Behind the Screen: What comes first?

2009 January 5
by Dante

As I begin the process of designing my next campaign, I found myself inspired in a different way than I am used to. Normally, I tend to generate my campaigns based on two major factors: what classes that my players have selected and cues from the backstory of my campaign setting.

This time it’s all about me.

Well, maybe not about me explicitly… but about my NPCs. As I was driving across the frozen plains of Nebraska *shudder*, I came up with some very vivid ideas for some NPCs. In the past, I have stuck to major archetypes for my main characters and improvised many of my lesser NPCs.

A sidenote: often my improvised NPCs are the more memorable ones. Anything born from spur of the moment roleplaying and the influences of sugarfied Vanir is bound to be somewhat memorable.

Anyway, back to the point… the NPCs that I stitched together in my mind varied wildly in character class and background, which left me with another quandary: how do I integrate all of these guys together within one storyline?

Essentially, that’s where I am at now… I’m trying to generate an underlying plot that will span disparate cultures in a meaningful way. I suspect I will create several plot episodes that patchwork these characters together, with a common plot backing material and stuffed with the warm cotton batting of interesting roleplaying.

That’s it for a strange quilt metaphor now, and I’m off to put a log on the fire because the cold is apparently getting to me! Game Masters, how do you generate your storylines? NPCs first? Characters first? Plot first? Let’s hear it!

4 Responses leave one →
  1. The Yeti permalink
    January 5, 2009

    Normally I generate mine plot first. I get an idea in my head of something that would be really cool and I build it from there. As I expand upon the plot I fill in NPC’s and then begin to work on ways to pull the PC’s in next. Though this has bit me on the ass a few times and the PC’s were just like “Meh. I would rather go stare at that kobold over there for a bit instead of participate in your epic war.” Very few times do I get an idea for a really killer NPC first. If I don’t get plot ideas first I get ideas from PC’s story and background to date and build around it.

  2. SuperSooga permalink
    January 5, 2009

    I tend to create a pile of ingredients before I try and work it all together, hoping some of it will just fall into place. In no particular order I’ll create:

    – NPCs, noting a driving motivation for each as well as a seemingly trivial side-plot in their lifes (Ketsue has recently spent a lot of money on a new dress and feels guilty about it)
    – Locations, along with why someone would want to go there. What makes it memorable?
    – Conflicts, between either individual NPCs or factions, all across the scale of the world.

    I find I tend to make a few of one ingredient, then a few of the next, then back to the first and so on. Somehow this will give me a pile of stuff I can draw a load of connections between. This gives me my situation as I’m forever trying to create situations rather than plots. The players should be creating the plots based around what we give them!

    Just one school of thought, of course.

  3. Ravyn permalink
    January 5, 2009

    I tend to start with my NPCs. My group doesn’t tend to unify on plots too often, so a sandbox approach tends to be the best way to hook them. As a result, I spend a lot of time making the NPCs interesting people with their own lives and approaches, and they come to me in ones and twos and suggest things that they’d be doing that the PCs might want to help with, prevent, or otherwise get caught up in. Sometimes they even make the first move. Then I turn the PCs loose, and the interactions power the next few ideas.

  4. Gary permalink
    January 6, 2009

    A lot of my campaigns begin in a small town or village and so I first lay out a rough map of the setting and then try to figure out who would populate such a place. I start with commoners, shop owners and such, and go up from there to those in power. This is my favorite part of campaign design – creating interesting, “3-D” NPC’s is IMO crucial to hooking players into a setting.
    In those small towns, numerous things are going on: street gangs, corruption in the town militia, secret lovers, drug peddlers, stolen goods, an infestation of rats (and thus perhaps a wererat community), etc. All of these provide opportunities for adventure and I flesh them out, somewhat loosely at first, and then turn the players loose in town and see what happens! I like the spontaneity of sometimes not having a “direction” for the game and letting the players decide what they want to do.

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