Tag Archives: GM

Rotating Campaigns

I was just listening to the 3.5 Private Sanctuary podcast, Episode 220, about rotating campaigns.  It struck me because we rotate campaigns, and have been doing it for so long that I don’t really even think about it any more.

We always have two campaigns going on at a time, alternating Sunday afternoons. (Various people in the group also have other campaigns going on – like Chris runs one for some other folks we don’t know on Friday nights). Right now, Paul is running Carrion Crown and I’m running Reavers.

It’s pretty helpful.  As  busy professional and dad, I can barely keep up with prep running every other week.  It allows us to get different gaming experiences, too – sometimes different systems, different types of characters and campaigns – at once.  Some players get twitchy when they play one PC/campaign for too long and campaigns founder, or they want to switch PCs, or other unfortunate things – I feel like the swapping keeps it fresh for everyone.

And, we’re all busy adults.  For a while a number of years ago, I was a single dad with a pre-school age child.  I had to pay a babysitter to be able to get out and game, and I could only realistically swing that once every other week.

The down sides are around “not remembering what’s going on” or “not being able to differentiate between campaigns.” We keep up a rapid enough cadence where remembering is OK, plus we do these wonderful session summaries to help our memories. If we were only gaming monthly and then alternating on top of that, that would be a lot more of a problem. In terms of remembering – eh, we all also play video games and read books and stuff like that, I can distinguish between what happened in the Pathfinder novel I just read and what happened in our campaign, and similarly I can distinguish between campaigns.  It does help to play different game systems, or kinds of campaign, or at least type of character to make them more distinct.

So give rotating campaigns a try and see how you like it!  I don’t think I’d want to go back, really.

Campaign Tool: Agile Session Ratings

This last campaign session, I had an idea inspired by some of the agile planning I was doing at work.

At the beginning of the game, the players (the Reavers) had just returned to their pirate ship to find that Lavender Lil, Tommy’s tiefling girlfriend, had been abducted probably by the vampire that they’d been dealing with earlier. I handed out index cards asking the players to rate how they wanted the session to play out on four vectors:

  • Difficulty
  • Complexity
  • Ultraviolence (just saying “Violence” in a D&D game is redundant)
  • Eroticism (“Sex” is more constraining a term)

One of the major lessons from agile software development planning (story points in particular) is don’t worry about defining things, just develop a shared understanding over time.  So rather than discuss at length what each meant and “what a 3 is,” I just said “rate ’em. They are what they sound like.”

Because this is a proactive methodology you don’t ask for a rating on “How Much You Like It” or something, obviously the request is always for 5 there, and the point here isn’t to find out how you did but to actively guide your behavior this session).

The ratings I got back for what people wanted that session were:

  • Difficulty 3, 3, 2
  • Complexity 3, 2, 2
  • Ultraviolence 5, 4, 2
  • Eroticism 3, 3, 2

So I interpreted those as:

  • Difficulty ~3- (hard fights but no super boss stuff)
  • Complexity ~2+ (pretty straightforward, several phases but no major twists/turns/complications)
  • Ultraviolence ~4- (bring on the hack and gore)
  • Eroticism ~3- (PG-13)

We ran the session – I’ll post the session summary soon.  After the session, I asked them to rate how they thought it turned out on those axes. I didn’t even hand the cards back so people weren’t unduly influenced by their request number. The results were

  • Difficulty 4, 3, 2 (only 1 point off)
  • Complexity 3, 2, 2 (bang on)
  • Ultraviolence 4, 3.5, 2 (a little low – I need more splatter narration practice, I could tell halfway into the session)
  • Eroticism 1, 2, 2 (wow, I was real low and needed to recalibrate)

My interpretation of the results is that I was well calibrated with the players – and they with each other – on difficulty and complexity. I ran a little low on the ultraviolence, and I knew it – I understood the goal, I just fell short some. The players have one calibration issue here, the “2” guy. And then on eroticism – in my mind I figured 1=G, 2=PG, 3=PG-13, 4=R, 5=X.  But I guess since there’s been sexual content in the game, the stuff I put in (nudity, sex talk) was super tame to them.  So I note to myself “OK, 3 means a lot more to these players.”

Therefore I have confidence that next time I ask for proactive session ratings, both they and I will know what we mean by them – without spending an hour arguing about “what the ratings mean!”  It took like 5 minutes out of the session to do this.

