Tag Archives: modular campaigns

Forest of High Adventure: Putting the parts together

It’s been a while since I presented my first idea for my planned Forest of High Adventure sandbox campaign, during which the barrel of ideas had a good amount of time to ferment. Recently I’ve got several replies of “That sounds great, I’d really like to play in a game like this” and guess what: It’s going to be a West Marches style open online campaign in which everyone can play on and off. If you really want to, you can play in this campaign. (The schedule is planned to be every sunday 6 pm CET/12 pm EST for about 4 hours, hopefully starting before next summer.) This puts me in a position where I don’t want to reveal too much of the actual specifics that players will encounter in the game.

But I already talked about the main sources I am using to build the sandbox and I think most potential players won’t have the first clue about what is happening in Against the Cult of the Reptile God and The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun and wouldn’t be able to tell that they are currently in it until pretty far in. So I am going to keep things somewhat general and won’t go deeply into the specifcs about what the parties will discover in their explorations.

All in all my current plans have not changed a lot since my first concept draft. The four “main attractions” and small megadungeons (kilodungeons?) are still the Endless Caverns, the Nameless Dungeon, the search for Grandfather Tree, and a castle inspired by Hellgate Keep and the Palace of the Vampire Queen.

I will also be including my own interpretations of the Fountains of Memory from the Lost Peaks, the Lonely Tower, Gauntlgrym, Tall Trees, and the Cavern of the Great Worm. The last one wasn’t on my first map draw, but I think an ancient giant reptile that is shaman to a barbarian tribe is just a wonderful NPC who can be a major source of information, but would have a perspective on things that might make him reluctant to simply tell everything that reckless treasure hunters are asking him.

The Dire Woods and Ruins of Decanter won’t make it in becauseI’m not getting any interesting ideas from their descriptions and I still don’t know if I’ll include the Citadel of the Mists. As written the Mistmaster is just this super powerful good wizard who leads the fight against the demons in the forest from his magic castle. Not really what you want in a player driven dungeon crawl game.

Other adventures besides Reptile God and Tharizdun I’ve incorporated in my plans are Escape from Meenlock Prison, Raiders of the Black Ice, Come to Daddy, and the infamous Death Frost Doom. Contrary to common belief it does not have to lead to a total party kill and the destruction of the campaign setting. I think higher level PCs can actually survive the horror they might unleash and fixing up the aftermath, even if it’s with new characters, should be quite fun.

I also got several ideas for refinement of my original plans. Instead of having a large lake between to mountain ranges as the southern border of the sandbox I am going to set it directly at the coast. That will put the Witchfens in the northwest closer to the sea than I originally had in mind when making the Ancient Lands map but given the size of the sandbox that’s still plenty of distance and over the years I’ve been increasingly moving away from the idea of an accurate world map. A loose collection of local maps is entirely sufficient for a barely inhabited Points of Light wilderness. I’ve actually come to see large scale maps as a hindrance to making a world feel like magicalwilderness.

Also, am going to turn the paper of the map to the side to have it be more wide than high. The effect of this is that the large town in the center of the southern edge is now much closer to routes between the western and the eastern parts of the map. I originally had planned to keep the players deep in the wilderness and specifically put the town away from all the interesting locations but then I started getting all kinds of cool ideas for dungeons on the lakeshore or on islands. With the map paper sideways I can have the lake, that now turned into a coast, much closer to the rest of the action without having to completely redo the landscape from scratch.

Another thing I realized that having half-demon elves and fey’ri is redundant in a world that has sidhe. Thinking back, my original concept for these fey in my setting was based directly on the fey’ri in third edition Forgotten Realms. Just make them corrupted by sorcery and done. I can keep demonic influence limited to special occasions and at the same time have setting specific fey as a major part of the campaign. Double win.

I am very happy with how everything is taking shape. I’ve long been very sceptical about megadungeons and hexcrawls, and the Forest of High Adventure really isn’t either. But this is a dungeon crawling sandbox that I am really exited for to run and I feel that this is by far the campaign I am best prepared for yet. I still don’t have any dungeon maps, NPCs, encounters, or puzzles down on paper, but I think once you start to understand sandboxes they really are a way of running games that is pretty easy on the GM but promises a great return for players. The biggest challenge seems to regularly be getting players goingwith exploring and keeping the campaign going, but in that regard my researches have also provided a lot of good ideas that I am currently turning in my head.

