How run a Star Wars campaign
Welcome to some thoughts on how to set up and manage a successful Star Wars campaign. Now of course every GM is going to have their own style of gaming - that's just the nature of humanity. However, there are certain universal constants that can be applied to each game. Below is a compilation of thoughts on what made a Star Wars campaigns so successful.
Rule one: Know the Audience -
If at all possible, find out what the players want to see happen in the campaign before even making the first character. If you are new to the game, that may not be feasible right off - but you will soon want to run a "cohesive" campaign in which everything should be designed to work together from the get-go. Yes, this includes characters! Odds are, if you take the time to develop characters in-depth before-hand, you will either have your grand theme handed to you on a silver platter or it will appear, delivered like a good pizza, within a very few game-sessions from the players themselves.
Rule Two: A game is only as good as the characters -
This applies to both player and non-player characters - if the characters are flat and boring, then the game will also be lackluster. Characters that are alive will mean that the players are excited.
Players should be encouraged to write up as much information on their characters as possible. This will make the character more real in their minds and give the GM something to work with as far as building NPCs and coming up with adventures. Some players often will write whole novels (or whole web pages :) - and although this level of detail is fantastic, it is way above and beyond the assignment. Just several paragraphs detailing home world, parents and family, a couple of important past events, the level of education attained will be fine. Anything to make the character something more than just a bunch of numbers on a character sheet.
As for NPC's, this is where the GM really shows off their stuff. Your characters have to be believable, have personalities, histories - and be interesting. Failure doesn't mean that the GM police raid your game and take away your GM license, but it does mean that the game will be less engaging.
The character's appearance, dress, beliefs, motivation and possessions are all important. Average thugs on the street can be touched on with basic stats and motivation, but important NPC's can be as fleshed out as player characters (and sometimes more). Finally, they should have some sort of hook that the players can easily identify - fedora and leather jacket, distinctive scar, or distinguishing way of talking. From there you can build, but that'll be the stand-out feature of the character.
It's a lot of work, but it can be very rewarding.
Rule Three: Setting is everything -
A setting can make or break a campaign. You might immediately think that I'm talking about fleshing out the rebel base that the characters are based out of - and that's certainly part of it, but I'm talking in a much bigger sense of the word. I mean a base of several planets that the characters frequent, or a sector that they know intimately.
Characters shouldn't exist in a vacuum - and settings shouldn't either. Having a galaxy-spanning campaign can be fun, but I find that having most of a campaign take place within one or two sectors is much more manageable for a GM, and it also allows the players to really get into some meaty role-playing. If they spend most of their time in one sector, that becomes their home, and they're going to care more about what happens there.
This of course doesn't mean that the players should never venture outside the bounds of these handful of planets that you've set up - heavens no. It's a big universe out there, and characters should wander about freely. However, if the players are comfortable with several planets, if the players know that if they need a good, stuff drink that Bob's Spaceport Cantina on Psylor is the best joint in town, then Psylor will seem more real.
Try and create an area of space where things are consistent and detailed, where the different worlds depend on each other, where various NPCs and NPC groups interact, so the players feel that their characters have entered a living, breathing universe.
Rule Four: Make the game personal -
Take that wealth of information that the players have graciously provided to you about their character background, and look it over. Quite possibly, in addition to game ideas directly related to the character, you might be able to mine that background for locations and NPC's for upcoming games.
If you can tie that information in to what you had in mind for a game, suddenly the player(s) will have a stake in the events. Threaten a random planet with a superweapon - sure the players will try and stop the imperial plot, because that's what players do. Threaten a player's homeworld, and watch them fight like a demon to thwart the Empire.
This also ties into the base of operations idea, in that if you threaten, endanger or otherwise upset a planet that the players are familiar with, and are comfortable visiting, they will take it personally.
Rule Five: Consistency -
Keep notes. If Dra'an Horsk runs a cantina along one of the alleys of Old Quarter, then players will expect it to still be there the next time they visit - or have a good reason for it to be gone. If you played a good scene when they were there several gaming sessions back, they *will* want to return. If they befriended a local, you better remember who it was. If you used a certain map for a port-city, you can bet someone
will notice if you grab a different map next time they visit.
Of course consistency doesn't mean that things never change. Governments rise and fall, planets change hands, people die and move on with their lives. The difference between the consistency and random change is easy - there must be a logical reason behind the change/event occurring. Bob's Spaceport Cantina never existing at all is bad. Bob's Spaceport Cantina burning down because of a gangster looking for some protection money is good.
