3 Rules for Plot Lines in a Long Term Campaign

This blog post is my latest in my 3 Rules series. Check out the others here.

During COVID-19, I’ve been running two D&D 5e games over Fantasy Grounds: one is for my daughter and her cousins, the other is for my wife and a group of adults. Through it all, I have a number of rules that help me tie plot lines together, even when weaving several different modules into a single campaign. These are not exclusive to Dungeons and Dragons or even fantasy games. These work no matter what your game.

1) Don’t Define Everything

When I started off the adult campaign, I had two PCs deliver messages to various NPCs. While the idea for them was to simply get them to go to the location I wanted them, I had absolutely no idea what was in those notes. I’m glad they didn’t look because I would have had to make it up on the spot. In my younger days as a GM, I would have had those notes detailed out; when the PCs didn’t look at them, that would have been work saved for a different day at best or at worst forgotten about when I needed it or simply no longer relevant.

Fast forward several sessions, I needed a way to get the PCs to investigate some orcs as I was transitioning from the Lost Mines of Phandelver to the Forge of Fury from Tales of the Yawning Portal. To help with this, I created a secret love affair between the one of those NPCs sending the note and its recipient, saying their love child (now an adult) that they sent away was coming to visit, and that their child was now missing so the recipient asked the adventurers to find the missing person. That got them to the orcs and worked great, until …

2) Turn Dropped Plot Threads into Plot Hooks

… Until the players got distracted and left that plot thread by the wayside. Part of this was my fault; I failed to leave them enough clues to lead them to their target. By the time I realized this, they were literally heading in the wrong direction to save this person.

In my younger days as a GM, I would have made it impossible for them to proceed until they turned back and saved the person. As a more mature GM, I know to turn this into an opportunity. I left the players an old journal from someone long dead, hoping that some superweapon never gets repaired and turned on again, citing a hope about how one born under a certain sign with various rare characteristics (that just happens to match the missing person) is never born. When they read the note I could hear them all collectively swallow hard, as they realized that the plot line they missed suddenly became very important.

And that is now the catalyst for the new adventure.

3) Leave Some Threads Unresolved

One of my characters in my adult game is seeking the sword of their fallen family member. So I gave him the detail that one vaguely like it was reportedly in a dragon’s treasure pile. Tonight they defeated the dragon, and it wasn’t his family’s sword but one similar. I did that so I could deal with the sword at a future point in time, but leave it for now as we transition from the Forge of Fury to the Tomb of Annihilation. The players raised the questions of why these swords are popping up, and are they being targeted. All of those are perfect to work into a future adventure down the line when the Tomb of Annihilation is in the rear view mirror. But for now, I left that plot thread unresolved. Picking it up later will help it make a more continuous story while still having different chapters within.

Get adventures for your Pathfinder or D&D campaign today at the JBE Shop. You can also find our books at DriveThruRPG, the Open Gaming Store, and Paizo.com.

3 Rules to Designing Spaceships

My blog posts as of late have focused mainly on fantasy. Today we’re going to take a break from that and focus on science fiction (or science fantasy, since this applies equally to that genre) and take a look at spaceships. Making your own spaceship is fun and exciting. Ships can serve as the main setting for your game, places to visit on occasion, or familiar places to return. They are everything from the family car to the battle tank and all points in between. They fill a wide variety of roles but they still all have a number of things to keep in mind. So when designing space ships keep the following things in mind.

1) Have a Core Concept of What the Ship Is About.

No one designs a ships to fill every role. That is impossible and won’t sell. The “stealth racing family RV armored destroyer cargo carrier” (bet you can’t say that five times fast) would cost hundreds if not thousands of times more than if this were broken into five separate ships; either that or compromises will have to be made. Pick a simple core concept and stick to it. This should be as simple as a “cargo carrier” or a “destroyer.” Should a cargo carrier carry enough weaponry to defend itself? Yes. Assault a planet? No. Conversely, Should the destroyer carry enough cargo to give it fuel and food enough to carry out its missions? Yes. Enough to keep a gigafactory in operation for a day? No.