Forest of High Adventure sandbox campaign

The Forgotten Realms were my first campaign setting back when I first got into RPGs and while I eventually got put off by its kitchen sink approach I still have some fondness for The North. The North is maybe 5% of the area of Faerûn but can stand as a complete setting on its own. The Sword Coast has become the default region for Forgotten Realms material and I believe the de facto officially supported region in 5th Edition for good reasons. While I don’t have a strong yearning to revisit this setting, I am still very fond of the High Forest in particular. I really got into RPGs when I played on a Neverwinter Nights server set on the eastern edge of the High Forest and eventually became one of the GMs and senior level designers. And my first steps into worldbuilding began with an attempt to take the hinted at past of this region and expand it into a proper playable setting. Eventually I dropped the connection to the Forgotten Realms entirely and now over a decade later it led to the Ancient Lands in its current state. But I always was a bit disappointed that I never got to run a campaign that goes really deep inside the forest and has the players explore its ancient mysteries.

I had planned to start a new Ancient Lands campaign next winter, but by now “next winter” has become “this winter” and its going to be delayed until next spring. And with still a good amount of time ahead, I still have not entirely commited to what I am going to run. Earlier this week I read a great recent post by the Angry GM about making wilderness travel more fun. And though I had last planned to do something simple and episodic, it put the sandbox bug back into my ear. I had written about a workable travel system for pointcrawling in the wilderness a while back which is quite similar, but as usual Angry made a great improvement over it by making it work without prepared precise maps. A pointmap was to be a compromise over a hexmap, but being able to track travel times and random encounters without a highly detailed map is even better. And unlike with a pointmap it’s really easy to handle a party getting lost.

In previous attempts to make a sandbox I found it very efficient to simply grab a bunch of old modules that fit the theme and put them all together on a map. One that came to mind was Hellgate Keep, which is set on the edge of the High Forest. And that got me the idea to use the whole High Forest chapter from The Savage Frontier as the base for my sandbox. It’s the original inspiration for my Ancient Lands setting and as such pretty much everything from it fits perfectly into it. While the North in later publications is a nice place, I think the original version from The Savage Frontier is by far the coolest. It’s classic 80s Jaquays goodness that still has a nice lingering Judges Guild smell. I am not exactly sure why, but the next time the region was described all the best places where destroyed and the most interesting characters dead. And a lot of it is great sandbox material:

    • Hellgate Keep: An old elven fortress city overrun by demons and their half-demon and undead minions. It’s not just a dungeon but a city, and one way too powerful to assault head on. Not really suited for a dungeon crawl but in a sandbox it can get a lot more interesting to visit.
    • Nameless Dungeon: This ruin of an underground stronghold has been closed off and put under heavy guard by elves after adventurers found some magic weapons and armor there. Later books provided an explanation for this odd behavior by making it the long forgotten prison of elven sorcerers who had consorted with demons to usurp the throne of an ancient realm. And now they are waking up and some have already escaped into the forest. I really quite like this one.
    • Blue Bear Tribe: This barbarian tribe has fallen under the control of their evil shaman who is a disguised hag in league with the demons of Hellgate Keep. They were banished from their ancestral shrine by its spirits for their evil ways and are unable to find it again.
    • Tree Ghost Tribe and Grandfather Tree: Some of the Blue Bear tribesmen have split of from their kin and renounced their evil ways. They hope to become worthy again in the eyes of the spirits and rediscover the location of the giant magical tree that they worship.
    • Star Mounts, Endless Caverns, and Stronghold of the Nine: The Star Mounts are a mountain range of incredible hight and somewhere below them are the Endless Caverns that lead into the Underdark and hold the bones of a huge dragon whose treasures have never been found. Not far away is the Stronghold of the Nine, the base of a group of famous heroe who have been turned mad by an evil artifact they discovered and begun to turn the castle into a battlefield fighting each other.
    • Citadel of the Mist: A magic castle that is home to a powerful sorcerer who is one of the main opponents of Hellgate Keep and ally of the treants that live in the nearby forests.
    • Lost Peaks: Mountains that are said to hold the Fountains of Memory that show visions of the past.
    • Dire Woods: A strange part of the forest that is much larger on the inside than the outside and somewhere near its center lies the ancient city Karse, which holds the giant undead heart of a demigod sorcerer.
    • Ruins of Decanter: An old mine that is crawling with monsters created by sorcerers of old and left to their own devices, but recently an illithid known as the Beast Lord is bringing them under his control.

There are also some other places in the Savage Frontier that can easily be transported into the High Forest and fit very well into it.

  • Cave of the Great Worm: This huge cave is home to a tribe of barbarians who are led by an ancient benevolent giant reptile. Would fit well into the Star Mounts.
  • Gauntlgrym: An ancient dwarven city that was famous for its wealth but was lost for unknown reasons. It supposedly can be reached from the Cave of the Great Worm and would be well placed under the Star Mounts so it can be reached through the Endless Caverns as well. I say its mysterious fate is something inspired by the Dead Trenches from Dragon Age and Dead Space!
  • Lonely Tower: A tall tower with no visible doors and windows standing in a huge circular clearing in which no plants grow. It’s the home of a alchemist sorcerer from another world.

That’s a lot of great sandbox material, but to make my work easier I also want to add some classic modules that make for great additions.

  • Against the Cult of the Reptile God: I’ll make it Against the Cult of the Succubus Princess and it should provide a great introduction for the demonic forces of Hellgate Keep.
  • Hellgate Keep: This module describes the keep after its destruction but provides a lot of information on how it looked and what was going on when it was still there. It includes the half-demons Kaanyr Vhok, Aliisza, and Sarya Dlardrageth, who all could be interesting NPCs.
  • The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun: I love this thing. I’ve wanted to run this for a long time and always felt that it would work best if the players have no idea what kind of crazy awaits them beyond the empty gate of this black ziggurat. It’s perfect as a random location that is spotted in the distance as the party is travelling through the wilderness on their way to somewhere.
  • Rahasia: This one lends itself very well to be adapted to tie in with the Nameless Dungeon. Instead of a chaotic priest randomly finding the spirits of three elven witches in a temple, it can be one escaped half-demon from the Nameless Dungeon trying to resurrect his daughters who were killed in the uprising and whose spirits he stored in the basement of his mansion before he was captured and imprisoned. Or he’s a loyal minion who is resurrecting his mistresses who had a somewhat flawed plan to avoid falling into the hands of the attacking elves.
  • Escape from Meenlock Prison: I had so much fun the first time I ran it and meenlocks make for great creepy fey monsters.
  • Sons of Gruumsh: A straightforward but interestingly build dungeon that is occupied by three warlords believed to be blessed by their god. Would make great opponents for the tanarruk of Hellgate Keep.

Additional ideas include making Gauntlgrym inhabited by derro who are descendants of the original inhabitants and making the local orc tribes enemies of Hellgate Keep who want to take revenge for their people being taken to create the demonic tanarruk. Good factions are the key to a great sandbox and there are already a good dozen of them with none of them necessarily attacking the party on sight but all of them having lots of enemies and potential allies.

So much material and I’ve not really lifted a finger yet. This is about four hours of thinking what existing material I can use to make my own sandbox. I am still going to make this an Ancient Lands campaign, but I think most changes will be primarily cosmetic. There are different gods and races aren’t exactly the same, but overall I think it will be still very recognizably the High Forest.

Dungeon Crawls and Antagonists

During my planning for a new campaign based around loosely connected dungeoncrawls instead of a longrunning epic quest or an open world sandbox I realized what always had been missing for me from dungeon modules. (Aside from plots, since I used to be young and stupid.) It’s great villains. Great antagonists are one of the big draws of Sword & Sorcery and pulp adventures and even though some boss monsters from early D&D have become famous, the early modules consistently had a lack of actually great villains.

The main problem with a generic dungeon crawl is that it has enemies in fixed places and some enemies who are randomly encountered wandering around. And any supposed villain was almost always in his throne room or something to that effect, waiting there at the far end of the dungeon to be the big final fight for the dungeon. Saying a few arrogant lines before a fight to the death does not make a great antagonist. A great and memorable enemy for the players is a villain who does things and they have meaningful interactions with. In movies villains often have most of their scenes in which they show how cool and badass they are far away from the heroes and they only run into each other very late in the story. In an RPG that does not work. You only get the moments where the villain interacts with the heroes to make him cool.

There are several ways to do that before the final fight in which the villain is killed. A really neat idea that I’ve seen in many wuxia stories is that the world of martial arts masters is actually pretty small and everyone knows absolutely everyone else. Even if they’ve never met before, people have heard enough about each other to get a good idea who they are dealing with. In a campaign in which every NPC without a name has no character levels and the majority of named characters are only first or second level this can easily be made to be plausible as well, regardless of the specific setting. When a major antagonist spots the party he might be able to recognize them simply by their appearance and weapons and react to them accordingly. This is not so easily done when the players encounter a new NPC, but any NPC friendly to the party might be able to tell them about some of the people who have been seen near the dungeon or in the company of the dungeon’s current master. Though that friendly NPC might only have heard some vague rumors that could be of greatly varying accuracy and might be misleading the players to expect someone who turns out quite different in person.

Another good method is to drop plenty of clues about the presence and status of a powerful NPC in the area before and after they meet him in person. Captured enemies might talk about their masters and superiors or the party might overhear them talking about them. Or the villain placed a lot of recently made traps ib an area that seems otherwise uninhabited. Corpses of monster killed by antagonist who are nearby are another alternative. Lots of corpses full with arrows, cleaved into pieces, or burned to cinders will give the players certain expectations who they might be facing in the near future.

Something that is easily forgotten and never appears in published modules and adventures because it requires a lot of flexibility from the GM is that every NPC who isn’t killed can show up again in later adventures. Sometimes even if they have been killed (but don’t do that too often, it gets lame very quickly.) Often it’s presented as the default or even only option that any encountered enemy will automatically attack and be killed. But that’s really not necessary and also quite lame. Except for mindless undead all enemies want to live and rather escape than die. If you make use of that option you will end up with a lot of enemies who escaped alive pretty quickly. For the main villain of a dungeon I would even plan ahead to let him fall back a few times before the players might corner him. But only if it’s tactically possible. If the players manage to cut of escape routes or get a few lucky hits that kills the enemy leader in the first or second encounter than that’s what should be happening. It’s not necessary that he will still be able to fight in the last fallback position. The minions might fight on for a while by themselves before they flee from the party or a lieutenant might take over command for the big bad. That lieutenant might turn out to be the actual big antagonist the players are going to remember from the adventure.

If a prominent antagonist survives an adventure, I would not usually use him agaib right in the next adventure and go after the party. That would only encourage the players to never let anyone survive. Wait three or four adventures and then let the players have an unexpected run in with an old acquaintance of theirs.

Though all that being said, I think a dungeon crawls should still be about the dungeon first and everything in it optional. Instead of making a major antagonist the final goal of the dungeon, he should simply be the main attraction. The villain’s lair shouldn’t be in the farthest and deepest room of the dungeon but better in a more central area. This way the players are given plenty of opportunities to avoid a confrontation with something scary like an undead sorcerer or a dragon, but they also will get close to the lair several times throughout their exploration, which gives the villains more opportunities to be on the players’ minds, making them more memorable.

Dungeons and Wilderness in Modular Campaigns

In my previous post about modular campaigns I have been rambling about the reasons for structuring a campaign into individual chunks that can easily be moved around, rearranged, and modified. (It’s all still work in progress.) The key idea being to have the convenience of episodic one-shots with an irregular group of players while also giving the players agency in choosing where they want to go and what motivates them and getting a campaign that better captures the spirit and atmosphere of Sword & Sorcery tales. What I haven’t really been talking about yet is how I want to structure each module to get as much out of every session as possible (occasional players should not be left hanging at the end of a session with nothing seeming to have been accomplished) without making thing too rushed and not neglecting a proper buildup of tension and atmosphere. Because that’s something I only worked out these last days.

Something I struggled the most with is how to deal with the journey from the town to the dungeon. I am a big proponent of skipping the boring parts that serve mostly as padding to make the adventure feel bigger but contribute very little to make the game feel like an adventure and making it memorable. Especially when you have players who only play four hours every 5 or 6 week you don’t want to unnecessarily draw things out when you could do more of the exciting stuff. Simply starting and ending each session at the entrance seems tempting, but I think that’a throwing out the baby with the bath water. I support the notion that most dungeons should be otherworldly. If the essence of Sword & Sorcery can be broken down to a single phrase it would be the encounter with the supernatural. But for a world to be other and supernatural you have to contrast it with a world that is normal and natural. Both the town and the journey to and from the dungeon are this normal world to which the PCs are native.

