This week will round off my third and final commentary on setting up a modular campaign. You can go back and read the first two parts, which touch on the challenges of maintaining the campaign story-arc in a fragmented game, and the first few steps involved with world creation.
We’re going to assume that as the game moderator / dungeon master you’ve already written a rough over-arcing storyline–something to hint at during your sessions, which will foreshadow greater things to come. We’ll also assume that you have a world map drawn out, and that you’ve decided who will populate your world, how advanced they are, and where the major plot devices (the One Ring, the Sword of Truth, etc.) are hidden in your world. Now it’s time to fill your world with adventures and intrigue, and all the pretty little distractions that will keep your players occupied while you silently plan their demise.
I find it useful when planning encounters to separate them into three categories. This allows you to prioritize them, just in case your party decides to skip a city or dungeons, so you can shuffle some of your quests around. This also allows for better time management during the game. The three encounters/quests I use are:
1) The Plot Quest:
More often than not I keep these short. They serve as brief, gentle reminders that while the players are scraping slime off dungeon walls to sell at market, and solving riddles that have no answer, the world outside keeps on turning. A contact in the city works well for this. Someone mysterious who always pays handsomely for quick, dirty jobs. But while the players are fixated on bringing back the bag of phallic-shaped pinecones he requested, what I’m really doing is paying them gold or credits to listen to the contact’s plot-centered dialogue for 5 minutes, to keep them aware of bigger, darker things on the horizon.
Once every 5th session or so, I’ll pit them against some twisted monstrosity born from the loins of the main plot itself, which they must vanquish. Or they’ll find they’ve been betrayed by *gasp* the very contact who had been paying them. These are simple, ham-handed devices that always work, and they are the only plot-heavy encounters that take place in the early game.
2) The Tavern Quest:
The tavern quest is any job given to the players from the average, workaday NPC. We’re talking about constables, innkeepers, potato farmers, hunters, etc. These quests are specific to the town, and they are often overlooked, undervalued, and generally neglected. I’ve sat through many games in which the GM focuses on the main quest, and has fallen for the assumption that this makes for a more dramatic game. He throws us into the fray again and again, battling against the evil darkness that’s sweeping across the land, and hardly gives the time of day to mundane jobs.
Running down an outlaw and dragging him back to face justice may not seem very glamorous, but it pays the bills, damn it. These quests also give the players time to relax, interact with one another, and build on their character’s personality. Because if they’re busy chasing Voldemort every single session, they’ll become locked into Serious Business Mode.
Use these quests to set the tone of your world. Have them touch on internal politics, differences in currency, or fashion. Offer them a quest from the local tailor who’s willing to pay top coin for industrial espionage, and wants the players to return to him with his rival’s spring dress line.
3) The Random Encounter:
The random encounter is a brief fight or moral dilemma, which I only use in large, open worlds. These aren’t applicable for cyberpunk or urban fantasy unless the party is traveling long distances for many days. Better to write a few bandit scenarios, roadside ruins, or hitchhikers if you’re running a space-opera or medieval campaign.
These small encounters also convey the passage of time during highway travel much more effectively than “You’ve been marching for a week.” or “Roll a Survival check.” or “John has died of cholera.” or…
If a quest is skipped by the party, save it. If an encounter goes awry, let them return to it later if it’s not an ambush scenario. That ancient puzzle of stones, blocks, and levers that has sat undisturbed for thousands of years in the bowels of a crypt? It can wait while your players gain a few more levels. Swapping quests and monsters is one of the few strengths that puts a modular campaign on par with linear storytelling.
The Fight of Your Life
How high-leveled or difficult should the monsters be, given that the party could stumble into a pit of venomous Slime-Molds at any level? I mentioned in my last post that difficult dungeons and challenges should be set further away from where the players start. But sometimes, if the party doesn’t follow roads, directions, or warnings from fellow travelers, they may find themselves ass-deep in said Slime-Mold. And why shouldn’t they?
