What Do You Want To Play?
How to ask your players what kind of campaign they want, and maybe get meaningful answers.
I was asked, years ago, what kind of campaign I’d like to play in, and I suspect I gave a long and rambling answer because while I was-and-am a Forever GM, I hadn’t really thought about what I’d want in a game. I’ve played in a few games now, and with the release of 5E Spelljammer and the announcement of 5E Planescape, I have some thoughts. I also had a huge feeling of deja vu when I started out on writing this, but as far as I could tell, I hadn’t covered the topic in this newsletter. And then I had about a thousand words drafted when I realised I was describing my own campaigns, which is kind of obvious.
(A map by MidJourney. I really like this, actually…)
So let me dump all of that, and talk instead, at Cee’s suggestion, of what kind of parameters there are for D&D campaigns, and how you can ask your players what kind of game they want to play, and maybe even get some useful answers.
First, there is no point in asking this as an open-ended question. People who’ve been playing for a long time will either describe their own campaigns (sometimes without realising it, like me) or something like the particular build of warlock-sorcerer-rogue they want to try (or some other specific detail of character or world). Neither of these is really all that helpful.
What I do, when I’m looking at a new campaign, is build pitches. I take a few ideas I have floating around, smash them together a bit, add in things I know specific players are interested in (which sometimes even come from the what-do-you-want-to-play question), and then put some sort of spin on them. This results in things like (real examples):
The Vigiliant Watch keeps the Kingdom of Aetropos safe. It’s an elite order, powered and sustained by old magics, but largely outdated; new militaries and magics have superseded it. You are the newest recruits - some by choice, some not so much - and you’re finding that it deals with older, darker, and more secret threats than the army and the war college ever could.
You’re the crew of the good ship Aremachus, under Captain Hadwin Walentya. Or, strictly, the ghost of Hadwin Walentya. Or maybe the astral form. It’s complicated. As long as you can put up with his ongoing search for his body, it’s not a bad life, and having a small fast ship that can move through the pirate-infested waters of the Lynx Coast makes it interesting.
Theatre troupes, which function something like families and something like mercenary companies, range back and forth across the lands of Hyenine, presenting plays, skits and shows in each of the cities, towns and villages they pass through. You are members of a small troupe, and many of your plays, and the events around them, are concerned with living in the shadow of the expansionist Empire of Ayuur.
Hettate’s merchant houses drive the ancient city, and thus the world. You are the members of one such house, but you weren’t expecting to be running it. After your the head of the house’s sudden death, and the retreat of her wife to a monastery with strict rules of silence and isolation, you find yourselves in control of what could be a small fortune, or could be destitution for your house, depending on which way the trade winds blow.
(The third one there, as it happens, is in the same world as Heliomar, but back a few hundred years, while the Empire was still actively expanding. The lands of Hyenine are now The River Marches province of Ayuur.)
So first, let me look at (some of) the kinds of dials you can adjust for a campaign. D&D, if you’re going to run it rules-as-written, is a high fantasy game. You can - just about - munge it around enough to run a low-fantasy, mud-and-swords kind of setting, but it requires removing some classes (any game with an arcane spellcaster in it has a tough time being low-fantasy), restricting others in terms of spell choice (clerics having healing and resurrection doesn’t work), and so on. So assume high fantasy for everything.
You can, however, adjust how much magic is in the rest of the world, and how available it is. In Heliomar, there’s magic all over the place; it’s literally falling out of the ruins in some places, and there are whole cities in which maxed-out spellcasters live on every street. The Vigilant Watch and Hettate Merchant House campaigns above would have much less - all the things described in the rulebooks exist, but there aren’t that many of them, and the highest-level NPCs in the cities of those settings would be around level 14. This is mostly to do with the basic topics - you can’t have much in the way of dark and secret threats if there are 8th and 9th level spells in common circulation, and the entire idea of merchantry, ships and moving goods over distances breaks down a little when teleportation is available. It’s interesting when it’s the player characters getting hold of that stuff as they reach the higher levels, though, and they’ll have had to work harder to get there.
