There is a concept that I’ve seen with GMs and systems that can lead to a muddied role playing experience. This is a gaping problem I’ve found with what’s become called on the podcast and elsewhere as Session Zero. Using these systems and methods we can create vibrant settings for our players to interact with and there can be a multitude of options for what story element gets spun into the narrative that moves the group forward.
But, what is the campaign about?
A setting is great and having the players buy into it and weave it into their characters back story is amazing, but it is only a start. The first task of a GM for any adventure or campaign is figuring out what the campaign is about. This sounds like it should be simple, the players just have said what their basic expectations for the setting are, what the general Big Bads are and what’s generally going on in the world.
It isn’t that simple.
The GM also has to have an adventure to run that the players want to play in. When you have a premade adventure you have a back of the book blurb that can be read to your players to get their interest and to set the intended arc for the players. When you have a player created setting you still have to create a narrative to move forward from your point of view as a GM.
This is one of the biggest responsibilities of being a Game Master. You are the base propulsion that drives the narrative forward. Running the NPCs well is a bonus, knowing all the rules are a bonus, doing voices is a bonus. The players will have their own idea of where to go with the narrative if you’re lucky. Letting the players point towards what they find interesting is a joy that you get to have as a GM, assuming that this direction and the direction you have envisioned align to at least a small extent.
The easiest way of getting the players ideas and your ideas to align are at two points, especially when dealing with a setting creation setting. The first is telling the players what type of game you want to run. You want to do this because this is effectively your character at the setting creation and it colours the entirety of what is about to happen. The feel of a noir crime investigation is going to be vastly different then a pulpy series of bounties or even a star fighter campaign.
The second is giving the player group a quest. This can seem silly, but quests do propel stories and players easily. While ones from a backstory can propel a single player by letting the entire player group understand the depth of why the character is driven in a particular direction it brings cohesion to intent.
If when starting a campaign you say “I want to run a game” then while the players are coming up with setting and character concepts the major contribution that you need to conceive of is the narrative plot that will get the group through the rough start of a campaign. As the players settle into their ideas you should be throwing out a few ideas for where they see the campaign going and allow players to help form their characters in relation to each other. Once the players are settled into their setting and have given you an ultimate idea or Big Bad you can look to ways of creating smaller NPCs in the setting and creating an arc for the player group to go through.
With each campaign I start I focus on making a story for the players to react to giving the players the ability to figure out their characters before making them think of their contributions to the group story. Methods to help bring in the players quicker can be the bounty board or innkeeper we talked of on a recent Tales as well as the players being singled out by the Big Bad but given room to understand their predicament.
It’s a fine line to be both the final driving action for the campaign and letting the players have enough agency to fulfill their interests in the adventure. Invariably there will be a shiny box that the player wakes up to that you only mentioned for a cool description and you thought you hadn’t written enough beforehand. While this is maddening, learning to control this is one of the skills of being a GM.
There is a two way street of trust that you need to develop with your players. At the start of the campaign you’re doing most of the conceptual work on prodding the players in a direction and getting the base drive of the player group going. Once the player group is going and reacting to each other positively the group starts to take much of the narrative weight lifting on to their own plate. The tipping point can rarely be seen and when it’s aligned with your desired narrative it is amazing to see the group go blindly into situations willingly you have set up that they would have balked at the beginning of the campaign.
The use of a campaign idea can’t happen in a vacuum and works only if your players are buying into the idea. This is why it’s so crucial that the narrative question for the campaign comes out early, allowing the players to build their characters around the idea instead of the characters and narrative being mismatched. With the player group and the GM moving in the same general direction allows for softer adjustments for ideas and makes it so that the likely hood of two different tales being told at the same time is greatly reduced.