Being the Game Master is hard. I get it, you’re the one that has to do all the checks and balances of the campaign. NPCs, items, spells, maps, dungeon layouts, and the story. You also have to check and balance the PC’s character sheets to make sure everything adds up and balances out, and if you have a gaming group even remotely similar to my own, you may find yourself the only one who can actually math properly. So I can sympathize when you might just NOT want to bother trying to balance an entire campaign setting AND plot along with everything else.
It’s just easier to use the book…
I can sympathize, but I also humbly disagree. I already find most premade campaigns lacking in substance, but I am not referring just to the premade materials. You can use a large portion, (if not all), of premade campaigns and still create a largely story-driven setting. I would also like to note I am also not suggesting you create an entire mechanics system from the ground up for your story, (though I have been known to do this and even keep that entire system due to the preference of my gamers).
I also realize you probably don’t want to have stacks and stacks of paper notes sitting on your side of the table. (I have also been known to get… over zealous on the notes at times.) I know your PCs do not want to sit there for 15 minutes watching you leaf through stacks and stacks of notes while you try to figure out where they are going next. I get it! I really do! However, as both a writer and a Game Master, I have learned some nifty little tricks to help you create a more immersive and story-driven world without doing more than you are likely already doing as a Game Master.
1) Weapons And/Or Armor Level Up
Part of the problem with many campaigns, especially like the ones found in Dungeons and Dragons, is managing all the items, weapons, armor, and other such gear your PCs will acquire. To minimize bloat, (and save some of the Game Master’s brain cells), try creating weapons and/or armor that level up with your PCs. This can be as simple as magic weapons that grow as the player characters face certain challenges in the campaign world, gain feats, or face, and in some cases conquer, their fears.
A personal favorite of mine, if you really wanna get creative, create living weapons with souls with and their own personalities. Weapons that the players must form a bond with in order to properly wield and unlock the weapons most powerful innate abilities.
2) Edges And Flaws For All Characters
This is a requirement in all of my campaigns of any length! I played DnD for years and got really bored with how almost all characters were similar. When I picked up Shadowrun 3rd edition, I was blown away by the level of customizability for just the characters alone, not even counting weapons, armor, and cybernetic implant modifications. Requiring all characters to have Edges and Flaws can add an entire new layer of story and plot to your campaign. Runa the mage has a severe case of arachnophobia? Well, when the party faces off against a group of Driders in the underdark she’s gonna be put through her own personal hell.
Gorag Stone-Heart is a brave dwarven warrior who fears nothing… but he can’t swim and is secretly too terrified of water to learn? Well when your ship sinks off the frigid coast due to a pirate attack now you have a whole new layer of drama added to your campaign.
The possibilities are literally endless!
3) Center The Campaign Around Player Character Back-Stories
Almost every player I have ever sat down with has some kind of story for their character. We’re all human. We love to hear and create our own stories, especially when we feel passionate about something or we are trying to explain the unknown. (Ahem… Religion… Ahem!) So why not integrate that concept into the very meat of your campaign?
Create or tailor the campaign around who… or better yet, what your characters are. Your party is composed mostly of fighter classes? Perhaps they are all students of a guild going on an epic quest to prove themselves? Maybe they are classmates of a combat school that never really got along and are now stuck working together.
Have a party of a bunch of different classes and/or races? They were forced to work together by a king or deity and not a damn one of them has ever wanted to get to know the other, let alone work with the other. However, now they have no choice but to try and get over themselves if they are going to have any hope of survival.
Racism is an epic flaw or back-story to use here!
4) Allow Time For Social Interaction
In every, and yes, I mean every campaign I have ever run, or have ever had the pleasure… (or displeasure in some cases) to play in, there is always… always a point where we are sitting around a campfire, at a tavern, or in some social environment and nine-times-out-of-ten, there is drinking involved! Use this time to allow your player characters to be social with one another.
Attractive female elf has caught the eye of the Barbarian? Let the scene play out! The half-drow rogue gets drunk enough to finally open up to the priestess? Let her talk about her feelings and her time in the underdark. A long conversation/conning session starts up between the bard and the high-level wizard NPC? Let them hash-it-out verbally.
