Saturday, September 10, 2011

How to build a campaign the Axeman way 101 - Part 1

Setting. Start with setting. The setting is an anchor point for your campaign. The first setting decision is shared world building, published campaign setting or home-brewed.

Home-brewed Pros and Cons

I use a home-brewed campaign setting. I know it well and have been developing it for decades. The biggest difficulty with home-brewed settings is getting player buy in.  They tend to feel it is your world they are playing in and can have trouble feeling allowed to add to or change its details. You may also find yourself having to explain a lot more, or being defensive when you have to remind players that magic functions differently in “your world”. The biggest benefit is having a world that you can share slowly and change to fit the campaign without insulting the “fan boy”. In my own campaign the gods tend to be heroes from past campaigns. It is rich with PC history both as founders of kingdoms and tombs of forgotten heroes. There is a certain amount of creepiness to walking about your own characters tomb, hundreds of years later.

Published Campaign Settings

I plunder liberally from published campaign settings. My trouble with them is at least one player will have a beloved setting that they know more about then you do. This creates frustration when you try to introduce something new that they don’t agree fits with the “feel” of the setting. Players less versed in the setting are at a disadvantage. If you are unfamiliar with the setting there is a bit of reading to become knowledgeable. However, they do make for less work in the long run. There are great fan based sites for most of them with ready made wiki’s and histories. Maps galore are plunder-able from the web.

Shared World Building

This is a great approach that I only have experience with in theory. I have yet to find a set of players that love world building the way I do. I have shared DM duties with a co-DM in the past. Based on that experience I would say that this could be a wonderful approach. Allowing players to add things to a blank slate world in a flash of group creativity sounds like a lot of fun. My only caution is Sacred Cows. Any time a group project comes up; there is always the one guy that wants his concept to be used in even if the rest of the group sees it as a square peg in a round hole concept. Organization becomes the key to this type, designating sectors or roles are a possible solution. I imagine this is a lot like working on a D&D source book in that you need a lead designer to oversee the product.

Once you’ve made up your mind up on the overarching setting its time to move on to location. Every campaign needs a starting location. Taverns, caravans and throne rooms are pretty cliché but work in a pinch. I tend to drop a new village or city on my home-brew map in a location that has not yet been explored. This could be the location of a published adventure or module, like Keep on the Shadowfell or the Red Box adventures. A location setting like Gloomwrought, Hammerfast or Frandor’s Keep. It also could be just a name to identify the meet place for the PCs. I borrowed liberally from Frandor’s Keep and filed some LFR adventurers away as possible side adventurers. LFR home play is a great resource as long as you keep in mind that the adventures were designed for characters just meeting each other every session.

Next I decide on a time setting for the campaign. This is a twofold decision. First, if playing with existing players does it come before, after or during the campaign that is wrapping up. If so how did the players’ actions impact the world, these answers may take time to develop. If this is a new campaign, relating it to current events is a good starting point. Don’t worry about detailing the full history off the bat, but you will need a central conflict when you do your prep work. Secondly, you need to decide what the flow of time is going to be like from session to session. Does the adventure exist in game time only, ie is what the players experience the minute by minute parts of their characters lives or does each weeks session take place days, weeks or even months apart?

Currently, I am designing a campaign for existing players, so I moved ahead 48 years. It’s enough time to show the beginning impacts of their actions but not so long to worry about large ripple effects. In my campaign I chose to structure it around episodic adventures that are cut-scenes for the characters lives. A week on a caravan where no raids happen stays on the cutting room floor, while the caravan raid where the party is attacked by gnolls and have to rescue the merchant’s son makes the cut. The players have options to start families, interact with NPCs and get into trouble between sessions via our on-line forums.

At this point I share my intentions with the players and make sure that my desires to run Campaign Type X fits with their expectation of what they want to play. No sense going further if no one is interested in the type of game you are looking to run. During this discussion listen to your players and notate any concerns or ideas they might raise. I like to ask my players to start thinking about the characters they would like to play. If I have any restrictions or house rules I want to put in place they are announced now. This could be race or class restrictions, feat restrictions, use of the inherent item bonus system or story elements you want highlighted. My latest list looked something like this.

1.    Races – each race has an entry on how the inhabitants of the keep viewed the race with warnings for races with negative reactions. (I won’t say no to a race, but I want a good reason why and an experienced role-player to take the reins. Attacking NPCs because you chose a race with a warning flag doesn’t fly at my table)

2.    Items – Low Magic, I intended to cut down on the workload of locating and balancing items. So, I chose the inherent bonus system and am awarding 1 rare item every 5 levels for each PC. These items will grow in power every two levels and be central to the PCs character concept.

3.    Feats – Feat Taxes have been bothering me. Not taking implement/weapon expertise is an optimizer's nightmare. Allowing it in game just make some Characters better. Since, 90% of my group takes it I eliminated it and dropped the monsters defenses (-1 for Heroic, -2 for paragon and -3 for epic). After discussion with my players I decided to allow it for sub-optimal builds. Ie with a stat of 17 or less in your primary attack stat you can get the bonus for the feat. So far no one has taken advantage of this fact and the rule is having its intended purpose. (I don't dislike optimizers, they keep me on my toes, but I do like to challenge them in the same regard, especially when they become lackadaisical and depend on the same feats for their combos.)

4.    Backgrounds and Themes – I still haven’t bothered to catch up on understanding the impact of themes on the game. This is bad DM’ing on my part. I eliminated the background “Born Under a Bad Sign”, four PCs had used it with this group and I was looking for them to broaden their horizons a bit.

5.    Action – I let PCs know that their char was going to be central to the story. The interactions of their group and with the NPCs are the story I want to tell. This isn’t a rush to save the world or the kingdom type campaign. This story is more of a slow simmer with a bang rather than a roiling boil with a boil-over. I warned my players that Frandor’s Keep is in the Hell’s Throat pass. A place of legendary dangers. It is entirely possible to run into creatures beyond your level or strength. There may be times when talking, clever tactics or running for your life is in order. (Do Something Cooler thanks to D'Karr over at Loremaster)

Once you have made any adjustments based on player feedback, its time to lay out your campaign plot line. Its very important not to let this document become set in stone. These are guidelines at best, garbage material at worst.

Step 1 – I gather all my plot hooks from scattered adventurers, modules and my idea book and enter them into the document (My Campaign spreadsheet). This is mostly copy paste form LFR. I do this for published adventures also, and I’ll tell you why in a moment (Step2).

I use a spreadsheet for ease of look-up, it’s possible to leave these in their published books but I tend to miss or forget some along the way and I don't like to mark up my adventures. I notate where the hook came from in shorthand usually a book and page number. I also like to notate the level range of the adventure and any type of terrain etc involved, ie river adventure, ocean adventure, mountain, forest etc.

Step 2 – I break these plot hooks into three parts.
Part 1 is factions. Who stands to gain from the adventure and who stands to lose?
Part 2 is quest. What needs to be done? What obstacles are in the way? Be general not specific.
Part 3 is reward. What is the faction offering in tangible rewards? (Ie cash, items etc) What is being offered in intangibles? (XP, story awards, favors, reputation, allies etc)

This pre-work makes some later stages easier. Once, my characters go through the process of providing character backgrounds et all. I can change the factions to fit their stories (Step 4) etc. Note: You will have to adjust the adventure to fit these changes before running it later.

Step 3 – I open my regional map with the meet location as the center. This map may be blank except for the dot for the meeting locale or it may be detailed with mountains, towns, streams and rivers. I open up my Swirly-gig and place it over the regional map. You can use Photoshop or Paintshop but I prefer GIMP. The GIMP is a free ware version of Photoshop. Though missing some of the advanced features it is way better then paint and nearly as functional as Photoshop, but at zero cost. With the Swirly-gig on its own layer, I adjust the size and rotate it to match the terrain, if any. I then place my adventure locales starting at the epicenter and winding my way out to the extent of the Swirly-gig. Place the encounters in an ascending level of difficulty. To mix things up, throw a couple of higher level adventures closer to the epicenter. This way by the end of the Swirly-gig’s loop I should be about level 10 and ready for adventures that leave the region and span the realm or continent. I notate the possible adventures in short hand on the map and save it as a DM version. Some logic and knowledge of the adventures helps here as you can fill in terrain or adjust the orientation of the swirly gig to fit terrain from the adventure to your existing map.

