A Campaign About Nothing

It’s been a dry couple of months on the D&D front for our group. March has always been brutal in this respect for me, with approximately 174 birthdays (including my wife’s and son’s), and just to make things more fun, everybody in my family managed to critically fail their saves vs. ear infections, strep, and <random illness here> for weeks on end. I’ve been trying to come up with a suitable comeback from the Worst Session Ever, but I haven’t been satisfied with anything thus far.

It was during these attempts that I realized I have a means of telling whether or not I am about to do something stupid as a DM. It’s incredibly obvious, in retrospect. If I am about to put the players on the rails or otherwise make terrible, arbitrary plot decisions, I nearly always start having the bad guys be dark, corrupted, oozy with some kind of evilgoo versions of regular bad guys. I guess the monkey at my controls believes it will be scarier somehow, but it is wrong.

My friend that left the gaming group recently had offered to let me bounce some campaign ideas offsnickers her, and I happily accepted. We made a few inroads, but then we started talking about the things we enjoyed from the last campaign. I’d wanted this time out to go for high fantasy, journeys across the continent, and epic battles. Nobody at the table, myself included, was ever wrapped up in my gripping story about saving the city and the world. It was always the little stories, the character interactions, and the random things nobody planned for.

I am starting to suspect something about myself, based on this and my experience with trying to write a novel this past November. It seems I might not actually be that great at writing a compelling epic storyline.

I am, however, a damned wizard at making strange things happen and crashing them against each other to make stranger things happen.

No Potion For You

The new idea is simple. I’m setting the bar lower. Waaaaaaay lower.

My inspiration is the premise of the long-running, wildly popular, and pretzel-commercial-spawning 90’s sitcom Seinfeld — “a show about nothing”.

This campaign will also be about nothing — that is, nothing of dire importance to the world, the city, or even most people nearby is going to occur (by my hand, at least). However, there will be lots of characters with strange quirks and issues, and sweet Pelor will they hold petty grudges. This time, instead of laying out a master plan where an evil force finds some way to unleash an army of oozy darkness unless the party figures out how to work my deus ex machina in time, someone is going to open up a rival sandwich shop right across the street possibly forcing the PC’s to take drastic action to save their favorite lunch spot. Campaign finale, in the bag.

There will need to be some planning involved, of course. My thought is that I should map out several neighborhoods near the PC’s base of operations, and decide who all the residents are and why they might hate each other. To this end, I will be paying particular attention to property lines and how much lawn is between each residence, because that kind of thing can fuel a lifelong blood-grudge. There will be curious benefactors who want to make the PCs do uncomfortable things. There will be townspeople with hearts black as coal but without the ambition to act on any of it. There may be ideas that make me dance with glee that I don’t want to spoil because my players read this. The sacrifices I make for you people.

There may also be magical shrinkage. Most editions of D&D have rules for that. It’s canon. I’m pretty sure there’s a Greyhawk mage who specializes in it.

Some of my players have asked for more combat with more options for winning and losing aside from “one side kills all of the other side”. I think this is fertile ground for combat the likes of which very few have ever seen. One possible downside to this approach is that the Seriousness Knob is probably going to have to go a few more clicks toward “campy”, and it’s already pretty firmly in that territory. People are going to get more murdery than usual for very silly reasons, and there will likely be few consequences. I can’t very well have them hanged for going along with the ridiculous plot I placed at their feet. At least, not without a really awesome reason. As the PCs are all respected members of the city guard, I’ve also considered doing a weird arbitrary “you all have new jobs” swap a la Are You Being Served‘s move from a department store to managing a country inn. That didn’t make even a partial lick of sense either, but it was still awesome.

Of course, I haven’t spoken to any of my players about this yet. I suspect this will suit them just fine, but it If I go through with this, I haven’t decided if I’m going to retcon the events of the W.S.E., simply cause them to be not nearly as important as they seemed, or just encourage everyone not to give a crap about the coming darkness anymore. Maybe I will have a dark oozy monster come out of the shower and be like “hey everybody, it was all just a dream”. Now that I mention it, adding a bit of Dallas into this is an interesting idea…..

The strangest part of this for me is that I didn’t particularly care for Seinfeld when it was on. I find myself wanting to watch it now, just to get good ideas on how to make NPCs that are total self-absorbed jerks. I won’t need to worry about the players’ contribution. I’ve been rather enjoying watching them fight their morally-challenged PCs’ baser urges to try and play ball and be heroes (mostly) for the last campaign. It’ll be interesting to see what happens when I don’t even try to make them do that a little anymore.

