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The Campaign Arc
Dungeoncraft
by James Wyatt

One of the points I stressed in the first of these articles is that there's no point in preparing a world that's larger than the characters will ever see. It works just fine to start small and let the world grow naturally out from that area as the characters travel more widely. I still think that's true, as far as designing the world goes.

When it comes to planning the campaign as a whole, though, you can get a lot more benefit out of some advance preparation. I'm not talking about planning out every adventure the characters will have over the course of thirty levels before they set foot in their first dungeon, but instead I mean just sketching out the general arc of the campaign. Where does it start, what are some of the points in the middle, and where and how will it end? If you can make that outline early on, you'll have an easier time both planning adventures as the campaign progresses and planting seeds for future adventures as you go.

The work I've done so far has given me a pretty good idea of how I'm starting my campaign, which is by having it begin in the village and dungeons of Greenbrier, and it has helped me figure out some of the theme and flavor elements I want to highlight in the course of the campaign -- aberrations a la Lords of Madness and The Gates of Firestorm Peak. And in thinking about the origin of Greenbrier Chasm last time, I came up with the thought that the epic-level player characters in my game might some day fight whatever fiery entity escaped from the chasm and either destroy it or return it to its prison. I also talked about the idea of having the characters explore some of the chasm in their lower levels, then return when they're of an appropriate level to fight some of the other aberrations I want to add to it. So I started to sketch out a campaign arc.

Now we're going to flesh it out a little bit. I'll start by putting what I have into something like an order:

  • Level 1: The rite of passage/solar eclipse ritual idea I sketched out last time. Then the monsters start raiding the farms, and the characters go back into the dungeon to stop the raids.


  • Level 10ish: Back into Greenbrier Chasm to fight foulspawn. (The foulspawn in the Monster Manual range from level 8 to level 12.) A level 14 mind flayer would be a good major villain at that point.


  • Paragon Tier: The Gates of Firestorm Peak. The original adventure was designed for character levels 5 to 8, but that seems low for the scope of the adventure. Since I'll be designing all the encounters afresh anyway, I'll probably put this in the mid-paragon tier. Heck -- as written, it's 123 rooms; it could theoretically fill the paragon tier, at about 10 encounters per level. Of course, there are some empty rooms in the dungeon, but it's an interesting thought.


  • Epic Climax: Fight the fiery aberrant creature that escaped from the chasm and burned the forest.

That's a start to a pretty strong campaign arc heavily flavored with aberrations. Seeing it laid out like that, two gaps occur to me. First, I want to get one or more of the cool aberration-hunting organizations from Lords of Madness involved in the campaign. I might want to design paragon paths associated with these organizations and present them to my players as options, which means I'll need to introduce the players to the organizations before they hit 11th level. I'll make a note to work that into their adventures about the time they're returning to Greenbrier Chasm -- the organizations could send them back to the chasm, or the PCs could learn about the organizations as they explore the chasm. Either way works.

Second, I want to bring the characters down into Greenbrier Chasm for a third visit, probably at the high paragon or low epic levels. Aboleths occupy the high paragon levels these days, so they seem like an appropriate threat for when the characters explore the deepest reaches of the chasm.

With these gaps tightened up a bit, I feel like I have the bare-bones outline of a grand story laid out here: young characters from the backward village of Greenbrier face horrible aberrations, seal the Vast Gate and shut off the Far Realm influence creeping through it, and ultimately defeat the horrible aberration that escaped from Greenbrier Chasm.

Organizations

So I've sketched out a story that makes fighting aberrations a major part of the campaign. One of the things that led me there was the cool organizations in Lords of Madness, so let me take a few minutes to think about those and how I want to use them in my game. That book features three main organizations devoted to fighting aberrations, plus a fourth tradition (the keepers of the Cerulean Sign) that fills a similar role. I'll adapt each one to my campaign -- the point being that this is a region of the world that has been profoundly influenced by the presence of aberrations, and these organizations have arisen to help protect civilization from their depredations. Ultimately, though, the player characters have to be the ones who protect civilization from the threats I have in mind, so I want these organizations to serve primarily as resources for character development. In Lords of Madness, under the 3.5 rules, each organization is associated with a prestige class. I'll probably end up translating some of these ideas into paragon paths or feats that the characters in my campaign can take when they get acquainted with these organizations. They'll help the players customize their characters in ways that make them particularly effective against aberrations, and let them feel more like a part of the ages-long struggle that has defined so much of the history of this region.

