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Campaign Design and Advice Workshop

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Posts

  • SAW776SAW776 Registered User
    edited June 2009
    SkyCaptain wrote: »
    Being a fire-mage doesn't mean you're inherently resistant to fire however.

    Working with fire all of your career would probably allow you to become slightly resistant to it, however. It'd be a shitty wizard who could master an element but be unable to protect himself at all from it.

    [SIGPIC][/SIGPIC]
    PSN: SAW776
  • SkyCaptainSkyCaptain Registered User regular
    edited June 2009
    That would be a spell they used. Not a racial trait they were born with.

    The RPG Bestiary - Dangerous foes and legendary monsters for D&D 4th Edition
  • UtsanomikoUtsanomiko Registered User regular
    edited June 2009
    Or a feat, like one of the many damge type-related feats published so far.

    hmm.gif
  • Helix09Helix09 Registered User
    edited June 2009
    Great thread Aegeri.

    On the subject of giving NPC characters depth, I stumbled upon a technique that Monty Cook uses (in Diamond Throne I think) where he made sure that every 'stock' NPC the characters meet (bartender, blacksmith, priest who can cast resurrection for the party, etc.) has a secret. These secrets usually refer to where the character fell on the political spectrum with regards to the overarching Dragon vs Giant conflict in his world. It gave the game world a little more spice when you realized the guy you were selling your weapons to was a secret Dragon sympathizer and funneling them to guerrillas.

    In my own world that I've been building (mostly for personal amusement), my goal is to set up a city where the Players could play members of a evil cult with a mandate to expand. To do this I've designed NPCs to fall in one of three broad categories: Victim, Hero, and Facilitator.

    Victims are NPCs that have some psychological flaw that could be exploited for recruitment or they have a something the PCs would want, be it a blasphemous artifact, real estate or piece of information, that can be relatively easy to take from them. Heroes are just that, individuals who actively seek out and battle the PCs or individuals with passive qualities that make them dangerous to the cultists (ie a Judge with a crusader sense of morality). Facilitators are competent individuals who offer a valuable service to the party and could fight the party to a standstill if necessary. But they are not ideologically bound to oppose the players unless threatened. Examples include an amoral magic items dealer, an apothecary that doubles as a drug dealer, or a lich that serves as a source of information.

    D&D setting work in Progress: http://infernalcity.wikispaces.com/
  • Helix09Helix09 Registered User
    edited June 2009
    What books have you guys found useful for campaign and world design?

    I was looking for urban fantasy ideas so Ptolus - City by the Spire and Sharn - City of Towers both for D&D 3.5 were great resources.

    From old White Wolf I thought Vampire - The Dark Ages - Jerusalem by Night was very well constructed and easily adaptable.

    And if you want to start off a world being bound to the dice gods, World Builder's Guidebook (AD&D 2nd ed) was full of great ideas.

    D&D setting work in Progress: http://infernalcity.wikispaces.com/
  • AegeriAegeri Registered User regular
    edited July 2009
    Campaign Building 102: Plot Progression 101 and Encounter Design 101

    So now you've decided on your campaigns theme and what it should entail, such as being about Piracy on the high seas or whatever else. Now you've got the hard job, writing and determining the games plot. Now there are a lot of ways of doing this, but before you can do so you have to make several decisions first.

    How long does my campaign and story go for?

    This decision is important because you need to figure out how long your game is going for and then write the plot to fit into that. For example, if you want to run a short game you might want to focus perhaps on the upper heroic tier or early paragon. Such a plot should be easy to resolve in the space of say 3-4 levels.

    An example would be:

    [Beginning: Level 2-3] The players discover there is a problem with the quiet hamlet of Aurasberg and begin investigating the problem around town.

    [Middle Levels 3-5] After raiding a nearby Crypt they discover a necromancer has been stirring up the dead and has been doing other sinister things from his tower nearby.

    [End: Level 6] The PCs raid the tower and kill the necromancer, ending the threat to the town of Aurasberg.

    This makes for a short, one off campaign that can be resolved within a couple of months worth of 4 hour sessions. It makes for a simple plot and the games progression is not a lot of work for you either. If you're going from say level 1 to 30, or much longer you need to prepare a much more detailed plot.

    This is always the hardest part of writing a plot.

    Plot progression over a long time

    This is by far the most laborious part and provides the skeleton for how it works. The plot tells you all the relevant details about the main antagonists, allies of the PCs, how they will interact with the world and such forth. It also should give you the heroic tier, paragon tier and epic tier goals. An example would be:

    Heroic tier: Gather the magical herbs and spices
    Paragon tier: Bake the pie of annihilation
    Epic tier: The eating of said pie of annihilation, which coincidentally might destroy the universe.

    This frames how each tier should play out and what the PCs should learn/be roughly doing to advance the overall plotline along. This is designed to be as flexible as possible and allow you to stop the campaign with a fully told "Story" at several points. Unlike a novel, you should never write everything in stone and anyone can theoretically die or something weird happen without derailing it. Remember that in a RPG like DnD, your players aren't following a pre-written script and their decisions should have as much influence as possible. At the same time, they should ideally be working with you in the plot to move things forwards and keep the adventure flowing along. In the end, if you work with your players they will work with you.

    With the above sort of idea, you can break it down even further among a single tier such as the following:

    Module 1 levels 1-4: Mysterious raids on spice caravans!
    Module 2 levels 4-7: Who is behind the mysterious raids on spice caravans?
    Module 3 levels 7-8: Now they are wanting herbs too!
    Module 4 levels 8-11: The final goal of the mysterious spice and herb raids!

    Paragon then shifts to trying to stop the antagonists from baking their pie (or inadvertently helping them bake it, whichever seems more narratively fun). Generally, each module tries to advance the plot and give the PCs something new or interesting to do.

