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The art of gamemastering.

The art of gamemastering: chapter 1 - How and where to start a campaign.

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Chapter 1: How and where to start?

When you're about to start a campaign for a game, be it D&D, Cyberpunk, Dark Suns, Kult or Mage: The Ascension you have to decide and come up with a few things.

You need:

- To decide the scale of your campaign

- To decide the campaign's powerlevel

- To create a campaign world

- To come up with a campaign concept

- To gather players and their characters

First off, decide what the scope is going to be of the campaign you're going to run. The best thing to see this as is in terms of movies and television shows. Is it a small single adventure campaign that only lasts a few sessions (like a single movie)? Is it a larger campaign with a central story arc that spans several adventures (like a single season of a television show)? or are you going to go all out for the huge epic story arc with many different adventures and progression over time as the characters learn and grow and finally save the world (like a multi season television show)? What you decide will help you when you have to decide things like power level and starting characters. Some games may be ideally suited for one type of campaign where others are more suited for whatever you want.

When you decide to run a single adventure campaign it may be wise to have the player characters start a little more advanced than total newbs. Short campaigns are ideal for heavy and intense roleplaying type games where the players can go all out and give it their all, because most of the time, at the end of the campaign they'll either be dead (heroically or tragically) or have 'ended' the game. If the game world is more open to a continuation of the campaign and your end allows for it you can always expand the campaign into a larger scale. However, all of the works for a small campaign you have to do beforehand as you'll have little time to prepare and come up with stuff once this small adventure is on the way. Note that this kind of campaign isn't for everyone. Different players have different times to get comfortable and 'into' their character and this kind of campaign does not allow for any time before it gets intense.

Larger campaigns are the easiest to build and maintain. They require some work but not all before you can start. The characters can start fresh and wet behind the ears and can enjoy the 'getting to know the setting' before things get serious. You can build relationships between pc's and npc's and get the players more easily invested in their characters. They will also get to explore more of the world. All in all this is about the standard of most campaign sizes as short one-off adventures are too short for most and the larger epic campaigns take a LOT of time to wrap up, which is dependent on player dedication and real life not getting in the way of your play time.

The epic campaign is the mother of all stories. You get the characters starting out as newbs and working, living, growing their way through the twisted paths of your imaginations until they reach the apotheosis of the campaign which would be truly epic in scale. Most of the time this means saving the world. Sometimes destroying it, depending on which game you're planning to run. This kind of campaign requires dedication from your players and from you as it is easy to give up half way or to let the campaign die out because of real life interference. It also asks a lot of work from you as the gamemaster but you have a lot of time to spread this out over. Once this kind of campaign is over, it'll be talked about for many years. Your friends will reference their characters and your npc's as they discuss other non-related things and it will give you a sense of satisfaction that isn't easily rivalled. Depending on how often and how long your sessions are this kind of campaign can take years to play out. Because of this, most of these campaigns never finish, dying from real life or player abandonment.

Then you need to decide what the campaign's power level is going to be. In a short campaign it is often wise to let the pc's start a little advanced because they won't be able to get much xp in the course of the short campaign, which can make the campaign a little underwhelming. The heroes in movies are always cool dudes that can actually do several things well aren't they? The pc's should be too. If you go for the standard sized campaign you can take it slower and have the pc's start out at the bottom. Decide for yourself what the approximate power level is you want the pc's to end on and work from there. In an epic campaign there is only one power level. Why? Because if you start and epic campaign with already advanced pc's or even epic ones, then they'll have saved the world thirteen times before the campaign is through and that loses its glamour quick. In an epic campaign you go all the way, with beginning characters that end at the edge of playability (lvl 20 or Archmages or so experienced on cyberware and experienced they're impossible to tackle). Also, once they reach this level they should have resolved or have gotten the most out of any internal conflict or problems the character faced, and lets face it, playing a character without flaws is no where as fun as playing a veritable emotional train wreck (though this is of course player preference).

Now you need a campaign concept. Is your campaign the story of a dozen noble houses fighting for supremacy while an ancient evil re-emerges into the world? Have the forces of stability and law gone too far and does the world need some desperate changes? Have the dragons and gods of old all but killed each other, leaving excess divine energy to coalesce into personifications of abstract ideas like pain, death and Justice which are killing the world because of their narrow field of vision? Is it the story of five prison guards that helped send a 18th century prison into hell and after being reincarnated after their stay in inferno must struggle to prevent the same thing from happening all over again?

