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I first ran an RPG campaign at the tender age of thirteen. My brother and I sat down with my brand-new GURPS 3rd ed. Basic Set (back when it was one book instead of two!). Ever since, running a campaign has always filled me with nostalgia.
A ‘campaign’ is a series of (usually weekly) gaming sessions, both fulfilling by themselves and contributing to a larger plot. Think of them as episodes in an ongoing show. Already, you can get an idea of the scope of preparation necessary to keep such a venture straight.
Below, I’ll introduce basic concepts and how to work through the most common obstacles, so that anyone can start their own campaign with friends.
I find that the best trick is to want it. I know a campaign is going well when I daydream about it between games. After a few years of not playing, I bought the GURPS 4th ed. Basic Set and fell in love with the system all over again. I came up with loads of ideas for storylines.
If you get stuck, delayed, or feel blocked at any point, return to this step, because it is the most important.
Right now, if you’re reading this guide for the first time, you probably long to start a campaign but are worried or confused. Take a deep breath and tell yourself, “This time, I’m making it happen.”
Here are some of the reasons you might be daunted or delayed in starting a campaign:
I’ve endeavored to cover all of these in this guide!
As with most pasttimes, tabletop roleplaying requires certain tools. Here is your bare minimum kit:
There are hundreds of game systems available. Some of the most popular are:
Before choosing a system, glance over the core books in your local games-/bookstore, research them online, and talk about them with the people you’ll be playing with. If you’ve previously played under a GM who ran a fun game, find out what system they were using and what others they recommend.
GURPS is my personal favorite and always has been, since it can handle any genre (or lack thereof). Throughout this series, I will assume that the reader is using GURPS.
Most systems also have add-on books. For example, GURPS 4e offers add-ons for Space, Fantasy, Supers, Infinite Worlds, and so on.
Modern systems usually have free, downloadable/printable resources on their official website. Be sure to familiarize yourself with the available ones so you have a leg-up on planning.
Once you start gathering material with which to run games, you’re going to need to keep it organized. Otherwise, you could be in the middle of a game and suddenly forget where you put the next monster’s stats or the map for the next area.
For those who won’t be able to play with a computer or laptop at hand, there are many old-fashioned options. Papers can be stored in a three-ring binder, with monsters, story notes, maps, etc. filed separately.
If you wind up using plastic/pewter miniatures, you can get a cheap plastic bin to store them in. If you use paper stand-ups, you can either flatten or unfold them between games.
There are lots of smartphone apps on the market that help with running a campaign, including die rollers and random item generators.
Finally, if you’ll be able to use a laptop/computer, you can keep all of these notes and resources stored digitally. Character sheets can be saved in a variety of formats, usually both editable and printable.
My suggestion would be to first make folders for campaigns. Within those, make folders for each type of resource, such as ‘Maps’, ‘Story Notes’, ‘PCs’, ‘NPCs and Monsters’, and so on. Within these, save all your resources or put shortcuts to them if you have them organized elsewhere.
As a GM, you’ll sometimes have to roll the dice or make notes that you don’t want the players to see. You’ll also need to consult the same few charts over and over again until you have them memorized. A handy way to solve both these problems is to print out or buy a GM screen for your system.
Most systems offer a screen that you can either print out and assemble yourself or buy pre-made and printed on card stock. You can also make your own.
If you’re using a laptop, you can obviously use the screen to hide what you’re doing. There are now even online GM screens if you need access to charts.
Later on in the series, we’ll talk about whether you should create the characters or let your players do it. Either way, you’ll need a printout or editable digital copy of your system’s character sheet. If printing, try to make at least two printouts for each expected player so that you have extra in case they bring a friend or want to change characters.
Once you know basically what the characters will look like, and especially if you’re going to be playing using combat maps, you’ll need to print out or find some miniatures. They can be either folded paper slips with the character’s picture, or painted/pewter figures.
Finally, you’ll need NPCs, including extras, allies, villains, and monsters. You’ll soon learn which ones you need specifically, but for now, find out how your system handles their character sheets and look for some miniatures for them. Some systems have pre-written monsters available in ‘monster manuals’; have this on hand so you can pull out the ones you need.
The two kinds of maps are world (showing landmarks, towns, and areas of interest) and combat (close-up, has squares/hexes in which characters stand). You’ll almost always need the first and will probably want to have the second on hand.
You can buy reuseable grid playmats for combat, on which you can write using washable marker. As for maps specific to your story, you have several options: You can use premade maps but change the names to suit your purposes, or you can design your own.
If you’re not sure where to start, try a random map generator.
If you’re playing in person and either love dice or don’t have access to a computer/cellphone, you’ll need a set of dice. Depending on your system, you’ll either need a full set or just a couple of six-sided dice.
If there’s a computer available, you can find virtual dice in the form of random number generators.
