Part I: What You Buy
Commercial gaming material comes in a number of forms. It may take the form of official “campaigns” that detail specific plots, scenes, and characters. It may take the form of adventure suggestions, usually a few paragraphs on possible plots, themes that might be explored, and perhaps a character or two. It may also come in the form of loose background material, details about a certain group, place, culture, etc.
Commercial campaigns are the least flexible of these forms, yet often require the least work to turn into a viable campaign. They have the advantage of being laid out in detail, so that all you need to do as a Game Master (GM) is to read the campaign, tweak it a bit, and run it. They have the disadvantage of not having been planned for your group; thus the plots may not suit your players.
GMs who don’t have a lot of experience may find commercial campaigns particularly useful. Inexperienced GMs often fear the improvisation and preparation required of a GM, and a commercial campaign takes care of some of that for them. Certainly such campaigns can act as a good place to start when you aren’t certain of what you’re doing. They can also be useful when you want to run an adventure without any notice, and have little time to prepare material.
Adventure suggestions have the advantage of flexibility. Since the in-game material hasn’t been written, you don’t have to worry about it becoming obsolete. Adventure suggestions may help you think of things that you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise, even if you’re a long-term GM with years of experience under your belt. How better to surprise and trick your players? Adventure suggestions still require most of the leg-work, however, of a campaign written from scratch.
Background material has the advantage of being almost infinitely flexible. (You’ll notice during the course of this column that I’m a big fan of flexibility.) You have a starting point, and you may twist the world to your wishes beyond that. Background material is unlikely to become obsolete during a gaming run; you’re more likely to change details you don’t like ahead of time. From a strict money-to-word-count ratio, you’ll get more use out of background material. The same 2,000 words on a tribe’s political agenda may spawn ten different adventures, whereas 2,000 words of an adventure are just that — one adventure.
Commercial adventures have their place and their uses, so I will discuss how to make them work for you.
Part II: Mr. Fix-It’s Guide to Pre-Written Campaigns
Pre-written campaigns (from commercial companies or other GMs’ web sites) can be great. All the fun, and you don’t have to write it yourself. These campaigns contain certain inherent flaws, however:
A random author cannot anticipate all of the wild ideas your players will come up with. Your players may make most of the adventure irrelevant part-way through. You may have to throw out entire scenes and speeches because they no longer suit your campaign.
The author may write an adventure that railroads the characters into doing specific things in order to make sure the adventure, as written, will work. This has the advantage that you’ll probably be able to run the campaign as-is, without re-writing massive swaths of material, but it can make your players angry. If they feel that their characters don’t have an effect on the game they may wonder what the point is. If they have no real choice in how the adventure plays out then it may end up feeling no better than reading a book.
The best pre-written campaigns try to balance these issues. They account for as many possibilities of character action as possible while attempting to guide the adventure in a certain direction so that later scenes are still useful. They hide that guiding hand as cleverly as possible, so that the players believe they reached the end of the adventure through their own choices. This isn’t easy, however, and can result in a write-up bogged down by alternate scenes. If the game company has a word limit on its books, which most do in the name of keeping your (and their) costs down, then there may not have been room for alternate scenes and additional information.
It isn’t possible to write a commercial campaign of any real length that doesn’t herd the player characters (PCs) in a certain direction. The question is whether this direction is obvious, and whether it’s easy for you to adapt it to your PCs’ actions.
Affecting the Arc-Plot
If the game world in which the campaign takes place has a significant arc-plot, the developer or authors may be loath to write in events which would severely affect that arc plot. The larger the company and the more plots and game lines that would be affected, the less they’re likely to allow one commercial campaign to determine the direction of the arc plot, especially since campaigns often do not sell well. No one wants their arc-plot to depend on a product that many of their customers may never see.
You might not want them to play with world-shaking events in a campaign, either. Presumably, if it’s a part of the arc plot, then it needs to end in a certain way–and thus the authors are more likely to write a campaign that railroads the characters into certain actions.
This means that world-shaking events are not as likely to be found within a commercial campaign. This will disappoint a number of people; world-shaking events lend excitement to a campaign.
Different Styles of Campaign
Not everyone likes the same style of campaign. Some groups like dungeon-crawls. Some groups like politicking. Some groups enjoy mysteries and puzzle-solving. No pre-written campaign can please every group. No matter who you are, it’s unlikely that your tastes will jibe completely with those of the author who wrote the campaign. Hopefully the author will have provided a decent selection of plots or ways of accomplishing what plots there are. Still, not everyone will like every campaign. You may think the campaign suffered from a lack of politicking, but your neighbor may feel frustrated with the amount of politicking already present.
