Finding Campaigns in the Small Things

I am looking forward to moving on to some home campaigns in the near future.  Something FATE, something Pathfinder.  I miss the enjoyment of writing my own material (which is why I am building the clock adventure, and yes another post will be released soon for it).  Don’t get me wrong, the Paizo adventure paths are generally stellar but there is something about a home grown campaign that entices me.  Along with the idea of writing my own adventures is I want a campaign that is not world destroying.  I want the players to become involved in it not because some great evil is going to destroy the world as they know it.  I want them to get involved in a campaign because it has an involved story, not a massive threat.

A cool campaign could start with a single map!

So I am today musing over the small time stories that have caught my interest over my years of gaming.  I am a person who much prefers a game because of a small mystery as opposed to my need to run out and kill Mr. X because he has a button that will blow up Planet Y.  When I started running games nearly all of them were small time campaigns of local importance.  The first games I ran were supers games and most of them revolved around apprehending small time thugs and car jackers.  Over time they would meet some crime lords of the city and they would spend their time trying to take down the organisation in the city.  Nothing world threatening, just some criminal gangs cleaned up by some supers.

This idea of campaigns being contained in a single geographic location can easily be done.  One of my favourite characters who I have written about before is Sam the female human thief.  I had never played a thief in AD&D before and so I took her build quite literally and built her in a cat burglar style.  I played her from level 1 to level 5 which was about four months of gaming.  She stayed in the one small town for the entire period of her career.  Each adventure was literally built off her plans to earn her way in the world.  Make the rich a little less so and Sam a little more likely to be able to stash some more money away for retirement.  Sounds a bit dull on the surface of it but Sam was not only finding coin for herself she was picking up secrets of the locals.  Sometimes she would find letters, or ledgers or even find them in bed with unexpected people and all of it was giving Sam power in the community.  The entire campaign was building Sam in stature as people that I would never have expected to at the start of her career began to help her in small ways because of what she knew.  This was one of the greatest small time campaigns I ever played in and it only stopped because the GM had all his material stolen by an ex-flatmate.

Lets move on to my MegaTraveller days!  I played a character that had spent some time in the Navy and ended his time in Regina (as many do in Traveller).  He pretty much was a mish mash of skills (which is also something quite common in Traveller) and was quite poor having mustered out of his career at twenty six.  His skills left him with the ability to be a little bit stealthy and also have the contacts he needed to start a bit of underground work.  First thing he did was get measured for psionics and he found himself very strong in the phenomenon.  From there it was a small jump from freelance thug into a psionic drug smuggler.  He got involved with a woman named Star who he found out to be over the length of the campaign an alien that was immortal.  They fell in love and travelled the solar system.  All the while my character kept his criminal dealings to himself and secret from Star.  Star’s brother found out about the truth though and to make things right he handed all the information he had over to the Regina security forces and fled with Star as Regina put me to number 1 on most wanted.  There was a fiery crescendo to that campaign as I fled the security leaving a huge swathe of damage.  The character threw everything away to escape and be with Star, his true love.

A bit of planning is all it takes and it need not be about
the destruction of the Universe

So, in essence it was another small time campaign based around the building of a drug smuggling ring and the love affair that ended it.  I like to think of this game as a love story.  It was a fantastic little campaign that lasted two years or so of pretty regular play.  Of all the scope in the Traveller world my game honed in on such a small but enticing story.  It makes me smile just to think of all of these stories because the adventure was really built from my decisions, not the decision of the GM to build to a massive Universe threatening problem that we must overcome.  These smaller scale adventures allow for your character flaws and strengths to really make the ride memorable.

I have a few others like this but only one more share.  Louis Armfeldt was my Mechwarrior character that largely interested me.  He started off largely as a spy with some mech piloting skills and then removed himself from the organisation that was having him spy for them with the dream of starting the next big mercenary company.  He put together a proposal and approached the financiers with the need for one billion dollars.  He almost fell over when they said yes.  Much of my game with Louis was the chasing of contracts for my mech warrior mercenary company “Dogs of War” (I was heavily into Pink Floyd at the time).  I famously removed the small laser in my Atlas so I could mount speakers that would pump “Dogs of War” out over the battlefield for morale!

One battle at a time I would seek out the best contracts, and it was that drive that pushed me.  Find the best return.  Pay the loan back.  Strike fear in those that we came against.  It was all ruined, of course, with the incursion of the clans.  Unprepared and inferior to the genetically bred warriors they carved through the company like a hot knife through butter.  Louis escaped barely and needed to make cash as quickly as he could so he took to Solaris VII with the remainder of his cash to try and bet on himself in the battles.  He was killed in one of these battles as his ejection pod launched, the combatant took a shot and engulfed it in PPC fire…

I really appreciate the small scale stuff

This campaign I suppose is my mercantile campaign.  It is also probably this keen that gave me the impetus to run a mercantile campaign for my Classic Traveller endeavours.  Nothing too flash, just a crew trying to survive out in the black.  Just like the Firefly crew I suppose.

I am not going to say that a world threatening campaign is an awful idea but it is a big risk idea that smacks of being a bit lazy.  It is a big risk because you may have done a big bunch of planning on creating just the right threat only to have the players show no interest!  With them turning a blind eye to the main thrust of your campaign where are you going to go and what are you going to do?  Railroad them into it?  It is also a little lazy as you are building a one size fits all adventure.  I am of course speaking generically here but these type of campaigns really seem to override what a player wants to do with their character.

Take Serpent Skull which was a fun adventure path (AP) from Paizo for Pathfinder.  It starts with a beautiful sandbox adventure but then follows with a highly scripted adventure into another sandbox and then followed by several scripted adventures.  I had one player in this who after the first module wanted to do some stuff on the Shiv.  Set it up in an adventurer’s style resort and have it like a trial site for adventurers.  I really liked the idea but I could not fit it into the overall scope until the very end of the entire six module AP.  Every one of the players expressed to me through the module that they felt they were just being pushed on to something bigger and they would have liked more time to explore their character a bit better.  I thoroughly agreed with their sentiments and it is why the next AP I have taken on allows a lot more space for personal freedom (Skull and Shackles).  I did try to script things into the AP that allowed them to do little bits of their own thing but the overall feel was it was too driven.

You can wow players in other ways!

Of course it is fine to think big though.  I am not saying that there is no place for the larger campaign ideas of world ending material.  My suggestion though is to build it up from the characters actions in campaigns.  Start small with your adventurers.  Don’t necessarily have them involve themselves in the universal destroying plot with the first encounter.  It is not needed.  Give the characters time to find themselves to start with and build the play style for them and then see where that could lead into a bigger style adventure.  One other secret though is not to just take away what they love.  If they get involved with the bar maid don’t have her abducted every single game or the player will not want to play your games because they will see that you will just take away what they like.  Have the bar maid’s Uncle run afoul of a local bandit who is connected to a warlord who is serving the big nasty.  Involve them in the story through their passions by stealth.  Don’t use the sledgehammer!

There are a bunch of plots you can use to do a smaller scale campaign with.  The players can easily get to high levels of power in them and their reputations will still precede them, though in a smaller scale than the world shatterers a lot of campaigns build toward.  I hope some of you think about running a smaller style campaign based on these stories.  If you do, let me know what you are planning.  If you already have a low key style adventure, let me know about it in the comments!  Share how it came around and what you have planned.  I had better go and get some rest as I am feeling unwell today.  Had not planned on blogging at all today.  Ah well, keep on rolling is all I have to say!

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