This is the moment to get creative. All you need is a single sentence but it can be harder than it seems. I can't help you with this, all I can advise is to read and watch movies. Do anything that inspires you. Oh and here's a helpful hint: you're free to play whatever you want and no one is going to send you a cease and desist notice when you copy something from someone else. Hell, what else are modern fantasy writers doing when they write the n'th book about elves and dwarves? So steal, copy and borrow like there is no tomorrow. You see something you like? Use it. The objective here is to have fun, not to win any originality prizes (Besides, if you desperately strive to be original you get stuff like the Battlestar Galactica remakeÖ 'nuff said.).

This is also a good time to create the 'bad guy' of your campaign. Or at least the concept of him. Is he a freedom fighter become vengeance incarnate? Is it a malevolent ring, cut from the hand of the dark lord that strives to corrupt the pc's as they try to destroy it? Is it an evil mage bent on bringing hell to earth to rescue his lost love from the demons there, no matter what the consequences? Just a helpful little tip here, no one wants to destroy the world. Because if they do, they'd be killing themselves. So if your villain's ultimate goal is world destruction then you need to think up a reason why. Perhaps he's a coward and wishes to die but doesn't want to die alone? Perhaps he'll destroy the world because he thinks it is dying and by euthanizing it will make way for a better, new one? Not even the most chaotic evil villains are going to just destroy the world. The Joker doesn't want the world destroyed, he wants to watch it burn and laugh while it does so.

Now you need to create the campaign world. In most games this has been, for a large part done for you as the setting is described in the rule- and various splatbooks. If you go for a completely homebrewed setting then you got some work to do. But even when using existing settings you have to figure out a starting point to your campaign. Some town or city or ship or whatever. You have to create some of the notable locations there. Now this doesn't have to be extensive, as the more accurate description can be improvised, just make sure you have a general picture in your mind for the place you are going to play. For example: when starting in a homebrewed setting of mine I decided to make the campaign world a single city, built on a mountain and surrounded with mists that were constantly shifting and opening gateways into other worlds. The lord of this city, named Misthaven (a name I stole), would be a lich high up in his palace which no one had seen or heard from in centuries. So the de facto rule of the city was done by the heads of the various guilds. The food and supplies the great city needed would be traded or stolen from other lands through the mists for which a division of mages named Mistwalkers were responsible. The free companies, mercenary bands, were outside of the city's strict laws and are constantly contracted for every little thing and for forays into the plane-shifting mists. I decided that the pc's would be starting members of the White Star free company (a name I stole) and I thought up the name of a nearby tavern (the cuddly chicken, a tavern specialized in cockfighting) and the appearance of the city's mausoleum/mortuary (for which I borrowed heavily from Planescape: Torment). Et voila, I had my campaign world ready to go. Now for a longer or epic campaign this would be enough for now, although there are some blind spots. For a short campaign additional questions should be answered and more work would have to be done so that I would have all sites my adventure would go prepared (at least superficially) and all questions (for example: are all races equal, are there winners in the power struggle between the guilds) answered that would be pertinent to the campaign.

Now you have all that you can gather players and aid them in making characters. In games with pre-set settings this is pretty straight forward. You might give the players some directions such as: be from the Washington DC area if you would play there or even "all characters must never have known, through one way or another, their father". That last one most often used to create either a common bond between pc's or a common ally/enemy. I know gamemasters that have games with 8 or even 9 players. Personally I place my maximum at 6. More than that and you loose the opportunity for individual roleplaying and in character development. There are so many characters you won't be able to remember who has what quirks in his background and if you use those to hang an adventure on you run the risk of the other players not caring enough about it because it's just one of many. Which is a shame because plot hooks and adventures based on characters' backstories are the most rewarding there are. Here also you can work to get the pc's already ingrained in your campaign. Perhaps his father was killed by the mayor villain in his search for the secret of steel? Perhaps a traumatic event in the character's past is somehow linked to the events that will unfold during the campaign? Such revelations make great moments and opportunities for some excellent roleplaying.

When you have all these things you're ready to start playing.
See you around for chapter two.