How the Wonk GMs: Intro and Campaign Prep

If there’s one thing I’ve been asked to write about over the years, it’s what my home games actually look like. Not an imagined campaign, not a system hack, just how I run when it’s my friends, my ideas, and my time. Needless to say that’s not something that can be condensed to 2000 words, so instead I’m welcoming you, albeit temporarily, to ‘How the Wonk GMs’.

I’ve recently come off of a literally five year stint of GMing for my primary gaming group, and I have run a lot of different games in that time. Spending all this time in the GM’s chair has reminded me that I’m extremely lucky to have as engaged and curious a gaming group as I do…as well as the fact that breaks are good. While taking this break, though, I’m going to be trying to distill down my methods and madness into something approximating fit for public consumption.

Jokes aside, this is a caveat. I’m in a group that loves trying new systems, thinks outside the box with characters, and trusts each other when it comes to their game and character concepts. I will go further than saying that my methods may not work for everyone and say that my methods likely won’t work for most. It takes good players, comfort with improv, and years of experience to GM the way I do, which ends up being high concept, dynamic, and extremely low-prep. Still, given how many aspiring GMs do get stuck on improv and prep, there are probably lessons to be learned here. At the very least, understanding my preferences and methods may inform the slant of my reviews.

So let’s begin. In order to play you need to start, and in order to start you need a campaign. More of my work as a GM falls into campaign prep than any other category, and more of the work that’s recognizable as work happens here as well. The concept and the framing of the campaign is key to everything I do in a game I run, and it’s the stage I employ to ensure I do as little work as possible after the campaign is actually going. Once you understand how I prep a campaign, understanding how I run a session and how I do session prep (the other two articles in this series) will be a lot easier.

The Pitch

The most important question for a GM to ask themselves is ‘what do I want to run?’ You are running a game for the entire group playing, yes, but you are the GM because you want to be. If you’re the only one who will GM in your group, this is doubly true; your power over game systems and concepts is in part your payment for taking on the task that no one else wants to do. So now that you’ve taken this privilege upon yourself, what do you actually run?

I come up with campaigns in one of two ways: the boring way and the weird way. The boring way is simple: I saw (usually reviewed) a game that I thought was really cool, and I want to run it. That’s it. Sometimes the boring way is really the only way, because many games (PbtA games being the perfect example) either resist having an additional concept stacked on them, or resist being pushed outside of their core conceit. The weird way means I have come up with some high concept and then need to figure out what I need to pull together in order to make it work. I used to come up with campaigns the weird way all the time because I used to run GURPS, and GURPS is a game that, in contrast to PbtA games and the like that demand the boring way of campaign development, demands the weird way of campaign development because it doesn’t intrinsically have a campaign. This has meant I’ve spent a lot of time asking myself how to run various different games I want to run. What system should I use for Dark Muppets (Electric Bastionland)? What system would help me run a teen dimension-hopping drama (Cortex Prime)? What system should I use to run Transmetropolitan with the serial numbers filed off (Eclipse Phase)?

There is a corollary to the weird method of campaign development, and it’s kind of in the middle of the boring way and the weird way. If you have a system you already really like, you may try to develop a high concept for that system specifically which is out there and really cool. Cyberpunk 2020, thanks to the spread of its Roles and their Special Abilities, lends itself to this sort of thinking. Play as a rock band, or a police precinct, or paramedics, or as a really screwy dystopian version of The Office. For another example, another GM in our group has recently started a campaign of Legend of the Five Rings where the concept is ‘Bridgerton in Rokugan’ and we’re all playing potential suitors at a Winter Court.

While there’s nothing wrong with ‘playing the game as-written’ that rarely holds any interest to me. If I’m GMing, I want to explore something new, be that a story concept or game. If we were just playing Cyberpunk in Night City, I’d have a lot more fun exploring that as a player than I would running it as a GM. It’s the same reason I rarely run modules; writing the weird ideas is more than half the fun for me, so why skip that unless I’m pressed for time? If I’m going to do the work, I’m going to do it for me.

