The Architect DM: Campaign Building

It’s good to be back! The first week of August saw us at GenCon and very happily winning a Gold ENnie award, and then in the weeks after I’ve been catching up on things post-convention and getting back into the swing of things. Lately I’ve been discussing and toying with the concept that the best world building happens through playing a campaign, and so I suggest the world building DMs out there spend less time before play and just jump into things with a published or a bare bones adventure and then let the world build from there. This also opens your game up to the possibilities for players to contribute to the world building which for me has always turned out better than I could imagine.

Now that I’ve been running my current 4th Edition D&D game for 3 years and the players are progressing through the Epic Tier, I am starting to plan ahead for what we will play and run after the campaign is over. In addition playing a wider variety of games and RPGs, I am also hoping to run a series of mini-campaigns inspired by Phil’s ideas about running a campaign like a British TV Series and his Gears of Ruin campaign posts.

The early stages of planning for these future mini-campaigns is what has inspired all of my raving about world building through play. Now that I have spent more than 3 years playing in my campaign world, it has become incredibly easier for me (and more importantly my players) to envision playing a sandbox game in the world because we already have an intimate understanding of the world. All of this brainstorming has led me to another style of running a campaign that I think could be quite fun and I’d like to explore here.

The Core + Expansion Campaign

Players often cringe at the idea of restricted choices when starting a campaign, but this concept thrives on it. Start your “Core Campaign” with a limited number of races, classes, types of items, locations and pretty much anything else you can limit. Decide what kind of story you want to tell, what kind of character your friends want to play, and then work out what kind of restrictions you should put on the Core game. Run the game with a limited plot for 4-6 or 6-10 adventures and then wrap it up. Characters can die, subplots can remain unresolved, but give a good sense of closure to the game.

After whatever amount of time feels comfortable and works for you and your players, introduce an “Expansion Pack” to your campaign and run another mini-campaign of 4-10 adventures. With the introduction of the Expansion, add a handful of races that can now be played, perhaps a new class the players now have access too, and even introduce new locations and regions the players can explore. If you plan it all out from the beginning the Core to Expansion experience could be something truly magical. Imagine that one of the subplots of your core campaign involves the creation of warforged, or the founding of a school where swordmages are trained and then you lead into the expansion campaign where both of these options are now available to players.

Procedural Awesomeness

Perhaps the biggest aspect of this campaign style that I am most excited to experiment with is the potential for player’s actions to influence the expansions to the core campaign. Players, especially those that fall into the storyteller archetype, love it when their decisions and actions have a large influence on the direction of the campaign (which is why Sandbox campaigns are such a hot topic all the time). If one or more of your players develop a deep rivalry/hatred of Hags through playing their character perhaps you could have an expansion campaign with Hags as the primary villains and introduce a region of the world where Hags live in large populations.

In the past some of my favorite campaign moments have been flash forward scenes to the heroes long after we last saw them or the return of a known character or NPC in successive campaigns. The mini-campaign concept thrives on these moments and also makes them more common, but I hope no less magical for the players. The Core + Expansion concept provides an interesting frame work to build a series of mini-campaigns, but perhaps more importantly it also plays very well into my thoughts on world building through play by (hopefully) reducing the amount of work the DM needs to put into the campaigns.

The mini-campaign concept has many benefits beyond those I’ve already discussed, such as allowing the DM to avoid burn out as the campaign has a limited run from the start and providing great opportunities for players and characters to change more frequently within the narrative. In fact, every PC that doesn’t continue in your game just provides you with one more tailor made NPC to be used as you wish.

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  1. Wow I am really intrigued about this mini campaign Core + Expansion idea. The only question that comes to mind is how much time would you envision passes after the 4 – 6 sessions before moving on to the next mini campaign?

    I realize all groups are different but I just see some people possibly feeling things are being cut too short and forced to reroll new characters and continuing in the same world.

    Now once you get past the first couple of transitions it sounds like it would work like a charm. Especially if the basis of the world is the same but each of the first 2 or 3 mini campaigns take place in vastly different areas of the world. Then once the other plots or NPC’s show up again it would all start tying together.

    I just wonder about the first couple of transitions.

    Or perhaps Im taking your idea completely wrong and out of context which is entirely possible as well!

    Great article just to get the creative juices flowing none the less.


  2. Chad: The amount of time can vary, though I would say more than a day or two is probably a good idea so that the break between campaigns makes sense. Beyond that, the amount of time should be dictated by you, your players, and what the game seems to be demanding – sometimes a quicker succession makes perfect sense and other times a longer break is better.

    One big thing to keep in mind is that a new campaign can start at any level, so if you have a few players who really want to continue with the same characters – please let them do it! The break between campaigns isn’t meant to force changing of characters or players, but to allow for it to happen because it’s an event that often happens mid-campaign and can be detrimental to some games. Allowing space for those things to happen seems incredibly helpful to me and I’m interested in seeing how it turns out.

