The explicit campaign premise: "X who do Y in a world where W"

@DrBob’s thread about Sins the RPG: thoughts on a first read-through started digressing into a discussion of the virtues, limitations, and insufficiencies of, and caveats about, having an explicit campaign premise of the form

  • The PCs are X who do Y in world W

It’s a discussion that I think is well worth having, but probably off-topic in that thread. So I made this one for it.

Yeah, it has to be decided. I think it has to be stated explicitly, and that all the players have to agree to it candidly, before anyone settles on what character they’re going to play. I’ve had too many bad experiences that amounted to a character-player forming an unshakeable opinion that “my character wouldn’t do that”, the root cause being either

  • that the “unspoken agreement” wasn’t actually agreed, or
  • that either the GM or one or more character players wasn’t candid.

But however it comes about once they have designed a character some players become very inflexible about playing out of character or adjusting their character once generated, and I don’t believe that they are being wilfully difficult.

When I’m pitching a campaign I like the “the PCs are X who do Y in world W” formulation, but sometimes I get a (or rather, used to get) more of an “please run some W for us” or “what shall we play?” approach that brainstorms and negotiates its way to an agreement during Session 0.

It seems to me we’re circling round the truism that “players don’t like to have PCs who don’t fit the game” - even if you can swap out a PC who doesn’t fit for one who works better, character generation is effort, and in an XP-based game a replacement PC may fall behind the others in spotlight-grabbing power. That’s all fair enough.

But that’s not the only reason I like a quick campaign description as summarised in the thread title. Some of my players are quite picky about the sort of thing they want to play, and if I come up with several campaigns at this level of complexity I can get the unacceptable ones rejected before I go into more effort building them. Also, as I believe Bill suggested in his campaign prospectus article back in Pyramid volume 2, once players have said in some form “yes, I want to play in this campaign rather than that one” there’s slightly more commitment than if it’s just “I will go along with whatever Roger runs next”.

An example of a setting that doesn’t do much of this is GURPS: Tales of the Solar Patrol from 2008. (Which I actually rather like the look of; I’m using it as a bad example here because it gets most of the other stuff right.) 45 pages of world background, technology, character templates; three of campaigns. The Solar Patrol campaign, the default mode, gets less than half of one of those three pages. Now, yes, some of the locations suggest things you could do, but there’s an awful lot of work needed to go from reading this book to blowing away pirates with your atomic pistol.

So if I were proposing to run a campaign of this, I couldn’t just say “take a look at the book”; I’d have to say something like “you’ll start out as cadets, then graduate to the Patrol proper; you’ll be the crew of a patrol ship, sent up against a variety of threats and expected to handle them on your own.”

This then veers into another campaign-building truism: if when I’m designing it I can’t readily think of about ten things for the PCs to do (“adventures”, if you’re using that model), it probably doesn’t have the legs to be enjoyable. What are the things the Space Patrol does? Fight pirates; do colonial things on Venus; maybe go covertly to Mars; fight agents of the Overlord of Jupiter; and…? This is the point at which I stop thinking I want to run a Solar Patrol campaign, because I feel it’s going to wear thin quite soon.

Actually I have a regular player who adores having PCs who don’t fit the game. Specifically PCs who faff about doing arty farty stuff instead of following the plot. If the X who do Y on W was Star Fleet Officers who guard the Federation border from Klingon invasion, he’d in theory have created the science officer or helmsman but put most of his skill points into violin playing and bonsai growing. This is not an exaggeration for comic effect.


I agree with all of this, given the proviso that “X who do Y” can be decided in the pre-session. It does have to be decided before players talk about characters, though. Trying to put together a coherent campaign from whatever random character concepts players have come up with hardly ever works.

Though I’d say - not to disagree with you - that “X who do Y” doesn’t have to be a straitjacket: “it’s 1967, and you are all students who’ve signed up for a drug trial in London” (with the players knowing that psi powers were going to get added to their character designs) worked reasonably well.

The characters didn’t get a lot of choice about joining MI5 as psi operatives, but that was all done as pressure within the setting, rather than “because the GM says so,” which was fine.

I have several times encountered players who like to be playing a different game than everyone else, for instance to engage in PvP when everyone else it not, or to triumph over the GM by brutally and decisively violating genre expectations.

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Hah. My model for the campaign had you breaking out and staying on the run. But apparently I made my Intimidation roll on behalf of the MI5 recruiter…

Dangers of playing out the origin story….

Of course, when the GM says “the players are X who do Y on W” they need to quickly look up a dictionary and check their definitions of X, Y and W. Or include a stage where they explain them to the players. Otherwise you get this sort of situations:

The game where the GM said he wanted modern mercenaries. So I rolled up in his presence an ex-military character with soldiering and flying a helicopter as my main skillset. Then we start playing the game and it turns out he doesn’t want mercenaries at all - he wants private investigators. So several of the characters have nothing to do in most of the sessions because we suck at all the relevant skills. Meanwhile the player who rolled up the ex-CIA guy does all the lock-picking, computer hacking, planting surveillance bugs, etc.

Or there was the game where the plot (was supposed to) centre around what GM constantly referred to as “road trains”. He didn’t tell us the two important features of these road-trains. Namely:

  1. They are not trains.

  2. They don’t run on roads.

So the people who had never heard the term road-train visualised a train which ran on a road. And the people who knew what an Australian road-train was visualised that. None of these groups visualised something which was capable of off-roading across a savannah and up a mountain. So we ignored the road-trains and flew a spaceship to the mountains. We’d been told the locals were nutters who shot at sapceships, so we thought it was a race-against-time scenario - get there and get out before the locals turn up and start shooting. We then whinged at the GM when our ship got shot at pretty much instantly. He whinged back that we were supposed to take a road-train into the mountains…

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What the hell are these things, then?

The not-really-road-trains were self-driving, goods train ish, all-terrain vehicles. We never really got a proper description. Possibly they were supposed to be like the ‘wagon trains’ in The Amtrak Wars by Patrick Tilley. Except they are driven by a computer and filled with cargo not soldiers and colonists.

picture of Amtrak Wars train

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Obvious, I suppose. But I have to admit that the first thing that sprang to mind was a prime mover towing three or four cattle trailers on a highway in western Queensland.

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C told me long ago that the guy she was seeing before me (this was back in 1984) invited her into a Traveller campaign he was playing in. So she rolled up a character at random and came up with a soldier with demolition skills. Unfortunately this was a mercantile campaign and her character had nothing to do but sit in the cargo space and smoke dope.


Once upon a time my friend Phred Smith launched a campaign in which the PCs were to be members of the diplomatico-military expedition that Earth sent to Tschai after Adam Reith came home at the end of Jack Vance’s Planet of Adventure series. Peter Johnston wilfully generated an interpretive dancer who had been sent along through the influence of a powerful senator, to interpret the events. We did not then have the technology to deal with that sort of thing, which is to say “no”.