Behind the Screen
Building a Campaign Story Arc
By Jason Nelson

"So, what do you think, Vince?" Eddie asked.

Vince, another DM with whom Eddie gamed years ago, sighed over his cola and nachos. "I dunno, Eddie. Evil frogs? C'mon, you're just asking them to make fun of you."

"Hey, it's old-school D&D. Remember Blackmoor? The Temple of the Frog! I1: Dwellers of the Forbidden City! The froghemoth in S3: Expedition to the Barrier Peaks!"

"Eddie, that is so long ago that no one but you will remember. If you're lucky, they'll think of the bullywugs in the D&D cartoon. What, are Bobby the Barbarian and Uni gonna show up next?"

"Come on, Vince, give my players at least a little credit."

"All I'm saying, Eddie, is that if you're gonna do it, you gotta do it right, because the basic concept could be hard to sell. Snake people, sure -- everybody gets that. Frog-people? It's hard to make frogs seem threatening."

"That's exactly why I don't want to do snake people," Eddie replied. "Or drow, or orcs, or anything else that's already been done a million times. I want a campaign with a different twist, a pulp lost-city feel like Conan or Kull or a D&D-era Indiana Jones . . . steaming jungles, ancient ruins, something strange and exotic that really immerses them in the feel of it, like some of those Al-Qadim jungle scenarios I never got to run."

Vince downed the last of his Coke. "Well, buddy, it sounds like you've got a lot of work ahead of you. Have fun."


Key Considerations for a Campaign Theme

Setting the stage: Describe the villains and their environment: their language, history, religion, culture, architecture. What do the PCs know (or what can they learn, and where can they learn it)? What is their motivation for going there, and how can they get there and back?

Monsters: Which existing creatures, creature templates, and new monsters will flesh out the civilization and the region where they live? What about ordinary vermin and animals?

Magic: How do existing spells work in the setting? Are there any special rules you need to clarify? What kinds of spells could be specially tailored to the fit the story, antagonists, or the environment?

Accessories: What magic items or mundane equipment (especially weapons or armor) is likely to play a key role? What about mounts, pack animals, carts, or waterborne travel? What items are favored by the antagonists (or others in the area) and why? What can be bought, sold, or traded in the local economy? What kinds of items are kept as treasure? Are decay, rot, and disease going to be major factors?

Extras: Does your campaign concept invite special applications of skills, feats, or class abilities? New feats or prestige classes? Props, handouts, or thematic elements to help set the mood at the game table?

A dirty little secret of DMing is that the work you do is part of the fun. At least, it has to be if you DM very long, as those who think the prep work is drudgery are not likely to stick it out. If you're like Eddie, you have found that being the DM actually gives you more opportunities to enjoy the hobby, because you have lots of things you can do between game sessions other than rehash your character's plans for the next ten levels.

You also have an advantage over the players in your opportunity to experiment with monsters, templates, classes, feat combinations, spells, and other game elements, especially from new supplements. Players have already decided on a certain style for their characters, so even if something groundbreaking comes out, they might not go for novel ideas immediately. You, meanwhile, get to take everything for a test drive!

In Eddie's case, he is still running his regular campaign, but he has an idea for a new campaign arc that he's been wanting to try. In this and the next several columns, we'll look at the process that he has to go through to take that basic idea and flesh it out into a robust, richly detailed, memorable campaign. Chapter 3 of the Dungeon Master's Guide already covers part of this process, offering guidance such as the wilderness adventure rules on pages 86-95. In this column, we'll look at how Eddie puts the pieces together, including some special modifications to spice things up, around a central theme: the evil frog-people!

