Over the next few months I will be sharing with you the process of one of my campaigns in the occasional article. This isÂ the first of that series of articles, and it deals with getting the overall scope of the campaign in order before focusing on the more granular details.
If all goes well, the current GM of my regular group’s game will be wrapping up some plot points during our next session and putting his game on hold. While the current GM takes a break and returns to the player’s seat, I will be stepping up as the GM for the group for the next 18 weeks (9 sessions as my group meets every other week) to run the first part of a Star Trek game that I have been planning for quite a while now. This game will be slightly different from the New Year/New Game that I have written about in the past, as this game will have a regular cast and will be using a variation of the D6 system in order to treat the group to something very different from the D&D 4e game that we have been playing.
“Coming Soon to a Tabletop Near You”
With only 9 sessions in the GM’s seat I immediately have a restriction: the calendar. After 9 sessions I will not have a “next game” to rely on if the game does not end well. I am used to having projects with deadlines, and looking over the history of projects from both my professional and personal life I prefer to work with a hard due date. “Sometime in May.” or “We expect to have it by next quarter.” just does not work very well for me, but “No later than midnight on June 2nd.” is something I can work with. Â This is a good restriction to have for my type of personality, because it applies a positive form of pressure for me to draw energy from.
So here is my deadline: Â July 20th, 2012. I have to prep, run, adjust, and provide an overall awesome experience for my regular group with this game for each of the 9 sessions that I run. Where should I begin?
Define the “Why?”
Simon Sinek’s bookÂ Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take ActionÂ is a personal favorite of mine. Sinek’s message is that while many leaders can manage the processes of a business (or anyÂ endeavorÂ really), it is the exceptional leader who can inspire others, and that inspiration comes from not what you do but why you do it. Here is a link to Sinek’s TED Talk on the matter, and I find that video to be a very good summary of the book as well.
Why am I running this campaign? The obvious reasons are that I enjoy being a GM, and that I want to enjoy my hobby with my friends. But why am I running this particular campaign? Because I am a fan of Star Trek? Yes, that plays a big part in my decision to run this game. Star Trek inspires me, and I want to share my passion for the message of Star Trek with my friends. I am not concerned with the canon of the Star Trek universe (although I will be relying on it heavily in designing my game sessions), but I am concerned with being true to the philosophies of the Star Trek franchise.
I now need a vision statement in order to convey my “why” to the players. These 9 sessions will just be the first of 40 total. The PCs will be attending Starfleet Academy in order to prepare them for a career as Starfleet officers. With that premise in mind I came up with the following:
This campaign is about the beginning of a legacy. It is about the journey that a group of young people are taking in order to contribute to something far greater than themselves. Your characters have decided to accept both a challenge and a mission. The challenge is to venture forth into the unknown and discover the mysteries of this universe in whatever forms it appears in. The mission is to fulfill the challenge in a manner befitting that of a Starfleet officer.
Together we will be exploring what it means to join Starfleet, that fictional representation of what Gene Roddenberry saw as people at their finest. Put yourself into the mindset of a young cadet, and be open to experiencing the thrill of starting out on your own while at the same time living up to the expectations of something greater than yourself. By the end of this campaign your character should have achieved the rank of Ensign, and this will be the first of many accomplishments that will both be worthy of and expand upon the proud history of Starfleet.
Your characters seek to explore the final frontier, yet it is a journey not just of starships but of individuals. By seeking out strange new worlds you will also be seeking out your characters’ destinies. Go forth boldly, stay true to the legacy of those who came before you, and earn your Starfleet uniform.
I will be sharing this with my players, and hopefully this will inspire them or at the very least make it easier for them to get into the spirit of the game that I am running. Now I need to define my goal for these 9 sessions.
Shoot for the Net
Now that I have my reason for running this campaign and my time frame in which to run it, I can begin to create some goals for the campaign. I want to be clear that these goals are not tasks for the player characters to accomplish, but instead are tasks for myself as the GM. If I can accomplish these goals at the level of managing the campaign world, then my players should begin to devise and share their own goals for their player characters with me.
This process of creating goals and sharing those goals with others should result in a state of positive momentum and feedback. I create a goal for the campaign which inspires a goal for the player characters, that I can then use in the creation of yet another goal for the campaign. I want to develop a symbiotic relationship here so that the campaign transitions from being “my campaign” to “our campaign”.
Goals are the secret to achieving that symbiosis. Making my expectations clearly known to the rest of the group will not limit the players as long as my expectations do not infringe upon their expectations for the development of their characters. So I am limiting my goals to the introduction of plot elements, and not the resolution of those plot elements. I will be delivering the building materials, but it is the players who will build the actual structure.
With that in mind here are my goals for each session:
- Session One – Set the stage for life at Starfleet Academy. What are the dorms like? What are the classes that will be taught? What are the key areas on campus that the players should know about? The adventure for this session should revolve around introducing the PCs to the setting itself.
- Session Two – Who else inhabits this setting? While some characters were introduced in the first session, this second session will flesh them out even more and introduce others. Rivals to the PCs will be introduced, and mentors will begin to emerge.
- Session Three – What are the challenges that the setting currently faces? Note that I am not creating a challenge for the PCs but for Starfleet Academy itself. Whatever this challenge is, it can be used to create a larger story arc for the PCs to participate in however they choose to do so.
- Session Four – Foreshadowing of threats and future dangers. As the PCs become more familiar with the setting I will introduce antagonists that endanger the setting. How the PCs choose to oppose the antagonists will help me to develop future challenges for the group as a whole. This is also the session where the PCs determine their individual career paths in Starfleet.
