Appropriate scope in player-driven campaigns

After writing the previous post, I was checking back on a thread at ENworld that I started two months ago about how to let players take charge of where a campaign goes without telling them their characters’ goals and objectives but still getting some kind of great coherent and continuous story rather than just scattered, small scale one-shots. It led me to a conclusion that I think really deserves to be put here as a post as well.

As it turns out once again, system matters.

And having recently found a new skill based fantasy game that I actually like the looks of, I am feeling that the main error I made going into this entire thing was to approach it from the perspective of a party of 1st level D&D characters.
The level based system of D&D means that if you want an NPC of a given class to be really good at one of the abilities of its class, you also have to raise all the other abilities of that class to the required character level. That means if you don’t want to cut out two thirds of the game like in an E6 campaign, you’ll end up with an NPC population with a very broad range in power levels from the generic classless 1 HD guardsman to the 10th, 15th, or even 20th level high priests and court wizards. As such there is going to be a huge gap in power between new starting PCs and the top 20 movers and shakers of the setting. (Of course you can start the campaign with PCs with 100,000 XP, but in a game where XP are meant to be earned and representative of accomplishments, this always feels hollow to me and any further level you gain unearned as well.)

In skill based systems, all the individual skills advance separately and characters can just be really good at their specialization without having to be overall amazing in all the fields of their archetype. Which to me means a much easier time to have new starting characters with zero advancement be people of status and reknown and who are capable of contributing meaningfully in the big events of the campaign region.

I think the real takeaway from this is that the PCs have to be the most important people on the stage. They are supposed to be the protagonist of the story and the campaign is supposed to be their story.
Which doesn’t mean they have to be the strongest people in the game world, or even the strongest people in geographical area in which the campaign takes place. But they have to be real contenders for control over the environment and community in which the scenes of their story take place. In a game about street gangs fighting over turf in the harbor alleys at night, the PCs don’t have to be able to fight and defeat the knights of the castle or the sorcerers of the magic school. But they need to be able to stand up and challenge the biggest baddest bastard in the harbor. No equal to him in combat power, but able to have a real shot at winning a fight if they can corner him alone and all jump him at once from the shadows. And they don’t have to be able to do it right away, but it needs to appear to be plausibly within reach in the foreseeable future.

That’s when you really can let the players get proactive. The conflicts that matter in the scope of the campaign and the narrative stage it takes place on need to be at the scale of the PCs’ abilities. Of course you can have a campaign about ordinary townsfolk trying to survive in a city that is getting torched by barbarians. But in that campaign the conflicts that the players would be dealing with would not be about defeating the barbarian king in battle and driving out the invaders. That would be the story of a very different group of protagonists.

The conflicts that make up the story of the campaign need to be on the same level as the PCs. If the conflict happens at a scale way above the PCs’ abilities, then the players can only be spectators but not drive the story. As a background context a conflict that is way above the PCs’ heads can work very well, but that can’t be the conflict that the players get to primarily interact with.

Setting Expectations

A pun. I’m so clever.

Apparently there are still people who protest vocally when someone mentions that System Matters. Even though it should be totally obvious that it really does. Having recently started to get into the rules and mechanics of Dragonbane, I’ve been considering running my next Kaendor campaign with this system. I’ve really been a lot into the West Marches style of wilderness exploration for the last six years or so, especially since I really started to understand the Classic Dungeon Crawling structure that all the mechanics of B/X are designed around. OSE is a great way to let new players take a look at the game without having them to try understand the attack roll mechanic (which I still don’t understand to this day), and Shadowdark has some interesting new ideas to bring to that table. And both are a shiny new, or at least contemporary thing that new players have interest in to give a try. But all of these have a big problem for me and that is that they are still D&D.

And D&D has some really odd and specific assumptions about the game world that are hard wired at the most fundamental level and you can’t really replace without changing the whole premise of the game, regardless of edition, retroclone, or hack. The big ones for me are the linear level progression and the magic system. (Alignment is also stupid, but that one is actually easy to remove.) The are the main reasons why Barbarians of Lemuria has always lingered at the edge of my vision (it’s a bit too simple), why I kept looking at every new fantasy adaptation of Blades in the Dark, and why I really wanted Forbidden Lands to somehow work for my needs (it’s a bit too complex).

