Welcome back! Today we continue our campaign creation series discussing mission content. In our last post we discussed how to pace a campaign, dynamically using the energy of the campaign to keep players engaged. Today we will be centering in on how we practically accomplish this through the building blocks of a campaign, which we call "missions."
We will start by discussing the "high concept" of what goes into a mission, and then we will work through six practical tips to help you sift through the ideas in your mind.
Missions: Skirts and Kilts
When I was in college, I was given a maxim for paper writing: "A good paper should be like a woman's skirt: long enough to cover the subject, short enough to be interesting." When it comes to designing mission content for your campaign, I offer a similar maxim:
A roleplay mission should be like a man's kilt: long enough to serve its purpose, short enough to be functional.
The purpose of a kilt is simple: cover the thigh. But it also has a functional aspect: a freer range of motion than a pair of trousers. Good kilts serve both purposes.
So also with a roleplay mission. A mission that can be completed in 30 minutes will not satisfy anyone: they want to spend meaningful time on each segment of the story. At the same time, each segment should have a narrowly tailored purpose so that the story doesn't drag.
To this end, we offer six tips to guide your content selection, each including an example from the campaign I'm building to demonstrate each tip.
Tip #1: Keep It Simple
There is a temptation in planning mission content to build complex, in-depth events for each mission, but adventurers always spend more time on things than you initially plan. So if you are familiar with the KISS theory ("Keep It Simple, Stupid") to game design, I recommend a similar thought for mission content: keep it simple.
For the first mission of my campaign, the party is sent on a hunt with the elves for the Great Feast (the equivalent of the American holiday of Thanksgiving). So the mission is simple: the party goes into the forest, hunts for food (plant or animal, as they feel led), and they come across a few hydras in mating season (who don't want to be disturbed). The party is chased off (or fight the hydras), and they return with a good story to tell around the campfire.
This touches on another critical tip.
Tip #2: Combat Takes Time
If I were to put on a piece of paper, "The party starts the mission by sallying from the castle and fighting 300 people," I can tell you from firsthand experience that this is an all-day event if you don't have a dozen fire mages or a trebuchet. Even if you have some area damage (fire mages, siege weapons, denizens of lackeys), it takes hours to finish, especially if characters take multiple actions in a given turn (as the Zurn system allows you to do this).
So if you include combat (which over 90% of roleplay missions across game systems use combat), just know that combat takes time. To help you trim down time on combat, we also recommend another tip.
Tip #3: Narrator, Not Opponent
If you as the game master are the narrator (which, as we noted in our first post, is my school of thought), then you don't need to build all NPCs as lethal threats to the party. You want your NPCs to challenge your players, but we don't need all NPCs to perfectly counter their strengths, let alone take advantage of their weaknesses.
If you do, this results in dramatically longer combats, more frustration, and a sense of helplessness that paralyzes gamers and drags down the mission. Do we want to scare them with our NPCs? Absolutely. Do we want players to lose interest in the campaign because we built the NPCs to be their perfect counter? Absolutely not.
In my campaign, this presents a dilemma: the genre (tragedy) says the elven villages are doomed, so the villain NPCs should be dangerous (they destroy the towns after all). So for my NPCs, I've gone the route of either making them excellent in armor and damage but weak in Finesse (so their to-hit rolls, parry attempts, dodge rolls, and ability to search for hidden characters is weak), or high in Finesse but with weak armor (the "glass cannon" approach), susceptible even to low-damage characters.
By doing this, combat is faster (as players aren't just slogging through enemies that are hard to hit and hard to wound, per Tip #2), and the players are constantly thinking, "Which NPCs will my character uniquely be capable of defeating?" It keeps peopleengaged, gives them something worthwhile to do, while still having dangerous NPCs on the table.
Tip #4: Beware of Open Narration
Similarly, be careful of what I call "open narration" as the game master. If, for example, the party is heading into the forest for The Great Hunt (as we do in my campaign in Mission 1) and I say, "Okay: you head into the forest. What would you like to do?" I have asked an open question. Thankfully, due to what they have already been told, this is not a bad question because the party knows what they need to do to succeed: gather fruits/vegetables, and/or hunt for food for the feast.
But if, for example, the party is entering a whole new city and I tell them, "Okay: you head into town. What would you like to do?" with no instruction at all on parameters or goals, the party has so many options they don't know where to start. This slows things down, and can sap interest from the players, because they feel like they are shooting in the dark for actions that have value (a common thread on this blog).
You can use narration that is open-ended (missions that are too binary also hurt interest because they feel too preset), but like all humans they appreciate parameters: do I have a goal, and what will move me toward that goal?
So when I build a mission, I give a clear indicator of the goal of the mission (spy on the camp of the minotaurs and report back, protect the town, hunt for food, etc.) so that players have a clear understanding of what success is, and then give them room within those parameters to act in ways that are meaningful to them.
Tip #5: Naming Schemes Matter
You want your campaign to be immersive: you want people to feel like the world they are entering is a real world with real people. One of the subtle things that contributes to this is having naming schemes for your cultures.
Now there are many ways to build naming schemes. Sometimes I will use actual languages for naming schemes (as they have etymological roots that I can use to weave in meanings, and Google is free), but sometimes I'll just go off of the sound of the words, creating my own words and names without an etymological base. Both are fine; if you are looking to build a campaign with elves, I highly recommend Parf Edhellen, which gives several dialects of elvish based off of Tolkien's work.
For my last few campaigns, I've turned to actual languages because I love using the names of NPCs, towns, and clans to shroud meaning. People who know German will know a lot more about one of the people groups in the Search for Borgon campaign we are launching in October 2018. People who know Sindarin Elvish will get a lot more out of the campaign I'm currently building, purely because the names of NPCs tell you something about them.
Tip #6: NPCs Are the Key
What people really care about is a memorable mission: they want something they can talk about with friends, and will linger in their imagination. I was touched recently by a friend mentioning that he still remembered a mission I ran four years ago (one of his first roleplay sessions ever), and it made my day, because my mission was still memorable.
What he didn't remember was the reason for the quest, the plot we were pursuing, or even the pay he got for that session. What he did remember was the NPCs he interacted with, and how it allowed his character to shine.
Why is this? Because NPCs are the key to a good mission. People remember the people that they meet, so the best way to craft a good mission is to craft good NPCs. Now there's a lot that goes into this (and we'll talk about this in depth in the next post, so stay tuned!), but it makes the difference between a functional mission and a good mission.
For the campaign I'm running, I've built 20 missions for the party:
-5 involve the fall of the elven villages,
-4 are introductory (meet the elves, choice between two missions where you come across the scouts of the antagonists, and meet the antagonists up close and personal),
-10 of them are choice missions, where the party can either help the elves fortify the next village or counterattack against the minotaurs, and
-1 side mission designed to cover what happens if the party gets captured.
This gives me a natural flow for the campaign, allowing players to make choices that matter while still providing structure. For this campaign the structure is aided by the fact that the party is on the defense: they have to defend the towns, so the assaults on the towns give a cadence and rhythm to the campaign, with the other missions filling in the gaps, applying effects to the next village's defense (aiding the chance of survival for the villagers).
So discern how many steps it will take to complete the campaign, plan out the mission content for each (I recommend doing them in order to check the flow of energy across the campaign), make sure each mission is cohesive and engaging, and make sure the NPCs have enough life of their own to make them memorable.