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GM's, how do you craft a campaign?


Echo3Niner
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So, how do you go about crafting a campaign?  Not the mechanics of it (use of this or that tool), but how do you go about creating an engrossing campaign-long narrative for your players?

  • Do you start with a villain?
  • Do you start with a storyline or scene?
  • Do you start with an event?

 

After you have your starting point, how do you develop it?

  • Build out from that starting point?
  • Start at the beginning and go forward?
  • Start at the end and go backwards?

 

At what point do you engage your players?

  • Early in the development?
  • Do you wait until you have a good basis and then talk to them?
  • Do you wait until they've developed character concepts and work from there?

 

Having run a gazillion other games, some for 20+ years, I can come up with a campaign in minutes.  Superhero genre is harder for me.  I have played in one Champions campaign; it was very simple and direct.  I have run some other games, several in a row, but wouldn't put it on the same level of complexity I have for other campaigns I have for genres I'm more familiar with, in fact, I wouldn't really classify it as a campaign, but just a storyarch with 4-6 games in it.  I have even strung several of those types of games together, and had longer runs, but without the overarching design, I still wouldn't call it a campaign; it actually mirrors more the territory of what happens in comics; a multi-issue storyarch, that then ends and the heroes may even have a "filler" game or two, then we start on another storyarch - but that's not a campaign like I've run in Earthdawn or Shadowrun...  We're talking dozens to twenty plus games, with a complete storyline that builds to a climatic end for the campaign that satisfies everyone; they all know when the campaign is over.

 

Thoughts?

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There's no single "correct" way to do it, imo. But you could start with some basics: setting, history, place of the PCs in the campaign, themes of the campaign, tone of the campaign, etc.

 

Setting: Where is it set? Earth? Alternate History Earth? Another world entirely? Is it just one city to start, or the whole world/galaxy/universe/multiverse?

History: How long have superbeings been around? Have they had an impact on the world's history?

Place of the PCs: Where do the heroes fit in? Are they "noobs"? The premier/only superheroes? Somewhere in between? Do they get along with the authorities? Are they vigilantes? Anti-heroes? Are they intimately connected with key issues and NPCs in the campaign setting?

Theme/tone: is the campaign intended to be episodic in nature(e.g. villain of the week), or serial/continuous? Are the adventures short one-shots or long epics? Is the tone grim and humorless or lighthearted and funny?

Other questions: are there some overarching "big bads" who help define the campaign? Are there heroic and villainous agencies? Other NPC superhero and supervillain teams? How advanced is technology? How powerful or commonplace is magic? Do aliens exist, and do humans know about them? Etc.

You can probably come up with a "20 questions" approach and come up with a pretty good setting without being an expert on comics or superhero gaming. Good luck!

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I am different than other GMs when it comes to my Champions games vs. Fantasy.  My Fantasy games are definitely very well thought out campaigns - even when it is a sandbox world.  The games are 'serial' in nature and each session builds on the previous sessions.

 

My Champions games are extremely episodic.  The main theme is the players are part of a sanctioned group operating out of the city we actually live in (Twin Cities).  I try to find interesting things that are going on locally and then inject a 'super' into the mix.  For instance there is a big winter carnival every year here with a huge party/ball.  The movers and shakers are at that party.  So last year the players faced a scenario that was a direct rip off of Die Hard 1.  The villains were trying to break into a vault on the floor above the ball and took the party goers hostage.

 

Once in a while a villain(s) from a previous episode will show up.  I have had a master villain on a couple of occasions show up for multiple sessions until they captured him (or he fled for a long time).

 

I have no big plan or goal or campaign theme with Champions.  I treat it like a 'pick up game' when we only have a few players who can make it to a game session.

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Yeah I haven't ever had a main theme or idea besides "hey kids lets make a superhero team!"  All you really need is a string of adventures, a setting, and some background, and away you can go!  I tried to always have at least 3 well fleshed out adventure ideas beyond the one I was running and at least a dozen thumbnail sketches, so I could foreshadow and bring a few things into the story.  At the beginning of every Champions game I read news, usually including something the PCs did, plus things going on around the world.  Usually it included things other supergroups were doing, so it felt like a fuller setting (in theory) and then at least one or two hints at future adventures or bits setting them up.

 

If I ever run another champions campaign I'll try to weave one main storyline, one current adventure plot, and one character story in each session so it weaves together better, but it works fine in my experience to just have stuff happen wihtout pattern or apparent meaning.  I did try to use Strike Force advice and vary the styles and lengths: a few short one-shots after a big long campaign, something funny or light hearted after a grim angsty adventure, etc.

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My most successful campaign started with a mental movie of a spaceship slamming into a space station. The details of why it happened, who was behind it and all that other jazz came later. All I had to do is decide upon a setting to use as a foundation. I started with Star Frontiers and expanded the setting with dashes of other settings (namely Starcraft, Star Wars and a few others) from there. We gamed in that setting off and (mostly) on for five years. Over its lifespan, I had roughly 10-12 players roll through, though there was always a core of about 4-5 regulars. So for that setting, not a lot of work was front-loaded. I did a lot of arbitrary stat creation as we went.

 

Since then, most of my memorable (to me) games started out with a similar singular concept. The ones that I designed to be more generic did not work as well. I mean, I had fun with every single campaign I've ever ran. Some just were more fun than the others. I find that power level plays a huge role in my enjoyment of the the game. Low-powered characters are easier (for me) to manage from a mechanical standpoint. I really like the concept of the "Epic Everyman" as well. I've seen some awesome concepts come out of really low powered games. I ventured into high power with a fantasy game. It died after one "season" (I always think in TV series "seasons" for plot arcs) due to me being burnt out and not as attentive as I could have been. Saw some great concepts come out of that.

 

So to boil down a cohesive answer, I pick a plot seed and ad lib the entire campaign based on the players/characters involvement with the plot seed. In the first example, the characters were on the space station and had to race against time to get off before the, now-decaying orbit, dragged them into planetary freefall. Another great one was putting the characters into the middle of a ghost story that turned out be very different than what they anticipated. In both campaigns, the continuing saga sort of fell into place based on me going over the game notes and seeing where each player/character wanted to develop.

 

This was actually a good question as it helped me sort something in my mind. So thanks.

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I get the players to give me characters with a starting situation, then I do an intro adventure. Then I build on the the intro adventure. I try to use villains more than once so the players build up a rogue's gallery.

 

Mostly the group falls apart before the campaign ends, but the Domino City game did have a happy ending

CES 

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I generally have a "theme" in mind, then I pick some starting villians, then read the players character sheets. I then modify the starting scenario to include all the various complications, and run a few games.

 

Then I have a feel for the players, and I can start adding in elements. So if one or more supers are hunted by Viper, I need Viper to be a big part of the game. If a Super is a lawyer in secret id, maybe Viper seeks to use the legal system to bedevil the supers. Etc....

 

Sometimes I have to drop one or more themes because the players are just not interested. So I like to have several. Examples "It is the responsibility of the strong, to protect the weak" (pretty standard) Honesty and honor, (You are the good guy, why do you lie to your significant others, and wear a mask?)(how do you deal with an honorable enemy?) Gods amoung men. (Do Supers live by a separate code?) Etc...

 

I usually build a Villian or two based on desired themes. For example I used Janus the super killer (a serial murderer who hunted masks) His reason for killing Supers? "They're not honest" (He did not slay public IDs, just secret IDs, one of his parents (mother) had been a Super, who died in the course of duty....) Janus of course has two faces... on the "theme" of honesty, and honor...

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There's no single "correct" way to do it, imo. 

 

Agreed; I'm looking for help with a concept I'll explain more below.

 

But you could start with some basics: setting, history, place of the PCs in the campaign, themes of the campaign, tone of the campaign, etc.

 

I've done that, it's posted somewhere else on here.

 

My Fantasy games are definitely very well thought out campaigns - even when it is a sandbox world.  The games are 'serial' in nature and each session builds on the previous sessions.

 

My Champions games are extremely episodic.  Once in a while a villain(s) from a previous episode will show up.  I have had a master villain on a couple of occasions show up for multiple sessions until they captured him (or he fled for a long time).

 

I have no big plan or goal or campaign theme with Champions.  I treat it like a 'pick up game' when we only have a few players who can make it to a game session.

 

This is exactly my problem.  I was obviously not clear enough in my initial post, sorry about that.

 

My issue is that for other games, Fantasy and Cyberpunk being my usual mainstays, I have elaborate, intricate storylines which span the entire campaign.  There are times when a game here or there doesn't follow the main theme, or there's a bit of a respite from the hardcore storyline, but in the end, the campaign is drawnout, and eventually, when it comes to it's climatic end, everyone knows it's the end cause some momentous event has culminated in the closing of the storyline.

 

In Superhero games, I have not yet figured out how to have something of that scale.  My games too are lighter, with small storyarchs which have some villains in common, and end when they're foiled in whatever fashion, but then it's off to the next miniseries after perhaps a filler or two.