    From here, each module is broken down into a basic goal, EG: Roleplaying/narrative heavy, hitting people in the head, a mixture of the two, lots of travel, focused on a narrow area or whatever else. Generally I try to mix up the gameplay a lot, so PCs aren't trudging forever through swamps or facing incessant dungeon crawls. At the same time, you need to give yourself plenty of opportunity for plot progression and this can be done in a lot of ways;

    EG: The PCs capture an enemy and interrogate them.

    A friendly NPC informs them about what has happened.

    They find a book or journal.

    They simply witness events as they are occurring (perhaps it is even something they have done).

    Dreams or flashbacks that haunt certain PCs from time to time.

    All of these are mechanisms you can use to convey plot information to your PCs. They can occur in encounters or outside of encounters. I recommend using a mixture of narrative devices and skills so PCs have a wide variety of options at their hands (like translating ancient runes with Arcana for example) for learning more about the overall plot.

    Encounter Design

    Then I design the encounters from there and that's probably the biggest time sink. Encounters are divided into different groups (you'll notice I break down everything into bite sized chunks, eg a campaign is broken down into tiers, which are broken down into modules, which are further broken down into encounters).

    Story encounter: Designed to advance the plot

    Combat encounter: Standard encounter, hitting things!

    Random encounters: These are usually in response to failed skill challenges

    Buffer encounter: This is an "easy" encounter, designed to simply give the PCs something to horribly murder. The idea is that as I like lots of harder encounters generally, you need to give your players something they can just murder ruthlessly and not feel pressured. This is to break up harder encounters and mean they can just relax for a bit and try random stuff; eg the Eladrin wizard teleporting in for the infamous longsword kill.

    Dramatic encounters: Similar in function to story encounters, except they are usually designed to just be interesting/different rather than advance the plot.

    Skill Challenge: Usually global and in fact, I usually only write 3 or so per module.

    I aim for seven encounters per level (including story experience awards and such).

    Finally I try to insert mechanics into the overall game unique to the campaign if appropriate. These are often bonus powers or free feats that are storyline related, helping to integrate the players into the plot more and give them unique ways to deal with specific monsters or situations that will come up.

    Then after that it's just about designing encounters appropriate for the modules theme. Dungeon crawls are obviously heavy on hitting things, social modules (like in a city) can have almost anything I feel like and traveling involves a lot of skill challenges or similar. Sometimes modules are a combination though, like starting off a dungeon crawl only to breach the final door of the tomb to find an undead city, who are actually fairly benevolent. Then the module changes shape to something else at a midway point, where the goals become different and the general approach the PCs should take changes.

    Overall the most important part to plot is actually theme: Pyramid of Shadows really failed in my Tides of Dust campaign, because it was sticking players in a place they had no freedom in and went against the games core theme. Writing it into the plot felt very forced and actually meant that due to the fact it was very long (about 34 encounters IIRC), my players became very frustrated with it and the plot went missing somewhere around there. This is because it doesn't fit the swashbuckling and exploration theme that the campaign was designed around. It was actually a pretty poor decision, based more on the fact I thought it looked cool and not really that it fit with the campaign. I've since decided not to make that mistake again, or if I do put something in like it that's really off theme it's only for maybe a level or two at most.

    Coming next

    Next will be further elaboration on plot and story progression (basically advice in creative writing effectively); more detail on designing individual encounters with a focus on the heroic tier (where many new DMs should start; 4E can in fact become quite overwhelming at paragon/epic tier if you don't have the games foundation laid from previous experience).

  • JacobkoshJacobkosh Gamble a stamp. I can show you how to be a real man!Super Moderator, Moderator mod
    edited July 2009
    So Aegeri, do you typically ever deviate from the main theme and antagonist you've established to run smaller side-stories, or will, for instance, the Artist of Sharn guys be dealing with that more or less nonstop on up through the endpoint you have planned?

  • AegeriAegeri Registered User regular
    edited July 2009
    Yeah, heroic tier tends to be where I mess about most with theme and will often send players in different directions. The events that happen are often very loosely interconnected or at least how they are connected isn't clear until paragon tier at earliest.

    In general, I try to make sure the adventures match with or are related to the theme. For example the PCs may investigate an underwater temple, raid a pirate town and perform a daring rescue on the high seas; despite all of these being pretty different adventures. The antagonists can vary a lot as well and in fact you should always make sure your final BBEG can have as wide a variety of servants as possible.

    For example Sorrow of Heaven has an antagonist who has Daemons, Gnolls, Undead and even Angels that serve it. This provides me with a wide variety of different creatures to build encounters with so in that game, I don't usually have side antagonists or similar. In Artist of Sharn, the PCs will be primarily dealing with the Artists servants who run the gamut to plain batshit insane to being literally horrifying Cthulhuesque monsters. Artist of Sharn though is quite complicated antagonist wise though, as will be revealed in time.

    A better example would be my other Eberron game A Race Around Eberron in Eighty Days (Yes, based on the Jules Verne novel). That game has a strong central theme but not a strong central antagonist (or at least no clear singular antagonist). PCs will have different enemies and allies depending on where in the world they go and depending on circumstances. The PCs are as likely to be fleeing from Drow and cannibalistic Hobgoblins one module as they are to be hunted down on the frozen tundra by a Remorhaz the next. Effectively it makes this campaign more like an episodic TV show, where I can spend a lot more time exploring side quests and other places; rather than things being narrative focused around a singular antagonists actions. In fact, the PCs are the protagonists to the extreme in that game because they literally decide what happens, but they don't strictly react or oppose any specific antagonist (except the competing Noble - who is not a BBEG in the traditional DnD sense).

  • SaurfangSaurfang Registered User regular
    edited July 2009
    Aegeri, what you say about structuring the encounters and modules to serve the overarching plot really appeals to me. I'm curious, though: what do you do when your players do something unexpected? Do you have contingencies planned, random encounters, a way to gently steer them back towards the main plot? In other words, how much or little should one prepare for alternate decisions the players might make, and what kind of preparations can be made?

  • AegeriAegeri Registered User regular
    edited July 2009
    The idea I find is to see if your players are interested in the story from the heroic tier and have a couple of backup plans. For example, if they are more interested in a different direction rather than throwing away what you've done change what you've done to accommodate. In Sorrow of Heaven, I could have gone with either the games current antagonists or easily gone a different direction with another undead based antagonist. Neither would have changed the first 2 or so adventures that much, but the tone and antagonists would have changed.

    Essentially while it's nice to have such a clear arc from point A to point B; you should be prepared to change things up. It's easier to rewrite a castle filled with monsters into a different plot, than it is to simply scrap everything and redo an entirely different scenario in a new plot. Try thinking about encounters you can alter that fit with the new storyline direction instead of having to alter everything. You can still send them to that castle with from the previous plotline, but you don't have to change a trap or encounter with slimes for example (unless that really doesn't fit). Their reasons for going there will be different, but you aren't going to give yourself an excessive amount of work suddenly to catch up to them wanting to follow something different.

    Usually this is mostly a problem in heroic tier, but by paragon and epic if things have gone well you're players are usually pretty invested in the games story; so should be seeking to conclude it as well as you.

  • cytorakcytorak Registered User
    edited July 2009
    In my RL game, I want to set up the story arc like so:

    A) Foil plot of villain, who turns out to be lieutenant of BBEG
    B) Look for a way to defeat BBEG, defeat second in command of BBEG
    C) Find BBEG's lair and defeat him.

    However, I don't want to pull a KotS where
    Spoiler:
    Any advice on how to best do this?

    Also, how do you guys handle having your BBEG show up before it's level-appropriate for the party to fight them? This goes back to the spoilered section above.

    TL;DR: How do I make my players hate my BBEG?

  • JacobkoshJacobkosh Gamble a stamp. I can show you how to be a real man!Super Moderator, Moderator mod
    edited July 2009
    That's a toughie, cytorak, and I think it's a perennial problem for anyone who wants to create the kind of involvement you're talking about. That said, I can think of a few options.

    1) The BBEG starts out small in the world, just like the PCs, but gets to be a bigger and bigger threat as time goes by. My 2nd edition game in high school - which I would not normally cite as an example of how to do anything, but the players do still like the villain from that game and bring him up - the BBEG was a minor wizard who the PCs met when they were all (wizard and party) slaves on a slave galley. They organized a big revolt but the wizard bilked them out of a bunch of the treasure and fled. The next time they met him he had found an ancient lich's diary and started becoming much more powerful. So they were able to fight him across many levels and win, but he always either escaped or did something to make sure they couldn't actually kill him, which was great to really ramp up their loathing. It was an interesting dynamic, in that he was more of a competitor or hated rival than a traditional Sauron type, and I kind of want to do that again sometime.

    2) The BBEG is a group of people who the PCs meet and fight one at a time. Or, alternately, the villain can be defeated by the PCs - sometimes over and over - and the real quest is in finding out how to put him/her/it down for good. My 3.5 game did both; the villains were an evil party of six adventurers - who had been empowered to be the living avatars of historical forces like tyranny, warfare, crime, religious hatred, etc - and the PCs got to fight a bunch of different ones, even defeating some, but with the understanding that they would always reform back in the temple that was their home base.

    3) The BBEG involves himself a bunch in the party's affairs out of sheer dickishness. He may be sitting on a throne of skulls on the mountain of pain, but for some perverse reason he gets off on taunting them through messengers, sending spells, simulacrums, etc. Maybe he privately contacts one of the more morally flexible PCs and offers major enticements to betray the party.

  • mightyspacepopemightyspacepope Registered User regular
    edited July 2009
    Jacobkosh wrote: »
    3) The BBEG involves himself a bunch in the party's affairs out of sheer dickishness. He may be sitting on a throne of skulls on the mountain of pain, but for some perverse reason he gets off on taunting them through messengers, sending spells, simulacrums, etc. Maybe he privately contacts one of the more morally flexible PCs and offers major enticements to betray the party.

    The Doom-bot approach!

    You could also presumably do the old 2-D beat-em-up approach and have the BBEG show up in a ship, taunt the heroes, drop off some baddies, taunt the heroes again, then bug out. The heroes have a more immediate problem at hand than trying to chase the BBEG.

    Alternatively, you can toss them some little reward for dicking them over by having the BBEG escape. Maybe an extra action point the next day, or something.

    sig3_zpsdb7d59bd.jpg
  • AbbalahAbbalah Registered User regular
    edited July 2009
    Jacobkosh wrote: »
    1) The BBEG starts out small in the world, just like the PCs, but gets to be a bigger and bigger threat as time goes by. My 2nd edition game in high school - which I would not normally cite as an example of how to do anything, but the players do still like the villain from that game and bring him up - the BBEG was a minor wizard who the PCs met when they were all (wizard and party) slaves on a slave galley. They organized a big revolt but the wizard bilked them out of a bunch of the treasure and fled. The next time they met him he had found an ancient lich's diary and started becoming much more powerful. So they were able to fight him across many levels and win, but he always either escaped or did something to make sure they couldn't actually kill him, which was great to really ramp up their loathing. It was an interesting dynamic, in that he was more of a competitor or hated rival than a traditional Sauron type, and I kind of want to do that again sometime.


    Based on my limited DMing experience, with the several villains I've introduced, this sort of structure seems like by far the most effective way to make your players hate a dude.

