Tobold's Blog
Monday, March 19, 2012
Building a campaign

4th edition Dungeon & Dragons is relatively well structured, so you can predict how long it takes to level up. A full campaign has 30 levels, it takes about 10 encounters per level, which means the overall length of a campaign is 300 encounters. But with my group playing only every other week for an evening, and doing about 3 encounters per evening, that results in the campaign being 100 sessions long, or about 4 years, if we ever get to the end. Very few dungeon masters would ever bother to plan a campaign 4 years ahead. For my campaign I have an idea for a theme that could last until the end, but I certainly don't have all the adventures planned out.

Now there is an old DM saying that the most important adventure is the one you are playing right now. That is where most of the preparation effort should go into. But planning several adventures ahead in lesser detail has its advantages too: You can introduce story hooks and hints about future adventures early on, build up master villains that last for more than one adventure, and create a generally more cohesive world.

Now some people write all of their campaigns and adventures from scratch. I don't. I might have sufficient writing skills for a blog, but J.R.R. Tolkien I ain't. I rather use premade adventures, which I then modify. That way I can take advantage of all the handouts, maps, and tokens provided with the adventures, and rely on somebody having play-tested the combat encounters. Even if the story in the WotC adventures is sometimes a bit weak, I don't mind. The story is the part I'm modifying the most anyway, to knit the adventures together into a campaign.

In this "knitting" part I had a major breakthrough this weekend. I had collected a bunch of official 4E adventures, some based on recommendations from my readers, plus some "best of" modules I played with a different group back in the 80's. At first I had some problems fitting them together, with the level requirements not fitting, or the setting of the adventures being so different that it appeared hard to string them together. But then I realized that my first adventure had two somewhat disparate parts, which I might better split and insert a different adventure in between. And doing that the end of the second part could be modified to give the perfect starting point for one adventure I had trouble including otherwise. Which then would fix the level gap to the next adventure after that. Suddenly the whole thing made perfect sense, and now I have adventures lined up leading from level 1 to level 8, or about 1 year of campaign. Complete with an overarching story, and lots of story hooks linking the adventures between each other.

Of course that is just the rough outline. I will still need to prepare a lot of the details, especially those of the old adventures which I need to convert to 4th edition. But I'm happy that I now have an idea to where my adventures are leading, and I have something more than a patchwork quilt of adventures. This is starting to look good!
I generally have some dissenting view and...I wont be breaking character here.

I was wrapped up in pre written story for years. But here's an alternate pitch - what if the players just don't care about all these stories you put effort into making up?

More to the point, what did each player come to the table for? What do they want to play the game for?

Some of them might already have their mind set on what interests them - like just getting to level thirty. Others, as a trend amongst gamers, might not care about the game play at all - it's just a social scene to them. Some just want to roll a crit and be in the limelight for a moment as a big hitter.

And a reason they get so staggered is because even IF the player just plays out a character, with it's own goals, often a GM has pre decided some story and...these clash. The PC wants to go one way, but that'd screw up the story the GM spent hours on. So (and this is a 'best outcome' scenario) the player gives up playing motivated characters and becomes one of the above. Or at best he becomes a script follower.

Never mind that that big old leveling structure is a huge magnet for players to base their play around. And a 1-30 leveling structure - it really doesn't tie into any particular story like qualities.

Ultimately the problem is you want the players to all be doing the same thing, in terms of pre written story, or otherwise they are just ignoring it for something else. But really the only thing they can do is essentially become script followers (as a player, I've actively tried to do this even). If they don't follow script, what if they just don't care that some big story event came up? What, it'll blow up the world and/or kill their characters if they don't? Okay, if that's a result of their choice, then do so. If the 'you'll die' is a bluff to stop them ignoring the story, eventually they will call the bluff.

Thing is, even if you don't try to get them to go through pre written story, well if their characters have no motivations well then you don't even get a character journey. The player just wants to get to thirty, or is just there to socialise, etc. So even if you throw out the scripts, doesn't mean it'll get good, either.
Usually the players are there to have fun. Pre-written material is great if the DM has problems running a game in which content has to be created on the fly. Unfortunately this approach cannot handle situations where adventurers break up their party big time. "You go explore that dungeon, I'll go and build a castle." In these occasions some improvisation from the DM is needed. I find it easy to sandbox stuff, but like to prepare a map and set a few key locations on it beforehand.

The art of DMing is precisely what you're describing; finding the best balance between "right now" and "for down the road." The habit I developed I refer to as "seeding." I throw in a lot of extraneous stuff, red herrings to some extent, be they locations, rumors, NPCs, objects, or even just passing comments. I keep a detailed list of all those things (such as my NPC database), and when I'm ready to make connections, I grow one of those seeds into something important. It fits in the game world, the players remember encountering it before, and it makes you seem like you have this intricate plan, a web of hints and lies, when really you just fished up some crap you dropped earlier in the narrative stream.

One of my best examples of this came as a reward. My NPCs had helped some wealthy nobles for a "generous reward," which turned out to be the opportunity to join a country club - not even dues paid, mind you, just the nod the club needed to let these "ruffian nobodies" into their premises. The club, called Dox Portas (which indeed had two doors) eventually became a "quest hub," and the players became trusted friends of the owner. It later turned out "by chance" to be a front for an arcane group that kept two magical portals within the city from ever being reopened, and of course, the portals were opened, and the PCs were brought in.

All of these things worked so smoothly because it was an established relationship, both socially and geographically, and all because I figured "Hell, why not give them a membership to a club. Maybe I'll do something with it, maybe I won't!"

Usually the players are there to have fun.

This is the commonly stated phrase in gamer culture that really aught not stand two seconds of scrutiny.

As if there is only one type of fun!?

Like food, there are many types, and like food, not all types of fun go together. Some types of fun actually spoil other types of fun. PVP fun can spoil PVE fun, to give an obvious example. Clearly if people aren't lined up to do the same thing, their type of fun, by chance, can clash with others type of fun.
Why would the statement "there are different sorts of fun" invalidate the statement "players are there to have fun"?

Players are there to have fun, albeit each of a different sort. Nevertheless there is a "theory of fun", and some game design experience which can tell you which elements are *more likely* to be fun for most players, and which ones are least likely.
Or basically all of Darths and Droids.

One of the recuring jokes is how the players completely derail the GM's plans.
Why would the statement "there are different sorts of fun" invalidate the statement "players are there to have fun"?

Well, tell me how it's a useful statement for a player or anyone to make? I can't see a way, but maybe I'm missing something?

Players are there to have fun, albeit each of a different sort.
I'm inclined to think the more the players are playing the SAME game, the more this 'different sort of fun' isn't possible - else it's not the same game.

Not to imply everyone at the same table has to be playing the same game. Just saying for those who would assert everyone really is playing the same game.
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