Saturday, May 12, 2012

D&D Campaign Criteria Redux

I've been trying to articulate criteria on what makes for a good campaign setting for D&D to make it easier for me to determine which of my half-baked campaign elevator pitches have a chance.  The list is evolving to be a blend of what makes for good adventures, and what are the mechanics in D&D that imply things about how the world works, that should also be addressed.

After yesterday's thought experiment on "Goblins of the Spanish Main" - a suggested D&D setting placed in a fantastic version of the Caribbean - I can add some more things to the list.

The fundamental unit in D&D is the small troupe of adventurers, the party, and enjoyment of the game requires a great degree of party autonomy.  Regardless how players choose their plot hooks or go seeking adventure, before the action gets going, they need to be on their own for planning, strategy and decision making.

Adventures and Frontiers
Advancement in the game is based on wealth acquisition, so the default mode for adventuring is looting.  There's also combat, so the wealth tends to be guarded by something.  Unless it’s war, fighting other people is usually against the law, but that doesn't apply to monsters.

Combining these elements quickly brings in to focus why the monster filled hex crawl or dungeon crawl is such an ideal adventure structure; it allows a small troupe of adventurers autonomy to loot and battle monsters while acquiring wealth.

For that reason, a good campaign setting needs to have that dividing line between civilization and the wilds; the border areas beyond civilization are the lawless frontiers that support classic D&D style adventures.

People have certainly tried to take D&D's rules engine and use it in other contexts - urban noir investigations like Eberron,  Game of Thrones-style political intrigues, horror games.  I can't say how well they all work, but that does seem to be getting away from the core D&D experience or exploring and looting.

One other item to add the list is Treasure and Magic Items - in addition to explaining the existence of dungeons, the fiction or story behind the setting needs to address why they're filled with gold coins and magic sword.

So my revised list of setting criteria to address or explain is looking more like this:

  • Adventures and Frontiers
  • Autonomy
  • Dungeons
  • XP for Gold
  • Treasure and Magic Items
  • Classes and Levels
  • NPC Classes and Levels
  • Alignment
  • High Magic
  • Humanoids and Monsters
  • The End Game
  • Demi-Humans
  • Clerical Magic
  • Vancian Magic

I added one more regarding NPC classes and levels.  It's fairly important for the referee to consider the demographics of adventurers and the nature of classes and levels in the campaign setting.  A decision needs to be made whether the populations of the world are mostly zero level people, or whether characters with classes are fairly common. There's quite a big difference if the world is rugged and medieval, where most rulers are also field generals, so lords and nobles are high level fighters.  Are clerics common, meaning healing is common and folks come back from the dead?  Think how different a PC cleric would be perceived if clerics were extremely rare and their spells were miraculous?  Certainly the default approach - as seen in various published settings - is that rulers are powerful and high level, and clerical and arcane magic is common.

Anyway, that's a big topic - whether the rules and capabilities that apply to PC's also govern the NPC's in the world - I just wanted to point out why I'm adding it to the list as something the designer should address.

Thanks everyone who chimed in on the list the other day, or gave some feedback to "Goblins of the Spanish Main".  I don't know that I'm done, I'll probably toss out a few more elevator pitches or thought experiment settings to test the list further and apply some word smithing.

You can see why "points of light" is such an enduring campaign frame for D&D; a fantasy dark ages setting after the fall of a great empire provides justifications for frontiers, lawlessness, dungeons, treasure and loot, and self-made rulers.


  1. The approach that I'm taking with my campaign (which is very loosely based on the West Marches) is that the party are the highest level PCs in the wilds. Otherwise, why are all those dungeons unlooted?

    There are convenient high-level clerics back in "the town" (yes, session 29 and it still hasn't got a name yet) but these clerics (or maybe it's just one; that's all they've met so far) are old and don't go adventuring.

  2. I'm covering most of them in my City of Bones setting, although the End Game would require some thought.


  3. For a game of political intrigue, there needs to be something like a domain game. Such a thing does exist in AD&D, and is refined to a great degree in D&D/Cyclopedia. The thing is, I think that D&D is designed around working your characters up to that. Basically, what you're doing is playing through the backstory of your character at the table, something that other games relegated to a few rolls on some tables, or even just player fiat (usually combined with point-buy character creation). Then, once you have that backstory, your character is embedded in the world and the political shenanigans can run riot.

    1. Some good points here. I think there can be a lot of tension between the poles of autonomy and political/social intrigue. The frontier/dungeon is where characters make themselves, but as they become more capable, powerful, ans famous, it's natural for them to get sucked into the realm of politics, whether it's becoming a warlord, petty ruler, savior of a small town or kingdom, etc. think the transition from Strider to Aragorn the King as a kind of template here. Once the players enter that world, with all the claims on their characters' time. Allegiances, etc, they cease to be as free as they were in the dungeon exploring phases of their career. When I was a DM, I always found that some players complained of too much political stuff. I think in retrospect they were complaining because the evolution of my campaigns was taking away their autonomy.

  4. I think these latest two criteria come a lot closer to the mark, than the original list. Not that that list in itself was bad, but to me it seemed more to describe the core of D&D (or clones) as a game, than - necessarily - a good setting.

    Room for adventuring (frontiers) and lots of autonomy certainly are defining settings where the players can kick loose and do what ever they want.

    A high level of autonomy is also in some ways supportive of a high(er) degree of player agency. (Or at least a feeling of agency.) When there are fewer "powers that be" around to dictate the action's of the players or to force them into making decisions they like less, they are more free to take any actions they want.

  5. The reason the list has a lot of mechanical elements is because those can be limiting factors on the kind of fantasy story. Let's say you love that HBO series, Game of Thrones, and want to run your D&D campaign in Westeros. Is it a good fit?

    The DM would need to address dungeons, gold as XP, the dearth of magic items, high magic, limited monsters, no demi-humans, and so on. I'm sure folks have done it, just pointing out that all of those mechanical elements create a specific brand of fantasy, and the gaps needs to be addressed when taking D&D on the road to new territories.

  6. Good point. But still... There's a difference there. Maybe the first list more defines "will this setting work well for D&D-style mechanics?" and the two broader, non-specific criteria goes to the point "will it be any good to play?".

    Both are necessary and vital questions, and not entirely unrelated.

    Also, more than one setting or campaign that I have seen, played in or (alas) DM:d, have failed in either one of these aspects or both.

    Anyway, thank you very much for the enlightening series of posts. They are highly relevant for me, since I've just awakened an old campaign/setting-idea about a fantasy-version of Europe. I've had the idea for many years, have close to a dozen interested players lining up - and so my mind is filled with a lot of similar questions about the nitty-gritty details and how to make it playable, rather then an exercise in pseudo-history...

    That's probably why I perceive this difference. Some issues I see as "how do I take this phenomenon and convert into something D&D-playable" (a.k.a. the first list) and some issues are more "is this fun? what do I do with this? how would this play out in game?". They are more like the last two - things like how will religion work, the church, what would it's view on magic be, how would it's structure relate to player-clerics?

    At least part of the setting is very much not "point of light". but rather "points of darkness", few and far between. So is there anything in all this _organized_ life that is fun to play? (Hopefully there are...)

  7. That's a really good way of putting it - "Will this setting work for D&D style mechanics?", and "Is it any good to play?" Lifted!