RPT#237 – 4 Tips For GMing A ‘Local’ Campaign
A Brief Word From Johnn
Campaign Planning Continues
I’m getting ever closer to starting up my new campaign. It’s a “local campaign” and the advice in this week’s issue stems from my recent preparations. It looks like we’ll be playing Tuesday or Wednesday nights, every other week, with the odd weekend marathon hopefully thrown in. Scheduled play time will be short, about 4 hours, but I think the tight time constraint will motivate everybody to play hard. Hopefully the first initiative roll will happen soon!
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By Johnn Four
A local campaign is my term for a campaign that mostly takes place within a small region. I used to call it a home base campaign, but then I realized there’s another type of home base game where the PCs set-up in an area that they return to between missions. This could be called a home base campaign too.
Therefore, to avoid confusion, a local campaign is one in which the PCs, adventure scopes, and plot lines mostly stay within an invisible border that you’ve drawn around a community. There are numerous advantages to a local campaign, and a few challenges to overcome as well. Hopefully, the tips below will help you decide if a local campaign suits you GMing and group style, and how to overcome a few of the issues this type of campaign entails.
- Reduce, Re-use, RecycleOne of the biggest benefits a local campaign offers is that it reduces planning, design, and preparation time because it gives you more opportunities to re-use and recycle existing game elements:
Unless the group goes on a murderous killing spree, most of the NPCs you craft before and during each session can be brought into play again and again. The PCs will have enemies, neighbours, friends, family, shopkeeps, lords, and contacts, in addition to knowing many other types of NPCs that fill their local community.
As you become more familiar with your cast of NPCs through re-use over time, you’ll find numerous opportunities to add them as backdrop detail and to incorporate them seamlessly into background events.
For example, as the PCs are journeying to the next game encounter, you might plunk in a backdrop scene of two well- known NPCs furiously haggling over an item. Whether the PCs interact or not, the background has more relevance, meaning, and entertainment value because the players are familiar with the NPCs. “Are those two at it again?!”
Enough can’t be said about the value of the NPCs you and your players have come to know intimately. Due to its enclosed nature, a local campaign can’t help but engender intimacy because of repeated exposure to its inhabitants.
Just as you can build a cast of NPCs that you roleplay and wield better as time goes by, so too can you build a cast of locations.
For example, standard locations, such as community areas, shops, and abodes of various NPCs, can be re-used many times. The town hall might hold a town meeting in one session and be an emergency shelter the next.
As the cast of locations get explored and visited repeatedly, their layouts, features, quirks, and other traits build up iteratively so that some locations can actually become NPCs of sorts.
Non-standard locations, such as lairs, ruins, and adventuring areas can be re-used after they’ve served their initial functions as plot points and encounter locales as well.
Local campaigns do not tolerate vacuums. Eventually, the PCs will explore every corner and point their lanterns into every shadow of the community. Once a location’s initial game purpose is served, there will be pressure to recycle it sooner or later. The players might have plans for the sites, the community might repurpose it, or you might plant a new threat or event.
Regardless of the motivation, a local campaign puts healthy pressure on a location to contribute to the game repeatedly, and your previous design and planning can be re-used and modified as much as you like.
Some events are unique, one-time affairs. Often, this is all you have time to plan for before your games due to real life pressures and commitments. In a local campaign though, as the clock and calendar revolve regularly with the PCs living in the same area, certain events can be re-used at regular intervals.
For example, festivals, daily prayers, holidays, NPC emotional states (i.e. Seasonal Affective Disorder), ceremonies, administrative tasks, the changing of the watch, and other events occur over and over, each with their own cycle. If the PCs are constantly travelling to different cultures and communities, you have to invent these things repeatedly, and consequently, they are often ignored or under-detailed.
However, as the PCs will be living in the same area with the same patterns over the long term, you can re-use and add detail to each recurring event in an iterative fashion. Soon, the New Year sacrifice evolves from a bunch of priests stabbing an ox, to a colourful ceremony with chanting, special garb, a build-up starting days or weeks before, politics, conflicts, and specific NPC behaviours before, during, and after the ceremony.
