Steal My Idea: GM Limitations, Guidelines, & Themes

Player limitations can make players more creative and willing to try something new. But the players aren’t the only ones that can benefit from limitations, guidelines, or themes. So let’s talk about those for the GM! (If you’re not sure you can make a whole campaign off an idea, make it a limited campaign, about 4-8 games. If it works, you can keep it going)

Take two settings/genres you wouldn’t put together, and mash them together

  • Dystopian fantasy
  • Post-apocalyptic high seas pirate adventures
  • Western espionage
  • Lovecraftian social drama
  • Time traveling superheroes (Ok, that one is basically Legends of Tomorrow)

By mashing two established settings together, it forces you to look and develop the tone and story in a different way.

For example, think about how Downton Abbey would be if differing cults divided people similar to the way economic status, political views, and progressive stances do in the show. How does a fun, high fantasy campaign setting like Eberron look 100 years after the illithids overtook the continent?

This kind of dual-layer thinking breeds alternate ways to solve problems, build encounters, and introduce threats.

 

Run a setting/genre you’ve never tried before

Do campaigns focus on combat? Try a campaign that has a variety of puzzles and social skills. Need a break from spaceships with transporters, phasers, and replicators? Run a game

For example, I’m not big on magical girl anime. I’ve seen some good stuff, but I haven’t consumed that much of it. However, when a few people mentioned they were interested in playing a campaign in a setting like that, I took it as a challenge.

Trying a setting or genre I’m not familiar with gives me the chance to expand my scope and see things in a different way. It’s easy to slip into a routine, so diving into the unfamiliar can help break that. In addition, there are some elements from other genres I am familiar with. Magic, giant monster battles, and team-based combat are all things I know well and enjoy.

It also gives me the chance to ask those players questions while I’m still working on the campaign’s basic ideas, enemies, and plot. Questions that can help shape the game itself. Questions like:

  • What do you like about (this genre)?
  • What makes (this genre) special to you personally?
  • What are you hoping to do in this setting?
  • What material like this do you enjoy and why?

When I’m trying something new, knowing what the players want or expect from the setting is a major asset. This helps guide me creatively into something more manageable and relatable than “magical girl anime campaign setting.” For instance, do any of them want to RP life-long friends who use teamwork as their primary weapon? Do they want a school-like social drama mixed with monster battles and world-spanning mysteries? Their ideas aid me not only in creating my campaign but also with what to look for when researching other media in the genre.

If you’re not sure what to do, ask the players, maybe even take a poll. If they overwhelmingly want to try a game where they’re underpowered superheroes or students at Hogwarts or a guild of mad scientists, use that as your starting point and expand.

 

Try a new system

Trying a different system will change how I view encounters, roleplaying, and interconnected mechanics. Vampires in World of Darkness are vastly different vampires than those in Dungeons and Dragons. Numenera doesn’t implement magic like Savage Worlds does, and Mage handles magic in a way completely different from both of them. The game mechanics and the lore accentuate their differences. When I change how I look at something, even if it’s a familiar element, it can help me find a new and interesting way to use it.

There’s no shortage of game systems available. Don’t worry about choosing the “right” or “best” system. If something about Star Wars: Edge of the Empire intrigues you, even if you don’t want to run a Star Wars game, try it. If Don’t Rest Your Head or FATE have a particular mechanic or campaign setting that sparks an idea, run with it. The best choice is the one that makes you want to play, whatever it is.

 

Build an entire campaign around a single word or phrase

  • Underdogs
  • Vengeance
  • … and we will all eventually die for the cause

By sticking to the short, simple theme, me and the players have a point of reference to all converge. Each of us may branch off in differing directions, but with that unifying mantra, we can build something together with a common goal.

Most importantly, whether you’re trying something new or old, communicate with the players. If you’re trying something new, let them know! People are far more willing to ride through some rough patches if they know you’re trying something unfamiliar. They might even be able to help. But without good communication, even the most seasoned GM can fail to produce an engaging game. Sometimes, it’s something as simple as the GM and the players expecting different things. The campaign itself could be well-crafted and thoughtful, but if it’s not what they wanted or expected, it could leave them with a sour taste in their mouths.

Got some loot and give a hoot?

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