Top Down Design

Most of the experienced GM’s that I spoke to after my first blog post on Iron Tavern about campaign building tended to be more top down designers for their worlds while I was advocating a bottom up style in the blog.  Again I will point out that I am writing the Iron Tavern posts for those people that are new to intermediate as the top down approach can be very daunting to a new GM.  In essence if you are a big planner and like to have things well set up there is more work to do the top down design than there is from the bottom up.

Time to get ready to record my campaign world

One of the other benefits that there is in the bottom up approach is it is how we learn in real life.  We tend to find out the basics and when comfortable expand from them so this style can be a little more natural.  That said, when one of the players want to know something about the broader world once their comfort levels are at this point and you have not decided on anything it can get a bit uncomfortable.  That is where the advantage of a top down structure works very well, because when the question is asked it is more likely that you have thought of an answer to the particular question prior to its asking.

Top down is done very similarly at the start to any other campaign.  Choose a seed or hook and then develop your setting based on the expected scope of the adventure you are thinking of.  With this style you have to ask yourself how far do you want this campaign.  In Pathfinder speak if you want it to go all the way to twentieth level then you need to do some broad stroke ideas about how you will get there.  If it is a campaign designed to get players only to 5th level you could possibly do it all in the one locale but the larger the scope the less likely it will be contained to only one locality and you will need to be prepared for this.

One of the good things about this is you really only need broad strokes to start with and you get to think about the exciting stuff first.  Who are the true enemies to the players and where will they find them in the long run.  These will likely be tied into the heart of your hook so if you are running a seed that is tied deeply into an undead theme then it is likely a Lich, or a Wizard attempting to become a Lich or a dracolich that will form some kind of major opponent at the end of the campaign in a bleak setting loaded with plenty of bodies to experiment on like an old battlefield or battlefield grave.  The end point does not need full detail at this stage but a location, an enemy/enemies list idea and some kind of structure to how the enemy has extended his reach to gain the attention of the PC’s in the long run is a good place to start.  this kind of detail can easily be recorded in Pathfinder via a brief description on the Campaign Sheet p.312 of the GamesMastery Guide which allows you to put in a bit of this detail.  By the way, I have never used this sheet and make my own notes but I have to say that my notes would align closely to what is on the sheet anyway so it gives a good aide if you use Pathfinder.

Thanks for the image

The Campaign Sheet also asks for important locations and these would be the locations that you are likely to run adventures in and around so for each entry on the list you will be expected in the long run to flesh them out a little.  It has some nice columns for plot lines and mysteries to develop and explore as well as the villains, allies, important organisations, recurring NPC’s and monsters to think about.  All of this is applying a very broad brush in only a minimal amount of space to your campaign.  The key here is to get a feel and also map out a brief outline of how you envision the campaign playing out.

The next step is having a brief paragraph to outline the important locations that are not going to be up front and important in the initial steps of the campaign.  Repeat this for any villains, allies, recurring characters and organisations that fall into that category.  This way you have enough to answer an off the cuff question about the area if a PC picks up on a theme in your game before you were ready for it you can answer a little bit to keep them happy.  The things you do need to prepare for are the areas that are going to be in the main focus up front.  Of course the level to which you prepare is up to you.

The Pathfinder rules for mapping out settlements can be a bit over the top for some GM’s.  When they map out their villages or cities they may not commit anything to paper and just have a few mental notes.  I am very much like this in many of my games but I do like the Pathfinder rules if the game is going to really focus on a village or city.  This system gives you a great way to map out what the settlement can offer the player from a game perspective.  There is a Settlement Sheet on p.313 of the Gamemastery Guide that you can copy and map out your settlements in the way that they do in this book so you have a raft of information at your fingertips for the settlement, much like the village I laid out in my recent Iron Tavern blog.  There are of course no rights and wrongs and as long as you can make a settlement that the players will be playing in feel like a living environment then it does not matter how you have done it.  Just remember that players like consistency (they like that they meet the same inn keep each time although he may have different issues that help push along the game) in the game. It helps them visualise the world if you can manage to keep a record and a list of names you use, even the ones you make up on the spot.

As for these NPC’s you may want to develop the ones that you feel are important into stat blocks (or use the stat blocks in the Gamemastery Guide or the NPC Codex for the same thing) so the players can interact with them on a more in depth level.  Also, pay attention to the NPC’s the players feel are important that you may not have and give them stat blocks too.  You never know when it might be handy to give a hook out through someone they found and got to know as opposed to an NPC you forced on them.  For important characters it is likely you will look through the stat blocks in the Gamemastery Guide or the NPC Codex and not find precisely what you want and have to make the NPC from scratch.  This can be fun but it can also get very tedious but the secret here is to only design what you have to.  If the NPC is only a merchant that will recur and attempt to charge like a wounded bull then it is unlikely you need anything other than a name, a few words about how he is to be played in game and a couple of skills recorded.  If he is an evil henchman that wants to torture you and cut your family into little cubes you will likely have to do the full develop, but not necessarily down to the detail of him having 4 pieces of chalk, 3 pitons, a pint of oil, a hooded lantern etc…

Again the Gamemastery Guide comes to a little bit of a rescue here and gives you an NPC Sheet on p.314 of the book.  This is not necessarily designed as a total stat block but does record some of the things that will make the NPC less two dimensional and keep their motivations and beliefs at the forefront of your mind.  I do find that if I do not pay some attention to the detail of my NPC’s that they do come across a little flat and two dimensional so I suggest you do some writing on the topics of background, appearance and goals at the very least to help your game pop out of your head into play.

Once you have most of the material locked down in this regard (which quite honestly for some people would take 30 minutes and for others 30 hours) you are ready to move on to creating the first adventure.  This is something I will cover in a different post but it does pay thinking about, with the top down approach, how you are going to move them from point a (being the first adventure) to point z (the campaign end) especially if you do not want to have to railroad the players into linear adventures.  This is the greatest threat of a top down approach in my opinion.

The end is always kind of in the back of your mind as the GM and you are plotting how to get there where I am now much more of a believer that you should have the ideal finish to your campaign thought of but entirely fluid, largely based around the successes or failures of the players along the way.  You also need to ask yourself the question “What happens if the players suffer a total party kill (TPK) along the course of the campaign?”  Is it salvageable or will you need to start all over again with your design.

I hope this helps somebody think a little bit about the way they build their campaigns and try a few things in a slightly different way.  Or it may be that an intermediate GM is ready to take the next step and models their campaign from this.  If it helps, let me know about it in the comments.  Thanks for reading.

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