In addition, such events can eventually spawn new encounters and adventures on their own because of your familiarity with them and your knowledge of community consequences and reactions.
For example, after the third New Year ceremony happens in your game, you might begin to wonder where the ox comes from. Is it donated? Is there prestige, and hence, rivalry, for having one’s ox selected? Who performs the ceremony? Do community members jostle to be a participant? Does this jostling spawn plots and political subterfuge during the rest of the year?
NPCs, events, and locations form the primary ingredients with which you build each game session from. Local campaigns help you make these ingredients rich, interesting, and entertaining.
- Design With Re-use In MindOn the tail of the Reduce, Re-use, and Recycle tip comes this rule of thumb:
Design with re-use in mind.
If you were stuck in an elevator for an hour, who would you want to be stuck with, and why? Think about the close quarters, not being able to escape from those people, and what you’d do for the hour with them.
Once you’ve pondered this for awhile, think about it from a player’s perspective: if your character’s going to be stuck in a community for several years, who would you want them to be stuck with, and why?
After mulling this over, ask yourself: if the PCs are going to be adventuring in a community for several years, what NPCs, events, and locations would you want them to interact with over and over again?
Some general factors you might consider:
As noted in Tip #1, unless a nuke hits the community after each session, the game elements that you design will appear repeatedly over the lifetime of your campaign, so you want to make sure they’re going to be compatible with the PCs, community, and plot lines.
For example, if you place an evil mind flayer next door to the PCs, chances are the characters will seek to kill that monster at the earliest opportunity. Unless you have a plan that’ll keep the flayer around for awhile (thus designing with compatibility in mind), it’s toast and, as a game element, it has low re-usability due to its lack of compatibility.
What Happens After The Battle?
Think ahead a few moves to when the PCs have overcome the NPC or conflict. What happens to the event, NPC, or location at that point? What could the consequences be?
You don’t have to have a definite answer to this for each game element you design. Planning in detail that far in advance could make your game inflexible and you run the risk of railroading. However, imagine a few likely outcomes and estimate whether they represent low re-usability.
What is the mortality of the game element? Is the NPC doomed to die? Is the location doomed to be destroyed? Is the event a one-time only affair?
For sure, you are welcome to support death, destruction, and unique events in your local campaign. However, the more instances in which you can salvage a game element and bring it back, albeit modified and altered by its ordeals, then the more re-usable that element is and the more benefits, as outlined in Tip #1, you’ll receive.
- Perhaps the villain can be redeemed.
- Maybe the trap-filled dungeon can be used to safely lock away critters that can’t be killed (yet).
- Perchance the exotic discovery can be repeated by other NPCs and you can run the situation again, only better and more in-depth this time because you’ve had practice.
If asked who they’d like to be stuck with, the PCs might first be inclined to answer that they’d like to be trapped in a village with people whose pocketses are bursting with gold. However, most players would realize that that would make for a pretty boring game after awhile.
What players really want is conflict. They need a reason for their PCs to act. They crave action, excitement, and adversity to overcome. Therefore, when planning for re-use, be sure to leave room for conflict.
For example, even allies and friendly NPCs should provide a source of conflict once in awhile. The PCs are going to get to know these people well, and if things are always a peachy 100% with these folk, they’ll get boring. Perhaps the PCs’ employer decides to support one political candidate while the party has thrown their lot in with another. Maybe a PC’s best friend eats some mouldy bread and his a negative personality change for a day or two.
As time goes on, things change, especially power levels. NPCs can gain experience points or become more skilled. Skirmishes and battles might become wars. Adventuring locations could become deadlier with the arrival of new critters, an organizing element, or more treacherous conditions.
Think to the future and the potential power of the game element you’re designing. If there’s risk that its power could expand beyond the physical, design, or “game” borders you’ve drawn for the community, then re-use is limited.
This isn’t always a bad thing, but do keep it in mind. If all the villains grow up and move to the big city, who will be left for the PCs to pick on? 😉
Make it a goal to aim for maximum re-usability for any game elements you design for a local campaign. Think to the future. When any immediate conflicts end, is there a good chance that the element will survive and return another day? When power levels increase, will the element outgrow the community and either be forced to leave or force you to drastically change the scope?