Okay, so Vince is right: Frogs don't exactly inspire terror at first thought. But they are certainly strange, and can even be exotic in the right setting, such as the tropics. Eddie is also intrigued by the sivs, a lawful evil froglike race (Monsters of Faerūn, p. 78). They remind one a little of the Slann from Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, a sort of elder race thought by most to be extinct but still maintaining secret enclaves here and there. The more familiar bullywugs (Monsters of Faerūn, p. 25) are like their bestial cousins -- children of a common ancestor race, but with one group secretly holding on to the remnants of past glory and ancient wisdom while the other, more well-known, has descended into barbarism. Eddie doesn't actually play in the Forgotten Realms -- he has his own campaign world -- but he's not above stealing an idea that appeals to him! In fact, that is one of the keys to invention: the ability to pull together disparate strands and weave them together in new ways.

That's not to say Eddie is just going to lift material off the page as is. He doesn't want the technological subtext of the Warhammer Slann or Blackmoor; this ancient race is not like the high-tech 'ancients' of Gamma World or The Wheel of Time. When he's thinking ancient cultures, he's thinking more like Robert E. Howard's Acheron and Stygia, or the classic module I1: Dwellers of the Forbidden City. It's true that bullywugs and sivs are both described as marsh-dwellers, but jungle and swamp go together easily enough, with leech-infested bogs and rivers teeming with crocodiles and piranha (hey, it's D&D!) breaking up the tree canopy a bit. The ever-present dampness of a swampy jungle only helps enhance the steamy, sticky feel of a trackless and exotic wilderness that Eddie wants to capture.

In a way, Eddie has already passed the largest hurdle: getting an idea in the first place. Sometimes inspiration comes from old gaming memories or favorite books or movies, and you should take care to not just recreate something. You don't want to railroad the players into repeating your favorite story, but it's perfectly okay to try to bring out the excitement and fond memories you have of it in the adventure you create. Your passion can infuse what you create and make it palpably exciting to the players who go into it with you.

Eddie has done a smart thing, though, in talking to Vince, a fellow DM. It's not like you need to get permission, but it helps to have someone offer another perspective on your concepts, point out things you haven't thought about, or just provide a listening ear while you talk out your thoughts. Sometimes merely having to articulate what's in your head in a way someone else can understand proves incredibly useful in organizing and clarifying your thoughts.

Eddie is starting out with two critically important elements: the setting (tropical jungle/swamp) and the antagonists (sivs and bullywugs). That's just the start of his work, though. To build a great campaign, he should add some special flourishes. He needs to make sure the jungle really feels like a jungle, not just another forest. He needs the sivs to be strange and at the same time fascinating in their alien and decadent cruelty, which means he needs some way for the PCs to find out about them and what it is that makes them interesting.

Not to be overlooked, of course, is the need to get the PCs there somehow. All this work won't be worth much if the players don't bite, so he has to come up with a good reason why they would zip all the way to this plague-infested jungle. For that matter, he has to figure out the mechanics of actually getting there. Like any great vacation, getting there is half the fun. Would Vault of the Drow be as much fun if you never went through the Descent Into the Depths of the Earth? A good climax needs a good build-up, and the journey sets up the sense of distance and exotic travel. For that matter, it gives you a chance to do a bit of travelogue about your campaign world and the people and places in it as the PCs travel from their usual haunts to the far corners of the world.

Eddie could just skip the journey, letting the party simply teleport to some locale at the edge of the jungle or otherwise hand-waving away the travel part, but that would really undercut what he's trying to accomplish: a grand heroic expedition to find this lost jungle civilization. The journey sets the tone for the further stages of the campaign, as the PCs begin to get a sense of exactly what they're up against, from hostile enemies to nature itself.

In the months that follow, this column will explore the process by which Eddie can turn his thoughts and ideas into a fully realized campaign arc. Beyond general advice, we'll also see how he applies his basic concept in creating specific new monsters, spells, items, and other campaign elements to produce the Lost City of Batul Darab.

About the Author

Jason Nelson lives in Seattle with his wife Judy, daughter Meshia, son Allen, and dog Bear. He is a part-time homemaker, part-time medical transcriptionist, and part-time Ph.D. candidate in social & cultural foundations of education, and is active and committed born-again Christian. He began playing D&D in 1981 and currently runs one weekly campaign while playing in two others.

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