GM Workshop #1: “Where do I begin?

Hello all, and welcome to the first installment of KingGheedorah’s GM workshop! Every week I will be looking at a few issues that we – Game Masters, Dungeon Masters, Seneschals, Marshals, Storytellers and other titles both generic and awesome for game-runner-guy – face on a regular basis.

As a slight introduction and to produce my pedigree, I’ll get into a little bit of my own pen and paper gaming experience. I’ve played Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 since my junior highschool year, in addition to branching off into as many other systems as I can get my hands on. My current favourites are the Dark Heresy D100 system by Fantasy Flight Games and the Legend of the Five Rings fourth edition d10 die pool system by Alderac Entertainment Group, though I am also a big fan of the New World of Darkness Storyteller d10 system, Riddle of Steel, Mouse Guard, Paranoia, Deadlands, Dogs in the Vinyard… it goes on and on. I’ve been running a Dark Heresy group on a weekly (occasionally bi-weekly) basis for going on two years, and have run fairly lengthy and successful campaigns in a multitude of other systems.

To the topic at hand: every campaign – lengthy or one-shot, serious or funny, episodic or plot-driven – starts off somewhere. And while the time-honoured trope of “you meet in a tavern on a dark and stormy night” is a simple and straightforward way to get the ball rolling, it is hardly the best and/or only way to do so. Today I’d like to look at some other ways for a GM to start their story.

Step One: Tone

The first (and I would argue, most important) thing about deciding how you are going to start is to define the tone you – and your players – are looking for in this game. This warrants a fairly in-depth conversation with your players beforehand, unless they are the sort of group comfortable with sitting back and letting their Storyteller lead them on whatever he or she has planned. Either way, you should clearly define the theme before the game starts, preferably before your players have started generating characters. This way, you don’t end up with a party consisting of three played-straight characters and one absolutely silly one, or vice versa. That isn’t to say in a serious campaign you won’t have humor, or in a light-hearted campaign you won’t have seriousness – there is always the straight man or comic relief, after all – however the characters in your group go a long way in defining what the tone is going to be like. If you’d like to run a serious campaign and all your players want to play silly characters, let them! Just don’t have any illusions as to what the final product will be like.

Step Two: Theme

‘Theme’ is a word loathed and despised by many, because English teachers don’t seem to be able to teach students these days what a ‘theme’ is and how to write a paper with one (don’t even get me started on ‘thesis’). Quite simply, the theme of your campaign is a few words or a phrase that you think define what is most important to the story and/or the characters. Good examples are old standbys like ‘love’, ‘honor’, broad-spectrum topics like that. The overarching theme of my long-running DH game, for example, is best described by a paraphrased John 1:5; “And the light shines in darkness; and the darkness overcame it not.” The game has revolved around overcoming hopeless odds at every turn, a balance between the ‘GRIMDARK’ of 40k on the one hand, and the hope of humanity’s continued existence on the other. Your theme doesn’t have to be a quote from the King James, of course, but you should have a general idea of what ideas are going to be explored in your campaign. Note that this is heavily reliant on the tone of your game.

Step Three: Setting

Now that we know the tone and theme, what is the setting of your game going to be? The past? The present? The future? The pastfuture? The futurepresent? Middle Earth? The Middle East? This, of course, is going to have a big impact on how your campaign is going to start. You wouldn’t all meet up in a tavern in, say, a futuristic sci-fi game; it’d be a space bar, or perhaps the Restaraunt at the End of the Universe. If you aren’t using a pre-existing setting and haven’t done a lot of prepwork to ‘flesh out’ your world (we aren’t all Tolkien, after all), stick with the simple things: what’s the climate like? What is the current political atmosphere like where the campaign is starting? What is happening to bring the party together? What sorts of obstacles can they expect straight out of the box? In my opinion, figuring out the setting of your campaign is the most fun part of campaign prep (aside from statting/mapping encounters, I looooove statting/mapping encounters). Have fun with it! Be creative!

Step Four: Bringing it All Together

You have a tone, a theme, and a setting. I’ll bet you were expecting me to say “Okay, now figure out what the plot of the game will be” here, right?

 NOPE.

 Let me tell you something about plot. You can write a plot for your game, you can give your party a Quest, and you can give them the most teeth-gnashing Adversary that you can possibly imagine… but you can’t make them care about it. Unless yours is the kind of group that will go with whatever it is you have planned for them, they are going to want to put their own sort of input into the game, write their own story. Their characters are their own, after all, and have their own goals and motivations. You cannot write a plot for a campaign, the plot writes itself.

What you want to do now is string together everything you have into some kind of cohesive background. This is not a plot, this is simply “the story thus far”. I find it helps to think up some questions about what you have, and then branch out from those questions to a few more questions. Soon, you have a whole backdrop to your campaign without having to go to Tolkien-esque levels of immersion in the setting, and you’ll find you come up with the way you want the campaign to kick off.

