The time between the last one and this one was too long, but I’m back with another edition of the Gamemaster’s Screen! This one seems a little weird to be covered so broadly but the whole idea is to entice you to read more about the specifics, so let’s get started.

Campaigns

Dungeons and Dragons has proliferated the Internet to such a degree that if you want information on how to run a campaign for D&D or need ideas to run a campaign for D&D, you can literally Google that and find what you’re looking for without much help. I don’t play D&D because that’s not my jam, so this isn’t the place for that talk.

What I’m talking about is coming up with a campaign… primarily on the fly.

From 1995 until 2020, I played nothing else but White Wolf games (Vampire, Werewolf, Wraith, etc). This wasn’t because I was super into these games to that degree but more to the fact that I was most familiar with the way these games operated and I couldn’t find anyone to play anything else other than D&D (which I’ve already explained above isn’t my jam). Knowing this, I’m going to blow your mind a little more by stating that from 1997 until 2021 I was only a GM and never a player.

This was not for a lack of trying, mind you.

As a result, though, I’ve gotten pretty good at coming up with details on the fly, or in the process of playing the actual game. Now, as the Storyteller/Gamemaster of a game, I generally have a basic skeleton of a plan of what I’d like to do in any scenario of a long term campaign, whether I’ve actually worked out the details of that campaign or not. There have been occasions, though, where I have had the basic starting and ending points and came up with the middle as we played the game.

This is a feat not everyone can accomplish but almost all GMs should be at least capable of doing.

Since I’m most familiar with Vampire the Masquerade, I’m going to be using that as my example in this post. When in doubt, go with what you know, right?

Let’s say you’ve got your players into the idea of an open ended campaign where they want to generally progress up through the power structure of the city as they go. As part of that campaign, you know that they start out as a street level coterie (Vampire for troupe) and you know that maybe you want them to end as being in charge of that city for the next phase of the campaign, you just don’t exactly know how to get them there. This is actually the perfect way to do this type of story, as long as you know how to build the campaign as you go.

This particular city is run by the Camarilla, which means it’s headed by a Prince. (The Camarilla are basically Vampire feudalism in practice.) The first few “missions” for your coterie should be small jobs to get them familiar with each other’s characters; things like cleaning up potential Masquerade breaches (potential revealing Vampires exist), handling new Vampires that don’t have their creator, or maybe even finding “lost” items for one of the Vampires in the hierarchy (by lost I mean stolen). Make sure you make notes of the NPCs these players run into because this is fodder for future stories because not only will their characters rise in rank, these NPCs can too!

The next phase will be bigger missions, something where the “bigger fish” take interest in how well the coterie has performed and want to send them out on more important missions. These are still “street level” missions, mind you, they just have a greater level of optics because someone with some pull has started giving out the missions.

This is where your middle campaign starts getting built without the players realizing you haven’t done any heavy footwork. The missions these more important Vampires are sending the coterie on involve spying, kidnap jobs (“bring this dude to me”), blackmail jobs (“bring me dirt on Sammy”), and things like that. These are going to be the types of jobs where you’re giving the coterie a chance to build up their own base of information to trade on against both their targets AND their benefactor (in the case they want to turn on them in the near future).

SCENARIO ONE

The coterie is sent to investigate Victoria Westbrook and dig up some dirt on her so that your benefactor, Garrett Martin can turn his Ventrue business into a bane for his Toreador rival.

While the coterie does find out that Victoria is dealing drugs to some of the local gangs in Garrett’s territory to keep his business interests off kilter, she is also extorting the Seneschal Lynn Sandow to keep her quiet about some secret Sandow can’t let get out.

The coterie passes on the drug dealing to the gangs to Garrett but the group holds the extortion of Sandow to themselves for later use, as they find that they might need to have something in their back pocket against Garrett.

SCENARIO TWO

The coterie is sent to investigate Victoria Westbrook and dig up some dirt on her so that your benefactor, Garrett Martin can turn his Ventrue business into a bane for his Toreador rival.

The coterie does find out that Victoria is dealing drugs to the local gangs as well as extorting the Seneschal, they also unwittingly uncover that Garrett is not who he says he is, leaving the coterie to determine whether or not to keep working for him.

