Saturday, December 8, 2018

Greatest Hits #8 - WFRP Campaign Thoughts

One of these days I will finally run a sustained WFRP campaign ... lord knows I have the material and the miniatures for it ...

The Warhammer universe is extremely rich, which, oddly enough, makes it difficult to decide what kind of campaign to run. For some games, they are built around a particular type of play: Mechwarrior is mainly aimed at playing giant robot drivers; Shadowrun is focused on largely criminal behavior by off-the-grid free agents;. Sure, you can try something else but the premise of the game and most supporting material drives it in a particular direction. Other games present a universe and a mechanical system for playing in that universe and leave the rest up to you: Traveller is pretty strong at this, and most universal type games are good at this. Even something like a Star Trek game can fall into this category: Fasa Trek started out centered around playing Star Fleet officers out exploring the galaxy. Over time it added support for the major alien races for similar kinds of campaigns, then it added rules for the intelligence services opening things up for espionage type games, then it added rules for playing a merchant type campaign as well. After digging through my WFRP material I would add it to the list of games that says "here's a universe - go!"

The mechanical part of the game does make certain assumptions:

- you're playing a human, elf, dwarf, or halfling. That covers some physical items but culturally there are a lot of options that are independent of physical race.

- technology is at a renaissance level: armor, swords, early firearms, telescopes, and some beginning experiments with steam power

- magic is present, unpredictable, powerful, and dangerous

- there are gods in the universe that are benevolent to indifferent

- there is a thing called Chaos that underlies the world, it's bad, and it contains entities that care nothing for the current state of the world or the beings that live in it

There are not a lot of assumptions, though, about what characters will be doing. There is a combat system, but it's pretty d*mn dangerous and it is explicitly stated in the game that a lot of combat leads to maimed and dead characters, so much so that a Fate point mechanic was added to help mitigate the seriousness of those consequences. There are various skills and abilities that relate to personal interaction between characters and to business transactions too.

I could certainly see running a traditional D&D style campaign that involves dungeon and wilderness encounters on a personal quest for wealth and power - it would probably feel quite different than most D&D campaigns but it could be done.

Having recently looked through Pendragon and then through my Bretonnia supplement, I think you could run a very solid "Lords and Ladies" campaign similar to what a Pendragon game would encompass set in Bretonnia and involving a little more of the fantastic than a baseline Pendragon game. I'm thinking about writing this up in more detail a bit later but I do like the idea of combining these two things.

You could run a Traveller-style Merchant game running a ship up and down the major river of the Empire.

If you wanted to tie in the Warhammer miniatures game you could have a very fine Mercenary campaign that included some occasional mass battles.

Need political intrigue? The nobles of ther Empire are quite a bickering lot, as are the major religions, and then there are the hidden threats of Chaos cults and the Skaven to make things even more shadowy that stubborn noble houses.

Picking up the Tome of Corruption supplement then you could flip things upside down and go over to Chaos, running a campaign where each player runs an aspiring champion of chaos, perhaps using the recent Storm of Chaos invasion as the background.

There is another supplement that covers the Border Princes but is largely composed of a system for creating, mapping, and then managing a small realm  pacified, claimed, and run by the player characters.

Now you could try a lot of these in various editions of D&D but the difference here is that there is quite a bit of support, both mechanical and with background material and advice for each of them. That was not always true in various editions of D&D - or Runequest or Fantasy Hero or whatever other system you care to compare. The fact that all of these options feel like they could fit coherently within one edition of a game set in one particular fantasy world is a pretty strong positive in my opinion. I like the idea that I could run 3 different campaigns at the same time in this world and not feel like I'm repeating myself at any point.

I also think that this could be run as an episodic campaign if the DM had a particular aspect in mind - say one fo the items above - but it could also run just fine as an open-ended-wander-the-world-and-see-what-happens kind of game. I do think I would run it as a more traditional serial campaign in most cases as that just feels more right to me in an age when traveling long distances is supposed to be part of the adventure. You're in Altdorf and need to talk to someone in Marienburg? Getting there might be a whole session in itself whether by land or by sea!

