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Campaign Themes
By James Wyatt

I n yet another installment of "What's on James's Mind Today?" let's turn to the idea of a campaign theme.



What's a Theme?

In a nutshell, a campaign theme is the answer to the question, "What's your campaign about?" What's the big story unfolding behind all the individual adventures? What are the forces at work in the world? What are the issues of human experience your game touches on? What are the strands of myth that resonate in your campaign?

The answers to these questions might take a lot of different forms. Here are some examples:

  • My campaign is about the efforts of the Queen of Darkness, with her vast armies, to take over the world. (That's one way of expressing the classic Dragonlance adventures.)
  • My campaign is about Lolth's efforts to become the goddess of magic. (That was the Rise of the Underdark campaign for D&D Encounters in 2012.)
  • My campaign is about an ancient aberrant Elder God trapped in the earth and cultists' efforts to free it. (That was the Greenbrier campaign that I discussed in Dungeoncraft years ago.)
  • My campaign is about the conflict between the gods of order and the primordial forces of chaos. (The Aquela campaign I discussed in the later Dungeoncraft columns went in that direction.)
  • My campaign is about the first humanoid civilizations arising and struggling to break free of the rule of dragon overlords. (My last short-lived campaign started from that premise.)
  • My campaign is about the followers of an evil deity trying to bring about the fulfillment of a prophecy that will end this cycle of the world. (That was my Oriental Adventures campaign years ago.)
  • My campaign is about people in an Ice Age struggling to survive in a hostile environment. (I just made that one up; it's a classic "person vs. nature" story writ large.)
  • My campaign is about a terrible lich's plan to overrun the world with undead. (Sort of a cliché idea.)
  • My campaign is about the gods' mad scramble for power before some mysterious divine event that will affect them all. (That's sort of the Sundering in a nutshell.)

  • My campaign uses lots of reptilian creatures. (I just made that up, too.)
  • My campaign is a sandbox where the adventurers explore a realistic fantasy world with no overarching story. (I think many campaigns fall into this category.)

Themes in the 4th Edition Dungeon Master's Guide

The chapter that discusses campaigns in the 4th Edition Dungeon Master's Guide describes a number of possible campaign themes, with the idea that a theme gives a distinctive flavor to a campaign and its adventures.

A Dungeon of the Week campaign has little overarching plot—characters move from one place to another solving the problems presented by a particular adventure, then move on. The Ice Age campaign I described above probably fits this description, as does the sandbox world.

In a campaign where the adventurers are On a Mission, they are pursuing an overarching goal, even as they travel from place to place solving apparently unrelated problems. They could be exploring, they could be in the service of a religious or other organization, or they could be seeking the seven pieces of a fractured artifact. My campaign about overthrowing the dragon overlords fits this model.

A campaign with an Ultimate Villain has a single evil creature or organization behind all the evils and problems the adventurers are trying to solve. The Rise of the Underdark campaign fits this description, and the cliché lich's scheme does too.

In a campaign focused on World-Shaking Events, there's a threat to the world (unrelated to a particular villain or organization) hanging over the adventurers' heads.

An Unfolding Prophecy campaign casts world-shaking events as the unfolding fulfillment of an ancient prophecy. My Oriental Adventures campaign involved an unfolding prophecy.

A campaign centered around Divine Strife puts the adventurers on one side of a divine conflict between good and evil, struggling against the agents of the other side. The Dragonlance campaign mentioned above fits this model, with the adventurers on the side of the good dragons (and by extension, their divine leader, Paladine). The Sundering also includes these elements.

A campaign with a Primordial Threat features a struggle against a terrible entity of world-destroying power. The Greenbrier campaign noted above is more or less in this mold, though the dangerous entity was an aberration rather than a primordial. My Aquela campaign did feature a primordial threat.

And campaigns featuring Fantasy Subgenres put the tropes of horror, intrigue, mystery, swashbuckling, swords and sorcery, war, or wuxia (for example) front and center. The lich's quest to conquer the world might put horror themes at the forefront, and the Dragonlance campaign might emphasize war.

