A lot of novice game masters ask the same question: How do I plan a game or campaign?

One of the easiest ways is to start with a sample adventure or module. These were very common for Dungeons & Dragons back in the day, and most games come with some sort of introductory mission for the players. You might want to start with one or two of these to whet your appetite. Otherwise, here are a few suggestions.

First, decide what you and your group want to play. Usually, for beginning players, this is going to be Dungeons & Dragons or some fantasy variant. There are a lot of things to commend this choice — the various D&D and fantasy games have a pre-generated setting that you can drop your campaign into. For this reason license-based games like Star Trek or Supernatural are good choices, as well — there’s a well-established world to work with, you just have to carve out your own corner of it. When you have people wanting to play different things, it’s a bit more tricky — hopefully, you have a mature enough group you can do a vote. Most popular idea wins. I’d sugest if someone is truly opposed to a game or setting, take that one off the table. (I’d love to run Mouse Guard but I have one player pretty adamant about not wanting to…off the table for now.)

Second, now you know what you want to run, it’s time to decide what kind of campaign you want to run. If you’re a new GM or one with time constraints, here are a few tips that will make your efforts easier:

1) K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple, Stupid): Don’t try to plan a major overarching story arc ala Babylon 5 right off the bat. Go with a serial mentality — each story is a discrete one, like a movie. You might have sequels, but each is a specific story. Craft a simple story for your first go — For example, in The Hobbit we have to walk from the Shire to the Lonely Mountain to kill Smaug and save the locals (and raid the place for treasure…) Similarly, you could go with something as simple: the characters are brought together to rescue someone/recover something/kill some bad critter for the locals.

2) How Do You Eat an Elephant? One bite at a time… Break it down into manageable parts, like a three act play or TV show:

The first act brings everyone together and they are presented with a mission — in this case, destroy a dragon that has moved into a mountain lair (or another type of lair) and is hurting people and trade around the local area. The towns have pitched in together to pay for a couple of folks to go out and snuff the reptile. (Think of it as The Seven Samurai, except you’re fighting a giant, fire-breathing monster.) You have to get the suspected location of the dragon and set out. The end of this act would be some sort of obstacle to overcome: bad intelligence, say; the dragon isn’t where they thought it was, and their expedition is exposed to discovery. Act 2 requires the party to find the real lair of the dragon by some means that is dangerous (maybe they have to lure it out so that they can follow it back to it’s home.) Up the stakes somewhat here. Eventually they find the lair. Act 3: Raiding the lair and fighting the dragon. Finally give a Coda in which they can get their pay and adulation. Alternately, you coud add another act where the townspeople try to renege on the deal.

If you want to stretch things out a bit, you can throw in a random encounter for each act. This combines the travel/exploration style game and the dungeon crawl. Often, a dungeon crawl is seen as a simple way to jump in — map out a dungeon or locale for a fight, populate it with nasties, and get on with it. I think of these as more time-consuming than complex adventures, as you have to send a fair time drawing out your maps. Alternately, you can go random and create the place on the fly.

Here are a few adventure seeds for various other genres:

Modern espionage/military: A RPV (Predator, etc.) has been recovered after it was used on the battlefield against your side. According to inventory, it was on route to a camp in Iraq, but has turned up here (wherever you choose here to be.) Act 1: You are to investigate the loss and find out who got the drone. Go to the unit that is supposed to have the craft and investigate. Here they could pick up on other missing gear and learn the inventory can be tweaked; the gear never arrived, so it was sold in the US (or wherever.) Act 2: Go to the next base (probably Creek or Nellis AFB) and investigate. This will rile the bad guys; set up an action sequence and give the opportunity to capture and question the traitors. Act 3: Set up a new buy through the traitor to sweep up the bad guys. Action sequence — firefight and/or chase. This could eventually lead to a new adventure tracking who used the craft, or you could tack on another Act to find the terrorists that used the Predator in the first place.

Horror: The characters are hired to investigate the disappearance of someone’s relative or friend in a small town in Maine or the Pacific Northwest (cold, wet, and foggy makes for good set dressing.) Act 1: Get hired and travel to the town. Weirdness and colorful characters that are a bit creepy. No one knows where the person is, but they find a clue (a notebook or something) that leads them to the classically creepy mansion on a cliffside. Act 2: Creep mansion is the home of a local powerbroker is trying to protect the town from an old reputation as a cult center. Research the cult. Their curiosity should be an attempt on their life under spooky circumstances. Act 3: Break into the house during a major ceremony to bring about something evil with their quarry either as the sacrifice or yet another cult member. Stop them and get out alive.

Western: Characters are hired to protect a thing or person from theft or release by bad guys. The goal is simple: get from Point A to B with the package intact in a certain length of time. Maybe you’re guarding the payroll for the railroad. Maybe you’re taking a prisoner, a famed bad guy, to trial. Act 1: Meet the package and learn of the opposition. First action sequence shows they’re going to have to fight to make this happen. Act 2: Chase sequence or hiding from the bad guys. Discovery will require a good hard ride to someplace close to Point B, but they will get boxed in somewhere. Act 3: Fight the bad guys in a spectacular shootout. Coda: Deliver the bad guy or thing.