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Avoiding obsession with detail, or How to Build a Campaign?

Isawa Sideshow

First Post
grodog: That's some pretty old material you're referencing; I doubt I'll be able to find it.


Thanks, everyone, for all the pointers. I guess it would help if I had a playgroup; as is, I just have some friends who I think might be interested. I just want to make sure that if I do end up getting a game together, I don't end up wasting my players' time with some cliched thrown-together dungeon crawl (although those can be fun, don't get me wrong). I want to wow them with something really good, but first I'll have to fight my obsession with perfectionism first. :)

I think I'll take a cue from my current GM and break the campaign into smaller self-contained (but related) chapters. Now it's just a matter of finding a plot for a chapter that's both entertaining and that I can actually write. ;)

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the Jester


Make a setting. Don't make a plot. The pcs will do that for you. Dangle a dozen threads with vague ideas about where they lead and let the pcs choose which one to try to unravel. After a session or two you can figure out the details.


Kugar said:
1) Have the PCs generate the characters first.
Designing the plot to interact with the PCs always helps keep them involved.
I second that.
There is also a slightly alternate method.
Take your main campaign idea (in my case discovery of new land like the founding of america), state the basics of that to your players, and then get them to make their characters. And if you have players like mine, force them to come up with at least two paragraphs of background for their character (hero builders guidbook is very helpful for getting ideas flowing).

Then you can take your orriginal idea and the character concepts and make adventures based on plot threads that the party would be interested in as a whole.



Isawa Sideshow said:
...I guess it would help if I had a playgroup; as is, I just have some friends who I think might be interested. I just want to make sure that if I do end up getting a game together, I don't end up wasting my players' time with some cliched thrown-together dungeon crawl...

Are these players older, experienced, jaded players? If not, don't be so afraid to have each and every detail mapped out. If you have new players, even "dungeon crawls" are fresh and exciting, even with a minimum of plot.

The problem you need to overcome is that even with a group of jaded old-timer players, not every detail has to be mapped out to perfection. THE ULTIMATE METAGAMING STATEMENT: Every player realizes intrinsically that every person has time constraints on their planning. No one can spend their lives mapping out the perfect campaign world, where every cause has an effect. We call these people who do this authors, and authors typically get paid to flesh out every little detail.

Even the greatest DM's typically cannot tell you the diet of every creature on their worlds. Frankly, for having fun and telling stories, it ain't necessary.

When in doubt, take a small world section, start small, plan out some general details that could fit in anywhere, and plan out two or three general encounters and NPC or monster stats.

But the ONE OVERRIDING detail is this: When you make up something on the fly (and you will), write it down. Self-consistency is the most important aspect of a believeable world. If you didn't know who the caretaker of the shrine of Lathander was until five minutes ago, jot down the details you just gave him, and if the players go back to him, be sure he has those details again. That's probably the most important job you have is self-consistancy. Half of my detail work between weekly games is formally rewriting those jotted notes of mine that occurred last week.

Another hint: If you created the tower of windy death, but the players want to go to the dungeon of freaky chaos, the tower of windy death can become the tower of spirits later - or with a little tweaking, can become the dungeon of freaky chaos itself! :) Planning loosely if you want to run an open-ended game can be very useful, and don't be afraid to "re-use" locations that the players have never seen before.

Gotta go, but keep these things in mind, and good gaming!

John Crichton

First Post
the Jester said:

Make a setting. Don't make a plot. The pcs will do that for you. Dangle a dozen threads with vague ideas about where they lead and let the pcs choose which one to try to unravel. After a session or two you can figure out the details.
This is the best advice on here. I made mistakes in the past of trying to create a story, not a world.

If the PC's wanted a pregenerated story they could read a book. :)


First Post
Start with nothing. Remember that less is more.

Think up a place. It needs to have some things for the characters as PCs. A place to crash, a place to buy food and equipment, and the magical infrastructure to deal with wizards, clerics, sorcerers and druids. This is the base of operations. It can be a floating citadel, it can be a small hamlet, it can be a metropolis, it can be a mining camp. Whatever.

