Image source: Comics I Don’t Understand
This one is a tough subject, as no two GMs are the same. From the ground up, building a campaign is a daunting task, even more so for the more aspiring GMs that want to do this as their first endeavor. Some people like to use an established setting while others have ideas that could only work in a world of their own creation. The question: What the hell do I do to build a campaign? The answer has so many different faces and aspects that it’s rather difficult to nail down, but here’s one way of many to start.
I’ll be the first to admit it: I was lucky. My first campaign sprung up out of me simply saying, “let’s play a game,” to my friends. I came up with the most generic scenario I could possibly think of, plopped it down into 13th Age’s Dragon Empire, miraculously birthing the campaign that I’m still playing today. I started with just an intuition, spending the rest of my time building off of the random details my players had created. By the end of it, I had a titanic cast of GMPCs, villains, events, and locations. I call this method, “the snowball effect.” You simply round up some players, use a setting that’s loosely established, push the “snowball” of your players’ ideas and character actions down the hill, and voila! A collaboratively created game where all the GM came up with was the initial adventure and villain.
So let’s talk terms a little bit. I like to think of the random ideas that you and your players will have floating around all the time as snow. The snow floats around and eventually lands on the ground for you to pick up and force into a shape. Every character creates a tiny snowball, a collection of ideas about their character, a situation, a future plot point, whatever. When they say it, I think of it as them throwing me said snowball. Sometimes I catch all of it, other times it crumbles in my hand and I’m left with just a powdery mess. Regardless, we take that snow and pack it onto the original idea that was my (the GMs), original idea. The snowballs that the players create can sometimes be different from the GMs. Player snowballs tend to be very focused, specific information about something they’re mulling over in their head. GM snowballs tend to be big ideas, usually about theme or campaign direction. Every now and again, if you have an awesome group, you have players that do both. What’s not lucky, is that the GM learns create both kinds of snowballs. Eventually, the GM is packing snowballs or catching player made ones, throwing them at the giant one rolling down the hill, seeing what spatters off and what sticks. Sounds kind of hectic, right?
Details sometimes get lost or forgotten about, only to come up later. The best part is, sometimes when you find that “snow” on the ground, you can pick it up and add it to the snowball. The drawback of doing it this way is that if you have a group that isn’t new to role playing (unlike the majority of my group at the start), then this can feel very unsatisfying. Some experienced players enjoy having fields and fields of lore to navigate, creating a sense of immersion right from the get-go. The snowball campaign doesn’t always work like that, a lot of the time I inject some of the history on the fly, which leads to another problem with it.
Unless you’re comfortable with improv, running this style of campaign can be rather difficult. The snowball campaign forces the GM to keep packing snow onto the story, especially if the characters just throwing the snow around listlessly. You look around at stuff that’s fallen out of the sky (ideas you’ve had or things your players have said), pick it up, and pack it onto the rest. Once you get used to it, it’s incredible fun, however. For me, it gives me the same sense of mystery and excitement that the players get. Since I never know what they’re going to do, or even what their actions could lead to, my instinct and understanding of the campaign as it stands steers the thing. Now, this doesn’t mean that you don’t come up with a loose quest line for the flow of the game.
I call those quest lines “legs” of the campaign; they are the path in which the giant snowball rolls on. Sometimes the snowball is running through halls of a king. Other times, it’s barreling through a dungeon, full steam ahead. The legs are the things that happen outside of the player (and character’s) control. The GM gets to steer the snowball into specific legs. The things that the snowball picks up while traversing the legs are determined collaboratively. Tone is the sound the snowball makes whilst rolling, and theme is what tells everyone what the snowball looks like, but the environment around that snowball is constantly changing. It’s a little nebulous and weird to wrestle with, but the structure becomes a game within a game. This constant rolling that the snowball is doing represents the characters and story picking things up along the way that ultimately changes how it all looks by the end of it. But keep in mind, everything that sticks to it is still snow. It feels the same, although it might sound and look different. Strange, huh? For those of you that are really enjoying picturing the metaphor, you may be asking yourself, “If it’s rolling down a hill, how are you still packing snow onto it?”
The answer is why I think running a game this way is incredibly fun. You have to run alongside it. Sometimes you lose control of where the snowball is going, which is when general real life logic rather than creativity makes unexpected things or consequences happen. While you and your players are running down this ever changing hill, looking at your snowball and throwing things at it, you can’t help but look ahead. Steering is collaborative, while the GM is the lookout for snowball breaking obstacles. All you can do is follow it to keep throwing things in an effort to roll it all to a desired end. In this light, it might sound like as the GM, I have no real say in what sticks to the snowball or where it goes. This is a misconception, because the GM always has the ability to stand in front of it, stop the thing from rolling, and say that this particular thing can’t stick to our snowball. Of course, it’s their responsibility to explain to the group why, and if a good reason is presented otherwise, it doesn’t stick. Usually, those are the things that’ll steer it so far off course that it’ll smash into a wall, or a tree (something that would destroy the campaign). At the end, you’re left with a huge snowball, a collection of crap you’ve picked up along the journey, and the memories of how it got from point A to B.
Running a campaign is constantly chaotic on the GM’s side. You have to trust your group, take their ideas into serious consideration, and sometimes even ask why they desire a certain thing to happen. Of course, the dice end up deciding whether they are successful or not, but it’s really fun to see the snow flying around. Am I off-the-wall insane or does this sound like fun to you? I’d love to hear about it!
Stay Metal \m/