“Start small.” This phrase sums up one of the most common philosophies of world-building for RPGs. You don’t create a whole country all at once, for example — you begin by building just the part where the PCs will be starting out.

Not every GM creates their own campaign worlds, however — but we all run games, and before running a game you have to do some prep work. This idea — start small — can be applied equally well to preparing for your next game.

I’m not re-inventing the wheel here: starting small is a pretty basic approach, but I’ve found that it can be easy to forget. When I’m excited about starting up a new game, my head’s so full of ideas that I sometimes lose track of the fact that I have to turn those ideas into a playable campaign, and that’s when stepping back and remembering to start small is most useful to me.

Several years ago, I played in a truly excellent Star Trek event at GenCon. It was so good that I went out and started buying up everything for the line (Last Unicorn Games’ version) — and shortly thereafter, I decided I wanted to run a Trek game. I bought all but a few of the game books, plus the Chronology and the Encyclopedia, and I already had a couple of non-RPG “about Trek” books on my shelf. By the time I realized that to do the game justice I would have to watch a bunch of Next Gen and DS9 episodes, I had two problems: 1) I had so much material on hand that I knew I couldn’t possibly absorb it all, and 2) I was never going to run this game.

Fast forward a couple of years, and I was planning to start up a D&D campaign. The seeds that grew into the game were planted a year before we actually started playing, and I was thinking about the game and coming up with details several months before the first session. This one did get off the ground — as the Selgaunt campaign — and it was a lot of fun, but not starting small still caused problems. Instead of not running the game at all, I wound up running a game that moved so slowly that we never saw some of the coolest stuff I had planned — in other words, I overplanned.

I learned a lot from these two experiences, and much of what I learned can be summed up in two words: start small.

For my current game (the Airship Privateers campaign), I’ve been very careful not to overplan — or to absorb so much material that I intimidate myself into not running the game at all! I’m one of those folks who always has something on the mental back burners, so I did toss ideas for this game around for a couple of months before getting down to business — but apart from that, here’s the prep that I did for our kickoff session:

  1. Outlined my approach to the game (detailed in a previous TT post, “The Bones in the Soup“).
  2. Built an index of Dungeon adventures.
  3. Drew two out of three decks of the party’s airship, the Black Swan (and laminated them).
  4. Created the rest of the crew.
  5. Picked the first adventure, read it, and tweaked it for the party
  6. Did some background reading and came up with a metaplot.
  7. Jotted down some notes on running the session.

I’ll grant that number two is fairly elaborate prep, but it was also built to be useful to other GMs — and it will save me time before every session (and in other campaigns down the line). Notably absent from that list: extensive reading of the various Eberron sourcebooks, detailed plans for future events (that might or might not actually happen), writing my own adventure material and — perhaps most importantly — worrying myself out of being interested in the game!

By outlining how I want to approach the campaign, and thinking a bit about where I want it to go, I’ve laid enough groundwork that it won’t just be a string of unconnected adventures — but not so much that I’ll be disappointed if things don’t go a certain way.

On the purely practical front, starting small means that if the group falls apart, or the players hate the direction that things are headed, I haven’t wasted a whole lot of effort. And all of the time I’ve spent not worrying about things, and not prepping stuff that might not see the light of day, is time I can spend thinking about ways to make the game more fun — and time we can spend actually playing it!

This all came together for me when I read the preface to Robert’s Rules of Writing, by Robert Masello (which may itself be the subject of a future TT post). In it, Robert talks about the problem with reading too many books about writing:

“…by the time you’re done reading them, you’re too demoralized to write your own name.”

Who needs that? Start small, and spend more time having fun!