Thursday, July 23, 2009

Campaign Design Best Practices (Part 4)

13. Drama - Segmented Dungeons: Break your dungeon levels up into sections that will take about a session each to manage. You might accomplish this by having there be seals that need to be broken between each level or section, by having unavoidable choke points, or assembly puzzles that need to be completed with items found in a given section. The reason to do this is so that each session feels like something fresh in the minds of the players when they begin a new session, and so that any rejoining players that missed a session or two don't feel clueless. If the segments increase in difficulty as one conquers them, there is also a rising dramatic arc.

14. Production Value - Logo: You should have a logo for your campaign. A symbol that has something to do with the game, perhaps a representation of the main MacGuffin or arch-villain's personal rune. Put the symbol on your character sheets and handouts. This is called branding, and will add "polish" to your campaign and make it more distinctive in the minds of your players.

15. Drama - Forming An Adventuring Party: Don't have them meet in a tavern. How will that distinguish your campaign as any different from tens of thousands of other games? The party works better when the players have an established relationship --making it a given that they are siblings and cousins has worked well for me. Or if you must have them meet, have them meet under circumstances likely to make them cooperative. Having them meet in the drunk tank of a jail, for example. Or in a more modern campaign, have them be caught in an elevator together for a few hours. I've also had one player be the head of a company that interviewed the other PCs to see if they were right for the job --if you do this, be sure to roleplay a few people that definitely won't get hired, just for fun.

16. Production Value - Character Portraits: Even if you aren't an artistically talented person (I'm not) you may have a player that is, or they may have amenable friends that are. Tell the players that if there is a decent character portrait made of their character then it is worth a good chunk of experience. Nothing makes a character more distinct than seeing it come to life.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Campaign Design Best Practices (Part 3)

9. Drama - Beginning The Session: Some people recite poetry or campaign literature at the start of each session. This, as we say in the business, is boring as fuck. I think I remember Monte Cook writing about doing that in his blog, no surprises there. Classier individuals play a theme song each time to set the tone and make starting the game a formula --it signals the transition from catching up with friends and prepping snacks to the exploring the game world. I usually ask my players where we left off, so they present their own perspective of what their situation was that I can then modify to my needs. Maybe they won't mention a key fact that I wish to ensure that they know; this way I know to re-state it for emphasis. This also freshens me up, in case there's something about their situation that I forgot.

10. Drama - Narrate From The Enemy's Perspective: You don't always need to present the PCs with a situation for them to disassemble. The PCs in an old campaign once expressed a desire to infiltrate the castle of the local tyrant for the purposes of assassination. I told them not to bother planning the infiltration itself, and instead spent ten minutes describing what kind of day the tyrant's guard assigned to watch the sewer entrance was having --his wife had left him, he had medical problems, and so forth. Then I narrated the PCs bursting out of the sewer and killing him. It was remarked upon as at least one PC's favorite encounter of the campaign.

11. Drama - In Media Res: Books and movies often have events begin halfway into a scene. Things are already happening and it doesn't take much to figure out what happened beforehand. One can also apply this to roleplaying games. Starting the game in the middle of a fight is always fun. Or beginning them in a precarious situation, like in a room with a slowly lowering ceiling, ala George Lucas. Almost any dramatic situation can be enhanced by simply dictating that the PCs start in the middle of it. Don't overuse this, though, or the PCs will get tired of it.

12. Drama - Experiment With Structure: I once began a session with the last encounter, with the PCs bound to a giant stalagmite. They roleplayed being tied up. One of the PCs was quicker on his feet and just went with it, while another one was furious and didn't go with it at all, so the first player pretended that the second had amnesia. Then I said "four hours earlier" and had the PCs scoping out a building and kicking in doors. The PCs caught on that we were doing the session backwards, and when the second player mentioned above received a critical hit, he ad libbed that it gave him amnesia. They made sure to include salient points about what they were doing and why, so when we jumped back another four hours it formed a continuum, eventually getting to the PCs waking up that morning, then jumping back to the stalagmite scene to resolve it. This session ruled.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Campaign Design Best Practices (Part 2)

I have begun enumerating these. I can crack a hundred, easy. Let's see if it holds my attention for that long.

