Overshadowed, perhaps, by the thrill of the new campaign are those campaigns that failed. The characters that didn't work, the stories that fizzled, the lost interest (either by players or DM), or the games that simply never went anywhere. We are left to wonder what might have been, with a sort of vague awareness that something worthwhile just died.
Top-Down DMing vs. Collaborative Building
Consider how most campaigns originate. The DM announces his intention to run a certain kind of game: "We're playing Hoard of the Dragonqueen in Faerun." The players say "ok, great, let me make a Forgotten Realms PC."
This is a top-down approach. A substantial portion of the key decisions about the campaign have already been determined by the DM's decision to run a particular kind of game. This is perfectly fine and can lead to fun and memorable campaigns, and this is how campaigns have been built for decades. There are many games that turned out great when a DM challenged players by dragging them into a game-world in which they perhaps didn't know they wanted to play.
But think about your favorite books or movies. What are these stories really about? The characters. The setting, the story -- these things exist as scenery in which the main characters operate. The story and setting don't exist without the characters. Hyboria exists as a place for Conan to have adventures. The setting serves him. Robert E. Howard may well have had some ideas about the harsh proto-Earth that his protagonist roamed, but that place was made to shape his themes and provide the excuse for our bronze-skinned Cimmerian to slay his enemies.
As DMs, then, we have an opportunity to be even more than authors -- we can enlist everyone in the creative process, to make every player a DM of sorts -- and to create settings that would not have existed but for the collaboration of all. In this sense, a collaborative DM is more of a collector, editor, and synthesizer, particularly at the genesis of the campaign.
A Character-Driven Campaign
What if we had a character-driven campaign? A story and setting built around the characters, instead of the other way around?
We started this precise process last December. I sent out a blind questionnaire to the entire group asking essentially two questions -- what is the character you most want to play in the Best Campaign Ever and describe the world in which (s)he adventures?
For many players, this can be a somewhat profound inquiry. What do we really want to play, and why? Most of us over the years have played characters we didn't really want to play, or tweaked our characters to fit the other players or setting, or otherwise settled for something suboptimal. Forget that.
We decided everyone was going to play the character they really always wanted to play -- the uber-character they've fantasized about. Maybe something they tried before but didn't get right. Maybe something that is their own peculiar id expression. Maybe something that they were afraid to play because of embarrassment or the feelings of the rest of the group, or something they could never do because of group dynamics.
The trick was, I didn't ask primarily about the character in game terms (class, statistics, etc.). I was primarily interested in the character's identity and personality, and general background, but general types were fine, too. The main thing was that we delved into each player's veritable gaming soul. This required the players to trust this blind questionnaire process and just let go.
To make the experiment real, I did it too. Yes -- the DM made a character. Because it's my campaign too.
The Seven Steps to Collaborative Campaign
Step 1: Write the Character and Campaign Questions
This turned out to be critical. I'll post our actual questionnaire. It was designed to be aspirational and throught-provoking, generating true player preferences in a vacuum.
The Character section is vague. Who do you want to play? Who is this person? Why is she an adventurer? What makes her tick? What is her name and family situation? Encourage the players to build this ideal adventurer of theirs into a 'real' character. The key concept: Why are we building a campaign around this character? What makes him worthy of being an equal co-star of a TV or movie series?
The other section is the fleshing out of the game and campaign world. What kind of a world does the character occupy? What's interesting about it? What role does the character play in the world?
Step 2: Send out the Questionnaire and Confirm Understanding
Get the questionnaire in the hands of your players and give them a deadline. Make sure they understand it is a blind process and that they shouldn't speak of their responses until they're all submitted.
You will likely get a few immediate, enthusiastic responses and then have to drag it out of other people. Harass them and make them participate, but also accept that you may not get every player to respond.
Everyone can meta-game, but not everyone can take the further step back to peer into their own meta-gamer soul. It makes us ask questions about why we game and what we want out of the gaming experience, things we intuitively know but perhaps haven't verbalized or openly communicated about. Male gamers, in particular, are often reluctant to openly express their hopes and dreams in their fantasy expression.
You may need to assist some players in completing the questionnaire, or do it in Q&A / interview format with them rather than in writing. They may need help articulating what they really want. Part of your role in facilitating this is to be their interrogator and counselor, odd as it sounds. Drag it out of them in the way that works for them. They'll thank you for it later.
Check in with any players whose responses are vague or unclear. Confirm with each of them that you understand what they want to play and the world they want to play in.
Step 3: Compile the Responses
Once you have your responses, you need a way of organizing the information. I used a spreadsheet to track the responses so I could view them as a whole and shared it with everyone (with the exception of information a player wanted to be hidden from the rest).