    They've been complaining about this guy to people who don't even play DnD.

  • UtsanomikoUtsanomiko Registered User regular
    edited July 2009
    Two alternative suggestions, which may or may not reflect any campaign I am currently running or intend to run:

    1) One of the party's allies either turns sides to take the place as head of the antagonists or reveals himself to be the BBEG the whole time. Perhaps the local Count who was 'just trying to do what's best for the people' turns out to have been a major evil dude, or he sells out his lands to invading monsters and he in turn rules over them.

    2) The party discovers who the BBEG is early on, but he is in a position of power that makes him unsuspected by authorities and virtually untouchable, like the Sultan's vizier. This becomes a tougher predicament if the kingdom is already morally gray (the city is patrolled by hobgoblin mercenaries and Beholder emissaries visit on occasion, for example) and is unsympathetic or plain hostile to the adventurers' claims until solidly proven. By then the BBEG has laid out his plot of destruction.

    hmm.gif
  • AegeriAegeri Registered User regular
    edited July 2009
    I have introduced most of my antagonists in Sorrow of Heaven in this way, either making them not the focus of the fight or they have some reason to either leave early/not attack.

    Shipwrecked introduced Thasslia by having her order some underlings to attack and the leave with the artifact they needed. This highly annoyed at least one player and now they are on the hunt for her.

    Other times I actually use the backstory to introduce them; for example the PCs already know about the Artist in Artist of Sharn as he's the talk of the entire city. It's rather hard to miss him.

  • JacobkoshJacobkosh Gamble a stamp. I can show you how to be a real man!Super Moderator, Moderator mod
    edited July 2009
    Abbalah wrote: »
    They've been complaining about this guy to people who don't even play DnD.

    Ahahaha, that's awesome. If my players did that I would know I had arrived as a DM.

  • AegeriAegeri Registered User regular
    edited August 2009
    Campaign Building 103: Telling a Story

    Storytelling is a pretty old art and in fact people have been doing it for a very long time. Telling a story in the context of a game driven by player choice (at least on the surface) is a lot more difficult than just writing a novel. It still involves similar techniques but there are important caveats that should be applied to the way you write a story for Dungeons and Dragons. For example, in a roleplaying game your PCs write the roles of the protagonists (or maybe even antagonists if you're that way inclined) and ideally you should be prepared to be as flexible as possible - within reason.

    Where Most Campaign Stories Go Wrong

    By far the WORST thing you do in *ANY* pen and paper game is railroading. In this essay I am using the term railroading with the following definition:

    Directly making your players do specific actions against their characters desires or logic, often by punishing them severely for doing anything you did not want them to do.

    The simplest example would be to imagine a story has plot points A, B and C. Plot point A is to get a necklace for character B, who then gives it to your main antagonist C (who does something evil with it). Let's say B is a shady merchant and C is your antagonist, who is the sinister Baron of the land. A is a necklace containing the soul of a daemon lord that the Baron wants to release.

    The plot if you wrote it like a short story would have a beginning, a middle and an end that looked something like this and I think spans about four levels of play or one module;

    Beginning: The PCs are introduced to the problem and the merchant hires them to fetch the Necklace, which he thinks was lost somewhere downstream of a bandit camp when his associates were attacked and killed.

    Middle: The PCs find their way to the Kobolds camp to discover the Chieftain of the beasts has the necklace as his "shiny" and isn't giving it up without a fight. Eventually the PCs slay the kobolds and claim the necklace off the dead chieftain.

    End: The PCs bring the necklace back to the merchant for their reward, who then passes it onto the Baron as he should have initially. The Baron then unleashes the Daemon causing absolute havok and is what ultimately advances the games plot line forward.

    Now inherently, there is nothing significantly wrong this this story in terms of narrative structure, except if we consider a common DM mistake; writing everything so specifically into the plot that you leave no room for the PCs to decide what to do. Now, linearity is actually somewhat desirable to an extent even when writing a DnD story because ultimately you are human and you can't write everything that possibly happens. In the end you probably need it so your PCs go from the beginning part to the end part for the game to continue. The problem is that many DMs write elaborate specific plots forgetting DnD is not a novel and removing flexibility for the PCs to change that story. This is when railroading occurs.
    Railroading example

    When the PCs finally get the necklace they stop and actually examine what they have picked up. The DM, for whatever reason lets slip that this is an obviously very evil artifact and the PCs should be deeply afraid. Or alternatively, the PCs decide that its value must be much greater than what they were paid for it, they decide to half inch it or they just figure something doesn't feel right about the whole situation.

    The DM is now left in a bind, because to advance the plot he has to get the item back so the Baron may get it. The bad approach is to simply railroad the players into giving the necklace to the evil merchant, often by doing things like saying "Well you have to give it back and that's final". Or just having it stolen with absolutely no chance for the PCs to hold of the item or similar. Effectively, the DM denys any chance of the PCs retaining the object or having any say in what happens, beyond following the extremely rigid plot progression of:

    A) Kill Kobolds -> B) Hand item over -> C) Item is used to begin apocalypse.

    This creates a lot of dissatisfaction with the players (and rightly so!) because they feel they were denied any control over the subsequent events. When the DM tells them the daemon invasion has begun, the PCs don't feel the connection the plot is trying to establish because it wasn't really their fault: the DM made it their fault without their involvement. That's not going to make your writing effective and it's not going to make the players feel like a part of the game when you're just going to dictate to them.

    Ending up in the Same Place: Together

    Let's go over the railroading example and talk about how the DM can get around two inherent problems;

    1) The plot requires X item to be gained by Y NPC.

