Campaign Building: An Introduction
Creating a Campaign for Tabletop RPGs
Tabletop RPGs take place in fantastic settings. No doubt you’ve heard of Tal’Dorei from Critical Role. Or the ever-legendary Forgotten Realms. Eberron, Greyhawk, Hârn, Dark Sun, Dragonlance, Ravenloft, etc. The list goes on. Your own game might take place in one of these. Or you’re looking for something else. You’re looking to create a campaign and world all your own. You’ve come to the right place.
Building a campaign is no small feat. But don’t let that worry you. The work and effort you put into building it is part of the fun! Imagine, a campaign filled with memorable NPCs, epic locations and a masterfully-weaved story. This can be a reality for you and your game group. The key is to break things down into manageable bits. In this series, I aim to do that. You’ll be able to build small pieces over time that will connect and create the world of your dreams.
This introduction will focus on five high-level concepts to get you thinking. Grab a coffee, notepad and pen. Let’s get started.
Why do you and your players gather around the table? To be together, have a good time laughing and telling stories? To build powerful characters and defeat monsters? To become immersed in the story and the lives of the characters? Don’t only answer this question for yourself but for your players as well. Ask them.
Knowing the why behind the campaign is important. It creates a shared foundation of values between you and your players. It can be your guiding light throughout the entire campaign. The why will help you answer tough questions and make difficult decisions. The why permeates the game and surrounds the table. Know why.
This one is simple. Decide on the genre you’ll be playing. Fantasy, sci-fi, horror, modern, superhero, etc. Once again, make sure the players are on board. I’m a little biased towards Dungeon Masters making the call here. You’ll be spending the most time preparing the game, so it should be something you want to play.
The Theme and Tone
What themes do you want to explore? Intrigue? The rise and fall of an empire? War? The goodness within the hearts of mankind? Write down at least 3. Think back to your why. Themes will come and go throughout the campaign based on story arcs. But using a few recurring themes will strengthen them and give a unified theme to the campaign.
Next, what is the tone or feeling of the campaign? Do you want this campaign to feel epic and fantastic? Lighthearted and comedic? Dark and hopeless? Once again, think back to your why. The tone of a campaign won’t change as often as a theme. It’s hard to sell a “dark and hopeless” campaign feeling if every other adventure is “lighthearted and comedic”. Narrow this down to 1 or 2 complimentary tones and write them down.
It’s easy to venture off into the thousands of exercises for building settings. But stay with me. When creating a setting, think about how it will reflect what the group wants, as well as the themes and tone you have written down. A high fantasy, lighthearted campaign may not fit if you build a setting like Ravenloft. We’ll dive into your actual setting in future articles but for now, jot down a few ideas you have.
The final thing to think about is the story arcs. These are the stories or plots that will last throughout the majority of the campaign. The main villain is usually involved in one of these. To keep it simple, write down three different ones. Pro Tip: Have one story arc for each theme from above.
Example: Your themes were War, Intrigue, and Love.
Story Arc 1 (War theme): The elves have finally joined the war as the last race against the humans.
Story Arc 2 (Intrigue): One of the seven knights has betrayed the king’s trust.
Story Arc 3 (Love): As their people war against each other, the human prince and the elven princess cease to end their love for one another.
Don’t worry about your setting and how fleshed out it is. You might know nothing about the elves mentioned in the examples yet and that’s great! You’ll find that building a setting is even easier when it has to fit into your ready-made campaign ideas.
Put some serious thought into the why, the genre, the theme and tone, the setting and the story. Keep your notes high-level for this exercise. Check back soon as we take our next step in Campaign Building.
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