The biggest caveat here is yes, I poll my group. I don’t just charge off into the abyss with something that I don’t know will work. I mean, sometimes I do; all I said after declaring I’d be running Apocalypse World was ‘trust me’. That time, it worked really well. Sometimes it doesn’t, but rarely because of lack of buy-in. I do know what my group likes, but I have a bit of power with “Aaron has been running in this group for 17 years and he comes up with good stuff”. If your group doesn’t trust you to bring them a good time, figure out how to fix that because until you do your GMing experiences will always be simply lesser.

The Prep

Once you know what you want to play and have figured out what system you’re going to use, it’s time to figure out what you actually want to run. This is where you start nailing down details, like setting and conflict. This is also where you figure out how you want to run. If you jump across systems as often as I do (I have run full-length campaigns in 16 different systems and one shots in at least that many again) you quickly discover that there is no ‘one size fits all’ GMing strategy and certainly no ‘one size fits all’ campaign planning strategy.

First, the easy ones. For PbtA games and anything else with firm game creation rules, get everyone to the session zero, follow the session zero mechanics to the letter, and then pull on one string per character. If the session zero mechanics are good, you will have way more plot threads than that and will be spoiled for choice when it comes to driving the game. As far as how to evaluate plot threads and plot engagement, that’ll be in the session prep article in this series. For campaign prep, though, the work has been done for you. Take notes, and maybe laugh maniacally a bit as the plot comes together.

For more trad games, this is where the high concept comes in. One reason why a very specific high concept is often helpful for campaign prep (beyond the fact that it’ll be fun and inspiring) is that it will back you into a very specific corner that you then need to write your way out of. This is good, because a surplus of choices is always more difficult to manage than only having one or two clear answers, and because the next step is to figure out everything you’d possibly need to know (and everything the characters would need to know) for session one. This is also where you figure out if the rules as you have them will work, or if you need to bring in something from another system or from the recesses of your own brain.

You need two things to start a campaign: an initial adventure for session 1 and a general sense of what the underlying conflict is that session 1 will hook into. For the most part you’d write the initial adventure in the same way you write any adventure, except what I try to do is make sure that every step has something interesting that can be expanded on. You can put a pin in these things, especially by not giving the players quite enough information to follow up on them, but there should be something there. It’s also very important not to make these linear. The campaign only gets really interesting when things go fractal; having your players drop a plot thread is way less of a problem than having them pick one up only to find that it’s simple.

It’s also worth noting that there can be a vast difference between ‘want’ and ‘need’. In running a hexcrawl, you can generally get away with keying the map about a day’s travel in any direction, because as long as there are interesting things in those day’s worth of hexes, you won’t get there at the end of one session. You can even just start the campaign with one specific task and just prep that adventure site and whatever’s leading up to it; the only tradeoff is that whatever you don’t do now you will do later (though later is often better). That said, you can prep as much as you want! When prepping plot there’s a good chance it’ll be wasted (and if you think otherwise then I don’t think these articles are going to help you), but map prep, especially at a high level, is always good. I recently ran Twilight:2000, a campaign which took place in the United States. As part of my prep, I wrote some basic dice mechanics and fired up Nukemap, a map-based nuclear explosion simulator developed by nuclear historian Alex Wellerstein. I then, using my dice rules, proceeded to ‘nuke’ the 200 largest metropolitan statistical areas in the United States as part of my game prep. Did I use most of that? No. Did I have a lot of fun pasting the little mushroom clouds into Google Earth? Hell yeah. If it’s fun, go ahead and do it; the key is to not get attached to it. And why can’t you get attached to it? Your players, of course.

The Pivot

There are two types of character concepts: completely inappropriate for the setting and/or social contract, and allowed. Once you tell your players what sort of campaign they’re playing, it is incumbent on you to let their minds go wild. When Seamus said he wanted to run a Cyberpunk game, I told him point blank I would be playing a Rockerboy named Tickles the Clown. Seamus is a good GM, therefore I am indeed playing a Rockerboy named Tickles the Clown (we had our session zero last Sunday). You don’t have to deal with trolls or chain yankers, who want to play time travelers in your D&D game or try to shoehorn balding French starship captains into every conceit you can think of. Similarly, you don’t have to allow in anything that would be uncomfortable for you or anyone else at the table. Those, though, are your reasons for rejecting character concepts, and your only reasons. And that’s why I consider getting in character concepts to be The Pivot.

Once you know who the characters are, most if not all of your preconceptions about the campaign are getting thrown out the window. That does not, though, mean that your prep is getting thrown out the window. Prior to character creation you developed a conflict and a starting adventure. For me, those elements are getting put in the campaign pitch in some way, because no matter what the character concepts are they need to make sense at the start of the game. Instead of banning character concepts or trying to get a player to change them, simply describe the starting condition of the first session and ask ‘why is your character there?’ If they can’t answer they will change their character, because having nothing to latch onto at the beginning is just as frustrating for the player as it is the GM. If they answer and it’s just utterly wild, grab onto it yourself; those sorts of left-field elements will make your game more interesting even if you don’t know what to do with them at first.

Ultimately, if there’s one skill I use more than any other in getting a campaign off the ground, it’s synthesis. As nutty as my high concepts can be, they are still relatively flat until players get their hands on them. As much as I’m thinking outside the box, the results range when the six or so of us are at the table is an order of magnitude larger. If you want to be a good GM the best thing you can do is take every idea that’s on the table and run with it. Players who know they will be able to play and engage will not come up with one-note, disruptive characters, and the best way to deal with one-note characters is to take them seriously. If a player is making a character that would be disruptive, talk to them about why it would be disruptive. If a player doesn’t want to engage and is trying to be disruptive, then kick them out. Being receptive to every character concept and letting your creativity grow does not mean you are a doormat who weakly tries to resolve out-of-game personal problems through in-game methods. But once again: I trust my players implicitly. If you don’t have a group like that, my method isn’t going to work very well until you do.

So how do I start? Choose a system I want to run, or a high concept I want to explore, or maybe both. Answer all the questions that need to be answered before session 1, and then prep as much as is fun without unnecessarily cementing (or even writing) plot. Tell my players the concept, let the characters come in, and then get ready to run session 1. It’s not hard, per se, though that is coming from someone who has a continuous backlog of half a dozen to a dozen campaign ideas running through his head at all times. As long as you can get to an idea, you can figure out if it’ll make a good campaign. Some of them don’t; even if an idea makes for a good game it might be a game where the meat of the idea can be resolved in 3-5 sessions, or even one or two. That’s still worth running, of course, but in my group where your turn to run means an entitlement to a year (or more) long slot, there’s an impetus to come up with something bigger.

Prepping the campaign might not be a hugely technical or constrained step, but everything flows from here. Your basic conflict, your player characters, and your setting are all in place, and while much of the campaign’s nuance will come later, these are the building blocks. The important thing is to give yourself room. Everything that happens in the game will get nailed down eventually, and the more you nail down at the beginning the less room you have later. Since you don’t know where the game is going to go, don’t back yourself into a corner.

Of course, like everything else in this series, this is just me. Less prep means more improv; I love that but some people can’t deal with it. I find that weird and different characters help enrich a campaign, others may find it distracting. Ultimately, there’s no wrong answer to things like that. But this isn’t an ultimate guide of how to GM. This is just How the Wonk GMs.

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2 thoughts on “How the Wonk GMs: Intro and Campaign Prep”

  1. Hey man, I appreciate your work, but a lot of this article was a bit vague. Maybe you were worried about getting into the specific, weird details about how you prepare things, but I would argue that’s why I’m here. Hope to see more of the structures you use to organize things in the later articles.


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