From Zero to Pitch in 24 Hours

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And so, another year comes to an end. And what a f$&%ing year it’s been. That, by the way, is the second year in a row I’ve said that. What a f$&%ing disaster. But there’s a new year coming now. I know that doesn’t actually MEAN anything. The difference between one year and the next is just an arbitrary line chosen basically at random by some crusty old Romans and then tweaked by some ancient Pope. To the left of this date is last year. To the right is next year. But nonetheless, they are significant. We don’t live in reality. We live in what think reality looks like. And we impose beginnings and endings and patterns and shapes on reality. And that affects how we react to it. So, if we tell ourselves there is a new goddamned year filled with new possibilities and maybe it won’t be as bad as the last year, we’ll make it so.

Well, f$&%, I didn’t mean for this to be so introspective. And I’m not sure if it’s good introspective or bad introspective. It’s pretty bad when you can’t tell the difference between cynicism and optimism anymore. That whole argument for looking forward to the new year is basically a non-religious Pascal’s Wager, isn’t it? Well, maybe it is. Who cares. What I do know is this: I’m actually looking forward to SOMETHING right now. And that’s a huge change.

What am I looking forward to? I’m starting a new campaign. A for-fun campaign. Not that I’m not enjoying running on-line one-shots for the luckiest of my Patreon supporters on a monthly basis. They are fun. But running drop-in, drop-out missions for random groups of 25 people isn’t the same as running a campaign. And I’ve been going through the longest GMing dry spell of my life. For the last thirty years, I have managed to run regular weekly RPG sessions with no more than a four or five-month hiatus. And that stopped when I moved to Chicago. I tried to start it up again, but I ran into many obstacles. And the games I managed to start all fell apart fairly quickly. Eighteen months later, I’m going through some serious withdrawal.

Well, as of this month, I’m done with that s$&%. I recruited four players for an online D&D game. Yeah, online. I’ll take what I can get. And honestly, I’m not as critical of online games as I once was. You just have to learn how to run them right. And that means basically NOT using all the electronic tools that various virtual table-tops offer to “expedite the game” and just run a game the way you would at the table. But that’s neither here nor there. The point is, two weeks ago, I sat down – virtually – with four pretty cool players whose names I am withholding for a Session Zero. And from that Session Zero, I developed a Pitch and sent it to the players. And they agreed to it. So, in about two weeks, we’ll be starting a six-month D&D 5E campaign. Well, six months or however long it takes me to score my first TPK. We’ll see.

Now, I’ve been talking a lot about the THEORY of designing and starting an RPG campaign. But theory can only get you so far. And try as I might, I can’t explain absolutely every possibility. And it is also almost impossible to explain the creative process. And that’s when it’s time to get EXEMPLARY. Right now, while the Campaign Zero is fresh in my mind and the Pitch hasn’t been relegated to some forgotten computer folder, I can actually SHOW YOU my process. Sort of. Basically, I can tell you what happened at the Session Zero. And what happened in my head during and immediately after the Session Zero. And then show you what my Pitch actually looked like. And hopefully, that will somehow help some of you start your own campaigns. And if not? Well, at least I f$&%ing tried. What have YOU done for ME lately?

A Brief Review of My Process

Although I’ve explained this in detail in previous articles, let me just quickly reiterate the process I use to start a campaign. First, I note anything I have already decided about the campaign. Scheduling, game system, any ideas for the campaign itself, whatever. Usually, I start with very few decisions made. Then, I recruit the players – assuming I don’t already have some – make sure that they are onboard with the firm decisions that I’ve already made. After that, I have a Session Zero with my players. During the one-to-two hour bulls$&% session, I get the players to talk about various gaming experiences so I can get a sense of what they enjoy. Then I start lobbing ideas at them and thinking out loud to see what they respond to. I take notes about anything they latch on to. When the Session Zero is over, I read over the notes and think. Within 24 to 48 hours, an idea for the premise of the campaign magically appears in my head. I then massage that idea into a one-to-two page description of why the campaign will be awesome to play and send that to the players. If they like it, I figure out the details they need to create characters and then develop the campaign while they are creating characters. And then we play. And then everyone dies and I win. And I laugh. And I have cake. And then I have to make a new campaign.

That’s the basic process. And the part that is the hardest to describe – the part that I’m hoping this article will shed some light on – is the part where a campaign idea magically appears in my head based on everything that we discussed. So let me walk you through what happened in my brain before, during, and after the Session Zero. Buckle up. This is going to be pretty “stream of consciousness” type stuff. And my consciousness can be pretty strange. Let’s get started.

I Want to Run a Game and I Don’t Care What

Basically, this whole process started at the beginning of December. I decided that I wanted to run a campaign. For reals. A fun one. For friends. Not strangers. But the reality of my situation was that it would have to be an online game. For now. Maybe that will change in six months. Who knows? I had a short list of people who I considered friends to approach. And that was basically it. I had nothing else. I didn’t even give a thought as to what system I wanted to run. I just wanted to run a f$&%ing game.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to recruit players with absolutely nothing. I knew, at the very least, that I’d need to have some idea about the schedule for the game. Otherwise, I’d run the risk of recruiting a bunch of people who couldn’t fit a schedule together. And, the thing is, scheduling is pretty much the BIGGEST factor when it comes to starting a new game. Not system. Not player compatibility. It’s the goddamned schedule. That’s what adulthood is all about. Making f$&%ing time.

First, I knew I wanted to run a weekly game. I don’t like running campaigns less often than once a week. See, I’m all about immersion in the world and the story. I like rich details, strong characters, and emotional investment. And those rely very heavily on the sort of familiarity with the world that only comes from playing every f$&%ing week. My own schedule pretty much knocked out the weekends. So I settled on Thursday as the best night to play. I’ve always had good results with Thursday night games. It doesn’t force people to give up weekend engagements. And if you go too late, you only have to get through Friday at work a little tired. I kept Tuesday as a backup possibility.

Second, I knew that I was going to run sessions that last at least four hours. Three hours is just too damned short to build any momentum. Five hours is pushing the limits of people’s endurance. I tend to get my best results in the four-to-five-hour range.

Third, I knew that I was going to be making a major move in August of 2018. And that meant I should plan for the campaign to finish up in July. So the campaign would run six-to-seven months.

When all was said and done, I knew the time commitment I’d be looking for. And that was enough for me to approach the players on my short list of Internet “friends.” Basically, I sent each of them a message that said “I want to run a weekly campaign for about six months starting in January on Thursday or Tuesday nights. Do you want in? It will be awesome because this is me!” And eventually – and very quickly – I had four yesses.

Oh, right. Four. See, I wanted four players. Generally, in real life games, I find four-to-five players is a sweet spot. But online games are a little slower and harder to manage. So I’ve had better results with three-to-four. Four is a nice number because you can still run a game even if one person is absent. So that was my target. And the seats were filled.

Getting Ready for Zero Hour

Now, the four players are all people I’ve had enough conversations with online to call friendly acquaintances. And I’ve actually run one-shot games for each of those players in the past. And the players even had some familiarity with each other. And let me tell you something, that greases the wheels a lot. A blind session zero with a bunch of strangers can be a very difficult thing. You don’t have to know much about the people sitting at the table. And they don’t have to know each other too well. But they have to be able to chat comfortably. Remember, the key to a good Session Zero is comfortable chatting about anything other than the actual game you’re going to run.

But before the chatty part could happen, I knew there were some questions we’d have to settle. First, we’d have to finalize the schedule and a starting date. Then, we’d have to decide on a rules system. And the rules system would, to some extent, make some choices about the genre and type of game. We already had a basic idea about scheduling. So I needed to be ready to talk about the system.

It is extremely dangerous to go into a question like “what rules system should we use” with a blank sheet of paper. Group decisions are hard enough when they are constrained. Unconstrained, they can take forever. So I decided to come up with a shortlist of systems I’d be happy to run. Obviously, at the very top of that list was Dungeons & Dragons. But, to be honest, after analyzing 5E to death and seeing a lot of holes and flaws and limitations, I wasn’t super excited about jumping back into the current edition. That said, I didn’t want to go back to the kludgey mess that was AD&D 2E. Or worse, AD&D. So I put D&D 3.5, D&D 4E, and D&D 5E on the list. I also included Pathfinder. However, I made it very clear that, in any case, I didn’t want the game to get overwhelmed with sourcebooks and options. So, whatever system we were going to use, we’d restrict ourselves primarily to core rulebooks with very few additions. I then included a few other systems I’d be willing to run. I wanted to try out both Starfinder and Shadow of the Demon Lord, so I threw them both on the list. And I enjoy running Savage Worlds, so I included that as a more open-genre option. So, we had D&D fantasy, gothic horror fantasy, science fantasy, and generic action-adventure. That seemed like a good list of options.

Now, I’d be lying if I said that was all I had. The thing is, I also know myself. And I know the things I like to run. I’m a world-builder, first of all. I like to build fantastic, detailed worlds with rich histories and interesting characters. And I like for those details to come out during play. As a result, I like games that involve a high degree of exploration and discovery. I’m also pretty old school. And that means two things. First of all, I like action. Not just combat, all sorts of action. But also combat. I like building exciting challenges. And you can see how those two factors informed my list of systems. As a GM, I run a pretty balanced mix of exploration, interaction, and combat in an engaging and detailed world. Perfect for D&D. Second of all, I like epic quests and grand adventures. I like battles between good and evil. Save the world. Destroy the empire. That kind of crap. And for a campaign that has to end on a certain date, it’s very helpful to have an end-point in mind. Epic quests and grand adventures provide that end-point. They also provide a very obvious through-line for the campaign and a strong glue that holds the group together.