There are several published starting scenarios, more if you drop back and use some of the old 1st edition material. There are quite a few published adventures, both long and short, linked and independent, enough to sustain a decent campaign if that's the way you wanted to go. I do like the idea of using some of those for that shared experience  that lets you swap stories with other players about how YOU handled that trouble in Bogenhafen, but I would definitely want to mix in my own stuff as well. The border princes book is pratically a campaign in itself, as is the mammoth Thousand Thrones advanture and the Altdorf-Nuln-Middenheim trilogy. For a limited campaign I think any of those is a solid choice.

This is a little more general than I originally planned but I have some ideas on some specific campaigns that I will get into in a little more detail and some other ideas too.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Greatest Hits #7 - The Star Trek Model of Campaign Design

Another one of my favorites ...

1) The World is Not Known: In contrast to the Rangers or Star Wars, exploration is the focus and that means the setting is a major player in the campaign. Compared to the Rangers campaign where the setting is really just wallpaper behind the big action, in this style of game everything from geography to races and civilizations to even the weather can play a big role in the campaign and any of those could be the focus of a session. Compared to Star Wars the physical layout of the setting and the cultures are largely unknown, and while both can feature interaction and combat, this concept adds in the whole getting-to-know-them stage. In short: In Power Rangers you don't need a map, In Star Wars you just look up the map, in Trek the campaign is about the people who make the map!

2) Travel will be common and interesting. The PR game characters might never leave their hometown. In Star Wars travel is common and mundane but not typically a focus other than as a rest period between adventures. For this style of game travel is how the campaign advances. It may well involve a craft of some kind.  This could easily be ship based, even a flying ship or an airship if you're going in that direction fantasy-wise. A literal interpretation of the source material could lead to teleportation circles and flying carpets as supplementary travel options.

3) Character Diversity: This one is not as essential as the first two but in keeping with the source of the inspiration the concept can easily handle a wide range of character types, classes and races. It also makes some sense to start above 1st level if you're so inclined. Think those flying races are overpowered for a traditional campaign? Not so here. Always wanted to play a locathah or merman or sea-elf? This might be the place to do it. Reluctant to include the Drow character in your usual game? This is where you can "Worf" in your Drizzt wanna-bes. Steal justifications and explanations from the source without remorse.

4) Steady State: Unlike PR there is not necessarily a strong character progression here, making it more suitable for non-level-based games. That said it works fine with a level progression, and an expedition into distant planes of weirdness can be a good explanation for why your former frontier farmboy becomes a demigod. Unlike Star Wars there is not typically a huge amount of social change going on, and adding that in can distract from the exploration theme and change the campaign, moving it towards a Star Wars style game. In general the home social situation stays the same, and the characters may or may not progress a great deal, but the discoveries made by the players can certainly stir things up back home.

5) Open Ended: Also unlike PR and SW there is no requirement that characters defeat a world-threatening evil or change the state of the world. Individual characters may come and go but the exploration can continue for years. It might be different quests, different missions, or one really long Odyssey, but there is no inherent limit on it.

I did something like this with a Rifts campaign years ago described in this post. Here's how it breaks down as far as the elements in this post:
  1. In this version the only information available were a few scattered reports from other travelers and some pre-apocalyptic maps.
  2. Travel took place via a giant robot with room on board for everyone. They stomped across the post-apocalyptic US and had to deal with various challenges
  3. It was Rifts, so character diversity is a given. Wizard? Check. Ninja? Check. Cyborg? check? Dragon hatchling? Check? Power armor guy? check. Not a problem.
  4. They started at first and made it up to about 6th by the end. They were not in regular contact with the home base so it didn't really figure in the campaign. The world itself was not in the middle of a war or an invasion, just the usual Rifts stuff
  5. Some characters died, some dropped out, others dropped in, and at least one underwent a racial transformation. There's plenty of room for change, even with a seemingly limited crew.

So running this in Trek or Traveller is easy enough, and I've given a Rifts example above, how about D&D? It's not difficult as it's a fairly traditional sandbox/hexcrawl game at heart. I think I will save that for a separate post - check back tomorrow.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Greatest Hits #6 - The Star Wars Model of Campaign Design

So I did something like this once before and I've been thinking about it again, but this time with a different model. I'll try to use a similar format too. Note that this is based more on the universe than it is the movies themselves.

