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Quick-Start Settings and Campaign Frames

I’ve been thinking a lot about how roleplaying campaigns work. The part that fascinates me is the genesis of a campaign; how does it begin, what surrounds it? I’ve written a couple [1] of articles [2] about campaign frames and the setup of different thematic elements to be sort of the pillars of what your campaign is about. More recently, on Twitter, I’ve been crowd-sourcing mini-settings, with adventure hooks and NPCs.  Here’s the start of one of the settings. [3]

Most recently, these explorations have turned into an ongoing project where I make Quick-Start settings designed to get a group hooked into a setting and story without heavy mechanics. I’ve even made a Patreon [4] for it. This article is going to break down the whys and wherefores of doing these projects, and how you can take these principles and apply them to your own games.

New Games, New People

One of the major things I wanted to address with these settings (and even with the campaign frame before them, to a degree) was getting new-to-RPGs players at tables. There are a lot of potential barriers to that: schedules, anxiety, learning a whole bunch of rules, etc. I talked to some folks on Twitter and one of the concerns I saw was the rules side of things. A lot of people who have been playing RPGs for years are people who, at one time or another, prioritized learning rules. I know that when I started back in the days of D&D 3rd Edition I learned the rules inside and out. That kind of knowledge can be intimidating to new players; a turn-off even.

This also goes for experienced players. Whether overt or not, the barrier of learning a new set of rules is a real one. For these ideas to work, I thought, this needed to be addressed.

Keep It Simple

One of the linchpins of the Quick-Start settings is that I’m using a very bare-bones system for them. The same system I made when I wrote School Daze, in fact. One d6, 5 or higher succeeds, and a few modifiers to add to the rolls. Nothing overwhelming and very few procedural things to worry about. This is a step beyond the campaign frames because those are system-less, designed to give a framework to folks who are familiar with systems already.

This low barrier of entry should help both new players and experienced ones pick up a setting pretty quickly. It’ll give everyone a chance to stand on equal footing, and give you a chance to get a game going.

You’ve Got One Shot

The idea behind these Quick-Starts is to get a single session done without putting a lot of pressure on either the players or the GM. These same principles can be applied to other games. If you’re an experienced GM and want to introduce new players, it’s often a good idea to tone down the rules you use at the start of the campaign, to simplify things. You can always add in additional rules later on once you see that the players are comfortable. This mirrors an educational principle called “scaffolding,” a way to build up the knowledge and skills of your students.

This “first contact” with games is crucial. If someone has a bad experience, it can turn them off from games. That’s not something anyone wants. Whether you’d use something like these Quick-Starts or just tone down the rules of another system, it’s an important thing to consider. Again, this also applies to experienced players learning new games; don’t overwhelm, and do your best to make sure that everyone is on the same page.

The Hooks Will Bring You Back

Another feature of the Quick-Start settings is that they’re basic rules and setting information paired with story hooks designed to jump-start the first game session. The setting needs to be vibrant and compelling. The hooks involve asking the players questions, and giving them a stake in the details of the setting. Players need to be hooked in, need to have some reason to want to jump into the session. Players need to be asked how characters are linked to the setting and their answers need to be included in the overall vision for the setting. If players know that their actions have impact, they’ll be more likely to engage.

If you’re planning your own game, building your own campaign frame, or similar, keep this idea in mind. Some of the most successful game sessions I’ve ever been part of have been successful because of the collaboration between players and GM, rather than the game just coming from the GM on high.

The End Result

If you put all of these ideas together, I think the potential for a great game session is high. Keep the rules simple, present a compelling setting, and let the players know their actions will have an impact on the setting and story. If you’re doing these things, there’s good potential for the one-shot to become a full campaign. For the Quick-Starts, I’m working on conversion guides to move from the basic system to more involved ones. This would let the first session serve as a bridge. I’ve done the same in the past with games like Dread. Use one system to intro the setting and characters, then transition those characters to the system we’ll use for the entire campaign. Exploring characters without being constrained by more involved rules can yield interesting results; you might get characters you’d not have otherwise had.

The Overall Impact

My hope is that these Quick-Start settings and the ideas behind them will help new players get into the hobby of playing tabletop roleplaying games. As well, I hope they would be able to help experienced players get in short sessions and jump-start their imaginations. If you dig these ideas, I hope you give them a try. If you really like them, maybe check out the new Patreon [4]. Either way, I hope you’re intrigued and let me know your thoughts in the comments. I’d love to see an even more diverse group of new gamers join the hobby, and I hope these ideas can be a small part of that.