So, armed with the schedule, the list of potential systems, and my own knowledge of what I like to run, I was ready for Session Zero.

Zero Hour

And so, my four players and I gathered one night in a Discord group chat to have a Session Zero. And, right from the beginning, it did not go according to the script. The problem was that my four chosen victims all read my s$&%. And so, they knew exactly what kind of bulls&%$ manipulation I normally pull during Session Zero to get people talking. And that was going to make things hard. I was afraid they might have sat down and thought about the things they wanted to say beforehand, thus preventing me from getting the most natural answers from their emotional lizard brains. As a general rule, when it comes to talking about what people like, you don’t want them using their conscious brains. People are good at knowing what they like when they see it, but terrible at thinking about what they like.

But I don’t want to get ahead of myself. First of all, the schedule thing came and went. We settled on a schedule. Technically, I totally forgot to settle the schedule thing until the very end when one of the players reminded me that we should do that. So it came and went at the end of the Session Zero. Whatever.

The system discussion also came and went without incident but with a little disappointment. Everyone pretty much agreed that D&D 5E was the easiest and the most approachable. I couldn’t sell them on anything else, but then, I didn’t try too hard. I just shut up and let them explain why 5E was the best, admitted it wasn’t my first choice, and then accepted it. Oh well. At least the game would be easy to run.

But the system discussion did bring up one thing that became very important. I mentioned that I wanted to restrict the options to core only. Further, I also mentioned that I tend to come up with a subset of the races, classes, and backgrounds that suit the campaign I’m running. I wanted to make sure they would be okay with that. Most of the players were perfectly happy with that. One explained that she was open to playing anything and would pick from whatever was available. Another had very old-school leanings toward the traditional classes and races of the old days of D&D. A third expressed a preference for humans and clerics and specifically mentioned that his favorite cleric had been a servant of Kord – the god of storms and strength and the sea. The fourth, though, asked about genasi. Just, in passing. If you don’t know, those are humanoid part-elementals. Like tieflings, but descended from djinn and s$&% instead of from fiends. And while I explained that genasi weren’t generally something that fit into my conception of elementals, I did make a note all the same. In the end, the players showed a strong leaning toward humans and were quite happy to have a shorter list of options that were tied to the game world in a particular way.

And that’s when the fun began. With the system question settled, it was time for me to figure out just what the hell game these people wanted me to run. And figure out how to also make it fit the game I wanted to run. And I couldn’t just get them babbling about video games or books. So I started by asking them about the one-shot games they had played with me. Specifically, I asked them what had been missing from those games that they thought a campaign would do better.

Two of the players immediately fixated on my world-building. They knew I had a detailed world with a rich history and mythology. And they knew that they weren’t a part of it because one-shots just don’t let you be a part of the world. They wanted to become a part of the world. Attached to it. Of those two, one further elaborated that they liked to get attached to characters and build relationships. They’d like to get to know a specific setting and deal with recurring characters. And this led to a discussion about the size of the world.

See, that crap is nice, but it’s at odds with the fact that I like a wide variety of fantastic environments and world-spanning exploration and all of that crap. Those two players wanted to be homebodies. They wanted to live in a place and get to know it. To love it. Maybe to have connections to it. I wanted to show off a world.

In the end, with a little bit of back and forth, we discussed the idea of the campaign telling the story of a small, single kingdom. There would be a capital city from which the players could strike out on their adventures, but also a few smaller towns and villagers that the players would spend some time in. And with enough frontier to provide some adventure. I’d settle for that, even though it was a bit too traditional English countryside adventure for my tastes. And I was already thinking about different ways to pull off the same thing.

I sold the idea of a capital city as a home base and a small frontier kingdom as the setting. And that worked very well for one of the other players, the old schooler. He wasn’t as interested in getting attached to the world as he was to going out and having adventures in the wild frontier. And I made note of that. Because epic quests and old-school adventure are my jam too. And I’d have to figure out a way to make that work.

Now, when players are begging to be emotionally attached to something, it’s usually a good idea to make that a focus of the campaign. They wanted to be attached to their families and their kin and their home base. And I wanted a good, epic quest with a definite end-point. So I figured the kingdom itself should be the object of the quest. In this case, the kingdom was in danger. I floated the idea of a small, frontier kingdom being invaded by a hostile external force. The players responded positively, so I made note of that.

And then one of the players brought up a specific one-shot adventure I’d run for a few of them. It had been a mystery adventure. Ostensibly, it had been about a serial killer, but it turned out there was actually an ancient catacomb under a neighborhood in the city and a ghoul was dragging people down into the depths to feed on them. And at that, one of the other players brought up another mystery adventure I’d run. One about tracking down an assassin before he could fulfill his latest contract. Three of the four players were suddenly perking up about how fun it was to solve mysteries.