    2) The PCs don't want to give X item to Y NPC, because the DM told them or they figured something wasn't right (or they're just taking it for other reasons; perhaps they picked it up from simply cleaning the Kobolds out as a general threat and NOT because the Merchant hired them).

    The DM essentially has to work with his players (see the very first essay in this series). An example would be that if the PCs don't want to sell it to the merchant, perhaps they sell it to the thieves guild instead and they figure out something is up. Perhaps the Barons soldiers risk open war with the thieves guild by raiding it for the necklace and the merchant is executed. The PCs may try to find some way of destroying the artifact, but because of its power the ritual ends up having an unintended effect and releases the demon (but perhaps not as badly as if it had been broken by the Baron - or maybe even worse).

    The difference between the above and the railroading example is the DM is making the story bend to incorporate the PCs actions and not antagonise them. If the PCs sell the item, their actions have a different and interesting result on the world than if they tried to destroy it. Another thing is that as the DM, you should be prepared to go down a different track with your story. Instead of trying to get the artifact back in various ways you should be prepared to work with the PCs idea of destroying it. This is the key difference, because here I've basically given suggestions for ending up back with the same basic plot (the daemon is released), but without using your power as the DM to force the PCs to do so: you're working with their actions (not against them).

    Path 1:

    A) Kill Kobolds -> B) Hand item over -> C) Item is used to begin apocalypse.

    Path 2:

    A) Kill Kobolds -> B) Sells Items to Other Buyers -> C) The people the PCs sold it to end up firmly dead and the item is used to begin the apocalypse.

    Path 3:

    A) Kill Kobolds -> B) The PCs realize the artifact of doom is evil -> C) They destroy the artifact, but they don't fully destroy the daemon and part of its essence escapes (perhaps).

    When writing the story in all three cases the PCs actions are taken into account by the story. In other words, instead of detail you let your players write the story for you. While you have an idea that ultimately you want a daemon led zombie apocalypse plot to occur, you give your players a good deal of leeway into how that plot occurs. This makes them feel like a part of the world, their actions are relevant and you manage to keep to the plot and theme of the campaign you want to establish. This is what separates a degree of "plot omniscience" on the part of certain characters (like the Baron knowing the thieves guild the PCs sold the necklace to have it), from purely railroading the PCs and preventing their decisions from mattering. Few PCs will object to this sort of plot twist, but most will be very unhappy when you just force them to give the item to X NPC "because your plot requires it" or you dump angels on them to kill them when they don't do what you want.

    Coming next

    I'm going to make the example in this post a lot larger and incorporate not only the plot but encounter design as well. Blending together the points on writing the game plot, building an antagonist and with designing encounters for PCs of around 1st to 4th level. Effectively this will be like a module in Dragon/Dungeon, but with the logic behind how to set up the background, scenario and encounters explained.

  • AegeriAegeri Registered User regular
    edited August 2009
    Campaign Building 104: Module and Encounter Design

    This post will seek to bring all the elements that I have discussed together into one large example that you can follow through from the beginning (and even feel free to steal any or all elements to your own desires). It will go over a few encounters (originally I was going to write an entire module, but I since realised that would be a lot more work than I can do right now sorry) and examples of where things can often go wrong (especially with making your own monsters).

    We're going to cover an example of writing a basic story for a module.

    Getting your game started: Involving your PCs with your story.

    Some example encounters and the logic behind their design.

    Concluding the module.

    Starting out your game

    The most useful thing is a plot summary of where you want the game to go. Using the above example of the evil necklace with a bound horror in it, we'll expand several things with this plot to show how you can get the game started and then build aspects into the story to provide the basis for a paragon and even epic tier campaign.

    Here is a basic story to frame the campaign and the general plot background:

    A long time ago there was a group of sinister necromantic cultists dedicated to the worship of a daemonlord of the Eternal Abyss called Abbadon. Living in secret and avoiding the notice of authorities for many years the cult gathered their strength and prepared to bring forth an army of daemons. Inevitably after many years and with the support of their abyssal patron, they succeeded in creating a planar rift so Abbadon's forces could pour forth into the prime material. The daemons had complete surprise and rapidly overran the armies of the Empire, who either fled in terror or were cut down where they stood. Despite great acts of heroism and bravery that day, the daemons overwhelming numbers proved decisive and thousands were slaughtered.

    With the Imperial army scattered far and wide with more daemons pouring forth from the planar rift every single day, all hope seemed to have been lost. When the final stronghold of the civilized races was under siege and at the moment all seemed lost, the daemonic army was suddenly shattered and broken as the creatures were torn away back to where they came. Legend holds that it was a small group of adventurers that had pierced right into the heart of the daemonic horde and broken the rift single handedly - but at the terrible cost of their own lives. When the terrified people of the now broken Empire reached the original site of the portal they found it sealed shut - but not fully destroyed. All that was left at the site was a single bizarre necklace made of ornate bone white stone and capped with a blood red ruby.

    Unable to determine if the rift was destroyed or not, the Imperial King ordered a massive fortress to be constructed on the site of the original portal. Unfortunately for those to come, the men who stood before the portal in that blasted wasteland failed to realize that not all the daemons were truly gone. One creature remained and bound as it was, King Leopold III took the necklace as a trophy of the war and a new royal seal without opposition...


    Story logic: The backstory of the campaign gives some ideas for you for reference. For example, who or what is Abaddon? Why did the cult want to summon this army of daemons to the world? Who is the Empire? Are they human and similar (my intent is to have them human, but they could be Eladrin, Tieflings or whatever else you feel is appropraite). Was King Leopold just stupid or was he compelled to take the necklace in some way? How does Leopold lose the necklace so it becomes a lost artifact of the kingdom the Baron (see below) wants?