So, principles of a Star Wars-modeled campaign:

1) The Universe is Known: Some games feature a lot of exploration. This one does not. This actually fits a lot of fantasy campaigns pretty well, from the Forgotten Realms to Warhammer's Old World. The big picture geography is well documented, but one can easily find pockets of "unknown" here and there and some areas are "far too remote" for decent people to care about anyway.

2) Monolithic Stability: Someone is In Charge - of almost everything! Sometimes it's the good guys, sometimes it's the bad, but most of the time most things are controlled mostly by one entity. One of the driving forces of the campaign is to change this.

I'm sure this is all completely fine, nothing underhanded here at all, nope
3) The Pendulum:

  • A creeping threat to the existing order is discovered. This is where the game begins.
  • This order begins to fray as the threat grows and factions begin to disagree on how to deal with it. Heroes adventure and important figures on both sides are identified.
  • Open conflict breaks out and this conflict may go on for years. Heroes and villains do a lot of leveling up during this conflict.
  • The old order collapses and a a new one rises. PC's may directly cause this.
  • The purge - allies and power players of the old order are hunted down as the new order consolidates power. Heroes pay back old foes or go out in a blaze of glory.
  • The interim - Things appear to stabilize. Surviving high level PC's retire or go into exile. 
  • The next generation - descendants or allies of the old order begin to gather power and make plans to overturn the new order, beginning the cycle all over again. Roll up your new characters.

4) Generations, Lineage, and Legacy: There's a lot of attention paid to redemption and revenge. Characters may have intertwined family histories or religious affiliations. Enemies may be related as well. There is a little more demanded of the players here when it comes to linking up their characters than in a typical D&D game but hopefully that's what they are looking for. There is plenty of room for diversity in character types, they just need to have some connections. This game will spend a fair amount of time on relationships, so your role players should love it. For your action junkies - well there is a war on...

Once again level based games give a nice built-in progress clock for what needs to be happening in the universe. This is another "finite" campaign in many ways, as there is a planned end point for the game (we won! - or-  we lost!), but it has a huge connection to the next one (or the previous one) that makes them almost a continuous campaign.

There's plenty of room for players to control their own destiny within these larger events, even taking control of some of them as high level characters are going to be leaders in a wartime situation without having to ask for it. 

Also, it doesn't really matter which side they are on! If they go Old Order heck, give them a chance to stop the change - perhaps only to have their NPC leader turn out to be the biggest threat of all! If they don't manage to make the change (hi Mr. Windu!), well, the survivors get to set the seeds for the next generation to carry on the fight. If they go New Order, well, let's hope they win so they can all retire to desk jobs by the time they become the Old Order again.

Among published settings for D&D, well, Eberron is the direct aftermath of a war, possibly headed for another one, and Greyhawk has had a few too.

I haven't deliberately run a game like this yet but I think it has a lot of potential. I'm laying a little ground work for something like this in my 4E Red Hand of Doom campaign as there is a 4E campaign that follows up on the events of this adventure a generation or more later. I didn't plot it out ahead of time but there is the potential there for the future. 

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Greatest Hits #5 - Notes from a Campaign that Failed

You won't win them all - why not pass along some notes from a failure too ...

Whatever tone you set and whatever level of campaign buy-in you are comfortable with, it's also important to make sure that's where the other participants are too.

In the early 90's, Champions was our Superhero game of choice. By 1994 I was ready to start a new campaign and over several weeks wrote up the background for "Miami 2000" which was set in Miami... in 2000... which seemed like a good idea at the time. I did a lot of research on the real-world Miami, gathered maps and travel guides, then imposed a few changes on the city to make it more of a near-future superhero setting. Characters were discussed and created - a mentalist, an energy projector, a brick, and others were all written up and reviewed.  and we were ready for my semi-serious Bronze Age campaign.

First session opens up as PC's discuss their characters and we have a bank robbery - heroes respond. Within one round "The Rose" has used her Thorn Blast at full strength on the escaping villain "Pulsar" which is enough to kill him outright, and he tumbles out of the sky over the bank and crunches onto the street. This triggers her code against killing and she shuts down. The other heroes flee the scene, grabbing her on the way, looking suspiciously like THEY had committed the robbery. I decided to go with that and give them some trouble with the police. They went underground like the X-Men and it looked like we were set for a slightly darker game than I had planned but I was ready for it. Then the mentalist adopted the name "Professor Y" and things disintegrated. 

