I've always enjoyed the idea of a unified campaign - one where, before play starts, the GM and players both understand what the game is about, and the general flow of how it will work session-to-session. However, I have always relied on implied notions of what a campaign should be, which often leads to a situation where everyone is confused about what they're supposed to be doing.
Not any more.
I've come up with a very simple template document for GMs to fill out before players generate characters, that should help in guide the entire party towards its intended play-style.
Please note that this doesn't mean railroading, or forcing people to play a game other than how they want to - this is about getting a thematically consistent player base before play begins, so no one makes a wise-cracking Vampire Ninja for your Historical Rome game... This is about laying out some guidelines so that your players have somewhere to look for their character, instead of running head-first into a crowd with a crossbar, playing the first thing they hit.
Grand Concept Documents
As you should all know, I love showy titles, and this is no different. With the GCD, you will be presented with five points, each of which should be answered in no more than 2 sentences. I will outline and explain each one below. But please remember, these GCDs are made for the players eyes, so don't write spoilers in them!
I will go through and fill the GCD out for my current in-planning campaign, Marienburg: Sold Down the River, so you can get an idea of how it should be filled out.
Here you want to give the campaign an evocative title. It should be something that instantly captivates and inspires a certain type of focus for the group. Think of it in terms of a TV show - Buffy the Vampire Slayer is obviously about a Vampire Slayer called Buffy, Supernatural is obviously about supernatural things.
|That's not slaying, and you damn well know it...|
I chose Marienburg: Sold Down the River for three reasons - firstly, it is the name of the source book which was originally written for Marienburg, so it is instantly relevant. Secondly, whilst I am using the 1st edition source book, the game is being run for 2nd edition players who have never known 1st edition, so it is a call back to the hobby's past. And thirdly, it instantly ingrains in the players' minds that the campaign is about the city of Marienburg, and about Money.
Here you want to give the campaign a snappy sub-title - something that sums up the tone of the campaign, and gives it a nice ring. It should foreshadow the big events in the campaign, and constantly keep the players guessing as to its relevance, whilst simultaneously showing its head throughout. Think in terms of Star Trek, with "Space, the Final Frontier". Hearing that straight up tells us that the main characters are going to be going to new worlds and exploring what hasn't been explored before. We know the sorts of stories that will be told.
|Or maybe it's about sweet dance moves?|
I chose to go with "When everything is for sale, what is your Honour worth?". This perfectly foreshadows the tricky decisions that the players will have to make, and reinforces the cut-throat nature of Marienburg, and the campaign's focus on money. The players KNOW that at some point, they will have to make the choice between their integrity, and their next meal...
What Is The Campaign Question
As I have discussed before, I believe every campaign should have a Question that it answers - like a good Sci-Fi novel. This can be anything, but it should be something that you've never attempted to answer before hand. Consider Asimov's robots, bound by three laws which make them our slaves. What happens when a Robot breaks the rules? I can't really direct you in how you should choose this question - it just has to be something that you want to explore, and that your players want to explore.
|My next campaign: What if Isaac Asimov was 8x the size of the Earth?!|
For M:SDtR, I chose to go with the question: What if the PCs aren't heroes, just regular Joes trying to make it in the world? This question completely changes the regular flow of an RPG - instead of high adventure on the seas, or delving through dungeons for glittering gold, we have PCs taking the dirty "adventurer" jobs because that's all they can get, and they simply need to eat. PCs will be motivated by money, not from a power-gaming, +10 Sword getting point of view, but from a lust for a dry roof over their head, and a warm meal in their stomach.
Who Are The PCs
Here you should briefly explain what the general idea behind the party as a whole is. This doesn't mean, what classes, races, etc are available, but more the concept behind them. Consider Firefly, where the heroes aren't heroes as such, but Space Cowboy/Pirates. Simple enough. You can go into more detail, such as with Star Wars and say Rebel Heroes fighting the Evil Empire, each emphasising an aspect of the Hero's Journey Archetypes.
|Maybe they are heroes... Big damn heroes.|
I went with Vagabonds and Ne'er-Do-Wells who need a Fresh Start. Each character has a clear in: they pissed someone off and need to flee to Marienburg, or they've run up a list of debts and need a quick copper to settle them, or they're chasing adventure, running from a boring farmer's life. However, it doesn't restrict the party options - from this they could be anything from Rat Catchers, to Thugs, to Watchmen, to Smugglers. In fact, I hope they are all of these things - Marienburg would suit them nicely!
What Are They Doing
Finally, briefly describe what a typical session would be like. Don't go into plot points, but consider this the "TV Writers Guide" of your campaign, and you should reference this when planning. What are the PCs doing, and how are they starting it? The other points should basically write this for you, but it helps to outline it clearly so your players are on the same page as you. Consider the X-Files, each episode, the main characters Hear About Something Strange, Investigate, and Come to a Shaky Conclusion. In this, we know the formula for most episodes. The audience knows that they're going to get mostly investigation and intrigue - not much action.
|Why?! It seems everything you come across is terrifying...|
I went with Find a Contact, Get a Job, Do Something Underhanded, Get Paid. The players know that the campaign is likely going to be filled with the wrong sort of NPCs - everyone stabbing each other in the back, and trying to get backroom politics done which are so backroom that they're in the alley behind the building. There could be lots of combat, or there could be spying, or thuggery, or whatever. But they also know that their reputation will be very important - if people know you get the job done, they'll give you more jobs. If they know you're likely to stab them in the back, they'll send men to stab you first.
I hope this layout gives you and your players a much more consistent and even campaign! Let me know how it works out for you!