Choosing Your Structure


Last article, I discussed the different types of campaigns you can run to accommodate your player base. Here, I elaborate on these ideas by expanding on how you can adapt a single story to meet your party’s needs. Whether you aim for a linear plot, sandbox or monster of the week, the basics of your story remain relatively unchanged, only the format in which it is presented alters.  

Shargeleth, a young black dragon, can think of no better place to start his first roost than the town of Tamerean. Located in northern swamps, the town has managed to scrape out a decent existence with a series of cleverly placed dams and walls. As more of the wetlands are diverted, the land exposes its rich soil. Over recent years, the town has grown quite large and prosperous. It’s this growing wealth and ideal location that has seduced Shargeleth to leave his homeland and plan to take the town by gathering the forces of evil under his banner. To the west, he has enthralled a tribe of lizardfolk to harass trade caravans. To the east, he has funded an evil wizard’s experiments to breed him Kruthiks. In the city, he has hired a group of bandits to undam the rivers. And, from the north, he marches with a clan of hobgoblins to deliver the final blow.

In short,

  1. Lizardfolk Manor

  2. Quinn’s Workshop

  3. The Bandit Plot

  4. Hobgoblin Attack & Shargeleth Showdown

This is a common plot structure that takes advantage of the wide variety of monster types commonly found in published low level campaigns. It is essentially a four act structure, each act lasting one session. Using the town as a hub, the first three away missions help paint a picture of the area and make it more alive, so when the final attack comes, the players are inclined to take it upon themselves to defend the city.

When planning for your session, think about what parts of the roleplaying game resonate most with your players. Prepare those encounters first and use any time you have left on the other elements. Essentially, think of the predetermined story as the backbone and the gameplay as the meat.


Linear Plot

Performer dominated groups want their game to make them the center of attention. The entire story revolves around them and their choices. When designing a campaign for performers, imagine the group as a budding Justice League. They are your town's future super heroes, and the first three missions make up their origin story. With each person they save and quest they complete, their fame grows, climaxing in renowned hero status. Their exploits are often public and theatrical.

The first mission comes from a lord reluctant to hire fresh adventurers. He soon becomes their biggest fans after they clear his lands of lizardfolk. His praise puts them in contact with a local statesman and wizard eager to investigate the disappearance of livestock within the city. The adventure takes them to the sewers where they find the evil wizard’s Kruthik workshop. As Kruthiks pour into the streets above, the group deactivates the queen. When bandits take control of the dam, the whole town looks to the heroes to save them, peaking in a dual atop its walls in view of the awestruck townsfolk. By the time of the hobgoblin attack, the players have endeared themselves to the local governor and help plan the town's defenses. Shargeleth arrives on the eve of battle, impatient to meet the upstarts who think they can save Tamerean. He is well aware of their exploits and finds them to be fascinating but weak adversaries. The final battle is held within the town walls where all can see the players’ victory.

Your prep time is spent primarily coming up with social situations and characters. Make strong choices about your NPCs. Have a list of names, professions and locations ready. Shopping is done with talkative shopkeepers, and quests are gathered through conversation.


Sandbox Game

Scout dominated groups want to explore. You communicate your world through an ever expanding map. In this world, few uncivilized areas are safe. Nobody deviates from the roads for fear of monsters and ancient traps.

Your heroes are seen by the people of Tamerean to be brave but foolish newcomers. Their mysterious exploits out in the wilds keep them perceived as outsiders unless they actively engage the townsfolk. Prepare detailed descriptions for locations, vistas and towns they encounter. Even unimportant objects or locations should get the same attention as major plot points. Use signs, notes and puzzles to point your characters toward quests. They consider the first three steps of the story: Lizardfolk Manor, Quinn’s Workshop and The Bandit Plot to all be the same difficulty. As the players level, adjust the uncompleted quests accordingly. In each location, house items and notes that hint at the arrival of Shargeleth. Along the way to each of these locations, NPCs, ruins, traps, monsters and monster encounters serve to enrich your world. Include a few hazardous or inaccessible areas on your map to tantalize players to return when they are higher level.

After completing their third major quest, the party discovers a hobgoblin scouting party and a map. On this chart, they discover the route Shargeleth is leading the army and each hazard that can potentially be activated to slow the march, including the destruction of the dam. During the most successful of these triggered traps, the dragon spots the group, lands and fights. The heroes return to town rich but still unknown, rewarded with the undiscovered territory of the hobgoblin map.


Monster of the Week

Gamer dominated groups love the proud and honorable tradition of slaying vile monsters. In their world, the townsfolk are fearful and hire brave adventurers to deal with their problems. These jobs are gathered from tavern boards, informing them of the threat and its location. Inquisitive players can find out more by asking around, but they essentially only discover who or what they are setting out to kill.

The majority of your preparation time is spent calculating balanced encounters. Games begin with a recap of previously gathered information, shopping and stat upkeep and then heads straight to the dungeon. The game begins and ends on the grid, and everything worth exploring is on the area map. Don’t expect players to give enemies time to monologue or run. Whatever encounters they have will most likely result in battle.

Combat follows a mini boss then boss format. Describe how the location is affected by enemy actions—from a trail of bodies to scorch marks from fireballs. If you want to complicate a mission, offer additional payment if an object or building is left intact or the villain is brought back alive. If you want to have side quests, they should provide direct benefits to the next game’s mission, such as gathering acid resistant gear before fighting the black dragon.

After completing the three missions linearly, the party is hired by the lord of town who tasks them with defending the north wall while his guards defend the other entrances from the hobgoblin attack. When the dragon arrives, take advantage of as many locations on the grid as possible. When the dragon reaches half health, reposition himself atop the town’s keep. Consider completed quest areas clear of monsters and safe. Continue the adventure in new areas with new dangers.