Today’s prompt was map. There’s the obvious way to go with this: do you use maps in your games? but I think I’m going to combine this word with one of the alternate prompts — plan.

For a long time, and I suspect like many young GMs in the brightly colored, British New Wave and rockabilly infused, “crap, nuclear war could kill us any day” past of the 1980s, my adventures were mostly one offs. Kill the monster, get the treasure. We ran a lot of James Bond: 007, so I ran them like movies, each discrete, with a bit of character growth accounted for between them, but little overlap. Characters were much the same — archetypes like D&D and Top Secret would give you: fighter, ranger, assassin, analyst, or whatever. Characters defined by their cool car or gun, and maybe a flaw thrown in to make them interesting. You weren’t think about character arcs, and much of the time you weren’t filling backstory. Hell, most of the movies of the period the backstory was something like “I’m a cop from New York who got invited to the party by mistake”, or “obtainer of rare antiquities”.

For me, the move into serial stories came about five or six years into gaming, and was mostly influenced (I suspect) by a move away from episodic TV toward shows that might be mostly stand-alone episodes, but stanrted to experiment with ongiong story arcs. (The first I really remember for this was Hill Street Blues…) I got into comics about that time, and similarly there were ongoing storylines mixed with one-offs. This was the period of Miller/Mazzuccelli’s Davedevil, Claremont on X-Men, and good indie stuff like Grendel. (It’s no coincidence that most of the stuff cribbed for the Marvel and DC movies pulls from this period — the film makers are of a similar age, but also it was a damned good period for comics and storytelling.) I still mostly made stuff up as i went, but would sort of organically grow toward an end point.

The first time I mapped out a campaign was for The Babylon Project campaign i was running in the late ’90s. the game group was into Babylon 5 and I built the campaign to be a side campaign of the Shadow War. The characters were rarely directly involved in the events of the show, but I strung their adventures around it, filling in the spaces between the main events. It ran well and gave the characters the chance to be real heroes whose actions made those of the TV show characters possible. This point also coincided with the writing of my first two novels, so the skills developed in one endeavor crossed over to the other. Characters started getting backstories that might be vague and open to tweaking, but some were quite detailed.

After that, I went back to my old build stand-alone adventures and string them together in long stories on the fly. However, I got talked into running a five-year long Star Trek game. I watched all the TNG/DS9 period stuff (save Voyager, which just did not hook me) then decided on mapping out a campaign with the main themes (post-war politics, the issues of an economy where no one had to work, artificial intelligence) and started building key moments/episodes that would have to happen. I was much more intrigued by the Deep Space 9 series than Next Generation, and liked the story arc approach they used. For the first time, I built the stories as “seasons” — with a mid-season and finale “mission” that would push the story and work on the character’s motivations. Characters, this time, were more fleshed out with more detailed backstories — things that are often left out like family members, best friends, hobbies, etc. The game ran well and progressed mostly in the directions i hoped it would go. In the end, the campaign finally fizzled out after five good years and an interest in other games coming out.

The next major game to get planned out was Battlestar Galactica (noting a trend here…), and I used all of the tricks i learned from the Trek game — seasons, mid-season and finales, story arcs that were a season long, and having a finish to the whole thing. There were certain major points on the way — the Cylon attack, Kobol, I used the thrown out “the Blaze” idea from the Kobol episodes for a bad guy, finding not a map on Kobol but one of the Lords to help them, a final battle with the blaze, finding Earth. The game gained and lost quite a few players over that period, but after many deviation and turns in the narrative, in the end, it finished the way I had hoped.

Characters are another element of the story that can be hand-waved — no one really had much of a backstory for James Kirk, or Indiana Jones, or Thomas Magnum; just a few tossed off lines. Or you can build a character obsessively (I find the aspiring actors and writers in a game group do this most often.) down to their favorite foods and what they were doing last week. These maps give you the character’s past and maybe their present self, but having an idea of their goals, weaknesses, and aspirations can give players a map to not just how they might react, but what kind of adventures they might seek out. Discussing this with the GM gives them material to plan encounters to help you explore those elements of the character. The more you plan out the character and their hoped for future, the less wiggle room you have to tailor the character as they grow, and also there’s the possibility of not seeing your character go in the direction you expected — after all, there are other players pursuing their agendas, and there’s the GM, who has planning out this great scenario for you that — in all likelihood — you and the others will destroy on your way to the end of the game night.

I realized that most of the time, when I’m doing the RPG a Day blog, I tend to focus on GMing. It’s the role I’m thrust into most of the time — I can whip together adventures pretty quickly, so I usually wind up being the Johnny on the Spot. I’m goign to try and apply some of these posts more to playing this year.