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I've used Savage Worlds Plot Point campaigns for successful campaigns (i.e., multiple connected sessions with some coherence to them, where something is accomplished), but don't have any idea how to plan out my own. What do you do when you are creating a campaign (assuming you're not doing some kind of sandbox)?

I'm familiar with the 5x5 method, but I'm still not sure how to come up with the goals/objectives for that. I own "Odyssey", but it's about organizing your campaign once you have all of your ideas. Also, I'm totally open for player input, but I still need to come up with some ideas for different goals, objectives, what's going on, impending dooms, etc.

I'm planning to run a Demon the Descent (new World of Darkness, God Machine) and a Rotted Capes campaign.

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system-agnostic and storytelling-system tags seem to conflict. –  Jonas Wielicki Jun 27 at 18:39
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Your question seems to be either "How can I find inspiration?", which is really open-ended and not very RPG specific or "What should I put in my campaign?", which is equally open ended. If that isn't the case, can you clarify what it is you are looking for? –  Quentin Jun 27 at 19:42
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@JonasWielicki Not really. See this Meta thread: meta.rpg.stackexchange.com/a/3054/77 –  AceCalhoon Jun 27 at 19:54
    
@AceCalhoon thank you very much :) –  Jonas Wielicki Jun 27 at 20:51
    
In what sense is system-agnostic being used here? It seems... extremely strange. Either you're giving a Storytelling-compatible answer (and thus helping the asker), or you're not, and you're not providing a useful answer. –  doppelgreener Jun 28 at 1:14

5 Answers 5

There are Many Approaches

Ask any group of DMs, ever, and they will each have individual ways of making a campaign. I've listed just a few here. Other people here can and likely will post other methods.

The important part between having a string of adventures featuring recurring individuals and a campaign is the cohesiveness of it all. What you did last adventure affects this adventure. This can be achieved in a lot of ways.

Rule Book Guidelines

Very, very often, system rulebooks come with some suggestions for plots, and what to do as a DM. It seems most of them come down to figuring out a big idea for a plot, and breaking that into individual tasks the adventurers must complete. String these tasks together, and... it's a campaign!

S. John Ross's List

S. John Ross has a nice list of RPG plots here. While these plots are especially true of individual adventures, they can easily be broadened into a campaign. "Blackmail," "Clearing the Hex," "Don't Eat The Purple Ones," and "Pandora's Box" are all plots he lists that could be a starting point for a campaign.

Basically, you'd choose one as a very large plot, but then introduce sub-plots for individual gaming sessions which help solve the larger plot. This means what happened last session affects what happens this session. For most people, that's the key attribute of a campaign.

The Hero Journey

It's just a theory, but Joseph Campbell came up with the idea that all (good) stories about heroes follow a certain pattern. If you modeled your campaign as a hero's journey, then your players will (most likely) feel pretty heroic and awesome when playing through it.

Some systems are better about this than others, but you could model after the Monomyth (Or Hero's Journey). Extra Credits did a good job of applying it to (video) games here, or you could check out TED's Hero Journey to get a good idea of what this is.

To apply this to roleplaying, you just need to make each segment or task in the hero's journey into an adventure. How will the adventurers experience the call to action? What or who are the threshold guardians? Where and whom do they gain more power from to destroy the shadow? Who or what becomes the shadow?

The Villain's Point of View

Some people like constructing a campaign by simply getting into the mind of their main villain (or BBEG), and figuring out what he/she does. Since the villain creates conflict, what is their overall strategy for accomplishing their goals? Boom, there's a plot! The heroes simply need to figure out what's up with that villain, and neutralize them.

This creates a kind of back-and-forth campaign, where the adventurers do one thing, and then the villain (or her/his lackeys) responds in kind. This allows for gradual buildups in the scale or intensity of the conflict, until they face BBEG and solve it once and for all.