So, going with the assumption that the wilderness travel is a crucial part of the experience, the next goal has to be to find ways to pack these trips with as much excitement as can be done and making it relevant to the real meat of the adventure that is the dungeon. It’s not often but sometimes you see people make suggestions that seem to be just pure gold. The suggestion someone gave to me is to make the encounters on the trips to and from the dungeon not based on the natural wildlife and local population of the region but on the denizens of the dungeon the path leads to. I think you can actually treat the wilderness journey as the first level of the dungeon. What the party encounters along the way is not unrelated to what is inside the dungeon but already connected to it. With larger dungeons the party might have to make the trip multiple times to haul back the loot and get new supplies, which makes randomly rolled encounters a much more interesting option than having just one or two fixed ones. You can also already include a few “rooms” and branching paths the players may choose from. Sentry posts or creaky bridges that could be collapsed to shake pursuers trying to keep the party from reaching the safety of the town with their loot would be great additions to what could otherwise just be a single straight path through the forest. The wilderness from The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun comes to mind, though it’s a somewhat crude execution of a great idea and more tedious than adding much to the exploration of the dungeon. Through random encounters players could learn of secret entrances into the dungeon or safe places to rest near it without having to make the whole trip back the the town. I think the only real difference between the “wilderness level” and the dungeon levels would be to make wandering monsters check ever 2 hours instead of every 20 minutes and perhaps only once or twice when the group is making camp for eight hours. There’s not going to be much treasure in it (though perhaps a randomly encountered group of humanoids might be tracked back to their nearby lair) but players already have an opportunity to learn about what is making its home inside the dungeon. And especially in OSR games, knowing is half the battle.

Once you reach the proper dungeon I am a big fan of making the players feel that they have come to the other side of the rabbit hole and are not in Kansas anymore. If the dungeon includes surface ruins they often form a kind of border zone. You have reached a strange place and can start exploring but you still have the sun in the sky and fresh air around you and plenty of room to escape if you wish to. But this ends at the threshold beyond which looms the mythic underworld. It can be a door, a cave entrance, stairs leading down, or just a small hole in the ground. Once you cross beyond this point anything could happen.

It’s a bit different when the adventure site lies in an enchanted forest. Enchanted forests usually don’t have a threshold and that’s what makes them unsettling in their own way. You make your way through the wilderness anticipating the see the border to the magical realm ahead until you realize that you crossed it long ago and you won’t be able to get out quickly. How to do this well I am not sure yet. I think it might be a good idea to have two different encounter tables for the mundane wilderness and the enchanted forest. The players might only realize that they’ve already reached the magical realm when they encounter its inhabitants. When the dungeon is in an enchanted forest I think there’s no need to for a visible transition from surface ruins to underground passages. The characters have already committed themselves to the dangers of the otherworld.

How long the trip should be depends on the overall setup of the module, but for the reasons mentioned previously I wouldn’t make it more than two fixed encounter area per possible path (if you have alternative routes to the dungeon) and an average of two random encounters. In a four hour session you probably don’t want to have more than half an hour for each trip.

Now you’ve come to the dungeon itself. How should it be structured? Since the main goal is to allow irregular players to enjoy the game even when jumping in irregularly and to let players have many adventures all over the world I would keep each dungeon relatively limited in size. Usually it shouldn’t take more than two or three trips to a dungeon before the players decide it is time to move on to another module. I don’t imagine playing only the middle one of three adventures into a dungeon to be terribly satisfying. The first contact and the big discovery in the farthest corner are usually the highlights of a dungeon crawl and which give the whole thing context and meaning. With relatively modest sized dungeons I would also recommend sticking mostly to a single theme that ties everything together. If you could split a dungeon into two or three separate dungeons that could each stand on its own, then you probably should.

Also a few words about towns here: During each adventure players will spend relatively little time in the town and will have little interaction with the NPCs. What I would do is to not create a completely new town for each module. When the players wrap up a module and you offer them a few new rumors and hooks to pursue you can easily put one of them near the town they are already in, or in a town they have been to in the past. Since modules are meant to be shuffled around regularly as the players move from place to place I think it’s probably the best idea to keep any town NPC for a module very generic. When preparing each module in advance make notes simply for “guardsman”, “merchant”, or “innkeeper”. These roles will then be assumed by whatever fitting NPC is present in the town currently visited by the party.