The players -- longstanding gaming friends -- were very curious about the responses of their buddies. The questionnaire both confirmed prior observations of players and yielded new insights. The process allowed us to dig a little deeper into what makes each of our gamer souls tick.
Step 4: Ideation / Connections
We had a group chat (over instant messaging) regarding the spreadsheet.
Some of the connections between player responses were immediate and obvious. Player A wants to play a heroic noble fighter; Player B wants to be a member of a noble court with magical powers and a hand in everyone else's business. That's a pairing that happened, and Players A and B immediately began collaborating on how they might know each other.
On the setting front, you will start to see patterns too. I had asked many character/player preference questions -- tone, magic level, power level, genre, episodic vs. "story arc" play ... everything down to the climate of the "home area" and more details about the home area itself.
Other connections will be less apparent. There are many high- and low-tech solutions to ideation, including programs like MindJet and just using index cards to help organize your thoughts. Spreadsheets lend themselves to sorting and data analysis. Trends emerge.
What's even better -- at this stage it will become apparent to you that players have great ideas too, and that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. They will think of things you have not, and it will make for a better game and campaign that also happens to be geared to the exact things they want to do in it.
Step 5: Proposal
Share the data. Share the thoughts. Put out a deadline for campaign proposals. Let the group come up with ideas. You may get player concepts for a campaign and you may not. That's ok.
Since you (ostensibly) are the organizer and in the DM chair for the moment, you need to come up with a couple of proposals that are (a) interesting (b) unique, both in terms of other content and from the other proposals and (c) keyed to the responses of each of the players in a meaningful way. They each need to see that you have synthesized their answers.
That you have created a concept for discussion and elaboration.
In our game, I came up with two concepts, based on the responses of the group:
- Dunlyle: A middle fantasy, city-based episodic game set in a coastal, oceanic climate, in a world recovering from a planet-altering celestial apocalypse. The campaign would feature exploration, world-building/settlement, taming of the wilderness, and uncovering historical secrets.
- S.S. Coralis: A high magic, high-powered episodic game with the players as famous adventurers aboard a magic ship that sails the seas of the world solving mysteries, having adventures, and making stops in exotic ports of call.
Step 6: Retrofitting / Fleshing Out
This next step can be short or long depending on the character concepts and the campaign concept decided upon. Simply put, some of the characters are going to fit perfectly into the concept and others may not.
Your job is to make it work and change the campaign subtly to suit the character concept, not the other way around. I cannot emphasize this enough.
Case in point -- I had a player that really wanted to be a psionic. This was his dream, what he really wanted. I had not planned on this, and really was neutral to it. But let's say for the sake of argument that I hated it. Bad experience with psionics in the past, it didn't jive with my concept of how magic worked in the game world, whatever. I could have shut him down and said, "make a warlock or sorcerer instead."
Your job is not to stifle the dream of your players. Your job is to make their heroic concept occur in your game. So I put psionics in the game, and made a workaround in the campaign. It's rare, interesting, mysterious, and fun -- just like the player wanted it. He wanted to be special, and so he is. And when he met the aberrant, grotesque and psionically-active Rat-Bitch of the Sewers, he was appropriately freaked out.
Accommodating your players not only makes them happy, but it allows them to be actual contributors. Dunlyle has psionics now, and it's going to be cooler for it.
Lastly, remember that some players are going to require more handholding than others on this. You may have an optimizer type of player that is all about game mechanics but is really foundering with this entire process. Talk to her one on one and get the details from her as you can and accept that for some players, the character comes together as the game is played. Not everything has to be defined and understood fully to start the game.
Step 7: Bringing it All Together
As things coalesce, it's probably time to put together a primer or mini-gazetteer for the game world to give the players a sense of the game world they've help build.
Starting with a single region or city is probably easiest. But before you panic -- I have to come up with an entire city? -- let me let you in on a little secret: you only have to create the parts that are necessary based on the players' responses and character concepts, and to engender a coherent plan for their coming together for adventuring.
The nice part here is that the players (who should largely be VERY engaged by this point) will likely have already had their own back-channel discussions with each other and made their own connections. As a general rule, you need to connect every PC with at least one other PC, even if it's through a common NPC connection. Chances are through this process seeds have already been planted to allow that to occur.
Now there's only one thing left -- to come up with an actual launch of the campaign that is conceptually appropriate.
In Dunlyle (a land with a Scots-Irish vibe) I determined to start with a festival, something that would both bring the characters physically together while also immersing them fully in the campaign world culture. I wanted them to be a part of something. We played three sessions in the festival and its various intrigues and side adventures. I planned nothing further. I wanted the players to have a sandbox flavor, for them to be the masters of their own destiny.
After the first adventure, Player A's noble character entered the drinking contest and ended up married the next morning, changing the course of the campaign.
Now that's player agency. For better or worse.