Use Your Character's Motivations

This kinda feels like cheating sometimes, but just have people make characters, figure out what drives them, and make a campaign out of that. Do you have a kleptomaniac along with a guy who wants revenge on someone? Go steal all the hated person's earthly assets, and make an adventure out of that! Who cares about being creative when you can leverage the creativity of your players? I swear I read this (or something similar) on the Angry DM's Blog, which is just a good resource anyways.

Steal From Other Media

Take a plot from any film, book, or TV show you (ideally) really liked. This is more of a social no-no, especially when you get caught. It can still work really well, though, with minimal creativity on your part. Your players may love this or hate this. My players and I hate this sort of thing.

The added danger of this is that your characters may not generally react the same way as the characters in the original. Now you have a great plot that doesn't work anymore. This is why you steal the premise, not the actual entire plot.

The Conflict Approach

Get a bunch of cool (conflicting) situations, and throw them together in the same area. This becomes kinda sandbox-y, but makes for an interesting world! This way, there is a conflict, and characters' choices matter.

For example: A dragon wants to take over a nation and cultists want to summon an undead army (maybe as defense against the dragon?). Neither of these things have super great results, but it's a conflict. A conflict your characters can solve, one which will take multiple adventures to do so.

The other variant of this is summarized as follows: unreasonable responses for unreasonable situations. Create an unreasonable situation; clan x wants to destroy clan y, the king's daughter wants to become a dragon-queen, some wizard decided to toy with What-Ought-Not-Be-Toyed-With. Follow that to the (il)logical conclusion, which the adventurers being the ones to fix it. (The adventurers give the unreasonable responses, by the way.)

A Summary

Choose a conflict. One that your characters care about. Diagram how they can solve it, and what needs to be done to do so. Adventures are just these "need to be done to solve the plot" things stuck together, plus whatever else you'll throw in for fun. Link the adventures, and that's a campaign.

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Layering

Any plot that players have enjoyed enough to tell stories about later (my personal sign of success), involves Layering. I have no idea if this is the correct term for it, but i'm about to describe it, so no harm no foul.

As I use it, Layering is simply creating multiple plots, foes, plans, enemies, allies, in a vacuum and then mapping out the interactions. If you are a visual person, it can help to actually physically map out these connections, on a piece of paper. So then you end up with a scenario where the Endbringers are cooperating with the Witch Queen to destroy the Merchants of the East, hindered by the Dhai (both assassins and holy crusade of the temples versions), and helped by the Convergence of Seasons, the ancient rite that removes magic from the world piece by piece and then returns it. From a short list of things little more than names/concepts (Endbringers, Witch Queen, East India Company, Crusades, Hashishim, Convergence of the Seasons) pulled from all sorts of sources, i've created a half-believable narrative.

Then you create a setting by answering obvious questions about the setup. Why haven't these cool-sounding Endbringers and Witch Queen destroyed some random Merchants? Well, the Merchants rule over a huge area of towns and cities far away from the witch queen and endbringer's seat of power. How do they rule these cities? By money and influence indirectly, probably, or they'd be 'Kings' of the east. Why are the Endbringers and the Witch Queen cooperating? The Witch Queen is a subtle manipulator, and is manipulating the Endbringers. For that matter, who the hell are these Endbringer guys? Well, they sound powerful, and they're being manipulated by a 'Witch Queen', so... they're powerful warriors of darkness from an earlier age, with mutated bodies. And they're called 'Endbringers', so their goal is to destroy the world. So that means the actual enemy of the Merchants of the East is the Witch Queen, and the Endbringers are being used as pawns - whether they're aware of this or not. The Convergence is a time factor which brings the plans of various factions to a head. Time factors are things i've found adding to any plot structure helps handle timing issues for you explicitly, without needing to actually do it all manually and subtly. Who are these Dhai? Why are they helping the Merchants? Well, they're doing it for two different sets of religious reasons - one is seeking to destroy the Endbringers before they destroy the world (temple crusades), the other is trying to guide the Endbringers to a prophesied resolution that 'ends' the world but only so a better one can begin (assassins - it's a strong plot to have people 'allied' who aren't actually on the same team, and where possible, make traditionally evil 'bad guys' have hidden motivations for good - no-one thinks of themselves as a bad guy, everyone has a reason for what they do, although don't overuse this and say everyone is secretly altruistic, people just need reasons, even stuff like 'we're sick of being looked down on by you human scum').

