GM Tips: Preparing for a Campaign Part 3 – What sort of things should you prep at the start of a campaign?

We’ve talking about about pre-campaign prep and scheduling your game prep in previous instalments of this series, now it’s time to talk about the sort of things that you should be looking to have prepped for the start of your campaign.

What sort of things should you prep at the start of a campaign?

Top down or bottom up design?

Generally there are a couple of ways to start building the setting of your campaign and these are a top-down or a bottom-up approach. With a top-down approach you create a broad overview of the world and then drill down adding in layers of detail as you go, a bottom-up approach focusses just on the immediate area required to begin telling the story with only a few lightly sketched details for the campaign world beyond this area, the GM and players then add details as they explore more.

I like to use a combination of these approached, preparing some details on the overall approach of the world and then detailing the immediate area where the story begins, the middle-ground between the two can then be filled in as your game progresses, but you have the underlying structure of your overall approach to ensure consistency.

For example: If I were designing a fantasy world I would first create the following:

  • General description of the world/state of the world.
  • Enough details about the most worshipped deities, prominent races and large empires that I could consistently portray them.
  • A broad mythology or history for the setting.

I would then switch to the more immediate area and create the following:

  • The nearest settlement to where the PCs are starting.
  • The countryside and any dangers around the settlement.
  • The local ruler and any movers-and-shakers in the area.
  • Any dangers/hazards in the area.
  • A few interesting NPCs the player-characters are likely to run into.

Do I need a handout/gazetteer?

A gazzetteer is a mini-handout or booklet that a GM prepares at the start of their campaign, whilst contents differ from game to game they generally contain the sort of information that a common person growing up in your world would know.

For example: In our fantasy world the gazetteer may contain a brief description of the prominent gods, what races are common and how they get along (particularly if any are causing trouble in the area where the game begins), it might also have a sketch map of the area where the PCs begin the game and a some information about local authorities.

Generally this sort of handout should be fairly brief and to the point, you don’t want to get your players really excited for your game only to then hand them a huge wodge of paperwork that they’re going to have to read beforehand, when this happens it can feel a little bit like they’re getting homework before a game even begins. I recommend no more than a single side of A4 in terms of the size of a handout, if you need to go a bit over then do so, but try to keep it brief. My general rule of thumb for things like this is that if I’m getting bored writing it then the players will probably get bored reading it.

These handouts are not 100% necessary and it’s perfectly possible to run a great game without them, however, arming your players with some common facts about your world can allow you to jump into the game a lot quicker, it can also keep the flame of enthusiasm burning bright if there’s going to be a period of time passing between when you announce the game and when the first session takes place.

If your players respond particularly positively to the gazetteer and/or you have longer periods of time between your game sessions you may wish to consider doing a between game newsletter, allowing you to drop hints about future plot in, show players the potential far-reaching consequences of events that occurred in session and keep the game at the fore-front of everyones minds during those in-between periods.

Focus on the NPCs

So many of the PCs interactions with your campaign will be through the lense of NPCs, whether they be antagonistic or allies, it’s very useful to have an NPC embody aspects of your campaign setting since it puts a face on a threat or issue and gives the players someone to focus on.

For example: If you have an undead horde ravaging a country it’s quite a different feel if they’re all nameless undead than if they are the ravening ghoul hordes of Count Mertih de Sanova, vampire lord.

This doesn’t just apply to the big threats or events either, whenever you create something in any detail in your campaign just spare a few moments to think about whether or not you can have an interesting NPC embody that concept.

For example: Players are far less likely to remember a generic tavern in the village where they started the campaign than they are to remember the inn-keeper Ulthgar the dwarf who talked about his tour of service in the first orc war.

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