With my 7+ years GMing I’ve started to notice a pattern I create in the campaigns I run. While it can seem applicable to campaigns made by other people, such as the ones being streamed, I find it easier to contemplate this in my own games I run, as I have a total view of what is behind the curtain. All campaigns I’ve run have some sort of connection with one key abstract word. For each of them that word is different, thus making them special and unique in their own ways. Once I noticed this, I found it easier to plan out things for future games just by going back and thinking about this word. If it worked for me, I am pretty sure you can find some use as well, so I wanted to share this knowledge:
What is your campaign about?
Most people I have heard talking about this go back to thinking that their campaigns revolve around a theme or topic. Maybe it’s a game all centered around a mafia gang, or one that centers all its story around traveling the world. That’s fantastic, and when you run out of ideas you can always go back to those themes to think what other things you can add to your game. However, at times those themes might be a bit too broad. Is there a way to concentrate it even further? In my case, I found out that pretty much everything about my first and longest campaign revolved around the word “chaos”. While it is a single and simple word, if you think about it, chaos is quite subjective and abstract. The usual or normal for some people might be others’ utter chaos.
In my D&D campaign, “Chaos” was the name that was given to the eldritch horror that was haunting the entire continent without anyone knowing (but only a few) because its real name was too difficult to pronounce and just by reading it you gained points of madness. There was also a cult called Yminn Groszt that meant “In search of chaos” in Undercommon, which from the very beginning was trying to summon this entity. At the same time, the eldritch horror was sending meteorites to the continent that created an unknown toxin that upon contact drove the affected into a neverending frenzy. This virus could be spread just by being near the affected, creating fear in the whole world. With fear, there is chaos. The more chaos spread worldwide, the stronger the eldritch horror got. Mind you I planned this whole thing out before the pandemic, so it was quite weird to keep running it as a whole virus was spreading around the real world. There were many MANY more things in the campaign I connected to the word “chaos”, ranging from the political forces, to player characters’ backstories, and more. What I’m trying to say, is that once I found that out, it was pretty easy to keep adding things into the world. I just needed to think “How is this NPC connected in a large or lesser way to the concept of chaos?”.
How do I find my word?
It might not be easy at first to find one. I suggest thinking of one before you start your campaign so you can tie it all to the one word from the beginning. At the same time, you need it to be a word that might have more than one meaning or used in several ways. What’s more, choosing some abstract concept makes it much better. Some examples that come from the top of my mind right now are all corners in the alignment spectrum: goodness, neutrality, evil, chaos, law. At the moment, I don’t consider goodness or evil to be abstract enough for me to be able to create many things out of them, but perhaps it is different for you. Neutrality is a concept that can be extremely relative depending on the side you are contemplating it from. The same goes with law, which can easily be compared with justice. Don’t be scared to use a phrase if that works for you as well: “Law vs justice” is an incredibly interesting concept for a campaign. Control, freedom, discovery, hunt are some other words that I can come up with right now. I am pretty sure you can think of many others!
Wouldn’t that make my campaign too repetitive?
One might think that if you are tying most things in your campaign to one single word or phrase you will end up always encountering the same. In a way, it might end up happening. However, doesn’t the same happen with themes? You don’t expect to find an astronaut in a wild west themed game. Nevertheless, finding many cowboys, sheriffs, revolvers, and taverns ain’t weird or repetitive. Moreover, the interesting thing in tying everything to an abstract concept is that you can easily adjust how much you want your creation to be tied to it. Your bounty hunter NPC might not care about the concept of chaos at all, but what does he think of those who do not follow the law and fall into chaos? Maybe they have a personal opinion about that which can make a fun personality to roleplay, or a backstory tied to a brother he had that died hunted by another bounty hunter after not following the law.
Let’s create a campaign plot
Let’s start by grabbing an abstract word to play with. I will grab one that people might not think as abstract enough, but nonetheless has a lot of room to play with: “weapon”.
Let’s make it into a superhero setting to make it different from my usual stuff. Which things can I think of from the top of my mind?:
- The player characters are used as a weapon by the government to protect the country. You can even use something similar to the acronyms Marvel uses for the team name: HAMMER, SHIELD, SWORD, DAGGER
- The villain is actually someone that escaped from the same country the PCs are from after being experimented on to become a “Natural weapon”. She wants revenge.
- Our villain has a plan to pretty much destroy the country. To do this, she will transform all its citizens into natural weapons, just like the government attempted to do with her.
- The villain will create a substance that once ingested makes that person explode in the same way a bomb does upon contact with specific sound waves (I dunno, maybe something like this can exist? Science!).
- The player characters know that they will need to gather legendary weapons hidden across the country in order to be able to fight the big bad.
- Depending on how wacky you want the campaign to be, you can give this supervillain a name that fits with the theme of bombs.
- Guarding the legendary weapons, or fighting to gather them first are the big bad evil gal henchmen, each themed and wielding some kind of different weapon.
- Add in some moral dilemmas. Are you actually helping people, or causing more damage by the use of weapons? Is it good for supers to exist if they are always going to be seen and used as weapons?
Grab a friend, significant other, or family member, write the word on a piece of paper, and leave it in front of you. Now start brainstorming. If the chosen word is good enough, you will find yourself coming up with tons of very interesting and unique ideas. As the campaign keeps going, come back to your word and you will see that in no time you can think of something new to add!
This is interesting advice. I’ve done something similar at the scale of the adventure, rather than full blown campaign. I sometimes use a single word to describe the tone I want an adventure to have: “Secrets,” “Politics,” “Contagion,” and “Adrenaline” have all been thematic words I’ve used to provide myself with a guiding principle. Then, when developing the adventure, I cut out anything that doesn’t contribute to a “Politics” tone.
This is a great way to describe thematic content creation! Interesting article! I love the concept of taking a word and pulling tropes and fresh ideas together to make something both familiar and new at the same time. That’s great advice.
I have additional musings on starting a TTRPG campaign, including running a successful session 0, if you’re interested over at Malice Inn & Tavern!