How to Start a Campaign: Pre-Campaign Planning

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How to Start a Campaign: Pre-Campaign Planning

When you are beginning a new campaign, no matter what genre or system you’re playing, it’s best to get organized from the start. Even if it means delaying the first game for a month while you prepare, the extra work and organization will pay off in the long run.

As I described in Adventure Writing: The Focus, the first thing you should do is develop a short description of the campaign’s purpose and goals. If the campaign is designed to be short-term, that is, designed to bring characters to a certain climactic battle and then end, then your goals should reflect that purpose. If the campaign is long-term, with no foreseeable planned end, then your goals must be more general.

For example, let’s say we are developing a short-term Victorian-age superhero campaign. Before starting, let’s give it a title, as though it were a book. We’ll call it “Gallantry and Gaslight.” That nicely captures the idea of the gallant Victorian men and women who’ll be the heroes in the campaign, and the eerie gaslit streets that existed in 1800s London.

Now let’s move on to the focus.

The superheroes must investigate a series of crimes that slowly reveal the presence of a veritable “Moriarty” of supervillainous crime in the heart of Victorian London. The grand finale will be their battle with him in the rookeries and sewers of the city. Constant problems will include characters’ social demands; the interfering and suspicious members of the Metropolitan Police Force, led by the corrupt Inspector Blackleg; and the nosy Grub Street hack Caleb Perry.

Note that in 74 words the campaign focus statement for “Gallantry and Gaslight” has described the flow of the campaign (the adventures will be crimes and they’ll lead to some sort of showdown in the slums and sewers of London), a potentially humorous set-up (social demands, which were quite strict in Victorian England and offer plenty of chances for heroes to dash to and from teas and dinners between fighting crime), and several nonplayer characters—the supervillain, Inspector Blackleg, and the journalist Caleb Perry. A good start!

Now it’s time to pull out a three-ring binder and start storing your notes. I recommend the kind that has a plastic cover you can slip papers into—a good illustration photocopied from a book on Victorian life will do nicely to remind you and your players of the setting whenever you pull out the notebook. The first note to go in will be the page that has your campaign focus statement. This will help remind you, from game to game, of the ultimate direction of the campaign. Buy some notebook tab dividers, too, and label them. Example labels might be Setting, Adventures, Rules, NPCs, and PCs.

The second step is to make sure you have the setting well planned. In this case, since we’re planning a historical RPG (i.e., one set in a real time period), making sure we know enough about Victorian London to create a convincing atmosphere is essential. Were it a fantasy RPG, we’d need to create a convincing fantasy setting. Assuming whatever superhero system you’re using doesn’t already have a Victorian sourcebook to use, you’ll need to go out and do some preliminary research. Fortunately, there are plenty of nonfiction and fiction resources, hardcopy and online, for Victoriana, as there are for most other time periods you might want to use in a campaign. For the Victorian period, Sherlock Holmes adventures and Charles Dickens’ and Jane Austen’s novels come immediately to mind. If you’d rather not read the books, rent some Holmes adventures, “Oliver Twist ” or “Great Expectations,” a period Jack the Ripper film, and Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” or Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights.” If you’re in the mood or if it’s around December, “A Christmas Carol” is set in the right time period, too.

If you prefer nonfiction, try Kristine Hughes’ “The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in Regency and Victorian England from 1811-1901,” which is designed for a writer’s ease of reference and is just as useful for a gamer (hint: all of the “Writer’s Guides to Everyday Life” are excellent historical-RPG resources). For more detail, Daniel Pool’s “What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew” is another good quick guide to Victoriana.

You might also go to resources on the web. Finally, you can consider buying a Victorian sourcebook created for another game system and adopting the basic information into your game (for example, Call of Cthulhu has a Victorian sourcebook; Castle Falkenstein is a Victorian-period sci-fi game).

You don’t need to become an expert on a time period to run a historical RPG, but it’s a good idea to get a general idea of what existed, and what didn’t, to make the game realistic and interesting. For example, our superheroes in “Gallantry and Gaslight” really shouldn’t be the products of a radioactive experiment gone awry … although radiation certainly existed then, it wasn’t formally discovered until 1896, as a quick check through my “The Timetables of History” reference book tells me. Far better would be to give the superheroes more Victorianesque backgrounds, such as being the results of an experiment in Mesmerism (first practiced as such in 1778), hydropathy (1829), or the like.

