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© 1998-2001 Dru
All rights reserved.
How to Start a Campaign:
When you are beginning
a new campaign, no matter what genre or system you're playing, it's best
to get organized from the start. Even if it means delaying the first game
for a month while you prepare, the extra work and organization will pay
off in the long run.
As I described in Adventure
Writing: The Focus, the first thing you should do is develop a short description
of the campaign's purpose and goals. If the campaign is designed to be
short-term, that is, designed to bring characters to a certain climactic
battle and then end, then your goals should reflect that purpose. If the
campaign is long-term, with no foreseeable planned end, then your goals
must be more general.
For example, let's say
we are developing a short-term Victorian-age superhero campaign. Before
starting, let's give it a title, as though it were a book. We'll call
it "Gallantry and Gaslight." That nicely captures the idea of
the gallant Victorian men and women who'll be the heroes in the campaign,
and the eerie gaslit streets that existed in 1800s London.
Now let's move on to the focus. Keeping to the rules described in the
article, we'll write the focus as follows:
The superheroes must
investigate a series of crimes that slowly reveal the presence of a veritable
"Moriarty" of supervillainous crime in the heart of Victorian
London. The grand finale will be their battle with him in the rookeries
and sewers of the city. Constant problems will include characters' social
demands; the interfering and suspicious members of the Metropolitan Police
Force, led by the corrupt Inspector Blackleg; and the nosy Grub Street
hack Caleb Perry.
Note that in 74 words
the campaign focus statement for "Gallantry and Gaslight" has
described the flow of the campaign (the adventures will be crimes and
they'll lead to some sort of showdown in the slums and sewers of London),
a potentially humorous set-up (social demands, which were quite strict
in Victorian England and offer plenty of chances for heroes to dash to
and from teas and dinners between fighting crime), and several nonplayer
characters—the supervillain, Inspector Blackleg, and the journalist
Caleb Perry. A good start!
Now it's time to pull
out a three-ring binder and start storing your notes.
I recommend the kind that has a plastic cover you can slip papers into—a
good illustration photocopied from a book on Victorian life will do nicely
to remind you and your players of the setting whenever you pull out the
notebook. The first note to go in will be the page that has your campaign
focus statement. This will help remind you, from game to game, of the
ultimate direction of the campaign. Buy some notebook tab dividers, too,
and label them. Example labels might be Setting, Adventures, Rules, NPCs,
The second step is to
make sure you have the setting well planned. In this case, since we're
planning a historical RPG (i.e., one set in a real time period), making
sure we know enough about Victorian London to create a convincing atmosphere
is essential. Were it a fantasy RPG, we'd need to create a convincing
fantasy setting (see, for example, How to
Start a Campaign: City and How to Start
a Campaign: Realm). Assuming whatever superhero system you're using
doesn't already have a Victorian sourcebook to use, you'll need to go
out and do some preliminary research. Fortunately, there are plenty of
nonfiction and fiction resources, hardcopy and online, for Victoriana,
as there are for most other time periods you might want to use in a campaign.
For the Victorian period, Sherlock Holmes adventures and Charles Dickens'
and Jane Austen's novels come immediately to mind. If you'd rather not
read the books, rent some Holmes adventures, "Oliver Twist "
or "Great Expectations," a period Jack the Ripper film, and
Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" or Emily Bronte's "Wuthering
Heights." If you're in the mood or if it's around December, "A
Christmas Carol" is set in the right time period, too.
If you prefer nonfiction,
try Kristine Hughes' "The Writer's Guide to Everyday Life in Regency
and Victorian England from 1811-1901," which is designed for a writer's
ease of reference and is just as useful for a gamer (hint: all of the
"Writer's Guides to Everyday Life" are excellent historical-RPG
resources). For more detail, Daniel Pool's "What Jane Austen Ate
and Charles Dickens Knew" is another good quick guide to Victoriana.
You might also go to
resources on the web. Finally, you can consider buying a Victorian sourcebook
created for another game system and adopting the basic information into
your game (for example, Call of Cthulhu has a Victorian sourcebook; Castle
Falkenstein is a Victorian-period sci-fi game).
