Phase Five: Setting Things in Motion
Over the past few articles I’ve discussed various campaign elements and created a look and feel for our setting. I have also developed a concept for the heroes’ party and fleshed out the various featured characters (both PC and NPC). At this point a lot of gamemasters would begin creating the primary story arc for their campaign but I want to leave things open in order to allow stories to develop organically and as an extension of the heroes’ actions. To do this I focus on setting the various elements of the campaign in motion.
Setting things in motion is about taking your various campaign elements and thinking about how they interact with one another. I focus on the most active elements of the campaign, usually organizations and NPC’s and ask myself some of the following questions:
- What are the NPC or organization’s goals?
- How are they attempting to accomplish their goal?
- How close are they to actually reaching their goal?
- Which NPC’s or organization’s are allies? Or enemies?
Answering these questions suggest ways in which these elements might interact with the rest of the world and therein lies the potential for story lines and plot arcs. Elements of the campaign that have goals and agendas have a sense of motion about them. How close is the assassins’ guild to killing the high priest? When will the gnolls of the Howling Scourge invade? What will take place when the prince takes the throne? Motion not only fills in the campaign backdrop but also gives a true sense of a living, breathing and dynamic world. Motion demonstrates cause-and-effect and conveys to the players that actions, especially their actions, have repercussions.
A great example of things in motion is present in the video game Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. As the game opens Skyrim is involved in a civil war, the Stormcloak rebellion is attempting to rid the nation of Imperial rule. Although not necessarily part of the primary story arc, the rebellion impacts the game and helps define the environment in which your character finds themself. Throughout the play experience you hear how the war is affecting the citizens of Skyrim. Various missions and quests emerge because of the conflict, some directly involve the factions of the war while others are just of people taking advantage of an ongoing power struggle. Whether your character chooses to becomes directly involved in the conflict or not, the events of the war give the setting definition and motion.
In previous articles I have mentioned my Seven Bridges Valley campaign that I ran a few years back. Events in motion were an important part of what I wanted to convey throughout the campaign. Just before starting I took some time to think about motion for several of the primary elements of the campaign.
- The hobgoblins of the Dragon’s Eye were finalizing their plan to invade Cinderhill.
- The adventurers of Stolik’s Hammer (NPC rivals of the PC’s) were setting off to deal with trouble in Deephollow.
- The Cornerstone Council had recently added two new members.
- Bandit activity was on the rise in the northwest corner of the valley.
- The PC’s had just been inducted into the Assembly of Advisors.
Each of these elements suggest a time frame and a potential direction. The Dragon’s Eye will invade soon. Stolik’s Hammer will be gone for a while dealing with an unknown problem. Knowing what direction things are potentially headed allow me to manage the campaign without the need for specific premeditated story arcs. I know that the hobgoblins of the Dragon’s Eye are going to invade Cinderhill and reclaim their ancestral home. Knowing this gives me several ideas on how they intend to achieve their goals and therein lies the potential for adventure. Understanding the organizations’ goals also allows me to react and adapt to the heroes’ actions if they try to thwart the Dragon’s Eye.
Of course if the heroes decide to ignore the Dragon’s Eye that’s fine too. I can mention refugees fleeing from the town, trade routes shutting down, any number of events that might spin out of the hobgoblins’ successful occupation of Cinderhill. Maybe the heroes decide to get involved at this point, maybe not. Even if they never confront or do anything about the Dragon’s Eye or the invasion of Cinderhill, it becomes an ongoing event impacting other elements of the campaign. Maybe the price of iron products goes up. Maybe other adventurers confront the hobgoblins and are captured. Maybe the hobgoblins religion begins to find favor with the locals, locals that are upset that adventurers never came to their rescue! Regardless of how things develop motion is critical to action.
Elements in motion may also help you decide on when to place your campaign. There is a vastly different feel to a campaign set just prior to a monstrous invasion then one set during, or even after the invasion. Motion can even be used to help your players define their characters. Did the hero participate in an important event? What will happen when the hero’s father dies and they inherit his title? When will their old rival seek revenge? Questions like these can give a character sense of place in the world and suggest an ongoing story.
When prioritizing details I like to focus on the campaign elements tied to the PC’s party as a whole first. Then I look at elements that may be important to individual characters. Finally I focus on the variety of elements that may or may not become relevent during the course of the campaign. However you decide to do it, motion not only adds a nice layer of verisimilitude but also allows you to run a more open, sandbox-style campaign. Instead of forcing the action in any specific direction you can use your knowledge of the campaign elements, combined with an understanding of their motion, to react to the characters.
Links to the RPG Alchemy’s entire Campaign Design series: