Part 5: Campaign Planning


Signature Events

Designing scenarios and campaign settings for tabletop RPGs puts GMs in the tricky position of trying to balance players’ existing expectations alongside the degree of novelty required to make each adventure or campaign seem fresh.

For many GMs the starting point for a necessary compromise between the familiar and the novel is the standard RPG or fantasy trope. These trusty staples may include anything from rescuing princesses from castles through to battling legions of the undead.

While rescuing princesses is so tired and overused that it’s only likely to appear, (with remarkable regularity), in videogame titles; many RPG tropes are not necessarily bad. Used with care and a twist or two, they often serve as the very bedrock of a fantasy setting. For example, a Dark Age setting without evil warlords, miserable peasants and violent conflict isn’t going to be very dark or aged.

Nevertheless, there’s a danger that, over time, a reliance on too many staples becomes tired, as yet another Orc war-band runs off with a few more captured Halflings. This can get to the point where players shrug their shoulders and abandon the plot, along with any Halflings, in the hope of finding more novel gameplay.

One partial solution that helps to prevent campaigns growing stale is to mix and re-mix the tropes. Under this arrangement ‘the evil warlord’ becomes ‘the evil witch’; the ‘miserable peasants’ become ‘mesmerized peasants’; and the violent conflict focuses on a different form of violence or assault.

In the hands of an inventive GM this retouching of tropes may work well and can both mask the underlying tropes and extend the viable life of a campaign. If a GM then blends in different styles of play, (such as exploration, discovery, mystery and investigation), a game can be based around a wide ‘repertoire’ without straying far from the basic fantasy model.

At the same time, both GMs and players become, and remain, aware that they’re working within a series of compromises. For the most part these involve overlooking a certain amount of repetition in return for accessing the gameplay as a whole. This is not an ideal situation, but sufficient to sustain many a campaign where radical alternatives would clash awkwardly with the tropes that form the foundations of a setting. For instance, a wide range of expectations can change by simply making gunpowder available within a swords and sorcery campaign.

Fortunately, there’s an alternative option when designing scenarios and settings, which effectively negotiates between the familiar and the novel. The basic notion is for GMs and groups to strike a balance by developing your own ‘signature’ tropes.

These signature events consolidate some of the tropes that appeal to particular groups of players and provide a platform for delivering the familiar look and feel suited to a game’s genre and players’ preferred styles of play. At the same time they can also introduce novelty and engage players’ interest by making the revised trope ‘belong’ to the players’ game.

For example, most campaigns have a few Big Bad Guys (BBGs) working both upfront and behind the scenes. Rolling out a succession of demon princes or a few vampires with a bit of extra grind, aka ‘PC wear and tear’, is a fairly standard approach to varying BBG scenes. This places the resource management of successive combats to the fore and gives players a rather one-dimensional role in BBG encounters.

If we not only modify but revisit the basic BBG trope a lot more options open up. For instance, taking a classic Lich as our leading BBG brings useful expectations in terms of a powerful, undead creature with the appearance of physical fragility and a reputation for manipulation and dark magic. The Lich could simply operate tactically, and typically, as a devastating form of ‘close air support’ available to its minions.

Alternatively, the Lich might be reclusive, with a seemingly legal body parts business and few clues to anything more. Over time, and possibly more than one campaign, players could, perhaps, come upon the young people with white hair and money who’ve worked for the Lich. They might also stumble upon what happens to some of the swapped organs and, eventually, close in on the Lich’s secrets.

Our BBG can, therefore, move in and out of events on many levels, while always mindful of keeping an escape route open - until the gameplay becomes more about discovering what the Lich is up to and its motives rather than another kill.

Other tropes which easily ‘evolve’, and/ or ‘explode’, when used as signature events can include old comrades, significant landmarks, secret organizations and the most prized of magical items. A certain Crown of Corruption, once worn by the aforementioned Lich, has been snapped from the bony fingers of an ancient king, been found rusting in a bazaar and, most recently, been dredged up in fishing nets – over three campaigns. This is not because of a shortage of ideas for magic items, but at the request of players who find the insidious crown very tempting, despite the dreadful consequences.

Further signature events in use within the Treasure and Corruption campaigns that are going on just now include:



Over a few years there have been infiltration sieges, ‘going over the top’ sieges, maritime sieges, mining sieges and war machine sieges. Players seem to enjoy coming up with the ingenuity required to arrive at new ways to either assault or defend sites. 


Day, Night and Twilight

Different phases of the day favor different activities and factions. Day enhances the magic weapons and strength of those born above ground. Night improves the speed and intelligence of nocturnal creatures. While during twilight the world is oxygen rich – a time for over-sized insects and reptiles to feed. Dragons are ‘frenzied’ at this time and hunt without loyalty or favor.



A black rose signifies base matter, a white rose indicates whitening, a red rose signifies reddening, a white rose and a red rose denote perfection; and a blue rose reveals the impossible. The roses relate to ‘phases’ comparable to the alchemical phases the symbolism is based on.