Now The Tick was on TV and setting our circle of friends on fire at the time and I blame this completely for the ruining of that campaign. Once the dam cracked it was all over - it's Professor Y and the Y Men ("Y? I'm glad you asked!") running all over Miami talking in funny voices, coming up with newer dumber costumes and flipping the bird to anyone who has serious questions for them. Ugh.

I tried to get on board by introducing The Hedgehog (also known as Weapon P), Hogan to his friends (because if adamantium spikes coming out of your hands is cool, adamantium spikes coming out all over your body is clearly even better). He's the leader of a crazed band of underground rebels who all think they're mutants (even though most of them are not) who hide out in an abandoned amusement park and hear about/start/make up crazy stuff all the time which Hogan takes very seriously and asks the PC's to handle but it was too far gone by then. We played for less than 3 months total and then I had Godzilla step on them all, ending the campaign.

Clearly there were some different expectations here. I was thinking bronze age to gritty supers and so were the players when we talked about it. Then The Tick came out and completely changed the environment. I tried to roll with it but the campaign was just not built to run that way and I fought it indirectly. I should have just started over from scratch and ignored what I had written up before but I could not do it. We could have had a lot of fun with it but I was not really in the mood to break my vision and just ended the campaign rather than try and adapt. Sometimes that's just the way it has to be. 

So I would say my lesson learned here was to make sure everyone has approximately the same view of how the campaign is going to run and try to keep the focus there. If there a planned "premiere" session then send out some teaser emails to reinforce the sense of the game and maintain the momentum and interest. Also make sure there is some level of buy-in for the characters - pick a name, pick a home area, pick an organization to be a part of, something to ground them in the game and keep them there. Also:
  1. Never let characters with an overpowered killing attack take "Code Against Killing"
  2. Always set your games in coastal cities as Godzilla lives in the ocean. 

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Greatest Hits #4 - The Power Rangers Model of Campaign Design

Still one of my favorites and something I try to keep in mind when coming up with a new campaign ...

Ha!, Bet you didn't see that coming! So what do I mean by this? First, let's look at Power Rangers.

Despite being a fan of Japanese giant rubber monsters I was not a huge Power Rangers guy when they first came out, mainly because it was kind of after my time. It was a pop-culture thing though so I was aware of it. Some years later though, after introducing the Apprentices to Godzilla and Robotech I noticed some form of PR was running on one of the cable channels and we started recording it. I watched it with them so I learned a lot about it - more than many might want to- and after coming across it again recently I started thinking that it's not a bad model for a campaign. So here are the important points:

1) Progression: Each season begins by introducing the characters, introduces the concept of the Power Rangers to the characters, then slowly escalates both their powers and the power of their enemies along the way to a final confrontation with the master villain that ends with a titanic battle that challenges them to the utmost, sometimes requiring great sacrifice to win.
This screams "LEVELLING!" to me. Having watched a few seasons of the show they start off inexperienced and need a lot of help from the mentor figure, but by the end they are confident and competent and taking on vastly more powerful foes than when they started. It wouldn't even have to be a strictly D&Dish form of levelling. In M&M it could be as simple as raising the power level at certain intervals.

2) Characters: Each season features 3-5 main characters including the young untried potential heroes and a master/mentor figure. During the season at least one new Ranger or non-ranger powered hero joins the team. There is typically one master villain with several lieutenants of varying power and competence and a whole lot of minions along with a few expendable villains of the week.
Hmmm, the main characters sound suspiciously like a typical party in most RPG's. The new character joins in and sometimes is someone they have known all along (NPC promoted to PC) or may want to work alone at first (the mysterious new PC) or may even be mistaken for a bad guy and end up fighting the other heroes in one of his first appearances in the finest comic book tradition.

3) Archetypes: The characters are individuals but the show doesn't lose sight of the focus - Action -  so they tend to be archetypes: the Jock, the Nerd, the Artist, the Surfer, the Daredevil, the Old Master, the Not-So-Old Master, and others.
I find this is an acceptable level of characterization in most games that fall in the "Action" end of the RPG spectrum - D&D, Shadowrun, Star Wars. At the very least it's a good starting point that can be modified or explored as the game progresses.

