Quests and Travel: Campaign Structure

It is my pleasure to introduce the first non-me contributor to Matters of Critical Insignificance, my esteemed colleague and partner-in-crime (movie forthcoming), Chamomile.  He will be contributing expert articles into the foreseeable future.  Matters of Critical Insignificance, as you know from the About page, was originally the creative mantra of two guys slinging ideas back and forth.  With Chamomile, this blog finally realizes that original potential.  Enjoy, and subscribe to never miss a critically insignificant thing!  -Stubbazubba

As pointed out by the Alexandrian, dungeon crawls serve a useful purpose in that they give a default response to your next decision on an adventure-level (go down another corridor) while also allowing for crazy Scooby Doo plans that makes RPGs more flexible and fun than a computer game (use the Barbarian’s earth-shattering blows to drill down through the floor). Likewise combat has a default response (attack an opponent) but also allows for unusual responses (swing on a chandelier, knock over a bookshelf). These sorts of things are useful because if someone isn’t sure what to do next, then instead of hemming and hawing for half an hour trying to come up with a plan, they can just default to the standard action and things will keep moving (this isn’t to say that someone won’t hem and haw for half an hour in the middle of combat if the rest of the group lets them, but it certainly happens far less often than if you don’t have a default action).

That’s the purpose of the Quest System. This is a system-agnostic sub-system for adding in rules generally oriented towards a sandbox game about either winning a war (or a warring states period) or taming a monster-infested wilderness. Or both. The system works by tying the completion of a quest to a measurable decrease in the hostility of the region in which that quest is located, thus when you clear out the Troll Fens in the Kingdom of Generica, it will actually get safer to travel through them. Further, some threats, like, say, a scheming necromancer or a conquering warlord, actively spawn more quests at regular intervals, making their region more dangerous and eventually expanding their influence into other regions nearby (thus, if the party doesn’t do anything they will eventually conquer the world).

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Getting into details, here is how you, as a GM, set up a campaign to run on the Quest System:

1) Divide up your campaign world into regions. Each region should be of roughly the same size, and should be big enough so as to potentially contain anywhere between one and four separate quests, depending on how plagued by nasties the region is. If you’re playing a campaign in a single city, each region could be a single neighborhood. If you’re playing a campaign that spans a continent, each region could be an entire nation, or even a cluster of multiple small ones.

Another important consideration is how long you want your campaign to last. Each region is probably going to end up being home to about 2-3 quests on average, and each quest will probably take an average of 1-2 sessions to complete. Multiplying 2.5 quests by 1.5 adventures, you’re probably going to spend about four sessions (technically 3.75) in each region (though not necessarily in a row). So for a year-long weekly campaign, making allowances for not being able to play every week due to real life interference, you’ll probably want about 10 or 11 regions. If you’ve got a stable group that can play the same campaign for years, you can go crazy with 20+ regions. If you only play once every month because you’re all very busy, you’ll probably want only 3 or 4 regions. However many sessions you want the campaign to last, divide by four and that’ll be a loosely accurate answer. Note that online everything takes at least one and a half times as long, so it’ll probably be better to divide by six instead (and you might also want to make allowances for a group that is more distracted than normal, or more efficient; if you’re playing with a regular group, plug however many sessions the average adventure takes in place of the 1.5 given above and recalculate).

That’s a lot of math. Can’t I just wing it?

Sure. A lot of people don’t especially care that their campaigns are rarely seen through to completion because they don’t pay much attention to how long things will realistically take to play. This isn’t true of me, personally. I like my stories to build up to an ending and then actually end rather than going on forever, and I’m left disappointed whenever a campaign fizzles before completion. But some people prefer serial adventuring or have no preference one way or another, and certainly it is much easier to just make the campaign world really friggin’ big and know that you’ll never ever run out of content. If that describes you, you can ignore the math part of this almost completely. This is especially true if you’re playing with a system where character advancement is limited or where levels or skill points are given out at arbitrary points. You don’t have to worry about delicately balancing the math such that the level 2 quest will run out at the same time as the party hits level 3 if you’re handing out levels whenever you want. Just arbitrarily declare that the party has hit level 3 after they complete the last level 2 quest (or after they finish one or two level 3 quests, if they’ve decided to push ahead). You’ll still want to follow each of the steps, you just don’t have to worry about getting the math right anymore: Choose a number that seems cool to you and roll with it.

