Planning a Campaign

A game is typically structured as a campaign—a serialized story that focuses on a single party of characters.

A campaign is subdivided into multiple adventures, smaller stories that involve exploration and interaction with nonplayer characters. A single adventure represents a complete story that might be connected to the larger arc of a campaign. Playing an adventure spans one or more game sessions—gatherings where the group plays a part of the adventure over the course of several hours.

A campaign provides the overall structure for your game. As you prepare for your campaign, you’ll establish its scope and themes, which you’ll then reinforce in the adventures and scenes that take place within it.

Campaign Length

The length of a campaign can range from a few sessions to many years. Two main factors determine campaign length: how much time you need to complete the story, and how much time players want to devote to the game.

Collaboration During Play

As Game Master, you have the final say on how the world and rules function, and how nonplayer characters act.

This rule’s purpose is to make the game run smoothly, with one guiding hand ensuring consistency. It’s not intended to make one player into a dictator over the rest of the group. Collaboration is vital to roleplaying games!

How you implement collaboration in a game depends on what your players are interested in. In some groups, players enjoy adding details to the world and to nonplayer characters. In others, players want to feel like the world is outside their control, and the only decisions they get to make are those made by their own characters. Both are fun and acceptable ways to play.

You are encouraged to collect input from your players before you start, asking what storytelling genres they’d like to emphasize, which areas of the world they want to play in, the types of enemies they’d like to face, or which published adventure they want to play. A good campaign includes some back-and-forth at the beginning as the players figure out what characters they want to play and you figure out what sort of adventure to run. The results can range from building an adventure entirely to fit the characters to choosing a specific published adventure, having the players make their characters, and then just adapting the beginning of that adventure so that all the player characters have a reason to be involved.

As you play, opportunities to collaborate will occur again and again. When players throw out suggestions or come up with specific theories about the events of the campaign, they’re telling you what they’d like to see in the game. Try to find ways to incorporate their suggestions, but with enough of a twist that each still includes something unexpected.

A single session, or a “one-shot,” is great if your group is trying out the game or wants to play a specific short adventure. This requires a smaller time commitment but requires the GM to present the events of the game in a way that is immediately engaging, since there’s less opportunity for the players to become invested in the story or setting.

If you want to play through a longer campaign, you’ll need to add some story elements that speak directly to the characters in your game rather than just to the events of the adventure. In other words, the characters should have individual goals in addition to the group’s overall goals.

You can estimate how long a campaign will take by looking at the amount of time you actually have to play, or the number of character levels you intend the characters to advance. It typically takes three to four sessions for a group to level up. Since you’ll probably cancel sessions on occasion, playing once a week for a year results in roughly a 14-level campaign, playing every 2 weeks for a year gives you an 8-level campaign, and playing monthly allows for a 5-level campaign. If you play only once a month, you might consider holding longer sessions and using fast advancement.

It’s entirely okay to have a campaign with an indefinite length. Many groups play through one adventure and then decide to take on another. If you run an indefinite campaign, however, avoid ongoing plots that you can’t satisfactorily end if the campaign comes to a close after the next adventure. If you introduce an overwhelmingly powerful villain who’s crucial to the story but can’t be stopped until the player characters are 15th level, ending the campaign at 8th level will feel anticlimactic.

It pays to be conservative when estimating your campaign length and scope. It’s always tempting to run a 20-level epic campaign with complex, interwoven plots, but such games can fall apart long before the end if your group can play only once a month and the players have other responsibilities.

Expected Duration

Not every campaign ends at the same point. Some campaigns go all the way to 20th level, ending after the player characters attain the height of power and confront the greatest threats any mortal could face. Others end at a lower level, after the group takes down a major villain or solves a crucial problem. and still other campaigns end when players become unable to attend or decide its a good time to stop playing.

You should have an end point in mind when you start a campaign. Still, you have to be flexible, since you’re telling the story alongside other players, and your initial expectations for the campaign may be proven incorrect.

When you think you’re heading toward a satisfying conclusion, it’s useful to check in with the other players.

You might say, “I think we have about two sessions left.

Does that work for everyone? Is there any unfinished business you want to take care of?” This lets you gauge whether your assumptions match up with the rest of the group—and make any necessary adjustments.

Themes

The themes you choose for your campaign are what distinguish it from other campaigns. They include the major dramatic questions of your story and the repeated use of certain environments or creatures, and they can 484 also include embracing a genre beyond traditional high fantasy. The themes you choose for your campaign also suggest storyline elements you might use.

A storyline’s themes usually relate to the backstories, motivations, and flaws of the player characters and villains.

