In the book No Plot? No Problem!, the bible of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), author Chris Baty introduces a writing tool he refers to as a magna carta. It’s a list, actually two lists, that you create detailing what you like and dislike about the sort of project you’re working on. Using his example of a novel, you think about the sorts of things you enjoy reading, why you enjoy reading them, and the things you want to be sure to include in your own novel. You then create a second list of things that you dislike, which you want to avoid doing in your own novel.
After spending some time thinking about these lists and writing them down, you end up with a pretty solid guidebook on what you want to accomplish. You can refer back to it as you write, and add or alter it as you come up with new ideas or your clarify the meaning of the things you added to your lists. I’ve been using magna cartas for all sorts of writing projects for years now, ever since I discovered the book and NaNoWriMo. I’ve adapted it for use with campaign design as well.
When I’m putting together a campaign, I start with a magna carta dealing with the game system. What do I like about the rules, and what do I think they handle really well? This gives me an idea of the types of encounters and challenges I’m most likely to put the characters up against. On the negative list, I write down the things that they system doesn’t do, or do very well. These become the things to avoid. If the system is geared toward combat, but doesn’t handle social skills very well, I know that I’m going to be best served running something with lots of action and fight scenes, rather than trying to make it work for courtly intrigue.
Next, I look at the setting and the overall genre the setting represents. What do I like in the setting as written? What genre tropes are already in there, and what other tropes will fit in nicely? Are there metaplots or locations that grab me, that I want to play around with? On the negative list, what’s in there that doesn’t interest me, bores me, or, to be honest, strikes me as ill-conceived or just plain stupid? That’s the stuff I don’t want to touch. When I’ve got it all together, I have an idea of what I, as the gamemaster, want from the campaign.
Finally, I sit down with the players and brainstorm what they want to see, and what they don’t. We make a group magna carta. I often have a copy of Robin’s Law of Good Gamemastering along as well, so I can suss out what sorts of players they are and what will give them the sort of experience they’re seeking. This doesn’t mean that everyone gets what they want. If one player loves dungeon crawls and another hates them, it just tells me that I need to strike a balance, as well as dig deeper. What about the dungeon crawl does one player love, and can I incorporate that element into a different environment? What does the other player hate, and can I conceive of a dungeon crawl that leaves that bit out to make it less of a dealbreaker?
In the end, magna cartas help me to design the best possible campaign to everyone. By focusing on what all the players and I can agree on, we’ll all get the most satisfaction. If it occasionally strays into an area that one player doesn’t like, they’ll know it’s temporary, or there’s enough that they like about th game to balance out the odd bit they don’t. You can’t please everyone all the time, but with magna cartas, you can create something that will satisfy everyone most of the time.