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If you don’t have the chops to play Pokemon the way real men do, you might appreciate a less math-heavy campaign generation process.

Let’s go ahead and make a small example here. To keep things simple, let’s assume we want the campaign to last just four months (about a semester, ish, depending on where you go to school), played weekly. That’s about sixteen sessions, and we’ll assume that everyone is a scheduling wizard who will magically make it to each one. The group will play at the typical pace of 1.5 sessions to the completion of one adventure, and the GM (who we will call Elimomahc) is going with the standard 2.5 quests per region, so that’ll come down to 16/(1.5*2.5)=4.26, which we’ll round down to 4 (which is also what we get if we simplify 1.5*2.5 to 4), so that’s a campaign map with four regions. Elim decides that trying to represent anything epic in scope with just four kingdoms would feel like the cliffnotes version, so he goes with a single medium-sized kingdom plagued by internal troubles since the death of the old king, a wise and just ruler: His bastard son was passed up for the throne and has sworn revenge on the kingdom, crowning himself the Black Prince, while at the same time a vampire necromancer who has slumbered for a hundred years has risen from his crypt and begun raising the dead again!

2) Figure out how many spawner quests you want to have. A spawner quest, as the name implies, spawns other quests, and should be used to represent a threat that actively expands its influence rather than simply plaguing travelers foolhardy enough to wander near their den: Necromancer lords, orc hordes, conquering warlords, and that sort of thing. A spawner quest spawns a new quest at the end of each strategic turn, which lasts as long as it takes for the party to go from one region to another on foot (having horses allows you to move twice as fast, and other mounts might allow you to go even faster). Thus, it could be a few hours if your campaign takes place in a single massive city or a month if it takes place across an entire world. For example purposes we’ll assume that the strategic turn lasts about a week.

Thus, each week a spawner quest rolls whatever die is associated with it. If it rolls a 0 or lower, a new quest is spawned. Each week that a quest is not spawned, add a stacking -1 modifier to the next roll. Each week that a quest is spawned, reset the modifier to 0. Thus it is impossible to spawn two quests in a row and a smaller die is going to spawn quests faster by about 1 week per die step (i.e. a d4 spawns a quest approximately once every 3 weeks, a d6 once every 4, on up to a d12 spawning a quest every 7 weeks).

Each spawner should spawn one of several specific quests attached to it (i.e. the necromancer should spawn undead related quests, not just anything pulled from the Monster Manual, and there should be more than one in case he ends up spawning several before the party finds the time to take care of him). Since in practice a party can usually complete two quests per week and you have about 1.5 sessions per quest, you’ll probably take an average of 3 sessions realtime to complete one week gametime, which means that the total gametime length of your campaign can be loosely calculated based on the total number of sessions you plan on having (which should also be reflected in the total number of regions you have as in step 1). If your campaign is going to last about 30 sessions, that means it’ll last about 10 in-game weeks and that a d8 spawner quest taken out at the midpoint, 5 weeks in, will probably spawn just one quest. If you space your spawners out evenly, it means that any given spawner will on average last until the halfway point of the game (the longevity of your most distant spawners being cancelled out by the mayfly lifespan of the spawners right next to the starting point).

Thus you can loosely calculate how many quests will be spawned by taking half of the total number of in-game weeks you want your campaign to last and determining how many quests will be spawned within that timeframe (express fractions as a decimal, round to the nearest tenth, it makes for easier addition and this is already a pretty loose approximation so don’t worry too much about rounding errors).