For example, if you’ve chosen revenge as one of the themes of your game, you might introduce a villain whose quest for revenge tears his life apart and causes tragic harm to those around him. If one of the player characters is a chaotic good believer in liberty and freedom, you might engage that character by pitting the group against slavers.

Or, you might choose a theme of love, leading to nonplayer characters involved in doomed romances, seeking to regain lovers they have lost, or courting the player characters.

Using similar locations and related creatures helps you form connections between disparate adventures. The players feel like their characters are becoming experts negotiating with giants, navigating seaways, battling devils, exploring the planes, or dealing with whatever the recurring elements are. For example, you might have the players explore a frozen tundra early on, then later travel to an icy plane filled with more difficult challenges that can be overcome using knowledge they’ve previously developed. Likewise, hobgoblin soldiers may be tough enemies for your group at low levels, but as the PCs attain higher levels and the hobgoblins become mere minions of another creature, the players feel a sense of progression.

This is a fantasy adventure game, but you can shift your campaign to include elements of other fictional genres.

You might want to infuse your game a with a sense of horror, reduce the amount of magic and use slow advancement to make it a tale of sword and sorcery, or turn magic into technology for a steampunk setting.

A Welcoming Environment

The role of Game Master comes with the responsibility of ensuring you and the rest of the players have a rewarding, fun time during the game. Games can deal with difficult subjects and have stressful moments, but fundamentally the game is a leisure activity. It can remain so only if the players follow the social contract and respect one another.

Players with physical or mental disabilities might find themselves more challenged than abled players. Work with your players to ensure they have the resources and support they need. Additionally, be on the lookout for behavior that’s inappropriate, whether intentional or inadvertent, and pay careful attention to players’ body language during the game. If you notice a player becoming uncomfortable, you are empowered to pause the game, take it in a new direction, privately check in with your players during or after the session, or take any other action you think is appropriate.

If a player tells you they’re uncomfortable with something in the game, whether it’s content you’ve presented as the GM or another player’s or PC’s actions, listen carefully to that player and take steps to ensure they can once again have fun during your game. If you’re preparing prewritten material and you find a character or a situation inappropriate, you are fully empowered to change any details as you see fit. You also have the authority (and responsibility) to ask players to change their behavior—or even leave the table—if what they’re doing is unacceptable or makes others feel uncomfortable.

It’s never appropriate to make the person who is uncomfortable responsible for resolving a problem. It’s okay if mistakes happen. What’s important is how you respond and move forward.

Gaming is for everyone. Never let those acting in bad faith undermine your game or exclude other players. Your efforts are part of the long-term process of making games and game culture welcoming to all. Working together, we can build a community where players of all identities and experiences feel safe.

Objectionable Content

Before a campaign begins, check in with your players— as a group or individually—to find out what types of content they want to allow in the game, and which topics they would prefer to avoid. Because the story unfolds in real time, it’s essential that you discuss these topics before the game starts. These discussions are intended to keep players safe, and so it’s not okay to ask why someone wants a type of content banned. If someone wants it banned, ban it—no questions asked.

It can help to start with a rating, like those used for movies or video games. the game games often include violence and cruelty. What’s the limit on how graphically these concepts should be described? Can players swear at the table? Does anyone have phobias they don’t want to appear in the game, such as spiders or body horror?

After you figure out the limits on objectionable content, you have four important tasks:

  • Clearly convey these limits to the other players.
  • Ensure you and the players abide by the boundaries.
  • Act immediately if someone becomes uncomfortable about content during a session, even if it wasn’t already banned in a prior discussion. Once the issue is resolved, move on.
  • Resolve the issue if any player deliberately pushes these boundaries, tries to find loopholes, tries to renegotiate the limits, or belittles people for having a different tolerance to objectionable content.
  • Reprehensible uses of mind-control magic
  • Villains might engage in such acts, but they won’t happen “on-screen” or won’t be described in detail. Many groups choose to not have villains engage in these activities at all, keeping these reprehensible acts out of mind entirely.

The the game Baseline

You might find that your players don’t have much to say on the topic of objectionable content, and just assume that general societal mores will keep the most uncomfortable topics out of the game. That’s not always enough, as that approach relies on shared assumptions that aren’t always accurate. The following is a set of basic assumptions that works for many groups, which you can modify to fit your preferences and those of the other players.

  • Bloodshed, injuries, and even dismemberment might be described. However, excessive descriptions of gore and cruelty should be avoided.
  • Romantic and sexual relationships can happen in the game, but players should avoid being overly suggestive. Sex always happens “off-screen.” Because attempts at initiating a relationship between player characters can be uncomfortably similar to one player hitting on another, this should generally be avoided (and is entirely inappropriate when playing with strangers).
  • Avoid excessively gross or scatological descriptions.

