Finding a System for Your Next Campaign

Every couple of months around here at TRF, we finish up one of the three or so ongoing campaigns we have running at any given moment. For some people, this might represent an opportunity to pause, bask in the afterglow of a satisfying finale and plot out what comes next. More likely than not though, for us it means it’s time to hit the ground running with our next big idea. When you run this many games, you begin to get a good feel for the best, read easiest, ways to plan for these things and the sorts of factors that make for a good experience.

Bookshelf filled with RPG books

Choosing a Game

So, what game are you going to play anyway? Ideally, you of course know what game you’re going to run and have a killer original plot or published module all lined up, but suppose you’re starting from scratch. In this hypothetical where you wake up one morning and decide, “I’m going to start a new RPG campaign,” you’ll have two major factors to consider: setting and mechanics. If you already have players in mind, this should be a collaborative process.

Setting of course will probably be your principal concern. Do you want a game of high fantasy intrigue or cyberpunk espionage? Mythos horror or posthuman conspiracy? Starting with a general idea for what you want and then drilling down is probably the best way to go, blocking off things you don’t want until you’re left with the common core of shared expectations. If you’re planning with a group, start by asking people what they don’t want to see in a game. This clearly defines the sorts of expectations for things people will not want to encounter and will limit their enjoyment. If there is something one player wants and another does not, there’s often room for compromise. Otherwise democracy should rule, with the person running the game having slightly more say as it will be them that will have to create this world and stand by their creation. Some games have become very generalized in their approach, old school D&D had damage tables for futuristic weapons after all. And since the days of GURPS and the flood of d20 titles simulating everything from Cold War espionage to professional wrestling, odds are you’ll find something, somewhere that someone has bolted together to do what you want. On the other hand, there are highly abstracted games such as Cypher System, Fate, or the Powered by the Apocalypse system that can be used to run anything.

Mechanical considerations should be decided in a similar way, with the game master perhaps having more input as they will be the one playing referee for these rules. Do you want a light game with a lot of collaborative improvisation driving the story or do you want a set piece action sequence choreographed by the game master? Certain games such as those Powered by the Apocalypse and Blades in the Dark have set rules for character advancement that will by necessity involve XP rewards whenever certain actions are taken: will this be compatible with the way you want to run your campaign and how long you want it to last? Some games like Call of Cthulhu or Delta Green that use the BRP system or Old School Renaissance games like Stars Without Number have very fragile characters: is this something you want to mitigate or might that mean choosing a different system?

If you’re in the market for the quintessential RPG experience, it’s still probably Dungeons and Dragons. With its return to a more familiar form with some modernization in 5th Edition, D&D offers a blend of the traditional F20 RPG and the modern, narrative-focused games. It’s a good default game to begin campaign play with because it has rules like the inspiration point to encourage role play and generally forgiving combat rules. 13th Age by contrast takes the things that worked about 4th Edition D&D and creates a far smoother narrative based game that abstracts a lot of the crunch to focus on characters and story. On the other end of the spectrum is Pathfinder and its seemingly limitless library of sourcebooks. And if that isn’t enough tables for you, there’s Dungeon Crawl Classic.

On the investigation front, there is the perennial standard Call of Cthulhu and its host of descendants. While Call of Cthulhu has recently undergone a face lift, some of the games it inspired such as Trail of Cthulhu and Delta Green provide more mechanical options for extended play such as the Gumshoe engine’s core clues mechanic to propel narrative and its more durable characters. If you want more fragile characters and the BRP experience, Delta Green can offer some extra layers to CoC’s sanity mechanics to keep your characters’ alive and sane long enough to reach the end of their character development. If you don’t want Cthulhu in your investigative campaign, check out Esoterrorists and Fear Itself for the plain weird, Night’s Black Agents for vampires, or Ashen Stars to do it all in space.

Science Fiction tends to be the domain of far crunchier games, with Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars and Warhammer 40k (hard to get a hold of now), and Posthuman’s Eclipse Phase being among the most notable examples. Of course though, there are Powered by the Apocalypse and Fate variants to fill the need for rules light space opera, as well as hard sci-fi like Uncharted Worlds or Diaspora. If something more along the lines of D&D is what you crave, Old School Renaissance favorite Stars Without Number fits the bill right down to the THAC0 combat. And of course, Starfinder is bringing D&D 3.x to space later this year.

Then there are the games that straddle the line between genres: Numenera’s science fantasy weirdness, The Strange’s genre-hopping translation adventures, the kitchen-sink post-apocalypse of Rifts and Shadowrun’s magic-infused cyberpunk  among others. These games provide interesting breaks from more conventional settings and can provide more freedom to create while staying within the setting.

If you want to build the history of your world together, I recommend Microscope, a system-less game where the entire table can sit down together and build the factions, cultures, locations, history, and major figures of your world, as in depth as you desire.

Setting Some Ground Rules

There are certain expectations that might have to be set before the game begins, that are either contemplated by optional rules or for which you may want to modify rules to suit your group’s desired play style. Do you want death to be permanent? Do you want social skills to effect PCs? These sorts of considerations will frame the players choices and it’s best to have everyone on the same page before you start play.

Conclusion

As with most things, the key to success in setting up a new campaign is appropriately managing expectations. If you have answers to all of the above, then you’re on your way to having the start of a well-run campaign. Happy gaming!

Aser is a visually impaired attorney and assistive technology instructor that started playing RPGs shortly before the podcast's founding. He ran our games of The Strange and Night's Black Agents, and is an advocate for accessibility in gaming. His gaming interests tend towards mythos horror, investigation, espionage, and military role-playing games.

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