ImageElim only has 10 quests to work with in the first place, so he decides the Black Prince and the Necromancer will be his only spawners. 16 sessions divided by three sessions per in-game week means that the whole campaign will likely last about five weeks in-game, maybe six, so if those spawners are going to get anything done they’ll need to move fast. Each will spawn on a d4, and thus each will spawn one quest every 2.5 weeks or so. This means that each one will most likely spawn only a single quest on average, but in practice it will probably be the case that one of them will be defeated before spawning anything while the other spawns two quests. To be safe, Elim writes up three quests for each of them, but to save on effort he makes them mostly identical, with the same supporting NPCs and basic plot, only changing a few details to reflect the different villains (the Black Prince uses a sinister army of orcs and goblins while the Necromancer uses zombies and skeletons, basically), and makes a mental note to make sure that only one quest from each pair of clones makes it into the game.

3) Place static quests. Static quests don’t grow or expand, they just sit around menacing the same area forever. Since you already know that each region should have about 2.5 quests in it on average, you can then add the number of spawned quests to the number of spawner quests, subtract the result from the number of regions multiplied by 2.5, round the difference down to the nearest whole number and that is the number of static quests you need. Typically static quests should be side-quests mostly unrelated to the main plot, in case players grow bored with it and decide they want to go and try something else, or to give them a breather when they mop up remaining quests in a certain area. Either way it serves to keep the main plot fresh and exciting for groups that play frequently. Groups that are only playing once a month to begin with probably don’t have to worry about this.

Do I need to have exactly 2.5 quests per region?

No. Statisticians have probably already thought of a half-dozen ways in which my model reflects assumptions that will most likely not be accurate in play (here’s one for free: If spawners near the starting area spawn slower on average than spawners far away and players do not go out of their way to destroy rapid-spawners early, there will be more spawned quests than the calculations in step 2 and 3 indicate). The idea here is not to get an actually 100% accurate idea of how long everything will take in- and out-of-game, but to make sure that the length of the campaign loosely correlates to how long you’ll be playing. If your group has a strictly limited number of game sessions together because, say, once the semester is over the group is guaranteed to disintegrate as half of you graduate and the other half rob a bank before fleeing to Mexico to enjoy their ill-gotten gains, then you’ll just have to live with the fact that any kind of sandbox game runs a high risk of being cut off in the middle of the endgame. Sandbox means unpredictable. If your group’s a bit more flexible, though, it’s nice to be able to sit down and plan a yearlong campaign that you can reasonably be certain will actually take 9-15 months or so to complete.

Continuing our example, Elim notes that he has two spawner quests which will each spawn one quest on average, and room for about ten quests total. He makes six static quests and seeds them as various threats unrelated to the two main villains: Bandits, an ogre warlord from the badlands trying to expand his territory across the border, an alchemist who’s lost control of his animated suits of armor, which are now mindlessly slaughtering the peasants. When it rains, it pours.

4) Determine region threat. This step is easy. For each active quest currently in a region, the threat of that region moves up one step on the ladder (an active quest is any quest whose antagonist is actively menacing the locals, regardless of whether the party has decided to do anything about it or even heard about it). A region with no active quests is Peaceful, a region with one active quest is Restless, a region with two is Border (whether that’s the border of the frontier or the border with enemy territory), a region with three is Dangerous, and a region with four is Hostile. If a region has four quests already, any new quests spawned into it will shift a quest out into a neighboring region.

5) Create random encounter tables. Everytime you travel within a single region or into in adjacent region, you get exactly one random encounter. If you’re crossing multiple regions, you will get one for each region you enter (note: This should not be common, do not put the only hook for a quest in a different region from where that quest takes place, as this sort of campaign is specifically not intended for Lord of the Rings style campaigns where the main plot is about a dangerous journey).

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As explained by the experts.

