When I’m going to gamemaster a new campaign, I lay out a roadmap in the form of an overall plot. I figure out a beginning, points in the middle, and the end. While I’d love to believe that any given game will run for years, I think reports of those groups that have been playing the same campaign for decades are the exception rather than the rule. I look at a campaign as a season of the television series, one with interconnected episodes and a solid story arc. If it does well, I can keep the campaign going with another “season”.
I refer to my method of campaign planning as The Middle Path, and I’ll show you how I do it. It isn’t difficult, deep, or even particularly groundbreaking or original. It’s just simple and effective. I call it the middle path as a reference to other campaign styles that I see as being on opposite extremes, with the method I use striking a balance between the two. Let’s begin by looking at those.
As the name implies, this sort of campaign is on rails, and the gamemaster alone laid the track. The players might be able to control the speed and what happens on the train, but it only goes in one direction and cannot turn. It makes it easier for the gamemaster to prepare, because no matter what the players do events will progress from A to B to C, in order. It’s very deterministic, and doesn’t allow for much (or any) input from players. Most people denounce railroading as a bad thing for that reason, but gamemasters continue to do it because once you’re prepped the game runs on autopilot.
In a sandbox campaign, the gamemaster puts together some plot hooks or a map, but the players decide where they’re going to go and what they’re going to do. It highly values player input, and is praised for this. While most MMO popular MMO games are designed this way, in a tabletop game it requires a highly skilled, highly prepared gamemaster. The GM basically has to be ready for anything, and able to cater to the players’ whims. It can be fun, but it can also be put a lot of pressure on inexperienced gamemasters and turn into a frustrating and tedious chore.
The Middle Path
The Middle Path combines some of the structure of the railroading model with much of the freedom of the sandbox model. Rather than a solid storyline, the gamemaster comes up with a goal or objective. This has to be specific — throw the Ring into the volcano, stop the Elder God from rising, defeat the supervillain. The ramifications of failing to achieve the goal should be clear. The means of achieving the goal, however, are vague and left open to intepretation by the players; they get to work out how they’re going to do it.
So you have a beginning, which is how and where the player characters learn about the problem and agree to take on the mission. You have an end, which is the final encounter where the players hopefully achieve the goal. In the middle you have things that either have to happen, or will be interesting to happen, but they don’t necessarily have to happen in order.
Think of The Lord of the Rings as an example. We start with the Fellowship assembling. We know that we’re going to end at Mount Doom. In between there are challenges and obstacles, but most of those don’t have to take place in order. Yes, some are location-dependant — you’ll meet specific people in specific locations. But leave it to players to decide where they’re going to go, and when, and then alter your subplots and subtle points based on what the players and how those things work out. Fight orcs. Get stalked by Gollum. Make some alliances, break some alliances, let players do what they think will help them, sandbox-style. They still ultimately have to end up at Mount Doom. They can wander, but the clock is running on that goal. Occasional reminders, either in-game from orcs marching in what were once lovely places to bad guys trying to kill the PCs and get the ring, or directly from the gamemaster, will be enough to keep things moving.
The Middle Path works because it balances player contribution with gamemaster prep. It takes more on the art of the gamemaster than railroading, but far less than an open sandbox. It allows players to make decisions and affect the world, but it also provides a context for doing so.