Continuing the conversation on what it takes to run an open table, specifically with the campaign concept. I went through many iterations of my game before settling on what is now the “Campaign of Skorne.” But there were others I thought of along the way.
West Marches (and my beef with it)
Now I didn’t make this concept, but I have run this kind of game before. The concept is that there is a central town and a direction to explore filled with discoveries and dangers. You start in the town, grab a party of adventurers in head in the direction you’re allowed to (usually west) and try to find as much treasure as possible. When I ran it, my notes simply listed what players would run into if they went north, south, east, or west from the town. It was moderately easy to prepare for.
My biggest problem with the game was something that I found underlying all open table concepts: there’s either no REASON to get back to a central location (you could camp out in the wilderness, dig yourself in when traversing the dungeon, or hide in a hole) and there’s no RUSH (you could wander for days, take your time with every encounter, and generally waste everyone’s time by doing so). The RUSH makes it so that each session is self-contained and reaches a dramatic conclusion every time. You have to come back to the central location by end of the session in an open table game because that’s where the “party stable” is. Start and finish in the same spot.
Additionally, the GOAL of the party in a West Marches game is pretty selfish and singular. The “shared goal” is to get treasure, but you can screw over other players so long as you make it back to the town. After all, they’re the ones that have to make new characters. There’s no incentive to share loot with the rest of the party. Like, at all. And let it be known that I am not a referee that demands communist policies, “‘else the Nazi demons come a callin’.”
Finally, I like games that have an arc to them. There’s gotta be some “final countdown” or “ticking clock” or DOOM that gives the campaign a spine. Or else, like the RUSH mentioned earlier, all the players can take their time with incremental risks, seeing as they can just keep making characters, dying over and over and adventuring forever and ever. There’s has to be some end in mind in order for the game to be sustainable. Then you as the referee can hint at the campaign’s impending end and the danger that the players must inevitably band together against to defy. But the DOOM must also connect to the goal somehow. You can’t just have a big dragon arrive and smash the town when the party has been collecting Deku Nuts this whole time as their team goal. Unless they can somehow use the Deku Nuts in a giant slingshot and damage the dragon based on how many Deku Nuts they’ve collected over the course of a campaign… Maybe that is a good idea… I take it back.
That can be the finale! Otherwise the open table, like a lot of adventure games, just sputters and dies without any conclusion. We’ve all been there. Let’s make it right this time.
Gold Rescue Team
Team goal: People from town are going missing! The players are a rescue team (like in the Pokemon Mystery Dungeon series) located in a town on the edge of the wilds. They save people that have been kidnapped on the roads or stranded in the wilderness.
What’s the rush: Each session, the players leave the town at dawn and have 1 hour (in real time) before nightfall and the Bloodmoon arrives in the night sky.
Reason they can’t stick around: During nightfall, the Bloodmoon sends monsters into an active frenzy, whereby they chase adventurers in a massive, seemingly possessed mob. However, the town is protected by a runic power circle cast by the town’s long-dead sorceress years ago, making it the optimal safe haven.
Impending Doom: There’s a cult inside the city (tied to the Bloodmoon somehow, of course) looking to destroy the runic power circle and take control of the town. They’ve been the ones stealing people from their homes and supplying the orc warlord in the mountains with weapons! Can the players recruit enough allies to stop the cult and save the town?
Short and sweet. The biggest draw for me is that if you help more people, you have more allies in the final fight. Simple cause and effect that makes the players’ decisions matter (obviously important).
Raiders of the Lost Sea
This one is based on a board game I played and from reading young adult viking fiction. The players are the raiders in question, be they pirates or vikings, on sea vessels or space frigates. I also totally dig sails in space.
Team goal: The players are raiders hired by the state to consistently pillage an enemy kingdom’s coastal cities via ship from a nearby secret base (in a cave on the water, on an asteroid) on behalf of their own kingdom.
What’s the rush: Each session, the players leave their secret base to make a raid on a city of their choice. They have 1 hour (in real time) before the enemy kingdom’s patrol arrives to reinforce the targeted settlement.
Reason they can’t stick around: The patrol will MURDER the raiders with superior force and also chase them with boats of their own if given the chance.
Impending Doom: The ruler of the raided land returns from a war abroad with a massive army. They will not only chase the players and the raiders out of their secret base, but attack their homeland as well. The amount of treasure they’ve accumulated will have a direct impact on how high quality their warriors and battlements are in the final fight.
This one could have a more variable time amount. Maybe attacking the sleepy village will give the party 1.5 hours to raid, but the rewards aren’t as good. Contrast this with the capital city that gives only 30 minutes before the cavalry arrives. Maybe making more noise by running in and screaming instead of being stealth reduces the timer by 10 minutes.
“But I want to run a megadungeon! Whaa whaa!” Alright, fine. Have your cobblestone cake, you baby.
Team goal: The players are adventurers hired by a mining town to stop monsters from emerging from a deep in the mountain and killing their laborers. They are spawning from several portals on different levels of the dungeon, guarded by awesome boss monsters (naturally). The players are given a complex ritual for collapsing these portals.
What’s the rush: The players can only carry a limited amount of light via torches, oil, lanterns, etc. Each session, they have X minutes (in real time) before their lights go out. X is based on how many light sources the party carries (maybe 10 minutes per “torch” as a unit of measurement).
Reason they can’t stick around: Most of the monsters have darkvision… and it can get very dark in the deep places of the world…
Impending Doom: For the final session the boss at the bottom portal (who has been telegraphed to your players the whole time because you’re a good referee) summons a BIG MONSTER that is super slow (or alternatively, several big monsters that are also super slow). The players have to figure out how to rig the dungeon in, say 2 hours (real time) and set it up best to deal with this crisis. Big fight happens, collapses the last portal.
I think light would be a fun mechanic to tinker with. You can only hold so many sources of light on your person at one time. Who holds the torches when they’re lit? Who sacrifices the use of one arm while leading and lighting the way? How many people are holding torches at one time? More people holding more torches mean less time in the dungeon because the torch supply will burn (haha) faster. What if someone drops a torch in combat and now fewer people can see? Maybe the number of people holding torches corresponds to a relevant advantage or disadvantage while exploring or in combat:
- 6+ sources = blinding to most monsters, stunning them
- 5 sources = advantage on initiative and attack rolls
- 4 sources = advantage on initiative rolls
- 3 sources = no effect
- 2 sources = disadvantage on initiative rolls
- 1 source = disadvantage on initiative and attack rolls
- 0 sources = fail all attack, initiative and most skill rolls
Perhaps there could even be a darkness penalty as the party descends, decreasing their overall light score. Or some levels are colder, requiring that the players light more torches or they must save vs. cold…
Team goal: The players are a team of adventurers interested in keeping their hometown safe from collapse. There’s a pervasive miasma in the wilderness that infects people like nuclear radiation. The hometown has a crystal fueled by “myrrh” or some other magic substance that can only be found in the wild. The players have to find more “myrrh” found in magical trees “somewhere out in that direction.”
What’s the rush: Each session, the players leave their hometown with a small crystal of their own to protect themselves. The crystal takes 1 hour (again, real-time) before it runs out of “myrrh.” By then, they either have found more “myrrh” or got back to town.
Reason they can’t stick around: When the “myrrh” runs out, pervasive miasma kills the players (and all non-monsters) like radiation.
Impending Doom: Myrrh-hungry monsters begin to emerge and are coming for the hometown’s crystal! Band together with your allies back home and fight off the invasion!
Leave town, find tree, kill boss, get magic juice, return home a hero. Repeat. But there’s also that position element that could make for interesting encounter design; you can’t leave the radius of the crystal’s power for too long without taking damage. What happens when a player wants to run ahead of the party to capture the goblins that stole some valuable loot? What happens when the party encounters a monster that pulls or pushes a player outside the radius? Who carries the crystal? A horse? A party member? A cool magic camel or elephant?
What other qualities does the crystal possess? Maybe the party can customize some magical party-wide effect in combat.
Can the players heal the world as the campaign finale? Find some way to turn back the terrible damage that’s been done? Who knows?
City of Skorne
Team goal: The players live in a city oppressed by the evil Lord Skorne. They have to collect magic artifacts to take him down.
What’s the rush: Each session, the players dive into a portal that takes them from the city to the wilderness. The portal is only open for, you guessed it, 1 hour (real-time).
Reason they can’t stick around: Lord Skorne ruling the world has corrupted the land, making it uninhabitable. Being stuck out here after the portal closes either results in insanity, mutation, or death by monsters… Or all three.
Impending Doom: Lord Skorne finds the rebellion inside the city and crushes them, bringing the city completely under his tyrannical rule.
I’ve already written about how this campaign is going, so no need to bore you with more details.
And that’s it, many, many words later. Now, go forth young adventurer! And make cool game concepts!
EDIT: Someone on Reddit wanted to do the “Deep Delve” concept with 5e DnD, which doesn’t restrict light sources as low-magic systems do (like Knave). So I suggested mixing the Crystal Chronicle and Deep Delve idea and the result was pretty cool:
Team goal: The players are adventurers hired by a mining town to stop monsters from emerging from a deep in the mountain and killing their laborers. They are spawning from several portals on different levels of the dungeon, guarded by awesome boss monsters (naturally). The players are given a complex ritual for collapsing these portals. However, there is also a pervasive miasma in the dungeon that infects people like nuclear radiation.
What’s the rush: Each session, the players delve into the dungeon with a bowling ball-sized crystal that is a precious town heirloom that protects them from the miasma. The crystal takes 1 hour (real-time) before it runs out of “myrrh” (or any other type of magic juice, really). It is refilled at a magic well in town.
Reason they can’t stick around: When the “myrrh” runs out, the pervasive miasma slowly kills the players (and all non-monsters) like radiation.
Impending Doom: For the final session the boss at the bottom portal (who has been telegraphed to your players the whole time because you’re a good referee) summons a BIG MONSTER that is super slow (or alternatively, several big monsters that are also super slow). The players have to figure out how to rig the dungeon, using all their knowledge about the layout and environments in ~2 hours (real time) in order to set it up best to deal with this crisis. A big fight happens, the last portal collapses.
Maybe the portal-collapsing process/ritual involves USING the crystal somehow? Just to intertwine the game elements more tightly…