- Think LocalThis tip overlaps the information about Scope in Tip #2. During my recent local campaign preparation, I found I was constantly falling into the same trap of scope-creep, so I made “think local” my mantra to keep my designs in check.
During my planning, I’d get ideas about adding to the villains, plots, locations, items, and other game elements I was designing. I’d expand the history, increase the goals and capabilities of a foe, add another dungeon level, and so on. Then I’d get another idea and add more. Then I’d do it again.
I found that soon I’d have a Frankenstein of epic proportions on my hands where the gods were involved in a massive struggle over powerful magic items buried 50 levels deep in the PCs’ back yard.
Let’s face it, a local campaign is a different beast. It requires small scale conflicts and clever thinking to keep plots confined within the borders you’ve outlined. You don’t want to threaten to destroy the world in every story told within the community. You don’t want to bring in a stream of new elements every encounter or every session so that the community feels like a zoo.
These restrictions end up being a blessing and a curse. They’re a curse because it’s fun and exciting thinking about epic plots and large-scope game elements. They’re a blessing because you have a wonderful opportunity to go “deep” in your storytelling versus the “wide and shallow” syndrome that bigger scope, world-trek type campaigns can suffer from. Reduce, re-use, and recycle lets you layer details and relationships onto game elements through repeat exposure.
When the scope, or footprint, of a game element exceeds the boundaries you’ve created, then you’ll be forced to design more things that fall outside of the community, and you lose the benefits that focus and repetition provide.
For example, I caught myself designing a plot thread that had monsters enter the region as the vanguard of an off- world invasion force. Everything was going great in my evil schemes until I realized that the PCs’ community would be squashed to bits when/if the monstrous army arrived. In fact, if the monster army did deploy successfully, the PCs’ whole world would be at risk.
This is a legitimate and fun-filled plot thread, but it’s outside of the scope of my local community and its future. I don’t want a world-spanning plot. I want the PCs to rescue the cat stuck in the treant, to get involved in the petty politics of the local lord, to help neighbours in need, to clear the lairs of local critters, to fend off big-city thugs who try to move in and lean on the locals, and so on.
So, as you’re designing, write on a Post-It and paste it to your screen: Think Local.
- Tools Of The TradeIf one needs to keep the scope limited in a local campaign then, what are your storytelling options? Some GMs have a knack for creating great stories from minor events and small scope game elements. Other GMs, such as myself, often rely on big scope elements to keep things exciting and interesting.
For example, I often have the PCs journeying far and wide to reach the next cool dungeon or exploration location. However, my local campaign’s borders are only about 10 miles by 15 miles in area. I often create powerful villains in play, but how many villains can feasibly fit within a village, city borough, or space ship? I often create histories that involve ancient races or magics, but how many things in a village can you do this with? I tend to have politics and relationships start with an emperor or the gods and trickle down to the PCs’ current level, but this trend gets stale fast as the PCs uncover yet another scheme stemming from the Throne.
What then, are some tools we can use for exciting, local campaign play adventure?
As in most campaigns, NPCs are the lifeblood of PC roleplaying and interaction. You’ll lose players fast if every encounter is a wandering pit trap. 🙂
Examples of interesting, local scope NPCs:
- Local villains (i.e. nasty neighbours, scheming council members, greedy merchants)
- NPCs with petty plots (i.e. feuding families, competing merchants, rival priests)
- NPCs in the nascent stages of grand plots (i.e. baby villains, ambitious but inexperienced politicians, guardsmen with plans to become King some day–just watch for re-usability and scope creep)
Turn The Tables
What happens if the bad guys win? Say the bad guys win the battle, but not necessarily the war against the PCs and those whom the PCs represent. Alternatively, say the bad guys are too powerful to beat. Why do the PCs always have to be perfectly matched, overpowering, or possible winners of every encounter?
Note that this doesn’t have to mean total party kill either. It means the foes have established a solid defense, and the player characters must either make it a goal to improve and then return, or they have to think hard, pool their resources, and plan well.
