| Back to RPG Index
© 1998-2001 Dru
All rights reserved.
How to Start a Campaign:
So, you've had it with
preprinted modules, you're bored with the campaign worlds published by
your RPG manufacturer, and you're ready to create your own. Creating an
entire campaign is a big job—how do you get started?
First, decide on the
scale of the campaign. Do you want to run a campaign set in a unique city?
In a unique realm? In a unique world? In a unique universe (or multiverse)?
The larger the scale, the more work you're going to have to put in up
front. This week, I'll discuss setting up a city campaign.
Many campaigns can be
run entirely within one city ... Western, fantasy, occult, cyberpunk,
and similar genres work quite well within a relatively enclosed environment
such as a large city where the characters gradually learn who's who and
how to "play the game." Superspy, space-travel and time-travel
games tend to involve country-, planet- or timeline-hopping and cannot
usually be tied down to a single city for any length of time.
To start a city game,
you need a city map. The campaign city should be relatively large; a small
village or town will eventually cease to offer new challenges, whereas
a large city can constantly bring new surprises. Real-world RPGs can be
set in a real city (even if you change the name), and city maps can be
purchased over the counter—in the U.S., try getting maps from the
Automobile Association of America, which has a vast selection of national
and international maps and sells the maps relatively inexpensively even
to non-members. Popular RPG cities are New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco,
New Orleans, Rome, Venice, Paris, London ... but any city is fair game.
Fantasy RPGs require a little more work. The GM can either use a real
city map and change street names (historical city maps can be useful for
this), buy a prepublished city map from any RPG system (maps, after all,
are usually RPG-generic), or create an original map.
Remember that the type
of city you choose will affect the mood of the campaign. If you want to
run a gothic horror campaign, a European city or historical district (such
as New Orlean's French Quarter) is probably better than Chicago or Dallas.
If you want to run a gritty, dark cyberpunk campaign, New York or Tokyo
are probably better than Los Angeles or Malibu (too much sun!). A fantasy
city might be more interesting if it has canals or catacombs than if it
is stuck out in the middle of the desolate plains, whereas a Old West
city really needs dust and tumbleweeds more than it needs gondolas or
crypts. Be sensitive to genre expectations and city reputations as you
select your city maps.
After you have a city
map, divide the city into territories (try using an overlay of thin tracing
paper so you don't have to mark on your map; that way you can "stack"
territories to see where the overlaps occur). A city is a miniature world,
with each territory having its own language, customs, benefits and dangers.
For example, try dividing the city by several of the following territories:
• Income: Where
do various income groups live? Poverty-level? Old money? Nouveau riche?
Yuppie? Middle-class? Blue-collar?
• Ethnicity: Ethnic
groups tend to gather in neighborhoods, affecting the language signs are
in, the types of restaurants available, and so forth. Where do major ethnic
groups tend to gather?
• Gang Territories:
What gangs rule what areas? Which areas are neutral or contested?
• Crime Level:
Which are the really bad parts of town that police don't like to enter?
Which parts will get you arrested if you walk in wearing the wrong clothes?
Where do you go for street contacts? Where is the corporate or political
crime most common?
• Secret Societies:
Does your RPG include covens, mages, vampires or the like? Which territories
do the major players in these secret societies rule or influence?
• Business: Where's
the white-collar business district? The blue-collar? Where are the fancy
shopping areas? The discount mall zones? Are there streets for certain
types of business? Do guilds cluster in certain areas?
Once you have several
territories marked out, give them descriptive or slang names. For example,
by street ("7th and Fig"), by business ("the Garment District"),
by precinct ("the Rampart Division"), by socioeconomic level
(Shadowrun's "The Barrens") and so forth. Be imaginative ...
naming city territories in an RPG should be like naming characters or
countries, an exercise in finding the perfect name to be both mysterious
and fascinating. Then have nonplayer characters use these names to demonstrate
their familiarity with the city ... and encourage player characters to
learn and use the names, too. That will encourage them to feel like they
belong to the city.
Now that you have territories,
you also have a start on understanding the political players in the city.
Describing these political players, in broad terms, is your next step.
Sweeping generalizations are fine at this point; you'll fine-tune the
politics as needed.
• Government Type:
Is the city run by a mayor? A council? Who makes laws? Is the government
mostly honest or corrupt?
Agencies: Is there a standing police force? Private security? Is the city
lawless? Is law enforcement mostly honest or corrupt?
• Criminal Groups:
Are there major crime lords in the city? Evil occult societies? Who belongs
to them? Are they open or secretive?