You don't need to become
an expert on a time period to run a historical RPG, but it's a good idea
to get a general idea of what existed, and what didn't, to make the game
realistic and interesting. For example, our superheroes in "Gallantry
and Gaslight" really shouldn't be the products of a radioactive experiment
gone awry ... although radiation certainly existed then, it wasn't formally
discovered until 1896, as a quick check through my "The Timetables
of History" reference book tells me. Far better would be to give
the superheroes more Victorianesque backgrounds, such as being the results
of an experiment in Mesmerism (first practiced as such in 1778), hydropathy
(1829), or the like.
All of the notes you
take, of course, should be stored in your campaign notebook under Setting.
In addition, photocopy interesting illustrations that you may find during
your research as visual aids for your players. Remember, by the time the
campaign starts, you'll know much more about the period than your players
will, so giving them something to inspire their imagination will be a
great help. Keep your eye peeled for maps (it's not too hard to find a
map of Victorian London — look in books on Jack the Ripper or Sherlock
The third step is to
start tailoring this campaign information to your players. To do so, you
need to find out what kind of characters your players want to play. I
find it useful to give my players advance notice of a campaign so they
can create characters well before it begins, giving me a chance to review
the characters and begin weaving them together before the first game session.
So, at this point, announce your proposed campaign and ask your players
to create their characters. If you need to create special rules for the
time period, do so and hand them out. If all of your players are online,
setting up an email discussion list for the game is a good way to send
out rules additons and amendments quickly to everyone at once, and also
permits players to ask you questions and share the answers promptly. Make
sure to print out (or write out) every rule, amendment, addition, and
explanation that you create, and put it into your campaign notebook under
Rules for future reference.
When your players begin
to send you back character writeups, look for similarities. Are they all
wealthy? Middle-class? Poor? Could one be related to another by blood
or marriage? Could one be in the employ of the other's family? Be an old
family friend? Might they work for the same person? I find it useful to
tie as many characters together before the game as possible, especially
if they come from widely disparate backgrounds, to make sure there's a
rationale for them all adventuring together. In a superhero game, this
may be somewhat less important (superheroes tend to simply appear whenever
there's a problem and work together to resolve it), but since this is
specifically a Victorian campaign in which gender and class differences
were real issues, I'd take a moment to make sure they all have reasons
to help each other ... assuming they ever discover each others' secret
identities. For more ideas on binding the group together, see Introducing
You might also begin
to tie the player characters to specific settings. Sketch out a map (or
use a map you discovered during your research phase) of the houses or
rooms the characters live in, or find a few illustrations that picture
the characters' neighborhood well. These maps and illustrations can go
under PCs, perhaps subdivided by each player character's name.
This is also a good
chance to start looking for subplot and spin-off ideas. Now, "Gallantry
and Gaslight" is intended to be short-term, so we don't want to get
too bogged down in subplots and spin-offs, but it would be nice to develop
one or two ongoing subplots, especially if they can be used humorously
or to heighten the drama of the planned final showdown. The article Adventure
Writing: The Adventure Tree discusses how to develop subplots and plot
spin-offs for an adventure; the same applies to a campaign. If two players
describe their characters as being in love with an elusive lady (or gentleman),
decide that it's the same lady or gentleman, just for the fun of making
them romantic rivals. And then jot down in your notes that this romantic
interest must be the focal point of one of the adventures ... the victim,
perhaps, or if you're feeling particularly nasty (and what DM isn't?),
the villain. Save all of this information in your campaign notebook under
PCs, if it's mostly about the player characters, or NPCs, if it's mostly
about nonplayer characters, or Adventures, if you've outlined a few adventure
ideas out of your notes.
This leads us to the
fourth step, writing out major NPCs. We have the focus statement that
has given us some NPCs to create and now we have at least rough ideas
of the player characters, which gives us more NPCs to write (spouses,
friends, lovers, family, employers or employees, etc.). Most NPCs do not
require an extensive writeup, but it's useful to jot down a name, physical
description, and one or two mannerisms, to make sure you don't contradict
yourself within the game (players are merciless when they catch the GM
in a contradiction). The article on Adventure Writing: Nonplayer Characters
classifies characters into Main Characters, Guest Stars, Walk-Ons, and
Bit Parts. During pre-campaign planning you'll have an idea of one or
two Main Characters (the so-far-nameless archvillain, the inspector, the
journalist) and one Guest Star (the romantic interest for two of the characters).
Assume everyone else is a bit part for now -- a name and little else.
Put these notes into your campaign notebook.
