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I'm writing a campaign for 3.5 at the moment and, as a new DM, it's been hard for me to decide what I need to write now, and what I'll need to write later. Because it's going to be my first campaign and I'm not sure what will be important when the first game comes around, I've been starting to plan a lot of insignificant details now, instead of focusing on the main story. I know that I can do all of it later or when it comes up in-game, but the thought of having to make up random information on the fly makes me very nervous. I'd really appreciate help with this, because I would love to run a campaign and this is the one thing stopping me from actually doing it.

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Welcome to the site! Please take a look at the help; it's a useful introduction to the site. You may find answers to this related question helpful; if you can use them to refine your question, that'd be great. And once you have 20+ rep, feel free to join the chat! –  BESW Jul 18 '13 at 13:38
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Also possibly related: How do I avoid clichés while improvising? Given that there are several existing questions that fall within the topic of your question, perhaps you're asking something a bit too broad to easily answer. Can you use these existing questions to help isolate a particular issue you're concerned about that they don't cover? Once you have 20 rep, we'd be happy to help you workshop it in the chat; maybe there's actually material for a couple of questions in here. –  BESW Jul 18 '13 at 13:53
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@LitheOhm Thank you! Yeah, I guess that makes sense, because that's mainly what I'm having a hard time with. I've been focusing way too much on writing about NPCs who live in the world rather than the story and world itself. –  Chauderne Jul 18 '13 at 14:23
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Hey, for future reference it is normally best to wait a couple of days before accepting a question to give everyone a chance to answer it. You never know, that final answer you get might be amazing, but accepting so soon discourages people from answering at all. –  Phil Jul 18 '13 at 15:05
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Not exactly what you are asking for, but for the first GM time, I'll recommend you to prepare a very small story in which you can have everything controlled without taking forever to you to prepare. Practice makes (game)mastery, and you will eventually be able to prepare bigger games and to better improvise. –  Flamma Jul 18 '13 at 17:25
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What I prepare in advance:

  1. Your voice some folks start with a setting and then make a plot, others come up with a great plot and make/match/tweak a setting to the plot. Either way, get a few rough ideas on what you want to do and the kind of game you want to run (how much combat? political intrigue? are players cooperative, competitive, or competing to be first among equals?)
  2. Who is the bad guy/gal? If you start with a plot, do this first. Create a campaign's main villain. This person should be interesting, should have full stats, and should be fully 3D. Minions can be a little thin in their roleplaying interactions if the big-bad guy is memorable. When you think you have the over-arching plot-points, fill any holes by asking "why" 7 times on each point. For example: Grog steals Miss Mudhole, why? Because Grog wants the bauble she is wearing... why? Because it is a protected family heirloom that is very well protected except for a few times a year... why? because the bauble is part of the wondrous artifact of [whatever] and Grog wants to make/use it... why? (you get the idea).
  3. Setting know "enough" about the world to run the game. What is "enough"? It differs from DM to DM, but I would recommend you have a map, the city where the players start and any geographical information needed to run the whole plot (towns named, what vendors does each city/town have, etc.) If you are building your own, I recommend you peruse Medieval Demographics Made Easy. If you are using a pre-gen setting, read up on the whole setting first, then reread any sections that are immediately relevant to the plot.
  4. Lather, rinse, repeat When I'm coming up with a plot/campaign, I tend to bounce back and forth between coming up with a good NPC, a good idea that the NPC wants to enact for a believable reason and a location for that NPC to be based and to start his/her plot. Don't put numbers on the page until you know you have everything square. If this will be a long campaign, I would recommend statting the NPC to be a few levels above the PCs to begin with, advance the NPC along with the PCs so that (hopefully) when the climax hits, the NPC should have level/equipment/threats enough to be a thrilling finale to the campaign.

  5. Any information that the PCs need to make great characters 'Nuff said, if a PC wants to play a monk from a monastic order, either have in the can an order that would work well, or ask for a week or so to MAKE one. Players have an uncanny ability to figure out the one thing you didn't plan for and then pursuing it mercilessly, prep enough to thwart this as much as possible.

