Mid-size Campaigns (Part 3)

Localising your Campaign Concepts

In Part 2, we sketched out the campaign's boundaries, came up with a list of ideas, and placed those ideas on the campaign map to provide some shape to the setting. Up to now, we've been deliberately scant on detail, but that's about to change. In our final installment, we'll develop your campaign just enough for you to start planning actual adventures.

The Starting Point

In previous articles, I've intimated that you should develop the area with the most ideas, which is not necessarily the area with the best ideas. What's the difference?

When you started localising ideas on your campaign map, we suggested that you start with the most compelling idea (i.e., the one that excited you most), then work your way down the list, continuing with the next most compelling idea, then the next, and so on. This left you with two things: (1) a first date with your best ideas, and (2) a fistful of less interesting concepts that you could probably put just about anywhere. In short, quality vs. quantity, which is an important concept, but one that's fairly often skewed in the wrong direction when it comes to campaign development.

Quality vs. Quantity

For most things in life, quality is better than quantity. For campaign development, this is debatable. For a busy GM, it's highly doubtful.

The compelling (i.e., quality) ideas on your list are probably quite brilliant, but they merit serious attention if they're to be properly cultivated. Consequently, they're not the best foundation for a young campaign: They're barely developed seedlings at this early stage, and they're too important to sow in unknown ground. You need to give these ideas time to develop a bit, because if they don't take root, not only will you have squandered your A-list concepts, but your campaign will wilt well before the harvest.

Instead, go for the quick win and start with your quantity ideas. These save you development time and give your campaign the best chance of survival. Remember, these are still good ideas. But compared to your high-quality concepts, they're probably less expansive and more adaptable, which makes them ideal for a new campaign whose direction you can't yet predict. Later on, when the players get comfortable with the campaign and the characters are established, by all means, introduce your quality ideas—by that time, they'll have marinated in the setting's juices for a bit, and they'll be better for it.

There are several advantages to breaking ground in the spot with the most ideas. First, the more ideas, the more potential connections. From the players' perspective, this means more options for adventure. Second, these ideas don't require much individual detail, and that means less development time. Getting the campaign up and running quickly is the goal. Third, more ideas (and connections) make it easier to create campaign "touchpoints," which ultimately grant a faster path toward developing a campaign that's greater than the sum of its parts.

Asking the Questions

Having identified the campaign area with the most ideas, you can now (at last!) start applying detail. For each idea in your development area, answer the following questions:

  1. What is it? - Identify the central idea--a monster, NPC, character class or race, settlement, artefact, faction or group, enemy or ally, terrain feature, religion, etc.
  2. What do the PCs know about it? - Write a short statement of common knowledge about the idea.
  3. What don't the PCs know about it? - Create a secret about the idea that the PCs can discover (extra points if the secret forms a connection with another idea).

Don't think too hard about the answers—the goal is to start fleshing out each idea, relative to the player characters. This latter bit is important, because if you don't tie the idea back to the PCs, it has no real impact on the setting, and transitively, no real business in the campaign. If the PCs can't engage an idea, set it aside—you'll only waste time detailing it.

The answers should be brief, but specific. Consider the furred snake and Snow elves mentioned in the last installment, as well as a logging town and a zombie-slaying hammer that I just made up. Each is detailed with its own set of questions:

Question Furred Snake Snow Elves Logging Town Zombie Hammer
What is it? Giant, white constrictor with fur instead of scales; lives in snowbanks Elves adapted to cold climes; semi-barbaric with druidic roots Small human settlement that ships wood south to build the king's navy Magic dwarven artefact that slays zombies on contact; lost centuries ago
What do the PCs know? Stealthy, dangerous monster valued for its fur Reclusive denizens of evergreen forests; unfriendly PCs' homebase; ruled by a lord in cooperation with the Timber Guild Lost centuries ago; dwarfs have searched for it in vain
What don't the PCs know? Poisonous, can sense vibrations and gets a bonus to surprise Very spiritual; hunt furred snakes for food, fur, hide, tools, venom Timber guild is town's real power; has guildhouses in rival kingdom Also sought by timber guild to gain favor with dwarf king

As you answered the questions above, you undoubtedly envisioned connections between particular ideas. Feel free to use them however you see fit, but don't feel obligated to connect each idea to every other idea. While certain relationships present themselves naturally, some ideas can (and should) stand alone.

Next Steps

Now that you have a campaign area to develop and ideas to make it interesting, you're ready to tackle the next level of detail--mapping out and populating the local adventuring area. For this exercise, I'll recommend our Hex-based Campaign Design, elsewhere on this site, but with the admission that there are doubtless other methods out there.

Regardless of how you proceed, keep in mind that it's your ideas and the connections between them that form the foundation upon which to build your campaign. Establishing this foundation is a useful--if not essential--step before applying any detail to the actual campaign. Establish just enough information to get a gist of what's going on in a particular corner of the setting, and use that framework to create your adventure hooks, which is the starting point of any adventure plot and where the real action begins for your players.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

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