Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The High Fantasy Campaign


I think after so many years of having game companies focus on "High Fantasy" themes (Dragonlance, Greyhawk Wars, to name a couple), its only natural that the OSR, so far, has typically swung in the other direction, favoring darker Sword & Sorcery themes and inspirations. A quick glance at Gary's infamous Appendix N reveals that Sword & Sorcery was a far bigger influence in "the beginning" than High Fantasy, and motivationally, the game rewards picaresque edpisodes far more often than grand quests anyways.

But that's not to say that High Fantasy gaming is without merit. Far from it. Enough folks enjoy the genre that I suspect its only a matter of time before the OSR starts to produce some cool material to specifically support High Fantasy themes oo.

In the meantime, here's a quick and dirty method to develop your own High Fantasy campaign:

Episode 1: Red Dawn. In this adventure, the PCs are generated, and are considered to be relatively naive villagers going about largely peaceful lives. Then the forces of the "dark lord" appear and the party must band together to help defend their homes in a running set-piece battle. Whether successful or not, something must be done about this villain!

Episode 2: We're off to see the Wizard. This would be a short wilderness adventure, wherein the PCs get to see firsthand the deprivations the dark tyrant's forces are inflicting upon the lands, on their way to consult the wise loremaster.

Episode 3: I wonder if he means old Ben Kenobi? The PCs meet with the wise loremaster, the Elrond of the campaign setting, who fills them in on the dark lord's history, the obligatory prophecy of his fall, and where to find the great artifact that will enable his downfall.

Episode 4: Excalibur! In this adventure, the party must travel to the campaign setting's premier dungeon, and plumb its depths to recover the great artifact.

Episode 5: One does not simply walk into Mordor. In this wilderness adventure, the party must venture into the lands of the dark one, hounded at every step by his most powerful servants, who by now should be aware that the powerful artifact is in the party's hands.

Episode 6: Nottingham Castle. Not wanting to deal with the huge evil army camped out in front of the dark lord's abode, the PCs must win their way in through duplicity or through a back door. The basements and sewers of the dark tower may be a dungeon adventure in their own right.

Episode 7: There can be only one! The final part of the campaign, a magnificent set-piece combat wherein the PCs at last face their nemesis and his most trusted guardians. Will they save the realm, or doom it?

There you have it, seven easy steps. Two set-piece battles, two dungeons, two wilderness adventures, and some cool "show off my campaign world's history" exposition thrown in for good measure. Some DMs might enjoy letting the characters level up after every episode, rather than tracking experience the traditional way, a method perhaps justified by the narrative they are participating in.

Keeping the episodes as fast, open-ended, and loose as possible will go a long way towards avoiding too much of a rail-roady feel, as well as letting the players know up front what sort of a campaign they're in for. Avoid planning too many details in advance, and you can even enjoy a bit of the shared worldbuilding so well facillitated by sandbox play. Also, if the party's quest is successful, you might get to enjoy another neglected element of D&D, the "endgame" where they set up their own baronies to help rebuild their shattered homelands.

12 comments:

  1. That Hildebrandt cover brings me waay back. The pencil drawings inside inspired many high fantasy games.

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  2. Al, can one, in your opinion, really have a High Fantasy Sandbox campaign?
    --There seems to be a LOT of formula to that Seven-Step programme.

    Would the Sandboxing come from the meandering about in The Realm looking for Objects of Power and such, or simply traversing the expanse?

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  3. That's definitely not a sandbox setup!:) I was trying to say (badly, as usual) that by not hammering out too many of the specifics ahead of time, you could possibly still enjoy some of the sandbox-type benefits like letting some elements of the campaign develop organically through play.

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  4. Al, thanks.
    --I thought that that was your meaning, but I didn't want to assume. :)

    Best,

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  5. I suppose episodes 2 and 4 could be run sorta sandboxy though, possibly with some sort of time constraints applied.

