I think of my experience with roleplaying games, the phrase "old
campaigner" comes to mind. Ever since I learned how to play Dungeons
& Dragons from a friend of mine (using the little brown books
some of us remember so fondly and upgrading to the hardbacks as they were
originally released), I've thought of nearly every game as long-term.
I expected my very first character to survive to high level and become
a great hero (he died at 5th level, fighting orcs). As a Dungeon Master,
I created worlds from whole cloth, expecting my players to explore every
inch of them (on, below, and above the surface) before we'd move on. I
ran campaigns that lasted for years and those that lasted only a few weeks
-- but the intention was always, "start strong, stay long."
ethic, however, doesn't always lend itself to a campaign that has to revolve
around unusual work schedules or crushing deadlines. Not every player
who wants to participate in a game can make it every week, and even the
DM might fall behind schedule, unable to plan ahead for a night's gaming.
Nothing crushes a campaign more readily than having to cancel sessions,
for whatever reason. Knowing this, I hesitated before starting a recent
I had an idea.
months ago, I got involved in a regular Monday-night D&D campaign.
While we did incorporate some playtesting into the game, and most of the
players were people I worked with in the Wizards RPG department, the focus
was on fun. I didn't even have to DM -- I got to play a monk named Tarian
and tumbled around kicking humanoid butt.
a lot of fun playing. The group expanded and contracted (as many gaming
groups do), with David
Noonan (editor/designer for the D&D team), James
Wyatt (D&D Worlds designer), Daneen McDermott (then Magic
continuity editor), and Tim Rhodes (no Wizards affiliation at all!) forming
the nucleus. We foiled bandits, fought dire animals, and suffered through
the rain-soaked days and nights of Sumberton for about five levels' worth
of play. Some of the things I'd worried about with starting my own campaign
(people not being able to show up regularly, games being canceled on short
notice, etc.) did happen, but not nearly as often as I'd feared. The core
group stuck with the game, and we had fun.
though, David (the DM) wanted to take a little break. We'd finished the
latest campaign storyline and he, I think, wanted to try playing again.
Whatever the reason, I had the excuse I'd needed to try out what I thought
was an interesting idea.
that the group allow me to run a one-shot adventure with some campaign
elements built in. I told them flat out that I wasn't ready to run a campaign,
but that I did want to try a little DMing (my Dungeon Master muscles needed
a workout), and that I had an idea that I hoped would interest them. I
might run follow-up adventures, but I wanted to stress the idea that this
was one game and it would have all the plusses and minuses associated
with playing for a single night with one set of characters. They kindly
agreed to give it a try.
one of the reasons the idea was such an easy sell was that I let each
of the players construct a 6th-level character with a set amount of magical
treasure to be chosen ahead of time by the players themselves. I don't
know how many people have tried this, but the new rules for D&D
-- particularly those in the Dungeon Master's Guide concerning
the creation of higher-level PCs -- make this really very easy and attractive.
I asked each person to conform to a few minor house rules (such as, "don't
spend more than half your gold on any one item") but other than that,
I let the players use their imaginations. Being imaginative people, they
dug in and came back with an assortment of interesting PCs.
Wyatt created a cleric of Wee Jas named Sanaril with a rather unique outlook
on undead: "They're just misunderstood! They can be our friends!"
The rest of the party: "What do you mean, no spontaneous healing?"
Noonan shrugged off the mantle of DM (no, we don't really wear mantles
or funny hats when we play -- that's just something that happens on bad
sitcoms . . . or on really special occasions) and slid into the
role of Kawika the barbarian (with a little bit of rogue sprinkled in).
Lots of grunting and gravely rumblings came from that end of the table,
and I could tell he'd get into character easily. I just had to get him
out of character again before the next day's work.
the halfling came next, played by Daneen McDermott. Dexter looks like
a thief, moves like a thief, and even acts like a thief
a wizard. Eschewing spells like fireball and lightning bolt,
Dexter gives lessons on how to move around quickly and quietly and how
"not to be seen." Yes, cries of, "What? No lighting
bolt?" were heard at various times, but a fun character nonetheless.
tried out the multiclassing rules and played a character whose combination
of classes I still hesitate to guess. I know there's some rogue in there,
and some cleric, but there's at least one other class poking around and
maybe two. I try not to think too hard about him, 'cause it makes my head
got to bend our perceptions of what D&D characters "ought
to be." I was pleased to see so many unusual characters because that
meant everyone wanted to try something different -- the DM included. We
got down to business right away.
this was to be a one-shot game, I did want to provide enough background
for it to be a roleplaying session and not just a hack-and-slash dungeon
crawl. I have nothing against some hacking and slashing (indeed, the bulk
of this adventure involved a lot of die-rolling and bloodlust-venting),
but I wanted it to satisfy the roleplaying need as well. So here's the
background I gave to the players.
of the characters had ties to a city-state called Forghul. A northern
city on the edge of the frontier, Forghul's founders were pirates and
raiders, not unlike Earth's own Vikings. Over a few centuries, Forghul's
people progressed beyond raiding and pillaging, however, and became more
civilized. At the time of our adventure they still prized a strong warrior
over a wise loremaster, but they could see some value in both.
by ruling clans, the Forghul followed a Great Thane. Great Thanes ruled
the Clan Council but not as dictators -- their decisions had to be ratified
by the council, but a Great Thane that couldn't get his way wasn't really
a Great Thane. It would be most unusual for a Great Thane's wishes to
be discarded or ignored.
are about the unusual.
played a great part in the government of Forghul. Leadership in the clans
mainly followed the rules of primogenitor. A clan leader could appoint
someone else as his or her successor, but usually the firstborn son or
daughter of a clan leader became the new leader (and a member of the Thane's
Council) upon the parent's death or retirement. The same went for the
position of Great Thane, though the Council had to ratify the succession.