I don’t ask for ratings every game – some sessions I have a clear plan for what I intend to happen.  But especially on side treks like this – it could be super simple or multi session, super hard or real easy…  Why not see what kind of an experience they want to have today?

Campaign Planning

Game prep is the single largest task of the Game Master in any RPG.  If you want, you can write your own adventures and create your own campaign settings and all that, but regardless of what you construct yourself vs. use from another source, everyone has to prep game sessions.

I thought I’d give some insight into how I plan my campaigns, for those interested in running multi-year kinds of stories.  I try to balance in the sweet spot of “sandbox enough that PCs feel like they can go anywhere and do anything” with “story enough that there is something actually interesting and compelling to go do.”

The overall trick is drawn from the project management world, it’s called horizon planning. Basically, you make rough plans for far in the future so you have a target, and have more specific preparations for more proximate activities.

I tend to separate the timeframes out into campaign, plot arc, adventure, and session.

The Campaign

For the campaign level, at start I decide what I’m interested in and survey the players and come up with a rough idea of what the campaign will look like, and run that by the players to get buy-in.  In our Reavers on the Seas of Fate campaign, I pitched a pirate adventure/horror campaign with anime influence that would start out urban as a mix of Riddleport from Second Darkness and Freeport, move on to open seas pirate action, and then to the jungles of the Mwangi and other esoteric locations. The PCs signed off on that and submitted their ideas for cool stuff they’d like to see included, and I know things I’d like to put in. For campaign prep, I basically have all those ideas in a sheaf to draw from.

The Arcs

The three aforementioned legs formed my three potential major campaign arcs or “seasons.” I have a Word doc where I block out an arc and list potential published adventures and other things to include.  It’s high level enough that it doesn’t change much but is very amenable to change when new stuff comes my way either through new content or player action.

The arc I’m in, I plan out the sequence of adventures more. In the first arc, the urban arc, I planned out that I’d use the first Second Darkness adventure, interleaving it with the Freeport Trilogy of adventures, and other stuff. I roughly blocked out, again in Word, what a likely sequencing would be. Some parts are more mandatory, like the culmination of the Freeport trilogy was intended as a significant plot point. Some are completely optional – “if they agree to go with Captain Clap and raid the island, use Mansion of Darkness.”

For example, my season one prep information for Reavers consisted of NPC writeups, handouts, and a list of probable adventures in rough order, like:

  • Water Stop – while the PCs are sailing to Riddleport, they come across some escaped slaves on an island (use Water Stop from En Route II) and a goblin pirate ship (use the Sable Drake from Stormwrack).
  • Cheat the Devil and Steal His Gold – the PCs get to Riddleport and visit the Gold Goblin when a robbery breaks out; use the adventure from Second Darkness “Shadow In The Sky.” Try to get them to join up with Saul.

Of course they may never use one or more of these, or react to them in a way that obviates the adventure – “Escaped slaves? We murder them all and sail off quickly!”

As the game progresses, I more frequently revisit this based on PC action, inserting, deleting, and reordering. “They want to go back to the island from Arm-Ripper? OK, plan that out…” This relies on a little give and take from the PCs.  I don’t want to nail them down, but I like them to tell me what they’re thinking about doing as opposed to them just setting sail and making me guess where they’re heading.  “We turn left and NOW WE’RE AT THE ISLAND AGAIN!  Ha ha ha you’re not prepared.” My players are more than mature enough that doesn’t happen, though of course there’s always the chance when in town or whatnot that they decide to go stir up a major hornet’s nest I don’t have much on.

Handling The Unexpected

This is actually where a lot of the bulk my advance prep takes place. It’s easy to prep for a session you expect, but harder to prep for one you don’t.  I make sure and have a raft of content around. For an urban setting, for example, I might go “light random generation and wing it” like with Vornheim: The Complete City Kit, or have Freeport: The City of Adventure (both versions) around to pull from.  I actually do both, to use depending on my mood.

I have major NPCs pre-statted with contingencies – the main risk is that the PCs will say “that crime lord a-hole has been dogging us long enough, let’s go kick down his door and go all home invasion on him.”