How cool would it be to have the group striving for several sessions to build up an advantage over a despised foe and then return, demanding a rematch. How dramatic. How climactic!
In standard campaigns, when the foes win, it can throw a wrench into a GM’s plans. In a local campaign, this is a tremendous opportunity. It means you can re-use the bad guys and their locations. They might become recurring villains, a background menace, or seeds for future spin-off adventures.
For example, in my upcoming campaign the PCs will discover an abandoned mine filled with critters. If the PCs clear the place out, then they’ve won and the community is safe once again. But, if the critters repulse the PCs, perhaps through superior firepower or tactics, then they’ll fortify and entrench so that they’re even harder to tackle next time. In this case, it’s likely they’re not going away any time soon, and I can turn the mines into a community and a hex on the map to watch out for. I can envision re-using such a community in many ways over the course of the campaign.
Let the players and their characters invest in the community. Investment = interest. Give the PCs property, titles, responsibilities, dependents, leadership, and any non-mobile, non-transferable benefits you can think of as rewards for successful game play.
Let the players create game elements for you–and be sure to include them in future sessions. Encourage the players to map out their lodgings, flesh out their relationship trees, write histories, and contribute to the campaign’s design.
Details almost always spawn ideas. The more details that you can invent or receive from the players, the more material you’ll have to work with when planning local scope plots and encounters.
Local Wonders & Shadowy Areas
The unknown is a powerful, exciting element in any campaign. A challenge with local area campaigns is that it’s much easier for the PCs to eventually look under every rock, check into every corner, and catalogue every hex of the campaign area. If the wonder disappears, so too does player interest.
Fortunately, you can inject the unknown into a local area on an ongoing basis to rejuvenate the sense of wonder and mystery:
- Myths and legends. Create stories of myths and legends that locals tell and re-tell. Infuse the stories with elements that add wonder and shadowy areas to formerly “boring” campaign areas.
- Inexplicable elements
- Loose threads (“No one ever knew what happened to the sword after that battle…”)
- The threat of a return
- Includes a bit of prophecy
- Casts doubt on normalcy (“The quarry is now haunted…”)
- Local wonders. Similar to the Seven Wonders of the World, create various local wonders and infuse local myths and legends with their presence.
- A previously explored area changes in a weird way. The PCs now have an opportunity to return and explore anew. A great trick to do this is to pick a monster or NPC’s special ability and design its effects and consequences on a place, then just describe what locals sense and speculate about the situation.For example, if a monster decides to make a part of the forest its new territory, and one if one of its special powers is continual darkness, then you can have the locals whispering about how the favourite fishing hole is now a place of terror, where “the light cannot pierce the evil,” and strange sounds drive everyone away in fear.
- NPC secrets. This is effective especially if the secrets are hooks or integral parts of plot elements.
- Magic. Magic items and spells, and their use by NPCs and foes, leave great bread crumbs for the PCs to pick up and puzzle over. For example, a local mage with teleport might live in a place that is completely inaccessible by means other than teleport. The PCs will get very curious about the location and contents of the NPC’s home. “No one knows where he lives. He owns no property, he is never seen entering or leaving the village, and he is not staying with anyone in the community. He’s just ‘around’ and is often met with a different book in his hands each time…”
Traditional Conflicts Brought To Individual Levels
Certain conflicts supply great fodder for roleplaying and adventure. The trick when running a local campaign is to put a local face to these conflicts.
- Religion versus State. Instead of a plot thread being The Church against The King, make it the local priest versus the local lord.
- Wealth and resource management. Scarcity is a fact of life. There’s never enough to go around, so NPCs will want to compete for it.First, determine what sources of wealth are present in your campaign.
- Farming and herding produce
- Business revenues
- Competitions and contests
Second, decide who has control and benefits from the sources of wealth.
Finally, decide which NPCs want more wealth, who they’ll target or compete against, and what they do to get the wealth.
