Steve is the co-creator of QAGS, Hobomancer, and many other RPGs from Hex Games.
So, You’ve Decided to Run a Role-Playing Game
If you’ve decided to take on the role of Game Master (GM) in your role-playing group, it’s your responsibility to provide the players with the building blocks for a good story: a world they can explore, characters they can meet, and all sorts of plots they can get mixed up in. If you’re lucky, your players will provide you with a lot of raw materials in the forms of character motivations, supporting cast, and plot hooks. But it’s still your job to make them all fit together into a coherent narrative that keeps everyone involved.
Before you start trying to piece together detailed characters, settings, and story arcs, it’s a good idea to start with some general brainstorming. This will give you a “big picture” view of the story elements you’re working with and make it easier to identify how the different parts of the game might fit together. As you go through this process, you’ll probably think of a lot specific characters, locations, and other story elements that you might end up using in the game. It’s a good idea to keep a separate list of these ideas, grouped by category, that you can refer to later.
Identify the Scope of Your Campaign
Whether you’re using a published game setting, setting your game in (a world similar to) the real world, or creating your own game world from scratch, the range of possible settings, stories, and characters is going to be a lot broader than you’ll ever be able to fit into single campaign. To help focus your planning, the first thing you need to do is identify the story elements that are likely to come up during the game. Some of the necessary narrowing down should have taken place when you and your players defined the campaign and a well-developed Player Character (PC) group will bring the game into even tighter focus, so a lot of the work’s already been done. All you have to do is define exactly how the things that you’ve already established fit into the setting.
Bianca has decided to run a game about 1920’s Appalachian moonshiners set in the world of Hobomancer (a game about monster-fighting magical Hobos). The basic premise is sort of a cross between Manly Wade Wellman’s Silver John (the Balladeer) stories and movies like Thunder Road or Lawless. From the beginning, Bianca decided to keep the magical elements of the world subtle: people in the area practice folk magic and tell a lot of tall tales as God’s Honest Truth, but overt and undeniable experiences with the supernatural are rare. When the group got together to discuss the game, the players decided that the main focus of the game should be local--outsmarting the local wannabe mastermind, fending off threats from outsiders, and helping neighbors deal with their problems--but there should also be a “moonshine wars” element that puts the PCs into a territorial conflict with a rival clan, the Breathitt family. There’s been bad blood between the two families for generations, and the moonshine wars threaten to turn it into a proper feud. The players have already made up their characters, all members of the Hood family, and have come up with a few details about the local characters and game world.
Since the players have given Bianca a solid concept for the campaign, she already knows in general what types of stories players are expecting, and some of those stories can easily include the magical elements that she wants to introduce. The discussion also gave her a good idea of what sorts of characters, locations, and conflicts she’ll need to concentrate on. Geographically, the players didn’t specify exactly where in Appalachia the characters lived, so Bianca decides that the “local” stories will take place in a bunch of small towns and hollers along the Kentucky/West Virginia near Pikeville, KY and that the moonshine wars may take them as far north as Huntington and as far south as Chattanooga.
Mentally Map the Territory
Once you know the general scope of the campaign, start thinking about conceptual regions of the campaign world. In some games, these “neighborhoods” will correspond closely with geographical areas. In that case, creating a literal map of the setting may be helpful, but it’s not really the main goal. Instead, think about the sorts of places you’ll need to include to meet the needs of the game that you and your players have discussed. Think about where the characters are going to want to go, what locations you’ll need for the kinds of stories you want to tell, and what kinds of places are common to the genre. If you have specific ideas, make a note of them, but don’t worry too much about the details yet. Right now you’re just trying to get a general idea of what you’re going to need.
For most games, you can divide these areas into four broad categories, described below. It might be helpful to use these as starting points when coming up with more specific ideas.