All of the notes you take, of course, should be stored in your campaign notebook under Setting. In addition, photocopy interesting illustrations that you may find during your research as visual aids for your players. Remember, by the time the campaign starts, you’ll know much more about the period than your players will, so giving them something to inspire their imagination will be a great help. Keep your eye peeled for maps (it’s not too hard to find a map of Victorian London — look in books on Jack the Ripper or Sherlock Holmesiana), too.

The third step is to start tailoring this campaign information to your players. To do so, you need to find out what kind of characters your players want to play. I find it useful to give my players advance notice of a campaign so they can create characters well before it begins, giving me a chance to review the characters and begin weaving them together before the first game session. So, at this point, announce your proposed campaign and ask your players to create their characters. If you need to create special rules for the time period, do so and hand them out. If all of your players are online, setting up an email discussion list for the game is a good way to send out rules additions and amendments quickly to everyone at once, and also permits players to ask you questions and share the answers promptly. Make sure to print out (or write out) every rule, amendment, addition, and explanation that you create, and put it into your campaign notebook under Rules for future reference.

When your players begin to send you back character writeups, look for similarities. Are they all wealthy? Middle-class? Poor? Could one be related to another by blood or marriage? Could one be in the employ of the other’s family? Be an old family friend? Might they work for the same person? I find it useful to tie as many characters together before the game as possible, especially if they come from widely disparate backgrounds, to make sure there’s a rationale for them all adventuring together. In a superhero game, this may be somewhat less important (superheroes tend to simply appear whenever there’s a problem and work together to resolve it), but since this is specifically a Victorian campaign in which gender and class differences were real issues, I’d take a moment to make sure they all have reasons to help each other … assuming they ever discover each others’ secret identities. For more ideas on binding the group together, see Introducing Characters.

You might also begin to tie the player characters to specific settings. Sketch out a map (or use a map you discovered during your research phase) of the houses or rooms the characters live in, or find a few illustrations that picture the characters’ neighborhood well. These maps and illustrations can go under PCs, perhaps subdivided by each player character’s name.
This is also a good chance to start looking for subplot and spin-off ideas. Now, “Gallantry and Gaslight” is intended to be short-term, so we don’t want to get too bogged down in subplots and spin-offs, but it would be nice to develop one or two ongoing subplots, especially if they can be used humorously or to heighten the drama of the planned final showdown. The article Adventure Writing: The Adventure Tree discusses how to develop subplots and plot spin-offs for an adventure; the same applies to a campaign. If two players describe their characters as being in love with an elusive lady (or gentleman), decide that it’s the same lady or gentleman, just for the fun of making them romantic rivals. And then jot down in your notes that this romantic interest must be the focal point of one of the adventures … the victim, perhaps, or if you’re feeling particularly nasty (and what DM isn’t?), the villain. Save all of this information in your campaign notebook under PCs, if it’s mostly about the player characters, or NPCs, if it’s mostly about nonplayer characters, or Adventures, if you’ve outlined a few adventure ideas out of your notes.

This leads us to the fourth step, writing out major NPCs. We have the focus statement that has given us some NPCs to create and now we have at least rough ideas of the player characters, which gives us more NPCs to write (spouses, friends, lovers, family, employers or employees, etc.). Most NPCs do not require an extensive writeup, but it’s useful to jot down a name, physical description, and one or two mannerisms, to make sure you don’t contradict yourself within the game (players are merciless when they catch the GM in a contradiction). The article on Adventure Writing: Nonplayer Characters classifies characters into Main Characters, Guest Stars, Walk-Ons, and Bit Parts. During pre-campaign planning you’ll have an idea of one or two Main Characters (the so-far-nameless archvillain, the inspector, the journalist) and one Guest Star (the romantic interest for two of the characters). Assume everyone else is a bit part for now — a name and little else. Put these notes into your campaign notebook.

But the Main Characters and the Guest Star need a little more work. Write them up as though they were characters—after all, the goal is to keep them showing up in virtually every adventure. The inspector and the journalist should be fairly easy. Give them names, statistics, skills, powers (if applicable), and, most important, personalities. Since Inspector Blackleg is meant to be a hindrance and corrupt, make sure he’s politically well-connected enough to put the characters’ secret identities at risk, threatening the superheroes with arrest, injury, or worse. He may even be in the employ of our archvillain!