Literary Themes

When you're in a college literature class discussing the themes of a novel, you're probably digging a little deeper than what I've described here. Consider these ideas:

  • My campaign is about the confrontation with a terrifying mortality, whether embodied in undead monsters or expressed through the death of loved ones.
  • My campaign is about the most insidious evil: the cold and inhuman reptile gods, far removed from mortal concerns. As heroes confront this evil, they must face the selfish, cold tendencies of their own kind as well.
  • My campaign is about troubled heroes confronting not only the savagery of the bestial creatures of the world, but also the beast within—the rage and fury that lies in their own hearts.
  • My campaign is about the insatiable thirst for power and domination, embodied in the hosts of the Nine Hells.

With a theme like "confrontation with mortality," you might do a broad range of adventures that aren't necessarily connected by a common villain or even featuring lots of undead. Of course you could have one adventure featuring the dead bursting from their graves and threatening to overwhelm a whole town. But in the next adventure, a mad wizard might create a flesh golem in an effort to revive his lost love. A villain might go to extreme lengths to achieve immortality—to avoid confronting her own mortality. The adventurers might help a ghost accept death and move on. Or an adventurer might become a ghost!

What Do You Think?

How do you use themes in your game—if you use them at all? What advice would you give to other DMs?

Previous Poll Results

What model does the dominant religion in your campaign follow?
A loose pantheon, like the D&D default 1713 65%
A tight pantheon, like the Pharaonic gods or the Sovereign Host 420 16%
Monotheism (a single god or force) 107 4%
Dualism (two gods or forces) 54 2%
Mystery cults (intimate devotion to a single deity in a polytheistic context) 182 7%
Animism (reverence for nature spirits) 42 2%
Non-theistic philosophies 65 2%
Total 2583 100%

What religions are used in your campaign? (Select all that apply)
An established fantasy pantheon, like those of the Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, or Greyhawk 1672
A fantastic expression of a real-world religion, like the Greek (Olympian) or Egyptian (Pharaonic) pantheons 518
A religion of my (or my DM’s) own invention 1214
A generic religion that uses domains in place of deities 243
None of the above 81

Does reading about alternative models of religions in D&D inspire you to create alternative faiths for your campaign?
Yes, I’m doing it right away 318 12%
Yes, I’ll tinker around with it when I get a chance. 781 30%
Maybe. I’ll consider it next time I start a new campaign. 710 27%
No, I already use an alternative model. 360 14%
No, I’m happy with the default assumptions. 418 16%
Total 2587 100%

Would you find it useful for a DMG or similar product to have advice for implementing these alternatives using the D&D rules?
Yes, I think it’s essential. 657 25%
Yes, I think it would be great. 1113 42%
I think it belongs in a supplemental book. 714 27%
I think it’s a waste of space. 111 4%
Total 2595 100%

How do ordinary people in your campaign interact with the gods of your pantheon?
They worship many different gods on different occasions—sacrificing to the god of the sea before an ocean voyage, for example. 1517 58%
Each person is personally devoted to a single god within the pantheon. 636 24%
People go about their business, hoping the gods don’t notice them. 419 16%
Total 2572 100%

How involved are the gods in the affairs of your world?
They get directly involved in mortal affairs, sometimes even having half-mortal children. 286 11%
They’re always meddling in mortal affairs through powerful servants such as angels and devils. 272 10%
They meddle in mortal affairs through their mortal servants, so clerics and cultists get direct instructions. 600 23%
They might occasionally send guidance or inspiration to their most faithful mortal servants. 996 38%
Their mortal servants do what they think their gods want them to do and hope for the best. 333 13%
The gods are completely divorced from mortal affairs. 97 4%
Total 2584 100%

How much knowledge do mortals have of divine business in your campaign?
Lots—there’s nothing very mysterious about the gods. 131 5%
A little bit—they know when gods die or switch portfolios, for example. 826 31%
Not very much at all—they know only what their priests tell them, which might or might not be true. 1490 57%
Nothing—it’s all about mortal churches and politics. 142 5%
Total 2589 100%

