Tonight I'll be launching a new campaign for beta testing (which will hopefully be available to you all in a few years, once we've run it through its paces!), and as I sit here practicing voices for NPCs and organizing mission notes, I want to begin a new blog series on tips for creating a campaign. I know that there are some budding GMs who watch this space, and for those of you who are thinking about starting a campaign, or think you can't but inwardly want to, this series is for you.
Over the next few posts, I'll be walking you through some of the things I've been thinking over as I am building this campaign, and I hope that my musings and questions will be of use to you in constructing your campaigns, in Zurn or another world.
The plan is to produce a new post every other week (as we're also building content for the Assassins of Zurn Kickstarter in June - so excited!), and today's post touches on how to craft a story for a roleplay campaign, as it is radically different from other forms of storycraft.
I. Roleplaying is Character-Centric, Not Plot-Centric
Now at first glance, this may look bizarre (if not dead wrong): how can a roleplay campaign not center on the plot? Isn't the plot important to a story (arguably one of the three most important parts of any book, movie, or play)? And how can it be character-centric when we don't always know what characters will be present in the story (as character creation is a thing in the vast majority of campaigns), let alone how they will act? How can we progress the action if we don't know all the variables?
This panic is also precisely what sets roleplaying apart, and thus why it cannot function like the writing of a book, play, movie, or comic strip, and that is that roleplaying is ultimately not about the plot. This sounds funny, as every good roleplay campaign, whether tabletop or online, will have a plot (and we tend to grade online RPGs heavily on how strong the plot was).
But the problem with making a campaign plot-centric is that it will do one of two things to the player characters, both of which are bad for your gaming group. First, it can railroad them. If the plot requires certain things to happen for them to complete an objective, then the decisions that they make either seem forced (because they had to do the thing that the plot needed for the plot to progress), or the actions of the players feel unimportant (as the plot would have moved in that direction whether they did something or not).
Railroading your players is one of the fastest ways for people to tire of a campaign. If they don't feel like their actions have value, or they feel frustrated because all of the things that they want to do are not the things that move the plot forward, then they will wonder if there is a better way to spend their time.
Second, it also increases the risk of what I call, "NPC Creep." This is where the NPCs that are important to the story (especially allied NPCs) become so important in their actions that they overshadow or antiquate the party, because they are supposed to be important to the story. Whether this is the local king who hires the party needing to look mighty (which then raises the question of why is he hiring the party, if he can stomp on this attacking force himself?), the local scout who does all the recon and antiquates the Search/Perception characters, or just a side-NPC who gets so much screentime that a player is asking who the main characters are, it can be innocuous yet toxic to the gaming group.
Players want to know that their character has a reason for being in the story. And if the plot requires that certain things happen, and thus an NPC exists to make sure it happens, it has the risk of crowding out the player characters as the main characters of the story.
On the flipside, if the campaign is character-centric - focused on placing the characters in places where they are free to use many approaches to solve a problem, and is focused more on how they develop as people than on building a nuanced plot - then players stay engaged. And if you don't make promises on how many sessions it will take to complete the campaign, you have room to circle back to critical plot points as you're developing the characters, still allowing you to flesh out a nuanced plot.
Which is to say, just because the campaign is character-centric doesn't mean that there is no plot, nor is it an excuse for a weak plot (as weak plots are never allowed in good storytelling, which is what we want). But we need to retool our creative minds to not see our job as the narrator as telling what happened, so much as asking the critical question, "What do you want to do in the face of this problem" of our players. And once we ask that question, we can build a beautiful plot off of their choices, leading to an engaging, meaningful story.
And this approach to storytelling leads us to yet another critical thing to remember when you're laying out your story.
2. The Game Master as Narrator, Not God
This is a point that will be debated by different game master schools of thought, but the school of thought that I come from (am the founder of? Who knows) says that the GM is not God: he/she is the narrator. This is empowering when it comes to building and progressing a plot during a campaign for a few reasons.
For starters, God, being God, is all powerful, and as He directs things, so will they happen in the world. Which means if things don't go according to plan, or you don't foresee something, then we have a problem, and it comes across to your gamers. This can lead to a host of issues, not least of which a forced plot because "this is what's supposed to happen."
But if you are the narrator - if you are a person who does not need to know everything about the past or the future because you tells us about the now - then suddenly your life as a game master gets a lot easier. If you forget something, that's fine: you're not God, so it's okay to forget something. If you are still working out the finer points of the story, that's okay: you're just the narrator.
It also makes it easier to hand the players the reins in a crisis: as the narrator, it is not your job to direct the players. It is your job to tell them what is happening around them, and then let them make their decisions.
And this is why character-centric storytelling works work with the GM as narrator: everything revolves around player decisions. So when I am building a campaign, I have to constantly remind myself, "Even if I want this amazing thing to happen, it may not happen, because the players may not pursue it. And that's okay, because this campaign is not about the plot: it's about them. And if it takes forever for things to happen because they explore other things, that's fine, because the camera is on them. And if they happen to engage with something that I've built and had intended to be a major plot element, fantastic: we've directed them where we needed to go, and they arrived there on their own volition."
And you will find that even though it may require you to act spontaneously, it will be meaningful to them, and you will have a ton of fun rolling with the punches.
I've seen campaigns that I've built go very different paths than I expected (we're getting ready to release our first pre-built campaign this year, and all ten of the groups that tested it have done it very differently!). I've seen game masters attempt to force the action a certain way, and players walk away from the table for years because of it. I've seen game masters attempt to insert plot elements like low-hanging fruit, and see players pass on it because "it's not what we want to do," or, "it doesn't matter that much to me."
In all of these cases, I've come away being reminded of the importance of how we approach building a campaign as the game master. If we see it as, "This is the plot, and we have to do these things to make the plot work," you're going to have frustrated players (and probably a frustrated game master). But if you approach the building of the campaign from start to finish as a case study in seeing characters grow, and how they deal with a crisis (read: not a complete abandonment of plot, but placing the plot in the passenger seat), you will find that your sessions are much more enjoyable for everyone.
In our next post, we'll be discussing the planning out of a campaign, and how you go about building a plot that is subsidiary to the characters of the story. But that is a story for another day.