Now, when a bunch of players brings up mysteries during a Session Zero, I take notice. I don’t get to run good mysteries often. And, at the campaign level, you can do some fun s$&% with mysteries. Specifically, I can do something I call the “Layers of the Onion” campaign. That’s a campaign that centers around a specific mystery or a buried truth. There’s an ancient conspiracy, for example. Or a corrupt cult is gradually building its power. Or some long-forgotten event from the world’s past is about to be repeated unless the players can stop it. That kind of crap. And that is precisely what I said to the players. I said, “this is usually what I do for people who like a good mystery” and I explained the layers of the onion thing. I mostly positive responses, though my old-schooler was kind of quiet.

Now the wheels are spinning. We have a small kingdom. An external force. And a deep mystery that has to be unearthed. And it has to involve exploration of fantastic environments. And have a lot of good, old-school action. A mix of interaction, investigation, wilderness exploration, and dungeon crawling fun. So, what if the kingdom had a past. Or rather, the people had a past. What if they had been refugees from some past event. Some secret event only a select few knew about. They had established a new homeland on the wild frontier. The kingdom was young, just a few generations. Old enough to have a big city and a few villages, but young enough to still be surrounded by wilderness. And what if that past catches up to the kingdom. In the form of a hostile, external force. The heroes would have to protect the kingdom by digging into its mysterious past. Identify the hostile force. Understand what it wanted. Counteract it. Whatever.

But there was one problem with that idea that didn’t sit well with me. It wasn’t explory enough for my tastes and I was worried my old-schooler might not find enough to sink his teeth into. I wanted to map something in hexes, goddamn it. And have fire caves and ancient ruins and all that s$&%.

And that’s when one of those lucky breaks happened that clicked everything into place. See, I’d been watching this honest-to-God muppet named Arlo play through Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker on YouTube. And that drifted through my head and crashed into that brief mention of the god of sea and storms, Kord, and the answer came rising up out of the sea. What about an island chain? An archipelago. Wild, untamed islands with ancient ruins to explore. And a port city at the heart of it. The heroes could call the port city home and sail out to have adventures on the islands. That would allow me to pack a lot of small chunks of exploration of varied landscapes into a space that the party could still return home from every day.

And when I put forth that idea, one of the players ran with it. He said that it would be really cool if the party had a travel progression. That they started off limited to exploring the main islands that could be reached by rowboats or canoes. And then they got a ship. And maybe an airship. My old-schooler got more engaged at the promise of exploring ancient ruins on a variety of islands. And I got more engaged because I’d be able to get my exploration fix without taking the party away from their home base forever.

And that was it. The frontier kingdom became a tropical island archipelago. A bunch of refugees had landed there by accident generations ago, on the run from something. And they had prospered. Built a kingdom. And had been mostly forgotten by the world. Until… something.

The idea of the travel progression also encouraged the idea of a progression in the scope of the adventures. Early on, for a few adventures, the heroes would be accidental adventurers doing normal adventure things. Until they start to realize that their adventures are connected to something bigger. In the meanwhile, a threat would make itself obvious. A growing threat. Their adventures delving into the ancient ruins would empower them to discover their people’s only true past and to confront and drive off the threat to their island home. Perfect.

And that would have been where we left off. Except for one doorknob question. You know what I mean. A question someone asks just before they leave, with their hand on the doorknob. “Can there be a dragon?” That was it. One of the players wanted to take down a dragon. Fine. There would be a dragon.

And that was Session Zero.

From Zero to Pitch in One Night

By the next morning, I had a pitch in my head. Now, what you have to understand is that I didn’t have all the answers in my head. But I had enough of a pitch to sell the campaign. Basically, I knew I wanted a tropical island chain. But I wanted it to be pretty wild and untamed. And the mention of genasi and dragons and Kord got me thinking about wild, raw, primal forces. Raw elements. I envisioned a chain of wild islands, formed by elemental magic in the distant past and still teeming with primal energy. The people who survived and prospered there hadn’t thrived, they had fought the environment. They had tamed their own little corner. And it was a matter of desperate survival. An accidental arrival. Perhaps they had been waylaid there by a storm while on the run from something. An imperial army would work for a start.

But they weren’t the first to inhabit the islands. There were signs of an ancient kingdom. One that, in the end, had been consumed by the savage fury of the islands. Or some ancient cataclysm. Or something like that. I wasn’t sure what it all meant, but I sure as hell knew that I could run a campaign about an ancient group of refugees fleeing across the sea and getting stranded on the shores of a magical land. And an ancient magical force. And invaders. Maybe the invaders would want to control the magical force. Maybe the PCs would have to control the magical force. Or maybe the magical force couldn’t be controlled and would merely complicate the invaders. Whoever they were.

