I had decided to plan this campaign in terms of Acts.
Act 1 was, effectively, the party getting to know each other, starting to explore a new land, finding a new home, and convincing others that this is the Best Place. It took 15 adventures, ending three weeks ago as of when I’m posting this write-up. Below the cut is my general planning notes and so on, a sort-of behind-the-curtain approach. No worries about spoilers now, since the act is finished and I’m only talking about things that have been revealed.
I planned on 6-8 adventures, for reference. There’s been a lot of challenges with this campaign, and I wanted to talk about them. The issues (and some solutions) are in the next post.
Act 1 Structure
Basically, my general outline looked like this:
Introductions -> Exploration -> Players get bored and return to typical adventuring -> I plan out the rest then.
I seriously doubted that my players would enjoy exploring what is basically a new world. My whole initial plan was that I’d do the prep work for that new world, but also have a bunch of things in there in case the players had an Ooo Shiny moment. That… happened, but not in the way I was expecting. That’s good – I think 5 of the 6 players are really enjoying this exploration-focused campaign, and the sixth is still fine with it.
Once it became clear that they wanted to play in my sandbox, my outline changed to this:
Introductions -> Exploration -> Conflict -> Planning -> Return -> Conflict -> Vote.
That’s at least close to how things ended up. In reality, it looked like this:
Introductions -> Exploration -> Exploration -> Return -> Conflict/Planning -> Vote
Let’s talk about that dreadful DM trick of putting people on rails. I… really don’t do that. I put in some guidelines that I recommend you don’t cross, but that’s about it. What I mean is that my adventure planning doesn’t go “all right, they will do X, then they will do Y, then Z happens, then…”
It goes like this, and this is a summarized snippet from my actual prep:
- Players have said that they want to continue on to another potential city site, Site C.
- Site C has a lot of personal hazards involved – remnants of an old demonic biomunitions factory, leftover mimics all over the place, and a few other things they didn’t actually find.
- Threats to them directly are minimal – they’ll generally succeed as long as they don’t fiddle with things.
- When they fiddle:
- Weaponized Coconuts act like a very strong cannon blast. Can potentially KO (but not kill) the weakest party member.
- Mimics will eat them alive if they get the drop.
- They won’t send the mage to open a door like that, so that should be fine.
- Nearby forest has spiders and a Nightmare in it. They already know about the spiders and will probably figure out the Nightmare.
- Mountains to the east make it unlikely they’ll want to travel that way. If they do, <spoilers here>.
- They can continue on to Site D. See notes for Site D.
- Rain will occur in two more days. While no longer EvilRain, it still poses a threat to the party by virtue of it being a mini-monsoon.
- Creatures will escape the worst areas, going through Site C, so they’ll probably start getting into conflicts here.
See what I mean? The players are the ones who told me what they were going to do (at the end of the previous adventure) and all I’m doing is working around them planning-wise. They’re free to leave at any time and I’ll adapt, but there are some geographic clues in that this is the region they want to be in. It isn’t Railroading as I have no idea what they’re going to do (although I’m pretty good at predicting it), but it isn’t a complete free-form game either; I know they’re not going to want to spend the time going through mountains, so that’s effectively a barrier to them for the time being.
This is one of the areas of GMing that I’ve been praised on, and I’ve generally followed a similar pattern with respect to rails vs. sandbox ever since. This particular game is a bit more sandboxy than my normal, but that’s part of the premise.
I’m… not so great with D&D combat. In fact, due to time issues (see my next post), I’m not so great at combats as a whole. My games usually average a combat every other adventure, and this one had six combats in fifteen adventures. However, that’s not the only type of conflict.
As the PCs already know, there are eight groups of people investigating Dis. Each group of people are separated out a bit… except for one pair. The PCs are one member of that pair, and there is another group that they were pretty much inevitably going to encounter.
They weren’t going to be hostile, but potentially unintelligible and were probably going to cause some problems if they weren’t addressed early enough. What I didn’t know was how they were going to resolve it – after all, this was like the third adventure or something.