Rule Six: Know where you are going (part two) -
I already touched on this in the how to GM document, but it's important - know where you are going. If you have an overall end to your story arc, then you can set up challenges, foreshadow events, and build to a overall climax. You don't have to be locked into the ending, but you should have an overall goal to shoot for - be it the liberation of the character's homeworld, or the redemption of a characters father.
Rule Seven: The missing link -
A campaign shouldn't just be a collection of relatively unrelated scenarios; it should have a theme of some sort. This should be something that develops over time, with the players slowly connecting the dots.
Of course, not every adventure has to be connected with the overall theme. It's best if every now and then you throw in a non arc story - something that is fun for the players, but is a side trip from the regular campaign. Something just to spice things up a bit and keep the players on their toes.
Most of the adventures should be in some way related to the theme, however, and a really great campaign will come to an epic climax. Of course, a theme can be anything, from an effort to free a world from a brutal dictator, to the players trying to get ahead in the cutthroat cargo-running business - and anything in between.
Rule Eight: Make sure everyone gets their shot in the sun -
The trouble with games involved heavily with character backgrounds is that too much focus starts to send the game out of kilter. Balance must be maintained in the game or suddenly everyone else in the group will start to feel left out. Not EVERY game has to be centered around one character's background. Use this technique sparingly.
Or, run the game so that it involves several players at once. The Dark Jedi at the climax of the game killed Player 1's family, turned out to be Player 2's uncle, and turned up with Player 3's stolen ship. That'll give everyone some time in the spotlight as they try and kill the fiend.
Rule Nine: Don't be afraid to shake things up -
Look at Empire Strikes Back - the Rebels all but lose, Luke gets his hand cut off, Vader drops The Bomb, and Han is captured. The universe very distinctly, very suddenly changed. Should the game appear to be growing stale, or if the characters are becoming complacent - go ahead and rattle their cages a bit. Take well loved NPC's and kill them. Blow up the character's ship. Drop them on a lost colony planet without weapons, technology or a way home. Take them from the comfort zones that they've set up and surprise the heck out of them.
Of course, not that all shake-ups of the universe have to as heavy handed as 'I am your father' events. Have a PC turn out to be exiled royalty from a distant planet. Take villains and convert them to good guys. Good or bad, however, don't be afraid to shake up that well ordered universe from time to time.
Rule Ten: Thinking fourth dimensionally -
Encourage your players to think outside the box. If you feel your combats are settling into the blaster-dodge, blaster-dodge (or brawling-parry/lightsaber-parry/whatever) blues, see if you can't help your players improvise. Maybe an Intimidation roll by the wimpy-but-knowledgeable scientist will turn those bounty hunters around the other way. Maybe one of your players wants to tackle his bounty hunter nemesis in order to engage his jet pack so they can rocket away and have a one-on-one fight. Go with it.
Reward the players if they come up with harebrained ideas. Maybe the plan to get past the Imperial checkpoint is to dress up in drag and hit on the stormtroopers. When the players get the feeling that they won't die painfully if they try something out of the ordinary, you'll find them doing all sorts of strange, interesting stuff that might lead to new NPCs, plot twists, or at the least, lots of laughter.
Rule Eleven: Never underestimate the ability to change the plot at the last second -
Most of the time, players will talk among themselves incessantly, planning, and plotting. "Is the GM planning this or that", or "Boy - wouldn't it suck if Lord so-and-so was commanding that Imperial occupation force?". Take this fiendish idea they graciously handed to you and make use of it. Don't forget, there are several imaginative minds among the players as opposed to your one - use them! Be prepared to ditch your own plot if the players imagine a better one. This also gives the players a better sense of satisfaction as they feel they have worked out part of the puzzle for themselves, and a greater sense of involvement, not to mention taking some of the load off you.
Rule Twelve: Boundless horizons -
A long-term game leaves itself lots and lots of room to expand. Just because the Emperor was killed and Anakin redeemed, should you assume that the story was over. Far from it, in fact - and so should it be with your game.
Unless you are intending to end the game once and for all (it happens), you should never lock the campaign into a situation where there is no room to change. Leave a plot thread or two dangling, so the players have something to work for later down the road.
Special thanks to
Armage Bedar, Ben Wafer, Phil O'Neill, Michael C McNeill
and everyone on the SWRPG mailing list for help putting this document together.