GMing 101: Creating a Campaign

Gming 101 creating a camaign

It’s been a while since I wrote about Tabletop RPGs. The Roll Initiative series that we wrote a while back was a pretty good romp, but that was really geared more toward players- rolling up a character of your own and setting about an adventure along with the rest of the party… and that’s only half the game. Somebody’s gotta run the damn thing, and that’s the job of the Game Master/Dungeon Master. Being the GM is a wholly different experience from being a player in a Tabletop RPG, but it’s just as rewarding, if not more so, depending on which side of the experience you connect with more.

Myself, I love playing the game. I love making a character and stepping into their shoes, stomping around some fictional world, fighting monsters, nabbing loot, and acting as one of the stars in some epic adventure. But as great as that can be, I love GMing more. I love making the world the PCs stomp around in, pulling the strings of the plot and watching the reactions of the other people gathered around the table as this fictional world unfurls around them. It’s a lot like writing a novel, in a way, except that you can only influence the actions of your main characters, rather than controlling them outright. It’s a lot of work, though. A TON of work. But if you stick to it, and you can handle the load, it’s an incredibly rewarding experience.

This new series of articles is going to talk about being a Game Master, and how one goes about creating a campaign- from conceptualization to wrapping up the end of your epic adventure. Now, before you say anything, there are a lot of guides about GMing available out there- too many to name. Heck, any RPG worth its salt includes a great deal of advice about running a game in its core rulebook, unless it has an entirely separate book strictly for the GM. Those will cover things like general advice and game mechanics better than I ever could, but that’s not my goal here. My goal for this series is to walk you through my own personal experiences in creating a world, from the initial spark of inspiration to running, expanding, and, eventually, wrapping up a campaign in a fittingly dramatic and satisfying fashion.

So, then, let’s set up our GM Screens (even though I don’t use one), break out our campaign binders (you DO have one, right?), and get to world-building!

I. Get a little practical experience!

I have a bit of an overactive imagination. As a writer, I have a lot of random ideas for stories and settings floating around in my head at any given time, but realistically, very few of those ideas are going to make the full transition onto the page. That doesn’t make them lost causes, however. Right around the time I started really looking into tabletop gaming, I realized that becoming a GM could be a great creative outlet for some of those stray settings. Once I finally got involved in my first real campaign, I was one of the players, and I was already starting to develop a setting and style for my own future campaign in my head. I feel that this is the ideal way to progress in the game- start off by playing the game if at all possible, and transition into GMing afterward. You’ll understand the flow of the game and have an idea of what you personally enjoy a lot better than if you just jump into GMing blindly. Since I had that experience on the other side of the table on my side, I was going into things with a much smarter mindset than if I had just gone straight into it, as I had originally planned to.

And, uh, I read the Core Rulebook pretty much cover to cover. In a few nights. Hey, I didn’t say these steps were mandatory!

II. Start Small:

For my first campaign, I didn’t want to get overly ambitious. While being able to run a wide variety of different genres within the Pathfinder ruleset was tempting, I thought I’d show a little restraint and conform to a relatively traditional style of heroic fantasy. That said, I did allow a bit of inspiration to seep into the early stages of my worldbuilding- influence from film noir and horror, two of my favorite corners of the fictional wheelhouse. I started as small as I could… with a city.

Inspiration can come from anywhere. I happened to be listening to the album Warp Riders by The Sword- in particular, the song “Night City.” I loved the imagery of a shady, dangerous city that started popping up in my head and started extrapolating ideas from there, ending up with a city divided by river into a “night side” ruled by organized crime and “day side” lorded over by wealthy nobles, who were hardly any better. Further aesthetic influence came from movies like Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes and Gangs of New York. A backstory involving the city being founded by wealthy, occult-obsessed families fell into place as soon as I realized I wanted the main villains of this upcoming campaign to be devil-worshiping cultists. And just like that, I had the first living, breathing part of my setting!

