Like many amongst us, for some reason, I usually find myself behind the GM screen.
While I do play and enjoy playing, there is something about taking on that role that just always appealed to me and I have always found that there is something that draws me to that role again and again. That being said, I recently started thinking about the dearth of GMs in our hobby. I mean, by the very nature of most games players will outnumber GMs. And we have to face the reality that for the majority of the people in our hobby, that role is unappealing.
The reasons are as varied as the people who play, but they often boil down to workload, intimidations, lack of confidence in ideas, and what I think is the biggest problem: we don’t have a great way of teaching the next generation of gamers how to GM/Judge/Storytell/DM/Keeper.
Recently, I had a conversation with a few members of an online game that I was running and I challenged my players to GM our next game. I promised to help teach them how to run a game and to share the burden as much as I can, and do whatever I could do to help them in their first time GMing. This got me to thinking of all of the methods that I had seen to plan and run campaigns. Here are some of them:
1. Reactive Method
This method is deceptively complex. At least, it is complex if you want to do it well. This method essentially assumes an active world that the game takes place in. Into that world comes your players and their characters with all of their flaws and worldviews and goals. The work of the GM then is to create a rich enough world that ensures that the players begin interacting with it and just react in the way that - in the GM’s estimation - the people and forces in that world would react. This allows the campaign to essentially write itself with the players and their characters as the prime movers.
There are some complications with this method, especially in that it is actually far more complex than it at first seems. First, it requires a group that is full of active personalities with players who are going to take the initiative and act. Further, it requires a world that contains enough hooks for players to want to act on them, and it requires some complexity in that world for any longer-termed campaign or the players are going to start to thrash about looking for something to do. Thus, the level of world building can either be high or the requirements of the level of play can be high. If either of those pieces do not exist at least by themselves but hopefully together, then the whole thing comes crashing down. Of course, the flipside is simply that if the players are consistently good self-starters and the world is built in depth enough with enough hooks, this campaign can be fabulous and incredibly rewarding.
2. Implications Method
The implication method requires some thought, but not a tonne of pre-planning, which is its strength. Essentially, what you are doing with this method is having characters created, starting with a place of any kind, and working out from there. This is very much the “start small” approach to building a campaign. So, how does it work?
Start with a place. In our example we will start with an inn. That’s all. Right off of the bat we have implications. We know that there needs to be customers. There needs to be suppliers for the things that they are selling. It suggests a culture that congregates at an inn. With this, you have some decisions. Is the local population predominantly human? Let’s say yes. Is the innkeeper human? Let’s say no. That implies something. If the human population has say, a dwarven innkeeper, then that could imply that there is a community of dwarves nearby. It may even imply that either the innkeeper is estranged from that community or not. If so, then why? If not, then why? And so on. With this method one could start with a town, a village, a castle, a spaceport, or whatever. It just required the GM to be nimble and think through things pragmatically.
3. Guidepost Method
This method operates under a principle of storyline guideposts. Basically, a few of these can be decided in advance and the storyline then loosely moves to these guideposts. An example might be that the first three guideposts are that an item is stolen while the group is at a local festival, a political enemy causes them trouble that they can’t murderhobo their way out of, and an important NPC is killed mysteriously. A way that could be fleshed out could be that the PCs come together for the Festival of the Sun, a midsummer festival that is held in the town of Edmundstown every year wherein the Shard of the Steward of the Sun is revealed to be adored by the public after a few days of feasting. During this festival that the PCs are attending, the item is stolen and the PCs are enjoined to help find it before the festival is ruined. Following that portion, the second bit could be that the local High Priest of the Sun Temple comes to believe that the players were somehow the cause of the festival almost coming to ruination, and while he doesn’t have proof, he starts to spread rumours amongst the upper hierarchy of the church and the aristocracy that they are not to be trusted. Finally, a local nobleman who has been publicly defending the PCs is mysteriously murdered. Obviously, there is a lot going on that can be built on and played through.
The guideposts thus planned can start to build a larger ongoing campaign and it helps plant cinematic seeds and foreshadowing when the moment feels right rather than having to railroad the group into what you have planned.
For example, with the above guideposts, we know that in the third guidepost an NPC needs to be murdered. So we know that the GM needs to introduce that NPC and, if they want to maximize the emotional impact, do everything in their power to make them care about that NPC. Further, it would also help if, knowing that they are going to meet and have an interaction with someone they won’t like in the second guidepost, maybe have that person introduced as well off of the top. Perhaps that person is a beloved leader and the matriarch of the festival, who then later blames the group for the missing item, for example. Maybe it is someone who starts out as a possible ally only to turn on them. In the end, as many guideposts as you want can be written and then strung together as time goes on, or discarded as necessary.