Along those lines – I keep notes from old sessions and keep them around, and expand on them as needed. PCs are unlikely to go toss themselves through the window of a random bar, but they are very likely to do so with a bar they have been in before. I pay attention to throwaway stuff the PCs react well to – like recently, the PCs were trying to sell off some loot and the party halfling made good rolls to find them some perfect buyers. So they went into this little private bar to sell some cold iron weapons and found some very serious looking people with an obvious grudge against all things fae. I just made it up as an explanation for a high rate of return on selling cold iron weapons, but the PCs were intrigued. “We should go look up those racists again! They were cool!” Note to self, write it up and keep it on hand.

The Adventure

A given adventure may span one or less sessions, but more commonly it spans 2-4 sessions depending on its complexity and the PCs. Here, I may use a published adventure or not. I’m not going to say too much about prepping an adventure – if it’s published, I read through it, decide what I want to add, remove, or change, and consider how my PCs will likely react. If coming up with an adventure, you may need as much prepped as you’re comfortable with – if you are a super on the fly guy and you like coming up with whole dungeon complexes off the cuff with nothing but a random monster table, fine – if you need as much detail as a published adventure, write it down. Suffice it to say that you usually have a lot less control as to what part of the adventure the PCs will be doing in a given session, they may go anywhere, so you need near session level detail on the adventure. I tend to use little chunks from published things, write some myself, and fill in the gaps with random generation and improvisation.

The Session

I spend as much time prepping a session as the session takes to play.  Our sessions are usually ~6 hours. Some adventures have more of a timeline and I can prep just the early part as a session; others (like a location-based dungeon) need several sessions worth of prep  up front.

I keep a separate Word doc for each session, which also serves as notes afterwards. It usually spans 2-5 pages, depending on how much of the content is original vs. derived from a published product, and has three sections:

  • Cast of Characters
  • Adventure
  • Notes

Cast of Characters

I list all the relevant NPCs, good and bad, and named monsters that are likely to appear in the session.  If “War2, ship’s carpenter” is enough information I put it inline; for major guys I have a reference – “see Denizens of Freeport p.76” or an attached PDF, often generated from Hero Lab, with the NPC in question.

This is often a large part of the session writeup for me – I do very character driven stuff, and in this campaign the PCs often have NPCs along, have a ship crewed with NPCs, have various major NPCs involved with them or scheming against them. My philosophy is that if you have enough interesting characters, the adventures unfold largely on their own. As an example, here’s a partial list from my Cheat the Devil session prep sheet:

Bojask, Saul’s bodyguard (SS p.39)
Pigsaw, boar (SS p.40)
Lixy Parmenter
Marzielle Ajuela, firey part-time barmaid
Iecha, scullery maid – This lady reminds you of a crazed lunatic. She has almond-shaped eyes the color of fine silver. Her thick, straight, black hair is short and is worn in a bizarre style. She is short and has a busty build. Her skin is china-white. She has a large mouth. Her wardrobe is risque.
Angvar Thestlecrit, wizard robber
Thuvalia Barabbio, one-eyed robber
4 nameless thieves

Many are from the Shadow in the Sky adventure or the Gold Goblin location writeup; I reference or enhance as needed. That Iecha description is pasted from a random generator. I usually generate visual aids, too, with a picture for major NPCs and their name.


What’s probably going to happen, or could happen.  I tend to keep this pretty bare bones, and refer out to set-pieces from other adventures or whatnot.  From my Cheat the Devil session, here’s my adventure notes. It has some random things, and then a little info around the likely big fight from Shadow in the Sky.

Wandering Riddleport

  • Meet Samaritha Beldusk at the Cypher Lodge, she can ID the wand the PCs found last adventure.
  • Have people go to the Publican House.
  • Have people go to the House of the Silken Veil.  Shorafa Pamodae, Lavender Lil, and Selene will be here.  Selene is already working there and wants Ox.
  • Use Riddleport random encounters table

Go to the Gold Goblin and run Cheat the Devil, Take his Gold SS p.13

Robbery! SS p.16
Angvar: “All right, everybody be cool, this is a robbery!”
Thuvalia: “Any of you fucking pricks move, and I’ll execute every motherfucking last one of ya!”
Blunderbuss 500 gp 1d12 3d6 19-20/x2 15 ft. 8 lbs. B and P

If they fight off the robbers, Saul asks them to join!  Gives them vouchers for a trip to the Silken Veil if they haven’t gone yet.  Run the Goblin, do beast fights, have random trouble.

That’s it. With NPCs and city setting information, that’s more than enough for me. Of course, getting all that stuff together and familiarizing myself with it takes a whole evening.