Well what about a “pirate ship” you ask? Simple concept but at its heart it wants to be the “stealth racing family RV armored destroyer cargo carrier” I mentioned earlier. Stealth to sneak up on its target, racing to outpace whatever it is after or after it, family RV since the pirates are going to be living there for a while and will get bored, armored destroyer since it needs to shoot at its quarry and take shots, and most importantly of all, have room for the cargo it steals. If you make that, it will cost more than any military vessel since they don’t need to have the cargo carrier in that ship. So it has to make compromises. Does it have to be both stealthful and racing? Possibly no. It could simply rely on one or the other instead of both. It could have the technology to not appear on sensors until only a short distance from their quarry. So its engines can be downgraded to only beating cargo ships. Does its armor and weaponry have to outclass warships or can that be compromised down to outclass cargo ships? By doing this, we just kept the price down and still have the pirate ship be effective.

2) Ask “Is This Necessary?”

Ask yourself this on EVERYTHING! This goes for weaponry choices to hallways. Yes, hallways. If there is any way to eliminate a hallway, do so. A hallway is cargo space not being used to transport cargo. If you have to have the crew recreation area double as the way to get from the bridge to the crew quarters and engineering while not wasting space on a hallways, do so. Reason why: that is space saved can be allocated towards cargo, making the ship more profitable.

3) Add Unique Flair

More than anything, this is the reason to make your own ship. Otherwise, you may as well simply buy a book of ships (such as the Foreven Worlds: Ships of the Border Worlds). Do you want the ships ideal for a crew without a mechanic? Make everything easy to repair. You want to show how this world’s technology just isn’t up to par? How about their armor is better than normal because they have been hit so often by raiders? Is it overusing gold and holograms to how just how rich the owner is? Give it personality.

Speaking of personality, our Prelude to War adventures feature a number of characters with lots of personality. Download the first two in the series The Rose of Death and State of Chaos, exclusively at DriveThruRPG.

3 Keys to Reskinning an Adventure

As I mentioned, my “office” game is Tales of the Yawning Portal. Previously, I talked about reasons to use published adventures and how to turn published modules into a campaign. Today I want to talk about keys to taking a published adventure and turning it into what you need for your campaign. This process is called reskinning and it is pretty easy.

1) Figure Out What to Keep

The single biggest reason to use a published adventure at all is to save time. So if you are not using a published adventure as written, you have to ask yourself why you’re not simply using a different adventure. Some reasons include you like the map, or the story, or perhaps some unique monster. These are the things about the original adventure you will want to keep in your reskinned final version of the adventure.

This will also tell you what about this adventure you need to change. If you simply do not like the map, then all you need to do is draw a different map and perhaps change the read aloud text to describe the vicinity. If the level of the adventure does not work for you, figure out if can you just increase or decrease some of the numbers in the monsters/difficulties to make it work? This works best if the level of adventure is only 3 or less levels away the character’s level. Any wider a gap and the designers probably did not anticipate the capabilities of the characters (whether in their favor or not) to be able to complete the adventure. If some of the monsters simply do not grab you, then it is time to use those creative skills you have in you and craft a new one. Alternatively, you could just a monster book and switch out the offending monster with a new one.

2) Add New Reasons to Go In

Changing the premise of the adventure is the easiest thing to do. If the adventure is at the right level, features enemies you want to pit against the characters, and has a map you like but the reasons the module has for going on the adventure don’t work for your campaign, change it to something that does work for you.

When you do that, make sure to add multiple reasons for the characters to go on the adventure. Players and their characters are not monolithic. Seeking out a treasure horde does not always excite them. Similarly, serving the good deity if goodness is not always proper motivation. Having a handful of reasons means that everyone can find something. These reasons should be a mix of long term campaign reasons and some reasons specific to this adventure.

