Sunday, 13 April 2014

How To Build A Campaign

Dominic Matte
I think I've talked a bit before about how I approach worldbuilding and designing a campaign, but a thread on the D&D subreddit asking how DMs prepare their campaigns got me thinking about a concise summary of my approach. So here's a slightly-longer-than-I'd-intended list:
  • Start with an idea for a story or world. Something like "dragons secretly run every country and are playing a game for control of the world" (which will be the working example for the rest of this post), or "the king has declared that all magic-users are to be executed".
  • Outline some backstory on how and why the world came to the state it's in now, but no more than a few paragraphs to a page. Example: a slightly more thorough version of "there were three ancient empires with dragons as their allies. Eventually the dragons decided they deserved the world and burned the capitals to the ground. But the remainders of the empires banded together and hunted down all the dragons. The handful that survived agreed that they needed to be more subtle. Hiding their existence, they now play a political game for control of the world - last dragon standing wins".  
  • This is where things get more complex. To flesh out the world I start skipping back and forth between a few areas because they tend to feed into each other. If I write in a country I'll add a few bullet points of its history, which creates interactions and political considerations with other countries, which need their own rulers, some of whom hold old grudges, etc.
  1. timeline of pivotal events in history
  2. rough map with countries and important locations
  3. overview of the current major countries and organizations
  4. major NPCs and their goals/allegiances
  • Once I've got a decent working idea of the world I'll start writing out story arcs for the campaign. Again, not too detailed to start; primarily major events and themes. Since I've been running 4e I usually plan an arc for each tier of play: heroic (1-10), paragon (11-20), and epic (21-30). I might start with "heroic is about resolving personal quests, emphasizing that PCs are little fish in a big pond, and learning about the game the dragons are playing; paragon is about the party as a cohesive group starting to influence global politics, get involved in the war, and start throwing wrenches into dragon's plans; epic is about confronting the dragons head-on at a massive scale and choosing the destiny of the world".
  • Finally, when I have a solid base of the world and the campaign arcs, I start planning individual adventures. I almost never plan more than one session ahead since my players are quite unpredictable (unpredictable as in "scout out the elaborate stealth heist scenario I've set up and then knock on the front door and announce their intentions"). But sometimes if I'm really excited about a particular event I'll plan that scenario well in advance - like the big setpiece battle for the transition from heroic to paragon (level 10 to 11). The PCs had just learned about the dragons' game, and though they'd fought a few low-level dragons, the idea was to really drive home the stakes and how much work needed to be done. The PCs joined ten thousand mercenaries and renegades for a bounty of a hundred million gold pieces to slay the dragon in the north, which turned out to be an epic-level threat that massacred the entire force in mere minutes... except for the PCs.

Usually I'm so thorough that no matter how unpredictable my PCs get I always have something to work with. That heist scenario I mentioned earlier? I had detailed patrol routes so I knew when and where they'd be spotted. I had personality profiles and histories for the garrison commanders so I knew how they'd react to a challenge. I had a map and inventory and mini-sidequests for every room in the garrison, so when a duel broke out and rolled across the entire base I had plenty of fun environmental effects and attacks to throw in. It turned out to be a great session even though I anticipated exactly none of the party's actions, because I had an answer for every crazy thing they tried.

So I guess the outline of my process might be helpful but the overall message works out more like, if you want to be ready for anything, overprepare to the max.

But this all turned out longer than I initially anticipated, so here's a TLDR summary of the summary:
  • start with an idea for a story or setting
  • quick and dirty backstory on how the world got to where it is now
  • Hop back and forth between mapmaking, NPCs, countries, and timeline, adding detail as I need it and without focusing on a single thing for very long
  • lay out major campaign themes, arcs, and events, typically divided into heroic/paragon/epic for 4e
  • write adventures on an as-needed basis since PCs are unpredictable