Modular Campaigning

I am a huge fan of Sword & Sorcery, which is a style of fantasy that seems like being just perfect for RPGs but in practice turns out quite difficult to do. I’ve tried various things in my last campaigns (which didn’t work out to make it feel like Sword & Sorcery) and been toying with various ideas over the last year to do better in the future. My last plans were something like a focused sandbox, but that doesn’t really capture the character of the style either. Riding into the sunset and landing on unknown shores are such a major element that you can’t really leave out, but one that is incompatibile with standard sandbox campaigning.

The common conventions of Sword & Sorcery have one or two protagonists who somehow have ended up in a dangerous situation. The first difference of RPGs is that you usually have three to six or more protagonists and all of them are supposed to be equally important. But even more importantly, and much less obviously, the method of starting right at the start of the action and skipping the buildup and backstory of the adventure has very different effects in literature and game. When you write a story it works just fine, and it’s tempting to do the same in an RPG to get the maximum amount of excitement out of a limited time span of four to six hours per week or month. But the context under which the characters have learned about the plot hook and their reasonings for making the decision to take it and not do something else are, while not exciting, a very important part of what defines not just their own personality but also how they perceive the things they encounter and how they react to that. It is something that I feel has to be part of the play time and can not be prepared and narrated by the GM. It’s a very important part of the players’ agency and has a major impact on how much the game feels like their adventures instead of just an adventure.

This is one of the big strength of sandbox campaigning that I consider a huge advantage over episodic play. But Sword & Sorcery is a highly episodic style of fantasy. Sandboxes also have to limit themselves to a specific area while Sword & Sorcery tends to be all over the place. I want to eat my cake and have it too. And I think I found a way to do it.

Preparing a whole world to let players roam freely just isn’t doable. Even if you could prepare that much material in advance, the players would most likely see only a few places and might quite well not know what they should do when everything is possible. Preparing three different adventures each session and letting the players pick one also would be a very inefficient way to prepare for a game. But I remembered the idea of the old D&D modules, which are usually a dungeon, a stretch of wilderness, and often a town. They are meant to be easily adaptable to whatever world you play in, you just have to pick a spot where you want to put them. They are obviously a bit bare bones, but that makes it easier to weave in iconic elements of your setting. When you prepare your campaign material like this you can offer players a choice of what kind of adventures their characters would want to go on while keeping the workload no higher than in an average episodic campaign. It could even be less.

How would this look in practice?

This type of campaign is best suited for classic adventurers. People with skill in weapons and magic who take on mercenary work for fame and fortune and go poking around in dangerous places out of greed and curiosity. At the start of the campaign you prepare three modules that each have an interesting location that is worth exploring and perhaps some trouble that is coming from there. The players get three rumors or calls for heroes that serve as hooks for each module. Each hook should include some hints at what can be expected, like pirates, a temple full of undead, fishmen attacking a village, a mysterious tower that recently appeared in the mountains, stuff like that. The players also get information about the general location of each adventure so they can take into consideration if they are interested in tropical islands, a giant swamp, or wintery mountains. The active play may then start in the hall of a lord who has called for heroes where some of the PCs might first meet, with the PCs riding into a village nearest to the site to make their last preparations, or on a ship that reaches the island they are looking for.

At either the end of the session after a module is “completed” or at the start of the next session the players again get three rumors about places that hold adventure. One of these is for a new module, the other two are new rumors for the modules they did not pick the last time. In some cases it can be appropriate to offer the same hook again, like when it’s for rumored hidden treasure or ruined castle that doesn’t go anywhere and where the hook does not include any kind of urgency. The key is to make the modules truly modular. Make them in a way that they can work in different environments and you can easily replace creatures with others more appropriate for the new location and context. If the players really don’t feel like doing something with skeletons in a desert tomb they might still be intrigued by zombies in a jungle tomb.

The choice that the players make is not about dungeon floorplans, amount of treasure, or difficulty of opposition. These are all thing they know nothing about when picking which hook they want to take. The purpose of the choice is to let the players define what kind of rumors their characters find interesting, what kinds of jobs they want to take on, what goals they set for themselves, and also have a say what parts of the world the campaign is visiting. These choices are not invalidated by offering them the same module over and over until they pick it.

