Today I’m going to go over the basic format of creating an ongoing campaign for novice GMs. This is in the same vein as converting material into adventures for the Cypher System – if you’re reasonably experienced as a GM, you won’t need this.
There’s one key decision for this before anything else, once you’ve decided you’re ready to run an ongoing tabletop campaign. Are you going to run an episodic campaign, or will it be continuous? This will inform most of the rest of what you do.
Episodic campaigns have each session self-contained; there may be an overall story arc, but sessions don’t have to pick up where the previous one left off. Think of it like many TV shows – things are sufficiently tied up at the end of each episode that it can be considered resolved, even if the occasional thread is left loose. The loose threads often form the overall plot of the show, slowly building links between episodes to give them a connected feeling despite each episode being functionally stand-alone.
Continuous campaigns, on the other hand, almost always pick up where the last session stopped. If you end one session in the mansion of the Vizier of Dreams, you’ll start the next session off there unless you have a good reason to do otherwise. Many plot threads will be left loose, slowly spinning together to form a plot that gets taken care of over the course of the entire game. This model often uses recurring NPCs and opponents, much more heavily than episodic campaigns will.
Once that’s settled, you need your overall plot; who is the final nemesis, and what is their goal? You can work backwards from this to find out how they intersect with the PCs in the first place. As a novice GM, I recommend that you only have one major opponents and their minions; plots involving multiple factions at odds with one another can come when you and your group have more experience.
Episodic games will tend to feature a fair number of things directly involving interference by the nemesis and their minions; each session should give the players a chance to foil their latest plot or effort to cause trouble. The success or failure at foiling these schemes will then suggest what the villain does next. Continuous campaigns, on the other hand, will tend to have layers of villains to work through; a gang of goblins at the beginning who report to a shadowy figure that turns out to be a contractor for someone higher up in the villain’s chain, until eventually they learn who their true nemesis is and can take the fight to them.
Be sure to listen to your players when they talk about what they had fun with and what was boring; you can bias your game, regardless of style, to take this into account. As a novice GM, you’ll probably want to lean toward the episodic style; not only does it mean you can make each adventure as you go without having to worry too much about continuity between them, you can also avoid awkward questions about getting from Point A to Point B; the group is simply where they need to be when they need to be there. Literally everything happens at the speed of plot in these games, and you don’t need to take time into account unless you want to do so for a given adventure.
Either way, always be ready to keep pushing the overall plot forward; players will eventually want to go deal with their nemesis, and you should be ready for it when they do. If the players successfully stop the nemesis from gathering power and gain it for themselves, let them decide when to go pick a fight; if they fail at some of these, let them decide to go make a desperate strike against their enemy. The only rule is to make sure that everyone – including yourself – is having fun. That includes not letting a campaign go on for too long; a campaign kept alive past its proper end begins to fall flat and grow stale.
Lastly – and most importantly – make sure this campaign is something you can enjoy working on for a good while; all too common are the games where the GM’s enthusiasm burns out fairly quickly as they discover that their idea doesn’t play out in practice like they thought it would. No plan – or plot – survives contact with the players. Be ready to be flexible and have the players decide to do things completely differently than you expected.
I’ll be back before too long to talk about the art of crafting adventures, but that might not be this coming week; the usual posting will be interrupted by a trip to see the sequoia forest with my wife.
See you next time!