“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:
- Outlined my approach to the game (detailed in a previous TT post, “The Bones in the Soup“).
- Built an index of Dungeon adventures.
- Drew two out of three decks of the party’s airship, the Black Swan (and laminated them).
- Created the rest of the crew.
- Picked the first adventure, read it, and tweaked it for the party
- Did some background reading and came up with a metaplot.
- 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!