    How does this start your campaign? The basic story above gives you an overall sort of theme and idea to the campaign. It's about a daemonic invasion and sinister cultists trying to bring down an Empire. So this is a pretty heroic themed campaign and you can start to think about what kind of daemon Abaddon is. This plot is pretty simple and is pretty cliche, being if you like your TV Tropes a "Sealed Evil In A Can" kind of plot. The good thing about this kind of plot is you have plenty of options for how the game progresses.

    Going up to epic tier for example, you can release the daemon out of the necklace (perhaps it actually IS Abbadon, perhaps it's just a powerful daemon that knows how to reopen the portal or maybe the necklace is just a way OF opening the portal again - much like a key). Alternatively, you can make it so that the necklace can be destroyed by the end of the heroic tier. This means you have a more limited plot but if your players are really enjoying the game extending it out to paragon and even epic is no problem!!! Unfortunately, so is the alternative that if nobody is really enjoying the campaign you can still have an easy (but still satisfying) out option.

    Module 1: The Lost Courier

    I like to break campaigns down into modules and this also helps me to decide how the plot is paced out as well. Plus will inform me of the general encounters and similar that the party should face. The module plot is important because it provides the basis of the campaign and why the PCs are getting involved in events (hopefully anyway!).

    Plot of the module:

    Long ago King Leopold the III lost the relic that had been left after the aftermath of the War of the Scourge and all had thought it gone to the depths of time, until recently that is. A group of archaeologists digging near an ancient site dug up a necklace, which was amazingly close to the description of the one King Leopold was known to wear after the war. Word soon spread of the find and Baron Maleficent, who was the lord of the land where it was dug up immediately offered to buy it for an exorbitant sum to which the archaeologists happily accepted.

    Unfortunately on their way back to the Barons castle they were attacked out of nowhere by a group of Kobolds and killed, with the chieftain of the creatures taking the relic for himself. Enraged, the Baron sent out his guards to find and kill whatever had taken the item but none managed to return. Increasingly desperate to get his hands on the item, the Baron sends a message out about a reward on the safe return of the item to him to those in his lands. A large sum of 2000 gold pieces to whoever returns it to him and an additional 1000 gold if they bring the head of whoever stole it...


    Story Logic: Firstly, Baron "Maleficent" is supposed to be a pretty direct hint to the PCs that this guy probably isn't to be trusted (or he's got a really unfortunate name). This is because as I discussed in the previous post, I want to indicate to the PCs that the Necklace isn't what it seems and that perhaps handing it on may be a bad idea. In any event, the story you'll notice is pretty short and leaves lots of room for flexibility. For example, although in my head I have the baron as an evil villain there isn't anything there that indicates he definitively is evil (which we'll explore in a bit more depth in a second post). This is because I want to see how the PCs react to handing the item over after I've dropped some hints that it is not exactly just any old relic. If they just hand it over, I may consider an option A or an option B to keep the plot moving. But I'm getting ahead of myself a bit.

    Essentially what this story accomplishes is to get the PCs interested in one of the most obvious ways: There is a nice reward if they do things and the monsters involved did attack and kill innocent people. Here is where you should talk with your players (remember the first post in this series) and find out their ideas. For example perhaps one of the players is the brother of one of the missing archaeologists or even one of the Barons guards who went missing. Reasons aside from just the gold reward help get a player interested in your world and make them more invested in the game. This is good because it helps and rewards roleplaying if you then insert the characters brother as a prisoner in the Kobold camp later!

    Once you get your players involved and they've all shook hands, got to know one another and journeyed forth it's time for the meat and potatoes of DnD, encounters.

    Encounter 1: The Restless Dead

    In this encounter, the PCs have investigated the wrecked caravan where the Archaeologists were attacked and seen the various claw marks, javelins and other weaponry lodged in it. No sign of the original attacking creatures is prevalent, but the PCs do notice that nearby there appears to be some activity from a nearby graveyard. Additionally there is a large amount of blood from the caravan site leading towards the graveyard, indicating that bodies were dragged in that direction. No items or other personal effects can be found here otherwise.

    Ideally in this situation, you want the PCs to follow the tracks so you bait it with the blood leading in the direction of the graveyard (or just make the DC hilariously low like DC 12 perception). The goal here is that a nearby ghoul resident in an abandoned Crypt has taken the bodies of those foolish enough to resist the kobolds and get hacked apart. In doing so the ghoul has dragged back an important clue as to what happened: A wounded man who survived the attack by playing dead. Of course old "Sharptooth" as the ghoul identifies itself keeps the terrified man alive, mostly as a later fresh meal for a special occasion after gorging himself on his dead companions.

    When the PCs arrive they arrive on the left hand side of the map on the rather dilapidated pathway leading to the graveyard.
    Graveyardexampleencounter.jpg

    Credit for the map here. (I added the monsters to it in paint).

    The most important thing about any encounter is to describe what is happening and the terrain that the PCs can see. The most important piece of information is the height of the gravestones, which are about 2-3 feet in height and provide cover to characters standing behind them from ranged attacks. There is also a six foot high fence surrounding the graveyard, which prevents characters from simply walking in and there is also an iron gate. The gate itself is not locked but is easily pushed in with a DC 10 strength check.

    Unfortunately the loud scraping noise of the iron gate alerts the creatures in the graveyard, particularly Sharptooth to intruders and the monsters promptly rise from their graves to attack the intruding living creatures.

    The encounter is designed with the following monsters:

    3 Decrepit Skeletons (level 1 minions) at 25 XP each. They are the big bold S circles.

    2 Zombies (level 2 brutes) at 125 XP each. They are the circles with the Z in them.

    Gravehound (level 3 brute) at 150 XP. This is the big G next to the crypt labeled C on the map, which also serves as Sharptooths home.