A Brecbennach is a Scottish reliquary once carried into battle by Scottish kings. The imaginary reliquary takes saints’ bones just like the original. Unlike the original, the RPG version also enchants just about any set of bones thrown into it, so long as it’s being carried into battle by a king at the time.


There are other signature events in use, including birds of good- and ill-omen, an NPC who casts no shadow, a blade which cuts stone and an angel with a broken wing.

Clearly, many potential signature events may already crop-up during play, either as tropes or as isolated incidents. This kind of adaptable gameplay is often treated as throwaway, i.e. there usually won’t be another siege or a Crown of Corruption in play until the same options are re-used, (often in much the same way), much further down the line. This seems a bit of a waste, as signature events that are developed and catch on can help to turn a game from ‘a fantasy story’ to ‘our group’s fantasy story’.

A good share of any credit for this approach goes to the Final Fantasy videogames. They’ve been known for using a form of signature events to ‘texture’ in-game roleplaying, (and distinguish their RPGs from the competition), for many years.

Die-hard tabletop RPG players may question the contribution of videogames – and they’d be right up to a point. Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax built a number of signature event options into early Dungeons and Dragons. Spells and magic items bearing the name of the PC that researched or enchanted them are one example. Signature Dungeons and Dragons monsters that now receive IP protection have proved equally persistent, while the Greyhawk setting is, in itself, a signature event.

A signature event does not usually form a complete campaign, but one of those mentioned – sieges – easily crosses over from acting as a signature event to outlining a much broader challenge that is open to providing a cluster of related events and situations that can form the basis of campaigns.


Player Choice, Campaign Challenges and Campaign Planning

Delivering player choice and shared ownership of the gameplay in a RPG session is influenced by several factors that have already been mentioned, e.g. styles of play, genres and characterization. By shifting from particular ‘events’ like signature events to broader campaign challenges GMs are often able to open-up choices/ horizons for players by matching players’ gameplay preferences to the game-worlds the players explore.

These campaign challenges influence gameplay by outlining campaign worlds that offer shared expectations without zooming in on every detail. For instance, a major event like the colonization of a continent carries a shared but unstated set of expectations as soon as such an event is brought into play.

Many experienced players are well aware of this and continually exchange and sample new ideas that feed into new campaigns and new games. For those who make a point of planning campaigns quite thoroughly, a discussion or campaign planning session along the following lines is easily done and may well happen spontaneously:


Player's Choice

Rob: "I want to get out of Medieval Europe."

GM: "Anywhere special?"

Rob: "New weapons, meaner monsters, explore new territory . . . stuff."


Campaign Challenge: Conquest and Colonization

Frontier life encourages plenty of novelty and exploration during play. Mapping territories, encountering exotic creatures, (unique to an island or continent), making contact with dramatically different cultures and coping with unusual environmental hazards are all part of the fun.


Player's Choice

Mark: "Surprise me!"

GM: "Do my best."

Mark: "My PC eats nothing made by anyone else - whole campaign!"


Campaign Challenge: Massive Meteor Strikes

Modest meteor strikes and similar impacts make a good basis for a series of scenarios. Apart from play concerning the actual strike event they can offer survival gameplay and other situations linked to knock-on effects such as civil disorder and long-term boundary changes.


Player's Choice

Jenny: "I've just got my wizard's lab going."

GM: "How about rare, exotic ingredients from abroad? Kind of stuff the finest magic items are made from?"

Jenny: "When do we leave?"


Campaign Challenge: Research and Experimentation

Magical research, terraformation, climate change, hybrid diseases, brainwashing, mass manipulation, finding a cure, inventing a new technology or starting a research division takes adventures into a further area of novelty and player choice.

Overall, a short discussion between players can act as a platform for a whole campaign providing players and GMs are open about their expectations.

Clearly, an obvious prerequisite for a successful planning meeting is to have a good understanding of each other’s expectations as you go into planning a campaign and putting the GM to work on designing a setting. If players aren’t clear about what they hope their characters will get up to it is likely to be a good idea to prepare player profiles in advance.


Campaign Challenges and Adventure Playparks

Ask any tabletop RPG Gamesmaster (GM) what kind of game they’d like to run and the answers that come back are likely to include some or all of the following:

  1. A game with a rich, authentic and immersive game-world.
  2. Gameplay focused on a variety of challenges and compelling plots.
  3. A sense of emotional and creative involvement.
  4. An atmosphere of collaboration and an appreciation of the spontaneous and intuitive.

Unsurprisingly, while all of the above sounds great, it’s quite a tall order for any GM to design and deliver on most of these desirable options. To do so, a GM somehow has to:

  1. Invent a jaw-droppingly good campaign packed with exciting adventures.
  2. Present a variety of open-ended challenges in evolving contexts.
  3. Appeal to the range of gameplay enjoyed by all the players in the group.
  4. Bring everything together at the table on the fly.

