So for a year or so now I’ve had a bit of an interest in tabletop role-playing games. Been reading blogs, looking at books on Amazon, listening to podcasts of Dungeons & Dragons games. Pretty nerdy stuff. I considered trying to play once or twice before in my life, but never really pursued it. The trigger, I think, came from my recent disdain for Skyrim when I stumbled upon the realization that despite the freedom and non-linearity of the game I couldn’t actually kill important NPCs or really have any overall effect on the world itself. Me and my flame atronach fucking took over the shit out of Markarth, damn it! Gimme my Jarl crown you fuckers!
Anyways, a bit of wiki-ing, some leveling-up, and lots of taking out of my rage on Solitude and Dawnstar and Falkreath (but not Whiterun or Riften of course, I own real estate there) later, I realized that while Skyrim was awesome (even if you hated Oblivion like I did, go play it, it fixes everything and looks beautiful doing it), what I really wanted to do was to be able to do whatever I wanted. To have no limits at all. No invincible NPCs taking a knee when their hit points reach zero, and then regenerating completely. To be able to conquer the entire world, or turn into a dragon, or cross planes and battle Daedra, or become a feared Necromancer, or lay a challenge to the Gods themselves.
I’d love to make a game like that.
But games have to be programmed, and that elusive “do anything” equation is a tough one to pin down. Also there’s the years of hard work. But what about a Dungeons & Dragons campaign? Specifically, a Pathfinder campaign, which I’d been led to believe was a pretty stellar tabletop RPG through the vlogs I’d coincidentally been listening to recently, just for fun, over at The Spoony Experiment. I’d’ve loved to’ve been a player, but when I presented the idea to my brothers, and insisted I was definitely totally serious, one was only cautiously positive, and one was trepidatious at best. I’d have to take control. I’d have to lead. So came upon me the role of Game Master.
Plus, I kind of wanted to game master.
A few months later and we were sitting down to our first session. And we had not one, but two women.
It could only be a campaign for the ages.
In this series I shall share upon to you the challenges I meet as a first-time Game Master. Oh, did I mention none of us has ever played a tabletop RPG before? Cuz we haven’t. …Well, I think one of us may have tried once. But failed miserably, and in shame, or something. I’ve never mastered a game or a dungeon of any sort, is the point. So as I learn, so shall you. Or if you already know more than me, which is likely, then perhaps you can find entertainment in the ramblings of a fool.
My first lesson? Game mastering takes a lot of planning. If you’re the type who wants to put players into your very own world from the start, and not rely on pre-written campaigns of any sort, which I am, you’re in for some work. You really should examine the core rulebook like you were studying for the OWLs. Read it front to back, while taking notes, and then do it again. A few sessions in and I now wish I’d done that. I’m playing catch-up now. But I wanted to get things rolling and didn’t quite have the time, so I skipped a lot of the rules and went on to the game mastering stuff, and decided to rely on my players for remembering what things actually do. Whether this would prove a wise decision or not would be debatable, but I like writing stories, and was ready to get my world-building on the way.
Pointe Number the Firste:
Buy thyself the Core Rulebook, and read thyself it,
and read thyself it once more.
You could always grab the beginner’s box, and run out of published campaigns, and that’s perfectly fine. The ratings on the Pathfinder beginner box are pretty great. But if you’re reading this article I’m gonna go ahead and assume you want to create everything from scratch like me. If you’ve got the cash, you’ll probably want to grab the game-mastering guide and the bestiary, and the bestiary II, and maybe even the official published Pathfinder campaign The Inner Sea (or the respective books for whichever RPG you’re playing) as these’ll all provide great references. I don’t have em all, but luckily I’ve got friends who do, and they’ve been useful.
One of my first suggestions from having just gone through this phase is to set your world in Golarion (the Pathfinder world), or any other official Dungeons & Dragons setting. Reason being is you can still build the entire world for your actual campaign, but having an established setting helps a lot with things like deities, religions, world history, races and cultures, magic, monsters, and more. You can still develop your own on top of and in addition to those, and you can bet I’m doing just that, but developing ALL of this on your own is a daunting task that could take years of writing. Whiiiiiich is what we were trying to avoid to begin with.
Pointe Number the Seconde:
Your story shall be set in the world of Golarion.
Or the Forgotten Realms. Or Planescape. Etc.
It’s best to just bite the bullet there, I think, unless you really want to author a series of fantasy novels before starting (a bit of browsing the Golarion wiki and I was convinced I didn’t yet need to create an entire planet). I quickly learned that “scale” is a pretty crazy thing when you get into logistics. Ever looked at a map, and just how many cities and towns there are in, say, a few hundred square kilometers anywhere in China or Europe? And now, remember when you first flew the airship in Final Fantasy VI? You realized how small the theoretical planet actually was when you could dart over the entire map and appear on the other side in about ten seconds. The entire planet was smaller than your own neighborhood. This kind of tiny marble-sized planet is certainly an option in tabletop gaming, but Earth is a pretty huge place. A miniscule planet where you travel across entire continents in just days will challenge your players’ senses of disbelief. Suddenly your story might become just a game, or worse, a cartoon.
What I did was to set a large group of islands something like the United Kingdom up in a vague part of Golarion (I actually already had a map I wanted to use drawn from back when Logan and I were designing a Magic: The Gathering expansion. I’d love to show you, but I can’t… my players have prying eyes). I divided this world into a few different countries and set up some simple kingdoms, rulers, colleges, powerful sorcerers, feuds, finished and ongoing wars, etc. Nothing intricate yet – very quick and vague. I then picked one of the countries that’d been formed, elaborated a bit on its back story (but still just very vaguely), and then selected one particular smaller section of this area. I was surprised at how often I felt I needed to increase the scale to make room for more adventure and more story. I realized that it would be better to have too much room than too little, better to spread adventures out than to have things just next to each other, and what I first thought would be just twenty miles quickly became fifty, and then one hundred.
Pointe Number the Thirde:
Be wary of scale. A party with a gnome or dwarf walks sixteen miles in one day.
Place cities ten or more days apart, as any number of adventures may occur between.
Once I had a general area set up for my adventurers I set up basic towns, villages, forts, battle sites, etc. (I recommend this amazing name generator site for making up names quickly – try “Hamlets” and “England” as a start). Geography is easy – remember that mountains rise at the middle and rivers run down from them into the ocean. Remember that towns sit along rivers and large ports where rivers run into ocean and roads run between. But don’t bother going into too much detail with any of this, because you have no idea where your players will want to go, and as a good GM you should try not to steer them too much. Let them decide on their own.
But perhaps develop at least one major city or township in some depth as a place for players to think of as “home” early on in the campaign.
Mine is Abernath.
Of course, that doesn’t mean they’ll be starting here. I’m rather not a fan of starting your players already as a prefabricated group of adventurers, standing in a castle taking orders from a benevolent king to investigate the new orc outpost.
Just seems a bit too… convenient.
For tips on creating maps and more tips on beginning your campaign, check back for Professor Figment’s Lesson the Seconde: To Abernath!