GMing: Some of My Pre-Campaign Habits

While every campaign is unique, I have a handful of habits I return to in the pre-game stages. These are my favorites.

Foundation Materials

I always distribute some kind of campaign document, a hyper-distilled micro-worldbook, emphasizing the parts of the setting the PCs should/would be most aware of, or might be dealing with in the near future. Depending on the needs and moods, it'll run from 2-12 pages.

My runs lean toward the invisible end of the spectrum, so I like to GM the kind of adventures that invite and reward investment in the setting, and this kind of focused document boils things down for casual readers, while providing in-depth setting junkies with a starting point.

It doesn't even matter if the world is well-described by free resources. If I'm running FASATrek, for example, focusing on fallout from the Organian Peace Treaty, I can point them toward multiple Trek resources online ... but to the casual reader, those thousands of pages can be more intimidating than inspiring.

The most casual players can read my stripped-down summary, and they're ready to go. More ambitious roleplayers might want a character with strong ties to the event – someone who's suffered or prospered from the Treaty, for example. They can start with my mini-version, and wiki onward from there.

Structure vs. Scheduling

The enemy of grown-up gaming is Mundane Life. Many campaigns die due to circumstances beyond the game: someone had to move across town (or across state, nation or planet); someone had a romantic breakup (or an exciting new romance); a couple had a baby; someone's night-shifts got day-shifted, etc. Most campaigns can survive one such blow (we'll missing having an Ace Starpilot, but the ship's AI can fly well enough) but as they pile up, things start to look grim (we like to think that AI ship is still out there, doing all the jobs the crew used to).

Few campaigns are mundanity-proof, but I do my best to anticipate potential issues, and bake those into the campaign structure during early planning. If key players are likely to drop in and out frequently, for example, I'll lean toward an episodic campaign, where each adventure is self-contained. This makes it easy to explain why Drake Truncheon, Two-Fisted Man of Danger, joined us on our 1933 caper in Algeria but didn't make it for our [very next session] 1934 trek from Chengdu to Mandalay.

Since not every campaign really works as episodic (sometimes you just gotta have a big ol' single-focus epic), for other games we've reached for stranger solutions, like "the PCs will often be on remote treks for many sessions in a row; we'd love to have you drop in now and then, but would you mind if your character is someone the wizard summons from his pants? He has pants full of demons but some of them are pretty nice. Really any character could live in his pants. It's a world in there."

There's no one-size-fits-all solution (add your own "demon sweatpants" joke here), but it's always worth scanning the horizon for the most likely hazards, and adjusting early.

The Creation Session

For many one-shots, I'll just say "bring a character suited to X and Y, and off we go." For a one-shot, it's all good.

For campaigns, though, I host a session devoted to character creation. We don't usually gather at the gaming table for these ... any social setting will do: a favorite restaurant or bar, someone's living room, or the FLGS.

I prefer a pencils-down approach to these. It isn't about statting the characters out (players are welcome to do that at home), it's about creating them, individually and as a campaign ensemble: seeing which niches (if any) anyone wants to carve or share, establishing some relationship dynamics, knitting connections between backstories and long-term goals. In practice, the players "run" this session themselves in a cross-table barrage of brainstorming and Q&A, and I just dip in at need to offer advice. Even when the ensemble is built around friction (a party of cutthroat pirates, or Paranoia troubleshooters, someone's pulling a Jayne Cobb, etc) it's nice to give it just a bit of form, so we can hit the ground running.

The Mood Watch

I do this one maybe half the time: we gather to watch a few movies selected to set a certain campaigny mood. Most of my campaigns take place in some version of real-world history (with thick layers of genre-syrup on top), so it's usually fun to pick two or three films touching on the same genre / time-period in some way.

Whether I schedule the Mood Watch before or after the chargen session depends on the run. Sometimes, I want the films to inspire chargen choices and gameworld perspective. Sometimes, I prefer to have the players attached to their character concepts before such exposure.

The Campaign Glossary

Every campaign I've run for the past 20 years or so has its own Campaign Glossary. I find them invaluable.

The Glossary is just a document listing all the stuff: NPCs and locations, objects and events, and more. Depending on how many mysteries/secrets I'm juggling, I sometimes have two versions of the Glossary: one for the eyes of the players, one private. A simple Glossary entry might be something like:

Blackwind Cove: Isolated cove north along the coast from Jubilance, where the PCs battled for the Banderilla in Session B3.

A fleshier (but still brief) entry:

Carmichael, Lonnie: An Agent of the King, legal overseer of the emerald mine at the village of Illies. Affable and more even-tempered than his colleague, Tully. Described himself as "Blind Deacon born-and-raised." PCs met him in Session B1, B2. Due to connections to Scholar Teague and the death of Clenson Dara, Lonnie was apparently questioned (even tortured) in Vanity sometime between the PCs last seeing him, and Session 15 (when they heard of this questioning from Salem Lambeth).

That campaign was your basic world-spanning mystery, so tracking all the moving pieces on the global chess-board was handy for everyone. I maintained the document on Google Drive, gave everyone access, and updated it after each session. Snazzy for me when weaving threads; snazzy for the players when NPCs returned after a long absence, etc.

These days, it's also a snazzy memento. Between the campaign "micro-worldbooks" and the Glossaries and the session notes ... any of us who played can revisit each campaign, in a way, for years to come.

And if I ever publish a book about Uresian Loreseekers? Well, you'll know where a lot of it started.

In response to yesterday's Interactive Sunday, correspondent Jack Dawson asked for a piece on campaign groundwork. Thanks for the prompt, Jack! While I can't write an article for every request, I always appreciate a good writing prompt, and I'll write posts for as many as I can. Is there something you'd like a ramble on? Drop me a line.

From the Same Campaign. I Do Love a Loreseeker.