  6. The first step on the path. If the campaign starts off with the players rescuing Miss Mud-ball from the rampaging Orc raiding party, then build the raiding party's hideout, a few clues (I've heard have 3 distinct things to point the PCs to anywhere the plot needs to go) to their location, and the path between the town she was abducted from and the raiding camp fully fleshed out. Also have all the "important" NPCs at least statted where they are important. The blacksmith will have a smithing (or related) skill, but probably ends up leaving most of his skill points unspent (the players don't care if the smithy is skilled singing in the church choir, they want their armor fixed, and if it's important, have him singing while working the forge).

  7. The remaining plot in outline form. This represents the BBEG's plans, they are not in motion yet. When something DOES go into motion, I typically highlight the relevant plot-point. To give an example:
    I)Raid Miss Mudhole beauty Contest <-- highlighted
    II) Grog escapes with bauble Miss Mudhole was wearing in the contest <-- highlight after first "boss" fight when they rescue the girl
    III) Grog tracks down baubles 2 - n
    IV) Grog assembles the wondrous artifact from baubles
    V) Grog does [whatever] with wondrous artifact

  8. Try to fill any known holes: When you make a character, what is the hardest part for you? This is potentially a weakness, so brainstorm a way to address that weakness. My personal weakness is naming things. I have a list of names so if I need one on the fly (What's the Butcher's wife's name?) it is ready, and I mark if off.

What I prepare while I go

  1. Where is the party now? Where on the map and where on my plot outline are they?
  2. What plot points need to be conveyed in the next gaming session?
  3. Where else can the players learn any necessary plot points in the next session?
  4. How far will they get in the next session and the session after? I prepare at least 2 sessions worth of prep. Sometimes my group goes through 2 nights worth of prep in one night, other times it takes them 3-4 sessions to get through what I anticipate for them to get through in an evening. Every week I reevaluate where the PCs are and what (if any) wrenches they throw into the proverbial works.
  5. Are there any side-plots that the PCs can take a break from the main plot? What do the PCs get out of the side-plot that helps them on the main plot?

What I do not prepare

Specific Dialog, except for the intro monolog for any campaign/session (and it's usually somewhere around a paragraph or less).

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About point 2, I must note that not all plots should have one bad guy. Some could have several, other could have none, and other would have conflicting sides which the players must choose. I agree that for a beginner it's the simplest and an adversary must be well prepared, but I wanted to remark that these aren't the only plots available. –  Flamma Jul 18 '13 at 17:41
    
True, there are other types of plots. However, even if it is a committee trying to ruin the PC's lives, there is USUALLY a head-honcho; or the villain has henchmen. I try to shy away from "villainless" plot-lines for main-plots. Sure, the Katrina-horror scenario does not have a main villain but IMO it also gets very old fast. –  Pulsehead Jul 18 '13 at 19:27
    
I wasn't talking about a commitee, but several sides with different interests. Maybe even you don't know who will the PCs' enemy and who their ally. For example in a struggle between rebels and loyalists, or between different criminal groups, or political factions. –  Flamma Jul 19 '13 at 8:58
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My perspective as a screenwriter

Campaign stories are different, a traditional narrative due to the story focusing on more than 1 main character and the interactive nature of the medium. Regardless, many of the tools and tricks I learned while studying writing for my undergrad can be applied to writing campaigns and world backgrounds.

Build the bones first

The bones or skeleton of any story are the major plot points that need to happen and the overall arc of the story. What are some of the important events and decisions you want to put before your players? How do you want the story to begin? What should the climax of the campaign be? By deciding on and writing the major events first, rather than working forward chronologically from the beginning you pick the events that will most shape the story and the go back and fill-in-the-blanks/connect-the-dots between major story points.

A story is only as good as it's villain(s)

Creating a believable, powerful, and engaging antagonist(s) for the party to face down time and time again can really set the tone for a campaign. The best villains are not only foils for the heroes, but directly challenge everything they believe in. A villain should have believable motivations and even be capable of generating some sympathy from the players. For example, in The Lord of the Rings, Sauron is arguably the overall villain of the books, but Saruman is much more engaging because he is a fallen hero who's corruption and betrayal completely reinforces the themes of the books.

Try to plot ahead (by one adventure/session) what ifs? to major campaign turning points

Your players will make choices, but whether these choices are trivial or world changing is ultimately up to how you structure the story. There should be narrative forks in the road where players much choose between 2 or more options and regardless of their choices there will be consequences good and bad that come of it. Think of it like a family tree where the plot begins at a fixed point, the opening action, but from there on, there are branching pathways that the players can follow.

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