The conflict mentioned is that a parade of Water Elementals were going through the river right next to the party as one of the “events” that was going to happen within the first few days the PCs were on Dis. I rolled to see which day it would happen, and it happened on day one or two (I can’t remember which now). No one in the party knew Aquan, but someone did know Tongues… on both sides of the groups, as it turned out. They ended up initiating conversation and talking with a random water elemental, who eventually directed them to their so-called leader, a djinn of some variety.
The party was quite diplomatic (not too surprising in hindsight) and the two groups are generally on friendly terms with each other. Without that first encounter though, they were going to be royal pains in the neck of the party throughout the first act (and likely beyond). Basically, my players are really good at avoiding conflict when feasible, and I always like to make multiple options on how to resolve something possible.
The other major conflict that I knew was going to happen was back in the city. As the PCs are now aware, there is something fishy going on in the City-State, and at least some of that fishiness has to do with Necromancy. There were several potential events that the players would end up seeing throughout the city when they returned, and they hit the nasty one right off the bat.
There is also the whole Bertrum thing (that I knew was going to be an end-of-act boss, unless if they abandoned the whole Homestead plot entirely). I figured that one would end in combat, although I was surprised that they didn’t pick up on the hints a bit earlier.
All other conflicts that they were working through? Yeah, those were all improvised or just “hazards” planned, like the above. These three were the only ones that were planned from the beginning and everything else was going to be based on how the PCs did things. They… wanted to explore. So I let them explore.
Exploration / World Building
Oh boy did they explore. They actually explored pretty much the entire region I had expected them to explore throughout acts one and two, which is a majority of the reason why it took longer than I expected. They found two very powerful entities that they’re seemingly on friendly terms with, they’ve discovered the prior mentioned water elementals, they’ve looked at all of the potential city sites I had spotted out ahead of time in their little region of Dis… really, they hit all of the high points (and several of the detailed points). A lot of this I prepped well in advance; I had the regional map completed by the end of the third adventure and I have a less-specific world map completed by the fourth.
I enjoy world building, and I got the distinct idea that the players enjoyed it as well.
One thing I’m a bit disappointed in is the general lack of wonder as how weird Dis really is to them. Mion (the world that everyone in the party came from) exists on the inside of a cube world. The stars and planets seen from Mion are rips in space that allow them to see outside of the cube, and the sun is a giant heat source that sinks into the waters to the east and west on a daily basis. Dis, on the other hand, is a much more realistic world – round world, orbits a star, etc. Problem being, that’s what is “normal” to the players, so I think that fell a bit flat. My fault.
Progression / Rewards
This campaign is a bit lighter than normal in terms of rewards. Mostly because they were out in the middle of nowhere and the rewards were things they’d find. No one was paying them (yet) to do this, they weren’t taking loot off of dead monsters, they were explorers.
On the other hand, I sped up XP growth a bit. I don’t think the players noticed, given how at least one of them was complaining about how slow they were leveling, but that’s because I wasn’t exactly giving it to them easy. Things hit hard and fast because I didn’t have enough combats to justify a more traditional D&D grind. The party went from level 4 at the start of the act to level 8 by the end.
Also, in case if anyone is curious: I like starting PCs out at level 4. They’re still low enough level to have fun with, but they’re getting abilities that make them a bit more unique compared to each other. I mean, there are two monks in the party with almost-identical stats (swapping Charisma and Intelligence, basically); without having some of their monk path abilities, they’d be completely identical mechanically.
Beyond Act 1
At the moment, they’re in Intermission adventures. Basically, I gave the PCs some downtime for what they want to do, and they wanted to go start a sidequest they received from Lem a while ago. So, I did some planning and prep (for once, this sidequest is around 80% Prep / 20% Improv) and set them out on it. It’ll give me more time to set up Act 2.
Act 2 will start when the PCs return to Dis with their colonists and start making the town. It’ll have a lot more time skips, as I don’t think the players are all that interested in mundane day-to-day life stuff. Act 2 will probably have less exploration (although still the dominant factor in the adventures, most likely) and more political intrigue.