It would be most unusual for a Great Thane's chosen successor not to achieve
ratification on the first vote. Three votes were allowed, and it would
be almost unheard-of for a chosen successor to fail to get enough votes
by the third try.
are also about the unheard-of.
Thane of Forghul, Aelric, died suddenly. His two eldest children, a son
and a daughter, had died fighting frost giants in the northern wars only
a few months before. His youngest child, a daughter, was only six years
old. But Aelric left one other child -- a son named Malcolm, sometimes
called the Dancer. Aelric had indicated that he would like Malcolm to
succeed him, but had not officially declared him heir.
Malcolm was "away south" at the time of Aelric's sickness and
death. Many thought Aelric had sent Malcolm south because he disliked
the boy, or thought him weak. In truth, Aelric considered Malcolm the
wisest of his children and while he had not considered him as a candidate
for Thanedom before Malcolm's older siblings' deaths, he had believed
him the best possible ambassador to more civilized lands that Forghul
could have. But many of the clan leaders didn't know this, and others
saw a chance to increase their own power. They delayed calling for Malcolm
until Aelric was already dead, and they buried the Great Thane -- along
with his sword of office, traditionally passed along to the heir of the
Thaneship -- in the tombs built in the mountains around the city. Many
hoped that this would show Malcolm he was not wanted. A few hoped to dispense
with the office of Great Thane and leave the rule of Forghul to the unchecked
enter the picture as friends of Malcolm the Dancer -- they have either
met and served him, or met and served his allies on the Council. They
agreed to venture into the tomb and retrieve the sword in exchange for
a large reward.
the help of my wife, Jill, I set up a large diorama to represent the Tomb
of the Great Thane. We used Dwarven Forge's MasterMaze terrain set. (If
you haven't seen this stuff, check it out. It's all 3D painted dungeon
and cavern pieces that you can arrange in a variety of shapes and sizes
-- and it's 25mm scale, perfect for miniatures. When players see it all
laid out on a table, somebody's going to go, "Ooh, ahh," even
if you have a group of die-hard gamers like the ones I was playing with.
Anyway, back to the story. . . .) I explained that they were getting to
see the dungeon ahead of time because the tomb had been built for the
Great Thane by the people of Forghul -- someone among them would have
kept a map record. The diorama represented the map.
also helped me with another aspect of the game: When running a one-shot
event, it's important to get things moving quickly and keep them moving.
Otherwise, the game will likely take longer than you planned and your
players won't get to the climax of the adventure when you want them to.
Unlike a typical campaign, where you can break and pick up again as needed,
a one-shot is just that. You get one chance for fun and if you blow it,
most games revolve around three unknowns: "Where are we going?",
"What are we doing?" and "Why are we going there and doing
that?" The backstory I supplied the players (using both handouts
and roleplaying) and the revealed map covered the first and last questions.
The adventure would be about the second. "What are we doing?"
expanded to "What challenges will we face?", "How will
we survive?", etc. We looked forward to answering those questions.
actually came in a hurry. Rather than encountering what you would expect
in a tomb (nasty undead, vicious traps, and a sprinkling of underground
monsters), the PCs ran into mystic puzzles and challenges that represented
trials the Great Thane had overcome himself on his way to becoming a hero
of Forghul. When the PCs entered a room, they saw their surroundings change
and their assumptions challenged while they struggled to survive.
I won't go into too much detail (this story is, if you hadn't noticed,
about the game play experience rather than the game itself), I
will say this approach allowed me to work in sharks, frost elementals,
shocker lizards, and other unexpected surprises for the PCs to face. Watching
a dungeoneering party deal with the sudden lack of dungeon surrounding
them was rather interesting. Seeing how cleverly they overcame each obstacle
was even more rewarding.
Campaign Begins . . .
one player character died (Kawika, and he came back to complete the adventure
as a ghost) and the party did reach Aelric's resting place, where they
found the Great Thane's shade imprisoned by foul magic. After talking
to him they became convinced that someone on the Thane's Council (or someone
hoping to influence it) had killed him and was working to keep Malcolm
off the throne. Aelric agreed to give the PCs his sword of office, but
only if they'd perform a few tasks for him (for which they would be rewarded).
The night ended with them receiving some reward (Kawika given a semblance
of life and each of them gaining some magical treasure) and being told
what they could do to complete their quest.
point, we had two options. The group had gotten a chance to play some
unusual characters and I'd had my chance to run an unusual game. We could
return to other gaming the following week, using a more traditional campaign
basis, but I had left the door open for more adventuring. The Great Thane
could transport any or all of them to various places to complete quests
for him (and for them), and he could reward them out of his and his ancestors'
treasure hoard. Either way, the one-shot was a success.
the players rewarded me with enthusiasm for the game. Even though I'd
set up Forghul and the Thane's Quest as only a one-shot, with a few possible
"to be continued" elements, the players wanted more. They went
on to complete several quests for the Great Thane and ended up gaining
the sword of Forghul. They restored Kawika to full life (a mixed blessingI
think David liked playing a ghost) and they had adventures and gained
renown throughout the land. They even gained a few more comrades . . .
but that's a separate story. The "Campaign Kick-Off" worked,
and it kicked me back into the DM's chair. Now I just have to follow it
up with something. . . .