    Sharptooth, who is marked with the S in the building marked C. He cannot be seen until he leaves the confines of the Crypt by a small tunnel in the front of the building. He has the stats of a level 5 ghoul and is worth 200 XP.

    The total for this encounter is 25*3 + 125*2 + 150 + 200 = 675 XP.

    That's a little higher than what I want and also the ghoul could prove problematic. As it's a level 5 soldier it can pose quite a problem to my level 1 party, especially because it has rather absurd attacks and defenses. So I'm going to delevel sharptooth by 3 levels making his XP total 125 and he now has the following stat block:
    Sharptooth.jpg

    This makes him much more reasonable compared with a level 5 soldier and the XP total for the encounter is:

    25*3 + 125*3 +150 = 600 XP. Which is just over an EL 1 encounter (500 XP) and should not prove too difficult even for a new group of players to Dungeons and Dragons (which if you're a new DM, it's likely you may have an inexperienced group as well!).

    The next thing you need to think about is the kind of tactics your monsters in the encounter will employ. For example, the vines extending out of sharptooths crypt can be made into a terrain hazard. For example, I would have it so that the vines may try to trip a character that runs past them on a +6 vs. Reflex attack, dropping a target prone on a successful hit. If the gravehound and sharptooth are immune to this it gives the monsters a slight, but not overbearing tactical edge in the combat. On the other hand, you might decide the undead are somewhat stupid and don't fight with a lot of intelligence, so don't make use of the gravestones as cover or the vines that much.

    Either way, this encounter is mostly to facilitate the games story and once the undead are dispatched, the PCs can investigate. Sharptooth lairs in the crypt marked C on the map and provides the PCs with their first plot "MacGuffin". One of the people survived the attack and describes what Sharptooth did to the corpses, but states they were actually attacked by Kobolds. He naturally can point the PCs in the right direction to go looking (They headed towards X visible and easy to follow landmark). Additionally, Sharptooth was somewhat of a kleptomaniac for a ghoul and has some treasure for the PCs.

    For 1st level characters, I would recommend a potion of healing or two (100 gold pieces total), a bit of gold (200 gold or so) and perhaps one of their allotment of magical items. Probably the level 2 or 3 item they are supposed to get.

    At your discretion, you can decide that the captured archaeologist might know a bit about the necklace and that the head of the dig once he found it became "Strangely obsessed with the item". If you don't want to hand this information out, perhaps have it tied to a diplomacy or intimidate check with a fairly low DC. Intimidating a guy who just went through what he did though seems a bit of a jerk thing to do though IMO.

    Encounter purpose: Aside from a plot MacGuffin, this encounter provides a bit of a way of observing how the PCs work together (perhaps very poorly) and if there are any particularly problems. It's pretty easy and provides the PCs with a lot of advantages they can use (the terrain provides them with ways of blocking or channeling monsters so they aren't easily surrounded for example). It also means they shouldn't use a lot of their resources, which aren't particularly plentiful at level 1 to say the least in this battle. Especially because ideally you should have an adventuring "day" (eg number of encounters before an extended rest) of 4 combats and maybe a skill challenge or so.

    Making the encounter more difficult: This is easily done as well. Leveling up Sharptooth to level 3 (I would not go higher or he'll be hitting low level PCs over half of the time easily), adding a third zombie and 2 more decrepit skeletons makes a 800 XP encounter, which is just over EL 3. This should be manageable for a more experienced low level group without being too overpowering. Remember that a couple of lucky criticals will easily remove a couple of zombies as well, so if things look really hilariously easy you can also have some undead rise in later rounds to "reinforce" fallen comrades.

    Continuing the adventure: In part 2 I'll discuss a skill challenge (crossing the woods) that will cover the PCs navigation of the surrounding woodland while looking for the kobolds camp. Some further ideas for wilderness encounters and leveling the PCs up from level 1-2 along the way towards the kobolds encampment and then where the head kobold has gone (because nothing can ever be directly simple). The next session will cover designing your own monsters, upgrading them to elites and also designing your own solo monsters.

    Plus of course moving the plot forward and how to develop it once the PCs actually have the item in hand.

  • streeverstreever Registered User regular
    edited August 2009
    (don't bait skycaptain saw! You are posting your reasonable opinion. His disagreement with it is being expressed in binary yes/no true/false attitude, instead of him just realizing that different people have different opinions)

  • streeverstreever Registered User regular
    edited August 2009
    Path 1:

    A) Kill Kobolds -> B) Hand item over -> C) Item is used to begin apocalypse.

    Path 2:

    A) Kill Kobolds -> B) Sells Items to Other Buyers -> C) The people the PCs sold it to end up firmly dead and the item is used to begin the apocalypse.

    Path 3:

    A) Kill Kobolds -> B) The PCs realize the artifact of doom is evil -> C) They destroy the artifact, but they don't fully destroy the daemon and part of its essence escapes (perhaps).

    What would be really neat would even be additional paths--
    A) Kill Kobolds -> B) Realize it is incredibly evil -> C) Decide to protect it. -> D) The BBEG starts sending soldiers after them (maybe even a good party, who believe that the adventurer's are evil) -> E) Worn down & tired, the PCs decide to deliver it to either: An institution of good with a powerful army or Some place incredibly evil & dangerous where even the BBEG wouldn't be able to get it, like an ancient red dragon.

    While they may not even end up fighting the BBEG directly, you've now gotten weeks of play time out of this, & the BBEG is out there, lurking, still looking for "The next big thing" in Evil.

  • AegeriAegeri Registered User regular
    edited August 2009
    As I finish the progression through the module I will show how to be flexible and go with different options "EG winging it" while making your encounters flexible enough that you don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. This is where part of the skill in DMing is seeing how your players are responding and reacting to them to include their actions into the story. If the PCs decide they want to dump it in the lair of an ancient red dragon, that may be something viable but then perhaps the dragon can be readily corrupted by the magic of the amulet as well.