4. Emotion Method
This is possibly the most esoteric method. With this method, you imagine certain emotional or evocative scenes and then identify the emotional core of that scene. Once that is done, you just try to reimagine that scene into the story and do everything in your power to evoke that feeling. Movies are a great piece of inspiration for this kind of storytelling. An example might be to look at a movie scene like the D-Day portion of Saving Private Ryan. The core emotion is fear or possibly a certain kind of desperation. Doing this in a modern or futuristic setting might be easier, and in a fantasy setting, one could play out a scene in which the players were part of a larger force storming a hostile beach.
Using the fantasy example, the players could be recruited as storm troops or advanced skirmishers tasked with being part of the first wave ashore with a few objectives, like fight your way up the beach, capture a small and well defended fort on the first hill, and finally do it all quick enough to secure and defend a bridge before it can be destroyed. Pepper this non-stop combat with friendly NPCs dying all around and danger around every corner. You could place random fireball or lightning bolt related artillery strikes all the way through. In this scenario you want to do everything you can to create a sense of dread, a sense of mortality, a mimicry of what those soldiers must have gone through. With this method, this one scene could be the source of many sessions by itself. The recruiting, possibly even smaller quests as “training” or espionage, role-playing through the evening before, preparing for the possibility of death, even getting the invasion called off for weather to build tension. Then the combat itself and perhaps even the follow-up from that part. This whole “chapter” of the campaign therefore becomes crafted around this apex, rising in drama to its climax and then cresting off to the aftermath and epilogue. Then onto the next scene.
5. Background Method
It’s best to apply this method with a lot of prep work between GM and players. It implies that the players have created characters with some kind of flesh on them at a “session zero.” It helps a lot of the players create characters with some hooks and goals that they want to explore. And if they have established relationships with each other, more the better. These backgrounds that are created for the characters should be done without any input in regards to setting or world, and it is in these backgrounds that the entire campaign is created.
Of course, that means that the building of these characters and their stories is best done with the input and guidance of the GM throughout. I often use text messages and phone conversations as the players pitch ideas, and I then take pieces that jump out and help them expand it. Then, at session zero everyone explains their backgrounds in turn and the GM then asks leading questions that are designed to give shape and force to their stories. Examples might be, “when you were young a childhood friend drowned, why didn’t you help her?” Or, gesturing to another player, “you owe your fellow PC Link Starchild something of great value, and that creates a lot of guilt in you, what was it and why do you owe it?” This process then creates the world and maps the campaign.
6. Procedural Method
I am a massive Lovecraft fan, and recently I grabbed the Quickstart Rules for Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition. My group then played the little adventure that came with and in short, had a blast. It led me to start to snoop around the interwebz and found a wealth of short adventures going back to the first edition. As I read the summaries of these short gems I thought of some of my favourite shows, like Supernatural or X-Files. In those shows there were short plots that lasted a single episode, like a “monster of the week” kind of thing, or a few episodes, with a long term goal that lasted over the course of each season or longer. With this method of campaign, one simply comes up with a metanarrative that links the characters to a long term goal, say, a global conspiracy of some type (Trust No One) and then having the smaller, seemingly unrelated (except by theme) plots woven in. That way, the players go from fairly clearly defined adventure to adventure while uncovering pieces over a long period of time.
7. Bonus Frankensteinian Method!
In my own life and amongst some of the better GMs that I know these methods exists in a hodge-podge or mish-mashed form. That is, we use a combination of methods to achieve something for our campaigns as we move through. Let’s say you start with the Procedural Method, but build out the metaplot and the theme of it using the Background Method, all the while mixing in the Implication Method as you do some worldbuilding. Frankly, my group often runs campaigns wherein we play 2-3 sessions a month for years at a time, so I often switch back and forth depending on what I am hoping to achieve in the next portion of the campaign.
I know that these methods aren’t the only ones, they are just the dribs and drabs that I have pieced together over my decades of gaming. I know that you likely have more interesting ones; let me know in the comments below.
-VP Quinn was birthed of darkness and pain and fire. The prophecy has foretold his coming wherein all shall behold and despair. It is coming, it has come. Also, he hosts the High Level Games Podcast, Co-Hosts the Leveling Up Podcast, and is consistently shamed on The Inept Gamer. And he tells people what to do around here.
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.