This series of articles presents different ways to set up a RPG campaign that’s a good fit for you and your group. There are as many ways to set things up as there are Game Masters. There aren’t right ways and wrong ways, but there are ways that might work better for you. The trick is finding both a method that works for the group as well as a setting that suits your play style. In the end, some of that boils down to trial and error. That can be expensive and time consuming. Buying the wrong book or spending months refining a setting that sounds better on paper than it does in play can be frustrating. The series offers some of the highlights and pitfalls that come from mistakes John made setting up his games, and lessons he’s tried to learn from them.
Picking a Campaign for your Play style
Any RPG setting can be a blast, if you have the right group of players for it. Trying to use the wrong setting—or even wrong rules system—for your group can be a disaster. In the right setting, the group is energized after the game, raving about the fun, recounting anecdotes, and looking forward to the next session. The wrong choice leaves distracted players, and what seemed like a fun idea becomes drudgery. The complication is that the right setting for one group can be the wrong setting for another. Recognizing a good fit is more than just looking at artwork and checking reviews and back covers. It requires some introspection, and that’s never easy. Nobody likes employee reviews, and this isn’t all that different.
What’s a Play style?
Role playing games are a different animal from board games or card games because they don’t have a discrete victory condition. Sure, the heroes can succeed or fail at a task or even an adventure, but that doesn’t really mean that they “won” or “lost” the game. In most other types of games, each player wants to win at the expense of everyone else. RPGs can be collaborative instead of competitive. Victory comes from everyone having a good experience. There can be competitive elements, but there don’t have to be. Ultimately, the way that the group creates their own fun collaboration is the play style.
That doesn’t answer the question, though. It just moves it to a question of, “what’s fun?” People define that differently and have many ways to answer it even just within the context of RPGs. Some swear by the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator as the best way to assess each individual. Others insist that GNS theory reveals all truth. I first saw the list of Real Men, Real Roleplayers, Loonies, and Munchkins in the early 90s, but it was old even then. Social networking even offers us countless personality quizzes, some linked to finding your perfect RPG character class. Here’s the thing, though—each person’s individual answer isn’t the same as the solution for their group.
The group is going to have an answer that’s an aggregate, and it’s influenced by the way the different players act in each other’s company. You can try shuffle people so that everyone has a shared interest, and that may happen naturally. But, you can’t just ask people about what kind of games they like, because all too often, what they like won’t be the same with one group as it might be with another.
If you’ve gamed with this group of players before, then you really need to step back and look at the tone and setting of the games that worked. Considering the campaigns that worked well, it becomes a matter of trying to pick out the elements that did and did not work. Game Masters working with a new group, or those who haven’t run before, need to look at their shared experience with the players or even their personal gaming backgrounds. Knowing what works for you can be an important starting point.
The gauges I use to tune a setting are tone, scope, preparation, and mechanics. Other people have other elements to tune, but I think these are a good starting point for consideration. Here’s what I think are necessary to consider for each of these.
Tone: Are the players going to deeply immerse themselves in the setting and their characters, or is the game about kicking back and throwing some dice? The group needs to have a reasonable expectation for the campaign. If everyone enjoys humorous quips during the game (Teenagers from Outer Space) and out of character interruptions, then a game focused on deep character development (The Great Pendragon Campaign) is a bad fit. Conversely, if the players enjoy focusing on the drama of their character interactions (Smallville), then a game where the heroes are disposable and nearly faceless (Paranoia) just won’t work.
Scope: Are the characters going to change the world or are they going to try to scrape by in their corner of it? Some groups want to see their player characters as the defenders of the world from the beginning (DC Universe). Others want characters who start small but gradually develop to be the lords of the setting (Dungeons & Dragons). Others enjoy games where a character’s personality development, along with its quirks, can take center stage (Call of Cthulhu).
Preparation: Not everyone is willing to commit the same amount of time to the game and to learning its setting. Some are very accessible, particularly those that use a license many players already know well (Star Wars). Others are deliberately complex, focusing upon a world that the players must learn at the same time as their characters explore it (Tekumel). A campaign that expects the players to read a novel between sessions (Beyond the Mountains of Madness) may not work for your group. Campaigns that offer players the option of doing homework can present a good balance (Amber). The same is certainly clear for the GM as well, and future articles in this series will delve into that further.
Mechanics: The game system that you select can impact the tone of each session. A game system that’s rigorously detailed and includes character advancement linked to physical combat is more appropriate for campaigns where protracted combat is a central focus (Rolemaster). It’s also a better fit if you enjoy tracking each detail of every character. On the other hand, one that offers the players ways to take narrative control of a scene is more likely to be focused on developing a story (FATE), but that can sacrifice fine detail in the same way as a Hollywood blockbuster. Every system also has a learning curve. If your players are experts who seamlessly use one system, it may take a few sessions before a new one works as well.
Consider each of these different facets when analyzing your group’s play style. Keep in mind that each is a gradient. I’ve offered examples that showcase extremes of the spectrum, but other games may even be distinctive in other ways. Also consider that a game that fits you in one aspect might not be a good fit for one or more of the other approaches. For example, you might love Werewolf the Apocalypse‘s tone but choose to run it using GURPS. If you can find the combination of setting, story arc, and system for your group, then all the effort is worthwhile.