While I’ve been jumping from game to game in the hope to finally find the game that I want for my fantasy campaigns for many years (and in the end still always ended up with versions of D&D), Dragonbane now seems to be the most promising system I’ve come across yet. Maybe it finally is the one. I’ve been thinking for the last week about how a Dragonbane campaign set in Kaendor might look like, because the West Marches and Classic Dungeon Crawling structures simply don’t work in a system without XP. This had me reexamine the very question of how to complete the sentence of “You play as an X who does Y” for such a campaign. And finding an answer for that that works with the mechanics of the game significantly changes several quite basic assumptions of the Kaendor setting.

There are three things that stand out for me as making Dragonbane a fundamentally different game from D&D derived systems that require quite different things from the game setting to work with it. The lack of XP to incentivize certain behaviors like searching for treasure or looking for fights, the lack of character levels that creates a mechanical hierarchy of all the NPCs and PCs, and the lack of a distinction between sorcery and priestly magic.

Though many groups reportedly have stopped using XP in their D&D 5th edition games and simply give PCs new levels when the GM thinks it appropriate, it’s still a fundamental aspect of the game, and one that is central and does a lot of heavy lifting in B/X. The promise that hauling treasures from dungeons will get the PCs XP on their return is what allows players to be proactive and take charge of the campaign. They know what their characters are after (treasure) and where it can be found (dungeons), and they have the tools to go and claim it. Go out gathering information on old ruins with potential treasures, pick one to get to, and decide which obstacles to challenge and which ones to avoid. If the game does not have a mechanic that ties character advancement to their treasure hauls, then players have no incentive to randomly check out any dungeon they become aware of and poke into every little crack and hole they find. This means the idea of adventurers as treasure hunters does not work, and with that dungeon crawl as a core campaign structure does not work either. Exploring dungeons can still be part of the game, but it would be to find one specific thing in the dungeon instead of exploring as much of it as possible. Anything that isn’t the Thing can be left behind, and after finding it the PCs can just leave.  A hunt is quite different from an exploration. And because of this, I think making the game focused on a story is probably mandatory. (What I think that could look like while having the players be in charge of the campaign will be a later post.)

It probably wasn’t originally intended when D&D was first designed as  pure dungeon crawling game, but having PCs advance in discrete levels which increase all their abilities at a somewhat linear rate, and having monsters defined similarly by their Hit Dice, created a hierarchical ladder of power for all the inhabitants of the game world. One that is inherently quantified through the game mechanics. Since all creatures in the game are meant to be a credible threat to PCs at some point in the game, newly made PCs start almost at the very bottom of the ladder, just a step above rats and goblins. And at some point it became commonly established that the character progression provided by the rules also applies for NPCs that inhabit the game world, and that there would be 15th level fighter and 17th level wizards out there who could single handedly take out entire armies by themselves. And logically these NPC heroes would be important powerful leaders of the game world whose deeds shape history. Logical and reasonable, but this means that new 1st level characters are nobodies. And 5th level characters are probably still nobodies who don’t appear on the radar of the great and mighty. This greatly limits the kind of stories you can tell in a newly started campaign, or you would have situations where the great heroes of the realm do nothing and wait for random nobodies to solve the great crisis, or the PCs grow to great power in a matter of weeks, though it took the great heroes decades to do so. There is of course always the option to just start a campaign at a higher level, but to many people like me, getting what is supposed to be an award for accomplishments for free feels unearned and takes the fun out of playing at higher levels and continuing to advance further. In a skill based game you cab of course count all the skill ranks of PCs and NPCs and put them in a sorted list (though Dragonbane NPCs only have two or three out of 30 skills listed in their stats). But a character with 16 in a dozen skills and just 5 in combat can still be hopelessly outmatched in a fight with a character with 14 ranks in combat. Different characters can have different skills rise at completely different rates. Having an NPC reach maximum ability in one area does not automatically raise all the other abilities as well. This feature means that a newly made PC can start with a 14 in a few important skills and quickly raise them to 16, and already be in the same league as the great masters in the respective field. While still being very far away from having reached maximum advancement. To me, this opens all kinds of doors to have PCs start the campaign as important heroes of fame who walk in the halls of kings without having to skip over a major part of the character progression.

The fact that Dragonbane has only a single magic system in which any character can learn access to the spells of the three magic schools has a huge impact on the presence of the supernatural in the Kaendor setting. My approach had long been that there are no clerics in Kaendor and while I had considered letting mages have access to healing spells, I eventually decides that priests are instead people with no magic power of their own, but can command the magic of sacred holy sites on which their temples are build. It’s a concept from the D&D Companion Rules that allows the nonhuman peoples to have priest magic in their towns without the ability to have cleric characters, by essentially giving an ordinary person access to a powerful magic item that is locked in place inside the town. It’s a cool concept, but when any PC can learn access to the Animism school and the healing spells, then the whole concept becomes redundant. It even means that any witch or sorcerer could learn healing spells and there’s nothing inherently divine about them. Which I think suits me quite well. But I still will have to fully reconsider the role of magic spells in society if I want to run Kaendor campaign with Dragonbane.