I’ve found in my experience since that this is often all you really need to get you started in building a campaign setting- just one interesting, decently-developed location from which you can launch your initial adventures. The rest of the world can develop naturally from there. You certainly can go ahead and plan out the entire world ahead of time if you like, but for your first campaign, I’d recommend starting out small like this.

III. Run a one-shot as a trial run!

There’s only one way to know for sure if you’re cut out to be a GM- and, for that matter, whether your ideas for your campaign setting are gelling. You have to actually run a game!

My very first test run as a GM was a super-short trial run that I did for one friend (playing four characters, bless his heart!), in which I just ran the first scene from Pathfinder’s first and most iconic Adventure Path, Rise of the Runelords, just to test out how it felt to step into that role- but that was just a half-hour or so of goofing off and learning the rules in a practical fashion. A short while after this, while I was still playing in my first Pathfinder campaign, I decided to try out a real, proper one-shot adventure.

I spent a little while dreaming up an adventure designed to introduce the setting, while remaining confined to a single location for simplicity’s sake. I also knew that I wanted it to include those key modifiers that I had decided on for this setting: noir (in this case, in the form of a gritty, urban mystery) and horror (an enclosed-space thriller with a creepy inner-city cult as the villains). I decided that this adventure- designed for a small party of second-level characters- would involve the PCs having been captured and taken to an isolated facility in a burned-out, mostly-abandoned part of the city and would have to find a way to escape, encountering monsters and the weird cult that had imprisoned them along the way. A quick flip through the bestiary for a couple of choice monsters and a hastily-designed map of the temple (three floors and a basement) later, and I was feeling ready to run the damn thing.

I actually ended up running the adventure more than once. I started running it for two of my friends shortly after finishing my preparations, marking my first “true” steps into the world of GMing. The session was a blast- I threw on some choice music from the Silent Hill games for mood, and both players really got into it- bickering as their characters woke up tied together in a room they didn’t recognize with little memory of how they got there, cleverly escaping their bindings, and beginning their search for a way out of the creepy temple as rain and thunder beat down outside. They seemed tense as they debated which direction to go at each intersection, and ran from a swarm of blood-sucking stirges as they searched for their stolen gear.

Unfortunately, the session ran longer than I expected. As in, a lot longer. They didn’t even make it off the floor they started on before we ran out of time… and after several weeks of waiting to pick back up and hopefully finish, it became clear to me that we weren’t going to get back to it thanks to that dread bane of tabletop gaming… work schedules!

Plan B: run it again, but with different players who I knew would be available for the next few weeks!

This proved to be fortuitous, as one of those players happened to be Sword of Nerdom’s own Celeste, who would go on to become one of my favorite players. Y’know, among other things. Anyway, round two with my first real adventure as a GM was just as good as the first time, but this time around I got a chance to learn about the characters ahead of time, giving them each their own real reasons to be involved in the adventure. The stakes were a bit higher, and this time the characters bickered even more (one threatened the other at knife point!), but were more decisive in their movements and moved at a brisker pace, stumbling across other captives of the cult, sneaking around a creepy blind golem in the library, discovering the vestige of a dying god trapped in the temple’s upper levels, and eventually heading downstairs in search of an exit…

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It still took more than one session, but finally wrapping up my first adventure as a GM was immensely satisfying. It wasn’t perfect- I bungled the turn order during combat a few times, I the final opponent was a little wimpy, but… all in all, I thought it was a rousing success. The players seemed to really enjoy it, and even more importantly, I really enjoyed it. I felt like the setting worked, my GM style (a bit loose on the rules, a little overly conversational, but with a flair for the dramatic) seemed to be working, and more importantly, we all had fun and the adventure was a memorable one.

I was ready. It was time to start turning this thing into a real campaign.

But that’s a story for next time. Stay tuned for the next entry, in which I detail how this one ambitious little one-shot turned into a real campaign! ...and then two.