Tag Archives: campaign

One Shots!

Well, I’m still running regular sessions of Reavers on the Seas of Fate – and session summaries are posted regularly. After we finished Wrath of the Righteous however, we decided to do a series of one shots instead of another campaign on the alternating weeks.

So far we’ve had:

Paul ran a Trail of Cthulhu scenario, Sisters of Sorrow, we were all German WWI U-boat crew. We liked the GUMSHOE rules fine, though less fine when combat started. The jury’s out whether plain BRP CoC is just as good. In general this felt like any Cthulhu scenario, which is good for those of us that like Cthulhu!

I ran a high concept game – XCrawl (dungeon crawling as modern spectator sport) using the Dungeon World rules. All the characters were tributes to recently deceased celebrities, so we had The Goblin King (David Bowie), Severus Snape (Alan Rickman), Rochefort (Christopher Lee), Mirror Spock (Leonard Nimoy), Rowdy Roddy Piper (himself), and LEMMY!!! (Lemmy Kilmister).  It was fun, though of course very “dungeony,” we discussed that a campaign of XCrawl would need to have a lot of “between the crawls” segments  to be engaging. The Dungeon World rules were good (game fiction focus, GM doesn’t roll) but we felt them kinda sparse for long term play, and the 2d6 vs flat # mechanic seems like it’ll tip to “succeed all the time” once a couple levels are gained.  We enjoyed it for a one shot however, and I feel that like Feng Shui, this is a game you play to improve how you run/play other games.

Bruce ran “The Silver Mountain Shrugs,” a Runequest 6 adventure set in the Taskan Empire.  This was also fun, though the pregen PCs weren’t totally balanced.  The core RQ rules are BRP based so were mostly easy, even the spells, but then there were these “combat effects” that were a bit overcomplicated and also made magic seem flat in comparison. There’s “an app for that” apparently but I think the group overall isn’t totally sold on the ruleset. The Taskan Empire setting is fine, if turgid and overcomplicated in the usual way for RQ settings (we all just thanked the Lord it wasn’t Glorantha, mainly because Bruce’s completely incomprehensible Glorantha anecdotes cause several of us to start twitching).

Next week Tim is running Numenera, the game ‘we all want to like but have no idea how to run it because the setting’s so weird.’  Reminds me of Skyrealms of Jorune, anyone remember that?  Well crafted but somewhat inaccessible.

And more will come, including Gaean Reach and Eclipse Phase!  We’re not doing session summaries of all these, though we’ll try to do some.

Reavers Sources – Third Season

Following on from my behind the scenes analysis of the various published adventures I’ve used in the commission of my Reavers campaign… (Also see Season One and Season Two).

Third Season

In this season I used some smaller sources from Dungeon magazines but a lot of it was homebrew. Not necessarily because I wanted to, but some items I was wanting to use fell through – like Voyages to the West, an Open Design patronage project that came in way late. But what I did use was…

  • I stole the town of Hollobrae from Firey Dragon Games’ 3e module “The Silver Summoning.”
    I don’t recommend the module, but as a repository for “I need a town for the PCs to raid” it worked fine and added character to the location in session 1. Daphne the unnamed one-line NPC became a recurring character.
  • “Tammeraut’s Fate,” from Dungeon #106, by Greg Vaughan
    This formed the first part of their Azlanti tour and occupied sessions 2-4. Sea zombies beset island monastery!
  • The Sun Temple Colony from Lost Cities of Golarion
    This is more of a capsule setting with adventure seeds, which I expanded upon to form a large section of the season, sessions 6-18 are set there. I also repurposed a couple things they didn’t come across in From Shore to Sea since it is also an Azlanti ruin.
  • Rana Mor,” from Dungeon #87, by Rich Baker
  • D1.5 “Revenge of the Kobold King,” 3.5e Paizo adventure
    Rana Mor formed the primary dungeon on the Sun Temple Island with a heavy reskin from “Indian” to “Azlanti” in feel; it filled sessions 10-12 and then again in sessions 16-17. I added a couple touches like the Sealstone and curse and giant beetles from Revenge of the Kobold King because those were “Azlanti.” I was really having to poll sources to get authentic Azlanti stuff; I also used gear/magic/etc. from the Open Design aquatic rules companion to From Shore to Sea, Sunken Empires.
  • Back to the Arm-Ripper/random dungeon combo from Season One!
    I got to reuse all the old content in sessions 22-25, but had to update it significantly since it was denuded of baddies last time and was much lower level last time…  So wrathspawn pirates as mentioned in Dungeons of Golarion were in residence!

The Dungeon sources from this season and last were all good, I picked them specifically because they were some of the stars from the magazine’s run.  I’d run Tammeraut’s Fate before but the rest were new to me. The baddie from Rana Mor got dubbed a “vampire stripper” based on her cheesecakey art. She was dangerous as a real stripper though and was a big foil/villain for the latter half of the season. A lot of the actual Sun Temple threat was sorta faceless so I wanted to have another baddie who was more personally memorable. I did a lot more picking locations/seeds out of books instead of whole cloth adventures this season.

And that’s how you run a multi-year campaign that meets very regularly for long play sessions while still having a demanding job and kid and life otherwise! Take preexisting building blocks, add the mortar to join them together, then put a nice veneer over the top. The time you save on making the blocks means you can shine on the additions.

I’ve compiled all these into a new page in the Reavers section, I’ll add to it as we go on!

Reavers Sources – Second Season

Continuing on from the First Season, more on the sources I have used in the Reavers campaign!

Second Season

In the second season, I moved past the “toss in all the L1-3 adventures I have laying around” approach as the established plot and character and setting took root.  Season 2 is basically three Paizo adventures – Carrion Hill (augmented by a Dungeon adventure), Second Darkness Chapter 2, and From Shore to Sea.

  • Carrion Hill, a Pathfinder adventure
  • “The Stink” from Dungeon Magazine #105, by Richard Pett
    I combined these to make a post-Riddleport tsunami “Katrina horror” scenario that spanned all of sessions 2-5 (a bit more than I’d anticipated!).
  • Children of the Void, the second chapter in Paizo’s 3.5e Second Darkness Adventure Path
    This filled up sessions 6-10, plus the optional “Teeth of Araska” adventure from this book occupied session 11! I expanded on it but not with other material really, just my own elaboration.
  • “Shatterhull Island” from Stormwrack again
    I used another mini-adventure from Stormwrack for session 13 after a couple sessions of custom content.
  • From Shore To Sea“, a Paizo/Open Design adventure
    Before this I spent sessions 14-19 purely riffing on preexisting NPCs and stuff spinning out into whole adventures. But then From Shore To Sea became one big ol’ part of this season. Sessions 20-24, all the way to the end of the season, are made of nothing but this puppy!

Now let me be clear – you don’t want to run Carrion Hill or From Shore To Sea as written.  If you go through the blog posts for those sessions you’ll get a lot more details on what I changed, but the Carrion Hill plot and encounters are questionable and in From Shore To Sea there’s ridiculous DCs and other rules wonkiness that would cause some real problems. But they both have loads of great atmosphere and ideas in them, and a GM is the nice slickery lubrication between an adventure as written and his game as run. So this had less mashing up of multiple sources and more elaboration and tailoring of single sources.

Also, the more we’re on the high seas the more I use general wavecrawling, random weather and random encounters to populate entire sessions.  Each ship-to-ship battle is a complex set-piece of its own! Recurring baddies like the Fishwife sprung entirely from that.

Reavers Sources – First Season

Due to popular request and to celebrate the campaign’s fourth anniversary, here’s a series of posts on the adventures and supplements I’ve used to create it.

In my Reavers on the Seas of Fate campaign, to form my own adventure path/campaign I have adapted a dizzying variety of adventures and supplements. Here’s the list of what I’ve used with my thoughts on each!  It’s in rough order of when I used them. You can read the individual session summaries and associated blog posts for deeper details.

Mashing up 3e, 3.5e, and Pathfinder adventures together is so easy to do that it’s silly not to. Unless you’re one of the clinically OCD rules obsessives out there, you can draw from a wide variety of material for any campaign. So I merrily combined them, subbing in PF versions of monsters if it’s easy and restatting major NPCs using Hero Lab if I feel like it. Also, since we go for a gritty, roleplay-heavy approach it’s not unusual for one short module to last 3 6-hour sessions (with tentacles into sessions before and after).

First Season

The overall plan for this season was “Second Darkness plus the Freeport Trilogy,” since Golarion’s Riddleport and Green Ronin’s Freeport are kissing cousins. I augmented with a lot of standalone d20-era Atlas Games and Green Ronin adventures. The Atlas Games ones are a little staid as written, but only mooks run adventures as written. Using them gives me NPCs and maps and setpieces, and then I worry about adapting the plot and amping them up to higher levels of depravity.

Plus, I’d run a pirate campaign before where I realized all these 3e adventures went to pains to put their settlement out in the middle of fricking nowhere because they just wanted to write a module not in someone’s game world. Converting the “surrounded by trackless mountains” to “on an island surrounded by water” is trivial to change. Early d20-time was rife with level 1-3 adventures to pillage!  Our super slow level advancement is partially so I could get more of them in.

  • Atlas Games 3e “Penumbra” scenario “Maiden Voyage”
  • Sinister Adventures 3.5e pdf adventure “Mysteries of the Razor Sea”
    I mashed these two up to make the group’s first adventure in sessions 1-2. Both are first level ghost ship scenarios; Maiden Voyage focused more on the ship and crew the players were travelling with.  Mysteries of the Razor Sea was totally about the ghost ship – it had more horror and is tougher.  So I felt they complemented each other well; basically I used the ghost ship from Razor and everything else from Maiden Voyage, with some changes to lead in to the next part of the adventure. Thalios Dondrel, son of Mordekai, was a hit and has become a recurring NPC.
  • “The Sable Drake” adventure from WotC’s 3.5e sea book Stormwrack.
  • “Water Stop” adventure from Atlas Games’ En Route II: By Land Or By Sea
    I mashed these two up for the very next adventure in sessions 3-4 – the island with escaped slaves from Water Stop was where the goblin “pirates” (made more Golarioney) from Sable Drake attacked. The wererat-goblin captain escaped and stowed away and became part of the fun in Riddleport later.
  • Shadow in the Sky,” the first chapter of the Paizo 3.5e Second Darkness Adventure Path, starting with “Cheat the Devil and Take his Gold”
    I enriched Riddleport heavily with Freeport information, locations, and NPCs from some of the many Freeport books I have (I’ve got every version of it ever, and all the miscellaneous supplements).
  • “St. Casperian’s Salvation,” the optional adventure from Shadow in the Sky
    Sessions 4-5 were an intro to Riddleport and the major players there with these two adventure pieces.
  • “Three Days to Kill,” a 3e “Penumbra” Atlas Games adventure
    I adapted the power groups to be various local ones and set the PCs loose on this in the sixth session.
  • “Death in Freeport,” the first Green Ronin’s 3.5e adventure from the famous Freeport Trilogy
    I’ve run the Freeport Trilogy before and it’s great, especially when you replace the crap 1HD serpentfolk they have with the uber tough Pathfinder serpentfolk. (My players disagree! :-) This filled up sessions 7, 8, and 10 and parts of some others.
  • “Holiday In The Sun,” an interstitial adventure included in the Freeport Trilogy (was originally a free Web enhancement)
  • “Flat On Rat Street” from Shadow in the Sky
    These happened during the plot of Death instead of being interstitial and formed the bulk of session 9. The rest of life doesn’t stop for your “adventure!”
  • Mansion of Shadows,” a Green Ronin “Bleeding Edge” 3.5e adventure
    Sessions 11, 12, and 13 were all about infiltrating and taking down this location. When you’re a pirate, the lame ass adventure hooks they have in the front of these adventures don’t really matter. Your motivation is GO GET ‘EM AND TAKE THEIR SHIT!
  • “Terror in Freeport” from the Freeport Trilogy
    The second “Freeport module,” this worked really well with Shadow in the Sky, in fact both have a “defend the base against the bad guys” scene which made for easy combo. We dispensed with most of it in one session, Session 15 because I cut a lot of redundant and lame stuff from Terror (it’s the weakest installment).
  • “Madness in Freeport” from the Freeport Trilogy
    This, I spread over the entire latter half of the season, integrated totally with the latter half of Shadow in the Sky.  This adventure is where the money is, so I used whole additional modules to bolster parts of it.
  • Beyond the Towers,” a Green Ronin “Bleeding Edge” 3.5e adventure
    I mixed this up with some of Madness in Freeport to form the Golarion location of Viperwall for sessions 18, 19, and 20. The voodoo/shadow subplot is all me though.
  • A Dreadful Dawn,” a Green Ronin “Bleeding Edge” 3.5e adventure
    Mainly to introduce Jaren the Jinx, a new NPC and plot point with long term implications in session 22.
  • Throwdown With The Arm-Ripper,” a Goodman Games “Wicked Fantasy Factory” 3.5e adventure
    I augmented this with a random dungeon from Dizzy Dragon’s online generator (the dungeon part of Arm-Ripper was short and weak) but the shrine fights are great! And now that the PCs know a place where you can get body parts regenerated, they keep coming back… This formed sessions 23 and 24.
  • “Madness in Freeport” and “Shadow in the Sky” again
  • Rumble in the Wizard’s Tower,” a Goodman Games “Wicked Fantasy Factory” 3.5e adventure
    The last four sessions were all Madness in Freeport overlaying Shadow In The Sky with Rumble in the Wizard’s Tower interjected to flesh out the lighthouse. Inserting a dungeon or setpiece from another adventure into another adventure to make it uber is one of my tricks. Plus, I took a NPC/adventure seed from Denizens of Freeport and made the whole shadow-plane side trek in the middle of the climactic fight.

In terms of mini-review of these products – the Freeport Trilogy is great base material to fix up. Second Darkness is good for its first two chapters then it’s very weak once it goes into the elf/drow stuff, so it’s good material to adapt to other purposes.  Atlas Games Penubmra adventures are kinda mainstream but rather than having to write a mainstream adventure myself, I can start with one and use my prep time to kick it up a notch.  The Green Ronin Bleeding Edge adventures are better, lots of weirder stuff, usable more as-is (though usually with a power boost). The Wicked Fantasy Factory adventures are mainly valuable for their cool setpieces, the rest is very cursory.

The other seasons, coming soon!

Rotating Campaigns

I was just listening to the 3.5 Private Sanctuary podcast, Episode 220, about rotating campaigns.  It struck me because we rotate campaigns, and have been doing it for so long that I don’t really even think about it any more.

We always have two campaigns going on at a time, alternating Sunday afternoons. (Various people in the group also have other campaigns going on – like Chris runs one for some other folks we don’t know on Friday nights). Right now, Paul is running Carrion Crown and I’m running Reavers.

It’s pretty helpful.  As  busy professional and dad, I can barely keep up with prep running every other week.  It allows us to get different gaming experiences, too – sometimes different systems, different types of characters and campaigns – at once.  Some players get twitchy when they play one PC/campaign for too long and campaigns founder, or they want to switch PCs, or other unfortunate things – I feel like the swapping keeps it fresh for everyone.

And, we’re all busy adults.  For a while a number of years ago, I was a single dad with a pre-school age child.  I had to pay a babysitter to be able to get out and game, and I could only realistically swing that once every other week.

The down sides are around “not remembering what’s going on” or “not being able to differentiate between campaigns.” We keep up a rapid enough cadence where remembering is OK, plus we do these wonderful session summaries to help our memories. If we were only gaming monthly and then alternating on top of that, that would be a lot more of a problem. In terms of remembering – eh, we all also play video games and read books and stuff like that, I can distinguish between what happened in the Pathfinder novel I just read and what happened in our campaign, and similarly I can distinguish between campaigns.  It does help to play different game systems, or kinds of campaign, or at least type of character to make them more distinct.

So give rotating campaigns a try and see how you like it!  I don’t think I’d want to go back, really.

De Ludos Maleficus – On Evil Campaigns

As inspired by an RPG Stack Exchange question on how to run evil campaigns.

I’ve run a variety of tones of campaigns over time and some could be considered “evil”; in fact currently I’m running a three-year long Pathfinder campaign where the PCs are pirates, Reavers on the Seas of Fate.  Not all of them are technically evilly aligned, but murder, torture, rape, slavery, etc. have all come up in the game. Here’s how you make it work.

Why Do It?

Why would you run an “evil campaign?” Sounds like hassle!  And dubious morally, I mean, it has “evil” right there in the title.  There’s a couple reasons to run an evil campaign and the measure of success is different per type.

  1. I want to freak out and kill everyone! Not a real mature campaign type, but often behind more immature groups who want to play an “evil campaign.” Tell your players “go play Call of Duty and teabag noobs if that’s what you want.” There is no meaningful success metric here.
  2. I want freedom! Much of the time people want an ‘evil campaign’ it’s because they feel constrained/manipulated by their GM and/or other players based on an overly restrictive interpretation of alignment (or whatever similar concept your game has). They’re tired of “you can’t do that” and “Your character wouldn’t do that!” and want to cut loose. If that’s the case, consider running an evil campaign once, use it to demonstrate that criminals generally enjoy effectively less freedom than good folks per the above reasons, and then take the hint and run ‘good campaigns’ with more meaningful character choices and letting the PCs be proactive and diverse in their belief. Success is measured by whether you all learn how to do that from the game.
  3. I want to explore the darker side of human nature! This is why I run evil games. I actually have stronger beliefs on goodness than most folks in real life. I like confronting people with the consequences and ramifications of their actions in games to make them think. Is trading off part of your soul or good name or humanity worth it for that goal? How about long after you’ve achieved the goal but you’re still marked by the act? Success here is fuzzier, since games that actually uptake more roleplaying have less clearcut “win conditions” in general. But it’s successful if it’s enjoyable and if it causes people to grapple with moral questions.

But What’s It Really About?

“Evil” is not really a campaign concept (well, not one that passes muster past the 9th grade level). You need a campaign concept and one that will generally keep the PCs acting together instead of being at each others’ throats unless you’re looking for a very short, PvP campaign, which is legitimate. In fact, there’s plenty of short form indie games that facilitate that (Fiasco is probably the most notable). If you are more going fora longer campaign, however, it needs to have as much in teh way of concrete goals as any other campaign. Smart PCs know they need other mighty people to achieve their goals, good or evil.

Heck most “normal” campaign setups work as well or better with evil groups – just because you’re evil, you don’t really want where you live and work taken over by zombies or whatever, that interferes with your cashflow. Often times players want to “play evil” because they feel like the GM has been using “goodness” to manipulate them into being passive and they want to be proactive and smart in confronting threats. Squinting too hard at many campaign concepts passed off as “good” reveals them to be a sequence of home invasion, murder, and robbery anyway.

The main trap you’re trying to avoid is the PCs just self destructing by going nuts on each other and everyone in the world in general – at least, if they’d be unhappy with being hunted down and slain a couple sessions in.

Decide on Limits, Within Limits

Some people, when they say “evil campaign,” just mean “I want to kill lippy villagers like they’re orcs,” not that they want to really delve into the darker aspects of human nature. You may want to establish an agreement on tone/content with your players up front – you are not required to run (and the players aren’t required to participate) in anything they feel like is over their boundaries. I’ve been known to have players vote on approximate levels of sex, violence, etc. in a game ahead of time, and where they want it to “fade to black.”

However, a lot of that will be emergent. In my current pirate campaign, no one really thought about torture until they caught an assassin who was trying to kill the crime-boss they were aligned with. The PC halfling rogue decided he’d torture her extensively to find out who sent her. This definitely put off the other PCs – but not enough that they stopped him. Boundary established (well, lack of one).

Not every “evil” person is 100% evil and on board with everything “evil,” though. The ship took two elven women prisoner and one was claimed as a slave by a vicious half-orc pirate. The PC captain didn’t really like that but felt somewhat constrained by the expectations of the crew (mutiny is always a threat if the crew doesn’t think they’re getting their due) so he allowed it. The PCs and that half-orc were having dinner in the captain’s cabin, and the halfing from the anecdote above suddenly stabbed the half-orc to death on the dinner table (he’s an assassin now – successful death attack). He explained to the shocked command staff that he wouldn’t have any slaves on board or associate with slavers. Boundary established.

If you have real characters really roleplaying and thinking through their motivations, you’ll still have limits, whether it’s “no women, no kids” or the Mafioso that are patriotic and still want neighborhoods to be “family places.” Try to depict other “evil” people as complex in that way as well so that they will understand that evil isn’t just a race to maximum depravity. With that halfling, torture of captives is OK but slavery and rape is a killin’ offense. There’s no “Evil Checklist” you have to adhere to and say every crime ever considered is OK – in fact most evil people really are just into one and consider the others to be as bad as other folks do.  Realistic motivations and roleplaying are what will make the campaign something real and not goofy.

However – some people make too much of setting boundaries for their games. If you came up to me and asked me “Do you want to see some chick saw her cheeks off?” I’d say “No! What are you talking about?” But I just went to see the movie Evil Dead, where that exact thing happened as part of the overall horror movie experience. “Boundary pushing” can be good and desirable and allowed based on initial buyin to the general campaign premise. Sure, there’s a very slight majority of people so traumatized by something that if it comes up in game it’s going to truly trip them out, and there you have outs just like any other kind of media – “press stop,” say “I can’t deal with this” – but most gaming groups don’t really need to do more than establish the general MPAA-rating (e.g. “Hey guys I’m active in my church and I don’t really want to go past PG-13 with this game”) and then mess around in that area. Worrying too much about what exact things might disturb your players is overthinking it IMO. If you go see Evil Dead, you’d better expect that if you have a fear of/complex about anything, there’s a nonzero chance it’s going to come up in lurid color. All the buyin we required for the pirates game was “people can be evil if they want, and expect HBO Original Series level depravity, the pirate world is not a gentle one.”

Actions Have Consequences

Review How do I get my PCs to not be a bunch of murderous cretins? – there are a lot of reasons people don’t perform unrestrained evil deeds all the time, from “I don’t want to” to “I will get in trouble for it.” Sometimes my players complain that the pirate-friendly port city they frequent is “too lawful” just because they can’t get away with any heinous crime or breach of the peace they can come up with – but all societies need some kind of stability and will crack down on those affecting that too much. On the other hand, they have become used to not going out into the city alone; traveling in groups is mandatory to not be victimized themselves.

Many evil societies are like this – see how lawful Drow society looks from the outside. Our pirate PCs have to fear their pirates mutinying, the law/navy hunting them down, the bigger pirates in port deciding they’re too big for their britches or have so much loot that they’re a tempting target in turn. Criminals “hide out” for a reason – they are not free to operate within larger society, and therefore end up having less freedom than good people (something good to play up as the GM). The law, higher level “good” adventurers, etc. are always looking to wipe you out with a clear conscience.

A mechanical option here is keeping track of “infamy points” – I have my own homebrew system I use, but there’s a lot of extant reputation-tracking mechanics in the world. People have heard of the big bad people and will react like people do – avoid, confront, narc them out, victimize them, etc. Remember that many victims of crime are doing something bad themselves – criminals, or at least the dishonest, make the best marks for cons and crimes because they have little legal recourse. The pirate PCs can’t go just anywhere as their infamy becomes known; honest ports reject them, and other evil folks are generally not the best allies because they like to turn on you when you blink.

So that’s my take on evil campaigns.  Our current one is turning out very well, with complex characters. Sindawe the captain is reluctant to do much “really bad” stuff himself except the occasional act of violence – but he’s happy to let/order others to do them. Serpent is concerned with getting married and having a kid, and even surreptitiously tried to let some of the elven women escape, but he’s even more murder happy than the more measured and Lawful Sindawe. Wogan tries to not do much evil himself but he doesn’t speak against it either. Tommy tortures and worships lust demons, but will do anything to free some slaves. HBO Original Series achieved!

Campaign Planning

Game prep is the single largest task of the Game Master in any RPG.  If you want, you can write your own adventures and create your own campaign settings and all that, but regardless of what you construct yourself vs. use from another source, everyone has to prep game sessions.

I thought I’d give some insight into how I plan my campaigns, for those interested in running multi-year kinds of stories.  I try to balance in the sweet spot of “sandbox enough that PCs feel like they can go anywhere and do anything” with “story enough that there is something actually interesting and compelling to go do.”

The overall trick is drawn from the project management world, it’s called horizon planning. Basically, you make rough plans for far in the future so you have a target, and have more specific preparations for more proximate activities.

I tend to separate the timeframes out into campaign, plot arc, adventure, and session.

The Campaign

For the campaign level, at start I decide what I’m interested in and survey the players and come up with a rough idea of what the campaign will look like, and run that by the players to get buy-in.  In our Reavers on the Seas of Fate campaign, I pitched a pirate adventure/horror campaign with anime influence that would start out urban as a mix of Riddleport from Second Darkness and Freeport, move on to open seas pirate action, and then to the jungles of the Mwangi and other esoteric locations. The PCs signed off on that and submitted their ideas for cool stuff they’d like to see included, and I know things I’d like to put in. For campaign prep, I basically have all those ideas in a sheaf to draw from.

The Arcs

The three aforementioned legs formed my three potential major campaign arcs or “seasons.” I have a Word doc where I block out an arc and list potential published adventures and other things to include.  It’s high level enough that it doesn’t change much but is very amenable to change when new stuff comes my way either through new content or player action.

The arc I’m in, I plan out the sequence of adventures more. In the first arc, the urban arc, I planned out that I’d use the first Second Darkness adventure, interleaving it with the Freeport Trilogy of adventures, and other stuff. I roughly blocked out, again in Word, what a likely sequencing would be. Some parts are more mandatory, like the culmination of the Freeport trilogy was intended as a significant plot point. Some are completely optional – “if they agree to go with Captain Clap and raid the island, use Mansion of Darkness.”

For example, my season one prep information for Reavers consisted of NPC writeups, handouts, and a list of probable adventures in rough order, like:

  • Water Stop – while the PCs are sailing to Riddleport, they come across some escaped slaves on an island (use Water Stop from En Route II) and a goblin pirate ship (use the Sable Drake from Stormwrack).
  • Cheat the Devil and Steal His Gold – the PCs get to Riddleport and visit the Gold Goblin when a robbery breaks out; use the adventure from Second Darkness “Shadow In The Sky.” Try to get them to join up with Saul.

Of course they may never use one or more of these, or react to them in a way that obviates the adventure – “Escaped slaves? We murder them all and sail off quickly!”

As the game progresses, I more frequently revisit this based on PC action, inserting, deleting, and reordering. “They want to go back to the island from Arm-Ripper? OK, plan that out…” This relies on a little give and take from the PCs.  I don’t want to nail them down, but I like them to tell me what they’re thinking about doing as opposed to them just setting sail and making me guess where they’re heading.  “We turn left and NOW WE’RE AT THE ISLAND AGAIN!  Ha ha ha you’re not prepared.” My players are more than mature enough that doesn’t happen, though of course there’s always the chance when in town or whatnot that they decide to go stir up a major hornet’s nest I don’t have much on.

Handling The Unexpected

This is actually where a lot of the bulk my advance prep takes place. It’s easy to prep for a session you expect, but harder to prep for one you don’t.  I make sure and have a raft of content around. For an urban setting, for example, I might go “light random generation and wing it” like with Vornheim: The Complete City Kit, or have Freeport: The City of Adventure (both versions) around to pull from.  I actually do both, to use depending on my mood.

I have major NPCs pre-statted with contingencies – the main risk is that the PCs will say “that crime lord a-hole has been dogging us long enough, let’s go kick down his door and go all home invasion on him.”

Along those lines – I keep notes from old sessions and keep them around, and expand on them as needed. PCs are unlikely to go toss themselves through the window of a random bar, but they are very likely to do so with a bar they have been in before. I pay attention to throwaway stuff the PCs react well to – like recently, the PCs were trying to sell off some loot and the party halfling made good rolls to find them some perfect buyers. So they went into this little private bar to sell some cold iron weapons and found some very serious looking people with an obvious grudge against all things fae. I just made it up as an explanation for a high rate of return on selling cold iron weapons, but the PCs were intrigued. “We should go look up those racists again! They were cool!” Note to self, write it up and keep it on hand.

The Adventure

A given adventure may span one or less sessions, but more commonly it spans 2-4 sessions depending on its complexity and the PCs. Here, I may use a published adventure or not. I’m not going to say too much about prepping an adventure – if it’s published, I read through it, decide what I want to add, remove, or change, and consider how my PCs will likely react. If coming up with an adventure, you may need as much prepped as you’re comfortable with – if you are a super on the fly guy and you like coming up with whole dungeon complexes off the cuff with nothing but a random monster table, fine – if you need as much detail as a published adventure, write it down. Suffice it to say that you usually have a lot less control as to what part of the adventure the PCs will be doing in a given session, they may go anywhere, so you need near session level detail on the adventure. I tend to use little chunks from published things, write some myself, and fill in the gaps with random generation and improvisation.

The Session

I spend as much time prepping a session as the session takes to play.  Our sessions are usually ~6 hours. Some adventures have more of a timeline and I can prep just the early part as a session; others (like a location-based dungeon) need several sessions worth of prep  up front.

I keep a separate Word doc for each session, which also serves as notes afterwards. It usually spans 2-5 pages, depending on how much of the content is original vs. derived from a published product, and has three sections:

  • Cast of Characters
  • Adventure
  • Notes

Cast of Characters

I list all the relevant NPCs, good and bad, and named monsters that are likely to appear in the session.  If “War2, ship’s carpenter” is enough information I put it inline; for major guys I have a reference – “see Denizens of Freeport p.76” or an attached PDF, often generated from Hero Lab, with the NPC in question.

This is often a large part of the session writeup for me – I do very character driven stuff, and in this campaign the PCs often have NPCs along, have a ship crewed with NPCs, have various major NPCs involved with them or scheming against them. My philosophy is that if you have enough interesting characters, the adventures unfold largely on their own. As an example, here’s a partial list from my Cheat the Devil session prep sheet:

Bojask, Saul’s bodyguard (SS p.39)
Pigsaw, boar (SS p.40)
Lixy Parmenter
Marzielle Ajuela, firey part-time barmaid
Iecha, scullery maid – This lady reminds you of a crazed lunatic. She has almond-shaped eyes the color of fine silver. Her thick, straight, black hair is short and is worn in a bizarre style. She is short and has a busty build. Her skin is china-white. She has a large mouth. Her wardrobe is risque.
Angvar Thestlecrit, wizard robber
Thuvalia Barabbio, one-eyed robber
4 nameless thieves

Many are from the Shadow in the Sky adventure or the Gold Goblin location writeup; I reference or enhance as needed. That Iecha description is pasted from a random generator. I usually generate visual aids, too, with a picture for major NPCs and their name.

Adventure

What’s probably going to happen, or could happen.  I tend to keep this pretty bare bones, and refer out to set-pieces from other adventures or whatnot.  From my Cheat the Devil session, here’s my adventure notes. It has some random things, and then a little info around the likely big fight from Shadow in the Sky.

Wandering Riddleport

  • Meet Samaritha Beldusk at the Cypher Lodge, she can ID the wand the PCs found last adventure.
  • Have people go to the Publican House.
  • Have people go to the House of the Silken Veil.  Shorafa Pamodae, Lavender Lil, and Selene will be here.  Selene is already working there and wants Ox.
  • Use Riddleport random encounters table

Go to the Gold Goblin and run Cheat the Devil, Take his Gold SS p.13

Robbery! SS p.16
Angvar: “All right, everybody be cool, this is a robbery!”
Thuvalia: “Any of you fucking pricks move, and I’ll execute every motherfucking last one of ya!”
Blunderbuss 500 gp 1d12 3d6 19-20/x2 15 ft. 8 lbs. B and P

If they fight off the robbers, Saul asks them to join!  Gives them vouchers for a trip to the Silken Veil if they haven’t gone yet.  Run the Goblin, do beast fights, have random trouble.

That’s it. With NPCs and city setting information, that’s more than enough for me. Of course, getting all that stuff together and familiarizing myself with it takes a whole evening.

Notes

Here, I keep the notes from the session.  They are short but keep the important parts – character interactions, places visited, things accomplished…  Here’s an example notes section from the Cheat the Devil session:

  • Wogan went to Kolter’s shop for powder and shot
  • Selene seduced Ox
  • Tommy solicited Lavender Lil
  • Sindawe used in Infamy Point to do a stunt and KO Thuvalia
  • Angvar and Thuvalia were caught alive and have been exiled from Riddleport
  • Sindawe faces Zincher in the Gold Goblin
  • Iecha starts in on Wogan but Ox intervenes, now she’s onto him

Of course, often I’ll prep a whole adventure as one session, and the PCs will only get through part of it.  In that case I commute the unused prep to the next session and add extra prep if I think that’ll be required to fill the session – most things can stand more expansion!