So that's a Layer. 5 Individuals (even though 4 of them are factions), 5 Motivations, 2 Conflicts (Merchants + Dhai (temple and sect) vs Endbringers and Witch Queen, Dhai sect assassins vs Everyone). How the PCs are brought into this is the Hook, and separate from campaign building. Campaign-building is just the Grand Story - how the PCs get swept up in it, as descendents of an Endbringer, Temple Assassins, Hired Mercs, or whatever, is up to you.

Additional metaphysical Layers deal with motivations. They add secret plans or factions to existing Conflicts or Individuals. If you've got this mapped out, it would be an extra paragraph of text underneath each connection between two things. Those don't have to be reversals of existing motivations + secrecy. It can be unrelated things that will blossom into Complications. Like between the Endbringers and the Convergence, you could add 'The Enemy of the Endbringers is still alive, and is the agent of the Convergence, and doesn't want them to succeed'. Etc. Anything related to those relationships, which adds more depth to them.

Additional regular layers comprise a set of new things that are more closely related to each other than the existing things. You create their relationships, and only add relationships between them and the pre-existing stuff in the 'setting building' 'question-answering' phase. Like, a set of individuals that all know each other from childhood, all in different existing factions, would be a new regular Layer. A new faction and things opposing it sailing across the sea to invade the continent would be another Layer. Etc.

The advantage of the Layering system is that you can often add new layers in the middle of games if your existing plotline isn't deep or complex enough - and due to the 'setting building' portion, it won't seem 'weird' or 'out of place' - it will be tied into the existing material. And due to the new material being interlinked with itself, the players will feel like they've stumbled onto a new 'real' thing, another layer of the story or reality, rather than some random stuff the DM threw in due to panic. It links up really well when you introduce sets of linked concepts as a group rather than solitary things and link them later.

The main thing to keep in mind with this system is that you need to keep in mind what the players are going to receive in terms of information. Everything needs to be shades of grey, even if it's presented to the players in-game as black and white. Leave the possibilities of switching sides, of betrayal, of being left holding information important to people that they don't know and having to decide whether to give it to them or not, to the players. Due to all these relationships, people, factions, and secrets that interlinking stuff will create, situations for changing sides or being given damaging information or being left in the lurch etc will happen organically. And it's truly wonderful when it does - the stress and difficulty of running a game simply melt away, and you're left to enjoy the story that you haven't even created - you've just let it happen on it's own.

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This answer focuses on how to find the style with which to structure a campaign.

Player Input
You say you are open to player input. That is good. The most excited that my players have been over a campaign are the parts in which we worked together to form.

Further, getting your players' input will also give you insight into how they think. It is common for players to take unexpected actions. You may design a adventure hook that the players completely blow off. But if they worked with you in deciding on the adventure then you know they are interested in it.

Lack of Player Input
Unfortunately, sometimes your players won't give you the input you'd like. In these cases, you have to use your best judgement. Think of your players and what they like in the game. Think of their characters and what they want and can do.

Planning vs. The Sandbox
"No plan survives contact with the PCs."

Decide how much of a sandbox your campaign will be. The more constraints you put on your players and their adventures the less you will have to plan for. Thus, your time will be split less and so you can spend more time on specific adventures and details and make them better.

Of course, the flip side is that your players may get frustrated if they don't get enough freedom. Once again, player input is helpful here. Also, always keep unexpected player actions on your mind.

