Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Fractal Campaign Development

The setting of Prime Directive is so vast that I was forced to come up with this “system” in order to run a campaign!

Role playing campaigns are an entirely different animal when compared to a single adventure situation. The latter is a finite, bounded game. The former is potentially infinite and unbounded. One-shot adventures are relatively artificial scenarios… balanced just right to challenge players while giving them a fair chance at winning. In an infinite game, the players can devise their own definitions for what constitutes success. The burden on the game master can seem immense if he gives the players complete autonomy to do as they please in an infinite game universe. How can you possibly manage such a campaign?!

Don’t Panic — First off, you don’t have to prep a full fledged campaign to run one. You can brazenly open your game with a tightly plotted adventure scenario to kick things off. Once the dust settles, you pick up threads that emerged in the course of play and use that as the starting point for developing your campaign.

Tell, Don’t Show— If you’re comfortable with your game, your setting, and your players, you can kick things off with an extra helping of player autonomy from the get-go. As soon as the players walk into a tavern, tell them all in one sentence– yea, in one breath even– a good half dozen hooks. One should clearly be the obvious intended adventure, others should be outright red herrings, at least one should be obviously insane and impossible, and the rest should be local color situations that can impact the campaign state in relevant ways. The reason you don’t play out this stuff with in-character conversations is that you want it to be clear that they have a real say in both the tone and the direction of the campaign.

The Rumor Driven Reality — Still, you can look at all the hexes on the campaign map and go into shock thinking about stocking the whole thing. Don’t do that. Remember, the only way the players are going to know that a particular place is worth visiting is if they pick up rumors from your non-player characters. Ironically, the more vast you make the campaign landscape, the less actual detail you are responsible for.

Scenery is Cheap, Movement is Expensive — But what if the players decide to go off in some random direction, ignoring all of your plot hooks and rumors? Well, there is no requirement that there be a nice tidy adventure situation at every single freaking location. Make up enough scenery to describe the locale, deduct resources and mark time for the moment, and patiently explain that they find nothing special there. If ignoring the prepared challenges of the campaign damages the status quo or otherwise causes people problems, describe that. Sure, you could always wing it and make up a totally different adventure on the spot– but you could also just toss the players a rumor or three to hint at were the real action is!

Stock in the Course of Play — But maybe doing that causes you to feel that you’re stonewalling the players. And it’s a big universe, too. There’s cities, dungeons, wilderness… even worlds, entire solar systems… maybe even planar travel and alternate dimensions. You can scale infinitely upward or downward… with hexes that break out into subhexes that themselves break down into subhexes. But you don’t have to detail all of it up front. It helps to think of campaign mapping more as a record of where the players have been. As you introduce characters, events, and situations in the course of play, your maps provide a place to mark how these things relate.

The Rule of Six — At any given level of resolution, you’re generally only going to need about six points of interest. When roughing out a sprawling Traveller campaign, for instance, you’re really only going to need to consider six worlds as being relevant. The ones that are most important to the campaign are going to need six contrasting points of interest: perhaps a starport area, a posh business district, a remote hunting lodge, an epic “wonder of the world”, a subterranean alien installation, and a seemingly endless and infinitely varied rain forest. If one of these sites is worthy of greater depth and detail, expand it out into six rooms or sub-sites. Why six? Well, less than six says “fake” or “bland” or even “railroad.” More than six, and you’re wasting effort that could be better spent elsewhere. The message an over-abundance of detail signals to the players that either it’s not about them or else that you don’t really have anything specific in mind for them. It can just seem like noise. Six yields just enough variety to have meaningful contrasts and a sense of place. For instance, if you come up with six people for the players to encounter in a tavern, that can make the location seem vibrant and real. You might game for an hour or more with that…!

Random tables can generate a lot of stuff. I only use them when the campaign pushes me to it.

Schrodinger’s Universe — You will end up improvising minor details at all levels of play. Many of these things simply will not exist until your players pursue them, investigate them, or ask about them. In this way, you at most need only stay just far ahead of the players that you give the illusion of a consistent reality. Take notes on these things after each session, and see if any of these can be developed further into hooks of their own right. Repurposing them later into significant adventure elements will surprise sometimes players: “we saw that in the first session and it seemed like scenery at the time… but it turned out to be so much more than that!” Often you’ll have a rough idea of how things will go and things will fan out as the players go their own direction and develop their own methods for tackling your adventures. But at some point you’ll have to determine how all of these things fit in with the “reality” of the campaign. You can’t fake things indefinitely, but in the absence of an immediate crisis, minor details can be allowed to stew and percolate for a quite some time.

Ante Up — The great thing about an ongoing campaign is that you have so many more options in terms of what is at stake. In a one-shot adventure, players either win or lose. In a long running campaign, the stakes instead can be related to all manner of shifts in the status quo. These can range from subtle changes in relationships with long running patron characters to sweeping changes to the campaign maps.

Fractal Campaign Development — Returning to the initial campaign hooks launch a campaign with, consider what should happen as the players resolve them. Success should have a positive effect on the campaign setting. Do not be afraid to allow the players to fail, as there are few things more dramatic than an epic success that follows a half dozen failures. As adventure hooks are resolved, replace them with two more. Your campaign becomes sort of a seven headed hydra of gaming….

The important thing is not to try to develop the perfect campaign setting before you begin. You can never do enough anyway– the giant pile of role playing game books that you are liable to have is a testament to that! The important thing is to have an iterative process that will grow your campaign in the course of play. The interaction between the events of a session, random dice results, and the guidance of your rulings can take you and your players to places you never imagined. Holding it all together is almost entirely a matter of moment-by-moment judgement by the game master. Hopefully the tips I’ve collected here can steer you in a sustainable direction.

6 responses to “Fractal Campaign Development

  1. RogerBW November 12, 2012 at 7:53 am

    I agree with large parts of this, but I do like to think about a few big plot strands involving stuff going on that doesn’t directly relate to the PCs. That way I can have gradual increases in foreshadowing, and if the players want to jump in so much the better, but there’s still a feeling of a world where stuff happens that isn’t just about this particular group of people.

  2. Karl Gallagher November 12, 2012 at 11:25 am

    The Rule of Six just went into my permanent toolbox.

    • jeffro November 12, 2012 at 11:34 am


      It’s a simple idea, but I realized the other day that it works because outlining works. (Though I’m not sure people know what that is anymore in this post-Power Point world…!)

  3. Pingback: The Rule of Six: California and Los Angeles in Autoduel « Jeffro’s Car Wars Blog

  4. Pingback: Campaign Development « The Rhetorical Gamer

  5. Mark L December 24, 2012 at 10:05 pm

    Great ideas! I’ve had many of the same issues building a Prime Directive campaign. These ideas will help. Thanks!

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