James Wyatt
James Wyatt is the Creative Manager for Dungeons & Dragons R&D at Wizards of the Coast. He was one of the lead designers for 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons and the primary author of the 4th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide. He also contributed to the Eberron Campaign Setting, and is the author of several Dungeons & Dragons novels set in the world of Eberron.
Comments
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This is the second week in a row I have been unable to fill out the survey because my perfectly reasonable preference was missing from the stable of clichés presented as possible answers. A sound mythology is what's lacking in all the discussion of what D & D Next should be. Crack a book on myths and legends before you suppose it even makes sense to define a game world in terms of its most powerful inhabitants! There's a reason tattoos figured so prominently in the Third Edition Psionics Handbook, piercings started showing up in illustrations after that, and the emo tiefling became an icon of 4E. D & D lost its spiritual inspiration when the Second Edition supplement Monster Mythology was published, and it's been seeking inspiration in the pop-culture prescribed course of self-discovery ever since.

Unlike our real-world ancestors, we find much of life explained by science. Our imaginations, however, cry out to fill the many gaps in that understanding. The ... (see all)
  
Posted By: RadperT (3/2/2014 11:46:20 AM)
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Honestly, I think the discussion of themes should cover all of those permutations of theme; each one is a perfectly valid way to run a game; each one is manageable within the confines of DnD as it has been played (though it's not always the best system for each type of theme); and it would be useful to help GMs think about what they want out of the campaign they're planning.
  
Posted By: RadioKen (2/28/2014 5:41:30 PM)
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My advice: "Have an idea for a theme... be prepared to flesh it our or totally abandon it based on the motivations of the player characters (and the players)."

Many DMs I've played with fall into the "theme" trap. Yes, a campaign with a theme is more compelling. However, there are two dangers to theme-ing to strongly.

1. Players don't like to be shepherded around. The PCs should control the action based on their own goals and motivations. A good DM can subtly shape and influence these, while a ham-fisted one will try to blatantly control them.

2. DM spends countless hours meticulously crafting the ins and outs of the great struggle between the Drow House of Ur'glacchin and the Dwarf clan of Strombrolg... only to have the players create characters with zero interest in exploring the underdark.

Bottom line: flexibility is your friend!
  
Posted By: D17 (2/26/2014 11:47:28 PM)
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Because of this, I discuss themes with my players before starting on them full-throttle. We sometimes bounce ideas back and forth, collaborating on the theme-to-be, but often their reply is, "just allow me to play like MacGyver, give me dramatic adventure, and make me think." Fairly general demands, tho' they did tell me in no uncertain terms why they disliked escort missions, so I abandoned that idea until I could address those issues.
  
Posted By: Dreamstryder (2/27/2014 7:33:30 AM)
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PS: I discuss themes, not adventures, beforehand; otherwise, it could indeed spoil the surprise! :)
  
Posted By: Dreamstryder (2/28/2014 3:12:38 PM)
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@mouselim's Reply: "Escort mission" wasn't a theme, just an possibility when asking them what types of adventures they liked (before designing any themes!). I mentioned that here because it was one of the few times the players had any specific demands beforehand for the nature of the game. I wouldn't design an Underdark campaign if my players told me beforehand they hate caves, but mine aren't picky.
  
Posted By: Dreamstryder (2/28/2014 3:11:02 PM)
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I don't think "escort mission" is a campaign theme...as for discussing it with the players, why kill the surprise?
  
Posted By: mouselim (2/27/2014 11:01:24 PM)
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Agree and disagree. Flexibility is tantamount to running a successful campaign but changing it too drastically mars the fun that somethings, there are forces beyond the players control.
  
Posted By: mouselim (2/27/2014 10:59:06 PM)
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I think a corollary to this might be phrased "Remember the difference between theme and plot/metaplot." You can bake theme into your worldbuilding without creating railroads; it's largely a matter of consciously designing environments, societies, and major NPCs so that they reinforce the themes you want to emphasize. A great dwarf/drow rivalry, to borrow your example, may well lead to the Underdark eventually, but it can easily also make itself felt in events on the surface. This is not an argument against flexibility--by all means, you should be attentive to the feedback you get from your players--just a reminder that having a theme doesn't necessarily commit you to a specific sequence or even set of story elements.
  