• Major NPCs:
Name at least five major NPCs who will help put a face on the city. For
example, the city mayor; a notoriously tough but honest cop; a celebrity
in theater or television or sports; a crime lord who keeps avoiding prosecution;
an enormously rich man or woman from the oldest and most respected family
Politics will form the
backdrop for your game ... your player characters may not be interested
in politics at all, especially if they are part of the underground (e.g.,
occultists, vampires, cyberpunks) ... but politics will eventually affect
them. In a city-based campaign, the player characters will eventually
need to call on -- or will run afoul of -- the law, or a gang, or some
sort of mobster or secret society. At that point they begin to interact
with people who have their eyes on larger goals ... and they're swept
into politics, whether they like it or not.
As you run the campaign,
from time to time be sure to mention the major NPCs you've named. The
news can come from gossip around the tavern or bar, a television show,
a newspaper or the like. The news doesn't have to directly involve the
player characters, but make it interesting. The mayor attends a new museum
opening. The cop is on suspension. The celebrity's daugher has been kidnapped.
The crime lord is dating a rival's spouse. The rich person has financial
problems. This gossip sets the mood for the city. Is it all good? Is it
all bad? Does it hint at high-level corruption? Does it foreshadow a future
disaster or crime? The
gossip can even eventually lead to an adventure; anything that the players
seem interested in is fair game for elaboration into a plotline.
Now you have your city
fleshed out; it's mapped, you know where various resources and people
can be found, and you even have a few individuals named and described.
You have also started to establish the campaign mood through your city
choice, territory description and political description. Now you need
to do some detail work.
Choose one section of
the city in which to start your campaign. The high-class district? The
slums? An ethnic neighborhood? The business district? You might require
all player characters to live in that area, or you could simply decide
that it will be the focal point for the first few adventures. Requiring
all player characters to live or have some sort of bond (family, business,
etc.) to the area is best; city campaigns too often lend themselves to
scattering the characters all over, so do as much as you can to keep the
Now create a few landmarks
in that area—places people who live in the neighborhood will all
recognize as points of reference. An old house with a reputation for being
haunted, a high school, a rough bar, a mystic bookshop, a civic fountain,
etc. Tailor these landmarks to the campaign you want to run, of course;
they should be places where player characters will meet to talk about
an adventure, find resources, or avoid like the plague. These will be
recurring settings for the games in the campaign, places the characters
will return to again and again. Mention them from time to time, especially
if the characters aren't actually going to them (e.g., "you walk
by the fountain...." or "there are a lot of kids around because
the high school across the street just got out...").
These landmarks will
also, at times, be settings for adventures; perhaps the high school gets
raided by mobsters or monsters, or the fountain is a base for serial killings
or an explosion. Do not actually endanger or destroy a landmark until
it is acknowledged to be a landmark ... the characters should come to
expect the landmark's existence before you threaten it. When they refer
to the landmark on their own without prompting, they have accepted it
as a point of reference. Now you can abuse it.
People, too, act as
landmarks. Create five NPCs in the territory or neighborhood and give
them names and descriptions. They should be people with whom you think
the characters will be interacting on a regular basis: the grumpy bartender
who wants to be an actor; the gossipy old man who sits on his porch watching
everything that goes on around him; the nosy little girl who thinks the
characters are neat; the forbidding secretary who keeps characters out
of his boss' office; the tough female cop who keeps running into the characters
at inopportune times.
These NPCs should be
given cameo appearances in every few adventures. Sometimes they'll be
helpful, more often they'll just be there ... and sometimes they will
be a hindrance. Landmark NPCs give personality to the characters' day-to-day
world, especially at the beginning of the game before the characters have
made many contacts elsewhere in the city. Protect these NPCs; if one of
them seems likely to be killed by an annoyed player character, make sure
the NPC suddenly has that piece of information the character really needs,
or turns out to be a relative or a friend of a friend. As with physical
landmarks, make sure the landmark NPCs aren't endangered or destroyed
until the player characters have developed some sort of emotional bond
with them. Once the characters have accepted the NPCs as a part of their
world, then you can make the NPC an adventure hook.
Before you run the first
game, write up a brief description of the city that can be handed out
to your players as they create their characters. Describe some of the
major city divisions—the ones they'd logically be aware of (for
example, the business district, the richest area, the poorest area). Use
more detail to describe the territory they are going to start play in;
if the game assumption is that they have been living in that area for
some time before the campaign begins, name and describe some or all of
the landmark NPCs you've developed. The idea is to give the characters
enough background so that they feel like they belong to this area, if
they've been living in it for a while. If the characters are brand-new
to the area, tailor the description accordingly.
Now you have your campaign
setting. Don't worry about describing the entire city or knowing where
every building is located; don't worry about naming every family on the
block or every shopkeeper the characters might visit. Don't bother writing
up the game statistics for every NPC you've created. That's not important.
You have enough now to get the characters started, and you'll keep adding
more as the game continues. As you play, keep a notebook beside you and
use it to jot down shops, NPCs, laws and other creations that come up
in the course of the game. That way you will avoid contradicting yourself
later ("I thought you said the guy's name was Bob?") and you
will continue to flesh out your campaign setting.
originally written March 24, 2000
Back to top of page