GM Tips: Preparing for a Campaign Part 1

A while back on a YouTube video I did about preparing for a Star Wars game Fábio Fontes requested some more advice on prepping for a more long-term campaign; I’ve been thinking for a while about how best to do this, and I think that doing it as a video probably isn’t the best way since the videos would end up being massive, so I’ve decided to write it in my blog instead. The topic is an extensive one, I’m not going to create an exhaustive treatise on it, but in the interests of avoiding a huge wall of text and of splitting my workload–I discuss this later in this series–I’m going to break the advice down into a series of blog posts.

The focus of this series is not building a specific campaign world or what rules-set to use (although these topics may be lightly touched on), but general prep advice for planning long-term campaigns.

This the first post serving as both an introduction and an opportunity to talk about the sort of thing you should be thinking about before you even start gathering players or putting pen to paper when it comes to campaigns.

Things to Think About Pre-Campaign

How often are you going to run your games?

Is your game going to run weekly, bi-weekly, monthly? It’s worth thinking about because the closer together your games are, the less prep time you have between sessions, however the advantage of games run closer together is that the players (and yourself) have less time to forget what happened in the previous session and it’s easier to maintain energy levels about a game.

Once you start recruiting players you will also have to factor in their ability to attend game sessions, it may be easier for some people to make a once a month game than it is for them to commit to regular weekly sessions.

For example: In the Heart of Darkness Star Wars campaign that I have just started, a couple of the players had prior-commitments that made it difficult for them to do a weekly game, but since I’d inherited the group (with one addition) from a previous game, I knew they could all do a bi-weekly game so decided to stick with that.

How many players are you going to have in your group?

The number of players you plan to have playing in your campaign can have an influence on your prep, since you will have more characters running around in your world, so potentially more stuff you have to deal with, however, an increased number of players can mean a larger mine of potential inspiration–backgrounds, character goals, etc–for you to work with and pull on to create stories.

At this point you should try to be realistic with yourself, think about how many players you’re likely to be able to get to commit to playing a long-term campaign, this is often more difficult that getting people together for a one-shot or a short-term game since if you say to someone, “Hey do you fancy playing a D&D one-shot this Saturday?” the commitment required is relatively small, whereas if you ask them to commit to playing twice a month on saturday, potential for a year or more than that’s more of an ask.

I generally go with 4 or 5 players in a group, since this gives me a good-sized group to work with but means that people aren’t constantly tripping over each other or having to wait for ages for their turn to speak, as can happen with significantly larger groups.

What will you do when players leave/join?

In a long-running campaign you’ll inevitably reach when for some reason or another one or more of the original players has to drop out of the game, this could be that their schedule has altered at work, they’re moving away from the area or any number of other reasons. You should give some thought at this stage how you plan to deal with this and whether or not/how you plan to introduce new players to bolster your numbers, getting it worked out at this stage will save you panic and stress further down the line.

Some things to think about:

  • What will happen to the departing players PC? Will they have a dramatic death scene? Depart the group in-game? Continue as an NPC?
  • How can you introduce a person to the group without upsetting an established group dynamic?
  • How can you introduce a new PC and have them continue to adventure with an existing party or group?

How long do you envision the campaign running for? Is it going to be an open-ended campaign?

Open-ended campaigns are those that have no specific end-goal or aim, whereas a more closed campaign deals with a particular story arc. For example: My recent Storm & Sail game was about a group of pirates trying to locate and recover the fabled philosopher’s stone, of course they did other things along the way but the game ended when that main objective was achieved.

The longer a campaign runs, the more likely it is that you will suffer from player attrition and have to replace some of the original group, this isn’t a problem if you’re prepared for it, but it can also be difficult to keep your enthusiasm as a GM if you’re running a really long campaign. There are some things you can do though to prevent your interest flagging in an open campaign:

  • Give the PCs a variety of potential quests/stories.
  • Introduce a new threat or part of your game world, be careful of over-using this though.
  • Have something about the setting change, this could be something small such as the owner of a local tavern retiring and his son taking over the business to something much grander like the death of a king or the beginning of a war between nations. Again you should be careful not to overuse this tactic or it will become commonplace.

At the moment I tend to go for something of a middle-ground when it comes to campaigns, I generally base them around a main story or group of stories and guesstimate how many sessions I think it might take the PCs to accomplish that story, so for instance, in my Storm & Sail game I estimated it would take about 10 sessions to complete the game, since my players moved quite quickly through some of it, the campaign only actually took us 8 sessions, but at least they had some idea of the level of commitment required at the start of the game.

The advantage of this approach is that you can sell the game to the players from the start, so instead of just saying “lets play D&D” you can say something more dramatic like “in this campaign we’re going to play out the rise and fall of the dread necromancer.”

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