Each table should be built around at least a d6, preferably a d8 (go for a full d20 if you like, but keep in mind that most of these encounters will not be seen). However, every random encounter in a region’s base table is going to assume the region is Peaceful and therefore the random encounters are generally helpful things, and the best encounters should be at the bottom (i.e. a roll of a 1 or 2). If there’s an active quest in the area, it’ll replace the bottom two results with hostile encounters based on the quest, thus locking the player out of the best results until the quest is cleared.

But that means low rolls are better than good ones, which is the opposite of how it usually works!

Unless you have even a single active quest left in the region, in which case low rolls mean monsters attack instead of a friendly merchant or whatever. That said, as an alternative you could have the hostile encounters replace the high end ones instead, but this means high rolls are bad unless the area is Peaceful, and keep in mind that once an area is Peaceful the party probably won’t spend any time there anymore, since there’s nothing left to do. An alternative if you don’t mind a bit of extra bookkeeping, however: Put the best helpful encounters at the top and the mediocre ones at the bottom, then add quest encounters on the bottom of the table (i.e. the first batch would be results 0 and -1) and add a stacking -2 modifier to the encounter roll for each quest active in the region.

What kind of encounter could really be helpful?

Most GMs aren’t used to thinking of useful random encounters, so here’s a few ideas: A friendly Cleric (or whatever your system’s buffbots are called) has just returned from curing sicknesses and offers a minor buff out of one of his remaining spell slots, free of charge (and if the party has completed quests in the region, he might be doing it to thank them for doing so; ego stroking is probably the reward your players seek above all others). A merchant passes by and offers the party discounted wares or a rare magic item not available for purchase in town. The party finds a wandering noble is on a religious pilgrimage to fulfill a vow to give gold to every worthy traveler he meets on the road until he has spent all that he has, whereupon he will join a religious convent; the party are the latest lucky winners. The party come across someone in need of help, but in a perfectly mundane and not life-threatening way, like a merchant whose wagon has snapped an axle and could use some help repairing it (this could either be one of the mediocre results, or the party could be awarded a small XP bonus for succeeding in helping him out, essentially a risk-free XP prize for two minutes realtime and only an hour or so gametime, both negligible costs).

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Certain parties might have less altruistic means of acquiring their bennies, but the same principle applies.

Elim names the regions of the kingdom Everdale, Wessen, Morgrimm, and Necris. If he had a lot of regions to go through he might share the standard encounter tables across several of them, but since he’s only got four he decides to go ahead and make a separate encounter table for each one, filling them in with various helpful travelers or benign flavor text. Wessen has friendly merchants, mercenaries who will offer their services to the party, wagons with broken wheels, a particularly breathtaking sunset, and other things of the sort. Elim then writes up a two-entry table for each of his quests, each entry containing a pack of hostile creatures relevant to the quest: for example, the Black Prince’s stronghold plagues nearby lands with ogre shocktroops (a pack of 1d6+2 ogres who roam the land demanding tribute from all they encounter and pulping anyone who refuses to pay) and ettin enforcers, terrifying giants who wander the land until summoned to “problem villages,” which they then proceed to level, often single-handedly. And these nasties are in addition to the monsters who come wandering in from the quests the Black Prince spawns!

6) Determine system and scale-appropriate ways of determining how quests are located and the toll travel takes. The first is easy: Upon arriving in a new location (or exhausting the quests they currently know of in an existing location) the party can roll whatever is loosely equivalent to Gather Information in your system. A basic success (equivalent to DC 10 in 3.5e) should tell them of one quest, either randomly selected or whichever the GM thinks is most appropriate. Further success will reveal more quests (continuing the 3.5e example, each 5 points you beat the DC by might reveal one more quest, so a 15 reveals two, a 20 reveals three, etc. etc.), and if there’s no quests left in the current region they’ll learn of those in adjacent regions instead. The party can only attempt this check once per week.

The toll taken by travel is usually more difficult (and also something you may wish to ignore entirely if you don’t especially want to reflect how difficult it is to travel through dangerous areas). D&D 3.5e might, for example, use a Fortitude save whose DC is dependent upon how dangerous the region is or how difficult the terrain is, and you take some sort of persistent debuff that lasts until you rest in town if you fail. If you’re in a system where daily healing is not freely available (as it is in 3.5e with Clerics), then some amount of damage might also be appropriate (alternatively, if your scale is small enough that travel from one region to another takes an hour or two rather than days, damage might work even if you have daily healing, however in this case it makes less sense to have travel be so arduous in the first place).

Aren’t the random encounters enough to reflect the danger of a region? This save against difficult terrain seems unnecessary.

For some groups it might be, so feel free to ignore it (but if you ignore the other rules in this system we’ll send assassins to murder you), especially if it doesn’t make sense with your scale. That said, it can be a helpful way to differentiate between places overrun with dangerous monsters and those that are just hard to walk through. It can also be used as a substitute for random encounters entirely if you want to place less of an emphasis on a region’s danger without ignoring it entirely (and if your system has a single combat skill, you might roll that in place of a Fortitude save, to represent the party hacking through some trash mobs on the way to their destination).

Since Elim is working with a vague and unspecified system that is very much like D&D 3.5e except when it is different from it, he decides that the harsh rigeurs of travel can cause some minor damage if the party fails a Fortitude save, and that Gather Information can be used to locate new quests.

7) And on the seventh step, the GM rested. You now have a complete campaign framework. It has a default response (investigate for rumors to nearby quests and go take care of the problem), a limited resource to manage (specifically, time, as the spawner quests mean that the enemy is always on the march), and allows for unusual responses within its framework (convince the necromancer and the Black Prince to fight one another so that they’ll be destroying one another’s armies instead of expanding into your territory). Here’s a few other quest types so you don’t have to wing it every time a threat doesn’t fall perfectly into the “static” or “spawner” categories:

Bunker Quests fortify another quest, so that the fortified quest is more difficult so long as the bunker quest is still around. Typically, all spawned quests should be bunker quests that fortify their spawner. This encourages players to destroy the mooks before taking on the big bad instead of racing straight to the big bad’s stronghold to take out the Black Prince and then mop up his armies afterwards. Not only does this fit your typical heroic fantasy narrative better, it also prevents the party from jumping from one spawner quest to the next without bothering with any of the quests that get spawned by them.

Jumper Quests “jump” into another quest instead of going away when they’re completed. For example, you might have a spawner quest called Orc Warlord who spawns various quests: Orc Horde, Ogre Shocktroops, Demonic Allies, whatever. But maybe the idea behind this isn’t so much that a single warlord is the big bad, but a vast amorphous army of nasties is rampaging about, expanding their territory and drawing more monsters in. You don’t want the spawner to spawn more spawners because that means the party might find themselves suddenly steamrolled by an exponentially growing threat they didn’t even know about two weeks ago, so instead you make the Orc Warlord a jumper quest. Whenever the quest is completed, it “jumps” into one of its spawned quests, replacing it. As soon as you kill one Orc Warlord, another one rises up from one of the remaining Orc Horde or Ogre Shocktroop quests, so the threat won’t be pacified until you destroy all of the enemy armies.

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So a WAAAAGH, basically.

Sleeper Quests are quests which don’t count as active quests even though the party can still go and solve the problem. Maybe they wake up once something happens or enough time passes, or maybe they’re just some kind of perilous quest the party can undertake for loot or glory which doesn’t involve removing any kind of actual threat.

Lazy Spawners only spawn quests when there’s room in their current region. Once their region has four quests already, they stop spawning. These quests are great for local baddies who you don’t want to spiral out of control and conquer the world, but you do want them to do a lot of local damage if they’re left unchecked. You can also have a lazy spawner with a small spawn die which spawns regular spawners with much larger spawn dice in order to have a baddie who acts very quickly to restore his control over his home region, but expands much slower once his backyard is secured, or a bad guy who spawns faster than any one spawner can and can replace his spawners when they go down, but doesn’t cause an exponential explosion in spawned quests.

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