I believe one important step in campaign-building consists in an exchange of thoughts and wishes between players and referee. It is the only way to communicate in the clearest of terms what the game will be about, and what the players can get out of it.
It is a win-win situation for the referee.
First, it allows him to know how to reach a certain level of satisfaction from the other participants, and through it, what kind of challenges, and thus entertainment, are required for the game at hand.
Second, it promotes the idea that the campaign is a collaborative effort, and not solely the result of the referee’s imagination. In other words, the campaign before it even starts isn’t the referee’s game, but the group’s game. This is, I believe, central to the idea of role-playing games.
Third, it helps frame the campaign’s original concept into a workable whole, a template from which the game’s components will naturally spring to life.
Case in point: the game I am about to start with Nerissa, my better half, is going to be a Greyhawk campaign combining elements of Castle Greyhawk, Castle Zagyg, DungeonADay, as well as my own designs, through the Black Abbey of Saint Yessid, at the very least.
I know I want to be able to forge my own Greyhawk and not play someone else’s. This means all published Greyhawk materials are sources of inspirations, and not sources of canon. There is no canon in this campaign but mine.
The same logic applies to the game’s system. I want to be able to craft the rules as we go, and in so doing, to get the most out of it. I want to reach back to the roots of the game and make it mine. This is what entices me to use Swords & Wizardry (which truly is a combination of the 1974 original rules and some selected elements of Supplement I: Greyhawk) and build from the ground up.
Nerissa created a character for the Pathfinder role-playing game system back when I was working on Nall-Morrain. Our intention is to just convert the character’s concept into OD&D mechanics. This character, Pei Lin, is of Oriental decent. As I was perusing through AD&D’s Oriental Adventures, Nerissa was enthused at the idea of playing an Oriental campaign. When I told her this was at odds with my campaign goals (the spatial goal of playing within the Free City’s vicinity and all these dungeons I had in mind, namely), she looked sort of disappointed.
This alone pushed me to work on a way to use Oriental Adventures with a pure medieval Greyhawk, to get them to complement each other’s feel rather than blend them. I will talk a lot more about the Oriental components of this campaign later, so forgive me as to the teaser nature of this particular point.
Nerissa wants her character to travel, to experience the world, not only within a dungeon’s confines, but through journeys, outdoors exploration and the like. This goes against a single megadungeon’s approach. She wants some dungeon exploration and wants to kick butt, however. This, to me, suggests a blend of outdoors vs. dungeons, or rather, a journey between dungeons to fulfill an overarching goal or quest.
During one of the many conversations we had about this potential campaign, Nerissa told me she would like it to feature puzzles, dungeon exploration, some NPCs interactions and ways to use her thievery skills. Her original Pathfinder character is a rogue, and I do not want to make her choose between restricting options in a Swords & Wizardry environment - I would rather have her experience the minimalist approach of the rules through the game first rather than force it onto her before it even starts. This is why I plan on adopting a thief character class for this game from the get-go.
The “puzzle” component is interesting in the sense that Nerissa points out here that she wants to be challenged as a player, not a character. As Hercule Poirot would put it, she wants to have to use her little grey cells, which blends nicely with my vintage gaming aims, in that the players are just as much, if not more, challenged than the characters.
NPC interactions imply opportunities for such like inns, caravans, ship crews and the like while the thievery skills imply obstacles such as locks, chests, doors, cliffs/walls to climb as well as situations to charm, pick pockets, hide and sneak. The kicking butt component means just that: combat situations, occasions to just stick it to the adversaries, which rules out heavily investigative scenarios.
It’s actually quite shocking what you can grasp from a few exchanges between referee and players before any campaign elements have been designed. This provides some pointers, aims, campaign elements which all will ultimately help reach this most elusive of goals: entertainment for everyone around the game table.