I just started a new campaign after the Fizzle a couple of weeks ago.
I wanted to share my campaign planning process, and how it translates into a campaign primer: a document that tells your players enough to build a character that fits the scenario.
Choosing Your Tone
Before I start any campaign planning proper, I want to make sure I have a sense of what kind of game I want to run. The tone of the campaign is the first stage to building everything else.
Modern gaming culture is full of slang terms and concepts that can help you develop your idea. Ideas like "old school", "action-heavy", "gonzo", "grimdark", "noblebright" "cinematic", "story-driven", "RP-heavy", or "beer-and-pretzels" all have potential to help you shop around for campaign ideas.
Another way to go about this is to make a list of the books, movies, games, or comics that you might like to draw on with the campaign.
Whatever the case, your goal is to be able to articulate to your players what kind of experience that you would like to offer them.
Your campaign primer should not take place of either a document with your house rules or a session 0. These are separate necessary steps that a Campaign primer simply can't replace. I often keep a short list of house rules in the Primer, but keeping them in a place where they are readily available for reference.
The point of a Campaign Primer is to:
- Let the players know what style and tone of play you are looking for.
- Where the PCs will begin the game.
- The most important things all PCs need to know.
- What they will need to know to make a character for the campaign.
- Any options for characters not presented in the game's rulebook.
You job here is to let the players know what they can expect if they choose to play in your campaign.
I often include a rough idea of what the players can expect their characters will be doing both at the beginning, and where I envision a campaign going barring PCs or the dice changing the game's arc.
Setting the StageYou don't need a lot to get a campaign going. A map of the area within a day's journey of the PCs' starting settlement.
As a default, nothing exists in a campaign world unless the DM says so. However, where you intend to deviate from the baseline game, it is important to let PCs know where their options have been limited. This is particularly true of classes and races, but also certain weapons and spells players tend to make their signatures. If fireball or cure wounds are not going to available in your game, it might be a good idea to say so up front both here, and in your house rules document.
Establishing Character Options
While writing up this document helps you organize your thoughts about the game world in general, for the players it is almost entirely for helping them build a character that fits into your vision well enough that it won't be jarring or a disappointment.
If there are custom classes, unique low-level spells, new races, or similar options, this is where you are going to give them. I like to give players a list of options for places or professions they might come from and offer the a minor ability, skill, or power connected to that part of the setting. This helps you build the world for the players. If the people of Thule are such masters of the cold that they all know how to summon a ray of frost, you have established a lot about the favor of the Thuleans.
Art and Maps
At some point in this process, you will want to give the players a map of that small area that you have thought through at least well enough to last you the first three adventures.
Beyond that, I try to add art that complements the ideas I have about the campaign. I put images of characters, monsters, and places that might fit into my campaign throughout the primer. This art can tell players who are astute observers a lot about how you envision the world that could take pages to otherwise make work.
I keep a Pinterest account where I collect galleries full of character, concept, and map art to use for purposes like ths.
I have shared my most recent campaign primer as a PDF below. This document covers everything a player would know to build a character in either an OSR game, or in ICRPG (the system for which it is intended) as an example.
Because I am publishing this one, the original art I used was removed and replaced with art that has a Creative Commons license. It is not quite as effective as the pirate art I was using... but I still feel that it catches a lot of the essence.