Building a Campaign
For a GM, a campaign is the next big step forward once they have a few successful adventures under their belt, a chance to stretch the skills and experience picked up from running quests and give their players a stab at something greater than just the dungeon of the week. Some campaigns evolve naturally out of long-running games—one adventure becomes several, and before long a plot has formed between them, turning a one-off into a long-running chronicle. In other cases, the group decides ahead of time that they’re committing to a campaign for the long run, making their plans accordingly.
But as the stakes and challenges rise, the amount of planning and foresight needed increases in turn. This section attempts to take some of the sting out of that process by offering concrete advice on structure and problem-solving during campaign play.
The level of planning required may seem daunting at first, but can be broken down to five simple ’W’s: who, what, where, when, and why.
Who: The Players
Who are the heroes? The beginning stages of the campaign will involve quizzing players as to what characters they’d like to bring to the table, then using this information to gauge how your group will work as a unit and advise players on Job selection. The ultimate goal in doing so is to keep the final party’s composition balanced. While the FFRPG supports a wide variety of professions, there are certain combinations that just don’t work together—three Gamblers and a Geomancer, or a group composed entirely of Mimics are almost guaranteed to cause headaches. For best results, an FFRPG party should have characters who can fill offensive, defensive, and support roles. Who fills which slot should be left for the players to decide.
The character concepts themselves also need to be carefully looked at before they can be approved. In particular, the GM should ask these questions of any and all characters submitted to the campaign:
Is the character appropriate to the setting and campaign? Probably the first thing you want to check when reviewing background. While originality is all nice and well, a character should fit into the campaign world, not be at odds with it. This includes the world’s background as well as its feel—if you are cleaving towards the PG-13 spirit of the original games, the last thing the party needs is a foul-mouthed sadist with a penchant for torturing and killing anybody who looks at him the wrong way.
Does the character bring something fresh to the cast? A group should also try to achieve a good mix of personality and character types, with each member bringing something distinctive to the ensemble. Running a session starring six brooding antiheroes with a grudge against the world at large might score points for novelty, but doesn’t offer much opportunity for conflict, character development, or plain old-fashioned fun. By ensuring that PCs aren’t straight-up clones of one another, you open the door to more interesting interactions between them.
Can the character work with the rest of the group? Because the group is expected to work together as a team, it is important that the characters—and players—get along. That means no characters whose backgrounds utterly clash with the rest of the group—placing a straight-edged law enforcer in the middle of a gang of gentleman thieves is just asking for trouble. This also rules out characters who are so antagonistic that they will spend more time fighting their comrades than helping them.
What: The Hook
What is the party fighting for? In the Final Fantasy universe, an adventuring party tends to be an alliance of convenience between wildly diverse characters, brought together by accident and united by a common goal. Defining that goal early on helps shape where the campaign goes and what kind of adventures the players can look forward to. Are they valiant eco-warriors battling a polluting mega-corporation? Valiant thieves striking a blow for justice against an evil empire? A secret rebel organization fighting to restore liberty? Young military cadets embroiled in a brutal conflict? A small band of warriors on a religious pilgrimage?
From a GM perspective, this ‘hook’ can develop in a number of ways. Sometimes, it arises naturally out of the mix of Jobs and characters players bring to the table. In most cases, however, the GM decides ahead of time what kind of game she is interested in running and passes that information on to the players, both as a ‘preview’ to whet their appetites and as a guide to ensure the characters they create will fit into the overall concept.
Where: The Place
Where do the adventures take place? The overall setting for a campaign is known as a ‘campaign world,’ and influences many things—the characters’ backgrounds, races, and professions, the plots involved, the political and social bonds, the kinds of technology players are likely to have access to… If the campaign world is based on an existing Final Fantasy or other game, the GM merely has to make sure that everybody in the group has played the game in question. If the world is original, on the other hand, the GM has to decide how to familiarize the players with it.
Developing the history, culture, society, religion, and conflicts of an entirely fictitious world can be an overwhelming task, but effectively relaying that information can be twice as hard. The players in particular need to be eased in gradually rather than bludgeoned with detail—restrict setting information to a short paragraph or two at the outset, giving just enough material to attract the players’ attention. The game summaries given in the Introduction offer several good models for how to approach this, weaving the ‘hook’ in with important details regarding the game’s setting and atmosphere.
