Anatomy of a D&D Campaign

Hello, all, 🙂

Six months and a couple of posts ago, I injected a few paragraphs on a D&D campaign I’ve been running, and I was asked to expand on what changed, what didn’t, how I play, how I don’t, do I like the rain, what about the color green interests me, and a bunch of other assorted queries of varied relevance.

Today, on the eve of our next RPG retreat, I decided to get this task out of the way. So, without further ado, I present to you an Anatomy of a Campaign!

Campaign Log

One thing I do is keep a log of all the stuff that’s happened in the campaign since it began. I do that because it’s a fun read for me, and for those that played it (though not necessarily for third parties), because it’s smoother when I want to bring new players to the table, and mostly, because it makes my life easier with regard to keeping things consistent, human memory not being 100% perfect and all that.

Also, because it’s useful to the discussion, the stuff I’ll be writing about follows from the in-game events in this here log excerpt.

Soulday, Magic 36, 400
22:00 14 C, None, Clear sky, Wind 28 mph

As the party prepares to camp out for the night, Lao spots a lone figure sitting on a boulder. Approaching the figure, they come to the conclusion that it is another lich, although this one seems like it could be accessible. Lao and Sherazade attempt to converse with it, and succeed. The lich joins the party at their camp and has a friendly chat with them regarding various tales of the desert.

Manday, Luck 7, 400
Guided by the lich’s, tales, the party arrives at a ghost village, near a small oasis, in the mid-afternoon. They spot a shifting metallic glow coming from the nearby hills, and are overflown by a large blue dragon.

Parday, Luck 8, 400
The party prepares for a possible dragon attack and heads off to investigate the glow. They meet the source of the glow, Boromish an adult brass dragon. There, they are told about Deremorth and Borlach, sons of Yalmarish, who is identified as a blue dragon. They are told about an age-old conflict between the desert dragons, but Boromish is not forthcoming about the details.
Because Boromish is being held by Yalmarish with the aid of a magical jewel, the dragon asks for the party’s help in destroying it. The party agrees. They head down into a hole in the mountain. Within, they meet and defeat a band of six Fire Giants.
As a reward for freeing him, Boromish hands each member of the party a specially selected item.

Deaday, Luck 9, 400
8:30 31 C, None, Clear sky, Wind 5 mph

Early the next day, the party finally runs into the expected confrontation, as Deremorth and Borlach become aware of their prisoner’s escape. They do battle, Boromish facing Borlach in single combat, while Deremorth, the elder of the two siblings, attacks the party. After a long and hard fight, the party finally manages to defeat the blue dragon. Despite their efforts to actually kill the dragons, however, they manage to escape, forcing Boromish to give chase and expel them from their lair.

Motterday, Luck 10, 400
The next day, Muad-Dib announces his decision to stay with the dragon, to further investigate the actions of the blue dragons. He bids the party farewell and they leave the site, headed for Ras Oug.


Naturday, Soul 32, 400
After a long, yet uneventful journey, the party arrives in Ras Oug. Their reputation precedes them, and they are invited to a small reception, along with some of the attendees to the New Year’s Celebration. At the party, some of them taste the refined Al Barghoz licquor for the first time. They are also told that their destiny is to play a large part in the future of the desert, and are introduced to Baab alShams, a wizard studying at the academy, who, they are told, shares this destiny.

Motterday, Power 40, 400
After spending a couple of months crafting an assortment of magical items, the party decides to do some exploring of the nearby regions while winter rages on.

By the way, don’t worry if you don’t recognize the names of the months and weekdays. The campaign has its own calendar, as campaigns are wont to have

Session Types

The above slice of log actually covers about nine sessions, not all of which the same length, which I’ll endeavour to dissect.

