Okay, another short thing on technique.
I have way, way, way too many campaign ideas in my head. They pile up. This’ll happen if you read a lot, of course, especially if you read outside a particular genre ghetto; I’ve known some people who have really only one campaign idea, but it just incorporates everything they think is interesting enough to use. Me, I’m more of the Saturday morning/afternoon cartoon school. Science fantasy animal-people! Post-apocalyptic super-science and sorcery! Mystery-solving teenagers! Superheroes! Transforming robots! Fighter pilots whose jets become transforming robots! Science ninjas in bird costumes! Paramilitary organizations! Space cowboys! You could mash all those up in to one thing, but they shine more if they’re kept separate, kept focused.
Most of these things get jotted down. It’s a way of exorcising the ideas just to have them on record somewhere. I know I’ll never find a group to play Soul Amplifier, my idea for a JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure hybridized with Square Enix’s Song Summoner weird-ass transforming hero game. Shoot, I’m not even sure that it would hold up from a narrative standpoint — I like the thought of the quote-as-transformation-phrase (“Exit light, enter night… ENTER SANDMAN!”) and I like the bizarre Stand-like concepts for these song-persona-things (contemplate the cathedral-like angelic majesty of the Pulse known as Paradise City), but… it’s maybe a one-trick pony of a game idea? Nonetheless I write it down. It’s there, and I can add more to it if more comes to me, but I don’t have to try running it.
Right. I cull out all the things that probably would be too much work and too weird/obscure for my players. (At least one of these ideas wound up transmogrifying into Geist: The Sin-Eaters, pretty much because I liked the idea, but wasn’t going to do all that work myself, hence… time to trick freelancers into fleshing it out for me. Trick them with money.) And I still have too much ideas left over. The ones people would play if there’s time. The ones I’m pretty sure I could run from the “group gets together” phase to a satisfying closure. Not enough time in the world for those.
I said something about technique here, didn’t I? Right, this is the trick: I compile all of these into a list and I throw it at my players when there’s time for a new game. Then it moves into what is roughly a two or three-stage process.
Stage One: The players review the list. The list, I should note, is full of one-sentence pitches: “A Werewolf game in haunted Appalachia” or “Arabian fantasy; 1001 Nights + clockworks + sword & sorcery”. They put little tick marks by the ones they’d be most interested in playing, or bold them in the email list, or whatever.
Stage Two: Now we’re narrowed things down a little. I expand this into a couple of sentences per winning entry (generally those with two or more votes), and send a smaller list with more detail around. For example, it might be “Escape from the City of Brass: You are the lowest of the low; slaves, servants and pets of the terrible, decadent efreet nobility. With stealth, guile and planning, your goal is to navigate the underworks of this genie city, finding a way to freedom.” Then I ask people to narrow it down further.
Stage Three: By this point there’s usually about four or five ideas left. Each pitch gets expanded into a full paragraph. Depending on how formal I want to be, I tend to ask players to rank them in the order of their favorites, top to bottom. Each player’s Number One pick gets five points, for instance, while each player’s Number Five pick gets one point. Point total determines the winner.
You may have noticed that Stage Two is kind of optional. You can go right from One to Three if it looks like there’s a strong consensus, or if players don’t pick a whole lot of favorites from the first list.
So why is this technique something I find worthy enough to discuss? Because it has resulted in some of the most remarkable player buy-in of my lifetime running games. Player discussion alters the rankings of the games; everyone gets to play the most popular pick, and I get to run something I wanted to run enough that I put it on the list in the first place. If everything goes south, I can also blame the players, which is handy… but so far, it hasn’t. So far each game I’ve chosen by popular vote has been completely awesome.
By all means, it would be simpler to roll randomly. And… I’ve done that. (It’s no coincidence that one list of campaigns had 30 entries, akin to that d30 I possess.) That, too, wound up leading to one of the best games I’ve ever run. But this process of gradual selection has worked so well for me that I record it here for posterity. Almost too well, really: the players have wanted to keep going for so long that I keep running these games instead of trying something else from the vault. Perhaps we’ll hit closure on one or two of them eventually, and then it’ll be back to the vault. Until then, might as well keep the lists fed.