I’m getting that “this is going to be a glorious trainwreck” feeling about this. I’m not sure it’s healthy to be happy about that, but I am.


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  1. Reverend Mike says:

    May be a good idea to check out Gintama also. It’s more or less exactly what you’re describing.

    It’s set in Edo in no particular time period. During the era that samurai started losing their jobs, aliens invaded and so there’s a big mix of advanced tech and traditional Japanese stuff.

    The main characters run an Odd Jobs store where they do things to try to pay the rent. That’s basically the plot.

    May help to check out a few episodes revolving around the Shinsengumi as well (the police force). There’s several where they are recruited to take the shogun on a skiing trip and make sure he has a good time, but of course everything goes horribly wrong and they end up riding his unconscious body away from an avalanche.

    It’s based on a manga w/ 300+ chapters, so it may help to read up on a few of those also. Definitely a trove of ideas.

  2. I’m not a big sandbox fan, so I’m curious.

    In the past, have you tried running a published adventure that still has an open feel? The ‘Kingmaker’ Paizo adventure path, for example. You get to wander around the map, make discoveries when you want to, tackle issues as you see fit, and eventually create your town (which in theory should give you stakes in it and make you care… for us it did fall a bit short in that regard due to the mechanics for city progression).

    I would worry that without something going on beyond the immediate, nothing really provides the impetus to continue. If it’s all made up, nothing is real. I tend to like the game to come for me and bring me into danger and heroism and similar stuff. I like having mysteries to unravel, and have those mysteries slowly peeled back like an onion. I really want them to make sense. Preferably, I want them to go deep into the nature of the campaign setting.

    Would it work for you to have an event-drive campaign at a very high level? For example, if the neighborhood were to see three challenges over time, each tied to some amount of growth. And, the PCs end up thrust into having a say for the neighborhood and causing the growth. The challenges might normally be very organic, but when they hit the trigger points, that’s when the larger whole shows up (maybe tying to something like a corrupt city government or someone on a council that wants to do something with the neighborhood). For me, I want to see the things I love be threatened in a campaign. I want a sense of wheels-within-wheels and discovering that.

    I don’t claim to be good at coming up with stuff. But I can readily steal from the prior efforts of others and bring that back into my game.

    None of this to say you are doing it wrong – you never are if it is fun. I’m just curious because it is really different from my normal approach. I like learning from very different approaches.

  3. iserith says:

    The issue with many sandbox games is that it can easily turn into a “quicksand box” game. In other words, the PCs are wandering around talking to NPC merchants, burning down inns, and killing town guards just to have something to do. Which is fine, of course, if that’s your kink. To me, those things are symptoms of a failure on the part of the DM, specifically, for not providing enough context for the players to make decisions. In fact, I believe that if the players ever say, “I guess we go to the tavern,” the DM has failed in some way.

    You don’t need to have a storyline (aka a plot) to have a good campaign. You just need to have a location with things in motion. If there’s a town, it has 3 factions in it pursuing their goals which are sometimes in opposition. If there’s a dungeon, it’s got tribes of monsters vying for territory. If there’s a haunted forest, it’s contested by the Elves of the Grove, the Haunted Forest Itself, and some invading gnolls. Give everything a one-line motivation, instinct, or goal and a one-line Bad Thing That Happens if nobody stops them from pursuing that goal. Start the session with action highlighting one of the “steps” on the way to that overarching goal. Then see where it goes. I recommend Dungeon World’s front system for organizing your prep for this style of play.

    “Story” is the thing we create between players and DMs by playing the game. It’s not created beforehand. So, focus on locations and situations rather than story. The story will write itself.

  4. I agree with what’s been said about a world requiring independent moving parts.

    What we’re really talking about is writing up Fronts with “threats”, like iserith said, in the style of Apocalypse World or Dungeon World, with a countdown and a Dark Future or Agenda. It’s a sandbox, sure, but various unpleasant things will happen if the world is left for entropy to have its way with it.

    When players wander, I try to ensure they don’t just meet NPCs; they run into relationships between NPCs that entangle them, grudges they didn’t know existed, unrequited passions, and ill-fated “get rich quick” schemes and con artists. You don’t have to sacrifice the dramatic along with the epic.