The journalist Caleb Perry should also be an annoyance, but not a threat (except, perhaps, to those pesky secret identities again). You can decide to make him pro- or anti-superhero now, or wait to see how he’s treated by the superheroes before deciding whether he praises them or condemns them in the newspapers.

The archvillain, now, that’s a challenge. You may want to write hiim (or her) up now, or wait awhile. The virtue to writing the archvillain up before the campaign is that you have a good idea of the villain’s powers, contacts, and modus operandi. But at the same time you risk having the characters possibly discover the villain before you’re ready for the final showdown. This isn’t a problem if you don’t decide who the archvillain is until sometime during the game. After all, if you don’t know, then the players can’t possibly know. The advantage to waiting is also that you can choose to make the archvillain somebody the characters end up dealing with a lot—a friend, relative, rival, enemy … whoever will have the most dramatic impact or cause the most player satisfaction. The disadvantage is that you may need to do some fancy retroactive explanations to figure out how Uncle Bob could have been in the Lady of Mercy hospital being visited by family members at the same time he was attacking the royal fox hunt in his villanous guise…. No matter what you decide, skim through How to Run a Good Bad Guy to get ideas for fleshing out your villain.

The Guest Starring romantic interest doesn’t need quite as much write-up, but you’ll want to describe her or him well enough to keep the characters interested.

If you can find good illustrations for the Main Characters and Guest Stars, use them, although your chances of finding really interesting Victorian character portraits may be fairly slim. Still, a picture of an NPC can be very useful in immediately fixing the character in your players’ imaginations.
Needless to say, all of these writeups and illustrations need to go into your campaign notebook under NPCs.

With all of this background information in hand, you’re just about through with your pre-campaign planning. If you’re ambitious enough to write up the adventures at this point (or lucky enough to be able to buy them off the shelf), go ahead, and file them under adventures. More likely, you’ll only be ready to write up the first adventure. This is the time.

Remember that the first adventure must (1) introduce the characters, (2) introduce (in terms of modus operandi, at least) the first hints that will lead to the final showdown with the archvillain, (3) introduce the major NPCs (the inspector and the journalist), (4) convince the characters that they work well together (you hope!), and (5) set the ambiance for the rest of the campaign. That’s a tall order, and it means you need to plan your first adventure well. A few ideas are provided in Adventure Writing: The Opening Scene, although in a superhero campaign the usual starting scenario is the Chaos Strikes opening. Still, use your imagination. Be sure to map out the essential areas—especially where combat is likely to take place—and write up the NPC combatants.

The first adventure should, of course, be filed under Adventure in your campaign notebook.

Since this is the first adventure, pull out those illustrations now so that your players have a good image of Victorian London in their mind. Consider running a Victorian-setting video (sound off) in the background, or playing appropriate classical or chamber music to help set the ambiance. Much of the ambiance will depend on you as GM—your use of description and characterization—but adding atmosphere to the game space can only help. If you’re playing in the evening, think about dimming the lights for a Victorian feel. GMs with money can afford to do more along these lines, of course (such as going out and purchasing campaign-specific music or props), but plan to do what you can.

As you run, be sure to keep notes on ideas that occur to you, and after each game, take a moment to jot down anything else that you happened to think of in terms of adventure ideas, NPC twists, and so forth. Then file them accordingly (or stuff them in the notebook for filing later, if you’re ending your game after midnight and don’t have the energy to do more than crawl into bed). You can go through them while you’re planning the next adventure.

Although these are the basic pre-campaign planning steps, other steps can include creating campaign handouts for the players that include historical facts, illustrations and maps for their reference, or creating a campaign website that contains all of this information online and perhaps links to other websites on Victorian London or even other superhero games for your players to browse through. Players appreciate a well-prepared campaign … just remember, don’t get so bogged down in planning it that you never get around to running it!

originally written August 4, 2000

Image Source: Public Domain Files

I read, write, roleplay, travel, teach, and occasionally do research. I am a lizard, a warrior, a minimalist, and a scholar.
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