Behind the Screen: Overland, High Adventure campaigns…

2007 December 21
by Dante

I got so excited about my previous topics that I nearly forgot to return to my own source material and have a look at the trials and tribulations of an overland, high adventure based campaign like our very own here at SR Central.

Today I will take a look at some generalities about this style of campaign and how they can be prepared for effectively.

Terminology Defined

First a few clarifications: an overland campaign is one where the characters are driven by storyline or desire to travel to disparate locales within a given setting. The high adventure piece simply means a standard adventure which, in the words of Nigel Tufnel, is turned up to 11.

These themes are fairly standard in D&D, but may be a little more unfamiliar to those of you playing modern or urban based campaigns. My personal opinion on the matter is that campaigns of this type represent “classic” D&D and I tend to gravitate more toward this type of thing.

When the party goes off-script

The construction of this type of campaign can seem quite daunting due to the sheer scale and volume of detail represented in most campaign settings. In our group, we tend to set the “happy path” and then rough out some contingency plans based on the standard negative reactions to the stimuli that we present. This covers most of the plot devices within our games fairly well, but you can’t generally plan for everything so I prefer to have a fairly sharp set of improvising skills ready to go in case the players decide to jerk the reigns and take things in a different location than what I have planned.

These are good things… the planning that you must do to have a valid campaign plot should help you find holes in your story, and address common failure opportunities. In my job, we often use a tool called a failure mode and effects analysis (or FMEA, and yes, I am surprised there’s a Wikipedia article about this) that helps us by listing all possible ways a given concept can fail and it helps to drive satisfactory resolutions.

The inputs are also weighted such that you can prioritize common problems and handle them with the greatest care. This helps to plan for the common ways that your party could diverge from a given theme or encounter that you place in front of them, and I think this helps drive to the appropriate level of planning that is neither too simple nor too complex.

The Joys and Terrors of the World Map

I mentioned that overland campaigns have their own difficulties, and this also tends to trend toward the vast amount of cities, realms, and kingdoms that your characters could encounter once they hit the ol’ dusty trail.

Planning for every eventuality in this space will drive you crazy. I find the best bet is to establish a certain amount of handwaving and descriptive detail that will allow you to gloss over the less important attributes between Point A and Point B, only expanding into details when your players ask to stop in That City or what Those Mountains look like. Knowing a general background on the realms that your players may be able to travel through in a given night is usually a good bet, and having a few stock small town templates available is always a benefit.

That being said, your players have a lot of freedom with this model and you have a lot of breadth to interject your own episodic content into the realm once they begin their travels. The greatest benefit of this style campaign is that both the players and the DM are free to invent what happens next, but the DM controls the plot and can therefore steer the action in such a way that they can always be somewhat prepared for what happens next.

Coupling this freedom with the aforementioned FMEA style of preparation tends to work out pretty well for us, so lets hear what you think!

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