- Familiar Territory: This category covers places where the characters feel safe and know what to expect. The party’s “home base” and other resources, as well as most of the supporting cast, usually occupy familiar territory. Depending on the scope of the campaign, familiar territory may consist of lots of specific locations (the PCs’ homes, workplaces, favorite hangouts, and crime-fighting headquarters in a street level super-hero game) or a broad area that’s mostly friendly ground (Federation-controlled space in a Star Trek game).
- Unfamiliar Territory: Unfamiliar territory consists of places where the PCs aren’t necessarily in danger, but don’t feel completely at home. In games where the conceptual regions map closely with physical areas, these are the hinterlands and border areas. The characters more or less know what to expect from these places, but don’t spend much time or have many (or any) friends there. Unfamiliar territory can include social, cultural, or religious contexts that the characters rarely experience as well as physical locations.
- Dangerous Ground: These are the places where characters know to be on their guard, or to avoid altogether. They may be controlled by enemies, filled with dangerous people and things, or just naturally hazardous. Some dangerous ground will be known to the characters, but it’s often unexplored territory. In the latter case, what the players know about the place is likely based in part on rumor, speculation, legend, and possibly wild exaggeration.
- Exotic Places: These are places that the characters only know about from stories and can include faraway as well as legendary places. Some characters may have met the strange natives of these places, but most of their knowledge of the area is probably third-hand at best. In some campaigns, characters eventually get to experience exotic places for themselves, but it usually doesn’t happen until the game is well underway.
Bianca knows where her campaign takes place geographically, so she starts making a list of the more specific kinds of places she’ll need:
- The players have already decided that the Hood clan lives along Bonfire Ridge on the slopes of a valley known as Goblin Holler. The only town near the holler is a little place called Wildwood a few miles away.
- Although any travel outside of Goblin Holler potentially puts the Hoods into conflict with the Breathitt family and The Law, some areas are safer than others. The familiar places outside of Goblin Holler are mostly individual locations (homes, hollers, towns, and businesses) where the characters’ regular customers, friends, and kinfolk live, but they might also have a few hiding places or safe houses dotted through the mountains. Since most of these places don’t need a lot of detail until they come up in the story, Bianca makes a note to come up with a list of appropriate place names that she can toss out as needed.
- Bianca decides she’ll also need to come up with some local landmarks, including some that can be used to make the inevitable car chases more exciting: bridges, chokepoints, dead man’s curves, and the like.
- Since the moonshine business in the mountains is a matter of bloodlines and generational family relationships as much as traditional market factors, neither the Hoods nor the Breathitts control a clearly-defined territory. On top of that, there are a lot of people in the mountains who don’t like strangers no matter who they’re related to. There are some places where the Hoods know it’s best to avoid (or pass through quickly), and anytime they leave the relatively neutral ground of the main roads without a specific (friendly) destination in mind they’re in unfamiliar and possibly dangerous territory. Like the friendly places, these can be mentioned for flavor when appropriate and developed further as needed.
- The bigger cities at the edges of the campaign area (Pikeville, Huntington, Knoxville, etc.) are important because the characters can sell a lot of moonshine at once if they can make the delivery. These places will be mostly destination points that aren’t likely to be extensively explored, so Bianca can probably just detail delivery points and maybe a safe place or two. Even the safe places are unfamiliar territory because they’re occupied by strange “city folk” who most of the PCs don’t quite understand. If she gets time, Bianca will do a little historical research for flavor and to see if there’s anything gameworthy that can be added. Pikeville is the most likely “big city” to get screen time, and Bianca’s already learned that in the 1920s it was the hub of a worldwide medicinal root business. She makes a note of that fact since it might make a good tie-in to some of the magical stuff in the game.
- This is coal country, so Bianca knows she could come up with some mines and a company town or two. Since a mining company is also a ready-made villain, she decides to create the Crowley Mining Company as the main outsider mining operation. The company town, Crowleytown, is inhabited mostly by immigrants brought in by the company. They’re a good potential market, but deliveries are tricky because Mr. Crowley is a staunch prohibitionist who tries to enforce his own morality on his workers.