Let’s say your tone is serious, you want your theme to be “coping with loss”, and your setting is L5R’s Rokugan. Who’s loss is being coped with, the players? An NPC that brings them all together? How is this loss being coped with? What has been lost, an item, a person, or something more abstract (innocence, honor, etc)? Who has taken it? Why did they take it? What are the players going to do about it? What are their options? What are the potential consequences? Who will stand against them? Who will stand with them?

Now, we’re ready to begin.

 Examples

To get the creative juices flowing, I’ve written a few example starters; things you can use as adventure seeds to get the party gathered and working together.

Prison Break: The party is (individually or as a group) imprisoned for crime(s) that they either have or have not committed. Perhaps it is for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Perhaps they are of a race/nationality/kind that they don’t take too kindly too ’round here. Perhaps they’re guilty as sin. Either way, the execution date has been moved to tomorrow morning, and they’ve all been thrown in the Death Row cell to await the Gods. They’d better figure out a way to escape in the next twelve hours…

Shipwrecked: The party had (individually, or as a group) boarded a transport, headed for ‘anywhere but here’. Due to complications during the journey – pirates, monsters, Gellar field failure, turbulent conditions – the transport went down, killing everyone on board – or, at least, almost everyone. Now the party is forced to rely on each other to survive in a hostile environment.

Attacked!: The party is convened in the same location – perhaps they are all passing through the same town town for their own respective reasons – and that location is assaulted by a hostile force. They must unite, fend off the attackers, and discover why their location was attacked – was it for the simple pleasure of looting and burning, or are there deeper forces at play?

A Call for Heroes: A call has gone out across the galaxy/kingdom/what have you, looking for mercenaries, adventurers, smugglers, burglars, and other would-be heroes. Perhaps there is a war on the horizon. Perhaps there is an ancient evil that can only be sealed away again by a group of unlikely heroes with unclear goals but good hearts. Perhaps the president has been kidnapped and the nation needs bad dudes to rescue him. Perhaps they need to sneak into a heavily fortified enemy base to steal plans for their new superweapon and/or throw the focus of the enemy’s evil power into the fires from whence it was forged.

The Protector: The group is hired to protect and safeguard something. Maybe it is a princess that is being married off to the prince of another country, and the journey has to be undertaken across a dangerously untamed land. Perhaps it is a village that is raided every year by the same army of opportunistic bandits and the villagers have finally decided to do something about it. Maybe it is a trainload of gold, or a sacred artefact. Perhaps it is a Vampire Elder taking a train to a Grand Court in another state, and the group must defend her from Werewolves, rival Vampire assassins and the ever-present threat of Hunters.

The Disgraced: The party, individually or as a group, has been disgraced or shamed. Perhaps they failed to protect something. Perhaps they are framed for a crime they did not commit. Perhaps they were deceived into aiding an enemy. Now their life is one of shame and exile, unless they can win back their honor by some impossible task, or else die in glorious battle.

The Distress Call: Archaeologists exploring an ancient ruin have disappeared without a trace after a short and confusing distress message, and the group has to discover what happened to the missing team and why… and escape with their lives.

Treasure Seeking: An ancient ruin of a long-lost civilization has been discovered. Perhaps the party are mercenaries hired to protect the archaeologists exploring the ruin. Perhaps they are hired by an outside force to steal the finds from the archaeologists. Perhaps the archaeologists are in over their head and about to disturb an ancient evil, and the party – members of an ancient and secret society tasked with keeping the evil sealed away – have to stop them by any means necessary. Perhaps the party are the archaeologists and they have to defend their find against all of the above!

The Event: It is the event of the CENTURY, and you have been invited. Is it a grand masquerade ball? A tournament? The crowning ceremony for the new monarch? Who are you, and why have you been invited? Whatever the case is, something is bound to go wrong – perhaps someone is cheating their way through the tournament. Perhaps there is a bomb rigged to go at midnight, and the party has to find it before it is too late. Perhaps there is a murder discovered, and the murderer has to be unveiled before they can escape – or perhaps the murder is about to take place, and the party has to put a stop to it. Or perhaps… perhaps the party are the assassins…

These are just some examples, of course. There are a million ways you can choose to kick off your campaign, from the convoluted to the simplistic. I like to put my party directly into the action to snatch their attention straight out of the gate. Others prefer a slow build in the tension, to have everything blow up in the last quarter. Still others prefer a middle ground. However you choose, remember that it should be memorable in some way – the saying may be “don’t judge a book by its cover”, but that’s silly, because the ability to be judged for enjoyment purposes is the entire purpose of the cover. First impressions are very important, and you want to give your group as good a first impression as possible, to keep their attention for future sessions.

Thanks for reading all! Next week I’ll be taking a look at the players themselves, specifically how to turn bad players into good players, how to handle a bad player, what a ‘That Guy’ is and what to do if you have one in your game. Send in your feedback and any questions you might have/topics you want me to address. And, as always, fuck Godzilla.

 -KG (Nick) out.

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