The Campaign Kick-Off
By Ed Stark
When 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."
That 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 campaign.
Until I had an idea.
Several 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.
We had 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.
Eventually, 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.
I suggested 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.
I think 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.
James 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?"
David 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.
Dexter the halfling came next, played by Daneen McDermott. Dexter looks like a thief, moves like a thief, and even acts like a thief but he's 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.
Tim Rhodes 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 hurt.
We all 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.
A Little Backstory
While 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.
Each 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.
Governed 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.
Adventures are about the unusual.
Heredity 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.
Adventurers are also about the unheard-of.
The Great 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.
Unfortunately, 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 Council.
The PCs 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.
With 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.
The preview 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, you're done.
I figure 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.
The answers 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.
While 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.
The Campaign Begins . . .
Only 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.
At this 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.
Well, 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. . . .