Surely we can do better

Today I started playing Hollow Knight, knowing absolutely nothing about the game other than having seen a few screenshots and being able to recognize the character. And not even two minutes later, before anything had actually happened, I was thinking about Scorn and Elden Ring and saying to myself “why is D&D fantasy so lame?!”

Of course, the three games I mentioned are videogames with a very strong audiovisual component that RPGs just don’t have, so they are not really a good comparison. But why is it still always the same Greyhawk and Forgotten Realms stuff we see being rehashed by all the adventures and retroclones? Even with D&D having abandoned the medieval aesthetic for dungeon punk, the world and the stories have actually become more flavorless by replacing the medieval cliches with a modern social model. When I see oldschool adventures getting praise, it’s typically for being competently done, not for being imaginative.

Of course, settings and campaigns with low weirdness have their place and great appeal. And half a century ago, the now classic dungeons would probably have been fresh, strange, and exciting to the players who had never seen anythibg quite like that in fiction at such a scope. And of course this is now me after having had my fill on that stuff for some 25 years.

But still, where has the spirit gone for being imaginative and creative with new ideas in D&D and other generic fantasy RPGs? Where is the sense of the fantastical? 30 years ago, even the people making D&D dared to go wild and strange with Dark Sun and Planescape. And plenty of people still love this stuff.

I think when we create adventures or settings for campaigns, we really can strive for more than Ye Olde England with adventuring guilds again. We should be fanning the flames of imagination, not worship the ashes.

Campaigns I’d like to run one day

  • Old-School Essentials Sword & Sorcery West Marches campaign set in Kaendor, exploring the ancient ruins of the northern forests which have only recently begun to being settled by groups of people fleeing the reach of the sorcerer kings in the south.
  • Iridium Moons: Coriolis homebrew Space Opera campaign about two merchant cartels fighting over who is going to have a monopoly on trade after the last large mining company pulls out of the sector, and their attempts to make the many small independent mines completely economically dependent on them.
  • Shadows of the Sith Empire: A Star Wars d6 campaign set after the Dark Side ending of Knights of the Old Republic, in which a new Sith Empress controls a quarter of the Old Republic’s systems and is sending her agents out to search for lost ancient Sith texts that hold the secret of how Marka Ragnos and his predecessors managed to hold their empire together and how she might prevent her own apprentices from inevitably turning against her.
  • The Outer Rim: A Star Wars d6 campaign set right after the destruction of the Death Star at the height of the Empire’s power. The party consists of former senatorial aides and guards and imperial officers who have fled to hide in the Outer Rim among the smugglers, scoundrels, and gamblers to escape the purges in the core worlds. Meanwhile the new Moff of Enarc has decided to establish order in the space between Sullust and Tatooine by putting an end to the fighting over spice smuggling between the Hutts and Black Sun. Imperial crackdowns and increased fighting between the two syndicates to be the one that gets to keep the region for itself only increases the chaos and raises sympathy for a rebellion against the empire.
  • The Heart of Darkness: Dungeons & Dragons Planescape campaign that focuses on the rarely visited planes Beastlands, Ysgard, Pandemonium, Carceri, and Gehenna and revolving around an arcanaloth, a rogue asura with an army of Fated, the Revolutionary League, and the Doomguard trying to gain control over a terrible artifact of entropy.
  • Murky Waters: A Mutant: Year Zero campaign set in the islands that are left of Denmark, Northern Germany, Northern Poland, and Southern Sweden after an 80m sea level rise. The mainland is completely uninhabitable by clouds of deadly fungus spores, but the salt of sea water keeps the fungus from taking hold on small islands in the stormy sea.
  • Sankt Pauli bei Nacht: Vampire campaign set in Hamburg, with a brewing conflict between old Ventrue shipping magnates and Bruja activists over which neighborhoods are their rightful territory as gentrification changes the social environment. With Malkavians claiming the rowdy entertainment district in the harbor, and a gang of Nosferatu the subway systems. And going all the way back to the concepts of the first edition, it’s actually going to be personal horror.