The list of skills the GM has to learn and then marshal grows with each condition. Consequently, it’s hardly surprising when GMs reach for off the shelf solutions instead of designing their own gaming materials.

Regrettably, someone else’s design can’t feed off your imagination, (or your players’ imaginations), as readily as custom campaign settings and scenarios. Other GMs’ materials may be of mixed quality, ill-suited to the preferences of your group and, altogether, quite cumbersome to adapt. Nevertheless, at the end of the working week, and as the next game approaches, it can seem essential to fall back on shrink-wrapped products.



The alternative is to find a way to support your own design and gameplay on a number of levels. These include help with:

  1. Devising settings.
  2. Constructing challenges.
  3. Supporting player choice.
  4. Improvisation.

There are, no doubt, some GMs who can come up with snappy, off the cuff descriptions and narratives almost at will. However, even they are likely to become caught between the contrasting limitations of improvisation and elaboration when their game departs from fixed narratives and GM-directed play.

Approaches to making GMs’ lives easier often offered as design solutions in the past include random encounter tables, all-encompassing campaign packs and the purchase of endless volumes of material in the hope of unearthing a few half-decent ideas.

These ‘options’ do little to help a GM develop a living, dynamic world of her/ his own and/ or the gameplay offered by richer, authentic settings. As a result, it’s very easy for games to become hemmed in and limited by convenience.


Adventure Playgrounds

So what are we looking for here? Basically, a means of making it easier for GMs and groups to rapidly construct and easily run action-packed settings and adventures. Not any old settings and adventures, but adaptable, dynamic games capable of allowing players to play in their element.

We could use any number of analogies to explore these goals, but it may help to frame RPGs in terms of open-ended imaginative ‘adventure playgrounds’. Much like any playground, the features of the playground as a whole dictate many of the behaviors within the playground.

A concrete playground with no supervision or ‘boundaries’, few play facilities and lots of litter everywhere is likely to lead to repetition, boredom and bullying. While an attractive, soft-surfaced play area; offering suitable oversight and equipped with playground games and challenges, is likely to lead to shared play and co-operative relationships.

Consequently, RPG GMs are, perhaps, looking for ways to design ‘playgrounds’ with key features that are going to act as triggers for and support to enjoyable, improvisational gameplay. These features are, ideally, thrown into the mix at the outset and, generally, present players with access to campaign challenges, i.e. the adventures players wish to access and enjoy.

In-game features or events that deliver campaign challenges lend themselves to presenting opportunities for plenty of task or mission-orientated challenges, lots of credible adventure hooks, consistently strong characterization and spontaneous narration.

These elements can, perhaps, be found in campaign-defining features and/ or events, which amount to campaign challenges. Such features are not simply a blank continent waiting to be colonized or a generic fantasy city; but rather a platform for supporting dynamic, improvisational gameplay.


Siege Warfare

By way of an example, we can look at a city under siege and identify several features of a siege which can help gameplay to go beyond the standard fantasy city model. The type of features or framework underlying these elements of a campaign challenge can be set out through the aims already put forward:

  • A game with a rich, authentic and immersive game-world.

For example, play might involve dramatic architecture and fortifications, the battlefield, the battlements, going beneath the city, deformed and re-constructed landscapes, oceans of troops, invading armadas and a sense of grand affairs played out on a grand scale.

  • Gameplay focused on a variety of challenges and compelling plots.

For example, play might include armed assaults, defending battlements and salients, convoying, delivering regime change, arms trading, breakouts, arms races, rationing, smuggling, internal and external plotting, betrayals, mining, spying, sabotage, and battles or skirmishes conducted on, above or below ground.

The framework set out by these components makes for a very flexible range of gameplay options. Despite that, there’s still a great deal left for the GM to prepare and improvise before it’s easier to go it alone and target a fully-realized, dynamic game.

Fortunately, sieges excel as an example of how a carefully selected campaign challenge can go beyond outlining a structure and, hopefully, bridge the creative gap between a fairly typical genre-based event and an imaginative RPG adventure playground.

Returning to our original aims:

  • A sense of emotional and creative involvement.

Sieges are ideally suited to emotional engagement on any number of levels. They can easily involve playing for high stakes, moral or ethical dilemmas, bouts of cabin fever or mutiny, cause for despair, perilous cliffhangers, devastation and ruin, victory and triumph, or simply grinding attrition.

Players have plenty of options to get involved in high fantasy or intrigue involving the siege itself or may prefer to focus on the daily life of a besieged city or a besieging army.

At the same time, our familiarity with battles and sieges provides more than enough opportunities to call upon players’ creativity by presenting a rich improvisational environment that brings together the gameplay framework, or architecture, and the ‘decorative’ gameplay texture or fabric.

A city under siege is seething with sights, sounds, tastes, textures, odors, colors, diseases, heraldry, fears and ambitions, status, commerce, the ‘fog of war’, battle fatigue, plans, escape plans, scoundrels, and all the social and economic effects of war. Consequently, there’s a detail or an easily constructed improvisation at GMs’ fingertips almost all of the time, e.g. the GM doesn’t have to invent costumes from scratch, as the conditions of a siege immediately suggest uniforms and ration clothing.

