won’t use it all. If you were taking the micro approach, you’d focus on your favourite activity at the expense of everything else. You’ll be prepared for scuba diving, let’s say, but you won’t be ready if you want to go golfing or spend an evening at the casino.

Now imagine a more moderate approach: you pack for a list of carefully selected activities you want to do. You’ll be prepared for only the things you decide to concentrate on. You’re not burdening yourself with the unnecessary, nor are you limiting yourself. Whereas the macro approach is broad and shallow, and the micro approach is narrow and deep, the mid-size approach gives you flexible width and depth.

There are several advantages to the mid-size approach. First, you’re not doing more work than necessary (yes, you are doing more work than the micro approach, but it’s still less than the full macro). Second, you’re creating space for your ideas, which you can place–somewhat cohesively–across the broader world (which, incidentally, gives you an idea of where things are if the PCs do decide to travel about). Third, you’re minimising the risk of wasted time: If the campaign area that you detail isn’t well-received, you can scrap it and move onto another starting point—which you’ve already placed—without having wasted too much development time.

Next week, we’ll take a closer look at creating a mid-size campaign by providing some step-by-step details.

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