Posted By: RadioKen (2/28/2014 6:00:53 PM)
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Having a living world where there are large things happening that need to be fixed is not the antithesis of player agency. Last campaign I finished running went for 7 years (same players). Before starting I surveyed my players and asked what they wanted, and one was they wanted to be swept away by destiny. The player that had originally brought that up had been reading the Robert Jordon books, and he liked the idea of being pulling into situations far to big, and far to important, and having to rise to the occasion anyway. That could easily scream "hop on the railroad train!".

Yet even with that, the overarcs evolved with their actions, and it ended up going in a direction I never would have foreseen early because it didn't even "exist" yet - because of what the players did.

So absolutely yes, flexibility. But theme does not get in it's way, it provides a framework for it to grow. Think of it like a rose trellis - does it allow the roses... (see all)
  
Posted By: Blue23 (3/2/2014 9:08:53 AM)
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What's the specific connection to 5e here? Previous Wandering Monsters articles of have been explicitly tied into the development of DD Next, but this one...not so much. Is this a change for the rest of the article series to come? Or was there some connection that was supposed to make it into the article that was forgotten?
  
Posted By: aaronil (2/26/2014 6:26:09 PM)
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Normally I don't complain about this, but the survey options in this were really giving a lot of false options. What themes, tropes, genres, subgenres, world-building elements, etc I use depend entirely on who I'm DMing for, and what their level of dedication is, as well as how long I expect the campaign to run. My 'high' campaign will probably last years, and I intend to play it with my children when they're of age, this will involve all sorts of literary themes, tropes, sub-genres, genres (at one point it flips to cyber punk), allegories and other symbolic themes, etc. However, I also play limited campaigns for younger kids, and in that, I focus more on world building/options, and dungeon of the week sort of stuff. Honestly, with younger kids, sometimes it's all I can do to keep them from trying to get there character killed so they can make a new on each week, so things become very episodic. Ideally, I'd like to have advice (and expansive advice at that) on all of these topics. This... (see all)
  
Posted By: OskarOisinson (2/26/2014 3:18:12 PM)
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Your first six examples and the eighth are all exactly the same theme.

You are talking about plot, which is different from theme.

Or as a wise man once said, "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."
  
Posted By: EAKugler (2/26/2014 1:54:20 PM)
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Nothing wrong with cliches, as long they aren't used all the time.
  
Posted By: Chimpy20 (2/26/2014 1:26:43 PM)
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I've tried taking the high road on occasion, with mixed results. For instance, a campaign meant to focus on the classic literary conflict "Man vs Nature" - a setting in which the world was hostile wilderness dotted with a few cities, clinging desperately to life - went over like a lead balloon.

But, yes, themes in the more fantasy and RPG sense are a great piece of advice and should be included.
  
Posted By: Tony_Vargas (2/26/2014 1:19:34 PM)
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I believe every DM needs to be just as inventive and creative as the collected game groups roster of players/characters. A successful DM is able to imagine the game world and quickly respond with very visual description that world to the players. The one trick behind this is the players have just as much control if that worlds events as the monsters/villians/and DMs vision. A campaign world whether themed solely by each encounter or over a vast arc, the gamegroup descides by time spent/sessions played/and return session duration how fast those themes develop/turn/and progress all at their decided rate. A world where players and DMs collaborate is where epic story arcs and individual player spotlights breed memorable sessions.
  
Posted By: Valkrim (2/26/2014 12:59:09 PM)
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I usually decide on a theme after I've seen what characters the players are bringing to the table. I want my players to feel like the heroes of the story, so I design themes that fit with their backstories, goals, and play styles.
  
Posted By: JoeyLast (2/26/2014 11:16:12 AM)
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I'm running two different campaigns in separate areas of the same game world.

The older campaign originated with the starting point of 4e, a century after the fall of a regional empire, but placed in my own game world with a similar "points of light" theme. The goals of neighboring territories, some of which were never under the thumb of the empire, periodically threaten the PCs' homeland, as its location is prime for trade and defensibility (it being one part of the empire that was not completely devastated). As the characters advance in level, conflicts in the Paragon tier have begun to involve occasional direct divine and profane influences.

