Role-playing games are a great opportunity to step away from everyday mundanity and embrace the escapism that can be found by portraying someone else, in a different world, for a while. In the past I’ve written about the importance of everyone being on the same page when it comes to what they want out of a game experience, and much of that stems from setting appropriate expectations from the outset, both for players and the game-runner.

Recently I was introduced to a novel way of designing a campaign, one that takes everyone’s unique perspectives and wants into account, building something collaborative from the get-go. I really liked its simplicity and its effectiveness, and wanted to present it to my readers here—it’s definitely an approach I’ll consider using the next time I run a campaign.

With all players and the game-master around a table, each individual offers up a single noun (person, place, object, or event) a, broadly-applicable adjective (“spooky” or “ravenous” or “valiant” works better than physical characteristics such as “tall”), or a theme (things like “mystery” or “action”).

With five players and a game master, after one round their list looks like this:
– Nanomachines
– Orphans
– Conspiracy
– Carnival
– Zombies
– Teachers

Once everyone has had a turn, go around the table again, but this time with a twist. On all subsequent turns after the first, anyone may either add a new word or link two words together. The more links a given word has when the process is finished, the more important it will be to the overall campaign.

After the second round, the list is starting to take the form of a map or plan, but the group isn’t done yet

From here on out, the table may continue taking turns adding words or links until everyone is satisfied they have build something enjoyable. Taking a step back and seeing what has been created, the group will have collaboratively helped design the story and the theme/mood of the game itself, ensuring greater buy-in to the story as presented and enjoyment at seeing the game develop.

Nodes that have the most number of connections will end up being more central to the game, while outliers may still be present but less impactful or less frequent. What kind of story would you create from this map?

With four connections, a (menacing) conspiracy and (mysterious) carnival will be involved in major plot points or overarching theme, with those ideas with three connections having a slightly smaller role. Rounding out the map are those items which have two or only one connections, which may contribute to other elements more than stand out on their own.

Many players who have not themselves run a game don’t realize how much stress and anxiety trying to create a compelling game experience can generate. Working collaboratively on a compelling framework in this way not only helps the game master to come up with overarching plot and story ideas, but also helps release some of the “will they like the game?” stress present in the back of every game runner’s mind. So long as they use the node map as a guide, they can rest assured that they’re creating content the group as a whole will enjoy.

Thinking and building a campaign this way requires the ability for all participants to look beyond rules and the mechanics of actually playing the game, and focus instead on the narrative story. This may be very difficult for some players to do, and may take several attempts to get right, or even just to get the hang of it.

If you end up using this kind of collaborative campaign-building exercise, I’d love to hear what your group came up with and how it turned out for the game as a whole!


I’ve added this post to the Writing category because I think it could be an effective way of planning out or creating ideas for any collaborative artistic project, be it a student film or collection of stories.

Header image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay