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Mid-size Campaigns (Part 3)

Localising your Campaign Concepts

In Part 2, we sketched out the campaign’s boundaries, came up with a list of ideas, and placed those ideas on the campaign map to provide some shape to the setting. Up to now, we’ve been deliberately scant on detail, but that’s about to change. In our final installment, we’ll develop your campaign just enough for you to start planning actual adventures.

The Starting Point

In previous articles, I’ve intimated that you should develop the area with the most ideas, which is not necessarily the area with the best ideas. What’s the difference?

When you started localising ideas on your campaign map, we suggested that you start with the most compelling idea (i.e., the one that excited you most), then work your way down the list, continuing with the next most compelling idea, then the next, and so on. This left you with two things: (1) a first date with your best ideas, and (2) a fistful of less interesting concepts that you could probably put just about anywhere. In short, quality vs. quantity, which is an important concept, but one that’s fairly often skewed in the wrong direction when it comes to campaign development.

Quality vs. Quantity

For most things in life, quality is better than quantity. For campaign development, this is debatable. For a busy GM, it’s highly doubtful.

The compelling (i.e., quality) ideas on your list are probably quite brilliant, but they merit serious attention if they’re to be properly cultivated. Consequently, they’re not the best foundation for a young campaign: They’re barely developed seedlings at this early stage, and they’re too important to sow in unknown ground. You need to give these ideas time to develop a bit, because if they don’t take root, not only will you have squandered your A-list concepts, but your campaign will wilt well before the harvest.

Instead, go for the quick win and start with your quantity ideas. These save you development time and give your campaign the best chance of survival. Remember, these are still good ideas. But compared to your quality concepts, they’re probably less expansive and more adaptable, which makes them ideal for a new campaign whose direction you can’t yet predict. Later on, when the players get comfortable with the campaign and the characters get established, by all means, introduce your quality ideas—by that time, they’ll have marinated in the setting’s juices for a bit, and they’ll be better for it.

There are several advantages to breaking ground in the spot with the most ideas. First, you have a lot of adventure hooks, and that means options for the PCs. Letting characters choose their own path makes for interested players. Second, you have concepts that don’t require much individual detail, and that means less development time. Getting the campaign up and running quickly is the goal. Third, you have more ideas in the mix, and that means more opportunities to interact with the campaign. Providing multiple “touchpoints” is how you develop a campaign that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

Asking the Questions

Having identified the campaign area with the most ideas, you can now (at last!) start applying detail. For each idea in your development area, answer the following questions:

  1. What is it? – Is it a monster, NPC, character class or race, settlement, artefact, faction or group, enemy or ally, terrain feature, religion, or something else entirely?
  2. What do the PCs know about it? – What is publicly know, or what can the PCs pick up by listening to local news?
  3. What don’t the PCs know about it? – What is the secret that might cause trouble for the PCs or their friends and allies down the road?

Don’t think too hard about the answers—the goal is to start fleshing out each idea, relative to the player characters. This latter bit is important, because if you don’t tie the idea back to the PCs, it has no real impact on the setting, and transitively, no real business in the campaign. If you can’t connect an idea to the PCs, set it aside—you’ll only waste time detailing it.

The answers should be brief, but specific. Consider the furred snake and Snow elves mentioned in the last installment, as well as a logging town and a zombie-slaying hammer that I just made up. Each is detailed with its own set of questions:

Question Furred Snake Snow Elves Logging Town Zombie Hammer
What is it? Giant, white constrictor with fur instead of scales; lives in snowbanks Elves adapted to cold climes; semi-barbaric with druidic roots Small human settlement that ships wood south to build the king’s navy Magic dwarven artefact that slays zombies on contact; lost centuries ago
What do the PCs know? Stealthy, dangerous monster valued for its fur Reclusive denizens of local forests; unfriendly PCs’ homebase; ruled by a lord in cooperation with the Timber Guild Dwarves have searched the area for it in vain
What don’t the PCs know? Poisonous, can sense vibrations and gets a surprise bonus Very spiritual; hunt furred snakes for food, fur, hide, tools, venom Spies of rival kingdom track wood shipments; religious cult seeks to overthrow lord Sequestered by town’s religious cult, which worships undead

Using the Answers

As you answered the questions above, you undoubtedly envisioned connections between particular ideas. Feel free to use them however you see fit, but don’t feel obligated to connect each idea to every other idea. While certain relationships present themselves naturally, some ideas can (and should) stand alone.

In the end, it’s your ideas and the connections between them that form the foundation upon which to build your campaign. Use the table above as an example—you don’t need a lot of detail, and you certainly shouldn’t spend a lot of time. Establish just enough to get a gist of what’s going on in a particular corner of the setting, and use that framework to create your adventure hooks, which is the starting point of any adventure plot and where the real action begins for your players.

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  1. Nagual
    January 24th, 2013 at 19:37 | #1

    Congrats — I think this is one of the best articles I’ve ever read on campaign design (The other being Justin Alexander’s Node-based design). Simple, well-thought out (and well-expressed) ideas. Give yourself a pat on the back Sir — you just saved my game ;)

  2. January 25th, 2013 at 05:54 | #2

    @Nagual : Glad to hear this is helpful. I’d be interested to see what you come up with – feel free to share your results in the Member Sites forum – along with any suggestions to make this approach better.

  3. Nagual
    January 29th, 2013 at 22:17 | #3

    If you identify a special type of site/dungeon you wish to have present at multiple locations on your map (e.g. demonic manifestation, magical zone, floating wizard tower), build a template to represent these. Collect all the recurring elements you think will typically be found within and immediately surround these sites. Terrain effects, traps, spell effects, monsters (organised by CR), whatever. Any time you come across an interesting game effect, just include it in the appropriate template(s). Don’t forget to include brief descriptions of the locations most significant attributes. You now have a instant dungeon/site of interest template which you can use to quickly create themed locations.

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