I had a good game yesterday evening with my every-other-Sunday-its-kind-of-like-Star-Wars-RPG-but-not-really group. Better than half of the group requested I run Star Wars again (we'd just ended a really good year-long campaign), so I made some notes, threw together a custom setting, and decided how I wanted to run the game.
I asked the group what style they wanted to play. They aren't much for thrilling heroics, nor for a military-style game, but really enjoyed the underworld/criminal elements I put in the last campaign. They said they wanted the style to be a little more Bourne Identity and a little less swashbuckler-ly.
So, I cheated, They think they're playing Star Wars. They're really playing Cyberpunk.
I let them in on the secret when we sat down for our character creation session...that I was burned-out on Star Wars for the time being, and when I do SW, I really love running games in the Rebellion era. So, to spice things up a bit, I made the campaign setting a little grittier, a little tougher, and a little more remote.
The first thing I did, once I decided on the feel of the campaign, was write up a couple of pages of setting notes for the group. I mailed them out to everyone a week before the character creation session. The setting is very remote (compared to other locales in the Star Wars universe), and doesn't do much "business" with the Republic (I'm setting the game a couple of hundred years before Episode 1). To my surprise, everyone created characters from the remote setting, and didn't have them have much contact with the rest of the Republic. I took this as an approval of not only my setting, but an acknowledgment that this wasn't going to be your traditional Star Wars RPG.
I've discovered a few elements that really make my recent campaigns any type of success:
1: Character creation sessions happen before any dice hit the table. These are just plain necessary now. Everyone creates characters together, sharing ideas off one another, creating back-stories off one another, and sharing in kind of a story-creating process. I've found that people are much more willing to share roles and even be a little more revolutionary as to how different roles are portrayed when they get to create everything together.
2: Player input to the types of campaign we should run is necessary. There's nothing worse than when the group thinks the game is going to be run one way, and you're thinking something totally different. This has been my bane as a GM for two decades. I have my image as to what the campaign should feel like, but then so do the players. If everyone isn't on the same page, then the campaign is doomed to failure. I've played and run alot of mood-oriented games (Cyberpunk, Vampire: the Masquerade, for example) that suffered because my image of the campaign setting wasn't near the players' expectations.
So now, I make a point of sitting with the players and asking what kind of setting they're expecting. I share what I want to portray, they share what they want to interact with. The end result is a collaborative setting in which the players feel much more invested.
3: Campaign documents help the players and GM keep the focus of the campaign. Every game I run now has some type of documentation, even if its just a one-page handout. I give some notes about the setting, list some house rules, provide pictures, maps, or diagrams where necessary, mention notable NPC's, and usually describe anything notable about the character creation process. I've found that putting something of a "mission statement" in helps really solidify the campaign. If I'm having trouble focusing on what kind of adventures to create, the mission statement and campaign doc helps keep me in the right direction.
For example, I run a small D&D campaign. I decided, when first creating it, I wanted to have a retro, classic, 1st Edition D&D feel. When I find that the plot is getting too convoluted, or my dungeon design is getting too weird, I remember that I'd said from the beginning that the campaign was supposed to feel "classic." This keeps me designing things with that "classic" influence.
None of these things are really revolutionary. Some of them, though, had to be taught to me (thanks, Eldrich, for the suggestion of "themed parties," that inspired me to have character creation sessions). Some came because if I didn't evolve, I'd never really be happy running a game again.
I keep these elements in mind while I design my own new game system. I'd like to incorporate, into the rules, character creation as a group activity (Spirit of the Century does this remarkably well). I'm thinking about designing campaign creation checklists and documents to help shape groups and campaign settings. Part of the design philosophy behind the settng and rules is based on cooperative storytelling.
A practical application for right now, too: I have an old-west game coming up soon; I'll likely use the Aces and Eights system (its all different kinds of cool), but Deadlands is speaking to me, too. To help me decide, I'm going to throw together some notes, and present them to my potential players, and maybe we can decide together.