Today I had some alternatives, but I decided to use the word Plan as it inspires me to talk about a fascinating subject: how to plan a TTRPG campaign.
Prewritten or Homebrew
Throughout my more than 20 years playing and running TTRPGs I’ve primarily used prewritten adventures as the basis for my campaigns, mixing and matching scenarios (see yesterday’s post) to create a unique effect.
The times I’ve homebrewed a whole campaign, however, the experience hasn’t been that much different. Of course in these instances I’ve had to do all the designing, writing, and prep all by myself but, in essence, the planning is similar, so I consider that the advice I’ll offer can be applied to either case.
Imagine Big, Plan Small
If I had to summarize my advice, that’s it: imagine big, plan small.
What this means is that I advise you to imagine, daydream, and write down as many ideas as you get about a campaign, but never commit to plan for nothing more than the next one or two sessions.
I advise this out of my successful—and especially my not so successful—experiences in the past. I’ve found that the times I’ve felt the most disappointed with a campaign falling through was when I had the most invested in it. In one particular instance I had already bought printed versions of all the maps for the next maybe 10-12 sessions, which where I live is rather expensive, and we never played again! Of course I can reuse those maps (more on this later), but the sensation of waste was still there.
Plan Only What You Need
I used to try and prepare a whole adventure in one or more sitting. Not anymore.
These days, I proudly think of myself as a Lazy DM (by Sly Flourish/Mike Shea’s standards). Since I embraced this philosophy of “less is more” when it comes to planning and preparing TTRPG sessions, not only I have felt less tired by the whole endeavor; I’ve had some of my best sessions ever.
The key here, in my opinion, is to focus on the next session and make that your end goal. Plan to have a great session and if you do that enough times, you’ll have a great campaign.
Now, what to prep?
One Scene Per Hour Plus One
I’ve discovered that you usually get to present, explore, and close a scene in roughly one hour of play time. Taking this into consideration, I often prepare a number of scenes equal to our intended play time (in hours) plus one.
When I’m planning for a scene, I focus first on the question that encompasses it. What is at stake here? What can the player characters win or lose? Who are the non-player characters present (especially the antagonists)?
For all my TTRPG planning (and other stuff) I use and recommend Notion. It’s a free website/app that allows you to store and organize in a hierarchy rich text notes, with attached images and pdfs. This has allowed me to basically keep all of my notes, ideas, images, and other stuff in one place and easily reference them during play.
And speaking of play…
Plan to Improvise
It may sound like an oxymoron, but it’s not. Since coming up with stuff in the moment—aka, “improvising”—is such a difficult thing to do (especially when you’re starting), I recommend that you make it easy on yourself and prepare some of it beforehand.
For example: coming up with good names on the fly is hard. Instead of forcing yourself to have to do so you can, instead, prepare a list of good, appropriate names you can use during play.
This leads me to another point: know yourself. Try to find out what things are hard for you to improvise and plan for them. Maybe you need lists of adjectives so your descriptions are vivid and engaging, or maybe you need lists of motivations in case you have to come up with an NPC on the fly, etc.
What’s important is that you give yourself what you need to have the most fun at the table while running. Remember that your fun as a GM is also important.
Review, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
It is said that “no plan survives contact with the enemy” and, although the other players at you table are definitely not your enemy, it is no less true that none of your plans will ever survive unchanged once you present them to your players. They’ll say and imagine and plan and do you things you’ll never see coming… And that’s alright. That’s the beauty of TTRPGs: if you play them correctly (i.e. No railroading!), you’ll never know what’s gonna happen.
What are you supposed to do then? You adapt and improvise in the moment and, whatever the players ignore or discard one of your plans, you keep it. You never share your secret plans with your players and, instead, you review, reduce, reuse, and recycle them whenever you can.
And I think that’s it for me for day two out of 31 of #RPGaDay2021. Comment with your experiences with Plans in TTRPGs below!
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