The Circle of the True takes the side of nature against the aberrant forces that corrupt and destroy it. Many of its members are druids, rangers, and others with strong ties to the forces of nature. When Player's Handbook 2 comes out, I might expand that to include fey as well as other classes that use the primal power source. I'm also going to steal a bit from Eberron here and merge the Gatekeepers -- the druidic sect of Eberron that long ago defended the world from the intrusion of the aberrant daelkyr -- into the Circle of the True. Most of the old Gatekeeper traditions have been absorbed into the more modern organization, but orcs out in the wilds still preserve the pure Gatekeeper way. These orcs aren't necessarily any friendlier to the player characters than any other orcs, but this creates the possibility for an uneasy alliance between a player character member of the Circle and an orc Gatekeeper, as they work together to seal a Far Realm portal (such as the one in Firestorm Peak).

The Society of the Sanctified Mind stands in opposition to psionics-using aberrant creatures, and includes many psionic characters as well as members of other classes. With psionics not yet a big part of the game, I could decide to leave this organization out of the picture for the time being. Or I could tie it to the goddess Ioun, and recast it as a scholarly, almost bookish society that's a little farther removed from the front lines of the battle against aberrations in the region. However, they're the ultimate resource for lore about all types of aberrations. Ioun is also the goddess of prophecy, which has me thinking about weaving prophetic themes through the campaign as well -- if nothing else, the Society might have access both to the histories of how the aberration was bound beneath what would become Greenbrier Chasm and to prophecies regarding its escape and eventual destruction.

The Topaz Order is a holy knightly order dedicated to protecting the civilized races from aberrant monster races. Though it's devoted to Heironeous in Lords of Madness, I can easily expand it into a religious order that venerates Bahamut, Moradin, and Pelor. Based on what I already know about Greenbrier, the Topaz Order is probably the organization with the most direct influence in the village and the surrounding area, and the organization the characters are most likely to encounter first.

Keepers of the Cerulean Sign are lone individuals who oppose the twisted cults that revere aberrations in the shadows of civilized society. I don't think these guys will be a huge part of the campaign, but maybe there is a cult of aberration-worshipers in Lake Town. The characters could enlist the aid of a keeper in combating that threat in the city, or the keeper could recruit them. I used a cabal of mad alienist sorcerers in my 3rd Edition adventure The Speaker in Dreams -- maybe I could steal elements from that adventure when the time comes.

Filling the Holes

Now it's time to add some variety to the campaign outline. My players aren't going to want to fight aberrations through their whole adventuring careers, and I'm not going to want to limit my adventure and encounter design so severely. I have clear ideas for aberration-themed adventures along the way, but I need to mix those up with adventures that aren't connected to the main theme. What they say about variety being the spice of life is just as true in D&D as it is in real life.

So next, I'll take a look at my little campaign map and the notes I made about it. In sketching out the first circle around the village of Greenbrier, I generated a couple of adventure ideas to help fill out the first ten levels of my characters' careers.

Tower Watch: After their first forays into Greenbrier Chasm, I'll let the characters explore the ancient ruins off to the south. We'll start with a straightforward dungeon crawl in the ruins (I'm thinking there will be orcs), and then the PCs can venture into the mysterious tower that gives these ruins their name.

