I run games laden with intrigue and sweeping plot arcs. I juggle multiple storylines, each with a write-up. I invest time creating elaborate background for nonplayer characters and player characters. The problem is, when you’re only meeting once every other week for five or six hours, you can only relate so much of all that story over the course of a game.
To that effect, I’ve taken inspiration from Nepitello’s Fellowship Phase from The One Ring system. I’ve created something suitable for my own needs, and I call it: Campaign Mode.
Campaign mode isn’t for everyone, but I hope some people find it useful. My hope is that I might actually be able to use the following rules set to (a) wrap up all the character story lines and (b) include some players who have left the campaign due to relocations. This system is still something I’m developing, so please comment with your feedback. If you’re a player and not a Dungeon Master, I still welcome feedback, and if you like what you see, please encourage your Dungeon Master to take a look.
Campaign mode is a new instrument in a Dungeon Master’s toolbox for time and story management. It can be used to pass days, months, or even years, without forcing either the players or Dungeon Master to go into great minutia about the actions taking place in the campaign world. As a Dungeon Master, you should decide whether or not campaign mode is right for your game, though it’s a good idea to take into consideration the types of players at your table and to consult them before introducing it.
The Flow of Time
Time in a Dungeons & Dragon game normally flows in three ways compared to game table time: either at a fractional pace, an equivalent pace, or at a moderately accelerated pace. For example, time flows at a fractional pace during combat. The time “in game” is only a fraction of game table time. In 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons, one combat (five minutes) is about an hour at the game table, or approximately one-tenth game table time. Exploration or social interaction occurs at an equivalent pace. You say what your character says to the nonplayer character, or alternatively, in the time it takes you to explain that your character is searching the room and roll the die, the character could have made a good start on his or her search. Finally, game time proceeds at a moderately accelerated pace. You might explain to the Dungeon Master how your character spends his or her day in town, or how the part is traveling by horse to a nearby cave. In this case, the game time might be equal to anywhere from one-hundred to one-thousand times the game table time. That is, it takes you 1 minute to explain what your character is doing, and in that time, a couple hours might pass, or a day might pass.
Nothing in the game limits escalating of this system of time to a higher magnitude. Why shouldn’t a player be able to explain what a character does over the course of a week, a month, or even a year? In a traditional Dungeons & Dragons game, the answer to that question is that the adventure or the campaign doesn’t allow it. A Dungeon Master can’t have his or her players saying “I spend the next year of my character’s life going to recover the Rod of Seven Parts.” For one, it puts a Dungeon Master in the awkward position of telling that player to not bother showing up for the next session, plus all the sessions after that. It is also impractical because a Dungeon Master can’t just let the players complete quests without challenge. For that reason, a Dungeon Master should decide whether to use campaign mode in his or her game, and when to use it.
Campaign Mode Basics
Once you decide to use campaign mode, ideally with consulting your players, you should provide or communicate the following rules to them.
Initiate: A Dungeon Master initiates campaign mode at the end of a rest, generally in a safe location, such as a town. However, in order to expedite travel through wilderness, a Dungeon Master might decide to initiate campaign mode during a rest while the heroes are traveling through or exploring harsh or dangerous environs. The Dungeon Master can announce that the game is entering campaign mode or can do so through the narrative. For example, you might state that in subsequent days, travel passes uneventfully, and it looks as though the party faces no immediate threats and has no pressing matters to address.
Determine Timespan: Both the players and the Dungeon Master determine how much time passes. Before asking the players how much time they want to spend in campaign mode, you determine the upper limit of time the characters can spend. This amount of time should generally not exceed 5 years, and it is usually limited by events related to the campaign. Villains are unlikely to let the characters relax for too long, and threats of war and the promise of treasure can interrupt the actions characters perform in campaign mode. Determine the maximum timepsan by choosing an increment of time. Also, decide what campaign event, if any, interrupts the characters actions in campaign mode.
After you’ve decided upon the timespan and campaign event, it’s time for the players to decide how much time to expend. This decision should be a collaborative process, in which the players examine their characters’ goals, obligations, and interests, and then come to a consensus. If a consensus is not possible, you can deal with the disagreement in two ways: go with the length of time the majority of the players want, or go with the minimum amount of time a player proposes.
Determine Actions: Once both DM and players have decided on a timespan, each player decides how to spend his or her actions during that time. A player chooses how to spend his or her actions based on the entire unit of time. For example, a player can’t break a month down into several week-long increments, or a year down into twelve month-long increments.
A character’s activities in campaign mode are represented by two types of actions: a major action and a travel action. A major action, similar to a standard action, makes up the bulk of a character’s activities during the campaign mode timespan. A travel action, similar to a move action, represents a character traveling some distance overland, based on what can be accomplished during the timepsan.
Going around the table, each player tells the DM how his or her character will spend these actions during the timespan, and in what order. Whether or not a proposed task can be accomplished within the timespan is determine by the Dungeon Master. If a player’s proposal is too ambitious, let the player know how long his or her character expects the action to take. At your option, you can allow a player to accomplish part of his or her major action if time runs out or if an event interrupts the action (see “Unfinished Business”). Here are some general suggestions for what a character might accomplish with his or her major action.
More Than 1 Year
Creation: Build a castle or tower, create a mundane or magic item of exquisite craftsmanship, found a city, invent a new spell, create a magical beast, write a book
Education: Retrain your character classes, learn a hard language, adopt a new career requiring years of training, such as captain of the guard, general, a guild leader, a governor, a chieftain, a physician, an abbot, or a high-ranking member of the clergy.
Exploration: Track down an object or location lost for centuries, mount a major expedition, map an a vast uncharted region, complete a challenging major quest
Relationships: Start a family, develop a vendetta, gain a nemesis, train a dangerous or untame beast, rekindle a friendship with a long-lost family member, gain an apprentice, develop a lifelong friendship with a person or a rapport with the citizens of a city.
6 Months – 1 Year
Creation: Build a large house, create a mundane or magic item of fine craftsmanship, found a village, invent a new cantrip, research a secretive organization or obscure arcane subject,
Education: Attend a university, train a domesticated beast, retrain your theme, skills, feats, powers, or class features, learn an easy language, adopt a new career requiring considerable training, such as a knight, a lieutenant in the army, an armorer, aweaponsmith, a metalsmith, a merchant, a mayor, a constable, a steward, a scholar, an innkeeper, an apothecary, an animal trainer, an artist or performer, an acolyte, or a mid-ranking member of the clergy.
Exploration: Track down an object, location, or a person that has been seen or heard from for decades, mount an expedition, map a dungeon or small uncharted region, complete a major quest,
Relationships: Get married or develop a relationship, gain a reputation for something incredible, develop a rivalry, develop a strong friendship with a person or a rapport with the citizens of a large town.
1 Month – 6 Months
Creation: Build a small house,, create a mundane item of good quality
Education: Research an obscure organization or esoteric subject, train a simple domesticated animal, retrain one of your skills, powers, or class features, learn fragments of a difficult language, become a squire, a soldier in the army, a mercenary, an apprentice armorer, an apprentice weaponsmith, an apprentice metalsmith, a counter, a scribe, a stablehand, a deputy, a server, or a low-ranking member of the clergy.
Exploration: Track down an object, a location, or a person that hasn’t been seen or heard from in several years, mount a minor expedition, map a river or a path through a wilderness region, complete a challenging minor quest
Relationships: Fall in love, meet a rival or adversary, gain a reputation, develop a good friendship with a person or a rapport with the citizens of a small town.
1 Week – 3 Weeks
Creation: Purchase land, start a farm
Education: Read a tome, decipher a faded scroll, research a widely documented organization or subject, train an intelligent domesticated animal, find out the local rumors or legends, retrain one of your powers, learn fragments of a common language.
Exploration: Track down an elusive local object or a person that hasn’t been seen or heard from in weeks, explore a local forest or mountain, gain insight or hints into completing a quest.
Relationships: Become smitten, develop a friendly rivalry, gain a minor reputation
The next stage in campaign mode is to create a narrative for the passage of time and, if appropriate, confront the characters with challenges. A character faces the possibility of adversity every round that his or her character spends in campaign mode. If you’re in a game with very little dice-rolling, this might just be the Dungeon Master describing a challenge and the player responding with how his or her player overcomes it. Typically, a Dungeon Master has a character face as least one challenge per turn, either as part of his or her travel action or (more frequently) as part of the major action. Here’s a couple examples of how that might play out.
How far a character can go using his or her travel action in campaign mode depends heavily on the passage of time, the type of terrain, and what perils a character might encounter during his or her travels. Rather than dragging out the overland travel tables and bringing the game to a halt, consider using a regional map or a continental map and estimating a distance that’s realistic for a character to travel. As described in my previous post, a character will typically spend its campaign mode rounds in increment of days, weeks, or months. For example, if the players agreed to spend a week of game time in campaign mode, then each character gets seven rounds (each of which includes one travel action and one major action). Alternatively, if a group agrees to spend a month in campaign mode, each character might get four rounds, representing a week of time.
The amount of travel an adventurer can accomplish depends heavily on any challenges a character must confront. For example, a character traveling through a mountain pass might encounter a blizzard or a tribe of hostile giants. A Dungeon Master should create plausible and interesting challenges based on where a character is traveling. If an adventurer is passing on a major highway, and there’s no reason to challenge that character, avoid slowing down the game by creating an insignificant threat, such as bandits. Remember, each player is going to be taking several turns in campaign mode. If you’re a DM, you don’t want the entire table to be stuck waiting while each adventurer encounters bandits. Instead, reserve challenges as a way to present characters with interesting predicaments or circumstances.
Continuing with the example of the character traveling through the mountain pass, a situation might play out as follows:
Dungeon Master: You’re currently in Krestible. You have a week this round; what would you like to do?
Player: This round, I want to journey over the Yatil Mountains to reach Molvar, where I’m going to join a mercenary company.
Dungeon Master: Joining the mercenary company shouldn’t be too difficult with your fighter, but the mountains might pose a challenge. The Wyrm’s Tail pass connects Krestible and Molvar, but it’s late autumn, and the weather has begun to turn harsh. As you’re traveling the pass, you encounter a storm. Do you press on or seek refuge?
Player: I purchased equipment before setting out, so I’ll push on.
Dungeon Master: Sure, it makes sense you’d have some winter gear. Regardless, I’m going to need you to make a check.
At this point, you can ask the player to make a skill check, ability check, or saving throw for his or her character—whatever is appropriate for the edition of Dungeons & Dragons you are playing. If you’re playing 4th Edition, for example, you might call for an Endurance check. A 3rd Edition character might require a Survival check.
If the character is successful, the adventurer can continue on to Molvar. Since he or she already faced a challenge this round, and since joining the mercenary company is fairly plausible, the Dungeon Master might not require an additional check, unless the mercenary company is particularly prestigious or selective. If the character fails the check during the travel action, that might result in the adventurer having to seek refuge, or perhaps being captured by a hostile mountain tribe. It probably goes without saying, but don’t let any of these challenges result in a character’s death, unless that character’s player is being intentionally reckless. Since campaign mode is a summary of actions, dying during this method of play is particularly unsatisfying, because a player might feel as though he or she wasn’t given a fair chance to avoid death.
If a character fails a campaign mode challenge, it usually forces a player to change his or her character’s actions. For example, the character who failed to cross the Wyrm’s Tail Pass must now spend his or her major action surviving in a mountain cave or attempting to escape from the tribe, which could constitute the character’s major actions for that round.
Challenges for major actions play out almost the same as travel actions, except that the consequences of success or failure are usually more significant. Most of the actions described in the previous post—those that fall into the education, relationship, exploration, or creation categories—have potentially significant rewards.
When a player tells the Dungeon Master what major action his or her character will be performing, the Dungeon Master should consider two aspects of the action: How equipped is the adventurer to perform the action and what is a feasible reward, if any. If the adventurer is well equipped to perform the action, and the reward is minimal, then consider allowing the player character to simply accomplish a task (such as with the joining the mercenary company in the example above).
How prepared a character is to tackle an action depends on a number of factors, such as a character’s class, level, equipment, allies, race, theme or background, ability scores, and so forth. A Dungeon Master should avoid telling a character outright that his or her character cannot perform a desired action. Instead, a Dungeon Master should work to manage expectations, making clear the probability of success and the consequences of failure.
For example, if a character wishes to create a map to Erelhei Cinlu as part of his or her major action, and that character is an elf and only level 3, then a Dungeon Master should communicate to that player that the Underdark is full of drow patrols and monsters such as umberhulks and hook horrors, which are a formidable threat for even powerful adventurers. Thus, before taking that action, an adventurer might want to seek a talented guide, a strong bodyguard, or Underdark-specific equipment to help improve the likelihood of success. In other words, that character should additional rounds in campaign mode preparing for the journey.
If the player insists on proceeding without spending time to prepare, then the Dungeon Master might apply penalties to any checks the character must make. For example, the DM might say that to map the path to Erelhei Cinlu, a character must sneak behind a drow patrol and follow it back to the drow city. Thus, the character requires a Stealth or Sneak check, or a Dexterity check, but takes a –4 penalty to the check for having inadequate preparations. Success means the character accomplishes the task, while failure might mean the drow capture and imprison the character.
The previous example describes a character performing a major action that has a story reward, which is much less tangible than a magic item or experience points. Some players are going to want to perform actions that have tangible benefits. How a Dungeon Master manages that depends partly on his or her group. If a group is full of optimizers, the group’s Dungeon Master might need to carefully balance rewards. If a gaming group is more interested in the narrative, an unbalanced approach might suffice.
