It is fair to say that I have run a number of campaigns. Some epic, some pretty good, and plenty that were meh or worse. Over time, I have gotten a good feel about if a campaign has what it takes to be worthwhile or not, but it takes a few sessions to be sure. Knowing that, I have made it a practice not to put too much detail or effort into an early campaign until I am sure that it is going somewhere.
The 50 Page Campaign
I did not always follow the advice above. There was a time when I would spend quite a bit of time working on campaign ideas, settings, plots, NPC’s, etc in order to prep for a new campaign. Some time back, at the turn of the century, I was setting up to run a Mutants & Masterminds campaign. I got really into creating this alternative history for the world, deriving all the changes in modern history and culture with the arrival of superheroes during World War II.
As settings go, it was easily one of my best ones, and it culminated with a 50-page alternative history that explained the whole setting. The campaign lasted about 4 sessions before the players lost interest. Truthfully the setting had some issues. It was plenty realistic…too realistic.
The point is that I spent way more hours working on the setting/campaign than getting to play the actual campaign. That for me was rock bottom. After that, I swore off investing too much in campaign prep.
The Campaign Prep Tightrope
There is a problem with not investing in campaign prep, and that is that the game may not be interesting enough to keep running unless you do some prep, and that by doing none you may have committed your game to failure. So you have to do some prep to make sure the game takes off, but not so much that if it fails you will regret the time spent. It’s a tightrope.
Depending on the game you play, what you need to prep for a campaign is going to differ. Some RPG’sÂ – like many Powered by the Apocalypse gamesÂ – do enough initial prep that just running the first session generates enough material to get going. Other games are not that helpful, and you wind up having to do some work to have enough to get the game started.
The Rule of Four Sessions
I have a rule about campaigns. I give them four sessions (defined as the time we sit down to play a game) before I ask my players if the game is worth continuing. Four sessions gives you a reasonable time to understand the mechanics, the setting, etc. Four sessions also gives the players enough time to figure out if their characters work, need tuning, etc.
Just Enough Campaign Prep
Now we are getting somewhere. Knowing that in four sessions the fate of the game will be decided, your prep should be scaled appropriately. What does that mean? Here are a few tips:
- Avoid deep conspiracies and plots. Those are a lot of work and need more than 4 sessions to complete. If the game takes off, you can build one of those starting in session 5.
- Be evocative and vague. When you name and describe things, make sure that you are being evocative enough to capture the players’ attention, but at the same time be vague so that you don’t have to invest time in creating backstory. For instance: The God of Smiling Retribution.
- Run a one-shot. Depending on how much material you can get through in four sessions, you may not need more than a one-shot (defined as a single story; start, middle, and end) to play through all your sessions. In many cases published material winds up being able to fill that time.
What If It Takes Off?
So after the fourth session, everyone is on board. Now is the time to ramp up your campaign prep, and get this campaign into full gear. Here are a few ways to make that happen:
- Build an Arc. Plan out a multi-session story arc to be the first arc of the campaign.
- Add depth to a few NPCs. Based on the NPCs that the players took interest in during the first four sessions, add some backstory and motivations to them.
- Build your villains. Did the opposition in the first four sessions survive? If so, its time to get them ready for a campaign. Figure out who they work for, what other plans they have, and who works for them. If they did not survive, who is going to miss them and want revenge?
- Retcon. If you made something in the first four sessions and your game survives, then you can retcon what that meant to the greater campaign world.
Know When To Hold ‘Em…Know When To Fold ‘Em
Starting a campaign can take some work, but don’t make it too much work for yourself until you know you have something good going on. A solid four sessions will let you know if you have a campaign or if you have been playing a slow one-shot. Make sure you prep enough to make the game interesting but no so much that you will regret if the game does not take off. Likewise, once a game takes off, dive in and build out that awesome campaign you envision.
What about you? Have you ever over-prepped on a campaign? Do you have a four-session rule? How do you know when a campaign is a hero or a zero?
Perhaps not coincidentally, this is similar to how many TV shows get made. Make a pilot episode that introduces the hook, a couple running set pieces, and the main characters. This would be like your one-shot. If that works, make the next five episodes. (Side note: this is why so many dramas have a major twist in episode 6.)
One thing I’d like to add here is a note about the Dresden Files RPG. It has a cool feature of a session 0 in which the players collaboratively create the campaign with the GM. It’s all set in the Dresden-verse, which comes with it’s own unique flavor of urban fantasy. But the group talks about what the fantasy side of their city is like, and comes up with a number of NPCs to be allies, enemies, or something in between. For the right group, it’s a fantastic way to a) take a lot of the guesswork out of what the party wants in a campaign, b) take some of the burden of creation off the GM’s shoulders, and c) make sure that the characters and setting are created to be not only compatible but pre-hooked.
I love games that include those mechanics. Dresden was an inspiration for my own Neighborhood design in Hydro Hackers, which does similar things.
I think those kinds of setting generating mechanics, do a lot for creating so much potential for a GM to draw from, and at the same time creates connections for the players to use.
I like this. As Lugh said, this is like a pilot.
Are you counting session 0 with character creation as one of your four?
I don’t count session 0. The four sessions are actual playing sessions. I feel like in four sessions of play, I have a pretty good feel if this game has the right chemistry. Four also gives you a chance to learn the important rules, because sometimes lack of system mastery feels like bad chemistry, but they are different.
So session 0… then four sessions of adventures…then go/no-go.