The Swirly Gig
The Swirly-gig idea came from CSI Las Vegas. In the episode, they use a similar pattern to show the escalation of a serial killers victim profile. This seemed an excellent way to have expanding adventurers of slightly greater distance from a fixed point. In a traveling campaign it sees a party going back across the same region multiple times allowing them to utilize their knowledge and familiarity with the area to their advantage or choose new routes over the terrain for exploration purposes. In a home-base style campaign it sends the party out from the mid-point in different directions. Each trek is into a gradually widening area without constantly going up the same trail every time. This allows the players to revisit trails they impacted later in the campaign. Forestalling questions of, what ever came of us clearing out the dungeon or stopping that dangerous magic effect?

Swirly Gig - Adventure Locales Identified in White Lettering. (Original Map Courtesy of

Step 4 – Incorporating player ideas and character backgrounds. There are a lot of different ways to go about this. The one that works best for me is to ask for three allies and three rivals/enemies from each of my PCs. This can be as simple as a faction ie the Temple of Bahamut in Westfold, or as complicated as a jilted past lover and the army he now commands. I look at the first three levels of play and orient the factions that make the most sense together. Maybe the Paladin’s temple of Bahamut is concerned about the army the jilted lover is gathering. I try to find a match tying each PC’s allies to another PC’s enemies. In this way, I can ensure party unity over the life of the campaign. This is especially important for the first encounter, being able to tie all of the party together in one fell swoop is a big win. Some players will do this work for you, but having something in your back pocket can nudge the players in the right direction during the first session. (Another great way to tie story to characters is Critical Hits 5x5 method. (Found here and here)

Step 5 – With the adventure site or sites mapped out, I now focus on turning my plot hooks into rumors and plot hammers. Rumors are the plot hints for future adventures I sprinkle into earlier adventurers. They are vague enough to hint about things going on outside the current quest, but not detailed enough to draw your players off mission. They are the star burst pattern on a saddle of a scout seen at distance, the vague note found amongst the dead or a signet ring in a saddle bag full of silver. Plot Hammers on the other hand are rumors with substance, a lead to follow. They can be as simple as a NPC saying go here and do this and I will reward you thusly. This has two forms of choice built into it. Either accept the mission or don’t accept the mission. (Most players won’t consider this a choice, so I rarely use them) Or, choose how to complete the mission.

Better IMHO, though are the Plot Hammers that give real choice. A set of goblins are attacking a wagon of pilgrims being led by a friar. While one group of goblins sings harsh songs and keeps the friar at bay, another group drags prisoners off into the woods. The PCs now face an immediate choice, save those remaining in the wagon or try to cut-off the group dragging people off into the woods. Saving those in the wagon, means they may have to track and locate the fleeing band later. Cutting off the fleeing band still leaves the enemies at the wagons to deal with and what ever unchecked damage they might do in the meantime. With this option, you may have more trouble locating the goblin stronghold later. If each of these goblins is branded with a distinct mark what does that portend? (Rumor) Using the Swirly-gig, now centered on the adventure site, you can plant rumors and plot hammers in a pattern around the adventure. With the most vague rumors at the extent of its limits and the nearest to the center being the plot hammers. During any session players could stumble onto two un-related quests and have to make a choice. Players also have the option to ignore the attacking goblins if there current mission seems more dire. I update my GM map with these rumors annotated on it. The overlaps could be connected adventures or simply things seen at a distance. For example the scout mentioned before or a dragon flying high overhead its dinner grasped in a claw.

Next time I will talk about actually prepping the adventures and keeping the players' choices at the core of that process.

Rumor Locations based on Adventure Locales (Original Map Courtesy of

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