How To Organise Excellent RPG Campaigns

The logistics and organisation of an RPG campaign are often what turns a good game into a great game. Here's a shopping list of ways you can go about organising things so that your games run more smoothly.

1) Pick your players. It's possible that you can get a good game rolling with a group of random folks who answered an ad on craigslist or the friendly local gaming shop, but it's not terribly likely. Gaming is, first and foremost, a social activity, and if the people in the game don't get on, the game will falter. So pick people you know will play well together, who have an interest in the kind of game you like and want to run, and who can be relied upon to be around for the duration, however long that may be. Don't be afraid to introduce people to RPGs, either - some of my best games have been with people who had never played before.

2) Schedule like mad. Never finish a session without setting the time and place for the next one, even if it's "same time, same place". Before you start, schedule a get-together where people can discuss what characters they want to play, what way they want the campaign to go, and actually generate the characters. At that time, set a date for the first game, and continue like that. If someone gets back to you between sessions and says, "I can't make the next game," decide there and then if you're going to play without them, or if you'll re-schedule - and if you re-schedule, set the new time and place as quickly as possible, and let everyone know. Uncertainly about when the next session is can kill a game. With regard to playing without someone, discuss and settle a number of players who form a quorum. This allows people to be certain that there will be a game even if they hear that someone else can't make it, and also means they won't stress so much about not being able to make it themselves.

3) Get players involved. Some players will be more involved than others - some want to do game stuff all the time, play one-on-one scenes on instant messenger or IRC, drop you mails at three in the morning starting "My character has had this brilliant idea...." - and some will want to play only during the session, and that's that. Accomodate both, as much as you can, but get their input, what they want from the game, and make sure it can be seen to happen. Get character backgrounds and work with them. Don't wait to do so, either - try to include details from each background in the first few sessions. Engage the players, draw them in.

4) Provide background material, but don't force it. Before you start, have maps and written information on starting areas, races, attitudes, local history - whatever you think is useful for the players. I like to provide a lot of this as in-character documents, extracts from books, broadsheets, news broadcasts, or whatever suits your setting. But don't force players to memorise, or even to read it - the availability is what's important. They can always refer back to it, and if they pick up something to read while you work out a one-on-one scene or a combat, it's far better if it's campaign material they're reading.

5) Be clear in your ground rules, and discuss them before you get started, making any adjustments then rather than later, if at all possible. Whether these are house rules, social contract stuff, or the fact that your kids go to bed at 20:00 and you have to keep the noise down from then on - let people know. Most people will accomodate anything like this that they know about, but will not be happy if it's sprung on them. Sometimes you can't help changes in mid-game, and when they happen, talk them out and make everything clear.

6) Plot well, but not too much. From the time you see the player characters, you can start structuring plots. Shape them out in general, but don't get too caught up in details. If you have particular climatic scenes in mind, by all means work toward them. Put in a level more of plot than you want to use, and put in some subtle clues from early on - that way if the players rumble your main plot before you're ready, you have a second string, and if the campaign is a massive success, and they want a sequel, you're sorted. Once you have to switch to Plan B, come up with Plan C.

7) Have extra material on hand. Sometimes, despite your best efforts, the players are going to bust through Plan A, Plan B, Plan C, and Plan D - D being the one you hastily scribbled in the bathroom while the pizza order was phoned in. One or two pre-written, interesting encounters will suffice for this, particularly when they're heavy on the role-playing and light on the mechanics. All you need is to get to the end of this session while keeping the players entertained, and then you can get started on Plans E through G. Have these in hand from about the second session - just in case. They don't usually become crucial until the last third or so of the campaign, when players are starting to get a grip on the plot, but they can be useful at any time.

8) Keep notes, and encourage the players to keep notes. It's becoming clearer and clearer to me that a lot of what distinguishes the Saturday-night hackfest from the epic campaign is people being able to remember what happened all along. Player notes are the best way to achieve this - and I'm blessed with players who take superb notes - but even if none of your players take notes, you can make an account of what happened available. This can be on paper, or better still, on the internet. You don't have to create a whole site for this; a livejournal, blogspot blog, or the like will suffice, or even just write up what happened and email it to everyone.

9) Don't count on getting to tell the whole story. Be resigned to the fact that three out of four campaigns fizzle, rather than ending. People move house, get different jobs, have kids, fall out, lose interest, start playing MMOs and are never seen again, and any of these can bring a premature end to the campaign, This happens, and really, all you can do is pick up and start over. Make each part of your game cool, and you'll have a better chance of it continuing and a good time along the way. If you find a way to prevent fizzles, please let me know.

10) Run the kind of game you want to. If you like epic swashbuckling cinematic games, don't be pressured into running a conspiracy-fuelled heavy-politics game. This is incredibly important, because all other elements being equal or even good, there's nothing worse than staring at your notes and thinking "I can't stand this game." To aid this, do feel free to experiment a bit; your players generally won't mind changes in style for one game, and if you and they like it, you can keep it.

11) Have fun. I shouldn't need to say that, but I will anyway. If you're not having fun, don't do it.

And you might benefit from How to keep an RPG Campaign Journal as well.

Posted by Drew Shiel at August 16, 2006 2:51 PM

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thanks for the GREAT post! Very useful...

Posted by: Whatever-ishere at November 21, 2007 7:27 PM

I am hoping to organise a Larp sometime.

Thank you so very much for sharing your experience, it was really helpful.

Posted by: Legend Underhill at January 6, 2008 5:13 AM

I am new a game mastering. I have also had limited experience in roleplaying period. (then why am I GM, because I have more experience then every one I play with). I am working on a campaine that would require at least on charater to be a certain way. Should I
A) make the charater, and ask someone to play him
B) Make the charater and play him myself
C) Have someone make their carater to my guidlines)
D) Scratch the Idea all together.

Posted by: Ligon at May 27, 2008 4:55 AM