- Crossroad City is the county seat of the as-yet-unnamed fictional county where the Hoods live. It’s home to the local courthouse as well as the kinds of businesses that the smaller towns like Wildwood can’t support. It’s also the base of the local villain and the place where the Hoods and Breathitts are most likely to cross paths. It’s not overtly dangerous, but it’s an easy place to get into trouble.
- The Breathitt Family lives in a place called Snakebite Creek and any place where they have allies or family is probably not a place where Hoods want to hang around too long.
- The roadways near the bigger cities will also be dangerous ground when the characters are making moonshine runs, and Bianca notes that at least one of them needs a legendarily mean bootlegger-hating lawman to terrorize the PCs.
- Bianca wants to include a few places with supernatural flavor, but doesn’t have a lot of specific ideas right now other than Boo Hag Knob, which is basically the haunted house at the end of the street. While exactly what’s up there varies from story to story, there’s general agreement that it ain’t good.
- For the characters, anywhere outside of Appalachia counts as exotic, it doesn’t matter if it’s Chicago or China. Meeting a city slicker is the closest the characters are likely to get to the outside world, so Bianca doesn’t have to worry about them.
- Bianca also things there should be a couple of legendary places like a lost mine or an entrance into Hell or fairyland, but doesn’t have any specific ideas at the moment, so she just writes “legendary magical place” and moves on.
Look for Potential Conflicts and Themes
As you think about the places in your game, you’ll probably get a general idea of what kinds of things are happening and likely to happen in the game world. Now it’s time to start thinking about what sort of conflicts will naturally come up during the game. Literal conflicts between characters and groups with incompatible goals are important here, but you should also consider thematic conflicts like “Individual Desires vs. Group Needs” or “Tradition vs. Progress” here.
As you come up with ideas, think about how they might fit into the overall story. Will they serve as motivators for character action, primary storylines, subplots, or backdrop? Will they be present at the beginning of the story, or will they build slowly during the course of the campaign? Which characters are most likely to become involved with which conflicts? Remember that you’re just brainstorming, so don’t worry too much about details. A lot of what actually happens in the game will depend on what the players decide to run with, so you’re just trying to think of as many possibilities as you can so you’re less likely to be caught off-guard.
The Example Continues
Bianca sees a lot of potential conflicts in what she’s already established about the campaign world, so she starts with the ones the players specifically asked for.
- Bianca decides to call the “helping neighbors” aspect of the campaign “Good People vs. Bad Situations.” A lot of these bad situations will be due to the actions of the local villain, who Bianca decides to name Andrew Jackson “Big Jack” Sutpen, because you’ve got to have a Faulkner reference for a game like this. Sutpen is a rich man who has his fingers in enough pies (mining, logging, the Crossroad City Bank) that he can cause a lot of people grief, especially since he’s got a close relationship with local government and law enforcement. In addition to Sutpen’s schemes the good people of Goblin Holler might come into conflict with Crowley Mining, the law, the bank, and basic survival threats ranging from wild animals to starvation to natural disasters. Once the supernatural makes its appearance in the game, it can also threaten the neighbors. These conflicts are the meat and potatoes of the campaign, so Sutpen could easily turn into the major villain, but Bianca likes the idea of using these stories to slowly reveal a bigger threat.
- The moonshine war with the Breathitt clan is the other conflict the players have built into the game, and it also implies conflicts with various law enforcement agencies. Bianca decides that the sheriff, in addition to being in Big Jack’s pocket, is distantly related to the Breathitt family patriarch, so he’s likely to be a recurring thorn in the party’s side. If the conflict over moonshine doesn’t push the two clans into feud mode, there’s always the secret affair going on between Sparky’s character Caleb Breathitt that can be revealed if necessary to make things boil over. The moonshining aspect of the campaign is probably the “B story” of the game. It will mostly be in the background and serve to get characters involved in other stories, but there will be sessions where running moonshine is the main focus.
