Let's suppose that everything you've done as a participant in your chosen role-playing game can be shelved. For whatever reason, none of the players you have now or have ever had will ever play in your game again, and yet you have four utterly untried players waiting to play in your campaign when you are ready to run. I'll stipulate that they are ready to wait a month, a year or a decade, as long as it takes. For the moment, however, you're completely free of all ties and responsibilities; none of the adventures you've run will have been experienced by the new players (so you can run them again, if you wish) and nothing that exists in your world right now must needfully exist unless you choose to retain that condition.
For good measure, I'll add that you're guaranteed another 20 years of life, with enough money to live it however you please. Satisfied?
Now, what sort of world will you run? I think we can take it that the gentle reader has plenty of experience with role-play, else you would not be reading this blog, so you have some notion of what ideas have worked for you in the past and what haven't. You probably have a pretty good idea what system you want to run, since it is the system with which you're most familiar and comfortable, so this is unlikely to change. You might decide to augment the system somehow, or spend a year or two (with your comfortable wealth) working on aspects you've never been able to iron out to your satisfaction. We can take this as given.
An assessment of the internet indicates that you are likely to run one of the following campaigns:
- A game that is adventure driven, in which the players participate in a series of disconnected adventures that exist in a "world" that serves as little more than a cabinet in which the adventures are stored. The primary goal is to set up a single session or short series of sessions that can be run over a few weeks, a few months at most, before giving up the reins of control for a time to make a new adventure or to make way for other DMs, perhaps other game systems, which can then be enjoyed on a revolving basis.
- A game that is a sometime distraction, chosen from a list of possible games that might be chosen on a given night, in which the DM is by no means certain (anyone might be up to the task). It really wouldn't matter if the game were Settlers of Catan, Forged in Steel, Call of Cthulhu or the Masquerade. D&D is just another game.
- A game that is a light-hearted romp, with simplified rules and concepts, largely narrative-driven and full of character-to-character interaction. The goal is to produce a pleasant evening in which companions can experience the pleasure of acting the part of someone in a fantasy setting, exchanging their usual traits for traits of a series of imaginary personas, who can act with minimal consequences and maximum opportunity for success and conquest.
- A game that attempts to depict an actual, personal struggle of an individual in a complex, potentially harsh and unforgiving environment, in which the measure of success depends on the careful preservation of a series of potentially depleted resources, usually expressing a limited capacity for survival and purchasing power. This last concentrates on problem solving and accounting, since every aspect of the character (including the character's personality) is considered to exit in measurable, finite quantity.
If you're reading this blog, still, it is probable you're looking to start option number 4, obviously the least enjoyable of the lot. I don't want to paint this improperly. Everything about the last option discourages any sense of "fantasy" within the definition of a fanciful mental image, typically one on which a person dwells at length or repeatedly and which reflects their conscious or unconscious wishes. When I began playing D&D, it was clearly understood that the "fantasy" aspect of the game was a clear and understandable description of the setting and only the setting, in no way related to mental fantasies about being rich, powerful, loved, important and so on. This notion that somehow RPGs are there as a fetishistic manner of living out a life that can't be lived out for real came after, when participants began to displace their sense of unfairness of the game's willingness to kill them when the die turned against them or they did something stupid with the unconscious defense that the game was made for "fantasy purposes" and not as a game where adequate play was the measurement for success or failure. This led to promotion of fancifulness as the primary motivation of the participants and the complete discounting that the original meaning of "fantasy role-play" meant in a setting with magic and other supernatural elements such as monsters and terrain not ordinarily found in the real world. In no way does Tolkein, Lewis, Howard, Moorcock or Baum suppose a world in which death, sorrow, misery, unimaginable danger or probable failure are inconsiderable, yet here we are, where "fantasy" worlds are more akin to the sort of fan-service promoted by the Smurfs or My Little Pony.
I'm not interested in those worlds, so I'm going to assume that the reader is the sort of fool who sees an RPG like a golf course, a thing to be devoutly embraced and, simultaneously, devoutly resented ~ and for those who have no idea what that means, I recommend more golf or less reading of this blog.
Then how do we go about starting a campaign based on #4? Like a novel, or any artwork, we should start with our motivation for initiating the process. What do we expect to get out of it? Why, for heaven's sake, do we want to be a DM?
I've been thinking about this quite a lot. It's worthy of a long post, but I've written about a hundred long posts already on the blog so here I will just sum up. In the same way that the players are faced with a world which they must problem solve in order to thrive in that world, the DM is faced with players who must be convinced that they have the power to influence that world according to the strategies they employ, in a believable manner, within a boundary that possesses near perfect "play" within the fixed system the DM has invented. Keeping that system fixed, or running smoothly, without kinks or hitches, even when information is necessarily lacking because it must be invented believably on the spot, exactly within the confines of the previously operating system, is spectacularly difficult and a problem-solving feat that puts player problem-solving to shame. To make a good game, the DM cannot casually move out of the groove that has been previously established, or the whole system quickly goes wonky and flies out of control, with the player's psychological responses being the determiner for how "off" the campaign becomes. As the DM deviates more and more from the groove, the players' reliance on the system spins further and further out of balance, until the DM can't put the campaign back into working order because the players' memories won't allow this. The campaign is broken and stays broken ~ and survives from this point forward by replacing players with independent, proactive imaginations with players with needy, resigned forbearance.