4) Environment: The heroes usually have a base area (often hidden and secret from the world) but lead otherwise normal lives in a typical society in a peaceful home town that is threatened by the enemy. There is not a lot of traveling, the story is usually centered around one region.
This really fits low-level D&D and Supers campaigns in my experience. Shadowrun can use it as well (Seattle) as can Gamma World and even Star Trek if you set it up that way.

5) Action - there are multiple levels of challenge in each episode. Sometimes they fight mooks and win easily then try to figure out what they were doing. Sometimes it's a single tough opponent that they cannot defeat as individuals. Sometimes several of those opponents team up to challenge them.  Sometimes it's a lieutenant trying to prove himself to the master villain. Sometimes the master will try to subvert one of the heroes in a more subtle attack but even then it usually leads to big fight at the end of the episode once the hero realizes what is going on. Regardless of the exact type of action, there is always conflict in each episode, often more than one scene's worth.
So this is like every version of D&D, many Pulp games, many Supers games and really most RPGs I have played. Drama, angst, and introspection have their place but this type of campaign is probably not best for them, at least not as the focus of the experience.

6) Closure - each season begins with a new group of heroes and a new villain in a new location. The show unfolds, the characters progress, and in the end there is a fight with a big bad which the Rangers win but give up their powers afterward or drop into the background. It has a beginning, a middle,and an end, telling a complete story.Someone coming in next season needs no knowledge of the previous season (or any previous season) to jump into the action. They may learn something about history along the way, but they don't need to know it to start.
This is something that makes it different than many campaigns - there is a definite end point. D&D 4E follows this model in this way but many earlier versions really did not - there was no end game. this type of campaign really depends on having one and it's one that is figured out in advance: you're going to fight Lord Zedd or Orcus or Lolth as they are the one behind all of the problems you've been facing.

7) Continuity - in spite of the closure mentioned above there is continuity. Often, one of the characters from the prior season will end up being part of the new team in the next season. One of the early season leaders ends up being the mentor for another team 10 years later! Plus, almost every season includes a crossover episode featuring the team from the previous season who join in and then together they handle some shared menace - either an unusual one-off threat or an alliance of bads from both seasons. One special episode featured the team leaders from the first 10 years of the show teaming up to defeat an old menace and even as an adult I thought that was cool and showed that the creators cared about what they were doing.
This softens the blow a bit from #6 - yes the campaign is over but your other games still happened! Throw in artifacts, news, NPC's, even guest appearances by PC's to connect THIS campaign to THAT campaign in some way and you are building a richer world than you might realize - it doesn't always have to be one long run with the same characters. Sometimes knowing that other groups are out there makes the story that much better and the world that much deeper.

I think this would be really appropriate for any level-based game but in particular it works for D&D and Supers campaigns. I also think it would work for Feng Shui, Mekton, Mechwarrior, and even Twilight 2000 with the right setup. I can see a Star Trek game working under this premise as they try to defend a particular sector from some new enemy (I might even say that DS9 follows this premise to an uncanny degree). That said, the more cinematic the game system the better as they tend to feature a more action-oriented play style and allow for rapid recovery between fights.

Now this is a heavily plotted campaign - it is the opposite of a sandbox or West Marches type game as it has both a scheduled end point (Session #X), possibly a calendar endpoint (December 31st 2011) , and a plot climax (the PC's face off against Iuz in the ruins of his capital as the armies of Nyrond surge into the city). This is (weirdly enough) almost required for some groups and anathema to others, so know your players! Telling a lot of D&D players that you're not going to track XP's is going to cause some eyes to bug while telling a Mechwarrior or T2K player he doesn't have to worry about tracking ammo between fights is likely to bring tears of joy.

Say you decided at the end of 2010 to run a new D&D campaign in Greyhawk and the concept is that you are fighting Iuz to free the Shield Lands from oppression. You let everyone know you're going to run it for one year, twice per month (so 24 sessions) and that you're not going to worry about XP - leveling will happen as certain tasks are completed or enemies defeated and it will pretty much be once per session so that at the end the group will be 20th level for the final confrontation. I would sketch out what the major opposition would be for each session, come up with some villain plots that are being carried out, then roll with it! Let the players go and see what happens. There are some hurdles here that the show does not have to deal with:

  • What if somebody dies? Well most games have a raise dead mechanic - use it. if not then the new character joins in as an experienced member of "that other team you've been hearing about" - you were dropping hints of another team right? or an envoy from a distant ally "The King of Nyrond has sent us his best knight to aid us in our struggle". Give him a nice entrance and move on.
  • What if the PC's lose a big fight? Well, they say you learn more from failure than success so let them level up anyway then give them a challenging Plan B to make things right. They couldn't stop the enemy agents from recovering the magic crystal? Let them raid the enemy fortress where the crystal-bearer has stopped for the night. Let them go after the anti-crystal hidden in ancient shrine at the top of the world
  • What if they lose the big fight? Then the badguy wins and you have the plot for your next campaign, possibly featuring a crippled survivor from the previous PC team as a mentor.

So my initial idea was that this show makes for an interesting framework for a limited campaign (something I've discussed before) and might help someone get the idea of how these non-traditional campaigns would work. I think it also shows that you do not have to give up many of the good points of those campaigns just by doing this. The biggest difference from my previous manifesto is that this style of game doesn't blow up the world - the heroes saved it, so it's going to be around for the next campaign. This let's you build those stories up over time The whole point is to have a complete campaign in  a finite number of session (or episodes, or issues) so that you can move on and do another one later.

In a Trek game,maybe it's the story of the Federation in the 23rd century as they struggle to hold off first an ambitious and ruthless new Klingon Warlord, then are challenged by a new Romulan faction then maybe even a mutant Gorn who rises to power among his people and sends the whole race off on a crusade against the non-reptilian races of the quadrant. Maybe the admiral who takes command of the starbase featured in the Gorn campaign was a PC captain during the Klingon campaign, or maybe one of the enemy captains from it is an ally in this new one.

 In a Mechwarrior game you could be loyal House Davion troops holding back an invasion by a ruthless Kurita noble bent on conquering your duty planet and in the end you face off against him and his personal bodyguard. Or maybe the other way around. Or maybe you're a merc unit made up of gladiators from Solaris 7 caught in the invasion. Or maybe it's a civil war. Maybe some of those come later. Then you all get caught in the clan invasion and get to deal with that, fighting alongside your old Kurita opponents.

In a Mekton're a group of teenagers entrusted with incredible ninja powers and a set of powerful giant robots that you use to fight off an evil alien bent on conquering the Earth...

 One final note: "Plotted" does not have to mean "Railroad" - it means I have an outline of what the bad guys are going to do, leading to their ultimate victory. It's the players' job to change that. If your players decide to go on the offensive and attack an enemy outpost but you didn't have that written up it doesn't have to be a disaster. Get a feel for what they are thinking at the end of each session, try to spur some conversation between sessions, and adapt the outline to what they do. Some groups are fine being led though a fairly tightly plotted game, others will not and all you can do is hit the high points as "plot points" and let them take control in between. In that case, if you make the bad guy bad enough, or annoying enough, and powerful enough, then by the end of the campaign they will want to face off with him, and it's not railroading if the PC's go after him because they want to - it's a satisfying climax.

 I'm actually thinking about retooling my Atomic City Supers campaign to better fit this model, making the focus more on one long term enemy than the somewhat scattered plan I had before.  I'll let you all know how that turns out.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Greatest Hits #3 - The Disposable Campaign - A Manifesto

From October 2010 - I still feel the same about this topic

In the early days of RPG's, most players I know and most articles I read assumed that a "Campaign" was a long-term thing. Many articles were written on world design, making it real, making it coherent, making sure your player's had something to do in it, crafting NPC's they will know for years, etc.

In practice, most campaigns were short-lived mish-mashes of published adventure modules, stuff out of dragon, and homebrewed material. I doubt most of them lasted more than a school year as most of the players and DM's were in school in those days.

So much effort was expended in creating a thing which was almost never going to be allowed to fully flower.  Vast colored and detailed hex-paper maps, graph-paper maps of cities and towns on a 1 square = 10' scale, NPC's with back stories, personalities, and families of their own, magic schools, temple hierarchies, noble houses' family trees detailed out over several sheets of notebook paper - all of these were lovingly created and I would guess 75% of them ended up languishing in a notebook or a box somewhere for years before eventually being tossed out in the trash. Such a waste...

