Behind the Screen: Ye Olde Mash Up Campaign…

2007 December 18
by Dante

A common thread running between many of the comments last week was that of the mash up campaign. Most mash up campaigns borrow thematic elements from multiple source materials, and can be as innocent as borrowing a locale from one source and using it on your own.

Today I’m going to focus on what I am calling the constant mash up… a campaign that is always integrating new and interesting content from a variety of sources. This can happen both in plot, character development, setting, treasure… in any combination. It makes for a very interesting dynamic!

The Good Stuff

The benefits of doing a mash up campaign are almost too many to list here. There is such a wealth of excellent D&D source material out there, and in a mash up campaign you have the opportunity to use as much or as little of it as you want.

In fact, I ran into this excellent distillation of exactly this point over at Braindump. The author has posted a laundry list of source books that they have wanted to use but never have, and this is the dangling carrot of mash up campaigns… you can pick and choose whatever you want in the pursuit of that Ultimate Campaign!

I don’t like (nor do I have time for) extensive planning, so I am happy to report that the selection process can be a spur of the moment thing. This is one of the great benefits of the d20 system, is that many things are common and can be interchanged. I’ve rolled for treasure, selected cities or theme elements, and even stolen an NPC template or two from various books on the fly in past campaigns and I’m pleased to report that this has gone extremely well for me. You may have to modify certain descriptive elements to match your setting, but that’s usually the only effort that is required in most cases.

The Bad Stuff

Unfortunately, this is a double-edged sword. Often time the lure of multiple sources puts the DM into this sort of sugar high, and it is very easy to lose sight of your proposed plot because most can’t stop with just a taste of a certain setting or book.

That NPC you borrowed had a really interesting backstory, and you just *HAVE* to tailor that so that the party can experience that goodness. But why stop there? There was this great quest for this weapon of legend that fits that scenario properly! Why not drop that in?

Why not indeed… running too far down this track (or at least, all at once) can make you forget your planned plot is still going on in the background. If you’ve engineered a situation where a deviation and side quest can occur then that is excellent and you’ve got free ready-made campaign material. If you left the princess of the realm in utter peril, then you may have just sealed her fate by leading the party down this side line.

As you can see, its a delicate balancing act. Sometimes you want to put your players in a situation where they have to choose between the current interesting element and the advancement of the overarching plot. In moments of weak planning, a drop in that has a good hook like some found in other source books can be a real benefit but it can easily get taken too far out of hand and you lose sight of the regular plot.

In the end, you can gauge this by how your players take to the proceedings. If they are really engaged and are having a good time, go with it for awhile. You will be able to see their motivation flag if they are disinterested with new developments or are overwhelmed by the various options that you place in front of them during a mash up. If you see this, it is time to get back to regularly scheduled programming.

The Answer Lies Within

It may sound overly obvious, but as the DM you have free reign to control this element. As long as you are careful in your planning, or use off-the-cuff mashed up elements sparingly you will likely be OK but it is important to constantly gauge your players reaction to the frequency, length, and duration of deviations from the normal chain of events.

The truly good DMs can add and remove elements so seamlessly that the players won’t even know. I am by no means a good DM in this regard, but I sure am working on it! Any thoughts on the most elegant way to introduce varied elements into your campaign?

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