Once the players have digested this information, the next step is to prepare a more detailed summary—a ‘gazetteer’—giving a short summary of the world’s history and a rundown of major nations and powers. A gazetteer should run between one and four pages, leaving enough space for details to be defined as the game progresses. The more ‘wiggle room’ the GM leaves for future expansion, the less likely it is that the setting will have to be reworked as a result of events in the campaign.
Players can use the gazetteer to develop their characters, but may need additional help during the process. The GM should always be at hand to answer background questions, even if they may seem trivial—“What kind of jobs would a Black Mage be able to have?” “Are Paladins associated with any particular religion?” “Which city has the biggest criminal underground?” This extends to players who wish to adjust the ‘flavor’ of specific Jobs or Races to better suit their character concepts—any such changes should be closely monitored to ensure that they stay consistent with the setting.
When: The Time
When do the adventures take place? Once you’ve created a rough history for the campaign world, it’s time to figure out where the players are in relation to it. Are they coming out of a period of strife and instability and into a tenuous peace that could be shattered at any moment? Is the world in the throes of a grand era of exploration and adventure where undiscovered continents beckon? Has a magical catastrophe recently wiped out civilization, leaving the players as hard-bitten survivors in a ruined wasteland? Settling on a timeframe will help develop potential plots, as well as determine issues like technological availability.
Why: The Common Bonds
Why are the characters together? In a one-off adventure, things like background and relationships are an optional extra. In a campaign, they’re a near necessity. Given the vast disparity in motivations characters can bring to the table, it is important that each player be able to come up for a reason as to why their PC bothers to stick with the party once they’ve joined up. Though not everyone is equally invested in the party’s goals, the heroes should work together for logical reasons, not plot contrivance.
Moreover, even if the party fights for a common cause, their reasons for buying into it can differ wildly, and may lead to conflict. How does the young nobleman whose family was killed by the Empire feel about joining forces with a mercenary previously in Imperial pay? One PC may have known or worked with another years prior, others may be in love with or bear a grudge against one of their comrades—let the players throw out their own ideas and suggestions and run with what works. As with all things, moderation is the key here. Not every PC needs to be connected to another player’s character, though a good degree of interconnection leaves the door open for many different kinds of roleplaying.
At this point, players can also discuss using the Traits listed in Appendix IV. In Rodger’s group, Mint’s player may have decided that the chirpy Dancer is in fact a dedicated—if thoroughly incompetent—Imperial spy tasked with keeping tabs on her companions’ activities; if so, Rodger can use this particular tidbit of background to weave at least one adventure, if not an entire sub-plot.
During the character creation process, some players may have special requirements or requests—you may find yourself dealing with PCs built using optional rules, specialized in unofficial Jobs, or equipped with Skills of the player’s own devising. As a GM, it is important to resist the temptation to gloss over these issues. Double-checking material like this for balance ahead of time—and being able to say ‘no’ to anything grossly unbalanced—can save a great deal of trouble further down the line.
Telling the Story
With the basics in place, the next step is to look at the story the campaign tells. Like all narratives, the success of a campaign on a storytelling level depends on planning, structure, foresight, and knowing what to do with the participants. In some respects, developing a campaign is no different than writing a novel; in others, it’s a improvisational free-for-all being tugged in half a dozen directions at once. Knowing which techniques to apply to each situation can well make the difference between success and failure.
Plot & Metaplot
Most adventures have their own plot and follow a rough narrative arc from the time the players are given their objective to the final battle or challenge separating them from success. What makes a campaign different from a disconnected series of adventures is the fact that another, larger plot can be laid on top of these individual ‘stories’ to create a much grander experience. This second plot is best described a metaplot—a story more sweeping than the sum of its parts. The typical Final Fantasy game is a perfect example of this, filled with side quests, diversions, and individual plot threads that achieve coherence through the ‘big’ storyline that overshadows and drives the player’s actions.
Creating a metaplot in a tabletop setting requires the GM to create an ultimate outcome to the PCs’ adventures and then decide how the players will get there. The defeat of an evil empire might be achieved by leading the party along the path to destroy the empire’s power base one city at a time; the revealing of an extra-dimensional menace summoned by a crazed Sage by getting the players involved in the Sage’s search for an ancient grimoire; the discovery of a revolutionary ancient energy source capable of driving the world into the next stage of technological development by having the group battle rival forces for control of a thousand-year-old city at the edge of the world.