You can also change the rate of advancement. If you award half the experience points for each encounter, it takes twice as long for the characters to level up, which makes the campaign feel different. Or you can go with milestone advancement, and just give out the new levels much less frequently.
You can change the level of organisation. In all the pitches above, there’s a definite amount of structure for what the player characters will be doing. Sometimes that appeals to people. Other times, they’ll go for open sandbox-y type games, where they can wander wherever and do whatever, and the actual plot-of-the-campaign takes longer to appear.
You can change the amount of travel in the game. It’s entirely possible to run a game set in one town or city, and have very little activity that leaves it. It’s also possible to run a game where the player characters never spend more than one night in any location. Some of the pitches above would be very localised; others depend fundamentally on movement.
You can change the base culture of the game. D&D assumes a sort of late-medieval vaguely-European not-even-vaguely-historical mashup of stuff. You can narrow that base culture down (10th century Norse settlements in invaded territory; Venetian Renaissance; Elizabethan London), replacing the real-world stuff with invented equivalents, or you can move that base assumption to other cultures entirely (Late medieval Japan; pre-Columbian Meso-America; early Zulu Kingdom). There’s plenty of material out there to help with that. It’s worth being careful with ideas like cultural appropriation here, although if you’re just using the material for your own home game, rather than profiting from it, it’s not really an issue.
You can introduce some of the weirder ideas from fantasy. Spelljammer and Planescape both fall into this; the reality-spanning material of Roger Zelazny’s Amber, the reincarnating-icon of Michael Moorcock’s Elric stories and their wider universe; the really bizarre stuff that Monte Cook has been producing for the last decade, and so on. I think of Planescape’s cosmology as being almost a normal part of a setting at this stage, but that’s my personal preference rather than anything built into D&D.
And then you can start referring to cultural and literary touchstones. Oddly, this is more difficult than it used to be. There was a time when you could assume that nearly anyone looking to get involved in a D&D game had read Lord of the Rings. Now, you can sort-of assume that someone has seen the movies, but not everyone has. So this isn’t necessarily as easy as saying “Ok, it’ll be a bit like Firefly, with some investigative/weird reality stuff like Fringe, and vocal magic like in Motherland: Fort Salem.” - because I’m fairly sure the set of people who’ve seen all three of those is small enough, and almost certainly doesn’t include all your players. And giving “homework” of “ok, go watch this before we start” is a surefire way to prevent the campaign from kicking off; many people seem to suffer from a compulsion to outright refuse to watch or read something recommended to them.
But if you know that most of your players have seen or read Thing X, then you can use that, and if some smaller number have seen or read Thing Y, that’s usually enough to get things moving. The people who are not familiar with the media can play characters who’re not familiar with those aspects of the setting, and that way them learning about it is part of the game. Usefully, the number of people who have seen or read no fantasy or sf at all is now very low.
Finally, there’s the verb. What are the player characters going to do? Sometimes this is dictated by the organisational aspects, or some other part of the setting. Sometimes you can add it on top. “Fight”, “Explore”, “Oppose”, “Find”, “Rescue”, or “Eliminate” are all good options here. I tend to leave this out of the actual written pitch, for some reason, but it’s a good idea to know what’s going on at some level.
With all that in mind, then, you can specify that you’re thinking of a low-magic-availability game, with slow advancement, strong organisation, based mostly in one city with an Ottoman Turkish-ish feel, and some elements of Disney’s Treasure Planet in the background, in which the player characters are rebelling against an oppressive ruler. Or a player could, in theory, say that they want to play a high-magic-availability, normal advancement, mid-to-lightly organised campaign which deals with travelling from city to city through a setting like Napoleonic France, wherein the player characters are hunting werewolves. Throw in some proper nouns, and the pitch essentially writes itself.
If you have other dials in mind, let me know - I’m interested in gathering as many as possible before I pitch my next campaign.