This is the game I play. My attempt to keep the wheel spinning with grace sometimes ends badly, with players who express boredom or distrust of the campaign, bringing about its end (an end that I accept rather than evade). Sometimes the attempt enables the game to remain in play for years, until circumstance or separation ends the effort. It is clear to me, however, that the thing I most get out of the contest is the rush to stay ahead of the players, to first enable them and then compensate for that enabling, then to predict them without predicating that prediction on my power to make the world act any way that I wish. The more I put my hand in the system, the more smudged the lens gets, until neither I nor the players get anything out of what we see going on.
If this is not the reader's motivation for running the #4 campaign, then I dare the reader to put forth an explanation that is as thorough, as researched, as measurable and as definitive as that which I offer. No feelings, please. My description of the groove, as I call it, is part and parcel with the whole design of the campaign, from the maps to the rule-system to every judgement call I make from beginning to end, connected to this blog and every point of advice I've tried to give. It isn't a "feeling" ~ it is a conscious effort to balance the needs of the campaign's difficulty against the needs of the player to believe they can act fairly and freely to counteract that difficulty. My personal sentiments as to how I "feel" about being a DM do not enter the equation.
I like it. That's as far as my feelings go.
Very well. How are we going to set up the mechanism in which play occurs? Remember Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman's definition of play: free movement within a more rigid structure. What, then, is the free movement and what is the rigid structure?
We want to have a clear concept of how much free play the players ought to have. In this case, I'm not speaking of the players in relationship to the DM, but rather to the actual world itself. The world is the rigid structure; but different worlds, and different genres for that matter, offer a wide range of rigid structures that will appeal to different players. In each case, we can measure the rigidity in terms of the potential for conflict between the players and everything that is not the players: how interested is the setting in the players, how much capacity does the setting possess to observe the players and how likely is it that the setting will take steps to counteract the players' actions.
In giving some examples, I want to express strongly that I am not speaking of any specific game system or any specific game setting. Setting is something we can leave for later on.
- Extraordinary rigidity. This is more likely to exist in games where the scope of the game is somewhat minimalistic, particularly in games where participants are expected to be a part of a clan and where the enemies are part of other clans. In such situations, players have to both survive attempts by other clans to kill them, will steadfastly adhering, or appearing to adhere, to the strict rules of their own clan. Another example of extraordinary rigidity occurs in high tech games, where mechanical surveillance is constant and common, where everyone is under suspicion and where a large population encourages draconian methods to keep order. Another example might be a dystopian environment where the number of potential threats is so high that there's hardly a moment when the players are not at risk; a dungeon might fit this description as well, or a high tech environment with a "raft" of some kind (planetoid, ship) immersed in a highly toxic or otherwise deadly environment. However, though player choice may be limited, the play in the system need only be enough that the players can sort out wrong actions from right actions, encouraging them to move cautiously but nevertheless successfully through that 'scape.
- High rigidity. In each case, this will likely be reduced examples of the above, mitigated by short periods in which the players are not under threat or have reason to believe, within certain circumstances, that they are safe. Spy games, where missions are interspersed with returns to base, or some fantasy campaigns where the participants are able to return to a "safe" town from a dungeon, would fall under this category. If the town has minimal opportunities apart from resupply, which virtually all space outside a certain "free parking" zone expects the most dangerous of confrontations, then the system likely has little space for players to diddle around doing their own thing. I don't describe a railroad, exactly, but if we're talking a game rich with superheroes or supernatural, highly aware gods, then the players are going to find themselves consistently interrupted by reprisals that are the result of their previous actions, regardless of the players attempting to settle down or seek compensation in some manner other than adventuring. We can consider any game where the players are pitted against a host of known adversaries, or where their activities lay the ground work for future, necessary activities for survival, as one of high rigidity.
- Medium rigidity. Effectively, the players exist in a relative bubble of indifference from the setting until such time as they begin to impress their actions upon the world. In a similar way to the above, there are a series of consequences that are stirred up by the players' actions ~ but unlike a high level of rigidity, these consequences may not necessarily lead to conflict. Whereas it is taken as a given that Batman and the Joker will never make friends (high rigidity), a medium rigidity enables the characterizations of non-players within the campaign a degree of flexibility that will (for example) enable the Joker to get help and to change. The players may create the circumstances of a war but may then enable the possibility of a truce, rather than the war becoming necessarily ongoing and unresolvable. The campaign, therefore, enables periods where the players are able to sew up loose ends and, for a time, drop out, reasonably expectant that they will be undisturbed for a period ~ however, this also assumes that when the players again begin to meddle in the affairs of the world, they will once again find themselves in the soup.
- Low rigidity. The indifference that the setting was prepared to award the players at the start of the campaign, as described above, is more pronounced and less likely to alter, except in situations where the players make a considerable attempt to make themselves noticed. Unless the players doggedly make efforts to encourage conflict between themselves and the setting, the setting is largely prepared to let them go their own way. This doesn't mean that the players won't meet with potential conflicts, but most of these will be disjointed or disconnected, such that the players won't be able to rely upon a concerted effort of the setting to kill them in order to find purpose as gamers. Put in a world that feels indifferently towards them, the players must be proactive in making changes to their situation ~ no one else in the setting will do it for them.
Any of these structures may be considered "rigid" to a different degree. To put it in mechanical terms, the controls of a helicopter are extraordinary rigid in their expectations of the pilot. A small plane would have a high rigidity in expectation. A car, a medium rigidity. Finally, a bike would have low rigidity. A bike can easily be ridden, even turned, without touching the handlebars; it is easy to manage because it extends not very far and perfectly visibly on all sides of the rider. A car, much less so, though it can be driven without touching the steering wheel. It cannot be turned, however, without doing so. A plane is harder still, as it is not wise to take one's hands off the controls for more than a few seconds (a passenger jet is less rigid than a car, with moments of considerable rigidity). Finally, a helicopter will not allow the operator to let go at all, without the probable result of a crash.
All are perfectly effective vehicles, all are fun to drive, all serve a different purpose and all have free movement in a more rigid structure. None of them are "better" ~ just different.
The DM needs to have a clear idea, however, of the world's intent towards the players. It is no good rapidly or randomly switching from one degree of flexibility to another without warning, as this will simply confuse and then frustrate the players, until they are prepared to let go of the campaigns controls in vexation. Once the degree of fixedness is understood by both the players and the DM, however, and maintained, the game can grow into a pleasing, effective user experience for all involved.
Part of the decision must be the DM's potential for staying in the groove! Surprisingly, a loose and indifferent campaign is much harder to run than a tight, rigid campaign, in that the amount of variables and grey area expands rapidly once the players are not asked to account the same for every action and counter-action they take. It can take a lot of time for players to sense the logical difference between "we really pissed everyone off" and "we pissed off a few people" and "why isn't anyone pissed off?", then compare that meaningfully to their own actions. If the players can count on everyone in the setting trying to kill them, this demands much less exposition and explanation from the DM! "They're trying to kill you because they are a different clan"; "Everyone in this world is trying to kill everyone"; these are easy. "They haven't decided if you're worth killing, and in any case they're busy killing someone else" has a nuance that takes a greater degree of effective, purposeful setting descriptive to evoke in a player's comprehension.
What I'm saying is that while an extraordinarily rigid campaign threatens the player like having to fly a helicopter, it runs the most easily for the DM. And while the low-rigidity campaign is less threatening for the player, like a bicycle, the DM is forced to keep a tight hand on the stick at all times. The degree of difficulty for DM versus the player is wholly inverted, in terms of the amount of problem solving that must be done.
Think of this question, this degree of rigidity, as the usability of the campaign, both for player and DM. Both parties must be considered in choosing the degree of the campaign ~ will the players enjoy or like a campaign that is either extraordinarily or highly rigid? Will the DM manage a medium or low rigidity campaign? Compare the capacity for play, the willingness to play while in constant or semi-constant danger and, overall, the sheer desire to play situations that are either wholly proactive or wholly defensive. There's a lot to consider in the above. Do not go lightly into the question.
While the reader is deciding (presuming you're prepared to reconsider your campaign in the light that it can be completely altered from what you're running now), look back into your own past and seek out the setting that will satisfy the needs of useability that you've assigned to your campaign. It should be a setting you know very well; it should be one you're prepared to reshape and redesign in your imagination, as it needs to be flexible to service the needs of you and your players; and finally, it should be a setting that others will find appealing. It is no good if the setting is something you're in love with but which is so obverse to user interest that you'll find yourself resenting their lack of requited love for your project.
I do not recommend searching your memory for a movie or a tale of someone else's design. That design may be universal to all your players, but if it is to be flexible, it will undoubtedly upset others when you change it in a way that seems wrong in their opinion. If you can create your own vision, one that is easily understood and accessible, that owes no baggage to any other source, that you can present clean and clear to the players, encouraging them to then make it their own (once you birth the baby, you have to let it grow up), you have a greater potential for a group experience than trying to shove an idea down their throats or massively hacking away at a jointly perceived shrine in ways that will infuriate others who have different things about that shrine that they like and you don't.
All right. That's enough for now. We can talk more about setting later, if necessary. As I said already, a good setting comes with experience. I'll add to it that it comes with a willingness to hack limbs off the setting that aren't working, when they need to be hacked off. Forestall the surgery if you can, but sometimes surgery is a necessity. Don't be afraid to get out the saw when the time comes.
Next we will want to talk about player confidence. I don't know when I will write that, but it's the next logical step.