The events that will eventually result in the climax are then spaced out over the course of the campaign, allowing for a satisfying conclusion while giving the GM an opportunity to expand on the smaller details—how did the empire manage to conquer the world? Who is the Sage, and what drove him mad? Where are the ruins located, and what is needed to find the location?
The important thing to remember is to avoid hitting the players with too much too soon. Metaplots are developed over time, and may not enter play until relatively late in the game, allowing the level of menace to scale with the players. At Level 1, they will be fighting on a local level, protecting small villages from evil forces and battling against rank-and-file soldiers and weak monsters; at Level 65, they determine the fate of entire nations, if not the world itself.
Also, while the meta-plot determines the game’s ending and key sections of the narrative, it doesn’t have to affect every aspect of the game. If the party’s ultimate destiny is to battle Dark Lord and his minion, the Shadow Knight, there will still be times during the campaign when the players dabble in small-town politics, rescue a sickly grandmother’s cat from Death Cave, shore up a flagging merchant company, or become involved in an underground Chocobo racing syndicate. If anything, this variety is key to making the meta-plot work; otherwise, having to deal with the Dark Lord and his henchman in town after town quickly gets tiresome.
Adventures can also be interconnected without being related to the metaplot. The smaller plot ‘threads’ created by interlinked adventures can be referred to as arc plots.
For instance, the cat rescue may climax in the revelation that Granny’s little kitty is actually a ferocious feline demon summoned by a mysterious sorcerer; the Chocobo racing syndicate could be run by a larger criminal organization that the players eventually must expose and bring crashing down. In both cases, the ‘conclusion’ leaves plenty of room for further exploration and action. If necessary, you can even use the end of the arc plot to push players back into the main metaplot—in the above example, the cat demon’s master could easily turn out to be a sorcerer in the Dark Lord’s employ.
Console RPGs—and Final Fantasy games in particular—tend to stick to a few tried-and-true plots in their narratives, mixing and matching elements as needed. GMs can benefit from this by using the genre’s cliches and conventions as a starting point for their own stories. Below are a number of ‘stock plots’ used by Final Fantasy titles in the past—use the ones that strike your fancy, and your metaplot is one step closer to being done.
The Megalomaniac: All things told, the world was doing well until now—things were stable, relations between powers were cordial. Then a new figure rose to prominence, bringing along minions, resources, and a desire to topple the status quo. Perhaps they have their own agenda; perhaps they are nothing more than pawns in somebody else’s plan.
The Mystery: Strange things are happening. Natural order seems out of balance. Something—or someone—is seeking to change the world, and it may not be for the better. Unless the warnings are heeded and the mystery is unraveled in time, the consequences could be dire indeed.
The Resistance: Evil has already won, and holds the world in its sway. Most have already accepted subjugation, save for the few and proud who refuse to buckle under and will fight to end the tyranny at any price. Can justice prevail when every odd favors the enemy?
The War Story: Conflicts between nations make for strange bedfellows—and desperation for dalliances with powers and weapons best not trifled with. How far will a leader go to win a war? How much are they willing to sacrifice to get their way? And on what side will the players stand on when the first shots are fired?
The Ancient Evil: In a distant land, something ancient slumbers. If awakened, it could very well tear the world apart—and now there are forces seeking its revival at any cost. Can they be stopped before disaster strikes?
The Conspiracy: How do you fight an enemy you never see? In a world in turmoil, deceit lurks around every corner and few things are as they seem. At the center of it all lies a conspiracy of incredible size, controlling the ebb and flow of events and trying its best to make sure nobody ever puts together enough pieces to learn the truth—whatever it may be.
The Perils of Science: The march of scientific progress has brought many wonderful things to the world, but there’s a dark side as well: deadly weapons, strange experiments, perversions of life and nature itself. When bad science gets out of the lab, who will have the strength to put a stop to it?
In Media Res
Now we are ready to look at the ‘opening scene’—that first session where your players enter the world and begin their adventure. Ever since Final Fantasy II opened with a desperate battle, most Final Fantasy games have started in the thick of the action—good examples of this include the raid on Mysidia in Final Fantasy IV, AVALANCHE’s attempt to sabotage the Sector 1 Reactor in Final Fantasy VII, the kidnapping planning session in Final Fantasy IX, Sin’s attack on Zanarkand in Final Fantasy X, and the infiltration of Nalbina Fortress in Final Fantasy XII. In storytelling terms, this narrative device is called in media res—‘into the middle of things’.
Beginning the campaign on a dramatic, splashy note like this is a good way to get the players’ attention—and almost instantly cuts through the tedious sequence of “so you all meet in a bar…”-style introductions usually needed to get characters up to speed with each other. The big advantage of setting up character relationships and common causes during the campaign creation phase is that there is no need to spend time explaining these when the game kicks off in proper—the characters already know where they stand in relation to each other and why they fight together. With this burden removed, all that’s left for the GM to do is come up with a big, spectacular action scene or battle to kick things off. If the players want to spend time getting to know each other, they can do it after the rubble has settled.
Bringing the Players Together
Only under the rarest of circumstances does a Final Fantasy game begin with every character already in the party. In most cases, the party is assembled gradually over the course of many hours and events as the protagonists slowly drift together through a combination of fate and purpose. This device gives GMs a fair bit of leeway in enlarging the party as needed, allowing them to start with as few as one or two players and gradually building up to a full group of six or eight. The challenge lies in making sure that new additions are kept up to speed on campaign events prior to entering the game and that their entrances are handled with a modicum of grace.
Ideally, new arrivals should be planned for at least one session in advance. This allows the session prior to new character’s debut to accommodate an ending that sets up the character’s arrival. In the next session, the player then officially joins the group, and the adventure moves on without a break in the action.
With your campaign plot established and the party assembled and in the game, something—an event, an item, a character—must draw your players into that metaplot. This something is the catalyst. As long as it is strong enough to hook the players, it isn’t necessary for the catalyst to be directly related to the metaplot; the games themselves have taken both routes over the years, to varying effect. Some examples of catalysts with a direct bearing on the plot include the meteorite strikes in Final Fantasy V, Sin’s attack in Final Fantasy X, or the kidnapping in Final Fantasy IX—each of these introduces characters and events that remain relevant later in the game. By contrast, the catalyst of the original Final Fantasy—the kidnapping of Princess Sara—is merely an excuse to bring the players into contact with the fallen knight Garland. Once the players have confronted Garland and free the princess, she disappears from the story. In narrative terms, her kidnapping is what the great director Alfred Hitchcock called a ‘MacGuffin’—the actual event is irrelevant to the plot, as its main importance lies in introducing the player to the game’s antagonist and overarching threat to the world.
When planning a campaign, the catalyst should be an integral part of the process. Ask yourself: What form will the catalyst take? At what point do you introduce it? How will the players be exposed to it? Is it strong enough for the players respond to it? It’s the last point that’s the arguably the most important—the last thing you want is your group waltzing past the catalyst and ignoring the plot you’ve spent weeks developing.
The best way to make the catalyst work is to entice the players with something that will directly interest or benefit them. Tangible rewards are the easiest way to get attention—the classic example in fantasy role-playing games is the bartender who accosts the party, telling them that he knows of a place where hidden treasure can be found. The second-easiest is the ‘background hook’, where the catalyst is based directly on a character’s background—say, a family member begging for help or an old nemesis eager to even the score. In this case, the party—or player—follows because they have a chance to take center stage in the events that follow. Of course, there are other possibilities, and knowing what motivates your players will take a lot of the guesswork out of this step.
Skinning an Onion
An important part of making a metaplot work is figuring out how exactly to deliver it to the players. How much should they know about the overarching plot from the outset? How much will they stumble upon as time passes? Many Final Fantasy games devote their plots to the gradual unraveling of mysteries as the characters find out how the world really works—and who pulls the strings. For this reason, a lot of weight hinges on that initial ‘reveal’ when the characters realize they’re part of something bigger than they ever could have dreamed of. As characters progress from Level to Level, their knowledge and understanding increases; they become privy to dark plots and hidden secrets, and may find things they once held true are far from it.
For the sake of convenience, it’s easiest to envision the various ‘reveals’ as peeling back the layers of the onion until you reach the center—at this point, the PCs know the whole truth and are ready to act on it. You can use this analogy to develop your reveals by assigning one major revelation to each layer of ‘skin’; once one layer is removed, the next comes to light.
In the play examples given throughout the book, Rodger’s group is fighting to accumulate the materials to repair the airship Excelsior to allow it to be used against the vile Deathsight. At this point, they have already been delving into the metaplot for some time, and have peeled back several layers in the process. The first ‘layer’ of the metaplot sees the players reaching the Wind Kingdom of Cassia, only to discover that there are double agents scheming to undermine the monarchy. The second ‘layer’ occurs once the players find that the King’s seniormost Dragoon, assigned to assist the players with their investigation, is actually the plot’s ringleader.
The third layer reveals that he himself is taking his orders from another—a shadowy figure seemingly bent on subverting the world’s nations by replacing their nobility with puppets under his control. The fourth layer reveals the mastermind’s identity as Deathsight, and lays out his plan to the players—using relics divided between the members of the world’s noble families, he intends to revive the Omega Series, twelve powerful ancient mechanoids. In time, the group will reach the ‘core,’ discovering Deathsight’s ultimate intentions for the Omega Series. Until then, however, many more adventures remain…
Continuity—the idea that changes in one session carry over into the next, affecting everything else down the line—is crucial in differentiating a campaign from a simple series of one-off adventures. But continuity means more than just making sure the Red Keep stays destroyed after the party nearly met their deaths shutting down that Hellfire Reactor. It also means revisiting characters, locations, and plot threads on a consistent basis, especially if they are important to the party. While most campaigns go through a steady supply of one-off NPCs, key allies and enemies shouldn’t just pop up for one session and then disappear indefinitely. Similarly, any important plot issues raised in one session should continue to be developed and addressed until they are resolved.
Running a plot-intensive campaign also means keeping your facts straight. The best way to do this is to get into the habit of keeping a running track of location and character names, of events and key setting details. Expecting your players to take the story and world seriously means putting the same effort into it that you would expect from the rest of the group.
Most tabletop roleplaying games treat the group as a single entity. Final Fantasy games, however, frequently pull the focus onto a single character for portions of the narrative, shifting the spotlight from the group to the individual. These ‘character moments’ are an integral part of the Final Fantasy experience, and offer GMs a way of bringing characters and story closer together without shutting any one player out.
A character moment is essentially a revolving limelight that moves from character to character over the course of several sessions. Character moments will tend to take up part of or the bulk of a session, and take the form of events, plot twists, and side-quests directly involving one or two related characters. Opponents, locations, and complications for these should be drawn directly from the character’s background or Traits, and offer their player a chance to flex their roleplaying muscle and further define who they are playing.
The main trick to pulling this off is to restrict character moments to a single session at most before moving on to the next person, ensuring every character has his or her own day in the sun. Focus too much on a single player’s exploits and you alienate the rest of the group, no matter how fascinating their character’s backstory may be. On the other hand, having the spotlight rotate on a regular basis can create positive anticipation as players know that it’s only a matter of time before they get a chance to step in that limelight again.
An entertaining and rewarding campaign requires good performances from the players to work. This may be easier if the GM takes an active interest in rewarding good roleplaying in the group. While each GM will have their own ideas of what makes a performance ‘good’ enough to merit a reward, it is possible to establish some basic criteria by which to judge your players’ performances. Factors to consider include:
Characterization: Characterization begins with establishing an actual character: a thought-out backstory and rounded personality, supported by an appropriate choice of Advantages, Disadvantages, Skills, and Traits. It should be noted that a character doesn’t necessarily have to be deeply flawed or riddled with psychological trauma to be interesting. Even stock characters can be distinguished by small, subtle quirks—an irrational fear of insects, a collection of old war injuries, or an encyclopedic knowledge of ancient languages.
The true challenge lies in bringing these ideas to life in a convincing manner. In many ways, quality roleplaying is nothing so much as the process of turning that concept from ‘telling’ into ‘showing’. The easiest way to assess a player’s performance is to compare what’s on the character sheet to how that character acts during the course of each session. A self-described gallant knight in armor whose only devotion is to the code of chivalry shouldn’t be indulging in petty theft or bullying blameless peasants into surrendering information. while educated scholars with a Language* rating in the high 90s would be expected to talk—and act—the part.
A GM should also be mindful of excessive metagaming. ‘Breaking character’ is not just limited to personality and background, but also applies to using out-of-game knowledge and repeated violations of the fourth wall.
Character development: At the same time, no character should remain completely static. Attitudes and personalities that change convincingly over time are as much part of the roleplaying experience as establishing them in the first place. A Thief who robbed rich and poor without qualms may realize there’s more to life than just lining your own pockets. A once-proud Paladin may find his devotion wavering, gradually becoming consumed by self-doubt. The taciturn Fighter whose heart closed off the day his lover died may yet let down his barriers again. The possibilities are nigh-on endless.
Interaction with other characters: No group exists in a vacuum; part of the roleplaying experience means characters interacting with one another, building up strong relationships with both PCs and NPCs—romances, friendships, feuds, and everything in between. Take note of where players work actively to create chemistry between characters; this goes doubly for romantic relationships, which require a great deal of courage and commitment from all parties involved. Players willing to take the plunge and act these out in-game should definitely be eligible for GM recognition.
Memorable lines: Where would the Final Fantasy games be without their dialogue? Several of the series’ more memorable bon mots are sprinkled throughout this rulebook, but there are many others, ranging from the outright banal to the strangely profound. With this in mind, reward those players whose characters can crack inspired one-liners or deliver memorable speeches off the cuff to encourage others to do the same.
Death & Sacrifice
As a narrative element, death can be great—after all, nothing underlines the threat a villain poses quite like an entire village wiped off the map in a single magical cataclysm. But when death strikes the party, the fun quickly evaporates.
In Final Fantasy games, protagonists tend to be almost invincible, underlined by the fact that only two main characters have died over the course of the first twelve games. From a storytelling perspective, this makes good sense—after all, it’s hard to keep a coherent narrative going if your heroes die an hour into the plot. But GMs cannot control everything their players do, and when the rolls go bad or your Fighter suddenly gets it into his head to charge the Imperial Army single-handedly, you may find yourself with a casualty on your hands. Fortunately, there are several ways for you to work with this.
Fudge the Death
As GM, you have the power to prevent any death that might disrupt your stories—otherwise murderous rolls can be ignored, bad judgment countered, certain-death experiences can become near-fatal ones instead. In gaming terms, this is known as fudging. Fudging can be a good way to prevent ‘cheap’ deaths, but carries its own risks; use it too often, and you end up taking the sting out of dangerous situations, especially if players become aware that you’re going out of your way to prevent fatalities. Once they realize that they’re working with a GM-imposed ‘safety net’, they may take your challenges less seriously—or deliberately take ludicrous risks to see how far you’ll go to save their hides.
Because there are extensive rules for generating experienced PCs in Chapter 2, coming up with an equivalently powerful replacement for a fallen hero isn’t impossible, though it may be necessary to tweak Gil, Artifacts, and Legendary equipment to bring him or her up to an equal footing with the rest of the party.
The bigger problem is what to do the web of relationships and contacts the character’s predecessor brought to the table, especially if they were heavily involved with the metaplot. The cheap and easy way out is to connect the character’s replacement to the original PC in some way. Perhaps she’s a family member out to avenge the death of her sibling or father; perhaps she’s a former arch-nemesis who feels robbed by the fact that she wasn’t the one to kill him, and has decided to join the PCs to make his killer pay for that slight. Either way, this leads to a situation where many of the plot threads and contacts can be picked up with only minimal adjustment.
The alternative is to simply ride with it and let those relationships be severed. Beyond lending the campaign a bit of dramatic punch, a death in the party also opens the door for extensive character development as the survivors cope and move on. Moreover, death doesn’t need to be the end for a character—in a Final Fantasy game, it’s not unheard of for the spirit of a fallen hero to pop up at pivotal moments to encourage former comrades or offer words of wisdom.
While most PC deaths are unplanned, players may occasionally want to sacrifice their characters for the good of the party. This sort of dramatic heroism is in the best traditions of Final Fantasy heroism, and should be rewarded in kind. For the duration of their final Scene or battle, ‘sacrifices’ enjoy infinite Hit and Magic Points, and ignore any detrimental Status Conditions that would normally affect them. Once that time period is over, however, they are dead. This death is final, and may not be reversed through the use of Spells, Items or Key Points.
In rarer cases, characters may also sacrifice their lives in an attempt to return another character to life. It should be noted that ‘acting as a substitute’ has a significant ground in Japanese folklore, but rarely has any success in Final Fantasy games. Whether such attempts succeed or not is ultimately up to the GM.
Every GM can make mistakes, but some can easily kill a campaign off in a matter of sessions if not remedied. This section examines some of the most common problems and errors associated with campaign play, and how to circumvent them.
They’re stylish. They’re skilled. They’re charismatic. They leave enemies broken at their feet and admirers standing in line everywhere they go. They’re the toast of royalty and the scourge of evil. And they’re not the players.