But the Main Characters
and the Guest Star need a little more work. Write them up as though they
were characters—after all, the goal is to keep them showing up in
virtually every adventure. The inspector and the journalist should be
fairly easy. Give them names, statistics, skills, powers (if applicable),
and, most important, personalities. Since Inspector Blackleg is meant
to be a hindrance and corrupt, make sure he's politically well-connected
enough to put the characters' secret identities at risk, threatening the
superheroes with arrest, injury, or worse. He may even be in the employ
of our archvillain!
The journalist Caleb
Perry should also be an annoyance, but not a threat (except, perhaps,
to those pesky secret identities again). You can decide to make him pro-
or anti-superhero now, or wait to see how he's treated by the superheroes
before deciding whether he praises them or condemns them in the newspapers.
The archvillain, now,
that's a challenge. You may want to write hiim (or her) up now, or wait
awhile. The virtue to writing the archvillain up before the campaign is
that you have a good idea of the villain's powers, contacts, and modus
operandi. But at the same time you risk having the characters possibly
discover the villain before you're ready for the final showdown. This
isn't a problem if you don't decide who the archvillain is until sometime
during the game. After all, if you don't know, then the players can't
possibly know. The advantage to waiting is also that you can choose to
make the archvillain somebody the characters end up dealing with a lot—a
friend, relative, rival, enemy ... whoever will have the most dramatic
impact or cause the most player satisfaction. The disadvantage is that
you may need to do some fancy retroactive explanations to figure out how
Uncle Bob could have been in the Lady of Mercy hospital being visited
by family members at the same time he was attacking the royal fox hunt
in his villanous guise.... No matter what you decide, skim through How
to Run a Good Bad Guy to get ideas for fleshing out your villain.
The Guest Starring romantic
interest doesn't need quite as much write-up, but you'll want to describe
her or him well enough to keep the characters interested.
If you can find good
illustrations for the Main Characters and Guest Stars, use them, although
your chances of finding really interesting Victorian character portraits
may be fairly slim. Still, a picture of an NPC can be very useful in immediately
fixing the character in your players' imaginations.
Needless to say, all
of these writeups and illustrations need to go into your campaign notebook
With all of this background
information in hand, you're just about through with your pre-campaign
planning. If you're ambitious enough to write up the adventures at this
point (or lucky enough to be able to buy them off the shelf), go ahead,
and file them under adventures. More likely, you'll only be ready to write
up the first adventure. This is the time.
Remember that the first adventure must (1) introduce the characters, (2)
introduce (in terms of modus operandi, at least) the first hints that
will lead to the final showdown with the archvillain, (3) introduce the
major NPCs (the inspector and the journalist), (4) convince the characters
that they work well together (you hope!), and (5) set the ambiance for
the rest of the campaign. That's a tall order, and it means you need to
plan your first adventure well. A few ideas are provided in Adventure
Writing: The Opening Scene, although in a superhero campaign the usual
starting scenario is the Chaos Strikes opening. Still, use your imagination.
Be sure to map out the essential areas—especially where combat is
likely to take place—and write up the NPC combatants.
The first adventure
should, of course, be filed under Adventure in your campaign notebook.
Since this is the first
adventure, pull out those illustrations now so that your players have
a good image of Victorian London in their mind. Consider running a Victorian-setting
video (sound off) in the background, or playing appropriate classical
or chamber music to help set the ambiance. Much of the ambiance will depend
on you as GM—your use of description and characterization—but
adding atmosphere to the game space can only help. If you're playing in
the evening, think about dimming the lights for a Victorian feel. GMs
with money can afford to do more along these lines, of course (such as
going out and purchasing campaign-specific music or props), but plan to
do what you can.
As you run, be sure
to keep notes on ideas that occur to you, and after each game, take a
moment to jot down anything else that you happened to think of in terms
of adventure ideas, NPC twists, and so forth. Then file them accordingly
(or stuff them in the notebook for filing later, if you're ending your
game after midnight and don't have the energy to do more than crawl into
bed). You can go through them while you're planning the next adventure.
Although these are the
basic pre-campaign planning steps, other steps can include creating campaign
handouts for the players that include historical facts, illustrations
and maps for their reference, or creating a campaign website that contains
all of this information online and perhaps links to other websites on
Victorian London or even other superhero games for your players to browse
through. Players appreciate a well-prepared campaign ... just remember,
don't get so bogged down in planning it that you never get around to running
originally written August 4, 2000
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