A module is not an adventure. A module is an adventuring site with inhabitants, obstacles, and treasures, and often some kind of conflict between different groups of inhabitants. The default goal of the players is to make themselves a good picture of the place, grab the stuff they want to keep, and kill whoever they think needs killing. And how this actually works out as an adventure depends quite a lot on what expectations the players bring with them, which is based on the plot hook. Different rumors can lead to very different adventures even with the same module. Imagine for example that you either have Robin Hood looking for people to overthrow the tyrant of Sherwood Forest, or the Sheriff looking for help to defeat a group of rebellious brigands led by a rogue nobleman. If the players pick that module expecting to crush a rebellion, whatever the brigands might shout at them during a fight might sound very hollow. Even if they switch sides halfway in they still get quite a different experience than if they had picked it expecting to overthrow a tyrant.

One challenge when letting the characters roam all around the setting is to have some kind of continuity throughout the campaign. Sometimes you can give the players plot hooks that lead to a town they have been to in the past and where people still remember them. Occasionally you can also have them cross paths with people they once met in completely different places, be it as allies or enemies. But the bigger the setting the less plausible does it become to meet someone a third or even fourth time. A great suggestion someone gave me is to make good use of globally or at least regionally active organizations. Even if the NPCs the party meets are people they have never met before, seeing the emblems of a group they had allied with in the past appear in a dangerous situation can be just as satisfying. Though the NPCs may not have met the party before they can have heard of them from their comrades who did. Organizations also provide a very plausible reason for meeting NPCs several times in completely different parts of the world. They may be on business for their group or have been redeployed to another stronghold. Having one such NPC appear every two or three adventures, either as friend or foe, who is leading a group of NPCs or tells the leader of the group about them creates a stronger sense of the PCs having a continuous adventuring career instead of the campaign being a series of one-shots with largely replaceable characters.

This format also lends itself to open table campaigns or games with irregular attendance. Instead of a regular party the PCs would be individual adventurers, treasure hunters, and mercenaries who know each other and readily join forces when they find themselves in the same area. Better to stick together with friends that going alone or with total strangers. An interesting option is to let every player have more than just one character but only play one in any given adventure. One good reason to do so is when the party for the current game ends up with characters who would be stepping on each other’s toes. Like three expert trap finders or two wizards specialized in illusions. Another situation would be that four players want to play their thieves and so the fifth player for the session switches his heavily armored warrior for another thief so they can make the whole adventure as a team of ninja. Or perhaps past events between two PCs make it seem unlikely that they would cooperate on the objective of the current adventure. Or two characters end up always travelling together but one of the player doesn’t play as regularly as the other. I think a good practice would be to always give each player’s unused characters half the XP that the currently active character gets. (But no equipment.) This makes it worthwhile to have secondary characters that only get used rarely as they don’t fall hopelessly behind.

If you run an open game where the players are different every session you can also sometimes run into the situation that an adventure can’t be wrapped up quickly and needs another session. You might not be able to get the same group together before the next game but can agree on a time slot in the near future. Then you can put that adventure and the PCs on hold for the time being and any of the players who shows up for the next regular session can then play one of their other characters.

I think this approach might actually be the closest you can get to the experience of classic pulpy Sword & Sorcery tales. It does require a little bit of extra work before the first session starts, but after that it’s really no more than for any other episodic campaign. When the adventure is over you have to create one new one. Maybe occasionally update another module for a higher level of characters. But preparing a location based adventure is generally a lot less work tha creating a plotted one as you see with most published adventures these days and the last 30 years. And when you look at many of the stories this is really how they are structured. Take the Conan, Lankmar, or Witcher stories for example. Usually they take place entirely in single location over the span of just a few hours. It can be as simple as The Scarlet Citadel or as elaborate as Red Nails. Both are really just a location in which Conan encounters a situation and then gets himself involved. He makes deals and takes sides, but mostly it’s about exploration and fighting opponents. The plot is really just how he reacts to the people he meets. It’s rarely about any multistage plans of the villains or investigations over several scenes. But the use of plot hooks the players can choose from is what elevates this approach over the standard dungeon crawl just for gold.