What's your special sauce for preparing a campaign?

I’m starting to feel a bit better after my latest bout with the Black Beast (which has been protracted but not especially severe, and forced me to abandon my last campaign back in June '20). So I’m starting to consider a plan to think of hankering to start a new campaign.

One of the things that @RogerBW always says it that you aren’t ready to run a campaign unless you can write out ten¹ playable adventure ideas that you are ready to run for it.

What other such gems does anyone have for a person preparing a new campaign?

  1. Maybe he says “six”.

Are you looking for things that make a campaign taste good to the GM, as it were? (“I’ll see if they can lick their fingers . . .”)

I think that my habitual way to stimulate my own appetite is to have a campaign do something that’s new to me. That doesn’t mean everything in the campaign should be new; I have favorite genres, for example, supers and fantasy, and my campaigns are often yet another exploration of one of these. But I try to come up with a new angle of approach. Ideally I’m not quite sure how the campaign will work and have to run it to find out.

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I’m looking for anything that my colleagues in the trade have devised or learned that they think is specially good for laying the foundations of a successful and enjoyable campaign.

Maybe he is inconsistent. “A bunch”, anyway; it shouldn’t be a strain to come up with them. I have a lot of things that seem like campaign ideas but turn out to have only a few interesting things that can be done with them – and when the system is GURPS my regular players mostly prefer longer games to amortise the cost of character generation (I don’t suppose they’d put it that way but I’m an economist).


I think of it more as “to really learn how the character’s mind works.” The idea I have of them at the start is in broad strokes. It takes me a reasonable amount of play before I’ve learned what those strokes really mean, and what’s under the surface.

My main preparation method is reading about the setting, or analogous history, trying to internalise as much about it as possible. During that process, I start connecting facts and ideas about it, and getting insights into it. After a bit of that, I can run it pretty readily.

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Both when running my own characters, and when running NPCs as a GM, I can recognize the point where a character has come to life. Often it’s a matter of their having their own voice, but it can be actions.

In Manse, for example, I ran a scenario of the aristocrats holding a formal dance for the young people of their families and their potential suitors. And there was an NPC, Viollea, who was only an entry on the family tree submitted by one of the players for the House of Life. But by her age this was her first formal dance, so I rolled dice for her reaction—and got a very negative one, which I took to indicate that she was panicked and started to run away, and her brother had to coax her into coming back. And then she got the attention of one of the other PCs, Evange, a young woman of about the same age who was one of the castle guards, who asked to dance with her. And at that point Viollea had a characterization and a subplot.

I think part of the art of GMing is to give players hints about the setting in the course of play, so that it can come to life for them and they can navigate it intuitively. If you like, it’s a gaming analog of the SFnal idea of “indirect exposition.”

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Indeed. There’s an NPC in my current Transhuman Space campaign who came to life unexpectedly. She’s the primary pilot of the ship the PCs command and crew (nobody seemed to want to be the pilot). She was constructed as a naval cliché: the very talented but foolishly overconfident trainee officer. The PCs did a good job of handling her, allowing her to make mistakes when they didn’t much matter, and giving her some freedom to make decisions. But through the first few game-time months of the campaign, I didn’t really understand what she was thinking.

She came back from leave having been to Islandia to learn flying with low-G wings. She’d placed out of the introductory training class, which is for people with average DX and no relevant Talents, along with a chap who was a US Aerospace Force officer, and made it obvious. At this point I realised she’d acquired the distinctive Royal Navy sense of humour: she had not revealed that she was in the Navy, and had flirted with him a bit, just enough to get him to try feats of flying that were beyond him.

Yes. For me as a GM, it’s a matter of “getting the feel of the setting” after which I can usually create background and NPCs within it rapidly. Getting the players up to speed with that, so that they understand the world in a way that feels like their apprehension of the real world can take a long time, but it is the point where a campaign attains true maturity, for me.

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Improvise dialogue, and try to be amusing/clever/dramatic. In my case, at least, my players often decide that they like a particular NPC because of a good bit of dialogue, and that helps bring the NPC to life.

I could see an argument for six adventures in bullet form, but I am happy with really knowing the map, the factions and their agendas, and then develop from a session zero where the players buy in and contribute…


In Manse, one of my most successful campaigns ever, I had the players make up backgrounds for their characters in some details, and then I searched through the backgrounds to look for plot hooks. If you can build on material provided by the players in that way, especially if the build leads to a reveal that they didn’t anticipate, it can be very rewarding. Of course you have to have storyteller players!

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My campaigns last years; my last two combine to account for over a decade. This could mean that I’m crushing these campaign designs, or else that I have no data pool of note, I dunno. But for me, essential ingredients include:

*What’s the soundtrack? I compile huge lists of songs for each big arc, then DJ the moments spontaneously, recognising that oh man, the players are creating a moment that X track would just slay. A soundtrack pile also helps me set the tone palette in my head.