Using 30-mile hexes

Everyone knows that Hexagons are Bestagons, and that the 6-mile hex really is the only size that makes sense for wilderness travel. But since the dawn of RPG time, the 30-mile hex has also always been around and keeps showing up from time to time.

As someone who thinks that hexes are best used as a tool to approximate the length of a winding path between two points without having to fight with a measuring tape instead of treating it as a “wilderness room”, I always found the use of 6-mile hexes very compelling. Most wilderness travel will be something like 12 to 24 miles per day and you can easily set up a travel speed system where any overland movement will only be in full 6-mile hexes with no fractions and remainders. (And by you, I mean me.) Going smaller than that with the hexes becomes pointlessly granular, and bigger hexes become less useful for tracking daily travel. The 30-mile hex is way too big for travel tracking, and if you think the 6-mile hex is ridiculously big to hide just one encounter, then 30 miles is just ludicrous.

However, I was once again struggling with frustration about not having a clear image of how I want to handle the contrast between wilderness and civilization in the Kaendor sandbox I am still working on. And it occurred to me that perhaps I could make the city states much smaller and treat them as being on the same scale as individual barbarian tribes that live spread out over several villages in a limited area. And I think the 30-mile hex might actually be a really good unit for the territory claimed and mostly controlled by a mid-sized town or a tribe.

Example made from my 6-mile hex Savage Frontier map.

A 30-mile hex with the main settlement in the center means an area with a radius of 15 miles. That’s about the distance that you can travel with cargo in a day in pre-modern times. (Though of course express messengers can go much further than that.) This allows people from the outer edges of the area to travel to the central main settlement in a day, stay for the night, do their business in the morning, and make it back home before nightfall. Historically, towns organically grew to be spread out at half that radius for their respective area of influence so people could make it back home on the same day. But that’s for medieval Europe or the early American colonies. For a sparsely populated setting and in a frontier context, I think 30 miles should be very suitable. (In a more densely populated and developed setting, 10-mile hexes could be very useful too, though.)

I think that a 30-mile hex also makes for a good size for a forest or swamp in a sandbox. Each 30-mile hex contains 18 6-mile hexes and 12 half-hexes. Assigning 24 hexes to a geographic region with shared environmental conditions and using the same wandering monsters tables seems like a pretty good size if the campaign is about traveling to spread out ruins instead of clearing hexes where every hex contains a thing.

Return to The Savage Frontier

Forgotten Realms Campaign Set

As I might have mentioned in my recent posts, the Forgotten Realms bug has bitten me again. In particular the world presented in the AD&D 1st edition Grey Box and The Savage Frontier. This is the setting of Icewind Dale and Neverwinter Nights, which were two my first fantasy games, and a few years later I was one of the GMs and level designers of a huge German NWN server network that ran for several years and set in the same region. It really was my first campaign setting and I lived and breathed that stuff for several years during my whole time as a 3rd edition GM. I pretty much lost interest in it after that and eventually went into homebrewing my own settings, but every couple of years, I remember that little The Savage Frontier book, that I earlier had dismissed as being entirely superseded by the much superior The North box and the Silver Marches book, and think of all the cool ideas that were lost in the later versions and I never got to use in the adventures I ran. While I currently have a new homebrew setting in the fire and another one in the drawer to work on any time the fancy strikes me, I also really just want to start a new campaign in the new year and go out to take the OSE Advanced rules for a spin. And The Savage Frontier is looking as attractive as it always does.

The Savage Frontier

FR6: The Savage Frontier is one of 12 expansions for the original Grey Box campaign set. I think it’s Janelle Jaquays’ greatest work and possibly the best campaign setting sourcebook released for any RPG. Like all the books in the FR series, this one is really thin. Only 64 pages plus a really cool map of the entire region, which I used as the basis for my own giant hexmap. But this thing is just packed with content. One way in which it accomplishes that is that it is entirely setting description. There are no pages spend on new character options, spells, magic items, or monsters. This is all content for GMs to use as starting points for creating their own adventures. The amount of information that is provided on each subject that is covered is usually very sparse. Neverwinter gets a third of a page in total and Sundabar half of that. In contrast to that, The North box has lavish descriptions of various inns and taverns in every town and village. But looking back at it now, those descriptions didn’t actually give you anything that could be used to create adventurers for PCs. I guess that’s where the weird “laughing people around a table” trend started for D&D.

