Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, December 19, 2017
 
Planning a new D&D campaign

As I mentioned before, I am somewhat disappointed by official Dungeons & Dragons adventures these days. The one that comes in a box, the Starter Kit, is great and easy to run. The others, which come as hardcover books, are more problematic. It took me a while to realize that some of those campaign books aren't in fact adventure modules like the ones from previous editions. Rather they are campaign settings with the odd encounter or dungeon thrown in. They are background and starting point for a campaign, but with much of the actual campaign and story line incomplete.

The intention is probably to get to a more sandbox style of role-playing. However I find that this causes a problem for preparation: I find that D&D sessions where the DM is well prepared run a lot smoother. If the sandbox style is too open and the DM *can't* prepare and has to improvise everything, the game session becomes a lot more laborious. That is especially true if the DM uses visual aids, like I do: Battle maps, 3D printed miniatures, handouts, etc. all require preparation.

The advantages of full sandbox mode of infinite freedom are also somewhat illusionary. Most of the time players act on little or limited information. The freedom to go north or south isn't worth much if the decision isn't meaningful because you have no idea what happens if you go north or if you go south. But of course full sandbox or strictly linear gameplay aren't the only two options, there are compromises in between the two. And that is what I will be going for in my campaigns in 2018. Basically I will present the players options, but with sufficient information to make each option meaningful. Instead of telling them that they can go in any compass direction they want (which isn't how humans tend to travel anyway), I present them with a fork in the road with road signs to two different places, and some knowledge (e.g. with history checks or from passing travelers) what is going on in those two places. A meaningful choice between 2 locations is better than full freedom to go anywhere, just to face the same random encounter tables because otherwise there isn't anything there.

For my Princes of the Apocalypse campaign this is already working well enough. I gave the players some information about the evil elemental cults, including an idea of relative strength. They usually know about at least 2 different locations where they could go next, and what cult is likely to be there. Which means I can prepare both places and be prepared for either choice. But I did use magical portals to block off the deeper dungeons, which not only I would be not prepared for, but which would also be not much fun, being much higher in level than the players.

Next year I'll try to start a new campaign with new players at my local role-playing club, using the Out of the Abyss campaign setting. So over the holidays I have time to read the book front to cover, and fill out the blanks with the missing story line and alternative options. As I recently wrote, I learned from a good DM / group on YouTube that I shouldn't worry too much about the story line, but rather make sure that there is enough opportunity for players to contribute to the story with their own ideas. Which means presenting situations in a way that make it clear that players can do other things than just roll initiative and attack. I still believe good tactical combat encounters are important and they are usually fun to play for the players, but they aren't all there is to Dungeons & Dragons.

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I was about to suggest pretty much the same thing you are actually doing: make the sandboxes a bit more linear by deciding some things in advance.
 
I run my sandbox campaign thusly, I prepare a very large map that scales in difficulty the further you get from the origin point. I create a number of points of interest, create maps for them and fill them full of monsters. Then I come up with an over arching plot that revolves around 4 or 5 places, plant clues in another 10 or so and about half are just other locations that each have a tiny plot but no overall bearing to the main plot. I do this all before the campaign even begins and it takes a long time, weeks usually to get set up, but once it is I’m basically prepared in advance for the entire campaign. Random encounters help keep the party from venturing too far without gaining some cup along the way and I am totally fine if people backtrack in other directions and stuff ends up being easy. I feel it’s important every once in a while for say some 5 or 6 level adventurers to just roll across a horde of goblins or whatever and roll over the creatures that used to give hem a hard time. It helps provide a sense of growth to the party.
 
I run my sandbox campaign thusly, I prepare a very large map that scales in difficulty the further you get from the origin point. I create a number of points of interest, create maps for them and fill them full of monsters. Then I come up with an over arching plot that revolves around 4 or 5 places, plant clues in another 10 or so and about half are just other locations that each have a tiny plot but no overall bearing to the main plot. I do this all before the campaign even begins and it takes a long time, weeks usually to get set up, but once it is I’m basically prepared in advance for the entire campaign. Random encounters help keep the party from venturing too far without gaining some XP along the way and I am totally fine if people backtrack in other directions and stuff ends up being easy. I feel it’s important every once in a while for say some 5 or 6 level adventurers to just roll across a horde of goblins or whatever and roll over the creatures that used to give hem a hard time. It helps provide a sense of growth to the party
 
"I feel it’s important every once in a while for say some 5 or 6 level adventurers to just roll across a horde of goblins or whatever and roll over the creatures that used to give hem a hard time. It helps provide a sense of growth to the party"

This is exactly what my DM used to do. I'm not familiar with 5E beyond reading the PHB, but back when I last played, my DM took into consideration the fact that if our party had encountered the same type and level of Mob's before, the subsequent encounters would always be easier. My DM would also use something called "dream intervention", where a specific player in our group would be called upon to make a savings throw to determine if he/she would remember a dream he/she had during an extended rest. The dream would usually include details on how to get back on track if the group had strayed too far from the plot or had lost direction.
 
'Scaling' is popular in MMORPGs now, though it's probably hard to translate to DnD except in small ways (e.g. I'm sure Tobold might drop one or two minions from the enemy if a player is missing that day).

Lately I signed up for Elder Scrolls Online (which I've been enjoying so far, basically as a solo player). That has scaling everywhere so basically you can travel and quest anywhere.

I'm not sure what I think about it, to be honest. I don't actually use it, really - I've been staying in the starter zones just as I would in WoW. There is certainly something lost in terms of the consistency of the world, and the ability to ocasionally steamroll mobs that used to be skulls.

But anyway that's different in a once-through PnP campaign.

Do any PnP sandboxes i,plement scaling (i.e. rules that change the enemies at a location in line with party strength?) It might be hard to do well though unless the DM is adept at on-th-fly math. I'm sure many of us remember Wizardry 8 and Daggerfall which were good CRPGs that suffered from scaling artefacts!
 
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