  • An atmosphere of collaboration and an appreciation of the spontaneous and intuitive.

Highly adaptable campaign challenges, which support the rapid frameworking and texturing of dynamic campaign settings or scenarios, appear to engage and foster improvisation and creativity - making them likely to deliver RPG adventure playgrounds. From there, collaboration and appreciation of the spontaneous hopefully follow.

Of course, sieges alone aren’t sufficient. Over enough games even the most epic siege is going to grow tiresome. Especially if there’s a siege in every campaign or game you sit down to. With that in mind, the next step would seem to be to isolate the elements that combine to construct campaign challenges/ form RPG adventure playgrounds.

If we then try to apply those criteria to more mundane basic game features or events -with a bit of luck - the end result might offer a formula for rapidly constructing immersive, improvisational RPG settings, scenarios and gameplay.


Campaign Challenges and Adventure Holidays: Part 1

Adventure Playparks

Populating RPG games and campaign settings with key in-game RPG challenges, or campaign challenges, (which form easily unpacked RPG adventure playgrounds), aims to make it easier to:

  1. Design authentic settings.
  2. Construct enjoyable challenges for players.
  3. Support player choice.
  4. Improvise.

These benefits appear to result from playing within game-worlds where feature rich combinations of familiar genre locations, events, challenges and personalities combine to prompt more flexible gameplay opportunities. This involves building on a game’s basic structure or framework, (as defined by the rules and genre), through designing evocative adventure playgrounds - which place a rich set of psychological and cultural expectations at GMs’ and players’ imaginative fingertips.

The types of expectations and prompts campaign challenges are looking to present as a coherent whole seem likely to include numerous elements. These will, ideally, be consistent with a game’s rules system and genre, while leaving plenty of room for GMs and players to easily add to, and vary, not simply a blank canvas, but a prepared canvas which has already been primed and toned.

Campaign challenges should, therefore, include a wide variety of distinctive features, challenges and personalities that evoke both a shared authenticity and the freedom to revise and re-shape the backdrop and the gameplay based upon the backdrop. Typical elements which could be largely pre-defined by a campaign challenge might be expected to include:

1.      Architecture.

2.      Art, decoration and design.

3.      Costumes, uniforms and body decorations.

4.      Crafts and industries.

5.      Customs, calendars and traditions.

6.      Daily life and nightlife.

7.      Flora and fauna.

8.      Governance.

9.      Individuals.

10.  Landscapes and scenery.

11.  Organizations.

12.  Seasons.

13.  Sights, sounds, tastes and smells.

14.  Textures.

15.  Transport systems.

This list is far from exhaustive. However, it seems to demonstrate just how much is involved in trying to create a campaign completely from scratch and, hopefully, how a cluster of gameplay features working together can help players to arrive at a shared connection to both the familiar and opportunities to explore the unfamiliar.


Floating Cities

The following floating cities options appear to offer examples of campaign challenges that can easily be applied to many games:

A city with canals has different hazards, transport, trade and combat options from a landlocked city. Amsterdam and Venice are good models, but the ‘sights and sounds’ of the Mexica, aka Aztec, capital Tenochtitlan suggests a sun-drenched, tropical RPG playground. I.e. from the outset gameplay adapted from this example is going to be influenced by brightly painted buildings, feathered costumes, exotic foods and intense flavors.

Alternatively, a persistent, swarming armada that pulls together tightly or disperses under seemingly vague conditions or circumstances presents a very wide range of challenges and lots of options for intrigue or treachery. The Barbary Pirates offer a good example of what might be involved, as their slave trade brought together fleets large enough for vast stretches of the Italian and Spanish coastlines to be almost entirely abandoned by their inhabitants.


Adventure Holidays

It’s at this stage that it becomes increasingly apparent that the qualities we’re looking to introduce through campaign challenges are, ideally, already set in motion, i.e. a campaign challenge should allow a setting to take on a life of its own. Doing so involves drawing on sequences of events, and sparking ideas and improvisation through helping players to set events in motion.

Our playpark analogy describes a fairly static setting, which is set in motion by the action of the kids and the availability of basic equipment. However, when in use real playparks often have a life of their own, as shown by the behaviors resulting from seasons, calendars, traditions, rituals, personalities, development or deterioration, and many other factors. It may, therefore, be worth revising the analogy from RPG adventure playparks to RPG ‘adventure holidays’, as these consistently deliver a series of events, entertainment and novelty.

Many types of festivals make good campaign challenges, so an example based around such an event can, perhaps, describe an adventure holiday. For example, the Mardi Gras seasons in New Orleans and Rio offer sequences of events and expectations involving astonishing riots of color with plenty of other clear-cut expectations. However, a GM running a gritty Dark Ages fantasy campaign may be looking for something more down to earth – but far from mundane.

