Tactics and Tips08/29/2006

Sibling Rivalry: Two Campaigns Begin

We're going to take a short detour this month. If you're tuning in for Indian-burn-giving, noogie-thumping, pink-bellying sibling-on-sibling bloodshed, you'll have to wait until next month. Instead, we take you behind the curtains of a rare gaming occurrence -- the simultaneous starts of two new campaigns. We're each DMing one and playing in the other, setting up enlightening perspectives on how to approach the campaign seed both as a player and as a DM.

For Andy, starting a new campaign is old hat. He's become such a fixture behind the screen in our gaming group that barnacles grow on his chair. But for Greg, it's only his second stint as DM. How did each go about campaign creation, and what challenges did they face? Read on.

Andy: Whenever I'm planning to start a new campaign, the first and most important thing I need is the "hook" -- the central concept that grabs hold of my brain and says "You must run this campaign!" Without that big idea, a campaign is nothing more than a loosely connected string of encounters, which ultimately doesn't excite me enough to drive me to organize and run a game.

Usually, this is among the easiest tasks for me. In fact, the hook often comes to mind well before I'm actually ready to start the new game. Since I never like to run the same style of campaign twice in a row, I knew I wanted something different from my previous game -- a gritty, low-magic, post-apocalyptic fantasy setting that focused on harsh environments and horrific, alien enemies (which in turn was a change of pace from my previous, heroic-epic-fantasy campaign).

With the ambient desire for variety bubbling in my brain, I eventually stumbled upon a fun, fresh (if tried-and-true) solution. Out went the "high concept" of my Umber campaign, and in came the "classic" flavor of old-school, anything-goes, kill-it-and-loot-the-body dungeon crawling. And where better to place this campaign than the granddaddy of old school, the World of Greyhawk? Thus was born my next campaign.

Greg: And that's a great challenge to a player, seeing the entire D&D canvas open up for character generation. When the party got together for character generation, I brought no fewer than five character concepts (goliath dragon shaman, duskblade headed for Green Star Adept, illumian spellthief with multiclass options, favored soul weapon master, and binder), ready to fill a role left open by the other players. After seeing a human knight, catfolk druid, and mongrelfolk ranger suit up, I settled on the spellthief.

But since I'm coming out of DMing a wild and wooly Hong Kong fantasy-action game, I felt like I wanted a more restrictive campaign the second time around. The Red Hand of Doom will constitute the bulk of my campaign, and with that adventure's strong military theme, I thought a campaign fully embracing that flavor was in order. And what's more restrictive than the army?

Finding the right campaign world also helped set those restrictions. Hearkening back to Andy's previous heroic-epic-fantasy campaign of "Bloodlines," I decided to set my campaign roughly 100 years after that campaign ended. Andy had used stringent race restrictions back then, so that was a natural keeper. Compared to his anything-goes world, I'm restricting my players to a choice of seven PC races. I want the choice of race to be an important part of each character's identity, and by narrowing the choices it's easier to define the relations between each race.

Andy: Ideally, any restrictions that you set on player choice should contribute significantly to your campaign's central concept. If the only reason that you say "no elves" or "no psionics" is that you don't like those parts of the game, you're missing a huge opportunity to craft the product that you're about to sell to your players.

That may sound a bit crass, but make no mistake: Getting your players excited about the experience of playing in a new campaign is a lot like selling them a product. While some players are satisfied with just about any D&D experience their DM provides, the Dungeon Master who doesn't take into account his players' desires risks creating a campaign that stumbles, fails to engage the imagination, and maybe even flat-out falls apart.

Back in the Wizards of the Coast setting search that eventually resulted in the Eberron Campaign Setting, participants had to submit a one-page summary of their proposed setting, outlining various key concepts. In writing my own proposal, I realized the immense power of brevity when wielded appropriately -- it forces you to focus your thoughts and your words on what's most important. My one-page proposal for Umber turned into the "sell sheet" that I provided my gaming group when it was time to start the last round of campaigns.

This time around, I didn't have a setting search guiding my structure, so I varied from the format I'd used for Umber, focusing on the key elements that would help would-be players understand what they'd be getting into with the Greyhawk campaign. Here are some excerpts from the sell sheet for "Fear and Loathing in the City of Greyhawk: An 'Anything Goes' Classic D&D Campaign:"

This summer, D&D goes back to its roots:

Dungeons . . . Treasure . . . Greyhawk.

You: Rag-tag, (semi-)heroic adventurers, banding together to drag yourselves from abject poverty to untold riches.

How:Dungeons, baby, dungeons! From the Ghost Tower of Inverness to White Plume Mountain, you'll explore and loot every last nook and cranny of the nastiest holes in the ground that the world has to offer. If it has a door to kick in, an angry monster to kill, and a locked chest to steal, you're there. Did somebody say Tomb of Horrors? Hell yeah!

This Is The Campaign For You If . . .

  • You're in it for the money AND the action. There's no room for altruism or cowardice in this town.
  • You want dungeon-crawling, not merchant-talking. Slaying monsters, yes; palace intrigue, no.

And so on.

Greg: I had it a little easier . . . all I had to do was mention the possibility of a military-themed campaign and two or three players were already hopping on board (perhaps I know my audience too well -- or I've watched Band of Brothers too many times with these guys). As soon as we settled on who would be playing in each campaign and let the players know what restrictions they had, the ball was in their court.