Baldur’s Gate

Dungeon descriptions are just as sparse and in many cases you don’t get anything more than a name and the reason why it has that name. That can seem quite underwhelming and not that helpful, but what The Savage Frontier is made for is to give you ideas to start of creation of your own game content. You’re not meant to discover the Forgotten Realms that have already been made for you, but to create your own version based on the provided seeds and stepping stones. And the stuff here is just really inspiring.

Icewind Dale

My plan for the campaign is to take the Forgotten Realms just as they are presented in these two sources and expand on what is on the page, without referring to any information from later sources that overwrite, contradict, or are thematically mismatched with what was established in 1988. I put the villages of Mornbryn’s Shield and Uluvin on my map because they don’t contradict or subtract anything from the original sources, but it is still the year 1357 with Hellgate Keep and the Blue Bear tribe, a massive orc stronghold right outside Silverymoon and Sundabar, Bane, Bhaal, and Myrkul, and all that other awesome metal shit! Also, the North is truly a Savage Frontier! It is a region that has been settled by humans from the South only fairly recently and outside of Waterdeep there is only a sparse scattering of homesteads raising cattle, sheep, and horses on the prairies. The elves are long gone. All that remains are a few stragglers occasionally showing up in human cities. The dwarves are still hanging on, but only barely. King Harbromm of Citadel Adbar is the last dwarven king in the North. They all know that the days of their people are over and that they are the last survivors of a great civilization who are left with the only two choices of fleeing to human cities or isolating themselves completely from the outer world in their greatly diminished underground strongholds.

The Fellowship of the Ring

The concept for the campaign is that the players start out as a (recently) established adventurer company. As laid out and explained in great detail in the Grey Box, adventurers in the Forgotten Realms are very much like mercenary companies roaming from town to town in search for work. Not single wanderers who just happen to be in the same backwater tavern when the plot hook comes crashing through the door. It also makes sense when you take into consideration how the rules for 1st edition were designed and the game presented. A party does not consists of 3 to 4 PCs, but of 10 to 15 PCs, henchmen, and hirelings with a whole baggage train of supplies. I’ve found that with this context, the whole setting makes a lot more sense. Individuals roaming around, hoping that someone is in need of a weird stranger to rescue Lassie from the well never felt really believable to me. But small armies for hire in a huge and sparsely populated wilderness where the next Lord’s knights are weeks away? I can see that being an actual career option.

The 13th Warrior

My idea for adventures is to have essentially miniature sandboxes. The players hear that a town has been suffering from an ongoing threat from barbarians, orcs, monsters from the wilderness, or a strange curse and set out to offer the locals their services to protect them for a fee. It is then up to the party to go explore the surrounding woods and marshes to find the source of the threat and deal with it. They either can make a contract to find and kill a specific monster that is terrorizing the town, or to simply guard the town and patrol the nearby area until the townsfolk think it’s safe enough to not extend the contract for another week or month. I think this is a great setup to combine wilderness exploration and dungeon crawling and have the players discover all kinds of lairs, strange spirits, and odd hermits, while at the same time leaving it entirely in their hands where they want to go and how they want to respond to the things they encounter. No need to script any events with predetermined outcomes. Like any West Marches campaign, this also makes the game very flexible, with the game being able to continue with whatever players are present on that day. The characters of players not playing that day would be staying back guarding the town while the party is out on patrol or hunting.

Thief Dark Project

I first got into the setting around 2002, a few years after I’ve first started playing, and was still regularly playing Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, and Thief. It was also right after the Lord of the Rings movies had come out. All of which obviously had a huge impact on how I was imagining all those things I was reading about. And which I am using now extensively to scrounge for ideas for the new campaign. The Savage Frontier does not mention gnolls existing in the region. But the gnolls in Baldur’s Gate are extremely cool, way cooler than the mad cackling idiots that appear in more recent D&D material. And of course Kuldahar, the Severed Hand, and the Dragon’s Eye from Icewind Dale are just totally awesome.


I don’t recall when I first watched The 13th Warrior, but that movie is as oldschool D&D as it can possibly get. And it’s vikings, so a perfect fit for the North. They are perhaps my own ideal archetype for what an adventuring company should be like. And the dungeon at the end is a thousand times cooler than straight 10-foot wide stone corridors and square rooms. Skyrim of course came out many years after all these other works. But I still think it’s very much in the same general style as the Savage Frontier. There’s a couple of cool dungeons and caves and other interesting stuff. Again, the sources don’t say if there are any Mammoths in the North, but there very much could be. And pairing them up with stone giants? Yes please!