(This section assumes a 4th Edition rule set. If someone wants to provide an adaptation for other editions, email me, and I’d be happy to post it as an addendum.)
In the balanced approach to rewards for campaign mode, you need to ensure that each player character receives a benefit on his or her turn, and those benefits need to be more or less equal among all players. The easiest way to manage rewards is to have each round yield one-tenth of the XP required for a character to reach his or her next level, regardless of the success or failure of the action the character performs. If you prefer that a character not receive XP for failing at an action, then you can balance that by rewarding characters with 50 percent more XP when succeeding on an action, if that action has a possibility of failure.
Using experience points as the reward economy for campaign mode allows us to balance other rewards against the assumption that a player is usually advancing one-tenth of his or her level each round. On page 126-127 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, we can determine the approximate wealth gained by a character each level by referring to the “Total Monetary Treasure” entry. Divide that by ten to determine how much wealth a character should gain each round of campaign mode. For example, if a level 10 adventurer wants to locate or create a magic item, worth 5,000 gp or to retrieve an equivalent amount of wealth from a dungeon, we can compare that against the Total Monetary Treasure. For a level 10 character, that amount is 10,000, so we surmise that it should take a character five rounds in campaign mode to achieve the equivalent of a 5,000 gp reward.
A similar approach can be applied to non-traditional rewards, such as feats. Based on a 4th Edition advancement chart, a feat is equivalent to almost an entire level, so it should take an equivalent amount of time (7 – 10 rounds) in campaign mode to attain a bonus feat. Feats and non-standard magic items, such as boons and grandmaster training, provide a convenient form of reward, because many have flavor well-suited for the narratives created by campaign mode. For example, a character who seeks training among the thieves’ guild might taken the rogue multiclass training or might gain grandmaster training delivered to him by the leader of the thieves’ guild.
Ultimately, the rewards should remain entirely within a Dungeon Master’s purview. These are guidelines that provide a useful explanation for the advancement characters undergo while in campaign mode. Although they could result in characters not being the same level, or having different numbers of feats or magic items, they’re probably not going to unbalance your game. If a party ends up spending more than 10 rounds in campaign mode (the equivalent of a level of advancement), you might at least have to assume the party is one level higher for the purpose of encounter creation.
If your group isn’t likely to care about a few mechanical inequities among party members, then consider an unbalanced approach to rewards. That is, reward characters with what’s appropriate for their activities. If a character performs a particularly risky endeavor, reward him or her with more XP. If a player is content to develop a romantic relationship for his or her character, then that person might receive no reward at all but might instead gain a valuable ally/resource for future activities in the game.
Some parties of adventurers might want to remain together while in campaign mode. The system assumes that party members are splitting up (to reunite at some later date), but it still allows for a degree of party unity. Any character can forgo his or her major action and travel action to grant another character an appropriate bonus (determined by the Dungeon Master) to any check or saving throw required as part of a challenge. For example, if a character is building a keep, one or more members of an adventuring party might assist, granting a bonus to Constitution, Craft, or Endurance checks to construct the keep, or perhaps Charisma or Diplomacy checks to persuade the workers to help. If characters are providing assistance, then they split any rewards, unless the characters agree to some other exchange (i.e., you help me build my keep and I’ll help you get components to craft your holy avenger).
In the event multiple character are assisting with an endeavor, such as building a keep, rather than conferring a bonus to the character performing the action, you might also allow the activity to be completed faster. For example, you might reduce a keep’s construction duration by 1 month for each character who contributes a month of his or her time.
Advancing the Story
Campaign mode is a useful tool for a Dungeon Master to advance the story, particularly if a story needs to span years. For example, let’s say an evil necromancer escaped the grasp of the player characters, pledging to return an exact vengeance. Then, the adventurers hear nothing of the necromancer for several months—or perhaps even years. To pass the time, a Dungeon Master might use campaign mode. Then, when the time is right, the necromancer returns with an undead army, interrupting the characters’ campaign mode activities and throwing them back into the main story.
These transitions don’t need to be jarring, though. Although the players drive a lot of their characters activities in campaign mode, a Dungeon Master can provide background details that help set the stage for leaving campaign mode. Carrying forward the example of the necromancer, a character who has joined a mercenary company might be called upon to travel to the east to join an army amassing there, possibly to defend against or serve a mysterious master. Meanwhile, a wizard player character who is conducting research in a library might discover that there’s a shortage of spell components in the region associated with the necromancer. These can provide useful challenges and background, without demanding outright that the player characters regroup and take action.