And that was all I needed. See, the secret to writing a good pitch is to show off a world that the players want to explore and leave a bunch of questions the players want to answer. And I wanted to BUILD this world. Which is the same as exploring it. And I wanted to FIGURE OUT the answers to these questions. Which is the same as discovering the answers. So, if I was sold, the players probably would be too. And so, I opened up a Word document and banged out a pitch.

After I got through all the minutiae about the schedule and the system, I focused on four key selling points: refugees forced to forge a kingdom after fleeing from invasion, powerful ancient magic, discovering the truth of the path, and a progression from accidental heroes to saviors of the kingdom. I pulled a few names out of my a$& and I sent it off to my players.

I’ll link to the pitch below. But there’s one last thing to clear up.

Where I’m At Now

At this point, a week later, I know the answers. After I dashed off the pitch and the players agreed to it, I started working out the answers for myself. But I can’t share them. That’s the other problem with knowing my players are reading this. They aren’t important though. What’s important is that I didn’t have many answers when I came up with the pitch. The point of a pitch is to sell the game you want to run, not to sell the one you’ve already written. So that pitch represented almost everything I knew about the game when I wrote it, barring a few minor details.

Oh wait, there is still one thing I don’t know. I don’t know how the dragon fits in. But he’s there. Or she. But I do know genasi ARE a playable race. Because they work now.

And with all of that said…

Read the Pitch for “What Lies Beneath”

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40 thoughts on “From Zero to Pitch in 24 Hours

  1. Cool session zero! I like it.
    The one thing that always prevents me from running epic storylines seems to that my longrunning campaigns end up being D&D and somehow I don’t run that many combat encounters. I do not enjoy combat that much and hence it doesn’t show up that often. I liked “Curse of Strahd” for that reason because for the most part, combat isn’t the main driver of the whole thing.
    And then, even with adding some milestone awards, leveling is terribly slow. I guess I could simply double the XP and other fixes, but I’m not entirely sure that is enough.
    Now, if you plan to have a six month weekly campaign, and at the end there is something epic, and maybe even a dragon, I assume you want the party to be what – level 12? Will you go all the way from zero to hero in that time? I mean, I know that the published modules often go from level 1 to 10 and such and come out every half year, so there is that. I’m just trying to find out where a sweet spot is for leveling a party fast enough to be able to plan such a thing in their future.
    Do you simply follow the “adventure day” calculations from the DMG? Does the number of combats required fit in with your “it’s not simply a combat” encounters and how does this stretch out things?
    I know these are a bundle of questions rolled into one post, but if I hear that a campaign runs half a year and has epic events at the end of it, something needs to ensure PCs will be kinda epic at that point, right? And it’s not as preplanned as the Mega-Dungeon either, I guess…

    • Okay, you plan to level 1 to 10 or 12 in that time. Saw that in the pitch, but the rest of the questions would be nice to know on top of that. 🙂

    • I’ve been pondering a similar problem lately, and while I haven’t got around to codifying it completely, I do have some thoughts that might help.

      First off, figure out what your focus is and give some experience for that. For instance, the idea I’ve toyed with was a sort of leading the Exodus thing, so players get experience for keeping refugees alive, and a bonus for getting them to a safe location. Basically, as long as there’s a risk of failure, and a possible cost for failure, XP is appropriate.

      Secondly, and this might not be as big a deal, but the game is balanced such that a certain number of encounters should pass between long rests. This helps with the challenge of the game, which many players do care about. If you don’t have enough combat/life threatening peril in a day (let’s face it, 6 duels to the death in a day is pushing it), then the alternate rules in the DMG where a short rest is 8 hours and a long rest is a week might make more sense. The other thing you could do is allow them to spend a hit die for a reroll on a check (Mumble Mumble the strain affects your ability to focus in combat Mumble.)

      Basically, yes, ideally one session should equal one adventuring day of experience. Also, I should point out as well that you don’t have to wait for epic levels to run epic adventures, one magical polymorph macguffin was all it took to allow my 2nd level paladin to wrestle (and suplex) a grown dragon. But levelling up is fun too.

      • Thing is, the players want the leveling experience. So I can’t just cut that out by powerful artifacts. It’s an interesting idea, though. Magical items can of course be seen as an alternate way of leveling up. In principle, I would have no problem handing out very rare items to my players, and lots of them… the jig is however up when players start to notice items give them powers way out of their range. They might, after all, feel that their characters now have powers they would prefer them to have through leveling mostly.

        That’s a bit of a bind, but maybe it’s also a case of “you can’t have it all.”

        It’s as simple as this, though: I don’t want to run as many combat encounters. My players are also, on average, not-so-great at the whole resource management game. And I don’t think that’s the game they’re looking for. So, by keeping most encounters at hard and throwing in some deadlies – or some higher CR solo monsters – I can keep the challenge of combat up since they have extra resources to burn.