It is here that I argue against a convention that has existed in tabletop RPG’s since the word “balancing” became a gaming term. It most games, fights are “balanced”. Any scenario you run into will be scaled to your party’s approximate level and strength. If the opposition is too powerful, players bemoan how unfair the game is. If the enemy is too weak, the players feel cheated out of loot and experience.
I, on the other hand, am the champion of an unbalanced world.
I believe in giving players ample goddamn warning before allowing them to face down the demons of hell…at level 2. I believe in scaling the challenge not to the party’s level, but to the party’s stupidity. I believe that my players should know full well that a dungeon is not the place to play the bagpipes, that the thief shouldn’t try to impersonate a warlord to “collect taxes” from his minions, and that bribing a public official whilst in earshot of the tyrannical overlord is asking for an extended stay in the gulag.
With tactful thinking (or just common sense) all enemies can be overcome or avoided. All scenarios in your game should be winnable, but only if it is approached with a clear head, and the roving bands of murderous monsters are treated with the kind of severity and respect that armed Orcs would demand if they existed in real life.
Below is a sample of a town from a modular Pathfinder game I’m running. I use a renown system instead of purchasable magic items, which means the better known the player is for being Cunning, Honorable, or Brutal, the more access they will have to powerful items. It also encourages the players to brag about their deeds, possibly utilizing a Bard to sing their praises when they reach a new location.
Shenstown is the largest settlement in the Abenthei demi-plane of constant winter, and consists of 8 shop buildings, a large 2-story tavern, and a 16-foot-tall log wall surrounding the town. Outside of town are several elven hunter-gatherer groups, as well as 34 agricultural families with barns and huts. Most of the population relies on ice fishing, or the growing of grasses, tubers, and seaweed to feed a variety of farm animals.
The town is run by an eclectic group of humans, elves who have migrated from their home plane, a couple of gnomes, and extra-planar humanoids. Every four years a new city council (numbering 5 representatives) is elected by the surrounding citizens.
Shen’s Last Stand Tavern:
The owner is DaLen, an elf who was once wrongfully imprisoned on Ryder Island in the old world (prior campaign). He was also the agent who hired an assassin to help lead the exodus to Abenthei from the drowning world. He co-operates the tavern with Jaqenstein, an aged wizard, who recently gave up the practice of golemancy.
The tavern’s house special is cold cod fillet with pickled beats, and a white wine distilled from non-poisonous snowberries unique to the realm. (2 Silver)
The High Price of Hired Help:
Although the town has been fairly quiet, Jaqenstein still has trouble keeping up with the influx of customers on almost a nightly basis. A golem assistant would solve most of his problems, but he refuses to step foot in his basement lab under the tavern, since his last dabbling in golemancy gave the villainous priest Shen access to a near-unkillable ice golem.
If the players agree, they are faced with a small series of basement rooms (5 total), with 3 chests of random low-level loot, a pouch of 3d10 gold, and three different hostile golems who will drop bronze-inlaid legs, arms, and a torso/head.
Minimum Renown: 0
Maximum Renown: 1
DaLen has recently heard of a group of elves who went missing near the human farmsteads to the north (apx. 1 day’s march by foot). If the players travel there, they find a group of 4 humans using ice-pick and hammers trying to break through the ice. They claim they warned the elves not to fish on the lake, as the ice had become weakened for mysterious reasons.
Upon breaking through the ice the party finds an elf in a stretched-leather canoe. He is lying in meditation, trapped with barely any air to breathe. Upon coming out of his trance he tells the party that the humans did in fact warn them…to stay away from the human fishing cottages, which the humans have scattered all over the lake.
When questioned about the other hunters, the elf responds with: “I will not say, for it would cast doubt on my sanity…”
Diplomacy 14, or Intimidate 16 will get him to reveal: “I cannot believe I’m admitting this. But it was…a cursed, armored thing from the depths. If you see it, do not let it fool you with its appearance. It is a demon.”
He will not follow the party, and leaves south, claiming: “I will not join in this foolishness. I know my kin are dead. I watched it happen.”