This revelation makes the coterie decide to go to Victoria to explain what you found out about Garrett and maybe turn their fortunes toward helping her instead, giving them a chance to move up quicker since she controls the Seneschal.

In both of the above scenarios, the players are sent on the mission and the information they uncover is what you decide in the spur of the moment. This is heavy plot development for where your campaign can go and it looks brilliantly crafted… and you just did it in the spur of the moment.

In scenario one, you involved the second most important Vampire in the city in the plot, you may have taken down a major player in the “phase two” part of the street level plot in Victoria by giving up information to Garrett, and you’ve allowed the players to keep tight with Garrett who sent them on the series of “higher profile” missions in the first place.

Scenario two allowed you to give the players a chance to turn on Garrett if they didn’t really like him (teaching them a core principle of Vampire that information is power), getting in good with someone who has Lynn’s earn (and thus the Prince’s ear), and you’ve probably created a power vacuum when Garrett gets taken out that could potentially be filled by one or more of the coterie.

Either scenario is a great option and both of them look like you’ve stuck a fair amount of planning into the situation. This is when you start moving them up to “phase three,” where you start digging them into the Vampire politics of the city rather than just the street level goings on (although you shouldn’t entirely remove them from that aspect).

An important point about all of this is to look back at that list of NPCs you’ve introduced and haven’t killed off because this is where you’ll start re-introducing them back into the plot. Maybe they screwed Jerome over pretty hard on that lost item recovery and he’s now ready to start using his own political power to try to get back at the party. What about when you helped pair Olivia the lost new Vampire with a suitable mentor and now she’s digging dirt up on the coterie for someone else?

Something else no-one else seems to think about is an important piece of gameplay I always try to keep in mind. This applies to all RPGs, too.

When you adventure as murder hobos in D&D, you do it as a group. When you are Vampires working in all my examples above, you’re doing so as a coterie. When you’re flying ships through a galaxy far, far away, you’re likely also part of a team of swashbuckling adventurers. Basically, you’re not some loner out there alone trying to do something solo. You are part of a team. Why wouldn’t everyone else in that world also be part of a team?

Using Vampire, every other Vampire out there has also got a coterie they rely on. The Prince of the city? Sure, they are in charge of ruling the city but you don’t think several of the other Vampires in charge aren’t members of their coterie? Jerome, who the players screwed over earlier in your “campaign on the fly,” he’s not some solo loner… he’s got a coterie, too. Olivia, while solo when you first met her, is now part of a coterie. Stop thinking of these games as “our group fights solo big boss fights” and start thinking “they are just like us.”

But I digress.

Included with all the NPCs you’ve made a list of, and maybe you’ve started making a list of some of the Vampires those NPCs are working for… or maybe now that I’ve written that, you should start doing that. Without having pre-defined the city structure, doing this can actually define your city structure in the process. This also allows you to construct a relationship map between who likes who, who hates who, who trusts who, who’s got beef, who’s got dirt, etc, etc, etc… Doing that little bit may give you some future session ideas to run, where some of the player inputs and side quests might give you more goodies to pick from, but you’re slowly building this world and you haven’t really done any leg work up front.

This scenario in “phases” basically steps up one level of difficulty as you go. Street level gangs and thugs to street level political dirt digging… which leads to low level political maneuvering, leading to slightly more important political maneuvering, building to a focus of one of the “core power Vampires” in the city, and then leading to more of the core power players. After you’re routinely involved with the core plower structure of the city, you’re basically at the point where the coterie is looking to take out the Prince and that was the point of your initial “beginning to end” campaign idea.

Depending on how anxious your players are, you can build this as fast as “one phase per session” or you can do a phase per however many sessions you think you can stretch it out. If your group likes looooooooong campaigns, then maybe the street level phases last 10-15 sessions before you even think of moving on. At that point, though, you would have a lot of NPC street level names to work with for future storylines. Callbacks are a good thing, just don’t try to callback everyone.

I hope I’ve given some of you a means of being able to build a campaign on the fly. Doing work ahead of time is nice but sometimes you either don’t have time or you just don’t know what the players are going to want until you start playing. In those cases, this is the method to use.

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