    You haven’t taken the idea out of context at all, just looking at it from different perspectives and providing some nice insights into how it could work. Thanks for the comment!

  3. I must admit, my initial thought about mini campaigns is “Bah! You don’t get the chance to get to the really good stuff (i.e. maxing out your character).” However, over time, I’ve come to realize that there is a lot to be said for it.

    For starters, as you mention you have the potential issue of DM burn out. Planning for a session every week or even every other week takes its toll on you — even if you use nothing but published material and adventures. I’ve relished those few games where I’ve gotten the chance to be a player because its so much easier (i.e. less time consuming) to prepare for the session.

    Next you also have the issue of dangling plots and NPCs. It is nearly impossible to keep all the plots and NPCs straight over a 3 – 5 year period and what’s worse, those hints you started to drop in the early adventures? Well, they aren’t exactly going to hit home at the climax because odds are they are long forgotten. It can be difficult just for the DM to keep it all straight, much less the players (though campaign wikis definitely help in this regard).

    Finally, you get what I call the “grass is always greener” effect. Namely, a huge portion of the fun of RPGs (to me anyway) is creating all the different characters. Unfortunately, being as how I am no longer a kid or even a student, my free time is pretty darn limited, and my players are the same way. So when they get their 15 different character ideas, they naturally want to start trying them out. But with only one game going on (or two if they are lucky) there just isn’t time. Heck, by the time they retire their current characters a new edition may well be out.

    Of course, I’m still looking forward to being able to ask them what their epic destinies are and to throwing them up against the biggest bads in the cosmos. 😀

  4. Totally using this idea once my full-length campaign finishes. I’m just behind your group in level, and it’s my first 1-30 campaign as well. The core + expansion idea sounds like exactly what we need.

    I agree that in-game world development is essential for creating a world that’s appealing for both the players and the DM, but if a DM wants to spend hours and hours developing the world in ways that will show during play, it doesn’t hurt (unless the DM burns out). I guess I just worry that with all the pre-packaged adventures that are published and used these days, it would be a tragedy if DMs began to expect to prepare even less.

  5. DarkplaneDM: I agree with the prep issue. Published adventures are great for a DM in a pinch but they can also become too much of a crutch. I started to notice this when I was running a Scales of War game. It was the second game I was running at the time and I noticed that as my day job got busier and busier, I spent less and less time on the SoW game because “it was ready to go”. The result was that the world just didn’t feel all that alive because I hadn’t put enough time into it. I noticed that I was starting to not have fun and had to end the campaign before the boredom virus spread. Even with published adventures the DM needs to put some time in between sessions in order to make the world feel truly alive.

  6. Gargs: It’s an odd mixture of feelings, since I’m into my 3rd year on one campaign me and many of my players LOVE the feeling of having been in one game for so long, but we also look longingly at the idea of other games and shorter campaigns. My hope is to tie a series of mini-campaigns together so that all of the good feelings of an extended campaign come into play without the typical problems you get with longer games.

    Darkplane & Gargs: I guess my main argument wouldn’t be “I want DMs to prep less”, but instead “I want DMs to prep more efficiently”. There’s always going to be NPCs that the party hates and don’t care about, places the party really doesn’t want to go, and so on. As a DM my inclination is to do less planning before a campaign and do more between adventures, taking what was introduced in the previous adventures and building it into the campaign. I’m definitely not trying to say DMs shouldn’t prep at all, because as you said that can lead to a very stale world, but it’s very interesting to me to think about where the best places are for a DM to spend his time in prepping.

    The Core + Expansion idea is a first step in this direction. The core and the expansions all have a more limited focus – if you introduce a new race/class/location you can focus more of your planning around that element and why it is important to the game. You’ll also get clues from your players, the ones that choose to keep their characters are telling you they like them and you can focus on those characters, and players that choose new races/classes reinforce the importance of those new elements. To me a lot of it is about helping the DM focus his efforts to make them more effective, but there always needs to be room for the DM to throw something new and unexpected into the mix as well so it is quite tough!

  7. Bartoneus: I agree on the efficiency aspect. With my current campaign I’m trying to keep it as somewhat sandboxy in that the party has several quests dangling out there but they can be tackled more or less in any order. Obviously I don’t want to start preparing all those adventures ahead of time for fear that the party will be too high or too low when they choose a particular quest and thus requiring me to re-prepare said adventure. Of course the down side is that I am sometimes scrambling to get it all together between sessions as we transition from one adventure to the next. But I do agree that planning everything out in advance is often self-defeating. You either end up trying to railroad or you end up never using much of it.

    I also hear ya on trying out other games. Its one of the disappointing things for me as a gamer. There are so many RPGs out there that looking really good and interesting, but I just don’t have the time to play them. The expansion idea though I think has a lot of potential because you can still get to the point where you have the equivalent of the 4 – 5 year campaign, its just broken up into lots of little pieces with room to play other games in between. Its certainly something I’ll be considering when my current campaign ends.