        Since I already switched system once in accordance with the group’s wishes (away from SotDL which frankly sucked hard) I cannot easily see myself doing it again, even though it could be a good choice to go over to Savage Worlds, for example, where combat encounters don’t depend on balancing so much. At least one player seems to have his mind set against Savage Worlds, anyway.

        Which kind of leaves me with the choice of “D&D-ing” my style and prepping more combat encounters – but even when defaulting to “hard” it would have to be about 4 an adventuring day, I guess. Personally, I would like that to be down to be more like 2 to 3, max. With one or two short rests in between. In fact, that’s how my sessions run, to little complaint or feeling that the characters are OP or something. So my first thought was simply fixing XP allocation, to be honest. It seems like an easy way out.

        The alternate rules from the DMG are interesting, but they just change the “amount of action per day” to “amount of action per week” – which is more a thing of narrative, really. You still need as many combats to level, but it’s more balanced now. And it stops to make any sense – because everybody can understand why a night’s sleep is different from catching breath, but why on earth you have one special night in a week – I find that impossible to justify in-game.

        Now, I could balance the game differently if I replace two hard encounters per day with equivalent milestones from the adventure. This wouldn’t fix the whole idea of resource expenditure, but I doubt my players are that efficient, anyway. Maybe the odd higher CR solo monster encounter to spice things up. That could work.

        If that doesn’t work I’m kinda fucked. The resource economy is rather fundamental to the game and I’m not sure where to change a few wheels and cogs to make it run differently.

        • Dude, just use “Milestone Leveling” aka “Level up whenever the fuck the DM wants”. Seriously. Nobody cares about fiddly xp calculations. Also, combat is awesome.

          • Milestone xp is good for when you want to incentivize what grants milestones. Only doing that means that you are railroading.
            Fiddly xp calculations have their place and that is to incentivize certain behavior, like the tax code, or payments from work.

      • PS – thank you for your suggestions. I’m kinda also trying to think out loud to triangulate my problem better and see where to intervene.

    • In one of his last article s The Angry GM said he likes to hand out enough XP to level up every other session.

      Was this in an ask Angry about XP?

      He hands out XP to ebcourage certain behavior. For this Im guessing they get XP for solving elements of the mystery

      • Yes, thank you, I have to reread that.
        In my sessions it’s not as clear-cut at times – I mean, I had this adventure for them:
        * They meet up with a company of dwarves that need their magical expertise because whenever they approach the suspected location of their ancient kingdom, the cursed dwarves attack them, unfailingly. So they suspect magic and want the players’ help.
        * They travel together through the mountains.
        * They have an encounter where they chose to run from a giant throwing boulders at them instead of fighting him.
        * They fend off some flying creatures that have persistently been pestering the party whenever they are in the eastern half of the island while simultaneously trying to cross a landslide.
        * They reach the foot of the mountain, make a camp to leave the mules and a guard behind, and then they trek up a some river falls to approach the plains where the attacks occurred.
        * They figure out that the landscape seems to be covered in some faint magic residue and march through the cold mountain hill upstream, avoiding detection.
        * They discover the Valley of the Ancestor Oak, confirming that this is indeed the ancient kingdom, and have some psychic vision when touching it.
        * They evade a cursed dwarf patrol.
        * They make it up to the lake below the waterfall where dwarves are camped out. They make their way past them through stealth and use of fog cloud and enter the caves behind the waterfall (not exactly hidden).
        * They follow the hidden stairs up to the highest plateau and stand before the cave that is the entrance and the “eye of the mountain.”
        * They enter the cave and surprise and take out three cursed dwarves holding a ritual vigil around a deep, clear pool – actually they take one of them prisoner. One of them fools around and triggers an attack, but since the ritual vigil is broken elementals from the pool attack the cursed dwarves. They retreat in the chaos.
        * They traverse around the mountaintop at night and find no other entrance. One of them sneaks in, IIRC invisibly, and explores the central stairwell, then returns. She actually found the portal to the treasure vault.
        * They return down the mountain, ensuring not running into patrols.They return to base camp.
        * In camp they figure out that the right combination of holy water and remove curse can remove the corrupting curse and learn that they dwarf is actually a blank slate and might be under the control of … something else… since birth.
        * They trek back home. Near the giant’s cave an earthquake hits. They actually enter the cave and aid the giant who had been knocked out and dying. He rewards them with a magic rock that is a sort of luck stone.
        * They return home and are trying to devise a strategy to cure all of the dwarves on that mountain.

        I guess a lot of these should have been rewarded as encounters, especially those where they evaded stuff. This was originally meant to be a mission with many fights and they evaded near all of them, but maybe I forgot to reward one or two of these occasions, especially with dwarven patrols. I also think I should reward fleeing an enemy if it’s a smart choice – I mean they originally had nothing to gain by attacking the giant, even though they could have taken it on even if they estimated they could not.
        Also several cases where they figured out a solution to either beat the magic alarm. Or the milestone where they found the valley and the Ancestor Oak which was the main goal of the mission. Their attempt to take a prisoner and cure it surprised me so much that I actually had to improvise a cure – I was impressed with them there.
        Guess I will definitely try to re-read that XP guidance!

  2. Damn. That pitch is really really attractive. Thank you for the insight into the process, sometimes an example is worth ten how-to’s.

  3. Some day you are going to have to go over some of the D&D 5th edition flaws. Maybe in 6 months?
    I’ve just started a campaign again myself, though since two of them are new to tabletop RPGs, I tried to follow you advice in the recent column, and gave them pre-gens with some classic tropes and handled as much of the rules as possible in the background.
    We’re running 4th, because I have it and haven’t played it to death.

    • 5th edition is mainly flawed because of the forced introduction of “short rests”. Some classes, such as The Warlock, are heavily dependent on Short Rests which are a weird concept since most classes dont care about short rests and would like a long rest. This makes it too easy to heal, and resources plentiful, so the DM has to throw in much scarier monsters. Still, it’s a problem that’s handily fixable by the DM compared to more deep-rooted problems in older editions and RPG systems.

      • This is a common misconception about 5E. There are optional rulea in the DMG to make healing and recovering spell slots and class features far more difficult. Just use your preferences among slow natural healing, gritty realism, healer’s kit dependency, lingering injuries, and system shock. Suddeny the game will be a lot tougher and more deadly.

  4. Do you have an example of\link to the, “campaign document outlining the
    character options, major rules modifications, and setting and background information pertinent to character
    creation.”, mentioned in the pitch pdf?

    • I would also very much like to read this campaign document, mostly just to see what’s in it, but also to possibly steal ideas and run my own version, which may or may not include blackjack and hookers. 🙂

  5. I would love to see you pull more examples about adventure design from this campaign. Maybe you could give us some more insight into the specifics once it’s all over 🙂

  6. Dragon Emperor would be the easiest way to throw one in.

    Should have a look at the Kamikaze typhoon mythology that saved the Japanese from Mongol invasion for some inspiration.

  7. That pitch is really compelling. I know that Angry very much believes in making his own world, but it reminds me very much of a hex crawl book called The Dark of Hot Springs Island. Right down to the Genasi, elementals and ancient disappearing civilizations. The book also has an in-world companion field guide that you can give to the players with information about the island. In any case I hope we can get updates about your process and reflections as you go through the campaign. I know it helps me a lot to hear specifics about your campaign design and also the rationale behind it.

  8. Nice to know you watch Arlo. Seeing two people whose content you enjoy also like each other’s content is great.

    Also butternut squash? Yes please!

  9. I think you made the right choice accepting D&D 5e. It’s for sure a player favorite due to ease or use. Its biggest flaw– too-easy combat due to the unnecessary concept “short rests” — is (relatively) easily fixed by simply buffing up the monsters and keeping them scary and unpredictable. Comparatively, the weaknesses of 4e – Classes being too similar – and 3/3.5e — Massive piles of textbooks and hours of calculations – are unfixable.

  10. Nice pitch and process! Thanks for sharing.

    It does remind me of a previous campaign I ran. It had been going on for about a year, and then I lost a player (bringing my total down to 3). Not wanting to lose the momentum of this one, I reached out to a couple of friends to see if either of them were interested in joining up. I would be able to write out the lost player and write in the new characters, plus, they were experienced gamers, so I knew it would work.

    The new players were slotted in and within 3 sessions, we were moving right along with the story again.

    Then, one of my new players asked, “So, I know you have a whole story line and stuff going on. I was just wondering if there would be a dragon at some point.”

    …players. Go figure.

    But, to be fair, the big-bad at the end was, in fact, a dragon.

    • “What can I say except You’re Welcome”
      I was thinking the same, though that probably just comes from Moana being the biggest pieces of Polynesian-set media around (afaik).

  11. I really love when you add real-life content to these articles (the PDF pitch was awesome). It really cements the abstract content you talk about into my brain, if that makes sense. I’ve also been working on a tropical island-hopping campaign idea! Maybe because it’s so cold and wintry here? Either way – I was inspired by the Reshi Isles in the Stormlight Archive – a series of ever-moving islands (they’re actually large sea creatures called Great Shells), inhabited by landfolk looking for a calm island life. Before I drift too far on a tangent, just wanted to say thanks for another great article and push for me to start working on my campaign idea more!

  12. Really enjoyed this article, and the campaign pitch really makes me want to play. Or run it. I especially like the idea of a series of wild islands to explore. So many campaigns are bog-standard Western-European locations that the idea of something that could be Polynesian or Darkest-African feels exciting.

  13. Another benefit of the players eventually getting their own ship is that the ship itself can become a sort of home base for the players who like to get attached to a familiar setting or characters. Depending on the size of the ship, it can be crewed by characters who they become attached to and provide that “homebody” feeling if you want to try having them explore further out from their home island.