The newer campaign is set in an area that had been on the far fringe of the old empire, and had been completely overrun at the time of the fall. A few families toughed it out, and in their on-going battles against goblinoids and the like, confronted the issue of what to do with the infants left behind after a vio... (see all)
  
Posted By: Komomachi (2/26/2014 10:06:27 AM)
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Many of those 4e themes are the same: "You (or your team) fight a big bad (or their team)" (gods, ghosts, or demons, it's the same). For variety's sake, I'd address not only subject matter, but how the campaign engages the players and their PCs.

I tend to base my campaigns off that, using some aesthetic inspiration alongside. I wanted to make the monsters, culture, and world utterly alien to the players to make them feel anything could happen, and to make strange the familiar, so I settled on a sorta post-apocalyptic science-fantasy based off late 1980s-early '90s Japanese sci-fantasy games and anime. I also wanted to tell "people tales". So, to answer what will happen in such a campaign, many times the party will be fighting a harsh environment, come across a relic of ages past, and have to figure out how it works to aid their survival. Other times, the action is based on some cultural aspect showing how people adapted to living in the current age, like ... (see all)
  
Posted By: Dreamstryder (2/26/2014 9:48:24 AM)
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Games I have DM'd have rarely had a theme that expanded beyond a single adventure. This is for a series of reasons, most stemming from the amount of time our group spends on DnD:
1)our group meets less often so a theme that spans multiple adventures is less important to the players
2)I have less time to prepare as a DM, so overarching themes don't get developed by me
3)with less chances to convey what I want to the players, my priorities tend to push towards one-off what-if scenarios so that I don't miss the opportunity (this is probably the biggest reason)
4)my group tends to be sway a little stronger than the average group towards combat than role-playing and story
5)Also with a diverse group of players you tend to have diversity in interests that focusing in on a specific theme would block out others' interests

Don't get me wrong, I'd love to play in a campaign that pushes an overall theme, but I can't support what I'd think a theme like that de... (see all)
  
Posted By: Nachofan (2/26/2014 9:33:33 AM)
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It could be based around an organization to which the PCs belong, however, or a kind if activity the players in your campaign enjoy, but a number of the examples are villain-focused because the DM's job is often not predicting what the PCs will do or who they will be, but in setting up the NPCs' plans; those the DM has control over.

That's not to say tying PC backstories into the campaign isn't important, but even PCs can die part-way through, so basing a campaign too soundly on the PCs themselves can be problematic unless the campaign can survive their deaths (and there are ways such a campaign can, such as going to the underworld or their memory influencing future events).
  
Posted By: Dreamstryder (2/26/2014 9:26:52 AM)
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This is all very villain-centric. A good DM should build a player-focused campaign. There can be overarching villains and cosmic threats, but they need to relate back to the player characters, their motivations, and their backstories. I think that the most useful DM advice would talk through the process of how you help players flesh out their characters and how you then build your campaign around those characters.
  
Posted By: DrewMelbourne (2/26/2014 8:51:32 AM)
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My campaing theme currently involve the godess Shar and her followers plotting to spread chaos in the heartland and the heroes trying to stop her and also lift a lycanthropic curse she laid upon them, using the aid her sister Selune.

I usually give some thoughts to the type of villains and monsters that will run through my campaign along with plots or evens taking places in it. I think DMG should give some advices on using themes in your campaign.
  
Posted By: Plaguescarred (2/26/2014 8:24:25 AM)
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My answers to this set of questions probably look nonsensical, but that's becasue I felt the options were too narrow. To begin with, my answers would probably include "maybe"s, and secondly there are elements of time (I may well start off just making it up as I go, but then develop a theme as play develops) and players.

The players are key, I think. Icons in 13th Age are a genius addition, here; they present a range of potential themes (or, at least, theme indicators) and invite the players to flag up which ones interest them. The GM can take elements and synergies he or she likes from these flags and develop them into the themes of the campaign - collaborative development with a systematic element for all to grasp hold of.
  
