How I "Plan" my campaigns: The Antithesis of Planning

Hi All, I saw a post here asking about how many plot threads to prepare for the story lines of ones campaign and I just wanted to share how I plan my campaigns. It is completely divergent to how many GMs do it, so I thought it might be of some use to others to read about. First off, I’m not claiming my method is better or worse than any other method. It’s my preferred method, the one which works the best FOR ME, but you do you. If you read the below and don’t like it, that’s great, do what works for you.

So, I’m starting a new campaign and I need to plan out what the players will be doing, I need to have this well thought out plot for the party to get involved in which will create an epic experience for all. Right? Sorry, that’s not what I do at all. When starting a new game I will consider the setting first. What is happening in it? What could the players come across which might interest them? I don’t script out anything. There’s not detailed plot line, no specific events, or even PCs for the most part. Instead, what I do is develop the dynamics of what is happening in the setting.

First I outline in VERY basic terms what the large scale events are. This is stuff like what are the various races or nations up to? What is the overall “character” of a given nation/race? Sometimes this can be little more than a handful of sentences, something like: “There are three main nations. Islandia where the Sea Gnomes ply their ways in their sleek and fast sailing ships, either as merchant traders or pirates, depending on their inclinations. The Golden Empire of Midasosa, a nation of High Elves devoted to two things, magic, and the accumulation of as much material wealth as possible. Woe betide those who see to get between the Midasosan Elves and their goals. Lastly, the marshlands to the north of Midasosa are home to the many tribes of grey Trolls, noble savages who want to pursue a peaceful existence in harmony with nature, studying such things as herbalism, but their ravening hunger often gets in the way of their intellectual desires, driving them to either raid the other Peoples of the world, or engage in intertribal warfare with their fellow Troll brethren.”

Then I would decide where the game is starting and do a similar overview of that smaller region. for this impromptu setting example I might decide to base everything in the third largest city of Midasosa. Now I need to decide what that city looks like and how it’s run. Again, a few sentences is enough. Then, one or two major NPCs are described if I feel like it. Lastly, I think of 2-3 things that could be happening. Maybe a small Gnomish merchant fleet arrived and is seeking aide in protecting themselves from pirates on their return trip to Islandia. Maybe some Elven nobles want to hire a band of adventurers to recover some gemstones from deep in the Trollish swamp lands. Whatever. At this point, I’m just coming up with some ideas of things the players might want to pursue.

The end result of all of these little overview descriptions is that I’ll be able to present a few options to the players and no matter which they choose, no matter where they decide to go, I can invent on the fly an adventure around it because I have an understanding of what sorts of things could happen in any given place. I don’t need super details scripts for every possibility, just enough to be able to expand upon based on where they go. If none of my plot hooks keep their interest (that’s super rare), then I’ll think about what ELSE would logically be happening around them and present more possible things for them to get involved in.

Also, as we’re playing through one hook that is expanding into a series of actual encounters, I will occasionally toss in an unrelated event they could wander into if they prefer. Sometimes they will, sometimes they won’t. As the GM I pay attention to what setting elements the players are enjoying the most and present more things along those lines. Not the exact same things, but in the same general style. As each area becomes more developed through game play, the world feels more real to the players, and more potential hooks for future adventures come up naturally due to the interaction of the players and the setting.

All of this results in a campaign and a setting which feels “alive” to the players. Especially as if I present something to the players and they don’t bite on it, I don’t delete that event from the world, it happens anyway, just without PC involvement. So for example, if the players decide to go gem hunting in the troll swamps, they’ll learn all about the trolls and their culture and their struggle to balance their urges and their intellect. Meanwhile, the Gnome pirates go unchecked, and become a large problem along the coast of Midasosa, threatening to plunge the High Elves and the Sea Gnomes into war as the Elves can’t understand a race not having a unified culture and purpose, thus they assume the pirates are representative of all of the Gnomes in general and are holding all of Islandia accountable for the actions of one splinter group. Or some other thing happens because the PCs Zigged instead of Zagging.

The point is that for me, the world exists as it’s own entity and the PCs are merely interacting with the parts of it in front of them. Again, I don’t put super detail into anything not “on stage” so to speak, but I would simply note what is going on “over there” in the PCs absence, and should they eventually wander into that region, then they’ll see what has changed.

There are other details about what I do and don’t do for game prep, but that is the four inch brush stroke description of my process. Hopefully it is useful, or at least mildly interesting for someone. If anyone has any questions about my method, please ask and I’ll expand on any aspect of it.

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Thanks for sharing this. I am pretty new to DMing, having just gotten into it when my best friend’s son convinced us all to play 5e which he stumbled upon on his own. Before that, aside from some mixed bag play-by-post, over the years, I haven’t played a game since the 90s.

I figured the simplest approach was to create a simple quest in a barebones setting. Once it was clear that they were enjoying themselves, I wrote up another short scenario/dungeon for them to go through. But I think I’ll start taking a page from your method above and see how it goes. I’ll draw up a map and pepper it with some locations that they might want to explore.

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A map is a great tool which every worldbuilder will recommend. I either start with a map or I make one soon after outlining the topmost level of the setting concept. It is key to tracking how players will travel from area to area.

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That is what I refer to as “top-down” style of creation combined with a “timline tracking” method, by the way. Basically starting with the big picture and leave the detail zoomed out to there most of the time. Only need to zoom in when and where the players are wandering for the most part, as well as things they have bumped into. Plus noting how things have changed over time in a general way.

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A blend of top-down and timeline tracking is fairly accurate. Although my top-down method is pretty ruthless in only getting more detailed in response to player activities. If an area of a setting is never adventured in, then the totality of its details might be five sentences, if that much. Now, those five sentences would be a broad framework for creating further details, but it would still be pretty vague until the campaign spotlight shone on it.

Did you know, there was a five-sentence method recommended in one of the old Dragon mags? I think they applied it to NPCs, but it could just as easily apply to towns, cities, countries, and organizations.

I vaguely recall that article. I know I have it amongst my dragon mags, but I have a sizeable collection of them, so I think I’ll refrain from searching for the specific issue. :smile:

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I highly suggest you use this webpage for that.

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I second that recommendation - the DragonDex is very handy for finding most things. I even scalped an offline copy of it so that I could search it without being online.

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