You have your gaming group assembled, your basic materials at hand, and you’re ready to start gaming. As a GM and a storyteller, you might feel like jumping straight into the plot lines that will define your campaign, but it’s best to ease into that. A large story with multiple plot threads and epic stakes requires a lot of thought to implement correctly even when everything is in your control. But remember, you’re not writing your story as a book – you’re running it as a campaign. That means you don’t have direct control over a key element: your cast of protagonists.
So how can you make sure that your campaign will work for the gaming group you’ve gathered? Well, you could railroad the party, keeping a tight restriction on their options. This is possible for a session or two, but if you try to do it for an extended campaign, your players will lose interest because you’ve removed their agency from the story. The better approach is to learn what kind of game they like to play, and tailor your campaign to meet their expectations. If you have something for each of them, your players will want to keep coming back.
Use “Prologues” as Experiments
To learn what your group likes and how they play, sit down and run a few gaming sessions. Delve into a region of your campaign’s world and put together some one-shot adventures. Exploring the world with your group this way helps establish interesting characters, locations, and events that can be used in the larger campaign later on.
While running these adventures, experiment with your games to see what resonates with each player, and what works best for you as a storyteller.
Explore different parts of the world
Your campaign’s setting may not be very detailed yet, but that doesn’t mean you need to limit all of your short adventures to one location. Jumping around to various parts of the world that haven’t been fleshed out yet can be a good playtest for the world you’re working on. Additionally, you’ll get a better sense for how different environments affect the feel of your game:
- Travel from small villages to wilderness locations is traditional for adventuring parties. This type of adventure provides rich opportunities for strange creatures, long travel, and environmental hazards. High in the mountains, lost in a swamp, or stranded in remote tundra, the heroes have no help to fall back on if they get into trouble. Even when villagers and townsfolk may be present, the party will generally be there to help them, and not vice versa.
- Urban environments are densely packed and offer opportunities for intrigue between competing factions. They also have the complication of operating within a lawful society. It’s harder to stab first and ask questions later when constables are patrolling the streets. Do the heroes play by the rules and find alternative means of achieving their goals? Or will they take the law into their own hands and worry about the consequences later? You also have to watch out for the group losing the motivation to take risks if the setting is a stable community.
Find out what entices the group and what leads them to frustration. If the group enjoys urban campaigns, you know that you can spend less time fleshing out the wilderness and ancient ruins scattered across your world. On the other hand, if your group thrives in the wild, you may consider keeping cities small and relatively anarchic when you expand your setting.
Experiment with new kinds of challenges
While you’re throwing the party into new environments to see what resonates, craft new challenge types for them. Combat encounters are the staple of most game systems, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t mix in something different.
In systems like Dungeons and Dragons, traps are common – if not always well understood. Because they behave so differently as a challenge than monsters and NPCs, some GMs have trouble using them as intended. The stakes are still low during these prologue sessions, which makes it a good time to run some tests and see just how deadly traps can be. It can be exciting to combat a villain while there are traps scattered across the room. But you don’t want to find out during an important battle that the poisoned spikes you hid all over the map kill PCs outright with a bad dice roll. Using traps during these one-shots will help you calibrate them properly in your campaign. That way, they’ll only be as deadly as you intend them to be.
Anything else that deviates from standard encounter rules should be tested now as well. Escort quests? A race against the clock? King of the hill objectives? By making short adventures that focus on a gimmick, you can test out how the rules support that type of encounter. Then you can make any changes you need to use that gimmick later in your larger campaign. Nothing feels worse than a story arc’s climax falling apart because your encounter doesn’t work mechanically in the way you expected. Work out the kinks now, before your plot is on the line.
Identify Group Dynamics
There’s lots of game mechanics and setting quirks that can be tested during prologue adventures. But while running these experiments, it’s also important for you to observe how your group plays the game. A key measure of a campaign’s success is how enjoyable and memorable the game is for the group involved. Learning what that takes for your group will make your job as a GM easier in the long run.
What kind of game interests the group as a whole?
You should tailor your campaign to your group, so that most of your players will be happy most of the time. To do this, you need to identify the style of play and dramatic tone that your group prefers.
Do your players appreciate dark and serious tones, or do they prefer something goofy and lighthearted? Of course, you can use a tone that doesn’t come naturally to the group, but you’ll need to make allowances for snark during tense moments or some jokes falling flat. Be prepared to reset the mood.
You should also find out what level of detail or “realism” your group likes to manage. Do they enjoy handling resource management when adventuring, or will that feel more like a chore than part of the game? Some groups like the gritty realism of tracking ammunition, rations, and so on. These players may also spend skill points in Profession and Craft skills, and want opportunities to earn money with those skills during downtime. But many others prefer to hand wave those details away, and focus instead on plot and encounters. Find the balance for your group that gives them the level of detail they find satisfying.
How focused is your group?
Your group’s level of focus doesn’t impact what you plan for an adventure or a campaign, but it will affect how you organize it. A well focused group can get through a lot of action in relatively little time. You can be confident that a series of small encounters or tough decisions won’t push your gaming session into the late hours of the night.
On the other hand, if your group has trouble keeping tight focus for several hours, that doesn’t mean they are a bad roleplaying group. It just means that you should try to break up your game sessions into more manageable chunks. If your group has lots of side conversations, you can focus on one or two players at a time. Give them the opportunity to split up and accomplish smaller tasks. And if the group takes a lot of breaks, then you can plan your game sessions as a series of small scenes, with clear starts and ends.
Get Feedback From Your Players
You’re testing different play types and learning your group’s dynamics, but that won’t be the full picture. Even if you’re paying close attention, you still won’t notice everything that’s going on, be it good or bad. That’s why you should actively collect feedback from the rest of your group.
There are a couple of different ways that you can get feedback from your players. The simplest method is to ask for opinions on how they feel the game is going during a break or after finishing a session. The game is fresh in their minds, and the group can talk through their feelings on it. But there is also input that might not come up until players have had time to reflect on a game, or opinions they don’t want to bring up in front of the group.
To make sure you don’t miss out on that feedback, you can send a written survey to your group after running a session. Keep it simple, so that they’ll take the time respond, without feeling like you’ve assigned them homework. It could be as short as the following three questions:
- What was your favorite part of the adventure today?
- Was there anything you felt didn’t work well?
- Is there anything you want to see in the future?
Getting the group in the habit of providing feedback is especially important early on, when everyone is learning how to best game together. Your players will know that their opinions matter to you, and they will also learn what their fellow players like. This gets players who want different things from a game to appreciate each other’s play styles, which can only help the group game together better.
Now that you’ve done your homework and you know what your gaming group wants, it’s time to start campaign planning in earnest.