Truly excited players geeking out about character generation is a great affirmation that you've picked a compelling setting. Seeing as I had a group of five Type-A personalities (several of whom are organization freaks to boot), they quickly started on the task of determining party roles. A military squad is very much like a D&D party, with each member filling important roles. My players tackled this by sketching out a 13-point checklist of party capabilities via email, followed up with a multifunction analysis of maximizing combat roles. Here's an excerpt:

In the simplest view, the key goals of any combat are twofold:

1) Deal damage to enemies.

2) Survive attacks from enemies.

But that's a bit overly simplistic, otherwise "fighter" would be the only class you need. So break down the categories a bit:

1) Deal damage to enemies.

A) Deal melee damage, usually vs. single targets.

B) Deal ranged damage vs. single targets.

C) Deal AoE ranged damage (multiple targets).

D) Enhance allies' ability to accomplish A-C via buffing offense or debuffing enemy defense.

2) Survive attacks from enemies.

A) High personal durability.

B) Prevent attacks against low-durability allies.

C) Heal injuries.

D) Enhance allies' ability to accomplish A-C.

Each subcategory had further explanation as to which class abilities fit in each role, and then the discussion veered toward what roles could best be combined into a class that a player wanted to play. For example, a barbarian was classified as primary 1A, secondary 1B while a druid could be primary 2B, 2D, secondary 1C, 1A (via animal companion). And 1,641 words later, the players had strong ideas of what jobs they wanted their characters to be good at, and what potential overlaps existed among their character concepts.

Andy: And in case anyone's wondering, yes, I'm the organization freak who crafted the preceding opus. I like to think of my personality as combining a little bit from column "obsessive" with a little bit from column "compulsive," thank you very much.

Of course, not every group approaches creating characters with that level of anal-retentive detail. In the recent character-generation session for my Greyhawk game, the players approached the challenge of building their new identities much more from a story perspective than as a mechanical team-building challenge . . . hence Dennis's mongrelfolk ranger longs to become a master chef and fights with a butcher knife and a frying pan.

But you can't ask your players to craft characters without also outlining the house rules (if any) that you'll be using in your campaign. Now, it's possible that you and your group already have a comfortable list of house rules that you use in your games, but a new campaign is always a great excuse to evaluate how those are working for you and figure out if you need any new ones.

Since my campaign wouldn't require the players to familiarize themselves with reams of background material, I felt comfortable crafting a reasonably large array of house rules -- concerning both character creation and at-the-table game play -- and which included several concepts they hadn't tried before.

While it's difficult to evaluate any given house rule out of context -- since each one often grows out of specific group experiences or exists in relation to some other homegrown tweak -- here are a few of the house rules I presented my players with during character creation:

Hit Points

All characters start with an extra 10 hp at 1st level.

Each level, you gain hp equal to the max. result of your HD (4 for d4, 8 for d8, and so on), plus Con mod.

(I wanted characters who were much more durable, particularly at low levels, and who also wanted to eliminate the inherent danger of low hp rolls.)


All skill ranks cost 1 skill point. (The maximum rank for cross-class skills remains normal.)

(I love characters who dabble outside their class's normal area of skill expertise, and this keeps that from being quite as much of a drain on skill points. I've been using this house rule in another campaign for a while now, and it works well without being a significant increase of power.)

Magic Item Restrictions

Disallowed: Magic items that grant a continuous bonus to an ability score (gloves of Dexterity) or a continuous natural armor bonus to AC (amulet of natural armor). (Items that grant a temporary bonus, such as a wand of bull's strength or potion of barkskin, are acceptable.)

(I find ability-score boosters boring and flavorless. Worse yet, they're so cheap that they crowd out dozens of more interesting but less powerful magic items. Same with AC boosters -- it's just too easy to spread out your gold and ratchet up your AC to absurd levels -- so I picked the least useful of the lot and kicked it out. I'm hoping this encourages characters to keep more of the items they find, as well as to look farther afield for interesting items to purchase.)

Greg: Because we've been doing this at the same time, we've been able to bounce ideas off each other to better define each campaign's flavor. I was also concerned with character durability, but came at it from a different angle. Because the characters will complete "basic training" at the end of first level, I wanted to give them abilities and feats that matched that extra martial training. Instead of mandating that everybody takes a level of fighter for their second level, I'm layering most of a first-level fighter's abilities on top of whatever they take as their second level.

Doing a simultaneous campaign kickoff has generated a huge amount of excitement for both groups. There are so many options across the volumes of D&D sourcebooks, it feels like Christmas to players and DMs alike.

It's almost enough to make a player forget that his new party lacks a true healer . . .

About the Author

By day, Andy Collins works as an RPG developer in Wizards of the Coast R&D. His development credits include the Player's Handbook v.3.5, Races of Eberron, and Dungeon Master's Guide II. By night, however, he fights crime as a masked vigilante. Or does he?

As a D&D player, Greg Collins has been taking whatever older brother Andy can dish out for more than 20 years. Recently he took a seat behind the screen to exact his revenge upon his brother for killing his first character by washing him down a flight of stairs. In his time spent away from D&D, Greg is the events producer for magicthegathering.com.

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