    If this is what you meant, your pardon for belaboring the point. It read as a more passive plan than that to me.

  5. It’s interesting to me that so many people are reading this idea as a sandbox-style campaign. Even one of my players, when I spoke to him before posting, thought this until I explained it further.

    It’s very much not going to be a sandbox. Threats to the characters very way of life will happen every week (in much the same way that a teenager’s life is RUINED when their parents embarrass or ground them).

    Being voluntarily overdramatic is going to require some buy-in from the players, for sure. But hey, it works in Fiasco, right? 🙂

  6. So it’s more of a Threat of the Week episodic approach than a sandbox. That makes sense.

    You start talking about not preparing a plot, and bam, we do all assume it’s a sandbox. 😉

  7. iserith says:

    Will it be a truly episodic approach with a new scenario to deal with each session? If so, it’s even more important that you be a Soup Nazi about pacing to make sure you start and finish (however you determine what “finished” means, and I recommend that be spelled out right at the outset) in one game.

  8. The world coming to end campaign, I would think you could put that on hold and have it wrap into or around the ideas of the problems in the city when it feels right as opposed to, Hey we have 3 months or all hell is going to break loose.

    To us those feel more entwined with a running campaign(8yrs) than a crisis of the month club.

    my 2 cents 🙂

  9. TheMainEvent says:

    Another great show that follows a misanthropic band as they wreak havoc in pursuit of pettiness is Its Always Sunny In Philadelphia.

  10. This sounds like a lot of fun – looking forward to hearing how it turns out!

  11. Love the idea. I could just see the gang spend a whole session standing around arguing about who is going to carry the treasure. Finally Jerry tries to seduce a random wandering female goblin, but it turns out she likes girls, so Elaine steps up to the plate, thinking 8 out of 10 goblinoids are cute in general, and they make it out with the loot.

    Next episode Elaine finds out just how clingy goblins can be.

  12. Your parents embarassing you doesn’t generate xp. Breaking up a fight between two level one sandwich jockeys week after week doesn’t generate xp or sound particularly engaging. These kinds of mini-sodes are things I would throw in to break up a larger story. Something Whedonesque to lighten the mood right before killing your favorite character in a particularly unexpected way.

    It’s not he makings of a “campaign”.

  13. I ran a campaign set around this idea for about two and a half years. I initially had a nice story laid out, full of exploration, mystery,and deep plot elements. After I killed one of my player’s favorite characters, the players proceeded to methodically piss all over it. So, I joined in and let it be a game where yes, there was an overwhelming plot to worry about, but they ignored it pretty much 100% reliably, got into mayhem, caused as much harm as good, and filled in the combat with pretty much exclusively two types of enemy – 1) whoever they pissed off/attacked and 2) dragons. Every fight was either absurd, or nail-bitingly amazing, and they loved it, every single minute of it. My biggest word of advice is this: Plan nothing. In fact, you can reliably NOT plan whatever the plot should do next, because that’s most assuredly where they’re not going to. Think about how your world works, and then let them sand box across it. I pretty much had a bank of NPCs, had an NPC generator for combat purposes, a bank of taverns and shops, and then a few errant plot lines that could work for 1-2 hours of play that I’d shove in there when I was feeling lazy and not so creative.

    A few fond moments include:

    1) A moment of extreme metagaming, where a player tore across the entire dungeon to a fight in a different location after waking up from unconsciousness, and when I warned him it would be faced with consequences, he said to me, “Put it on my tab.”

    2) The murder of any party member that didn’t comply with the philosophy of, “Screw this place, let’s go do something else.”

    3) The murder of 5 town guards, the theft of their boat, and the ransacking of villages, ultimately leading to a group wide alignment shift.

    4) One rounding a young green dragon, taking its head, asking if the player can use perform: dragon head ventriloquism, using said head to distract and then murder a level 9 wizard shopkeeper at level 4, “because his prices were evil”, and derailing a complicated slave plot that would have led them to rescuing an old friend (but instead led me to losing approximately 6 sessions of material).

    I had one player share the story with a person who was not in the campaign, but did play D&D, and it took him 2 hours. Her sides hurt when he was done.

    Good luck running this, it was a true blast, and after playing through all of that, they’re now craving a proper story. The hardest thing was remembering I’m not ALWAYS against the players, just when I have a dragon on the field.