Posted By: Balesir (2/26/2014 5:54:47 AM)
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The world is vast (or worlds) and full of intrigue and adventure. The overall world is paced, organized, and detailed as much as required to give a particular feel. A campaign begins when an underlying theme of the gameworld begins to shape a motivation for the folk of the gameworld to come out and claim their would be spotlights. Themes come and go and even change as players complete quests, encounters, adventures, and even campaign arcs. How gradual or how quick this process requires a decent amount of preplanning. A living world brings in certain elements not normally seen. It allows for cinematic gameplay and compliments a great core mechanic.
  
Posted By: Valkrim (2/26/2014 3:13:08 AM)
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I wish you could select more than one choice on these questions. For number 1, I've done all of those for different reasons, with different groups, at different times, and over different editions/RPGs. Sometimes my friends just want a dungeon crawl, sometimes they want a deep story.

For example, I've had a lot of great fun with 'sandbox' style DnD over the years, but with Call of Cthulhu, (or Gum Shoe) it's a much more 'literary' themed narrative adventure.
  
Posted By: seti (2/26/2014 2:14:34 AM)
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Sometimes I'll have an idea of where I want the campaign to go, but more often than not I focus on creating the world, and then sandboxing it until a theme begins to emerge based on the players' actions. For instance, in my current campaign, at about level 5 the party was sent to close a portal to the Far Realm, but their wizard instead decided to rip it wide open in her quest for power. Since then (the players are level 23 now), the overarching theme has been stopping their former comrade's efforts to summon a powerful, world-destroying star entity from the Far Realm.
  
Posted By: Dark_T_Zeratul (2/26/2014 2:11:00 AM)
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The response that I really would like to have given regarding what campaign-building advice should be aimed at DMs in the future: touch on all of the choices. For example, even though I selected the "themes like in the 4th DMG" option, it'd be nice to be reminded about the "literary" option while flipping through the new Guide. I don't feel that a DM's choice of theme has to be limited to one of these categories. Let's get some different tools in the toolbox and let gamers use what works for them.
  
Posted By: BadMike (2/26/2014 2:10:00 AM)
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We have 3 gamemaster's in our group. One gamemaster just finished a long campaign (which was started when we started playing 4e, took over when we switched into Next - where we re-created the 4e characters in Next, we started Next at lvl 6 to reflect that this was an ongoing campaign, and finally finished our campaign - theme of the campaign where magic items which could serve to resurrect the goddess Mystra, and various NPC groups wanted to control these items to gain their power - last week the character's did Elminster's job from the Canon, so to tell, and resurrected Mystra, which concluded the campaign - cannot be much more epic, especially for my character who is a believer of Mystra!)

In my own campaign the characters are in the (2e) undersea environment of Serôs since recently and will see what changes since the 14th century DR happened to it (was just a recently started campaign).

Our third game master is playing more episodic adventures. Often he ... (see all)
  
Posted By: MagicSN (2/26/2014 1:53:33 AM)
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The theme in my current HM is campaign is: PCs have acquired an airship and they are wandering the world running into trouble. It's also an experiment in cooperative world building, since I've given the players almost free rain to create various regions of the world, then I work out the details as needed.

My GURPS campaign is a bit more focused. It's inspired by Warehouse 13 and Warehouse 23 (a GURPS book I have no doubt helped inspire the show), and the deep, dark recesses of my own mind. It's set in the late 19th century, and magic and psionics are real, but suppressed by an alchemical agent the world's governments add to their water supplies; the PCs and other Warehouse Agents are given monthly doses of the counter-agent.

Unlike my wide open HM campaign, this one has the PCs assigned to retrieve various artifacts that are threatening the world. The game is pure investigation; no combat. I have even provided them with a combat-avoidance dues ex machina in the fo... (see all)
  
Posted By: kitsunegami (2/26/2014 12:48:44 AM)
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Aww, there's more to my GURPS campaign than "fantasy supers wandering the world looking for trouble". Admittedly, not much more. And no one but me knows about it as yet, though one person (X) suspects. ^_^
  
Posted By: luraj (2/26/2014 1:59:49 AM)
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