- Session Five – The first real tragedy for the setting. By now the PCs should have made some connections to both the setting and some of the NPCs. Something unexpected shall occur that should challenge the PCs’ beliefs in some way. The point of this tragedy is not to punish the PCs, but to help them develop as individual characters.
- Session Six – A moment of comic relief. Having taken the tone of the campaign into a darker place with the last session it is now time to take a break of sorts and allow the players a chance to cut loose with a ridiculous situation. The point of this session is just to laugh and have fun before introducing a more tense series of sessions.
- Session Seven – A storm on the horizon appears, and this is the moment that the PCs have been training for. A challenge is introduced that will have long term consequences not just for the PCs but for Starfleet as a whole. This is also the session where the PCs and their rivals meet head on to settle things once and for all.
- Session Eight – The darkest hour. This session is going to be bleak, but it is also the session where the PCs become the heroes that they need to be. By this session I should be focusing less on the setting and more on how the PCs are influencing and changing the setting.
- Session Nine – The final outcome. How this series of nine sessions ends will be determined by the PCs, but in this last session my job will be to provide closure based upon what the PCs did throughout the campaign. The final hour of the session should then be used to establish the transition of the PCs from cadets to Starfleet officers, and to hint at what they can expect if the players decide to pursue another campaign with their characters.
Now I Just Need to Prep…
Of course that is easier said than done, but by having the scope of this campaign defined my prep work should flow much more smoothly. My goals are simple and without a high level of detail so that I can adjust the campaign based upon player input. My time frame will keep me on track and should also help me to resist the siren call of a last minute “great” idea. This way I am not acting solely on my initial emotional response to an idea and stretching myself too thin with additional prep work for the campaign.
Best of all though is that I have an understanding of why I am running this campaign. The goals that I have devised for each session of this campaign were inspired by my observations of how the writers created story arcs in the various Star Trek television shows. I have a framework built around my vision for the campaign, and that vision is fueled by my passion for something that inspires me. This does not guarantee success. I still have a lot of work to do, but by clarifying why I am running the campaign I have a better understanding of what a “successful” version of this campaign would be like.
What About You?
How do you approach a new campaign? Do you prefer hard deadlines, or are you more comfortable with an approach that is less restrictive? Do you plan your sessions with goals in mind, and if so what are they? Share your thoughts and ideas by leaving a comment below!
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Wow — this level of detail, mapping out a 9-meeting adventure arc session by session, is quite impressive. I think it works particularly well starting out a new game to have both the “why?” in mind as well as the outline for what you hope to have happen in a traditional narrative-style opening act.
For myself, I don’t operate point-by-point as much as this, although I have broad goals for my group. We have a fantasy world “sandbox” approach, with the major governments and world powers in place, etc., allowing the characters to gravitate together somewhat naturally. Obviously, having all the characters recruits in a school-type setting makes it easier to insure a like-minded approach and structure for the campaign.
I’m not sure I could ever frame exactly what you’ve done here given the system we run — it may be a limitation of the sandbox style, but once we’re through the first encounter I rely on the characters to drive what comes next. One session may end up lighthearted and somewhat ridiculous, whereupon I’ll try to crank up the “heavy” stuff the next time around, or vice versa. We end up having a little bit of everything in each session together, but no clear narrative arc as you’ve done here.
I’m not sure how to incorporate a model like your nine-session example, but it’s thought-provoking and I like how your plot points are general (“Session Five — the First Real Tragedy”) vs. specific (“Session Five — Rallick’s Mentor, Mordann, is killed”).
Thanks for an interesting read!
@drummy – Thanks for the compliments on the nine session outline.
I don’t think the sandbox method of running a game and the session goals are incompatible. By not having something planned in perfect detail (such as “Rallick’s Mentor, Mordann, is killed”) and keeping the session goals very general (introduce a tragedy) you can still have the PCs lead the way with the adventure but you as the GM still have a plan to influence the feel of the game.
So let the PCs do what they will, but throw in something tragic. A mentor dies of old age and it reminds the PCs that death is inevitable even if you have magic or advanced technology available. This can occur as a planned event without disregarding the player’s decisions.
That is just one approach of course, and there is no reason to change your style of GMing if you are happy with the current results. I just don’t see the idea of the sandbox game and the planning of dramatic events as being incompatible.
Great stuff, Patrick!
The only thing I’d add, and you seem to do this implicitly (Session Six is a good example), is add soft sessions to the outline, in case you need to cut something. In RPGs things never go according to plan, and even experienced GMs miscalculate how long an adventure can take.
(Obviously, you can embed this softness within each adventure, but it takes a bit more finessing if you’re really pressed for time not to make the result look like a railroad).
This is also helpful if you have a hard ending date and you end up missing a session or two due to outside factors.
Playing 4-5 sessions before getting to the real drama seems long, in my opinion.
I’d think you’d be able to embed the setting color into the action and drama sessions.
@tyrannosirus – I’m curious as to why you think that the real drama is not introduced until 4-5 sessions into the campaign. Would you expand on that? I’m interested in how you are interpreting the first 3 sessions. Just curious.
@Walt Ciechanowski – Good point, Walt. You have to be willing to cut material if things go off track and you still want to keep to your original schedule.
@Patrick Benson — I thought the same thing when I read the article. When you introduce antagonists is when the season’s conflict really starts. Maybe each session is assumed to have its antagonists-o’-the-week, or maybe you think an antagonist introduced too early loses its punch, but it seems to me like you need an antagonist for drama. I’d have a stand-in antagonist introduced in session 1, and the BBEG replacing him in session 4-5.