A game session including a bunch of PCs wandering into a tumbled down village looking for clues during a pursuit, or just for re-supply, could simply mean a quick visit to the local store. Introducing some sort of seasonal or harvest festival, (that players may choose to skip or pursue), offers a fast way to open up lots of options. There are numerous approaches to this, but our example is an annual Jam Festival.

For a few days a year the village bursts into life, as the inhabitants and hundreds of visitors collect ripe cloudberries from the forest and preserve them before they over-ripen. The jam has to be made quickly, as the fresher the fruit the greater the value of the exquisitely tasty and highly-prized preserves.

Players immediately have opportunities to harvest jam, start a jam factory, trade in jam or find out what’s going on in the dark underside of the jam trade. At the same time a whole network of expectations are already set in place. Village life suddenly has color, aromas, flavors, bustling industries, interested parties, social networks, a nightlife and, when the jam muggers and wasps arrive, danger. The GM is then free to concentrate on developing the gameplay, perhaps through a trade in illicit jams or by introducing competing factions. For example, the forest might contain ferocious hornets, human-sized Tarantula hawk wasps, equally large parasitic Ichneumon wasps, local eco-warriors or Treants, (that get riled on a rising scale when fireballs are used to take-out the wasps’ wings).

Following the switch in our definition of RPG campaign challenges from adventure playgrounds to adventure holidays, the next step involves considering how GMs and players can rapidly shape expectations and gameplay on a national, continental or global scale. The task of inventing entire worlds and cultures, which aim to fit together seamlessly, is usually limited to skilled fantasy and SciFi authors.


Campaign Challenges and Adventure Holidays: Part 2

Cutting the Cloth

While every Gamesmaster (GM) might be tempted to plan, prepare and deliver roleplaying adventures by sitting down and cutting the cloth for their own campaign settings and scenarios, in practice this doesn’t always work for two reasons.

Many GMs don’t have the time and/ or energy to design everything from scratch. In addition, GMs’ designs are typically based on the mix of rule sets, prior experience, cultures and player choices that feed into any design, so a GM is really aiming to get players involved in cutting the cloth.

It, therefore, seems necessary for GMs who wish to rapidly construct and run their own adventures and campaigns to find ways to streamline and structure their designing to lighten the workload - and to take account of player choice. (This is especially true if GMs wish to spend less time re-inventing the wheel and more time shaping their gameplay).

Notably, bringing a campaign or adventure to life is often more about re-designing familiar situations than trying to completely depart from the key elements of particular genres and different styles of play.



GMs can simply fall back on shrink-wrapped scenarios and settings, but doing so involves a great many compromises. These constraints include cultural preconceptions and gameplay models imported through any rules system attached to shrink-wrapped settings and adventures.

Further limitations associated with many off the shelf products include the boundaries imposed by the sparse backdrop provided by some settings and a tendency to expect players to pick up on, and enjoy, gameplay challenges described more by a system-driven design team than by the players.

Consequently, a setting will often arrive with maps, adventure locations, a genre-based culture, (such as a ‘medieval’ city), and lots of ready-rolled opponents. However, that will not always be enough to pitch players into the midst of a living, breathing game-world where ongoing events, local customs, sensory experiences and other immediate references to the fabric of a city’s life are on tap to trigger and support more imaginative gameplay.

Sure, a bought in setting may cover some local gods and the layout of their temples, but that gives little sense of ‘the fear of god’ familiar to the occupants of many real medieval cities - or the ceremonies and rites carried-out in the names of such gods over a full year. Equally, there may be some references to local heraldry in terms of displaying banners or using flags to identify NPCs, but, (even as full time developers), few shrink-wrapped scenario designers have time to explore the social status, historical records and personal attributes recorded in medieval heraldry.


Adventure Playgrounds and Adventure Holidays

Possible approaches to faster, more authentic and distinctly open-ended design have been suggested in terms of basing settings and scenarios around campaign challenges. These feature-rich bundles of gameplay options immediately set in place a whole series of familiar expectations and natural progressions, while also offering opportunities for players to select from a wide range of gameplay challenges.

Campaign challenges can be discussed in terms of equipping an adventure playground with a combination of exciting apparatus, suitable playing surfaces and level-headed supervision. On that level a campaign challenge, such as a city at war or the colonization of a new continent, goes a fair way towards putting in place a framework upon which GMs and players can construct their own gameplay.

Extending the same analogy from adventure playgrounds to adventure holidays suggests that it’s also relatively straightforward to set in motion, or animate, a campaign setting or an adventure. This can be done through selecting campaign challenges which incorporate persistent and recurring features, (such as records of past events, seasons, calendars, local and regional customs, costumes, legends and similar living and breathing elements).

This overall approach is not so much about taking short cuts, as making more time available for developing gameplay, adding your own twists to the familiar and carefully selecting settings that open up gameplay opportunities.