3) Just Use the Encounters

If you want to be dramatic and essentially throw out the adventure, there are still parts of you you can keep. Namely, the monsters and their proportions (aka the encounters). By using the encounters, you know the battles are already balanced; the math is already worked out. All you have to do from there is focus on the map, the descriptions, the reasons to go in, and maybe make a monster more or less difficult. Translation: do everything above.

This works great when you have an adventure that takes place that doesn’t work for your campaign—such as a volcano like in Deadly Delves: The Chaosfire Incursion—and you want it to take place elsewhere, like in a magical glacier. Well you will need new maps and will need to rewrite all the flavor text. However, you can keep all the encounters, simply renaming the monsters and changing fire damage to cold and the …. well that is a spoiler for the adventure.

The real advantage of doing this is you save time on crafting your own adventure, but you save some by using whatever parts of the existing adventure work for you. Plus you have a template for how the story should flow, giving you a basis for your own version of the adventure.

Download all of Jon Brazer Enterprises’ adventures for 13th Age, Fifth Edition, and Pathfinder at the JBE Shop, DriveThruRPG, Paizo, and the Open Gaming Store.

3 Steps to Turn Published Adventures into a Campaign

As I mentioned last week, I am running an “office” game of Tales of the Yawning Portal. These are some really great adventures, but what they are not is a campaign. These are adventures that for all tense and purposes have nothing to do with each other except that one starts at a level where the previous left off. Beyond that, there is no connective story, no common set of NPCs to help make everything work together, nothing. It is exactly like running a campaign from a bunch of pre-published modules that you pulled off the shelf. So if you want to run a campaign with these kinds of modules, here’s what you have to do.

1) Make an NPC or Item Significant

The best example I can think of from this happening in fiction is the Ring from The Hobbit / The Lord of the Rings books. In The Hobbit book (not the movies), the ring was little more than a ring of invisibility. It wasn’t anything special. Then came The Lord of the Rings and that same ring now has a back story, one that will spell the end of the world as they knew it if it fell into the wrong hands. That is what you should do when running a campaign using pre-published adventures.

So what did I make significant? Well, I choose an NPC that they just rescued and an item they destroyed. Other than saving the NPC, their characters had no interaction with her. This particular Macguffin could just as easily have been a puppy. Because of spoilerific reasons to the first adventure that NPC was perfect to make significant. Not only that, the big bad of the first adventure used an item that the PCs ultimately destroyed. That item is perfect to be made important to the larger campaign.

2) Add in the Connection

This step is relatively small, but is critical. This, in The Lord of the Rings is where Gandalf found Bilbo’s behavior suspicious, went and researched the ring, and came back to tell Frodo what he found. Last week in my campaign, I had one of two NPCs that the PCs just rescued just up and died suddenly. So now the players have a reason to go on another adventure. What is that adventure? It is to follow the spread of the item encountered in the first adventure into adventure two. Like I said, the characters destroyed the item in the first adventure, but I added in that they found a note saying that another of that thing is elsewhere, and from examination of the body of the NPC, her fate appears tied to that item. That is the connection to the next adventure.

So what was my total work on making the connection: I wrote a note they found, and I added what amounted to a paragraph of box text. It was not hard at all. You might be thinking that that connection is not much. Let me point you to the TV show Supernatural. In the pilot episode, one of the brothers find’s his dad’s journal with some numbers in it. They figured that was a location and maybe dad would be there. Was he? No, but it got them from adventure 1 to adventure 2. Not only that, it established that finding dad as a connection between what would otherwise be random episodes in that first season. And that is what you are doing in this step: adding in those numbers in the journal or giving that ring a backstory. Those are not much either, but it is enough to get the PCs to go off on another adventure.