5. Mechanics - Dungeon Design: If you are using D&D 3.0 or 3.5, be sure to include at the potential for at least one incidence each of Fortitude, Reflex, and Willpower saving throws. Be sure to include at least one trap, one locked door, one secret passage, and one optional encounter. Try to have "conceptual" dungeons, like a dungeon with only one monster that can attack them at various points throughout the dungeon. I once had a dungeon in which a piece of the Rod of Seven Parts was used to keep an avatar of Yogsothoth (as statted in the 1e Deities and Demigods) incarcerated in a crypt. On their way into the dungeon the PCs had to contend with tentacles coming out of holes in the walls that were treated as though they were individual monsters, weird spatial distortion, and abrupt mind-control effects --all courtesy of Yogsothoth, the sole inhabitant of the dungeon, whom they could not confront until the end.

6. Style - Dungeon Design: Don't be bland about your dungeon designs. You want dramatic locations. You want "ah-ha" moments. You want interesting terrain and situations. Do things like design a dungeon based on a Frank Lloyd Wright house, or Hitler's Berlin bunker. Have things to fall off or into. Have rivers and ledges and cliffs. Fight in all of these places. I once based a dungeon off the design of Masada, in Israel, for example. This will let you concentrate on filling the dungeon rather than drawing floor plans.

7. Style - Characters: The more you make it about your campaign world, the less it is about your player's characters. I have found that there is a sliding scale between these two that cannot be bypassed in tabletop gaming with more than two players. With smaller groups there is time to emphasize both the personal and the general, but in larger groups this is not possible, and you have to make the choice. I have run campaigns in which I desperately tried to convey the special noir of the campaign world, and I have had more bland campaign worlds in which the players' ideas for their characters became the driving force behind the action. Both make for wonderful games, but one or the other may be more suited for your group.

8. Style - Character Background: In exchange for a little extra experience -particularly if a player missed a session or two and wants to catch up- you can give him the opportunity to bluebook. That is, to write a summary or excerpt from the character's journal, or otherwise indicate what he was doing during the session that he missed. Alternatively, the bluebook may delve into the character's past -- it can be anything from a travelogue of the time before the PCs met, to any other form of campaign literature. In a more modern setting, perhaps the character has written a book or recorded a CD, the player might then write a review of the work.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Campaign Design Best Practices (Part 1)

Production Value - Campaign Maps
The campaign world map should be given out to PCs as soon as possible, and they should have some kind of idea about each area on it. I would encourage you not to make the map on a macro scale, as you would rather have the map be just large enough to contain the PCs for the first ten sessions or so, rather than have multiple continents that the PCs will never visit.

Production Value - Dungeon Maps
I don't use minis or tokens except for if I feel like amping up the production value a bit. Making these takes quite a bit of work, so the other parts of the game will often suffer as a result. But if it's the boss of a stretch of dungeon that the PCs have been working on for the past three sessions, it might be nice if you prepared a nice big map of the area the fight will take place in, and print out some battle tokens. I use modified pictures of my players for their characters. Just take the pictures off facebook and edit them to taste.

Think From The Player's Perspective
There is no point in designing the royal family tree of a nation if the PCs will never need or want to know about it. The wrong sort of details can quickly become tedious. This is probably the cardinal sin that most DMs commit.

Game Balance Is For Players Not Monsters
If a monster is too hard or too easy, as the DM you can adjust the difficulty upwards or downwards. Sometimes it's just a matter of giving the PCs more time to plan or achieve surprise, sometimes you need to fudge the HP. Not to make things easy on them, but rather if you underestimated a creature's lethality or what have you. Similarly, you can make something stronger if the PCs have all gone up a level. Thus, unless you are a rookie DM, balance between the party and monsters will not usually be a problem. The real balance issues are between the PCs: if a dungeon favors one class or build over the other PCs' characters, or one PC has a clear power advantage over the others, then you need to adjust it. Because most PCs (not mine, usually) overreact to downward shifts in their power level or ham handed attempts to make the situations not favor their character's advantages, it may be better to simply improve the other PCs in a discreet way. One might do this by dropping more magic items oriented toward their class, or perhaps by giving the other peoples' classes specific improvements.