I’ve seen better character development in one dialogue session than in all the dungeons they’ve run combined.
5) Two Words: White Wolf
This may seem like a joke entry but I am being completely honest here. White Wolf games do not have Game Masters, they have Storytellers! The reason they are called Storytellers and the reason all of their settings have a unique but interchangeable character sheet is simple... Their system is literally BASED around telling a story and letting the players be “actors” within the story.
I had a player who wished to play a Masquerade style vampire in one of my Shadowrun sessions once. Though technically this could be considered “lore-breaking” as vampires in Shadowrun are very different than Masquerade vampires, I allowed it. I found the system actually transfers very well into any game system.
This is not to say you should go to the same trouble of doing conversions for one system to another but take a look at one of their books and system, really dig into it! Sit in on a White Wolf or World of Darkness game session sometime and see how they structure their campaigns and stories.
The results might surprise you!
6) The Social Experiment
You awaken from cryosleep. As you fall out of your stasis pod, gasping for breath and freezing on the cold-metal floor, you realize you are surrounded by several other individuals, all wearing the same prison jumpsuit as you. The alarms are blaring and you can feel the ship groan and rumble; chunks of it break apart into the void of space. A digitized voice crackles on the overhead speakers, looping the same warning message: “The main haul has been breached! Life-support is failing, all personnel please evacuate to the escape pods immediately!”
You look to the few survivors around you, the lot of you come to the same bleak discovery: Not a single one of you can remember who you are or why you are here! You have little time to think about that however, as you can hear… something… tearing and clawing at the airlocks. The hardened doors begin to twist and buckle against the abuse, threatening to dislodge at any moment. You have no choice. If you want to survive this, you’ll have to work together and figure out who you are and why you are here!
I ran this plot during a space opera I designed recently and my players absolutely LOVED it! It allows for maximum social development and plenty of hack-n-slash mixed in. Easiest way to do this is with an all human campaign. The Game Master hands all players a blank sheet of paper and creates mock character sheets as references for him/herself. As players are faced with challenges and find weapons, you have them roll to discover their abilities.
Conversely, if you wish for a little more creativity you may have your players pick race, height, weight, eye color, hair color/style, etc. Adding flaws to the player-characters’ sheets contributes to an epic adventure, and when the players are under duress, (facing overwhelming odds and/or are injured) forcing them to roll a Willpower check decides whether their negative personality flaws and traits manifest themselves or not. Nature Vs Nurture.
Last but surely not least…
7) It Is Called R.O.L.E. Playing Not R.O.L.L. Playing
Sadly sometimes I think this rule is lost on many a Game Master. The point of role-playing is to escape reality for a bit and have some fun! The dice should never replace creativity or fun. Dice should only be used to retain balance and to resolve whether an action is successful or not.
The more creative you let your players be, and, conversely, the less restrictive your rules are, the more joy and fun you as the Game Master, and your players by extension, will have at the table. You don’t have to get so caught up in the storyline and plot that your PCs can’t make their own choices. Heck if you want, let them write the majority of the plot with their decisions. Just make sure they don’t kill themselves or destroy the world in the process!
I have played a number of tabletop games and have designed a number of campaigns that I have run to conclusion. Some I have had to let go for various reasons… lost players, work schedules, etc. I will admit, going for more of a storytelling feel and losing a player or having a character die can put a dampener on the campaign as a whole. But if you are clever and creative, you can turn even this problematic situation into storytelling gold! Incorporating one or even all of these rules into your next campaign may just bring an added, (or missing), spark to your game night and hell, who knows…
You might just decide to publish something too… one day.
Lilliana Deeters is a veteran gamer and Game Master. She has written and designed a number of custom campaign systems, (Trademarks Pending), as well as developed easy to implement conversion tables for already popular tabletop rpg systems. Lilliana is a three-time published author, all three of her novels are based around a Shadowrun campaign https://www.amazon.com/s?k=remnants+the+corporate+Chronicles. Lilliana also works as a Graphic Artist for Black Starr Creations, who generously custom designed a free image for this article.
All blog materials created and developed by the staff here at High Level Games