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Lessons From The Long Campaign– Prep Only What You Need

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 [1] and here [2]).  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 [3].)  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.

10 Comments (Open | Close)

10 Comments To "Lessons From The Long Campaign– Prep Only What You Need"

#1 Comment By nblade On November 5, 2008 @ 7:51 am

As an aging DM myself, I agree with a lot of what you have to say.

I have never gotten the players involved to the extent you have, although sometime, I’d like to use the Dawn of World rules to have the player help make a game world.

It is hard to find a happy medium with prep work. Either you do too much or too little it seems. As you mentioned having the players help in someway is a good thing. I think the best advise about GM I can ever give is to listen to what your players say. Many times, they will come up with ideas about motives, plot twists, and other concepts during play that you will never come up with if you sat down and thought about things all day. I don’t think I can count on my hands the number of times I’ve changed things during a game because of a great idea that popped out of a player’s mouth.

#2 Comment By Cole On November 5, 2008 @ 10:15 am

I will show this post to one of the GM’s in my group. She was struggling with the amount of prep on her game. I bet the ideas presented here will help her tremendously.

Thank you.

#3 Comment By Scarecrow On November 5, 2008 @ 10:39 am

I’ve been doing this with my group for our new 4th ed game, for pretty much all the reasons you listed. We’ve not started playing yet, so I’ve no idea wether it’ll work out or not. From what you’re saying there’s a very good chance that it will.

This pleases me.

#4 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On November 5, 2008 @ 11:18 am

My 4e GM is doing exactly this, but even more so. He retains veto power, but we have added all kinds of things to the campaign setting. It works great.

I’m torn between doing this and sticking with my “generic Greyhawk” setting that I pretty much automatically pull from memory.

#5 Comment By Scott Martin On November 5, 2008 @ 11:37 am

Our 3.5e game has followed the guidelines above (though much of the world building came from a Dawn of Worlds pregame), and it is a lot simpler to get the game in motion.

A drawback to getting them on board is that there’s less of the illusion of a complete world; they know objectively what scaffolding I’ve built from and where I’ve filled in. Despite that, particularly for the action first game style we’re playing, I prefer this style of prep– it’s worked pretty well so far.

#6 Comment By Karizma On November 5, 2008 @ 1:34 pm

This sounds great, but I have to balance it out with my love of worldbuilding and my current position that leaves me group-less. To cope with gaming withdrawal, I’m worldbuilding and reading blogs.

But this does give me a new perspective. Instead of building everything in the world, I could focus on the things I enjoy: Magic, and a bit of history/cultural stuff. This could leave some of the things I’m not so fond of (Cosmology, demonology, economics) to my players.

But at the moment I have eight pages on magic alone, and I’m way too happy with what I have to give it to the wind! 🙂

#7 Comment By Fang Langford On November 5, 2008 @ 2:37 pm


Fang Langford
creator of [9]

#8 Comment By Swordgleam On November 5, 2008 @ 6:02 pm

I’m currently running a post-apocalyptic campaign. I had no idea how or why the apocalypse happened until one of my players emailed me the complete story, prefaced with, “I don’t know what you had planned, but I think it would be cool if this is what happened…”

My players give me far too much credit. They know from past games that I improv a lot, and yet still ask me things like, “Were there a tribe of dragonborn in the Rustmaze before our party ended up with two dragonborn in it?” Of course there weren’t.

#9 Comment By BryanB On November 7, 2008 @ 3:59 pm

I was the king of over-prep at one time. I hope I have cured myself of this. I once burned myself out just preparing a D&D 2nd Edition Campaign. This article is good advice to follow.

#10 Comment By LordVreeg On November 10, 2008 @ 1:06 pm

You know, I was all ready to go house on this post when I read the title. World-Building and I are old, old friends. Hell, my current setting is almost as old as my wife, and it is not my first.

But after reading over the post, I agree with all of it. 5 of my players have write-access to the Celtrician wiki. Especially for a long campaign, having the Players being an active part is critical. And I still overprep on storyarcs in an obcene, ridiculous, overblown manner…so I must enjoy it. But having the Players help me with specifics of guilds and religions (I had one write up over 10 pages on the Church of the Autumn Harvest) has been one of the nice developments.

I want to put a finer point on something you mentioned.

The first is that players love to invest in what their characters are involved with. So having them create the rituals, holy books, shrinal-particulars of their churches (as above), or similar fine-detail work is tailor-made for their corroboration.

Having them create only the fine details also reduces the loss of ‘behind the curtain’ syndrome. Somehow, when players are involved in major setting design, too much of the ‘scaffolding’ that Scott mentions is revealed, where somehow when they help fill in smaller details that particular phenomena is removed.

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