I was a part of this too. Before all of the boxed campaign worlds became so popular most people wrote their own world. The '81 D&D Expert set in particular was a crime against DM's as it included a country and a world-scale hex map as examples of campaign design and a bunch of mapping symbols to be used on  hex paper when mapping your own. To this day a black triangle inside a hexagon screams "mountain" to me and any hex map I do ends up looking a lot like those old D&D maps. Maps speak powerfully to some people and I am one of them. Gamers in particular seem to have it more often than the general population. This combination of examples and tools set off a storm of creativity and the sad thing is much of it was never used because the campaigns never got off the ground or lasted very long if they did.

Now I have no statistical evidence of this. I see campaign sites on the web where people have outlined the campaign they have been running for 30 years. I think those are by far the exception rather than  the rule, and if you look closer many times the group in question gets together once a year or twice a year to play their old characters - they haven't been running weekly or biweekly games since 1985 in most cases.

So something occurred to me about 5 years ago, has been slowly building since then and crystallized for me really this year: Role-playing campaigns have traditionally been treated as permanent or long-term things when they really should be treated as expendable and consumable. Building and running a campaign shouldn't be comparable to buying a house  - it's buying a computer. Something you expect to use a lot for a few years at most and then replace.

This started to get easier when 3rd Edition D&D introduced the concept of the level cap: Characters max out at 20th level and then retire. Prior to this character advancement was open ended with no defined limit (other than racial limits) so no thought was given to "when does the campaign end" and this was despite the fact that I only ever got one character up to 20th level - and that was insanely powerful when a 9th level fighter was considered "high level". Now 4th edition D&D goes a step further and breaks it down into Tiers and sketches out what a typical adventuring party is doing at each tier (Heroic = local problems, Paragon = national problems, Epic = world problems).

This is also expedited by the vast number of campaign worlds published over the last 30 years. Is someone really going to look at all of the options out there (plus the option of making their own) and pick one with the idea that "that's it - I'm going to run Eberron for all of my D&D from now on?" Why limit yourself?

Do yourself a favor. Next time you start up a new RPG campaign, put a limit on it. Say to your group that you're going to run it for the next year and you're assuming that you will play twice a month, so that's 24 sessions. Alternatively pick a level limit - say that everyone is going to start at 10th and the goal of the campaign is to get to 20th. After that it's time for a new game.

This also frees you from the tyranny of canon. One of the upsides of published campaign settings is that there is usually a considerable amount of history and lore to delve into - it makes for a richer world and lets your players dig in if they like that kind of thing. The downside is trying to make sure your world stays in line with the published material if it's still being actively published. Stop worrying about that! It doesn't affect your campaign because it's YOUR campaign - not the company's! Pick a starting year in your published world, say everything up to now in canon is good, but what happens from here on out is up to the PC's not some pre-scripted list in a book somewhere.

Now if you like a particular campaign world or if you have crafted your own, this doesn't mean you have to toss that world out. When this campaign is over, you can set the next one in  the same world but you have a whole new set of choices. Last game set in Cormyr? Start this one in Waterdeep. Last campaign was a rebellion era free-trader game? Make the new one a clone-wars era Jedi + special forces game.  Did one of your PC's become king of a nation? Start the next game 20 years later as the throne is threatened by an invasion or take a real jump and move it up 100 years, change up a few things but leave in a lot of the familiar and have a blast with it!

Designing your own world? Focus on where your PC's will be, not on indexing an entire civilization. The old bullseye approach is good here - detail a starting town and the surrounding countryside. Sketch out the kingdom it exists within. Make a few notes on other nations of the world. Add to it when the PC's move in that direction. Heck, let the PC's define some of it. If one player is running a dwarf and you don't have a unique vision of how dwarf society works in this world then let your PC have some say in it -they may surprise you. Don't worry about elven birthday customs unless someone decides it's their birthday and they're an elf. If it's not something you plan to use in the next month or two of running the game then it's not worth nailing down as your PC's may never get to it. Plus you may have a better idea by then anyway so it saves you the mental anguish of erasing what you have already written and replacing ii with new material.  Don't try to make this your Magnum Opus - you don't need it. you just need a world your players like to play in.  Most of us DM's have a sort of masterwork in us somewhere - a grand campaign, a super-detailed world or setting, or a homebrew set of rules that will cover everything the way we want it to be covered. My Philosopher's Stone is a systems with all the gonzo awesomeness of a Rifts for background, character concepts, and art but with a mechanically reasonable and balanced mechanical system like Hero or 4E to run it with. The thing it, you don't have to have that to have a good time, so don't overkill.