Here, I keep the notes from the session.  They are short but keep the important parts – character interactions, places visited, things accomplished…  Here’s an example notes section from the Cheat the Devil session:

  • Wogan went to Kolter’s shop for powder and shot
  • Selene seduced Ox
  • Tommy solicited Lavender Lil
  • Sindawe used in Infamy Point to do a stunt and KO Thuvalia
  • Angvar and Thuvalia were caught alive and have been exiled from Riddleport
  • Sindawe faces Zincher in the Gold Goblin
  • Iecha starts in on Wogan but Ox intervenes, now she’s onto him

Of course, often I’ll prep a whole adventure as one session, and the PCs will only get through part of it.  In that case I commute the unused prep to the next session and add extra prep if I think that’ll be required to fill the session – most things can stand more expansion!

What’s Good For The Goose

I wanted to talk a little about in-game GM rulings, and making sure you are not unfairly disadvantaging players in the name of realism.

This was inspired by a thread on the Paizo boards about “My GM doesn’t let me move with a loaded crossbow, he says the bolt will fall out.”  But it led me to think about a lot of related rulings and general tendencies I’ve seen among GMs over time.  A desire for “realism” is admirable, but it shouldn’t be restricted to just PCs and thus discriminate against them.

Think about it from your player’s point of view.  If you:

  • make them track encumbrance minutely
  • require them to make a lot of rolls to “wake up” in a campsite combat
  • make them not carry loaded crossbows
  • make them draw their swords in the first round of every combat
  • require lots of skill checks to distinguish their ass from a hole in the ground
  • and other stuff like that

You really need to think about whether you are requiring the same of NPCs and opponents.  Because most of the time, when I as a player wander into the bad guys’ barracks, they are all up and attacking on the first round.  None are ever dozing, busy taking a dump, out of their armor, thirty feet away from their weapon, slowed by their gear, et cetera.   They are all watching the door and immediately recognize that the PCs are no one they know from their whole fortress.  (Unless it’s one of those scripted “they’re all asleep if you make Stealth checks” rooms.)  No humanoid is ever encumbered (nor, seemingly, do they carry about the food and water and supplies that they likely would need to survive if they were a PC).

Which is fine, you can decide if you want a very simulationist detail-heavy kind of game or not.  But what’s not appropriate is to make the PCs deal with the minutiae and not inflict it on the enemy.  If your PCs are having to worry about their potions breaking when they fall ten feet, or about all the arrows falling out of their quiver when they get tripped, you need to be as anal on the bad guys.

You think you don’t do that?  Well, let’s see.  Do you require a Stealth check from everyone in the party (and when rolling 6 d20s, someone’s going to roll low)  whenever they are trying to sneak up on some enemy emplacement, and if so, do you make monsters do the same thing?   There’s a very common fallacy I see all the time here – PCs are sensed, and don’t sense anything, unless they take positive action to make a skill check.  On the other hand, bad guys are never sensed, and sense everything, unless a PC specifically is actively using Spot or Stealth to thwart them.

Do your PCs always have wounds, long term ability damage, and hangovers from drinking or fatigue from not sleeping the previous night?  Well, if the bad guys are a gang of berserkers in a war zone, why are they always totally fresh and unimpaired?

I’m definitely not anti-realism.  I like a gritty “everyman” campaign from time to time.  If you want to go that route, you *can* inflict similar hindrances on your NPCs. Remember that from their point of view, it’s the PCs who are the wandering monsters.

Give your players breaks!  If the alarm hasn’t been raised and they’re sneaking around a castle, why would the off duty guardsman intent on his whittling even bother looking up when someone in armor walks into the barracks?  He has a pretty good chance of just continuing and only realizing something’s wrong when someone runs at him with a sword.  Flat-footed should be a common ailment among bad guys in a location that’s not on alert.  Some percentage of people should be asleep, depending on their sleep cycle… Even if they run watches 24×7, at least a fourth of the people/creatures in the dungeon/castle/ruin are asleep at any given time.

Do quick ad hoc rolls for “combat readiness.”  Roll one bandit as a random encounter?  Roll d20, and “1” means he left his weapon and armor back in his tent and is sprinting to the latrine because he’s vomiting (“sickened”) from too much rum.   Not only is it “cutting PCs a break” (though not really, because you probably inflict all this on them), but it makes your world seem a lot more realistic.