If the party follows the hunting clan’s usual migration habits (survival 14, or knowledge local 14) they run into the den of the Cursed Crab, who sits in the middle of an icy cave, chittering, surrounded by bodies. Its stats are that of a normal crab, excepting that when it reaches 0 hp, its hp are automatically rejuvenated back to full, and all severed limbs or wounds are magically restored. The crab cannot be killed. By anything. Ever. Party must solve this threat by non-combat means.
Minimum Renown: 0
Maximum Renown: 1
After the party has rested, or refused the previous side-quests, a frantic woman arrives at the bar claiming her 16-year-old son Igval has fallen ill from some “animal attack”. The players may choose to investigate. If they do not, skip to 2nd Exodus.
The players find a young man in a nearby cottage north of town. His leg is gaping open just under the knee, and the flesh will not mend, magically or otherwise. It is not bleeding. It is not putrefying. The injured flesh is cold to the touch, despite his proximity to the fire, and the boy is feverish and unresponsive. Use Magic Device 18, or knowledge Arcana 14 reveal this to be a magic wound, which was created by an extra-planar creature. The young man’s flesh has been consumed and passed on to another plane.
When questioned about Igval’s recent behavior, the mother says he’s been hunting north of the lake more often than usual. She’s also noticed bug bites on his legs. She blames the Snowfleas, which have become increasingly aggressive lately.
When the players travel north they find patches where the snow and ice have melted down to dirt, and at its deepest depression the ground itself has sagged down to bedrock, creating a massive chasm. They can also watch the landscape slowly erode from a higher vantage point. A Perception check of 15 reveals where a fallen glacier near the bottom of the chasm has been eaten away, and a grey-black hole has appeared where the demi-plane itself has been weakened.
It is at this point a d4 or d6 is rolled for who gets attacked (depending on party size), and a DC12 vs. Reflex for each player and NPC who are attacked by the white, hopping Snowfleas. Those who fail are dealt 1d4 permanent damage (removed from HP pool, until a healer from another plane can be hired to restore these HP)
This attack does not seem to be isolated, and it is spreading exponentially around the chasm.
The mother, when she hears their news, awards 100g to the party, and says she will do what she can to bundle her wounded son and get him to the Rift 3 days south (the door back to the home plane of the drowned world). She also tells the party that she cannot make the journey without help. (+1 Brutal, Cunning, Or Honorable renown awarded for dealing with the son as dead-weight or as a patient.)
Minimum Renown: 1
Maximum Renown: 2
After hearing of the spreading Snowfleas, the town is evacuating to the planar rift in the south, on what the elves are calling the 2nd Exodus. Each group is begging for help from the party, and will state their case at the tavern.
Abenthei Herders: The original occupants of Abenthei, even before the elves came. They believe the planar outsiders from the Old World (home plane) owe them. Even after 2-dozen years of living side-by-side, they claim hardship of hospitality.
If they players side with them, they must assist in herding Abenthei’s modest pig and oxen herds, and organize wagons on the journey south. (Handle Animal 14, Ride 14)
Ryder Elves: The hunters from the original Ryder Island. They ask the players to help them gather a sample of the snowfleas, in a much smaller version of the magic barrier field that is still coveted by their tribe. After all, the threat may someday arrive on other planes. They also claim it would be what Rennel, the old elven prince, wanted, had he not abandoned the clan early during the settlement of Abentei. (Nobody knows why Rennel returned to the Old World) The players must use this bubble to trap a group of Snowfleas. This requires any rank in Use Magic Device, and for the players to formulate a plan on how to extract the fleas (GM’s discretion)
Elected Council: The council, which currently consists of 2 planar outsiders from the Garden’s old underground caverns, 2 native humans of Abenthei, and a gnome from the Academy, wishes the party to organize the evacuation based on the needs of the elderly, the young, and the infirm. For the players to accomplish this they must roust the local militia into helping (Diplomacy or Intimidate 14), as well as organize stretchers and care (Heal 12).
Once the players have chosen a side, they may make the journey south, to the rift.
Minimum Renown: 1
Maximum Renown: 2 (depending on which group they side with, and how they treat the evacuation.)