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  6. Good post. I've been thinking about this a lot of late. I've run plenty of pulp fantasy in the last few years, and my most recent campaign set out to explicitly be a return to the kind of trashy multi-volume series fantasy I loved as a teenager.

    @Timeshadows: isn't it really just a matter of giving your sandbox enough clues to make the players want to pursue the seven steps on their own? One of the most important parts of sandbox play is that the world moves on regardless of what the players do. The Dark Lord's forces continue to take a dump all over your hex map until the players decide to get involved. (Most) players I know could only encounter so many burned and looted villages before deciding to kick the Dark Lord's ass and take his stuff.

    In fact, my current players would probably be more motivated by the prospect of Dark Lord Loot than by any concept of heroism. Either way, the Dark Lord's goin down!

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  7. @Al: > nodding <

    @Boo: Though not likely to ever(again) run anything High-(fantasy or Space Opera) again, I see your point. :D
    --My question was more generalised than -centric.

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  8. I do think there will be a return to High Fantasy by some of the OSR as a reaction to the Sword & Sorcery and Science Fantasy settings and variant rulesets, as well as the fact that many of the 300 old schoolers are Silver Age gamers. I'm more into scenarios than sandboxes so gaming sessions where there are objectives are second nature to me. If the OSR can focus a game towards High Fantasy without the 'important NPCs must not die' rules of Dragonquest then I'm sure there'll be anime-style adventure paths produced at some point.

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  9. Sean: I think it's do-able, it just requires a bit of flexibility on the part of the DM and players. These things don't have to be on rails; after all, it wasn't part of the plan to split the party at the end of Fellowship of the Ring. The key, I think, would be for the DM to view the campaign from a very strategic attitude, having the great powers do their thing while the PCs scurry about underfoot, trying not to get stomped until they can find the right levers and clout necessary to save the day.

    And the Old School has lots of things in place already to make High Fantasy work: an emphasis on hirelings, logistics, and mass-battles for your overland treks, sieges, and epic clashes; the idea that the political clout of the PCs waxes along with their levels; and the rarity, importance, and untrustworthiness of magic items.

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  10. In terms of Sword and Sorcery versus High Fantasy, how much high fantasy was really available at the time of the DMG's first printing? Nothing wrong with the old sword and sorcery and I think that many a reader could benefit from 'historical adventure' material like Harold Lamb and others, but Gary probalby worked with what was there as opposed to a single specific style no?

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  11. @Sean Wills
    I do think there will be a return to High Fantasy by some of the OSR as a reaction to the Sword & Sorcery and Science Fantasy settings and variant rulesets, as well as the fact that many of the 300 old schoolers are Silver Age gamers.

    You are reading my mind.

    I already commissioned my Peter Mullen cover for a High Fantasy OSR publication...

    If the OSR can focus a game towards High Fantasy without the 'important NPCs must not die' rules of Dragonquest ...

    I guess you meant Dragonlance, not Dragonquest?

    @Trollsmyth:
    I think it's do-able, it just requires a bit of flexibility on the part of the DM and players. These things don't have to be on rails; after all, it wasn't part of the plan to split the party at the end of Fellowship of the Ring.

    Yes, it is do-able.

    I ran the whole Dragonlance campaign 1986~1991 in an almost sandboxy manner. I took the descriptions of the modules locations and reinterpreted them in a much more open way. Consequently, in my campaign the "Innfellows" didn't split at Tarsis, they completely missed the Blood Sea adventure, two characters infiltrated the Blue Lady's army, and Fizban wasn't ... who he was.

    But I would have liked it a lot more if the modules would have been written in a more open manner to begin with...
    Though some parts of it effectively were sandbox hexcrawls - on the plain between Pax Tharkas and Thorbardin the players could have missed Fistandantilus' old fortress Skullcap, and Southern Ergoth played like RQ's sandboxy Griffin Island - the DM just needed to flesh out the places and factions that were only hinted at, not unlike Judges Guild's original Wilderlands of High Fantasy).

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