Before you progress in planning your campaign, you need to decide how long you plan to make it last and what sort of structure it will have. There are a few basic types to choose from:
Making this decision early on will affect how you plan out your campaign.
The next decision is about atmosphere. How do you want your players to feel as they play? There are many kinds of session:
Once you’ve made the above decisions, you should have an idea of what genre you want to use. If not, try the Genre Masher.
Once you have a genre, a few tiny ideas are probably going to pop into your head. Inspiration can come from sources like TVTropes, the Big List of RPG Plots, and the random generators at ChaoticShiny. To speed things up, try what Mike Bourke suggested in Baby Steps In Campaign Setting Design and figure it out one detail at a time.
- The Home Base: Where the characters start their adventures, and where they will return to.
- The Adventures: Are they hack and slash? Political intrigue?
- The First Adventure: Where is it, and what happens?
- The Path(s): Between the adventures, and anything the PCs find along the way.
- The Context: How and why things are the way they are.
- The PCs: How much do they know? How do they fit in?
- The Players: What they’ll need to make characters.
Cheesy as it sounds, it’s important to make up a title for your adventure so that you have something to refer to when scheduling new sessions with the players. Try to keep it short and avoid corniness while still describing the adventure in some way.
Now, start fleshing out plot points you’d like to meet each session. If playing a finite game, decide how many sessions you’ll play; if infinite, plan for the next few sessions and write down ideas for more. Don’t get too specific or your players will accuse you of railroading (forcing them to behave a certain way in order to reach the goals that you’ve set). Flexibility is important, so create a flexible timeline.
If you’re not sure how to do this, look at pre-written adventures.
To explain the story in brief to new players, write a pitch. Make sure that it explains the setting, the atmosphere, and the supposed object of the first adventure. Try Journalistic’s How to Write a Pitch.
As you worldbuild, remember the notes and information organization system you settled on early in this series. Keep track of everything you decide and all the ideas you get so that you can create a rich world for your players.
There are several ways to handle worldbuilding:
Let it build itself as needed. You can set down the genre and a few basic tropes and then just let it play. However, you should at least design the area in which the game will start, e.g. the starting neighborhood or city.
Just make sure you take copious notes about everything you and your players reveal or decide about the world. Players tend to remember clues and expect them to be used later by the GM; don’t disappoint them.
Use a pre-written RPG world. There are many, many existing RPG worlds, mostly fantasy but also for other genres. Even if they’re built for a different system than the one you’re using, you can usually convert stats like distances and monsters.
Just make sure that you’ve read over and completely understand the world before playing in it, or else you could contradict yourself down the line.
Model your world after a historic setting or existing fictional universe. If you’re interested in a real-life historical setting (such as medieval Japan or the Wild West) or a fictional universe (such as Star Trek, Star Wars, or the Otori books), you can create (or sometimes find) a world built around it.
Just make sure you do your research and make everything line up with the original, or fellow fans might point out differences and assume that you were sloppy. Then again, you might write your interpretation of the source, but be clear about it before looking foolish.
Design a world yourself. If you want to combine elements from all of the above, you really should sit down and put together a world of your own. There are two ways to do this: From the inside out and from the outside in.
In the former case, start with a small area such as a city or even neighborhood. Flesh it out with details, such as weather, culture, customs, races, economy, and monsters/other problems. Then spread out to describe the rest of the world, usually focusing on how this small area fits into the whole.
In the latter case, describe the world or even solar system, detailing continents, countries, and kingdoms, as well as history. Then move in closer and flesh out cities and areas for the players to actually explore against this backdrop.
For a lot of helpful information on building, see Patricia C. Wrede’s classic Worldbuilding Questions.
At this point in your planning, you hopefully have an idea of who will be playing with you. If not, you should start making a list of friends or looking online for volunteers.
How many players will you need? Technically, you can run a game one-on-one, with just you and one player. However, a two-player game allows them to interact and roleplay; adding more players increases the interaction but also the work required on your part. I like to have either three or four players, which is a good balance between fun and ease.
So now you hopefully have a few possible players and have pitched the story to them. Discuss things with them and find out what sort of characters they would like to play.
Now you face a choice: Will you create characters for your players or let them do it themselves? There are several factors:
If you allow the players to write their own characters, you’ll probably want to get together long before or set aside an hour or two before the session. Help those players who are unfamiliar with the rules and walk them through creating a character. Have everyone brainstorm about whether their characters know each other and what they have in common. Try to get them to care about their characters and invest in them.
If you decide to create the PCs yourself, you should still let the players be involved so that their characters feel personal.
Try not to make any one character crucial to the plot, in case the player can’t show up on game night.
There are generally four types of non-player characters:
There is a lot of overlap between the above types.
The only reason to differentiate between these is to figure out which stats and details you need to figure out.
There are different ways to prepare these: