Borderland of Adventure: Campaign Structure

I’ve received a couple of questions recently about the structure of my campaign and how I plan and plot its progression. This seemed like a good time to provide some answers.

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Before discussing the flow of the campaign, it’s important to remember a couple of things:

  • Slow Advancement Track: I use the slow advancement track. This slows down the PCs’ advancement (shockingly) which means they are not racing through the levels. For example, we have had 53 sessions of the campaign so far and the highest level character has just reached 5th-level. This helps me tell a much tighter story as the characters can still realistically be facing orcs (or goblins or whatever) after almost two years of game time.
  • Training Time: I enforce a training time house rule. When a PC gains enough XP to level, he must spend a number of weeks equal to the level he is attaining in training. Wizards learn spells, fighter spar, rogues practise their skills and so on during this time. Furthermore, except in exceptional circumstances, the training PC(s) must be in a place of safety during this period (somewhere such as a town or village). I make an exception to this for druids, rangers and barbarians.
  • Crafting Magic Items: Because I like a low level of magic in the campaign, I have extended the time it takes to make magic items from one day per 1,000 gp value to one week per 1,000 gp value.
  • Multiple Characters & Campaign Time: Because I enforce campaign time rigidly, if a character is training or crafting magic items when the rest of the party wants to adventure the affected character must use his backup character. All players have at least two characters.

Campaign Goals

I had some goals in mind when I started the Borderland of Adventure campaign:

  • Link with Kingmaker: I’d just run a Kingmaker campaign in the northern Bone March and wanted to link the two so that events in one could affect the other. Someday, I’ll post the session summaries of this campaign. It did not end well!
  • Tell/Share A Story: I wanted to create a cohesive storyline in which the PCs were the main heroes. However, I didn’t want the storyline to be a bunch of random adventures jammed together with their only common factor being the PCs. There had to be an overall point to the campaign beyond “kick in the door and take the monster’s stuff.”
  • Stay Geographically Tight: I wanted to keep the story in the same general area: Ratik and its environs. I think this helps the PCs identify more with the campaign and lets them build up meaningful relationships with places and people that may feature in more than one adventure.
  • Run A Long Campaign: I haven’t got a lot of staying power when it comes to campaigns. My chum, Red Hodges, seems to be able to run long campaigns, but I often fail to do so – either I lose interest or the party suffers an unfortunate accident THROUGH NO FAULT OF MY OWN.
  • Include Greyhawk Canon: Ratik is fairly sparsely detailed in Greyhawk lore, but I wanted to include as many “official” events, NPCs and so on as possible. I’m a Greyhawk nut.
  • Free Will (Within Reason): The PCs should have the freedom to do the adventures that interested them. I detest railroads and I think a more relaxed, open campaign structure is much more conducive to player enjoyment. After all, we all want to be masters of our own destiny. Normally the party have three or four choices as to which adventure to do next. As long as I know a session or two in advance, there is no problem.

Campaign Structure

So with all that in mind I set out to the elements of the campaign:

  • Campaign Arc: The campaign arc is the single overarching storyline that links the other elements of the campaign together. It in turn comprises several Year Arcs.
  • Year Arcs: I decided to have each game year (give or take) comprise a campaign arc roughly equivalent to a TV show’s season. Each season would have a particular threat or villain to overcome and many of the adventures would be thematically linked. Of course, year arcs are not standalone affairs and the various plots and subplots of the campaign may not end at the end of the year. For example, at the end of last year the PCs were instrumental in driving off the orc invasion which culminated in the Battle of the Loftwood. During their heroics, they discovered information that has propelled them into this year’s arc.
  • Standalone Adventures: Not all adventures build toward the year arc. Some were just interesting, diversionary side trek-type events. Others existed to provide XP, certain items or contacts or just served to set the scene or change the style an pace of the party’s exploits.
  • Arc Adventure: Arc adventures contributed toward the overarching story of the year arc. Of course, some of these adventures might not be obviously linked to the year arc – I like to reward attentive play.

Preparation, Preparation, Preparation

Running a campaign takes a lot of preparation, but it’s not all stat blocks and bourbon.

  • Campaign Arc: Obviously, when I started to plot out the campaign I decided on the overall campaign arc. That hasn’t changed.
    Year Arcs: I work a couple of years ahead on the specific year arcs. So I know in good detail what I want to achieve this year and I have a general outline for the year after. Of course, given the PCs can affect almost anything working any further ahead than that is utterly pointless.
  • Standalone Adventures: I maintain a couple of these at any time and can drop them in as and when I need to. That’s not to say I can run one tomorrow, but I have several appropriate modules picked out and I’ve given them a read through. Luckily, with the slow advancement track such modules can stay relevant for much of a game year (as scaling encounters is pretty easy in Pathfinder).
  • Arc Adventures: I know in advance what the next arc adventure is going to be. Luckily to date, the party have decided to do almost all of these so the campaign trajectory hasn’t suffered that much.
  • Random Encounters: Having a small supply of ready to go random encounters is terrifically useful. If the PCs are moving to slowly or need to be slowed down I can drop one or two of these in their path. Having the stats and NPC personas already done enables me to focus on adding relevance to the encounter so it doesn’t feel like a random fight. Some of these random encounters have even led the party into complete different directions which I didn’t anticipate at the time. This is good, however, as it promotes my Free Will (Within Reason) campaign goal.

Summing Up

And there you have it – a broad overview of how I manage the campaign. Because my players read this blog I have shied away from giving explicit examples of the various arcs I am using and I’ve refrained from labelling this or that adventure as a standalone or arc adventure. Doing so might alert them to plots and schemes they may (or may not) have missed.

I hope, though, this post has given you a good feel for how I organise my game. I’d love to get your thoughts and advice in the comments section below.

Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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3 thoughts on “Borderland of Adventure: Campaign Structure

  1. Sounds like a good set of guidelines. I’m hoping to start a new Greyhawk campaign at my flgs soon. I can always use some good managerial ideas so I appreciate this blog entry!

  2. Hello! This is helpful to see your overall approach, thanks for sharing. I’d be interested in reading some details on how you translated your Kingmaker environment from Golarion to Oerth.