Creative Gamemaster’s Workshop: Painting the Big Picture

(Originally published on

It’s been awhile since I opened the door to the Creative Gamemaster’s Workshop, so I thought I’d take care of some suggestions I’ve gotten since last year. The most popular question I’ve received asks about how to create campaign plots and multi-adventure arcs to bring another layer of interest to a campaign.

There are certainly challenges in creating a compelling gaming session for your players. More challenges exist to weave multiple sessions together into an adventure. But the Everest of Gamemaster challenges is pulling off a campaign that your players will love and not want to end. While I suppose this can happen accidentally, it usually requires a Campaign Plan to avoid wandering aimlessly until the players get tired of it or the characters reach the pinnacles of power simply through longevity.

Defining Your Campaign Theme

Start with an overall genre, then create a Campaign Theme. For me, this is often the twist or inspiration that made me want to start the campaign in the first place. For my multi-year Atalban campaign, it was the concept that the players would be among the last survivors of Man, raised in an isolated village with little memory of ‘the time before’, and face reclaiming their conquered kingdom. For my Serenity campaign, beyond embracing the fun theme of going job to job when things don’t go smooth, there was the model of the Oklahome Land Run of 1889, an event that evokes the ‘Western, post-Civil War’ flavor and involves a new planet.

Here are a couple examples.


Living peacefully between deep jungle and booming seas is the settlement of Freehold, the only living humans. Life has gone on for ten generations since the exodus, the fall of the Old Kingdom of Atalban under the conquering Selani armies. While the old times are remembered in stories and songs, life has adapted to the fishing and hunting realities of life in a semi-tropical cliff-side colony.

But all that is about to change. The colony will be discovered by the Selani by accident. A set of young men and women (our player characters) have been chosen to hold the fate of Freehold in their hands. Two characters are siblings and are heirs to the throne.

The challenge is overwhelming, a handful against an empire, but the need to avenge the defeat of the Old Kingdom and raise it again upon the ashes of the Selani drives our heroes.

Getting away from classic (“boring”) fantasy of Forgotten Realms, the campaign will support different presentations of other races, different races. Orcs will be known as “tribals” and follow totem animals. The Crow Tribe was the original inspiration (orc spelled backward). Elves are the Selani and bring an “evil” to the world in the form of almost Nazi-like belief in their own racial superiority. Dwarves are generally reclusive and reluctant to get involved in wars (drawing some flavor from Jews).


Reach for the Sky

The war is barely over in the ‘Verse. Thousands of Browncoat veterans are sent home and must find their way. Our players aspire to having their own transport ship so they can earn a living and live as free as they can.

Season One: Surviving the war and finding a ship

Season Two: Earning, Winning, or Stealing the ship and living to tell the tale

Season Three: To Be Determined.

The whole idea is to play the campaign from the earliest interesting moment, the dying days of the war, and cover the interesting story about how a particular group of people met, created a bond of loyalty, and got their ship. The title symbolizes the characters’ need to have the freedom of flying as well as playing on a cliche’ phrase from old Westerns, meaning “put your hands in the air where I can see them.”

“Reach for the Sky” is an under-development series of adventures for the Serenity RPG. The title and all concepts discussed on this website are copyright 2006, 2007 Dragonlaird Gaming. Use approved only for personal and not for commercial use.

Developing the Theme

The campaign theme is where you will return time and time again as the campaign develops to remind yourself of the big picture, the underlying plots that you might otherwise start to ignore as you focus on the short-term adventures at hand. But how do you decide on your theme? Inspiration isn’t bottled and I’m not sure where my ideas come from, but I think the following habits help:

  • Consider the genre itself. Are there iconic themes in the genre that you want to provide your own version of? Do you want to combine two typical themes to develop something different?
  • Read material generally related to the genre. You’re not there to steal ideas wholesale, but some combination of details might spark your own ideas.
  • Listen to music which puts you in the mood for the genre. Barbaric, warlike fantasy campaign? Slip in the Conan soundtracks. Serenity? The Firefly and Serenity soundtracks are available, as well as other suggestions.
  • Start a brainstorming notebook (paper, computer, format is up to you) and just jot down thoughts each day. Let your subconscious chew on it a few days and then try to find something new out of your ideas or a combination of them.
  • If the genre has some actual or metaphorical ties to the real world (like Serenity’s thematic ties to the post-Civil War United States of America), browse some of those real world facts, periods of history, people, settings, memorable flavors.
  • Watch a movie or TV show with a similar theme or genre to get your brain cooking at the right wavelength.
  • Keep an open, inquisitive mind. Something from the world around you or fiction of an unrelated genre might spark an idea for you.


    Once you have the theme settled, consider what rules system best supports the genre and your theme. An intense future/modern ground combat theme might better served by a system that focuses on detailed combat than one which supports cinematic role-playing. Keep in mind if your gaming group are the kind who relish trying out a new system or are more dependent on rules they are familiar with. This may limit your options of game system.

    Along with the basic game system, you’ll need to make some choices regarding house rules, supplemental rules, and campaign restrictions. Will you allow any d20 supplement into your fantasy campaign? Do you have rules your gaming group prefers for handling specific situations? Will the players have the opportunity to create any character they like (within the genre) or will there be some choices that are off limits?

    Atalban Rules

    The Atalban campaign will utilize Monte Cook’s Arcana Unearthed D20 fantasy variant system. Several factors play in its favor including: no alignment crutch, still fantasy but different classes, more flexible magic system, thematic use of ceremonies, no pantheon of gods. Since the source material is limited, any available rule supplements are fair game (with GM review). Monte Cook’s races will not be used, or at least will not appear in any real numbers in the campaign.

    Starting characters will all be human. (Discovery of “now mythical” other races is a key element of the campaign theme and provides an opportunity to establish the races as more interesting than the classic stereotypes.) Some classes are not supported in the “Freehold” starting community but might be obtainable later in the campaign: Oathsworn, for example.

    Story Summary

    While the actions of the PCs will always dicate that exact course of a campaign, if you don’t have a story of the campaign in mind already, it will likely wander around and lose plot momentum. The Campaign Summary refines your vision and gives you a chance to think of major events, climactic scenes, and moments of interest which you think will be especially important to the campaign feel and success.

    Atalban Summary

    Life begins idyllically in Freehold. Characters get their first couple levels dealing with natural/local dangers/threats. Clues are uncovered.

    A crow tribesman (orc) stumbles into Freehold, near exhaustion, shocked to find humans living there. Hot in pursuit is a mounted Selani, who is also as shocked as the Crow is. The PCs are the ones to witness this and react to it. Will they attack or befriend the Crow tribal? The Selani will wheel his horse around and charge back the way he came, desperate to tell the rest of his people that humans still live. Freehold leaders will send the PCs after him if the players don’t do it themselves.

    Departure from Freehold is a big moment, drawing the PCs away from their home, to discover and survive dangers they didn’t know existed. The Selani leads them to a mountain pass and the location of an Old Kingdom outpost (more clues uncovered). A way to jump from the outpost back into the heart of the old kingdom is discovered (magic), drawing the characters square into the old lands.

    Gaining strength (and levels) along the way, they discover more of the truth about the Old Kingdom and the current Selani rulers. A means to hurt or defeat the Selani will be sought and discovered as well as a means to bring back hundreds of thousands of ‘disappeared’ humans (repopulating the lands so the Selani can be driven out and the PCs will have a kingdom to rule.) Greater and greater obstacles will be in their way to reaching the means to defeat the Selani.

    A final battle in Shanalar, the royal seat of the Old Kingdom, will be the climax of the campaign, hopefully followed by crowning a ruler and the joy and adulation of the saved human race/kingdom.

    Here is a sample campaign plan document: Atalban Campaign Plan


    Spending time working out a campaign plan in the beginning of a new campaign can reap you benefits down the line, especially when a lot of real-time has passed and you’re trying to remember what the point of the campaign was! :)

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