I developed this system for myself back in 2011 during my Marrakesh Arabian-style 4e campaign and have always meant to develop and publish it for popular use. Modeled off of the plot outline books targeted for writers, it uses a formula to develop a basic campaign skeleton but shouldn’t appear formulaic after it’s been fully fleshed out. I’ve dubbed it the “Campaign World Tree” because the steps resemble a tree, but also because I think the mythological connotations are apt for a role-playing game.
Here it is for the first time in a slightly abridged form. I hope to upload a .doc worksheet soon in case anyone wants to use the process to brainstorm for their own campaign.
Every campaign has to start somewhere, and for me, the “roots” consist of the setting and system I’m going to use. I haven’t designed my own system before, but if I were going to it would happen in this step and be woven together with worldbuilding, since the mechanics should reflect the setting and game you want to play. I have discussed how I do preliminary worldbuilding in this post, but to summarize I look at the forces that created and shaped the world–the gods–and extrapolate lesser supernatural beings, heroes, tribes, kingdoms, and their conflicts from there.
If you’re using an established setting like Forgotten Realms or Rokugan, there is still a lot of creative work you can do if you’re departing from the established histories, basing your campaign in the future, or setting it during a less-documented era. In my L5R campaigns, my default timeline is the current real life year -1,000, so that I can set my stories in the canon-neutral eleventh century. This way, I can maintain the bulk of the setting history without having to worry about the (over-tumultuous) events of the CCG. Because I’ve been using this system for over a year or so now, I can include the events that have occurred in my games in my new history/timeline.
Like the campaign-management book Odyssey suggests, I would bring your players on board before finalizing any decisions, including system, setting, and basic premise. If you’re introducing them into a homebrew world you’ll need to give them enough information that they can make characters that sit well with the universe, or change your universe to suit.
As fun as it can be as a GM to write up your setting and lay it out in lavish detail (complete with gorgeous art), having your players read through a campaign bible/encyclopedia is probably too much to ask. Instead, sit down with your players and give them only the TL;DR highlights they need to know about the world in order to suss out a character, and let the conversation proceed organically with a back and forth of questions and answers until they have a refined concept and you know how to integrate that into the premise.
Although some GMs I know do the bare bones version of this step (i.e. “Hey guys, let’s play Star Wars: Edge of the Empire”) and base the campaign entirely off of the characters pitched by the players, this process requires some familiarity and chemistry between the group members.
In Ryan’s Saturday L5R campaign, we sat down for the first session with players that had never met before and essentially pitched them just that (“So, L5R: what campaign and characters do you want to play?”). Suffice it to say, we hit the sandbox-paralysis syndrome pretty much immediately and people were flailing around trying to deal with all the freedom they were given. Ultimately, Ryan had to toss out a basic premise in order to get everyone comfortable and a focus for their concepts, and we were able to build from there.
The next step of the process is the meat of the tree, or “trunk”: you’ll determine how the PCs relate to the histories/world (the roots) and how they connect (the branches) to the NPCs and factions around them (the leaves and boughs). This is where a PC background sheet will come in handy
so that you can make the players do the work for you so that you know what kinds of stories they want to tell. The Journeyman GM has the Quick & Easy Character Background PDF, and here is the Character Creation worksheet I adapted from Gamemastering’s Nine Step process.
As a Game Master, it’s your job to translate those backstories into adventure hooks, allies, and adversaries. The players’ class composition will tell you whether they want to focus on fighting, talking, or plying their skills, or some combination of the three. Their racial makeup may help you determine where to start the story and how the party relates to their world. The rights/wrongs and virtues/vices pairings will show you how to challenge the characters and what they’re willing to fight for. Friends and foes may come to bear directly or indirectly on the campaign, and each of those NPCs potentially have their own web of connections to dozens more. And finally, the player and character goals, whether they are short-, medium-, or long-term, show the kinds of narrative and mechanical rewards you can give them. Now you need only ask, how can I make it hard on them to achieve what they want?