  1. Conversation with a Lich – This session began right after the party had left the province capital, where they had just killed another Lich. Events at the table were mostly in-character conversation with the Lich itself. We took the opportunity to have an interesting in-character discussion about some stuff on the campaign handouts, and in some very subtle ways, the campaign story moved forward a bit. The session ended just after the pary was overflown by the blue dragon. This is what I call a story/RP session.
  2. Imminent doom – This session began where the other ended, with the party spending a few hours discussing how they would prepare for and handle the dragon attack they were anticipating. Unfortunately, the session started late and ended early, because some players couldn’t get there sooner and others had to get up early the next morning, so that was that. I remember leaving the table with a mild taste of incompleteness in my mouth. Nonetheless, significant strategizing occurred. This is what I call a strategy/resource management session.
  3. Tea with the Brass Dragon – This session began immediately the next morning, as the party set out to investigate the metallic glow. As it turns out, it was a dragon, but a friendly one, and the rest of the session was spent in conversation with the critter. The campaign story moved forward a bit further, but no fighting occurred. I can’t confirm, but I have a feeling some of the players left the table a bit disappointed about that… Anyway, another story/RP session.
  4. Finally some action – This session began as the party entered the cave that lead to the fire giant lair. About an hour was spent on some situational maneuvering and rolling of dice, followed by a five hour tactical fight. These sessions are generally the highlight of the campaign, as this is where the players’ decisions matter the most. The fight was a lot harder than it had to be, because of some bad rolling during that initial maneuvering, but them’s the breaks at a gamist table. No “plot” of any kind surfaced, and indeed no “in-character”ness happened at this session, but that doesn’t mean that there was no story, or that we weren’t role-playing. The session ended about two minutes after the last giant died, as everyone was on the verge of being dead tired by this time. This is what I call a tactical/combat session.
  5. Back to the Brass Dragon – This session began immediately on the wake of the previous one, as the party received analysed and divided their loot. Ther dragon’s presents were selected out-of-character by each player, so as to best represent the wisdom of an ancient creature. Some of the characters levelled as a result of the fight. Furthermore, there were still two blue dragons to face, so the events at the table were all about the levelling, the treasure, and the rebuilding of the anti-dragon plan. Another strategy/resource management session.
  6. The war – This session began early the next morning, and it started with a quick review of the plan and, when the players were ready, a gallant charge from the two blue dragons. Fighting the dragon took about six hours. I remember this session took forever and a day just to schedule, because of difficulties with everyone’s availability. Usually, I play with two players absent, for one reason or another, but I figured killing a dragon ought to be a momentous event in a campaign, so I wanted as many people there as possible. Eventually, we had to play with just one player absent, and that was the player that ended up dropping the campaign shortly after. Anyway, another tactical/combat session.
  7. Back to the regularly scheduled travelling – This session began right after the fight. We handled the levelling of another couple of characters, distributed loot from the dragons, had a parting conversation with the Brass Dragon, then removed one character from play as the player had dropped the campaign. A month and a half of travelling ensued, new handouts were, well, handed out, which the players spent some time reading, and a new player joined the table. The party arrived at the city where they will be spending the winter. A couple of things were bought and sold, and the party wanted to start with the magical item crafting, but I had them hold off on that for a little longer. This was another relatively short session, and it was more socializing than anything, what with the new handouts and the new player, but all in all, it was still a strategy/resource management session.
  8. A reception – This session was all about the welcoming reception that a city notable held in honor of the characters, a party for the party, if you will. It was a chance for the players to have their characters act on the content of the new handouts, and it was a chance for them to meet the new player’s character. Some more in-character-ness ensued, and a hefty dose of color was injected. I was acting all mysterious about a couple of NPCs at the party, but that’s mainly because I really haven’t decided where I’m going to go with them yet. I have thoroughly dropped the habbit of withholding “sehkrit infuhmashun” from the players, as they are all mature enough to distinguish between player knowledge and character knowledge. The campaign story moved forward again. Another story/RP session.
  9. Gadgets gallore – This session began right after the reception, and it was another relatively short session. The players spent about two to three hours making magical items and redistributing their now copious wealth, then we adjourned. A classical strategy/resource management session.

And there you have it. Play around the table clearly falls into those three categories of story/RP, strategy/resource management, and tactical/combat, and each session carries with it its own mode of play, although it’s not always one hundred percent obvious what the next session will turn out as. I fully expected to get through the giants, the dragon and the travelling in three to four sessions, and it ended up taking twice as long. 🙂

Next up, I have some new handouts about adventuring opportunites in the forest and the sea, and the players will pick an entry from the menu and go to it. I have no idea what they’ll do.

Setting up the Fights

You will have noticed that sessions 4 and 6, namely, the fight with the giants and the dragons, were looooong. Basically, that’s because both of them were EL 14 encounters, and the party was mostly level 9.

Some of you may be getting ready to call me a character murderer, but the fact is they won both fights, even though I wasn’t pulling any punches. I do get ready to pull the last punch in each and every fight I throw at them, but when that happens, they get hit heavy on the XP and loot. It’s about winning and losing, not living or dying.

Here’s where the idea for that came from, by the way.

(Side Note: The advantages of playing with high-level encounters are all rather well laid out on that link I provided. There is, however, one major drawback, which is that a form of resource management has completely disappeared from our game, and I have a feeling it’s one the designers held as important. Namley, players never feel compelled to conserve their resources during a fight. Wizards and sorcerers go all out with their spells, fighters and rogues fight to the last hit point, and the healers have no qualms about converting anything and everything into cure spells. Whether this is an actual problem or just a feature is something I’ll have to devote more time to…)

Leading the Story

One major feature of our game playing is that the “story”, meaning the collection of in-character events that happen in the campaign, is almost one hundred percent my turf, much more so than in other campaigns I have GMed and played in. It is generally assumed at the table that what characters do between fights is really only important insofar as it helps me decide what the opponents will be for their next fight, and whereabouts in the game world will it take place.

This isn’t to say that their decisions don’t have a major impact on the fight situation itself. They do. Especially with regards to surprise, terrain advantages, initiative, stuff liike that, their decisions and skill rolls have a deep impact on he very playability of each encounter, and that’s how it’s supposed to be.

But, they don’t get to decide who to fight. They don’t get to decide why to fight. And most especially, they don’t get to decide what happens because of the fight. And they don’t want to, and that’s why this particular campaign has avoided the Mother May I epithet.

(Not that I think there’s anything wrong wth playing Mother May I, as long as you recognize it. I’ve just started a Bushido campaign, and I expect it to be a fully functional Mother May I game.)

So, when someone asks, as some of you have, whether I take it upon myself to find excuses for their fights, or if there is some sort of player input towards that, I’ll say, well, I do take my cues from their in-character actions, but all actual decisions are mine and mine alone, and everyone understands and accepts that.

That’s not to say the non-fight sessions aren’t important to the game. They’re vital. The resource management sessions are their most important input towards mechanical character effectiveness, which is a big part of combat and a big part of D&D playing in general. And the RP sessions are there to provide color for everyone. They’re there so that the fights are simply disconnected board games. Even though the story itself is totally within my control, their actions and attitudes provide the color that binds the whole thing together.

My GMing Ways

Some of you also asked what has changed in the way I GM the sessions within the two years of the ongoing campaign. The short answer is: nothing.

Well, that may not be true. I’m sure some details may have changed, such as the way I handle certain magic objects, or how I will allow or disallow certain spells into the game. But in general, my thought structure and the way I approach the game have not changed, and neither has the structure of the game itself.

That’s not to say I don’t have certain shortcomings. One of the players, for instance, is constantly calling me out on the fact that I disallow certain items, materials or spells, for purely arbitrary reasons. He’s right, of course, and it’s something that, from a purely tactical and strategical point of view, makes no sense whatsoever, and it diminishes from the value of the cash rewards I’ve been handing out. It’s a problem, and one that I’m not quite ready to address, seeing as I don’t quite want to lift the restrictions just yet, for reasons I don’t fully comprehend myself. But that’s really a minor quible.

The one thing I do that defines the way I GM, though, is simple: I tell everybody everything.

“Everything” is, of course, limited to meaning “everything I know”. In session 8 above, the one with the party, one of the NPCs told the party they “had a momentous destiny, that was tied to the future of the desert”. After the session, one of the players asked me what I was talking about, and I had no answer to give, because I have no idea what their destiny is. But one thing is for sure. They’re 10th level characters, headed for 20th level, and those type of people tend to have impact on the world. Plus, the “shared destiny” gimmick is cool for inserting new characters in the party. “Hey, here’s this other dude, he too is bound for a great destiny and I read it in the stars that it was tied to yours.” I’ve done it twice, now, and that usual feeling of artificialness that follows the introduction of a new character was greatly toned down, at least in my mind.

On the other hand, whenever the players defeat a big bad, I have no qualms about informing them as to what their enemies wanted and what they were doing. If the characters themselves find out, then all the better, but if they don’t, I’ll just inform the players anyway.

Lessons to be Learned

There are none.

I’m serious. How I play is how I play, and I’m not trying to explain to you what the “one true way of playing D&D” is, or any other such nonsensical crap. If you like what you read and want to adopt it, fine. If it works for you, wonderful, let me know and we can share stuff. If it doesn’t, wonderful as well, let me know and we can share stuff. If you don’t like it and would rather play some other way, that too is wonderful, let me know and we can share stuff. Notice a trend?

Hopefully, though, if you were looking for some sort of information on how I play the game, this post has served that purpose. If you have more specific questions, feel free to post them in the comments form below, and I’ll do my best to answer them. If you just want to tell me off, feel free to do that as well. Comments are moderated at this blog. 🙂

Either way, I’ve spent enough time writing, and I’m sure you’ve spent enough time reading.

Go Play!


One Response to “Anatomy of a D&D Campaign”

  1. Great food for the thought! Keep it up!!
    And have many great gaming sessions during the RPG “retreat”! 🙂