- Bianca’s not really sure what to call it—maybe “ignorance vs. discovery” or something—but the supernatural theme is built into the premise of the game, so it’s definitely going to come up. There will be some monsters and hoodoo in the game (Jesse’s character is a folk healer, so he already knows and believes a lot of the lore), and hopefully it will build slowly over the course of the game and play a major role in the overall storyline. Right now Bianca’s thinking that maybe Crowley (who unlike his good-for-nothing cousin is an actual evil wizard) is looking for something other than coal in his mine and may have Big Bad potential. If Crowley doesn’t pique the players’ interest enough to hook a major storyline on the mining company, the supernatural elements of the game will probably be more episodic unless an unexpected supernatural villain emerges during play.
- The last big conflict Bianca can think of at the moment is “locals vs. outsiders.” Crowley’s the obvious villain for this conflict, but revenue agents, big city cops, and the criminal element that the characters likely deal with in the larger cities could also become involved. This is a thematic conflict and how it plays out will really depend on whether the players buy into the Crowley plot and how they deal with it. If Bianca could write the final act of the game, she’d have all the locals (temporarily) put aside their differences to defeat some epic supernatural threat, probably one posed by the outsider coal magnate. There’s no way to guarantee that outcome, but Bianca decides to make sure all the pieces are there if the players want to put them together. If the players seem like they’d rather the game end with a shooting war or epic road race against the Breathitt clan or running Stupen out of town on a rail, this conflict will probably just be a minor part of the game.
Mine It for Story Ideas
By now, you know what your campaign world looks like and what major conflicts are at play. You also probably have at least a basic idea of some of the characters and factions involved. You may even have a few ideas of potential campaign story arcs and subplots. Now it’s time to start thinking about more specific adventure ideas. If you think of your game as a season of television, this is the part where you start thinking about what happens during individual episodes. Since you’ve already got a lot of the underlying structure, this step is easier than the previous ones. All you have to do is list some story ideas.
One Final Example
Bianca already has a lot of story ideas, so she makes a list of bare-bones plot ideas:
- The bank tries to foreclose on a family’s farm.
- Child goes missing in the woods—possible supernatural cause.
- Coal company uses intimidation tactics to force a family off their land
- Buyer in big city will pay top dollar to (only) first supplier to deliver the load--road race against Breathitts and cops.
- Characters get stranded at night too close for comfort to Boo Hag Hill
- Characters have to get past Crowley’s thugs to make a delivery
- A snake oil salesman shows up and starts bilking locals
- Characters forced to hide out in an abandoned mine and get attacked by goblins
- Gremlins inhabit the car(s) and cause problems that may seem like sabotage, etc.
Get Ready to Run Your First Adventure!
Unless your group meets infrequently, the window between character creation and the first session is probably only a week or two, which means you’re not going to have a lot of time to develop the details of the campaign before you start playing. If you’re good at improvisation, you can probably run a game based on your brainstorming session, especially if you’ve got proactive players. If not, don’t worry. Just pick a straightforward story idea that doesn’t require a lot of context and focus on the things you need for that story.
Most players use the first session or two getting a feel for their characters, the game, and the group dynamic, so they tend to follow the GM’s lead and the obvious plot hooks. By the time they start acting more independently and exploring the world on their own, you’ll have had time to develop your ideas more fully. The game that happens at the table is usually at least a little different than anyone expected, so keeping things fluid for the first few sessions will let you get feedback from the players and adjust to the game they’re actually playing.
© 2015 Steve Johnson
Steve Johnson (author) from Kentucky, USA on June 08, 2015:
It really depends on your group. The intended tone is kind of an American Gods/Tim Powers feel, but when we do demo games we often play up the humor angle (because it's hard to establish tone in a 4-hour one-shot with people you've never met). There's a preview and an actual play recording of our original proof of concept game available for free at Drivethrurpg if you want to learn more.
Kevin Debler from Expansive Highlands of Michigan on June 08, 2015:
I am intrigued by this Hobomancer game. What is it like?