3) Make a Few Small Changes to the Adventure

Now I have to add in the impact of that connection to the existing adventure. How much does that change the adventure? Surprisingly little. Whenever they encounter an NPC that I already picked out, I have to add in the item. That’s it. From there, it is their call. Do they destroy the item again or do they bring it back? I can guess which way they are going to go, but I will wait for them to make that call and at that point I will adjust the reasons why they are going to adventure 3 accordingly.

Did you catch that important detail? “… the reasons why they are going…” not “… where they are going…” The latter requires changing the module from one to another; the former requires you to change the connection (see above) to the module you already have picked out. If I had said, “they must bring back the item,” some will balk feeling that it should be destroyed, and the reverse would also be true. By leaving the decision up to them, they feel like their decisions matter to the overall campaign. However, it does not impact what further adventures will be, only the motivation behind those adventures. And I can still run the adventure that I want to run, no matter what they decide.

So to recap, what changes am I making to the next adventure: adding in an item from a previous adventure to the next one and adding a connection to the following adventure based on the PCs actions. That’s it. This is not difficult and you can do this as well.

The perfect place to start is with our Deadly Delve adventures. Download our 5e, 13th Age, and Pathfinder adventures at the JBE Shop today so you can make your own campaign.

3 Reasons to Run Published Adventures

For the JBE “office” game, I run Tales of the Yawning Portal for the group. I mean, I can’t run anything that we ourselves published because we know each adventure so well. And honestly, who can pass up a collection of classic adventures. Last week, we finished up the first adventure, the Sunless Citadel, and it reminded me why I love running published adventures these days.

A little background: I use to never run published adventures. The first campaign I GMed was Exalted 1e. There was exactly 1 adventure for that entire edition. Not only that, I was able to make the campaign based in what characters the players made. I was 30 before I ran my first published adventure, and I don’t see myself going back to that anytime soon.

So if you create your own campaign, here are some reasons why you might want to consider checking out published adventures.

1) They Save Time

Oh my goodness do published adventures save time. The last campaign I ran that I created myself, I ran it on a Sunday, and I spent my entire Saturday prepping for it. I’d stat out every possible NPC they’d meet, even if it was only for a quick conversation because “you never knew what the PC’s were going to do.” I wrote mounds and mounds of read aloud text I never used. I’d read over source books in case they went off in some other direction I had not planned for or looking for some awesome treasure for them to get their hands on or … The list goes on.

When did I start prepping last week’s session? 20 minutes before we started. I don’t recommend doing that, but I was running late and work ate into my prep time. That right there is one of the biggest reasons why I use published adventures these days: because I no longer have the time to create an adventure for a specific group. The thing was, I still ran a good game. It would have been better if I had spent even an hour on it, but for such a short prep time, it was good.

Having said that, I still made the game unique. I rewrote the entire beginning. I added NPCs to the town. I created my own twists and turns. All of these modifications did take time—more than last week’s 20 min prep—but far less than the full day each session use to require. On the whole, I can run a great game at a fraction of the time required.

2) More Focused Characters

As any GM knows, players can do anything at any time. That is one of the things that make running a campaign so difficult—you have to be prepared for anything at any time. When I created my own campaign, I designed the adventures around the characters. Yet when I run a published campaign, the players make their characters around the adventures. Who is reacting to whom is reversed.

Think if it like this, if you let the players make whatever they want from any available source book, they will make characters that have little if anything to do with each other. Give them some direction and they will make characters around those ideas. Tell them you are running a specific campaign and they will make characters that fit that specific theme.

By giving them direction, you are channelling their creativity not hindering it, and you will get far less of the “the PCs can go any direction” that I talked about in the point above. A group where the players make characters without direction can result in an out of place character: three heroes, and a thief that wants nothing but violence and money, as an example. Then as the GM it is your job to figure a way to make them work together. Instead if you tell the players you are running a campaign where isolated villages are being attacked and you’re helping them, like in our adventures Deadly Delves: Along Came a Spider and Rescue from Trykaven (available for Pathfinder and 5e), then the players will all be thinking about how the character they want to play fits in the adventure.

3) You’re Creating a Shared Experience

By running a published adventure, you are giving your fellow gamers an experience that they can talk about with their fellow gamers that other gamers can bond over. Look at it another way: adventures are stories. One crafted for a specific group is the campfire story while the published adventure is the novel or movie. How many times have each of us bonded with someone we just met while talking about a Marvel movie? The campfire stories, the only way I have found to bond with someone about that is to repeat that same story; bumping into someone that knows that exact same story has yet to happen for me.

So when we go to conventions, having played a published adventure is giving us something in common with someone we never met before. That is another opportunity to make friends and play new campaigns.

So do you prefer to run your own campaigns or do you run published adventures? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Looking for some awesome adventure? Our Deadly Delves line of adventures provides you with game sessions that your players will remember. On top of that, they are designed for busy GMs like you and me. Download our 5e, 13th Age, and Pathfinder adventures at the JBE Shop today.

5e/Pathfinder: 3 Steps to Start GMing

Being the game master is a rough business. There’s a ton of rules, you never know where the players are going to go, and no one knows how things are going to turn out. Despite this, there is a yearning inside you to be the one that is not just a player in the story but the one telling the story. So here are our hints and tricks to help get you started in this new year as the game master.

1) Know that Everything Will Be Alright

More than anything else I can tell you, knowing that everything will be alright is the most critical step to being a game master. You are not running a giant multinational corporation; you’re just setting the getting in front of your friends for one evening and telling a story. You can do that, and you’ll be fine afterwards.

Put it another way: what is the worst that could happen? Will your friends stop being friends if the game goes poorly? Absolutely not. Will you completely flop, proving to the world that you are not fit to play a character, let along be the GM? Definitely not. Will you start a spiral of suckatude so great that it will form a trans-dimensional vortex that pulls in all matter from the universe, collapsing all of space and time around us? No. Even Bob in Accounting didn’t do that his first time GMing (no offense to anyone named Bob that works in accounting).

So what will most likely happen? Well you do great at some aspects and others will need improvement, just like everyone else. Ask your gamers afterwards to tell you what you did good and what needs improved. They’ll tell you. The parts that need improved, try harder next time. You can do this.

2) Ask Someone Else to be Your Rules Arbitrator

It can be really intimidating to have to know all the rules for every corner case, because you know there’s one gamer at the table that will try to find some loophole to do something crazy. That is where a rules arbitrator comes in. Ask a player you trust at the table to be the one says, “I’m sorry, Mike, but that is not allowed,” so you don’t have to make that call. This way, you can focus on the story.

Now there’s the critical part of that, make a note on that rule question and after the game ask the rules arbitrator to show you exactly where that rule is and explain to you exactly what it means. Then read that rules and all the rules around it since you probably missed them as well. This will help you be a better GM.

3) Use a Pre-Published Adventure

This is exactly why adventures are written: to help new or busy GMs with the story they want to tell. For your first game or two, run them as is, so you can see how it goes. As time goes on, vary up the adventures some: vary up a few monsters, add an NPC to connect it to one of the characters’ backstory, change the reason they are going on this adventure. Make the adventure your own.

The place to start is with short adventures, not a long campaign book or a full adventure path. First find out if you like GMing. Once you get the bug and want to do it more and more, then look at those longer campaigns.

You can find our collection of adventures right here at JonBrazer.com. I recommend starting with Deadly Delves: Along Came a Spider, available for both Pathfinder and Fifth Edition. It is a great 1st-level adventure to start off with involving a bunch of spiders taking over a town. If you like it, you can follow it up with Deadly Delves: Rescue from Tyrkaven, also available for Pathfinder and Fifth Edition. You can get these adventures today for 30% off their regular price with the “holiday2017” coupon code. Download these today, and run your first game. Take your first steps into a whole new world.

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