A ‘pet character’ can be defined as any ally that steals the spotlight from the party, taking center stage in roleplaying, combat, or storyline. Left unchecked, they turn the players into glorified catspaws, good only for holding the pet’s coat for him while he goes bare-knuckle boxing with Dark Lord or laughing obligingly at his witty humor. This is outright poison to a campaign, and will turn your group against you in record time.
This doesn’t mean that the players can’t have powerful allies—indeed, the narrative may demand it in places—but they should be there to support the party, not vice versa. Avoid making them a crucial part of the plot and limit their appearances; if the players need the aid of an all-powerful NPC to overcome the monsters and challenges thrown at them on a regular basis, you may need to rethink your challenge level, not step up the level of support you give them.
‘Railroading’ occurs when the party’s options are deliberately restricted by the GM, usually to ensure that the plot proceeds as the GM has planned it. How this is works varies from one game to another, but it ultimately boils down to the GM striking down alternate paths with an elaborate variation of “You can’t do that.” The second the plot demands that the party explore the nearby cave, the main bridge out of town suddenly collapses, the roadways are populated by high-Level Notorious Monsters, and the townsfolk can’t stop talking about the MARSH CAVE to the NORTH. The result is a game on rails—all the players can do follow the path the GM has set out for them.
This is fine in moderation—after all, Final Fantasy games are picturebook examples of railroading—but can frustrate players if it becomes too frequent or obvious. For this reason, it is important to keep your options open; instead of developing rigid story structure, use the ‘web of events’ model set out earlier in the chapter to lay out potential campaign paths and be prepared to improvise if needed.
There’s a fine line between keeping the players on their toes and destroying the party so comprehensively that their toes are about all that’s left after the dust settles. Keep current copies of your players’ character sheets when designing encounters so you have a reasonable idea of what challenges are suitable for their overall ability level, and pay attention how the group deals with the obstacles you put in their way. If you notice that they are having more problems than expected on a regular basis, don’t dismiss it as bad playing and plow forward—adjust the difficulty down to compensate and give them a chance to get their bearings. And if the worst should come to pass and the entire party is wiped out as a result of a badly-designed encounter, apologize and rewrite the fight so the players have a fair shake—otherwise, you may be looking for a new group the week after.
At the same time, it’s perfectly possible to be too generous with the difficulty level, showering the party with high-level equipment for defeating creampuff monsters that crumple after just two hits. Though some may enjoy this kind of campaign, in general it’s more satisfying for all involved if they have to sweat a little to gain something in-game. Remember: difficulty adjustments go both ways. There’s no shame in quietly raising a monster’s HP if it’s dying faster than expected, or adding new challenges if existing ones don’t seem to be taxing your group.
Players select Abilities, Skills, Traits, and special equipment because they believe they will get a chance to use them. As a result, the easiest way to frustrate your players is to either ignore their characters’ capabilities or shut them down entirely. If the party has invested heavily in Social Skills, the last thing you want to do is keep them on the road or crawling through monster-infested dungeons for the bulk of the campaign. If your party’s resident Black Mage signed on with the expectation of throwing some lightning bolts around, don’t have monsters slap Silence on him at the start of every battle. If the group is capable of using a lot of Status Conditions, try to avoid giving their opponent blanket immunity to everything the group can throw at them. Your players want to use their toys—let them. If things get too out of hand, there are still plenty of ways you can cut them down to size.
Even the best-run campaigns suffer from attrition. Scheduling conflicts, loss of interest, personal problems, or moves can all whittle down your player numbers. Overlooking the need to find replacements, the departure of any player leaves you with a hole in your cast, story-wise—and three ways to deal with it.
If the player may come back at a later date, contrive a reason for the player’s character to temporarily leave the party. Perhaps their kingdom is in trouble, or they’ve been called back by their old gang for one last heist—whatever the situation may be, this approach leaves the door open for an eventual comeback. If the player decides to return to the group, you can arrange for a surprise reappearance during the next session; if not, the character has already been relegated to the background, making their permanent departure less jarring.
If the player is gone for good, one option is to bring in someone else to take over the character, or turn said character into an NPC. This kind of ‘recasting’ should only be done with the original player’s consent, and may yield mixed results—for better or worse, characters are almost inseparable from the person playing him or her.
If the player is gone and having the character continue under somebody else’s direction isn’t feasible, the final option is to simply kill them off in a spectacular fashion. This can offer you some nice dramatic possibilities, but should be reserved for players who definitely aren’t returning—the last thing the group needs is for said player to show up out of the blue a few weeks down the line, demanding to know what happened to his PC.