 

I would like to prepare a full campaign for my players; frankly it's what they expect from me.  We are all adults, who have played many games, for many years.  A couple of my players have played with me for 20+ years.  Whenever we've had something light on the campaign-long story, the games have kinda petered out eventually, and just ended.

 

So, what I'm looking for, is anyone who has had a 10-20 game full-on campaign in Champions.  Something where a central theme has been in the background for the entire story, and when the heroes eventually concluded the story, everyone knew it was the end, because the subject of the story was closed or completed.

 

That's what I'm trying to understand.  How do you do that in a superhero game?

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I get the players to give me characters with a starting situation, then I do an intro adventure.

CES 

 

Ever since Dragon Age Origins (computer game), I've actually incorporated some sort of origins storyline into the beginning of my campaigns.  Why does your farmer's son pick up a sword and start adventuring?  Why would your Cyberpunk character quit whatever their background story is for how they got all that tech, and become a mercenary thug?

 

Even in this new Champions campaign concept I have going, we have the origins component for the characters, so I've got that part going.

 

What I don't have is this background storyline that ties the entire campaign together into a coherent narrative that has a definitive ending...

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So, in re-reading this whole thread, I had some ideas, when trying to come up with some examples; so let me add a little something to the question.

 

I also want this campaign long storyline to be "superheroy".

 

As I was thinking about examples, the first things that came to my mind, were Watchmen and Spawn.  Both have campaign long storyarchs; the problem is, they are both very dark, and remind me much more of the atmosphere of Cyberpunk than superheros.

 

I think I could come up with something sinister behind the scenes, that would work, but frankly I'd lose the thing that separates superhero games from other genres, which is the black and white, light heartidness of it.

 

One of my ole-time players was just explaining to a newer player, why he loved playing Champions or Star Wars sometimes over ED and SR; his point was that superheros and Star Wars, while having "evil" in them, did not have the same level of "darkness" that typical Cyberpunk (SR in this case) games have.

 

So, while I want this supercool, intricate, elaborate, campaign-long storyline for my Champions campaign, I also want it to stay with the general "feel" of a superhero storyline, and not devolve into something it's not (or shouldn't be).

 

And by the way; thank you for all of your help, and sorry if I'm asking a bit much here...

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Put a villain in the background. Over the course of smaller adventures, have the heroes find out small things. Have that villain run a plot in the background that the heroes get pieces of, eventually having the big showdown.

 

Thanks.  Now that I've got my juices flowing, a couple ideas came to mind; first, the concept of Magneto vs. Prof. X, and the mutant issue.  That could work in my campaign world, with some twists.

 

Talking Star Wars, got me thinking of the Emperor and Vader, which led me to Thanos and the Infinity Gauntlet and what Marvel is doing with the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU); which I think has got me on that same track your talking about.

 

So, just posting all this mess outta my brain-housing group has helped me, so thank you all.  Any additional ideas/thoughts are still welcome.

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Ever since Dragon Age Origins (computer game), I've actually incorporated some sort of origins storyline into the beginning of my campaigns.  Why does your farmer's son pick up a sword and start adventuring?  Why would your Cyberpunk character quit whatever their background story is for how they got all that tech, and become a mercenary thug?

 

Even in this new Champions campaign concept I have going, we have the origins component for the characters, so I've got that part going.

 

What I don't have is this background storyline that ties the entire campaign together into a coherent narrative that has a definitive ending...

I dont really try for an ending. That's probably why the group breaks up before the campaign ends. 

 

background stuff comes from a rogues gallery. In the Domino City campaign I mentioned, the players kept running into the powers of hell, stopping two outright, and elevating a demon into kingship.

 

But I tend to be a reactive gm. I don't write games, they write themselves.

CES   

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I very much prefer the open ended campaign that just goes until we die of old age, but it seems like more and more players want a story arc that ends so they can play something else, which is an attitude I don't comprehend.  The very concept of an RPG is that it doesn't have a goal or end game, its adventures without a "winner."

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I very much prefer the open ended campaign that just goes until we die of old age, but it seems like more and more players want a story arc that ends so they can play something else, which is an attitude I don't comprehend. The very concept of an RPG is that it doesn't have a goal or end game, its adventures without a "winner."

I'll hazard a guess that maybe then it will be like a video game (or movie ir book) where you have a start, middle and end. And with the end a sense of completion and acomplishment.

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I very much prefer the open ended campaign that just goes until we die of old age, but it seems like more and more players want a story arc that ends so they can play something else, which is an attitude I don't comprehend.  The very concept of an RPG is that it doesn't have a goal or end game, its adventures without a "winner."