A Campaign is a Project
How do you like to go about projects, whether it be at work or as a hobby? Take that approach to your campaign. The campaign is the overall project, the adventures are the smaller tasks or segments, the gaming sessions are your work day. If you like taking projects with a top-down approach, start with building the world and the overall campaign setting and work your way down to the adventures.

My Personal Experience
I had almost no player input to start my campaign. Thus, I had to go blind to begin. You can't plan with information you don't have, so I focused on plots that I was interested in and could handle well. As we played the players began giving me feedback. I could not work their backstories into our current campaign as it simply would make no sense. Instead, I've made plans to get to their backstories after the current campaign but have been dropping soem foreshadowing where I can. I plan to link this campaign's end to one that deals heavily with their input.

For the current campaign, I started with the overall story. I made a villain, I made his motivations, and filled in the setting around him. After that, I went down to the micro level. I wanted to give my players some freedom and choices. Because of that, I don't plan too far ahead. If A leads to B leads to C, and they don't take A, then working on B and C was for naught. My planning is thus focused on breadth over depth.

This has led to some interesting turns. For one, I roughly plotted out a "fake ending" and a "real ending." In the fake ending, I will trick the players into dealing with a pawn of the main villain but convince them they took down the main guy. They have zig-zagged all over these two paths. Indeed, at one point it seemed like they were definitively going for the fake ending until they took an action I had not foreseen that put them back towards the real one. They don't know it yet but I was extremely impressed with how they handled that situation.

My players have asked about my planning techniques before. I once made this analogy, "I know you guys are chasing Sephiroth but I don't know that you'll be going through the Golden Saucer to get to him."

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I don't disagree with the other answer here, but I think they might be too big for your question. If the question really is "How do I get started in writing a massive campaign" you go back to the old adage: The longest journey begins with a single step. When I start a new campaign, I always have an idea of where I want to to go, but I still start with some generic missions: kill the wolves prowling the forest, protect the caravan from goblin bandits, etc. These seldom have anything to do with the plot of the campaign, but they give the players a feel for their characters and you a feel for how they want to play.

From then on, it is more a series of mini-campaigns then a full campaign design. Start with something small - something that will take them three or four adventures to resolve. A necromancer "end boss". (We call them "the big nasty guy at the end of the dungeon", but I figured more people might like the more traditional.) They start by investigating grave robbers, then learn there are undead, track the undead, only to find that there are far more of them then they thought. They regroup in town to gather undead fighting tools, then go out to face the main problem - the necromancer.

Maybe the necromancer was working for someone - supplying an evil cult with shock forces - and the next stage of the campaign is fighting the evil cult. After playing with your players and their characters through the first 4-6 missions, you have a better feel for what they are looking for - high or low magic, problem solving or combat, role-play or none, etc. Now as you design what the next mini-campaign is going to be, you can tailor it more to their desires. I think the most important thing is that with mini-campaigns, the players feel that the campaign holds together (not just a series of random encounters and random dungeons), but they don't get bored fighting the same army of enemies all the time.

When plotting out the next mini-campaign series of adventures, think back to the ones before. Did one of the bad guys escape? Can he be used as the source or end boss for the next segment? Did they clear a huge bandit army out of the forest? Who moved in to take over the turf? Did they loot a major magic item from an end boss? Does he have family or rivals who want that item for themselves? Even these minor links to the earlier missions keep the campaign together, and can often bring out some emotions from the players.

You don't have to plan everything out at the beginning; take it step by step. You avoid railroading the party, and can take advantage of odd quirks that happen along the way, plus it is a whole lot easier to get going.

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See my answer here to the OP about quest design. The basic principles apply to campaign development, too (of which a cort part is irrefutably quest design itself: How do I run a successful and engaging campaign without combat?

Should give you a good start point to run with.

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Hi PrometheanVigil. A nice and long post you have there. Will you be so kind as to give here a short summary of the post and then link to your original one in order to read more about it? Thanks –  Yosi Jun 28 at 20:31

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