This brings us to the conflict, the “bark” if you will, that surrounds the “trunk” that is the party. Consider the various kinds of conflicts possible: man vs. self, man vs. man, man vs. nature, and man vs. god. The first two can key off of the vices and enemies the players gave to you, while the second two extend even further down into the “roots”, the worldbuilding elements you set forth in your setting. Once you’ve decided on one or more conflicts, you can begin to sketch out an inciting element and first twist, from which you can begin to write your adventure. I would hold off on planning too far ahead at this stage, unless you’re the GM that’s got tons of time to spare and it’s no big deal if you never get to use all of your material. I don’t know about you, but I don’t know anyone whose free time isn’t valuable and/or scarce.
Now that you have the adventure in mind you can begin to think of the various actors that are setting the conflict in motion or are being affected by said conflict, which represent the “leaves.” I like to assemble at least three factions to which I can assign my NPCs–that way I have more than just a simple choice of one over the other, “good” vs. “bad,” “in-group” vs. “out-group.” With three, you can have interesting alliances or enmities that wax and wane depending on the needs of the story. Perhaps group A and B are willing to work together to achieve goal X, but once they’ve done that B shifts allegiances to C. And if all the factions hate each other, the PCs will have an even more interesting time interacting with each of them.
In my Marrakesh example, I had three main factions competing in the city: the Thieves’ Guild, who said they had the city’s best interests at heart; the Nobility, who were the rightful rulers of the city but were becoming increasingly corrupt; and the Narbonnais, the foreigners who had wrested de facto control for themselves thanks to their military might. The players had to decide which to throw in with at any given time as the city’s social order began collapsing around them. In both times I ran the Marrakesh setting, at least one PC had Narbonnais parentage, making for interesting role-playing opportunities when the party inevitably decided to fight against the foreign occupiers.
Once you have your factions in mind, you can again apply the “rule of three” to create a broad canvas of NPCs. I create a top level (bosses and nemeses), a mid-level (henchmen and rivals), and a low level (mooks and minions) tier of power in each, and then make three distinct characters for each tier. At the top of the thieves’ guild was the Guild Master and “Prince of Merchants” himself, his sorcerous consort, and the lost royal heir Layla. In the middle tier was the agent Rashal, the fence Qilababa, and turncoat Ghislain. Below that were more generic NPCs that the party didn’t interact with more than once, but who served as the first link into inner structure of the Guild. Rinse and repeat this process for the other two factions, being sure to integrate the NPCs from the characters’ backgrounds where appropriate.
Follow the “rule of three” a third time and you can spend three sentences describing the desires, weaknesses, strengths, or character traits that define each NPC. I would always encourage you to consider the NPCs’ desires, since the driving action of the campaign will spring from those whose desires conflict with the PCs’. These are called the antagonists, and without them, a story is rather boring, whether you’re reading a book or playing a video game or role-playing a character.
By now, you have some serious sets of notes and can begin to go crazy–drawing up even more elaborate character maps of connections, rivalries and love interests that weave within and across faction lines. This is the part where investing some time into a campaign wiki can really help your players keep the cast of characters straight. The one for my second Marrakesh game is still hosted on Obsidian Portal if you’re curious.
The last stage in the process is coming up with some rough ideas for how the PCs will make contact with the various factions and potentially escalate up the ladder–what I tend to think of as the “branches,” which connect the “trunk” to the “leaves.” Each one of these connections is conceivably an encounter, whether it is a down-and-dirty combat, a social negotiation, or a skillful infiltration. The term “branch” also serves to remind the GM that the characters’ actions can lead them in unexpected directions that branch off from the intended path. So these quest or encounter ideas are always fluid and only “dotted lines” until the PCs actually tackle them. This is the stage where you’ll be handling session prep, which will be covered in much better detail tomorrow.
“Campaign World Tree” might be a fancy name for a simple system that you already do, but it helps me to visualize the process and–more importantly–remember that everything in the campaign should be connected somehow. The world and the histories should give rise to the types of heroes played, who in turn come into contact with the other inhabitants of the world and their schemes.
How do you approach campaign planning? Link your answers in the comments below! You can find the rest of the 30 Days of Gamemastering Challenge prompts here. And stay tuned for tomorrow’s post on prepping for sessions. Thanks again for reading!