Many of the features of a fully-developed RPG adventure holiday can be ‘imported’ then grafted together to form a coherent whole by drawing on historical, legendary and current events, which feed on and extend players’ expectations. For example, the early colonization of the Americas presents a particularly rich campaign challenge, which can predefine many of the features likely to be encountered in a colonization, e.g. limited resources, disease and starvation, the need for certain types of shelters and settlements, clashes between two or more cultures, and extreme climates with extreme bugs.


The Hidden Shrine

Of course, borrowing from history, legends or current events is hardly new to RPGs. Not least, because the most common genres, (i.e. fantasy and SciFi), are largely based on vague definitions of, respectively, medieval Europe and Star Wars movies. The effect of this kind of model on RPG gameplay can be illustrated with reference to an old AD&D scenario called The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan.

The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan was billed as an adventure with a Mexican or Mesoamerican flavor and there were a number of short references to Mesoamerican deities, (plus a handful of monsters roughly based on creatures from Mesoamerican mythology), alongside the monster stats and traps.

As a result, players largely bypassed Mesoamerican history and culture, which served as a sugar-coating set on top of a dungeon adventure. (A decent enough dungeon adventure as it happens). Between the rules set and the design there wasn’t a great deal to lend a more authentic feel to the gameplay; or to open up access to the pleasures and misfortunes of a fantasy world based around a vast and enduring set of ancient cultures.

Checking out a few pages on whatever served as the Wikipedia of the day might have allowed the same Mesoamerican theme to touch on the dazzling pageantry and underlying horror at the heart of the Aztec/ Mexica and Mayan cultures.


Constructing Campaign Challenges

Constructing campaign challenges from flexible components is not, therefore, about wrapping existing approaches to play in shiny, new paper or locking play into a particular time or place and trying to model every aspect of the same culture or history. Instead, campaign challenges are about planning and integrating combinations of features that support imaginative, open-ended gameplay.

For example, there are plenty of gameplay options to explore in the European medieval tournaments where knights regularly bludgeoned each other in the interests of improving their social standing. These events make for a good starting point, but most players already know what to expect in a purely medieval context.

The Mayan principalities extraordinary system of internecine warfare concentrated on an elite responsible for conducting raids and skirmishes in accordance with the supposed actions of the gods, (i.e. constellations), seen warring across the night skies. These original ‘star wars’ centered on taking high prestige captives, who were treated much as knights or bishops within a deadly serious game of celestial chess, which was believed to exist both on the ground and in the skies. Consequently, a captive would be held for sacrifice at auspicious moments in the celestial calendar. These events often called for sporting competitions and elaborate rituals.

By drawing on just a few of the Mayan options it’s not hard to see how a blend of the medieval and the Mayan could combine to offer a more novel approach to tournaments. For example, it would be quite straightforward to revise and extend the traditional medieval tourney by tying the conduct of tournaments to religious rituals, sacrifices and a stellar calendar.

So, using plenty of sources, re-mixing the key elements within those sources and devising campaign challenges should introduce greater originality and player choice within any setting or adventure. In so doing, such challenges should prime a setting with plenty of shared expectations, which encourage players to explore, adapt and extend their own expectations.

It’s entirely possible to move towards thoroughly authentic campaign settings and adventures, which track the exact course of events within historical or current affairs. For some groups of players this is an excellent way to add authenticity and save time, but it can be limiting to force the gameplay to follow a predictable pattern of events. Not least because this may dilute the very player choice that campaign challenges set out to deliver.

Any such difficulties can usually be countered by being quite selective about what to include and what to skip over whenever a campaign challenge is put in place. For instance, simply borrowing a framework from accounts of a historic city under siege might be all that’s needed to help out with a medieval city; which a GM goes on to develop in terms of events and encounters. However, throwing in a different, difficult climate and/ or a short sequence of events from an intriguing episode in history, or legend, might well reduce a GM’s workload and set up further ready-made layers of expectations and knock-on effects.


Exploring Campaign Challenges

The examples of possible campaign challenges presented here are likely to support an extended series of adventures. New characters can start out with a relatively lowly role in greater events and, in time, become caught up in shaping major events within the game-world.

There are a lot of instantly available shared expectations on tap for GMs to reference within each of these campaign challenges. These expectations can build authenticity, while leaving plenty of room to serve as a platform for unique adventures and campaigns. Spreading a few such campaign challenges across a game-world, (or combining different campaign challenges), rapidly speeds up the process of adding terrain, settlements and landmarks. This is because campaign challenges will often suggest or ‘paint-in’ many features suited to the types of campaign challenges the adventurers are tackling.

GMs may wish to limit the number of campaign challenges encountered by adventurers to leave space for adding further campaign and gameplay options as play progresses.


Conquest and Colonization

Frontier life encourages plenty of novelty and exploration during play. Mapping territories, encountering exotic creatures, (unique to an island or continent), making contact with dramatically different cultures and coping with unusual environmental hazards are all part of the fun.

Forging a new nation, clearing major threats, establishing bases and forts, seeking out resources and surviving hardships are typical examples of elements of conquest and colonization suited to underpinning or refreshing a campaign setting.


