The Good, the Bad, and the... Weird
A Guide to Creating an Original Masterpiece of a Campaign
So before I start this, I’m hyped to announce a new addition to the campaigns. Possibly the greatest campaign I’ve ever come up with, this new addition will be available by January 12th and should be a remarkable experience for anyone willing to push the boundaries of their role playing experience a little bit. It took a long time for me to get the ball rolling on these, since I’ve been a little starved of software to help me make maps readable and accurate for the average dungeon master. After a long time searching and some programming of my own, I’m happy to announce the first professional quality campaign of PersonalDM. With that said, let’s dive into our next topic of campaign creation discussion- originality and themes.
Much like a novel, an RPG campaign must contain certain key elements to keep players interested and the story making sense. We’ve all learned about these elements early in our lives, perhaps in elementary school (depending on what corner of the world you’re from), elements such as setting, plot, characters, conflict… it always varies depending on the genre or type of literature we’re talking about. Now you must be asking me what I’m getting at? Of course your campaign has characters and setting, conflict is like 99% of most RPG combat systems. However, some aren’t focused on nearly as much as they should be.
Oh yes, I’m talking about elements like theme and tone.
Let’s start from the beginning.
Setting: The dungeon (usually), or whatever world your campaign takes place in.
Characters: The players and NPC’s that inhabit the world.
Conflict: Battle! Or… whatever action takes center stage in your campaign.
Now, tone is a less obvious but fairly easy element to incorporate in your campaign. Tone is the noticeable difference between a horror themed campaign and a light-hearted heist themed campaign.
What words do you use to describe the non-player characters?
A horror themed campaign might use more disgusting or horrendous sounding language, whereas a mild fantasy campaign uses words of grandeur and wonder.
What items, weapons, monsters and people inhabit the world around you?
A lighthearted campaign might have colorful wands, dragons with riddles and plenty of different races to encounter. A darker toned campaign would be full of creatures like the aboleth, or NPC’s that are constantly trying to deceive your players and hide secrets.
*How can names change the tone? *
Names like Ethellium Dynostraffus or The Thlguk are good names for a horror or suspense themed campaigns, where names like Dorknop the Goblin and Rinkly Dink the Halfling Rogue are good lighthearted names for mid to high fantasy setting campaigns.
Basically, tone is an overarching element of a campaign that you use even when you’re not conscious of it. Being more conscious of it while you run your campaign can be the difference between a thrilling encounter and something meant to be more fun and silly.
Now let’s get to the meat and potatoes of this post.
Themes practically changed my life when I figured out how to incorporate them into RPG campaigns. Themes, while always present, can give clear motivation to game masters when trying to come up with an original quest or story line that doesn’t seem like the same “go to the dungeon and slay the troll” quest, rehashed time and time again. Themes are the creative lifeblood not of what the campaign is, but what the campaign strives to be.
Themes are the general ideas and philosophical conundrums present in your campaign that are placed upon your players. Things like friendship, courage, hatred, revenge, time, even chance, can be very valid and compelling themes in a campaign. When trying to come up with a creative campaign idea, think of the theme that you’d like to “test” on your players per say, and think of a way to put that theme into action. Let’s say you’re running a campaign based on the theme of “friendship,” you should put a lot of encounters, monsters, NPC’s and events in this campaign that constantly strain the ideals you consider important to friendship. Deceitful NPC’s constantly straining the players’ trust, puzzles that requires interaction between all players, even monsters that require teamwork or dissolve the entire concept of what “teamwork” is!
Themes can revolutionize the way a campaign works and can potentially speed up the creative process that taxes many GM’s who are reading this now.
Another example, seen in my Lords of Castlemire campaign, is the basic theme of good and evil. From the beginning of the campaign, Castlemire seems almost like an ocean-side paradise where the players have friends, access to many amenities and restaurants, as well as a fully decked out shopping mall! Though, as they explore the lands surrounding Castlemire and come to understand their place in time (time was another theme present in that campaign), the resort they had been raised in seemed to be more of a purgatory than a paradise. Soon, very difficult decisions became apparent to my players once they’d come to this realization. Do they topple the whole Castlemire system while trying to help their new friends who are oppressed in this realm? Do they try and just defeat their enemies to reach the end of the campaign? Do they dare keep going, trying to uncover the tragic history of how Castlemire came to be and what happened the oceanic world around it? Are these characters good or evil and what does that even mean?
These decisions are what bring your campaigns to life. You can try one hundred times to make a dungeon “different” or “unique” by adding a different type of monster each time or a new trap gauntlet, but they’ll never feel unique unless the themes change. Challenge your players to feel things, to think about things, and to try and understand things. Why do you put background and information in your campaign? Just so your players can read this old text or see an old painting and go “huh, interesting. Anyways, where are the goblins!?”
You’ll know you’ve done well when you’re playing a campaign and the players are constantly trying to ask questions to characters, rereading the riddling lore you’ve given them, and are looking in every nook and cranny for answers to questions they’ve possessed the entire time.