Over the past few weeks, I have been writing about the lessons I have learned, from running my three-year long Iron Heroes campaign (here and here).  As this campaign charges into the its final sessions, I am starting to realize just how much this campaign taught me about being a GM, and how to manage a campaign.  In today’s post, I am going to talk about one of the first lessons I learned: prepping only the background material I needed, how it kept me prepared, and how it gave me the the creative space to continue to develop my campaign setting over 3 years.

From the Ashes of a Failed Campaign
Before I started running my Iron Heroes campaign, I had just put down a failing Mutants & Masterminds campaign, after 7 months (10 sessions).  Why if failed does not really matter; those things happen.  But when the campaign ended, I realized that I had written about 200 pages of campaign notes, including: a  complete history of the setting (from World War II to Present), all sorts of NPC backgrounds, organizations, locations, etc.  When the campaign was done, it came out to about 20 pages of background notes per session.

What is wrong with that? Well, it took a lot of time to write all that background material, and I never got to use most of the material in my sessions.  As an older gamer, time is very precious.  That time I spent working on those background notes could have been spent on any number of other gaming or non-gaming activities.

So when I started the Iron Heroes campaign, I decided that I was not going to write copious notes for the campaign background.  My reasoning was, that I was not sure how long the game would last, and why take that time to create volumes of background notes, if the game may not make it past the 3rd session.  Why not focus the time I had, for working on the game, to making sure I was writing the best session notes, and running the best sessions.  So I decided that I would keep my notes simple and brief.

If You Build It They Will Question It
So how much is too much? How much would be too little?  That is what I wrestled with as I started working on my Iron Heroes campaign background.  I had jotted some of the high-level notes: the geographic location, how many kingdoms I wanted to have, who the major bad guys were, and a few important historic moments.  None of that had any detail, just a short outline on a page of my notebook.  The trick would be to figure out what things needed more details, and what things would need less.

After some thought, I decided that the answer of how much to write, could come from my players.  So I wrote up my high level notes into a short narrative, about a page long and sent it to my players, via email.  (You can read the Opening Story here.)  Shortly, after I sent it, the players began to ask me all sorts of questions.  What were the names of the kingdoms?  were there different types of demons, how much magic was there in the world?

Suddenly, I had a checklist of things that would require more detail.  So I wrote up the details that the players requested and sent the information out to them.  That led to more questions and more things to fill in the details for.  After a few rounds of doing this, over the course of a week,  I suddenly had a short set of notes that covered all the initial details I would need for the campaign.

You Don’t Always Have To Be The One To Come Up With The Idea
At different times in my campaign, my players have asked me questions about specific details of the campaign world that I has not developed.  When the question was not related to the plotlines of the campaign, I would often let the player, who asked the question, come up with the answer.  I always retained the right to edit or veto any of the details, but in almost every case, I never needed to use it.  The players had a good understanding of where they were allowed to develop.

This turned out to be a great way to fill in part of my campaign world, and it had a number of benefits:

  1. I was not doing the work– time is precious, and I was spending my time prepping the sessions.  By letting the players come up with some of the details, it was filling out campaign world, but not cutting into my time.
  2. Increased depth of background– with the players creating additional background elements, in addition to the elements I was creating, the campaign setting was becoming more detailed, but not at the expense of any of my other GMing duties.
  3. Player Investment– giving the players the power to create background elements of the campaign world, invested them into the campaign setting.  The campaign setting was not solely my vision, handed to the players, on some gilded tray, but rather it was something we were building together; they had become part owners in the setting.
  4. The Unexpected– because I was not the one who was creating every element, the ideas I would receive from the players, would often inspire me into creating new ideas or plotlines.  I found it to be at times a challenge to work some of these elements into the game.  It forced me to work outside of my own preconceptions of the game. It was also refreshing for me as a GM to encounter a background element, that was not of my own creation.

The response from my players to allowing them to create background elements, was great.  A number of persistent elements were created by the players, and became cannon, including how time was measured, some of the celestial bodies in the sky, and how one of the five kingdoms had become a puppet government for the Demons.

Lessons Learned
By only creating the campaign elements I needed, through the direction of my players, I saved myself a lot of time getting my campaign off the ground.  My investment in the initial organization of the campaign material was minimal, but over time, the body of campaign material grew, as the campaign grew.  This is a great way to quickly get your game off the ground, and once you know that the campaign is going to be successful or not (for me that is around the 4th session), you can then further invest into your setting.

By allowing my players some authorship of the campaign setting, I got a free source of ideas, and a cheap labor force to develop them.  It required some guidance on my part in establishing the creative boundaries, but once set, my players were able to create in that space, and depth and complexity to my campaign world.

Consider the next time you have a great idea for a campaign, to keep the details light, and let your players guide you through the development of the idea into your opening session.   Or next time a player asks you about an undeveloped campaign element, tell them, to develop it.