Counter Insurgency

Counter insurgency presents a theme that’s ready-made for adding in betrayals, intrigue and mystery. Adventurers can undertake ‘chasing their tail’ missions as they try to deal with threats from outside and within; before trying to seize the initiative. Obvious scenarios include trying to prevent an assassination, trying to contain a rebellion, investigating the causes of an insurgency and trying to reveal the culprits.

Campaigns based on counter insurgency benefit from a claustrophobic atmosphere fostered by surprises, reverses, mild horror and red herrings. Adventurers might, for example, get involved in setting up a network of informants, distributing propaganda, running covert operations and being framed.


Crime Fighting

Crime fighting, getting caught up in crime, fighting crime with crime and bounty hunting are sources of adventure hooks that can easily cast adventurers in the role of righteous heroes and/ or start asking questions about complicity and compromise. Investigating art thefts, uncovering insider trading, going undercover inside a criminal organization, staging a jailbreak and countless other crimes are easy ways to encourage players to make choices that have consequences for themselves and others.

Campaign settings benefit from taking account of crime, as there are few cultures which don’t have both crime and specialized codes for categorizing, investigating and dealing with crime. Consequently, the crimes and punishments of a tribe of primitive barbarians are likely to vary considerably from the crimes and punishments of a sophisticated race such as Elves or Dark Elves. This variety creates lots of opportunities to let players get drawn into difficult situations where there are no straightforward answers.


Disasters and Crisis Management

Introducing dramatic events and unexpected emergencies during play can form the basis of standalone adventures or add an extra level of challenge to a campaign. Players suddenly find themselves having to find solutions to the dangers and complications delivered by the adventure they set out on, while also dealing with underlying, ongoing events such as a volcanic eruption, an army of zombie creatures, a flood or a revolution.

At the scenario level the immediate effects of disasters and efforts to regain control let GMs add surprises and novelty, while asking players to improvise. Within campaigns ongoing or unfolding disasters and necessary crisis management may change both the situations players encounter and how adventurers react to them. For example, a major flood can immediately set players a series of mission options such as feeding refugees, building a dam in dangerous territory, coping with invasion from the sea or saving sunken treasures.


Dawn of the Undead

Campaigns where the personalities within the culture think entirely differently from standard behaviors or ‘mind-sets’ are something GMs often consider in terms of how an alien race or a monster might think. A variant along such lines can be illustrated by reviewing what could be involved in a fantasy campaign where adventurers all become undead of some kind. The motives assigned to these undead needn’t be vile. Instead they might seek to right an ancient wrong or wish to complete a ceremony that lets them change form.

However, their perceptions, how they approach problems, the value or lack of value they attach to other undead, (and the corporeal), their ‘powers’ and the way they go about shaping the game-world is open to a wide range of interpretations.



No need to reach for the calculators and spreadsheets. Adventurers can get involved in any number of missions based around business interests and trading. Escorting convoys, making trade deals, smuggling, wrecking and claiming rights to new territory are just a few of the options for scenarios.

Creating a business or an invention, running a profitable Thieves’ Guild, operating a fleet of ships for exploration or hire, taking control of or disrupting an economy, funding major constructions and similar projects all offer approaches to placing adventurers in immersive campaigns.


Espionage and Infiltration

It’s possible to run games which draw on source material from genuine spies involved in deep cover operations, civil and military sabotage, resistance operations and assassinations. Adventurers might have to demonstrate their loyalty to the group they’re trying to infiltrate, make and pass on equipment to contacts, gather information about enemy agents or installations, flush out a double agent or recruit new operatives.

Campaigns that play on the uncertainties and fears inherent in spying and deep cover operations don’t have to set player against player or adventurer against adventurer, as fellow adventurers may be among the most reliable allies available in a campaign involving spies and saboteurs.


Internecine Warfare

Internal conflict which sets brother against brother, involves trading off rival camps and means never being able to sleep in the same place from one night to the next keeps adventurers under pressure. As events escalate players might get involved in missions linked to such conflict. These could involve trying to defuse the situation, fanning the flames, coming under pressure to take sides and/ or looking to protect others from the conflict.

A campaign centered on warring factions might see a party having to switch sides, getting caught by their former allies, possibly deciding to set up their own faction or even seeking a peace settlement.


Marine Life

It’s not unusual to come across underwater, marine or maritime adventures where players try out a couple of scenarios in underwater settings or hop in and out of an ocean broken up by a few small archipelagos. Doing so can be amusing, as spells and weapons may work differently, physical features like tides and currents can influence events, and adventurers will encounter new races.

The same process can be taken a lot further by, for example, getting rid of the land altogether or making any land difficult to survive on. At that point, play goes ‘aquatic’ on several levels and GMs are asked to think about events, adventures, commerce and encounters conducted well below the waves. For instance, many festivals and celebrations are likely to concern events such as fishing, periodic tides, algae blooms and deep sea currents; rather than land-based ceremonies about seasons or harvesting.