Different Styles of Campaign-Writing
There are many different ways to write campaigns. Some people prefer to detail every scene. Some prefer to provide a sort of tool kit–say, a rough time line and details on various characters and plots–and allow the GM to decide on the details. Some prefer to provide an overabundant supply of characters and information but almost no direction, so that the players can take things anywhere they want.
From the other side, some GMs prefer to have everything laid out for them. Other GMs prefer to be able to customize the game to their players, and resent having to re-write overly specific material.
There are things you can do to make commercial campaigns fit you and your players:
Do Some Preparation
No commercial campaign can make everyone happy, so you should expect that any given campaign will contain things you don’t like. These are often easy to fix.
If you prefer detailed scenes and your author has given you a tool-kit style write-up, then write some scenes, or notes about scenes. It’s okay if you don’t write well; after all, your players won’t actually read what you’ve written. Ask yourself what you would have wanted to see in the campaign and write a brief synopsis. That way, when the time comes to GM that piece of the campaign, you’ll have an idea of what you want to do. If your author gave you detailed scenes and you would have preferred the toolkit, then reverse-engineer notes and timelines from the scenes provided.
If you think a certain item should have been more important, then make it more important. If you think a character should be different, then play her differently. This is where the background material provided in other books comes in handy. If a plot looks irritating, then replace it with something out of a section of adventure suggestions from a good book, or with something inspired by background material you read.
Anticipate Your Own Players
If you see places in the campaign where you think the author hasn’t anticipated what your players will do, then make a few notes about what might happen when that time comes. Think about how it will affect later portions of the campaign. Can you gently guide your players toward the pre-written material, or is it better to strike out on your own? You know your players (presumably) and have their interests and playing styles in mind; the author didn’t (and couldn’t). Therefore it’s your job to make the campaign suit your specific players. Once again, notes are a GM’s best friend. Take notes about any ideas that occur to you while reading the commercial campaign and keep them in a binder or notebook that you keep with you when you GM.
Decide How Far You Want to Go
If there are likely to be other campaigns in the series, decide ahead of time whether you will want to use them. Thus you know how important it is that you arrive at the predicted end-point of the story. If you want to be able to run the next book, you might concentrate on gently herding the PCs toward the pre-written ending. Or you might let them go where they will, with the pre-announced caveat that you will change the circumstances of the run as needed to make it work with the next book when the time comes.
In this latter case, you let the story end up wherever it wants to end up, based on PC action. Then, when you buy the next book, you decide which things that happened in your game actually happened differently, and work together with your players to make sure they’ll still enjoy their characters. Or you may run each campaign in a series as an entirely separate campaign, with new characters each time. This might require you to allow your players to create non-starting-level characters if the next campaign in the series assumes a certain level of experience.
If you feel comfortable with your abilities as a GM, you might decide only to use one campaign in a series. Thus you have the rich background and characters written for you, but the world and plot continue based upon your will and the PCs’ actions rather than the next book. This is another place where adventure ideas and background material will come in handy. You might use a commercial adventure to get the hang of this GMing thing, then use background material to help you strike out on your own afterward.
Playing with Arc-Plot
If you want to affect the arc-plot of a universe then by all means do so. It’s understandable that a company might not want to make the same earth-shaking changes to their game world that many people like to play with in their living rooms, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make it happen for your group. Change the campaign accordingly, then continue running in your altered universe, adapting any further material you buy accordingly.
Alternatively, you could end your campaign after a certain point–campaigns don’t have to go on forever–and start a new campaign that moves back to what the game company sells as its world. This has the advantage of allowing your group to play with multiple possibilities for how the universe works.
Change the Plots
If your gaming group likes political plots and the campaign you bought stresses combat, then change it. Take a few notes; you’ll want to know the starting-point of the plots, the end-point of the plots, and what the PCs are supposed to get out of them. Then come up with a new path between that still allows them their prize.
For example, the plot involves some sort of a war within the city that the campaign takes place in (warring gangs; terrorists vs. the government; etc.). The commercial campaign approaches the war with the assumption that the characters will fight in it. There are, however, many more possibilities than that. If your group likes politics, then involve them in the higher-level strategies and manipulations. You can still use the material on the street-level fighting, because it gives you material for them to strategize and politick about. If your group enjoys puzzles, rituals, and arcane lore, then hint that there’s a magical way to affect the fighting. Let them skirt around the edges of the battle while collecting the information they need to put a magical stop to it. You might pull this ritual out of a book of background material, or even a separate campaign-book.
Every campaign needs tweaking, even the ones we write for our own groups. Commercial campaigns start out a step behind because they can’t account for what each individual gaming group wants. This doesn’t make them useless; they can still save us weeks of preparation time. With a little work almost any commercial campaign can be turned into something fun.
One hint, though, when choosing commercial campaigns to buy: try to stick with ones that provide a large amount of background material. Not all campaigns are created equal, and such material is much less likely to be made obsolete during game play.