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Defining Your Game

Introduction

For a campaign to run smoothly, the storyteller and players need to share an understanding of the game's genre, theme, tone, realism and rules. Every player makes certain assumptions about how the world works and what can be found in it. When a player's vision of the game world doesn't match the storyteller's, problems arise. A good storyteller provides information to his players about the game world before any characters are created. This is especially important for custom or "home brew" campaigns, where there are no books or movies for players to review before the campaign begins.

Genre

The genre is the game world, or the setting in which the story takes place. This defines important elements of "reality" such as which races and creatures exist, what technology is available, and whether or not there is magic. Games often use existing fantasy, modern, or science fiction genres. For example, a game may take place in the Star Wars, Star Trek, or Marvel "universe".

Theme

The theme of the game describes what sort of plots the adventures will focus on. For example, the campaign may be about saving the world from supernatural evil, discovering and exploring a lost civilization, or leading a rebellion against an evil empire. When players understand the game's theme, it is easier for them to create characters that can successfully get involved in the storyline.

Tone

The tone of the game is its general mood. Character concepts should fit in well with the tone of the campaign. Otherwise, you might end up with a heavy-handed cop, a goth "emo" teen, an obsessive voodoo occultist, and a ditzy blond secretary in the same adventuring party. A horribly mismatched team isn't likely to solve any mysteries or overcome obstacles.

Here are several examples:

  • Horror - Dark, violent, and tragic with liberal gore.
  • Thriller - Shadowy and mysterious with villain-driven plots.
  • Mystery - Suspenseful with investigation and plot twists.
  • Drama - Emotional and thoughtful, with in-depth character development.
  • Action - Fighting, chases, and explosions in a fast-paced story.
  • Adventure - Optimistic, courageous, and thrilling with heroic deeds.
  • Fantasy - Whimsical, imaginative, and often magical.
  • Comedy - Humorous and light-hearted with jokes and antics.
  • Camp - Parody, cheezy cliches, and predictable literary tropes.

Realism

The realism of the game is a measure of its cinematic qualities. Realism impacts character creation. For example, the equipment list in a realistic game will probably be longer and more detailed than in an idealistic game. The storyteller in a gritty game will probably expect you to keep track of how many bullets are left in your gun. In an epic game, he might not care if you know how many arrows or copper pieces are in your sack. Realism also affects a player's choice of actions. In a fantastical game, you might be able to aim your gun at a fast-moving car and shoot it in the gas tank, causing the vehicle to explode into a magnificent fireball, instantly killing all of the villains inside. In a realistic campaign, you might be lucky to shoot out the windshield.

Here are several examples:

  • Realistic - A simulation of the real world.
  • Gritty - A few details are overlooked to help further the story.
  • Believable - Uninteresting details are overlooked, but it's easy to suspend disbelief.
  • Epic - The laws of nature and physics don't always apply.
  • Fantastical - Nothing is impossible at the dramatically appropriate time.

Sometimes it is easier to summarize the theme, tone, and realism of your game by comparing it to a movie that the players are familiar with.

For example:

  • Realistic - Alien, Blade Runner, Gattaca, Generation Kill, Poltergeist, The Martian, The Terminator.
  • Gritty - Boondock Saints, Dawn of the Dead, Die Hard, Highlander, Indiana Jones, Predator, The 13th Warrior.
  • Believable - Dark Crystal, Conan the Barbarian, I Robot, Jurassic Park, Kingsmen, Minority Report, Star Wars, The Crow.
  • Epic - Batman Begins, Men In Black, Harry Potter, Hellboy, Star Trek, The Lord of the Rings, The Scorpion King.
  • Fantastical - Doctor Strange, Labyrinth, Maleficent, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Avengers, The Matrix, X-Men.

Rules

A gaming group that agrees on the technical and social rules of a campaign before it begins is less likely to have serious conflict later on. The players should have access to any house rules that will be used. They need to know how detailed their character backgrounds should be, how much inter-party conflict will be allowed, and how much they can improvise setting elements during a scene. The storyteller should make it clear up front if he plans to fudge on dice rolls and rules for the sake of the story.

Outside of the game, all participants should agree on the time, location, and duration of game sessions. Everyone should know who to contact and what will happen if they miss a session. For example, will the storyteller play the absent player's character as an NPC? The gaming group should also set policies for providing game materials, bringing snacks to share, and cleaning up after the session. The host should let everyone know if smoking, drinking, children or pets are allowed in his home. The host and storyteller may also want to discuss whether or not non-player guests are allowed to watch the game.