What if the top of the tower is an observatory? It could start to plant the seeds for information about the comet whose arrival heralds the opening of the Gates of Firestorm Peak. . . . Or the orcs in the ruins could include a wise old Gatekeeper who passes on some important information to the characters and might lead them to future, more peaceful, interactions with Gatekeeper orcs. I want this adventure to have some variety from the main theme of my campaign arc, but if I can make a connection like this, so much the better. The characters will leave Greenbriar (the village and the chasm), fight orcs and whatever else I throw at them in the tower, and then at or near the end of the adventure get some foreshadowing of future events that tie back to the aberrations of the chasm -- it'll be their first glimpse that there's a real campaign going on here and not just a bunch of aberrant monsters in their first adventure.

Harrows Pass: The name suggests undead to me; I'm thinking of the Paths of the Dead in The Lord of the Rings, and I might steal blatantly from Tolkien when it comes time to flesh out the pass. Contrary to what I said last time, I don't think I'm going to directly tie Harrows Pass to Firestorm Peak -- though I probably will put them in the same mountain range.

One way to approach this would be to make it a very simple "on the way from here to there" adventure -- something fun and different that happens to the characters when they're traveling to their next adventure. While they're in the Greenbrier area, they learn about the weird things going on near Firestorm Peak and decide to go investigate. But in order to get there, they have to go through Harrows Pass, which is . . . harrowing. That could work fine, but the danger is that the players might feel like the adventure is getting in the way of what they want to do, which is investigate Firestorm Peak. It might be better to give them another reason to go into the pass, and use this adventure to plant some more hooks for the Firestorm Peak adventure, or even just give the characters a good sense of the weirdness that's arising in the mountains. That suggests that I'll want to use it as a prelude to the Gates adventure, right at the beginning of the paragon tier.

Silverymoon: I've marked this city on my map, but I don't yet have a clear idea what I want to do with it. Silverymoon is the largest city in the area, so it would be a natural place for the characters to pursue research and possibly become associated with organizations such as the Topaz Order or the Society of the Sanctified Mind. But I'll keep it on a back burner for now. I'll have some notes in case the campaign turns in an unexpected direction, but I don't ever have to develop them further unless the campaign demands it.

Epic Levels: Looking at my sketch outline so far, the big gap I see remaining is what the characters do between the end of the Firestorm Peak adventure and when they face the epic aberration at the end of the campaign. I have a penciled-in note about aboleths at those levels, suggesting that the characters should make their third foray into Greenbrier Chasm and explore its deepest reaches. I'm thinking at this point that I'll extend that into a long Underdark foray. Maybe the characters will actually travel from Firestorm Peak all the way back to Greenbrier Chasm underground, ultimately emerging from the chasm and retracing the steps of the ancient aberration until they find its new lair and confront it. Looking at the epic-level monsters in the Monster Manual, aberrant monsters such as swordwings and gibbering orbs could join the aboleths as opponents on this trek.

At this point, I'm happy leaving those levels sketchy. A lot can happen between now and the time the characters get to that level, and I want to stay open to possible new directions, subthemes, and my players' desires. That leaves me with this outline of my campaign arc, filled out from where I started:

  • Level 1-3: Greenbrier Chasm (rite of passage and first forays)


  • Level 4-5: Tower Watch


  • Level 6-8: Lake Town -- Speaker in Dreams?


  • Level 9-11: Greenbrier Chasm (second foray, fighting foulspawn and mind flayer boss) -- introduce Lords of Madness organizations!


  • Level 12-13: Harrows Pass (probably just a single adventure)


  • Level 14-20: The Gates of Firestorm Peak.


  • Level 21-28: Greenbrier Chasm (third foray: aboleths, swordwings, gibbering orb)


  • Level 29-30: Fight the fiery creature that escaped from the chasm and burned the forest.

Next time, we'll get this show on the road and start planning how to launch the campaign.

About the Author

James Wyatt is the Lead Story Designer for D&D and one of the lead designers of D&D 4th Edition. In over seven years at Wizards of the Coast, he has authored or co-authored award-winning adventures and settings including the Eberron Campaign Setting, City of the Spider Queen, and Oriental Adventures. His more recent works include Expedition to Castle Ravenloft, Cormyr: The Tearing of the Weave, and The Forge of War. His second Eberron novel, Storm Dragon, releases this month.