*What do extremes look like in the world? What’s cruel? What’s funny? Any genre can have every narrative ingredient, but cyberpunk funny looks different than desperate expedition in a flooded world funny.

*What is the scale of the stakes? This influences the players’ style so much. If you set the scale as ‘find the true king and prevent mass revolution,’ then whether or not you’re going for action, melodrama, or comedy of dunces, things are going to trend broad. If you go micro and weight tiny moments with big freight, so will players.

And finally…

*What would happen if the players didn’t exist, and how would that already be a dope story? If I know the big forces colliding, what everyone wants, and who is likely to prevail if the characters don’t F things up, then I’m ready for them to come F everything up, and what would’ve been one story becomes something else entirely. The ‘Inglorious Basterds’ principle, if you will.

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Often for me I’m inspired to run a campaign when I spot an intriguing gap in the setting, which has potential for the PCs to investigate or discover things. So if the setting has an equivalent of the Bermuda Triangle or a lost expedition up the Amazon or mysterious ghostly figures seen at the solstice, where the core book itself provides no details, my imagination goes off and creates the answers to those. Then I have that as a story arc in the campaign.

The campaign as a whole is not necessarily about solving the mystery of the Bermuda Triangle. But the PCs will be hanging around Bermuda a lot doing whatever the RPG thinks PCs should do in this setting, and they’ll start to collect clues.

The second thing that sparks story ideas is where the RPG’s worldbuilding is a bit sparse or has gaps which need plugging. I recall reading Terracide, which has Dyson Trees as part of the setting. That led to discussions with @JGD and @RogerBW and others about whether Dyson Trees were feasible. Which led into thinking about gravity of asteroid colonies. Which led to thinking about what gravity and atmospheric pressure would be needed for the genetically engineered winged humans (that one of my players wanted to play) to actually fly. I ended up with a head full of stuff about their Dyson Tree habitats and how they plugged into the economy of the wider society, which led to plot hooks as the PCs tried to make money and broker alliances against expansionism by another power.

Finally - though this may often be the starting point - when I read an RPG and am grabbed by it, I start to have character ideas for who I would like to play if someone else ever ran it, and I’ll roll up a few. When it finally dawns that I’d going to have to run the damn thing myself, those characters get tweaked and repurposed as NPC plot hooks. Perhaps the hotshot pilot I would have played is now the hotshot pilot who Saw Too Much in the Bermuda Triangle. Or the botanist who grows Dyson Trees is now the botanist on the run from the Space Mafia…


Once upon a time I attended a seminar series on the economics of public transport systems that was given by a Brazilian colleague in Sydney in February (and not in one of the parts of Sydney that is near the water). Unlike everybody else, the presenter wore a tie. At the tea break on the second day I said to him that this being Sydney (rather than Melbourne) he didn’t have to wear a tie and nobody expected him to. He replied that no-one wears ties in São Paulo either, but that it had been rather expensive and this was his only chance to amortise it. That passes for a joke among economists.

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Seems a sound approach to me. Carry on Jorge

However on topic my last two campaigns were built from reading the sources, then building an evolving map of factions, places, and events on Miro.
Then random tables for everything, to surprise me.
Then it would have been a very loose partially filled in map, but the setting had one, nicely underfilled. I am happy to inherit the terrain if it leaves room, so the Traveller map dot com is my friend.
Then a few city maps, I use that random fantasy city map generator on itch.io these days.
Then session zero and either use the narrative goals and team building in the RPG (D&D is good at on 5e, or the meshing of life events in Mongoose Traveller, or the team generation in Coriolis) or just grab a mix and apply.
That then creates another mesh of factions and clues and possible plots.
THEN I might sketch out 6 potential plotlines and 1 detailed adventure.
So I guess I am using a different approach to six adventures first, but I ain’t knocking that approach. Mine is very similar to how I plan and develop research proposals, I am an action researcher with a constructionist bottom up inside out approach, so that makes sense…

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Last night I was chatting with the rest of Whartson Hall about the next original game I plan to run. I won’t go into details, but I gave them a basic outline with a lot of configurable bits, and between us we decided how that configuration would be done (the era in which the game would run, the nature of the enemy, etc.). No idea whether it’ll produce a great game, but it was a very pleasant process for me.

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Notice that the only “like” that post received was from a fellow economist.

I thought it good enough to tell it to C, and she laughed at it.

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As an accountant “depreciate” is required to make it funnier for me. :sunglasses:

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For campaign inspiration I tend to start with the player character group, imagine the most absurd situation I can see them in, the imagine how they could actually find that situation compelling, then I put on music at random until I hear a song the fits with what I’m trying to do.

Then I put that in the middle of a page and outline both back and forward from there to see what works out best.

Then I start drafting that squares and lines background into actual paragraphs of text and npc descriptions while listening to that music on repeat and then more random music when it gets boring.