Have your players make up characters. Have them write a short paragraph that says: Where they come from, their recent past, their motivations and goals.

The base of operations is enough for them to know each other. Think about how you meet people, most of your friends you probably met in a class or in somthing you were both involved in. The same goes for PCs.

write your first encounters based on what you have now. As you write them, make up short histories for the people and special items found. Say you have a Gnoll, a sword, and a cave in an encounter:

Gnoll: Running from his tribe.
Sword: The gnoll carries a swor made by the master smith Kragga.
Cave: The cave was once a hideout of Pargs Pillagers, famed bandits that met thier end at the hands of sherrif Rukor, now mayor of the base of ops.

If you keep this up you will have eventually spun a web that is very detailed without having to worry about the details. If somthing does not match or link up right, it does not mean that you have messed up, it simply means that there is another chunck of the story that needs to be told.

Hope this helps,



First Post
Good thread, particularly for detail obsessive people like me.

My final solution was to limit my time to work on things. I researched for two weeks and that was it. From there I had one week to finalize it all. Not plot, just a place with lots of potential problems.

After months of frustration, I have an excellant, IMHO, campaign area in three weeks.


grodog said:
I highly recommend Ed Greenwood's article "Plan Before You Play" in Dragon 63 (July 1982). In it, he gives great advice about how to start a campaign from scratch, and also on how to develop sufficient useful detail to expand from your initial ideas.

I would also recommend sitting down and rereading the original version of the module T1 Village of Hommlet: look at the various plot lines, the relationships between NPCs, and the possible expansions of the plotline beyond what is explicitly detailed in the adventure. You'll get a good guide for how to balance the level of detail vs. hints to make an adventure successful.

Hey grodog --is your site down right now? I'm getting error 404 for both links...

Hand of Evil

First comes the idea, most of them I take from the news or history and add fantasy elements, sometimes it is better to use more than one. Like the snakehead fish invasion, is a kobold invasion.

Now comes the players, work with them to get details on their character background. As questions, get answers and then apply them to the game.

Now comes the adventures. These are moments in time, they may not touch on the campiagn plot but I try to add at least one bit of knowledge to leak out (this week Maryland started to poison ponds to kill snakehead fish, this means the kingdom is trying to poison the kobolds). This may be a rumor or the characters next job, I follow stories and adjust and add elements as I see fit, This is why using history is fun.

Now the tie ins. Every few adventures I try to tie one adventure of event to the plot. This is where player background comes in, player gets word younger sister is taken by kobolds! This creates motivation, it gets the player involved with their world.

Now just because the kobolds were stopped does not mean the game ends, now you can add more plots...who released the kobolds? Who was the El-Vas dude that saved your sister!

Play loose.


Obsess about the right things...

Boy can I empathize when it comes to obsessing over the details of a plot that hasn't even begun to unfold. It's damn near the worst thing you can do.

People are giving good advice here. Set up your major conflicts, work on the personaliities of the major and minor-- players in the world. Don't think about the outcomes, they'll play out as the game progresses. And you're players will love you for making a world that changes as they act. That's far better than having a set 'script'.

And obsessiveness is great... when it comes to the physcial details. If your the obsessive type, give every nation its own flag, its own cuisine, make up some new species of tree and be able to describe them. Create concrete, vivid details and apply them to the objects and persons in the world. And spread them out. This is a case where spreading yourself thin works best. Inundating the players with the 217 breakfast rituals of the Church of Gob will bore/enrage them. But as a singular detail, the Church w/the 8 hour breakfast, that's fine. Would make a fine encounter...

"Please, Master, raise our fallen comrade so he duel the Dark Duke". "

"Of course, my child. Now bow the East 9 times and pass the jelly."

Give players something simple to grab hold off --what writing teachers call 'giving a character a limp'-- and then expand from there. You have a myriad of things to give name to.

Obsessiveness rocks... when its done right.

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