The following acts should never be performed by player characters:

  • Torture
  • Rape, nonconsensual sexual contact, or sexual threats
  • Harm to children, including sexual abuse
  • Owning slaves or profiting from the slave trade

Social Splash Damage

As important as it is to take care of yourself and the other players in your game, be mindful of your group’s impact on the other people around you. If you’re playing in a space that’s not your own, respect your hosts. If you’re playing in public, consider the comfort of the people around you, not just what your group is comfortable with.

It’s easy to get caught up in a game, as we get sucked into the microcosm of an imagined world, but don’t ignore the real world around you. Be aware when you’re making too much noise, leaving a mess, alarming passersby with graphic descriptions of violence, or even just giving the cold shoulder to curious spectators witnessing RPG play for the first time.

Character Creation

At the outset of a new campaign, the players will create new player characters. Part of that process involves you introducing what the campaign will be about and what types of characters are most appropriate. Work with the players to determine which rule options are available. If players want to use common options from other books or uncommon or rare options, through play, review those options to see if any of them conflict with the style of campaign you have in mind or might present strange surprises down the road. It’s usually best to allow new options, but there’s no obligation to do so. Be as open as you’re comfortable with.

Preparing an Adventure

An adventure is a self-contained collection of story elements, characters, and settings that become the basis for the story you and the other players tell. Think of the adventure as an outline for your own story. You’ll have major beats you want to include, some consistent characters, and themes you want to convey, but all sorts of things can change during the process of turning the outline into a completed story.

You might use a published adventure from Paizo or another company, or you might construct your own adventure as you prepare for your game sessions.

Published Adventures

Prewritten adventures include background information and nonplayer characters needed for the story, plus all the locations, maps, and monster groups necessary for both exploration and encounters. Prewritten adventures can speed up your preparation, since you can simply read the relevant sections of the adventure before a game, and you don’t have to create everything from scratch. A published adventure already includes the expected amount of encounters and treasure, and you can find adventures built for different character levels to match your group. Reading a published adventure or running one as your first game can help you see how adventures are structured, which makes it easier to write one later if you choose.

Though a published adventure is prewritten, it’s not set in stone. Changing the details of an adventure to suit your group isn’t just acceptable, it’s preferred! Use the backstories and predilections of the player characters to inform how you change the adventure. This can mean altering adversaries so they’re linked to the player characters, changing the setting to a place some of the player characters are from, or excising particular scenes if you know they won’t appeal to your players.

Creating Adventures

Building your own adventure is much more challenging than using a published one, but it lets you express yourself, be even more creative, and tailor the game directly to the players and their characters. Later sections in this chapter include guidelines for building and running encounters, placing treasure, and setting appropriately difficult challenges, all to help you construct your own adventures.

Adventure plotting can start at many different points.

You might begin with a particular antagonist, then construct an adventure that fits that villain’s theme and leads the group to them. Alternatively, you could start with an interesting location for exploration, then populate it with adversaries and challenges appropriate to the setting.

Locations

Memorable settings that include mysterious and fantastical locations for players to visit can elicit the players’ curiosity.

Exploring each location should be a treat in itself, not just a chore the players must complete to get from one fight to the next. As you create a locale, picture it in your mind’s eye and write down minor details you can include as you narrate the game. Describing decorations, natural landmarks, wildlife, peculiar smells, and even temperature changes make a place feel more real.

Beyond monsters and loot, your locations can include environment-based challenges, from environmental conditions like blizzards to puzzles, traps, or other hazards.

These challenges should suit your adventure’s location: walls of brambles in a castle ruin overrun with vegetation, pools of acid in a cursed swamp, or magical traps in the tomb of a paranoid wizard.

Encounters

A robust set of encounters forms the backbone of your adventure. Encounters often feature combat with other creatures, but they can also include hazards, or you might create social encounters in which characters duel only with words. The rules for building encounters appropriate to your group’s level begin below.

Some adventures have a clear and direct progression, with encounters occurring at specific times or in a specific order. Others, such as a dungeon filled with interconnected rooms the group can investigate in any order, are nonlinear, and the group can face encounters in any order—or even avoid them entirely. Most adventures are somewhere in between, with some keystone encounters you know the characters will need to contend with, but others that are optional.

