Starting a New Campaign

Over at Patreon, one of my backers requested a post about starting a new campaign. I’m always happy to take requests from my noble backers, so here’s a step by step of what I do when I’m starting to set up a campaign or longer-form game. To give my bona fides, until 2020 I don’t think I’d ever run what I’d consider a successful campaign game – but the advent of lockdown, and a dive into online gaming, has changed that. I’m currently running an ongoing D&D game, a Star Trek Adventures game (where we are skirting around the Shackleton Expanse campaign), and in the process of pulling together a One Ring game. So – what do I do to start with, when I’m about to launch a campaign?

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  1. Set the Scope

Firstly, think about how long the campaign is going to last, and agree with your group. I’d strongly recommend splitting a longer campaign into seasons of max 8-12 sessions in order to keep things fresh, and I’d consider starting with even fewer sessions than that. Having a defined end point will stop your campaign from fizzling out, and keep everyone in the game and focussed.

Based on how often your group meets, work out how long real-time this will last for – and make sure you’re up for that. If you meet once a month and want to run a 12-session campaign, that’s a year’s worth of gaming for the group! If you’re weekly, 12 sessions is still 3 months of play. Make sure that you – and your players – are clear about that commitment and happy with it.

Of course, you might have an in-game end in mind – for my D&D campaign, we’re running through Rime of the Frostmaiden; that campaign finishes when they’ve brought the sun back to Icewind Dale and defeated Auril the Frostmaiden. Even with that, I’ve worked out that with 2 sessions at each level of character, this is about 20 sessions. I’d planned a mid-season break after 10, but as it happens we ended up cancelling some sessions anyway, so we’re good to go with the second part of it.

  1. Get the Big Picture

The approach to this stage varies a little depending on whether you’re plotting your own campaign or running something pre-written. In either case, though, you will sketch out the broad picture of how you expect the campaign to play out.

If you’re rolling your own, a great tool to use (taken from Dungeon World) is Fronts. Consider your campaign’s big bad, and sketch out some steps that it might take. Sly Flourish also has a discussion of using this for D&D that streamlines the process a bit.

Having a campaign finale in mind helps – even if your Roll20 presentation isn’t up to much

If you’re using a published adventure, this is when you need to skim read the whole thing. If you’re running something popular (like a D&D campaign) it’s also well worth googling it to see if folks like Sly Flourish or Justin Alexander have notes on how to run it. There will be some of these on here soon as my ‘Deep Dive’ series extends – currently I’ve got Rime of the Frostmaiden Chapter 1, Shadows over Bogenhafen, and the first Vaesen adventure compendium A Wicked Secret to write up. 

Once you’ve got this, sketch out how the sessions might look – for instance, I expected for Rime we’d probably hit one of the Ten-Towns quests per session, along with some additional personal stuff, for the first 6 sessions before hitting Chapter 2 and the more open-ended part of the game. As it happens in a couple of sessions we doubled up adventures, but we were able to mesh some of the scenarios into the PC backstories anyway (for a session-by-session report written by one of my players – and ongoing – check out Fandomlife’s blog here).

Running published campaigns requires slightly different prep to rolling your own

If the start of your campaign is going to branch off and be more of a sandbox, think about how you’ll structure this. I’m a big fan of getting players to decide what they’ll do next time at the end of a session, so I can focus on those bits for the following session. Also, think about how long you’re prepared to let them play in the sandbox – is there an element in your Front, or a lead you can drop, that will force them to leave and stop them wanting to talk to every NPC and find every secret?

  1. Imagine Some Specifics

Once you’ve got your big picture, you could run right away, but now I like to start thinking about specific scenes, encounters, locations, and NPCs that might come up. These can be just sketches to start with, but by having a file ready to note these in before the session zero, you can add to it. For example, in a campaign of Legend of the Five Rings I ran a couple of years ago, I had a few scenes in mind before chargen started – but when one of the PCs had a morbid fear of dogs, of course the bandits were led by a dog-faced demon who took an instant dislike to them. 

With a published adventure, you might want to think about a few NPCs using the 7-3-1 technique if they are likely to recur or be important – I’ve got a wizard lined up for the next couple of sessions who I sketched out a personality for right at the start – or how some encounters might play out in the first few sessions. This isn’t unlike the Bag of Tricks prep technique I’ve used for one-shots – it gives you some go-to scenes and moments that you’ll be able to use later in the campaign.

  1. Session Zero

At this point, you’re ready to get the players involved. My personal agenda for a session zero covers Content / Chargen / Play, but sometimes fitting in all of these can be tricky. If character generation is something that will be dreary to all sit round and do together, get your players to come to the table with something lightly sketched out, and do a bit of in-character bonding in that first session instead. Absolutely would recommend the final part though – getting a bit of play in makes it all worthwhile!

For Content, you want to discuss any safety tools you’ll be using, as well as invite your players to contribute to Lines and Veils and Tone – again, The Gauntlet has an excellent blog on all of this. Alongside this, you want to cover housekeeping – how often you meet, who brings the snacks, what to do if you can’t make it, that sort of thing. For my games I generally have a hard rule that if 3 players and the GM can make it, we play – and we’ll work out a way for the others to catch up later. This does fall down a bit if I can’t make a session, but it gives a bit of insulation against having a run of cancellations.

For the Play bit, just a half-hour encounter is fine – but I’d go with something action-y that involves rolling the dice instead of something roleplay-focussed. Start them around a camp, and have some goblins attack, and then the goblins tell them about the problems in the area. Getting some dice rolled makes the session zero fun, and starts to build momentum for the game proper.

  1. Session-By-Session

Now you can run it! For me, I’m never more than a session ahead of where the party is up to, and I prep in between sessions – I can’t imagine doing it any other way. I’ve blogged before about session prep for campaigns being like for one-shots, but to summarise – I’d recommend making each session a coherent episode if you can, even going so far as to give it a name. 

6 sessions of prep files – complete with corny titles

In my prep, each session gets a Google doc, and follows a fairly similar format, which is either a scene-by-scene breakdown followed by NPC notes, or a Sly Flourish Lazy DM set of notes. I’ve found that for my own prep, I like a defined scene-by-scene breakdown, but for published games that I’m running the Sly Flourish technique works best. I think this helps me to break down components and be a bit more prepared for players going in different directions – whereas with my own games I’m already able to do that without any help.

I’m conscious of my own practice as well (or at least try to be) – and one of the things I’m trying to work on is more memorable NPCs – so at the moment I make sure there’s a few ‘tells’ for each one in my prep notes to make sure I put the effort in to try and do this.

Be sure at the end of each session to get some feedback – either as Stars and Wishes (now rebranded to Spangles and Wangles by my Friday group) or a more informal method, and be prepared to tweak where the campaign is going if needed. I’d also recommend having some ongoing contact with your players, whether about the game or not, between sessions – it helps to keep momentum, which is one of the main things you need to keep a campaign going.

So, step by step campaign planning! I’ll try and get a couple of examples down too, and as always happy to accept Patreon post requests! Let me know in the comments if you’d like to see more.