I spend most of my gaming time running long campaigns with fairly little preparation. The purpose of this series is to describe some of the techniques I use. This technique is my favorite method to produce villains, a strategy I’ve dubbed the Antagonist Audition.

In running long games players and their characters will interact with many different characters in the world you are building together during play. As the GM (or what not), you will create most of these. Some of these characters will be prospective rivals, enemies, threats, or impediments to the players’ and their character’s goals.

What you want to take careful note of during these encounters is how the players react. If there is a strong enough connection or response, that suggests your obstructing character or characters may serve as a future villain. Just be careful that the response isn’t a borderline issue trigger or simple annoyance.

Based on that first audition, bring the antagonists who passed back for a second one. Think about your stable of interesting troublemakers and consider it when you are looking for a foil or problem down the line. This second audition is crucial, since here you will determine if the connection with the potential villain is strong enough to make a truly memorable enemy. Be open to other possibilities though, sometimes old enemies can become friends or at least allies.

Once an antagonist passes their second audition you can start thinking about their plans on a larger, longer scale. This is when you decide how your villain will be repeatedly running afoul of the players’ characters. This indicates you are leaving what I think of as the first phase of the campaign, you are establishing fixtures and starting to reincorporate elements more and more. Eventually if the villain survives and stays interesting it will make it to the last phase, where you crank up the tension and start to tie off the threads you’ve built together.

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Long campaigns (6 months to 3 years) make up the majority of my gaming, mostly because I’ve learned how to make these games happen with little out of game preparation. That learning took a fair amount of trial and error, but I’m going to try to distill some of my methods for people interested in running long campaigns or just interested in how they can work.

Time and time again I have learned that the protagonists of a campaign need a center, a core place, person, and/or organization which binds them together and defines what their everyday lives look like. This center gives the players a context to fit their characters. And it gives a framework to me while running the game to decide how to turn everyday into the exciting.

Some examples of campaign centers I’ve used over the years:

  • Members or allies of an artificer guild in your city.
  • Escapees from a pair of powerful Fae settling in a quaint riverside Hungarian town just before WWI.
  • Members of a circus traveling the planes of existence and hiding the secret of a chosen one among its children.

At first I though the most useful aspect of having a campaign center is that it helps avoid questions of why these characters care about the same things or work together. But more and more I’ve realized that the center provides a crucial place of normalcy, a backdrop and a sanctuary so that play has an opportunity to become quieter and more revealing of these characters and their lives. Working from that you can find a mechanical or narrative way to bring play back to the center.

For the artificer guild I put the month’s quests, trouble, and opportunities into an accounting style ledger so the players could always see how their actions affected the all important bottom line. For the Hungarian town, the player characters would return to their day jobs revolving around a rowdy tavern as bouncers, brewers, or entertainers. For the circus the rhythm of arriving on a new plane and getting set up for one or more performances provided the backdrop to adventures, intrigue, and mystery. In each case, these centers provided a way to remind players how their characters fit into the world, not just as pawns following some adventure arc.