Saturday, September 22, 2012

Starting Campaigns in Established Settings

As my contribution to Dice Monkey's September blog carnival, I want to speak briefly about my repeated use of Tim Shorts' excellent  "Starter Adventure" Knowledge Illuminates (published by GM Games) as an inception point for a larger campaign. I have run the adventure twice now, and have found it to be a superb campaign-starter, in part because it avoids the four pitfalls mitigating against good (mega-)dungeon design recently noted by Peter D at Dungeon Fantastic:

1) too much useless backstory
2) slow starts
3) random encounters
4) too many encounters

As I noted in my review of the adventure, "it is the balance the module achieves between keeping it simple -- the scenario itself is quite straightforward -- and offering exciting possibilities for further adventures and/or campaigns" that make it such a valuable and worthwhile gaming product. Since that review was written, I have run the adventure twice, and have found that, just as I predicted, it does indeed give just enough enticing detail to hang custom adventure hooks upon without overburdening the scenario with "useless" or excessive backstory elements. Hence, while KI is NOT a full-blown "campaign setting" in the literal sense of that term, it provides enough of a thumbnail sketch of one to count as an implied setting, especially for an old-school DIY'er. One key feature of the scenario that I do not want to Spoilerize here absolutely sets the world of KI apart (in my mind) from many other settings and implies a great deal about how arcane energies can or might function in any campaign emanating therefrom.

Knowledge Illuminates also avoids the "slow start" problem because it is, on one level, intended as a simple, stand-alone adventure, hence it does not waste time with tons of setting details I would rather fill in myself or in collaboration with my players. The number and types of encounters in the module are pitched very well -- it is well-balanced IMO. I have really enjoyed running it and have found it to be as good a campaign "setting" as any I have ever used.*

* To be fair, I must confess that I have never actually used any pre-published "Campaign Setting" unless you count the one sketched and/or implied by what Al Krombach calls "the original adventure path" of TSR modules G1-2-3 and D1-2-3. As I have written before, and similarly to Al, I started out in this hobby playing mostly TSR modules, then moved on to playing exclusively in my own Lands of Ara setting in the 1990s. Hence, maybe I cheated my way around the intent of the Blog Carnival theme -- but isn't that awfully old-school of me?


  1. Carter, thanks so much for the kind words. I'm glad you've gotten some good use out of it.

  2. Thinking about this topic made me realize that even though I ran 2e games in Al Qadim and the Forgotten Realms, I didn't actually own either of those campaign settings. I stitched the couple of adventures or whatever materials I had related to those campaign worlds together with my homebrewed crap and my imagination. I think in the case of the Forgotten Realms I had read a couple of novels set in the realms and I owned the City of Splendors Waterdeep boxed set. For Al Qadim I just owned Assassin's Mountain, a boxed set detailing a sect of assassins and their hideout. It was awesome enough that I evoked an entire campaign set in a pseudo-Arabian desert from the bits and pieces I gleaned of the setting from the flavor text.