    In fact, I have planned to demonstrate the amulet as a "within party" antagonist. An item that although can be beneficial, is actually actively working against the party and trying to manipulate the PCs itself. Intelligent items like this can add a bit of interesting roleplaying to a group, especially if one PC is actively using it and perhaps might be falling under its influence.

  • Bok ChoiBok Choi Registered User
    edited August 2009
    I know you mentioned skill challenges (which are always a fun topic), but how would you incorporate a puzzle. I can see two methods (more or less):
    - have the players meta game it; give them the pieces and see how smart they are
    - use rolls to determine how many hints they can get about the puzzle, obviously they might not need the hints.

    [SIGPIC][/SIGPIC]
    <ProfMoriarty> oh yeah. one time I PMed a picture of my penis to a forumer, and then I got a PM from Thanatos saying "nice girth"
  • AegeriAegeri Registered User regular
    edited August 2009
    I use a combination, making it both a skill challenge and something the players can solve by their own intuition.

    For example in Shipwrecked I have stolen a puzzle from Professor Layton and the curious village, where the PCs have to manipulate a magical mechanism that uses bound fire elementals to open the door. The complication is they have to do it within a certain number of moves. They can attempt to solve it for themselves, or their characters can make arcana and intelligence checks to get clues as to solve it. Depending on the puzzle and difficulty, I sometimes reduce the encounter level if the PCs used a skill challenge like mechanism to solve it.

    If they come up with the answer themselves without relying on hints or their characters skills, I like to reward a bit more experience.

  • Bok ChoiBok Choi Registered User
    edited August 2009
    You could also give them "extra" moves for successful skill challenges.

    [SIGPIC][/SIGPIC]
    <ProfMoriarty> oh yeah. one time I PMed a picture of my penis to a forumer, and then I got a PM from Thanatos saying "nice girth"
  • AegeriAegeri Registered User regular
    edited August 2009
    Yeah, that's a really solid idea actually as I think I have it limited to something like 18 moves (11 is optimal). So being able to award extra moves and similar in the challenge is also a really good idea. I feel it's important that a players character isn't penalized for things their player couldn't do, but their character obviously couldn't.

    I like the riddles in Planescape Torment as a good example. You might not know the answer, but a high wisdom and intelligence Nameless one should be able to easily figure them out (and indeed he can).

  • RiusRius Registered User regular
    edited September 2009
    Aegeri, thanks for writing all of this out; it's going to help me tremendously, I think, when I start to design my own campaign. I just skimmed the content for now but I intend to read through it all several times quite soon, hehe.

  • AegeriAegeri Registered User regular
    edited September 2009
    I'm going to update it again soon (Minding I say that about a lot of things these days) with the second part of that encounter and the skill challenge. Writing skill challenges I find is the most draining part of 4E, as I will be using official rules and not my own rules (this isn't a guide to Aegeri's house rules). I've got a good model from an adventure though.

  • GloomshroudGloomshroud Registered User
    edited August 2010
    Necro'd, where's the 2nd part???

    "Wo ist viel Licht, sind stärker Schatten." ~Goethe
    "La vida es un sueño, y los sueños sueños son." ~Calderón
    “Lasciate ogni speranza voi ch'entrate” ~Dante Alighieri
    "Dans la graine, la vie est cachée dans la mort ; dans le fruit, la mort est cachée dans la vie." ~Saint-Martin
    "Tudo vale a pena quando a alma não é pequena" ~Pessoa
    "Omnia mea, mecum porto." ~Horace
    "ם זה יעבור" ("And this too, shall pass") ~Solomon
    "Teŝko je biti fin." ~Domaći Filmovi
  • AegeriAegeri Registered User regular
    edited August 2010
    Oh wow. This was since forever ago! I just remembered about it myself actually and I have since actually changed the way I do things (as the game evolves and such forth). Actually I should really consider continuing on with this. I am quite busy with SCIENCE! right now though, so I won't be able to update it for a while - but I will put it on the agenda.

    Edit: I can't believe I made a creature with two powers. D:

  • streeverstreever Registered User regular
    edited August 2010
    Erich Zahn wrote: »
    http://www.milenix.com/rpg.php

    Add this shit to the OP. It's a plot-thread manager that I've been looking for for about a year after I lost my last computer. It's fucking awesome.

    EDIT:Oh dear god it's not free anymore! NOOOOOOOOOO. I'll find another and post it here.

    eric what about masterplan?

  • Erich ZahnErich Zahn Registered User regular
    edited August 2010
    Found a GM notes program that works pretty damn well.

    http://www.mjhkstudios.com/DA/links.htm

  • GloomshroudGloomshroud Registered User
    edited August 2010
    Aye, and Masterplan seems to have MORE functionality. At $0.00, you really can't beat it...

    "Wo ist viel Licht, sind stärker Schatten." ~Goethe
    "La vida es un sueño, y los sueños sueños son." ~Calderón
    “Lasciate ogni speranza voi ch'entrate” ~Dante Alighieri
    "Dans la graine, la vie est cachée dans la mort ; dans le fruit, la mort est cachée dans la vie." ~Saint-Martin
    "Tudo vale a pena quando a alma não é pequena" ~Pessoa
    "Omnia mea, mecum porto." ~Horace
    "ם זה יעבור" ("And this too, shall pass") ~Solomon
    "Teŝko je biti fin." ~Domaći Filmovi
  • Erich ZahnErich Zahn Registered User regular
    edited August 2010
    Yeah, of course Masterplan has more functionality, it's only useful for D&D.

    DM's Assistant is system-agnostic.

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