 

 

I'll hazard a guess that maybe then it will be like a video game (or movie ir book) where you have a start, middle and end. And with the end a sense of completion and acomplishment.

 

 

That seems to be the template that players expect more and more instead of feeling like you're part of a never ending story of adventure and glory.  I can work with that, its just not my preferred style of game.

 

 

I agree. The game goes on, the characters endure, unless they live long enough to see themselves become villains.

 

I know I would say for my players, it's more about their character's story arch, and the eventual limitations of a gameworld to inhabit characters that are eventually Uberpowerful.  Because we play every other week/once a month minimum, for about 6-8 hours straight, and our campaigns tend to run a year plus, by the time we've gotten deep into the game, the characters are usually fairly high-powered for whatever gameworld we're in.  So when the storyline ends, it's kinda weird to have these super-legendary uberheroes just kinda wondering the countryside.

 

It is usually about finishing a storyline, not "winning" or ending even.  We have on occasion gone back and revisited characters in a new campaign, that starts the characters in new adventures.  Like a sequel.

 

So, like Ninja-Bear said above; for us, more like completing the LoTR or Star Wars trilogy, so the story has completed, at least for now...

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Yeah, after a certain point it kinda makes sense to keep the world, but start new characters. "Iron dreams, the new generation!" (or 2.0?) and the older characters can become lore.

 

"Jane Plus was created by Half Jack as his bride, he was defeated by the Justice Machine, but the process drove her mad." "Phase 12" :yes:

 

"The city is glad to provide the team with a base, it is called "The Monolith", after the base used by Justice Machine. Pyro, your mother Spitfire was a team mate, so you know all about this..."

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No, its not a question of keeping the same characters.  Some retire, die, change over in a continuing campaign, that's great.  What I mean is people go "let's play Star Wars now!  Lets play post-apocalyptic mummy hunters!  Let's play Call of Cthulhu!  I want to run a old west game now!"  There's no continual setting or campaign at all.  Its like people have the attention span of a fruit fly.

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No, its not a question of keeping the same characters.  Some retire, die, change over in a continuing campaign, that's great.  What I mean is people go "let's play Star Wars now!  Lets play post-apocalyptic mummy hunters!  Let's play Call of Cthulhu!  I want to run a old west game now!"  There's no continual setting or campaign at all.  Its like people have the attention span of a fruit fly.

some of that is just the nature of gamers. I have very wide ranging interests, so I understand that others may want to check out new thing...still bothersome though. :yes:

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Agreed; I'm looking for help with a concept I'll explain more below.

 

 

I've done that, it's posted somewhere else on here.

 

 

This is exactly my problem.  I was obviously not clear enough in my initial post, sorry about that.

 

My issue is that for other games, Fantasy and Cyberpunk being my usual mainstays, I have elaborate, intricate storylines which span the entire campaign.  There are times when a game here or there doesn't follow the main theme, or there's a bit of a respite from the hardcore storyline, but in the end, the campaign is drawnout, and eventually, when it comes to it's climatic end, everyone knows it's the end cause some momentous event has culminated in the closing of the storyline.

 

In Superhero games, I have not yet figured out how to have something of that scale.  My games too are lighter, with small storyarchs which have some villains in common, and end when they're foiled in whatever fashion, but then it's off to the next miniseries after perhaps a filler or two.

 

I would like to prepare a full campaign for my players; frankly it's what they expect from me.  We are all adults, who have played many games, for many years.  A couple of my players have played with me for 20+ years.  Whenever we've had something light on the campaign-long story, the games have kinda petered out eventually, and just ended.

 

So, what I'm looking for, is anyone who has had a 10-20 game full-on campaign in Champions.  Something where a central theme has been in the background for the entire story, and when the heroes eventually concluded the story, everyone knew it was the end, because the subject of the story was closed or completed.

 

That's what I'm trying to understand.  How do you do that in a superhero game?

 

Take a concept and run with it. 

 

Currently for example, I'm in the process of prepping up for a game I want to run. I was digging through storage and I ran into all my old games, one of my favorites from the 90's being Torg. In case you dont know what that was, the basic premise is other cosms invade earth, transforming areas into what their worlds were like in order to suck out the possbility energy- one being fantasy, one horror realm, pulp realm....and so on.

 

Instead of storm knights fighting back, it struck me why not have earth fight back by creating superheros from the possibility energy? Go from normal now earth to an eventual supers campaign, with all sorts of fun stuff inbetween traveling to fantasy lands fighting ogres and orcs to weird machines in the desert or mummies....Given one of the old world laws was the Law of Hope from core earth, what better what to produce hope then a super?

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