The way I see it, roleplaying games should be about teamwork. We have a bunch of people around a table trying to come up with something cool. Now, real teams don’t have a hierarchy. This might feel like something preposterous or even down right blasphemous to some people, but not having a hierarchy doesn’t mean you can’t have different roles.
Often in real-life teams you will have what is known in the Scrum-world (Scrum being a software development methodology) as a product owner. The product owner is there as a representative of the customer. While we don’t have customers in the same sense in our RPG world (except if you are designing a game), the product owner does have certain responsibilities that do work here very well. One of them, the one I want to discuss here in depth, is holding the vision for the product. The product here being the actual sessions so the GM functions as the product owner.
Of course, depending on what kind of a game you are running, this might not be that important. If you are going for something combat-oriented, the important part is to give them a good list of weapons that actually includes some real decision-making, but since that is not generally what I look for in games, let’s talk about more character and story driven games.
Now, since this is supposed to be teamwork, the product owner’s primary job is to see that everyone is working towards the same goal. Usually this is the part where the GM tells you what the world is like, which is important, but not enough.
You might think your vision is clear and transparent for everyone, but as a professional software engineer (actually now just teaching, but still) I know it’s not that simple. Ever used software that doesn’t feel very usable? A software that employs what is seen as “engineer like” thinking? That’s because someone just assumed their description of what they want was enough, but they never bothered to see that the actual coders are on the same wavelength. This is especially problematic when there are more layers between the actual customer and coders, which is why the role of product owner came about.
Suppose you give the players a description of the world that essentially boils down to “generic fantasy world”. What does the player think? It depends highly on their experiences on the fantasy and what they’ve previously liked. Fans of Game of Thrones will see the situation quite differently from the people who have experienced fantasy primarily through Dragonlance novels.
If some players are there for the intrigue, while someone else is there because they think stealing important items from their fellow player characters is funny, there is going to be frustration, or if I’m part of the group, open confrontation at some point.
In real-life projects, you start with bringing the whole team on board. As the GM you want to make sure they all understand what’s going on and what you want the campaign to look like. I don’t think you should dictate too much and you should definitely leave a lot of room for the players. This is why you sit down before the actual first session or in the beginning of the first session (preferably before character creation) and do a few exercises as a group to achieve a common vision.
What kind of exercises? Well, you are supposed to be the creative type, so come up with your own, but here’s a few ideas, some of which are used in software engineering.
Write an elevator pitch. An elevator pitch is something you could try to sell someone on something during an elevator trip, so it needs to be succinct and still have a lot of meat on the bones. Something like ‘For the scifi fan, who wants to explore what would happen if we ran out of helium, No More Balloons is a hard-science campaign that explores the repercussions of lack of planning for the future’. (Now, I don’t know if the helium shortage is real or myth, but I don’t think that’s the main point here.)
Make a product box. Pretend you are trying to sell this to someone. What would your team tell about it? What would stress? What kind of images would you use on the box?
List things you don’t want in the campaign. Okay, this might be a bit difficult. Just try not thinking about sex. Come on. Don’t think about sex. Just don’t. So, maybe it’s better to list things you do want. Themes, preferably.
Make a timeline. You don’t have to put things like ‘the antagonist will die here’ type of stuff into it, but rather you can have things like ‘first chapter ends here’ or have a theme for each session beforehand. You should set a limit on the amount of sessions here as well. If you break it, you break it, but it’s easier for everyone involved to commit, if there’s something more concrete to commit to.
Anyhow, these are just examples, but do something fun. If interpretative dances are your thing, why not go with that. Posters will be a more likely choice for most, however. Maps could be something as well. Design some characters. There’s a lot of romo here.
EDIT: One more idea. Make a soundtrack playlist for the campaign, or just choose a theme song.