This is the first entry among what I’ll refer to as ‘Under the Hood’–essentially, talking shop about behind the screen for campaigning and going over anything from how things were planned versus how they panned out to think-tanking, brainstorming and trial and error. My aim is to share the experiences of what go into the prep for a campaign–and then to look back at what worked, what didn’t, and how things might be handled better again in the future. Perhaps you might find ideas you like or might offer suggestions and inspirations in return; if nothing else, I’m always looking to improve!
As I write this, the campaign which will be the main subject of these entries has finished nine (very long) sessions and has at last reached the beginning of the Slumbering Tsar Saga; the journey here has been some of the most fun that I’ve ever had running a campaign–enough so that I am anxious to share the experiences of such with you. I’ll be playing catch-up here with recaps of the nine sessions which brought us here, before keeping current thereafter; between and among these recaps will come the Under the Hood entries, exploring what went in behind the screen and casting an eye towards what lay ahead in what I hope to be an entertaining experience for all involved!
But before we kick off, the back story: between work and other elements, I’d had a somewhat lengthy hiatus from running tabletop with a group in the flesh and had gradually built up that nagging, irresistible itch to want to tackle a fresh campaign. If you can relate, have you ever had the urge to put together a campaign that was simply epic–that was the mindset that stuck in the back of my mind and just wouldn’t quit. I’d run a bunch of campaigns over the years, and even in the six months prior–some Adventure Paths, some modules, those sorts of things; most of those had been pretty straightforward, with a bit of dabbling via new web tools and getting fancy with an iPad and nifty tools available. (Side note: perhaps warrants a look itself–is there interest in getting your High Tech game on?)
At any rate, for ages I’d wanted to dive headfirst into running a really big game–a throwback to the day when I’d gamed with pals and saw D&D characters go from first to twenty, from when a Rifts campaign culminated in tangling with the Horsemen of the Apocalypse (alright, alright–this could describe a Rifts game just starting off too, to be fair.) For that, however, you need a lot of time, a lot of prep and a solid group if it’s going to last for the long haul; internally, I hiked the bar as high as I could imagine–loftily wanting for a lot of flavor, a lot of chemistry, ample opportunities for roleplay and–something which ought not be overlooked in any game, in my opinion–striving to keep encounters consistently both challenging and interesting. Several of these things I could (and hope to) write about at more length, but that’s the general gist of where I was looking at the beginning.
Part of the reason for the hiatus had been an exceedingly busy schedule both personally and professionally; big projects at work, plenty going on at home and with family–between the two, it spelled a tough time for approaching an elaborate campaign. At the tail end of 2011, things were finally settling down–and our biggest gaming group was looking to take a break from another campaign and starting to test the waters for what to play next. The current GM wanted a chance to play and the one who had run prior was not anxious to run again so soon–and so, after some discussion, I threw my hat back in the ring and got to work looking to tackle the beast.
As much as I’d like to have plumed the old ideal of cooking up a full, rich campaign and story from scratch–the practical fact was that there just wasn’t that kind of time anymore between work and family; not, at least, if I wanted to maintain both sanity and a healthy social life! So, the question came to the content–what exactly would we be playing, and what were we going to use to do so?
Previously, the group had just gone from playing the entirety of Savage Tide before spending time in a homebrew Forgotten Realms story; they were most keen on fantasy still and happy with D&D. Among the gang, there had been some dabbling with fourth edition and some dabbling with Pathfinder–while the venue would be the very thoroughly decked out basement of an engineer passionate about his gaming. Being able to jam with a full library of Dwarf Forge dungeon bits and hundreds of maps, mats, tiles, props and doo-dads was admittedly a very strong allure to tackling a big campaign again!
There was some deliberation; most of the players to be felt sour on fourth edition, a few had probed into Pathfinder but the two prior games had both been run in 3.5 D&D. One of the challenges was the sheer size of the group–with seven players at the table, balance would be a bear for most anything presented; the basement boasted a library of close to every released product for 3.x (believe me, the shelves are quite daunting!)–which set the crux of the group solidly opposed to straying far from that root.
A median was struck: we’d take to Pathfinder for some tweaks, but primarily to distance from the quagmire that had grown between splat-books and the Spell Compendium for 3.5. Core rules, Advanced Player’s Guide, fluff books for Golarion to flavor and off we’d go–as clean a slate as we were apt to get to distance from some of the mind-blowing prestige class combos that had surfaced in the prior games, with a careful eye turned to supplements from there. Supplements, specifically the 3PP variety, have served a sizable role in flavoring things while keeping the reins in hand; there’s enough in that vein to have inspired a turn to reviewing, so more on that later.
So, we had our system, we had our setting and a general game plan–now it was down to the meat of the campaign. After deliberation, I finally set my sights on the Slumbering Tsar Saga in its release with Pathfinder compatibility; I confess that I fell in love at first sight from the evocative cover art of a party delving down into the ruined unknown–but beyond that, the book proposed that it was suitable for a party of up to six players and I felt that would be a solid jumping off point to tailor to our unwieldy seven.
The Slumbering Tsar Saga kicks off at seventh level, however; the thought was tossed around to have the gang roll in just as such, to kick right into the beast itself–but was swiftly brushed aside with the gang wanting to start from the very roots. With that goal in mind, after exploring a few options and sources of inspiration, I decided to take a stab at kit-bashing a start from the Crypt of the Everflame module–since it was designed as an introduction to Pathfinder, I thought it might be an entertaining way to similarly bring the players into the system shift in kind.
I ended up working with the trio of modules–Crypt of the Everflame, Masks of the Living God and the City of Golden Death while also consulting and listening to the d20 Chronicles podcast with their very helpful breakdown and review of the nitty-gritty behind them. This trilogy served as the skeleton for the path to seventh level, building the party and their relationships and gradually introducing NPCs and story elements for the journey that lay ahead–though it required some serious rebuilding.
With seven players, it was very necessary to start most everything over from scratch–from encounters to environmental hazards, traps, and even simpler things like the size of rooms and corridors in order to accommodate the head count. Often this required a lot more than simply cranking up the number of critters in an encounter–and we’ll go into this in further entries where I’ll share tools I used, notes, maps and the like along with review as to what turned out well and what did not when it came time to hit the table.
Overall, working with the story structure of the trilogy and using it as a foundation and springboard for the rest was a life-saver in time and patience; even with utilizing the skeleton, the first nine sessions of the campaign still took a tremendous amount of time and energy to ensure they came together–and hopefully now that we’ve reached Tsar, will not require quite so much of a time element. In retrospect, though, I’m glad we started where we did–and I look forward to sharing the work and stories of our group for you to read as well in the entries to come!