By looking at the campaign as a finite thing, a consumable good rather than a durable good, you free up your game to go wherever you and your players want it to go. Campaign guides are not Bibles - they are material to be consumed for your game, not something to be preserved for future generations in an untouched state. Forget beating Drizzt or shooting down Vader - if your players wreck Waterdeep fighting off the tarrasque that's an epic story and the Realms will be just fineYou are not responsible for keeping the world safe from your players - it's there for your players! Blow stuff up! Shock your players! Let them know the world is wide open and let them impress you!

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Greatest Hits #2 - 4th Edition Campaign Idea #3 -Return to Phlan

Another from April 2010  - This was the starting point of a multi-year campaign 

This is a somewhat smaller scale campaign idea than the other two, and really only applies to Heroic levels. At this point I almost see that as a benefit and this is probably the one most likely to get played in the next few months.

I LOVED Pool of Radiance when it came out in 1989. I spent a huge amount of time playing it on my Commodore 64 as did my friends. It centered around a ruined city in the Forgotten Realms that was being slowly reclaimed by the inhabitants. Players made up a party and worked through the different sections of the city clearing out the monsters which were all conveniently level appropriate with the weaker ones nearer to the civillized section and the stronger ones deeper in the ruins. There were also side trips outside the city to a huge graveyard, a lizardman lair, and a mad wizard's pyramid. The computer game was awesome for the time and it came with a great little background book that really captured the favor of the area. TSR also published a 1st ed module version of this campaign titled Ruins of Adventure. It should have been the Realms version of Keep on the Borderlands but it failed badly and has largely been forgotten. Except by me.

So to start a new campaign of D&D I like to have a safe base area, some dungeons close at hand, some options for local countryside wandering, and some political or religious things going on to give the more roleplay oriented types something to do between dungeon crawls. This adventure fits that perfectly. Plus many of the adventures in the ruins involve more than just a frontal assault - many are centered around sneaking into something or talking your way past guards and many areas have some kind of guardians that can be reasoned with so there is more here than just carnage. There is plenty of violence though, and every kind of monster from kobolds to hill giants and dragons, lots of the D&D staples. Re reading the module made me realize it has a lot of good ideas just some poor presentation and limited monster stats - perfect for a conversion to another edition.,particularly this edition if its proponents are to be believed.

Classes: Anything goes. I'll pick up the Realms guides for 4th and however they've worked them into the Realms works for me.

Races: Same thing here - there's a book that explains all this so no extra effort for me.

The Gods - again, there's a whole book for this so that's what I will use.

Environment - it's a single large ruined city on the coast of the Moonsea and some of the surrounding features. Perfect - I don't have to build or convert a continent, just a one-page map.

Adventures - This is a fixed mission in some ways - reclaim the city! - but it's not a railroad, it's more of a sandbox. There's a big map and the players can approach it however they want. If your 2nd level band wanders into the hill giant lair then a lot of bad stuff is going to happen. Add in some factional differences on the town council and everyone should be able to find some interesting things to do.

Phlan and the Moonsea was the first area of the Reams I was exposed to and I really liked it. I have run almost no D&D in the Realms, spending most of my time there as a player as my friend ran the Realms like I run Greyhawk. But things change, so maybe it's time I tried it.

Note on the 100 year jump: I know the 4th edition realms is set 100 years after the old realms stuff but I don't think it matters. Phlan was ruined once and now it's ruined again sometime during that 100 year gap. My players didn't play through this module then (other than the computer game) so they have no investment in the original situation. Heck, maybe Tyranthraxus survived last time and has returned to finish what he started 100 years ago - either way it doesn't matter and doesn't cause any continuity problems with my game.

Expanding and improving this adventure should occupy my campaign through the Heroic levels and set them up as well known heroes around the Moonsea and major players in Phlan itself. At that point we could decide to continue, switch to something else, or start a new 4th edition game using the lessons learned here to improve the next one, maybe one of my other campaign ideas. Whichever way I think this is the best for a DM & players new to 4th edition and it's probably the way I will go.