Treasure

Your adventure should give out an amount of treasure that’s appropriate to the characters’ level. You can dole out treasure in all kinds of ways. Treasure could be items carried by an adversary, rewards from a patron for completing a mission, or a classic pile of coins and items inside a wooden chest guarded by a monster. It’s best to spread treasure throughout an adventure rather than stockpiled in a single hoard. This gives the players incremental rewards, letting their characters advance in frequent small steps rather than giant leaps separated by many hours of play.

Building Encounters

The most common type of encounter is a combat encounter, where the PCs face other creatures. Combat encounters are strictly governed by rules; the guidelines that follow will help you build combat encounters that pose appropriate challenges for your group. Building hazard encounters works the same way. Social encounters are more free-form, and are up to you as the GM to design.

To build a combat encounter, first decide how the encounter fits in the adventure as a whole. Then, estimate how much of a threat you want the encounter to pose, using one of five categories below.

Trivial-threat encounters are so easy that the characters have essentially no chance of losing; they shouldn’t even need to spend significant resources unless they are particularly wasteful. These encounters work best as warm-ups, palate cleansers, or reminders of how awesome the characters are. A trivial-threat encounter can still be fun to play, so don’t ignore them just because of the lack of threat.

Low-threat encounters present a veneer of difficulty and typically use some of the party’s resources. However, it would be rare or the result of very poor tactics for the entire party to be seriously threatened.

Moderate-threat encounters are a serious challenge to the characters, though unlikely to overpower them completely. Characters usually need to use sound tactics and manage their resources wisely to come out of a moderate-threat encounter ready to continue on and face a harder challenge without resting.

Severe-threat encounters are the hardest encounters most groups of characters can consistently defeat. These encounters are most appropriate for important moments in your story, such as confronting a final boss. Bad luck, poor tactics, or a lack of resources due to prior encounters can easily turn a severe-threat encounter against the characters, and a wise group keeps the option to disengage open.

Extreme-threat encounters are so dangerous that they are likely to be an even match for the characters, particularly if the characters are low on resources. This makes them too challenging for most uses. An extreme threat encounter might be appropriate for a fully rested group of characters that can go all-out, for the climactic encounter at the end of an entire campaign, or for a group of veteran players using advanced tactics and teamwork.

XP Budget

Once you’ve selected a threat level, it’s time to build the encounter. You have an XP budget based on the threat, and each creature costs some of that budget. Start with the monsters or NPCs that are most important to the encounter, then decide how you want to use the rest of your XP budget. Many encounters won’t match the XP budget exactly, but they should come close. The XP budget is based on a group of four characters. If your group is larger or smaller, see Different Party Sizes below.

Choosing Creatures

In all but the most unusual circumstances, you’ll select creatures for your encounter that range from 4 levels lower than the PCs’ level to 4 levels higher (see Table 10–2: Creature XP and Role). Each creature has a part to play in your encounter, from a lowly lackey to a boss so mighty it could defeat the entire party singlehandedly.

Each creature costs some of the XP from your XP budget for the encounter, based on its level compared to the levels of the characters in your party. For instance, if the PCs are 5th level, a 2nd-level creature is a “party level – 3” creature, a lackey appropriate for a low- to moderate-threat encounter, and it costs 15 XP in an encounter’s XP budget.

Different Party Sizes

For each additional character in the party beyond the fourth, increase your XP budget by the amount shown in the Character Adjustment value for your encounter in Table 10–1: Encounter Budget. If you have fewer than four characters, use the same process in reverse: for each missing character, remove that amount of XP from your XP budget. Note that if you adjust your XP budget to account for party size, the XP awards for the encounter don’t change—you’ll always award the amount of XP listed for a group of four characters.

It’s best to use the XP increase from more characters to add more enemies or hazards, and the XP decrease from fewer characters to subtract enemies and hazards, rather than making one enemy tougher or weaker. Encounters are typically more satisfying if the number of enemy creatures is fairly close to the number of player characters.

Table 10–1: Encounter Budget
Threat XP Budget Character Adjustment
Trivial 40 or less 10 or less
Low 60 15
Moderate 80 20
Severe 120 30
Extreme 160 40
Table 10–2: Creature XP and Role
Creature Level XP Suggested Role
Party level – 4 10 Low-threat lackey
Party level – 3 15 Low- or moderate-threat lackey
Party level – 2 20 Any lackey or standard creature
Party level – 1 30 Any standard creature
Party level 40 Any standard creature or low-threat boss
Party level + 1 60 Low- or moderate-threat boss
Party level + 2 80 Moderate- or severe-threat boss
Party level + 3 120 Severe- or extreme-threat boss
Party level + 4 160 Extreme-threat solo boss