  14. Per: “After I dashed off the pitch and the players agreed to it” WAIT ! WHAAAAT???!!
    “Zero to Pitch in 24 hours”!?!! Hey, ANGRY! MEET ANGRY- ANGRIER DM ! Zero to Pitch, for that matter, Zero Session, to a real “Original and Old School” DM, is %?!!$!?! ! Gary Gygax would come back to haunt any DM using this method!
    I gamed with Gary, yes, where he lived in Lake Geneva,(WI) in the early days of his ingenious creation. While he did want his players to have fun, he created all his scenarios the way he saw them. None of this, “…so what do you think guys? Do you think you’d like to let me run a game involving a dungeon, monsters trying to stop you, loads of treasure if you survive, and basically evolving into a campaign to discover who or what is behind the fantastic hoard you barely survived”? You’re all missing a key ingredient- THE MYSTERY of it all !. Do you remember the first time you made a character and jumped into the fray? If you didn’t experience the “first timers” “i don’t know what to expect” feeling, you %#!?!#! missed out! Each new campaign should have even a little of that feeling.
    Players, nor Characters, no matter what level, aren’t suppose to know what lies ahead. Sure at a good convention, a list of game scenarios entice players to participate, however, you still don’t get to know what it’s about until you’re in it. A good DM can tell how the players are receiving the plot by their reactions, and adjust the scene accordingly on the fly, just as Gary did. WOW! . I’ll take the play in a new direction for both the players and myself to make it enjoyable for everyone. Again i say, WOW, what happened to making a character, and jumping into the unknown.
    I apologize to Gary for all the “look behind the curtain first” attitudes.
    Just write the ^@!? scenario ! I have fun just coming up with the plot. Sure, i’ve heard many DMs/GMs complain about going to all that trouble, just to have the players skip over a large part of it. I say that’s the DM’s fault. Adapt the play, lead them gradually in the general direction you intended, with things that grab their attention, soul, maybe even their characters physically:). It doesn’t have to be exactly how you envisioned it. It can be even more fun for everyone that way. (In old man voice): “Back in my day, the DM asked”, “Hey”! “You want to play a game where you are an adventurer, travelling into the unknown, maybe finding an underground dungeon with a hidden treasure guarded by creatures or monsters”?
    I realize with video games, a player can do the same thing. But your actions are limited, with no “creative” actions on your part. Subject to the limitations of the programming. I maybe old, but i have played Skyrim. As well as other RPGs. OH, just ran the start of a campaign on Christmas night. Impromptu, three generations, wife, myself, daughter, son-in-law, two of their friends who had never played, and my grandson and his girlfriend. It was a blast and we’re playing again tonight. No ” how does this sound to you guys….”. – GAME ON !

    • Oh noes! You gamed with Gary Gygax! Well, you MUST be right then! I’d better delete my website! I’d also better tell all the players who have been in my campaigns that I did it wrong and ruined the game for them because I told them the themes and general structure of the game without actually giving them any spoilers. Now I feel bad for ruining the game for those people, even though they had fun playing in a game that was tailored up front for them, with their help, and one in which they were able to create storylines and backstory that connected to the upcoming themes of the game. Thank god you were here to set me right. I definitely did manage to ruin all of the possible surprise and tension of 130 hours of gaming with that page and a half of vague description of themes and structure, most of which was backstory and sales pitch. And I somehow managed to do that when I didn’t even know the details yet.

      Look, 45 years of game design and evolution happened since Gary invented the game. And most of it happened without Gary at the heart of it. I’m sorry to tell you his hobby grew beyond him. If you think his ideas are the beginning and the end of all the good ideas in RPGs, let me remind you that his idea of designing a good challenge for his toughest players was to write a series of random encounters that said “the ability you could normally use to beat this encounter doesn’t work because I said so, now suck it up.” I have as much respect for Gary as anyone else. Well, less than some because I don’t idolize the guy as much as you do, apparently. Anyway, I respect Gygax for inventing the game. I respect Isaac Newton for inventing physics. But a lot of physics has happened since then. And a lot of gaming happened while Gygax and his grognards remained frozen firmly in the past.

      Thanks for commenting. 😉

      • Also, learn how to grawlix right or don’t bother. I can’t tell the difference between you trying to swear at me and just being incredulous and perplexed, like a rabid pit bull staring at a ceiling fan.

    • Role-playing isn’t storytelling. If the dungeon master is directing it, it’s not a game.
      -Gary Gygax

      The essence of a role-playing game is that it is a group, cooperative experience.
      -Gary Gygax

      Rest easy, Gary. Rest easy.

  15. Your comment about the Genasi makes me wonder.

    I’m curious if the Angryverse has only preternatural explanations for its races or if, like Hackmaster’s world, evolution is real force?


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