- A merchant opens a competing business
- Two farmers feud over land borders
- Neighbours vie for mayoral favour
- County fair contests, rivalries, and plots
- A younger son plots against his brother for right of inheritance
- Prestige and reputation. Community members will compete and fret over public image and influence, regardless of whether the public actually cares or not.
- Two parties are announced for the same night. Who will attend one over the other?
- Rival clubs compete for membership or prestige
- Neighbours compete for most notable home
Local campaigns are challenged by scope creep, short-term planning, and a loss of mystery. These challenges can be overcome though, through longer-term thinking during game element design, ongoing renewal of wonder and recreation of the unknown, and keeping conflicts down to individual, NPC levels.
As always, comments and thoughts on tips and topics are welcome and appreciated!
4 years, 200 issues, 2200+ tips, all sorted for you by Issue#, Tip Topic, Type Of Tip, and more. For information, screen shots, and ordering info click here: https://www.roleplayingtips.com/encyc/
I’m a long time reader, and yet this is my first post. I’ve been playing for some 14 years now. And believe me, I know burnout!
I faced this burnout issue last couple of months back, but it really started earlier. Now, I might be a special case in this one as my preferences have been different from the crowd’s, so let me tell you a bit about the past.
I started playing with only one player and that is an addictive thing. My player and I were able to discuss and go further in the campaign world than in any multiplayer campaign I’ve been in.
This is logical, considering that with one player every moment of the game is about him. The disbelief is easily suspended as the game is carried by both the player (who is not tied in the way that he would be were there more players) and the gamemaster (who can feed on the ideas given by the player more than in a crowd). And, as there is the freedom of only one PC, no issues about interparty relationships occur. Simply put: it’s the best gaming ever. And that is the ‘golden childhood memory’ I go back to. I started out with fairly realistic rule systems too.
My problems started as I was asked to run a game with D20. I soon got nice ideas and worked long and hard to get my bearings right in Fearun. The game started and everybody enjoyed.
Now, successful campaigns have been those where the amount of work and preparation has been the minimum. When I noted I was writing a 40 page document about campaign NPCs, I started to feel the tingling sensation of burnout. It started to feel like work. I usually start and end the campaign pretty much with nothing but scrap paper, and I usually do not write campaign documents or prepare maps or anything.
I noted that when I game mastered totally without rules it helped. I noted when I went back to the earlier rule systems and worlds it helped twice as much. And the final thing I noted was when I started playing with just one player.
For burnout, one-player games are great. They take the load off. So much less work is needed for just one character as it is easier to understand his agenda and motives and to guide the character into more fruitful directions. And the drama is ever so great! It takes great NPCs, but what game doesn’t? Puts the fun back.
Of course, this is not for everyone. But if you are all burnt by game mastering and if you still want to GM, you are probably looking for a solution. Try this one. Worked for me twice over.
Maybe the bigger thing is to go back to the things you’ve liked. For me it’s Glorantha with RQ or Harn. And only one player.
I noticed in issue #138 that somebody wanted a historical weather information source. They might want to look at:
If you are like me, you are a poor college student trying to run a game on a budget. You don’t have money for miniatures for every NPC and monster in every encounter. You don’t have any pocket change to use as minis since you are constantly feeding the soda machine. And those little glass beads you used when you played Magic are always getting lost in the bottom of your couch. Not to mention the (players’) agony when you confuse which of your six-sided die represents the kobold with a 10′ pole and which represents a fire-breathing dragon.
Not to worry though, with some uncorrugated cardboard (that stuff cereal boxes are made of works fine), a few dowels, some glue, and those beads with holes in them that you made bracelets from for your high school sweetheart, you can create miniatures you can reuse and still not confuse.
Cut a dowel about as long as needed to fit 3-6 of those little beads on it. Glue one end of the dowel upright on a 1″ square piece of cardboard. Voila! Stack whatever combos of beads you want on the dowel to designate different combatants.
Go to Cumberland Games and try the Sparks Free-for-all set out. Sparks are black and white minis that are a font for your word processing program. You change the height of the type to size them, type them out, and print them. Need a hundred orcs? Just print out orcs and there you go! You still need to color them, either with markers or a paint program, but I have found them invaluable in my games!
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