Threats and hazards are also likely to become focused on adapting to an aquatic world. For instance, an undersea volcanic eruption is hugely different from a volcanic eruption on land.


Massive Meteor Strikes

Modest meteor strikes and similar impacts make a good basis for a series of scenarios. Apart from play concerning the actual strike event they can offer survival gameplay and other situations linked to knock-on effects such as civil disorder and long term boundary changes.

A fairly modest lump of rock is enough to have a regional impact, but it’s possible to go a whole lot further by scaling the meteor and, possibly, giving the meteor a ‘payload’. For example, a planetary fracture that removes perhaps a fifth of the planet and creates a moon is going to change local gravity, oceans and weather systems for good. Throw in a race of invaders, a parasitic virus or a powerful, corrupting lodestone embedded within the meteor and players have a lot of new options to play out.


Mysteries and Investigations

Disappearances, unsolved crimes and murder mysteries can add an extra dimension to play. Perhaps the most important element of asking adventurers to solve mysteries is to provide sufficient clues, as players and adventurers don’t have the GM’s inside knowledge of the situation. It can be helpful to present clues more than once, to present a clue in a different way, to offer clues which refer to other clues and to ‘let it go’ if players really aren’t catching-on.


Research and Experimentation

Magical research, terraformation, climate change, hybrid diseases, brainwashing, mass manipulation, finding a cure, inventing a new technology or starting a research division takes adventures into a further area of novelty and player choice.

Tracking down rare or repugnant ingredients, scouring ancient libraries for details of lost technologies and researching new forms of magic all provide self-contained adventure hooks. These can be brought together to sketch out an open-ended campaign. Alternatively, research and experimentation can be placed at the center of campaign events by making the outcomes of research critical to major events across much of a setting.



Freedom fighting, raising a rebellion, releasing enslaved tribes and turning the tables on oppressive regimes are all good options for a campaign. Elements of spying and infiltration, containing counter insurgency, major disasters and corruption are easily brought into revolutionary gameplay.

In addition, players will be faced with plenty of difficult decisions about whom to trust, where their loyalties should lie and, possibly, what happens after a revolution or regime change. Scenarios can give adventurers a role in making a revolution happen, while a campaign arc focused on a revolution lets adventurers cover a wide selection of gameplay and plotting.



It’s almost always worth considering players’ views before making massive changes to the cornerstones of a campaign. However, if, or once, everyone is good with a particular plan there are many global or world changing options out there. Supervolcanoes are involved in reshaping continents and a campaign set through the lead up to a supervolcanic event, the first eruptions, the wider eruption pattern and the aftermath of a supervolcanic event should be enough to keep most groups on edge.

Some obvious options include flaming rocks falling from the sky, rivers and lakes of lava, desperate survivors and survivalists, broken and emerging political structures, and breakouts from underground races driven to the surface.


Survival Scenarios

Survival scenarios can act as an aside to a campaign in need of a break or trigger expeditions into exotic lands populated by alien cultures. The fish out of water situations involved in day-to-day survival may be central to a series of survival scenarios before adventurers escape back to the campaign as a whole. Otherwise, survival events may lead to discoveries mapping out a campaign defined by clear differences from standard medieval and Dark Age settings.

Introducing new races, different customs, new spells and new technologies through a complete culture/ s should vary play and help players to make their own choices about adapting to the differences during gameplay.

Of course, it wouldn’t be survival without going gritty, so there's no harm in calling up a tropical storm, leaving carnivorous plants all over the place, starving the adventurers until they learn to hunt the local way - or having them prepared as ingredients for a cannibal tribe’s next recipe.


Warfare and Sieges

Battles, raiding, invasions and siege warfare are solid bets for most fantasy games. The options for both open conflict and less direct approaches are numerous. Preparing for war, controlling the arms trade, military policing, besieging a fortress, defending a fortress under siege, patrolling hostile territory, fighting battles and holding the line all fit straight into campaigns either as optional scenarios or as part of the fabric of a setting.

Warfare can be characterized by victories, defeats, attrition, shock, terrain, theatres, collateral damage and personal injury amongst many options. Mixing these elements effectively makes it possible to get involved in combative campaigns without resorting to repetitive skirmishing. Realistic massed combat games call for specialized rules, but a focus on character involvement, outcomes linked to the existing rules and roleplaying can make for immersive play.

A couple of campaign challenges can generate enough ideas and options to rapidly map out the basis of a campaign. For example:

Internecine Warfare


Covert Operations

Feudal Factions




Sleeping Partners

Torn Loyalties

Warfare and Sieges

Aerial Assaults




Night Attacks


Relief Columns

Siege Engines


Many GMs will be happy to develop a campaign using just a few campaign challenges and the adventure builder that follows. For those who prefer to prepare games in plenty of detail, to run setting-wide solo/ team games or to design campaigns during play - the world builder that follows the adventure builder helps with quickly design your own completely custom campaigns.