Game Mastering
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September 3, 2012, 1:47 pm

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Cheka Man

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Campaign Level Thinking


The question was asked about how you run a high level campaign. While this is a simple question it is not very simple to answer. Anyone who is an experienced DM will tell you that, especially for a beginner. In order to answer this I began thinking backwards.

This is an idea I began thinking about a while ago when reading a plea from penguin on the forums. Now granted this plea began back in March of 2004 so it a bit late but hopefully helpful for the future. This is a rather long drawn out submission so please read this in sections if it is too difficult to fathom all at once. I also left it open as a scroll so anyone who wished to add to this was more than welcome.

The question was asked about how you run a high level campaign. While this is a simple question it is not very simple to answer. Anyone who is an experienced DM will tell you that, especially for a beginner. In order to answer this I began thinking backwards. Not about running a high level campaign, but how do you get there? How do you run a successful low level campaign?

While different I think it all ties together in the end as you really can’t have one without the other.

Can your high level campaign survive or even exist without a good low level campaign? In my opinion, NO! On the flip side, can your low level campaign exist without a defined purpose of a high level campaign to follow? Again, in my opinion, NO!

This is not a set of rules for everyone I can assure you, and while they are not rules and more like guidelines they still can be viewed in many different ways and that this is more for a generalized outlook of how to do things.

Low Level Campaign
What defines a low level group or campaign? Well a beginners campaign for starters, a group who is supposedly fresh, virulent, and unknowing of the dangers of the world. This group of beginners is just that, beginners. They are respectively young in the sense that they know little of their world, intrigue, or dangers. They could have knowledge of course, but first hand knowledge is always different. Hence why some games have characters roll a Horror factor, or a fear factor roll every time they see a new creature to see if it disturbs them. A perfect idea if you ask me.

The low level campaign is where I begin fleshing out the characters. Getting future plot hooks from their backgrounds and their actions. This sets up the story I already have and adds a heart beat to it. This is how I begin a new campaign. I get an idea in my head where I want to start and end. I get with the players and gather as much information on their characters as possible and then build off of that. The beginning few levels I use to build those characters.

A low level campaign, in my opinion, should not extend the boundaries of a certain area. A kingdom is a fine place to keep these borders closed, but I usually try to keep them tighter, possibly even restricted to a set of cities or villages and town to a number of days travel from the center of their starting point. This gives these beginners a base of operations to begin, fall back to, and return to lick their wounds and cry their laurels.

To get an idea of this, do a little research on how much travel was done in the Middle Ages. Commoners were usually bound to their homes and rarely traveled more than 10 miles from their homes their entire lives. Nobles and soldiers had the ability or the orders to travel farther than a normal commoner but it was still restricted and slow going. Most of us now have the ability to travel faster than 55 miles and hour, around the same time frame or technological era that I am referring to, you needed a very fast horse to travel the same distance in two or three days. This is why I restrict the boundaries of my low level playing field.

A low level campaign is more about the lives of individuals, the lives of those in towns and villages or perhaps even the life of a village or small town. It should rarely encompass something larger than the group as a whole could handle. And speaking of the lives of individuals, get to know the characters, this is important for not only the GM but the players involved as well. When I run a game I refuse to address the players by their names, but by their character's names and titles and I expect it out of my players as well. It produces a mental picture that forms the world around them and solidly puts into perspective the lives they are portraying. 

By doing this you not only grow the low level campaign as you and the players learn about the characters but you as a GM can garner information and use it for future plot hooks, quests, and eventual hardships or victories that will make the low, mid, and even the high level campaigns memorable.

Ways to keep this low level campaign form getting out of hand.

1) Do not give out more experience than absolutely needed. (GM required rule only)
Sure, we all like to reward our players for their actions and conflict. Reward them with other items other than experience or skill points. Not magic per say, but reward them with items of worth that they can physically see. Grant them small titles of accomplishments. Grant them audiences with nobility. Grant them deeds to buildings, artwork, favors perhaps, anything that instills reward and a desire to continue but not one that bespeaks of, "All I have to do is show up and I gain a level." Bad form I think. There are multiple submissions about what and when to reward characters and players on the site. Read them and love them they are a DM’s friend, especially if your new to the game.

2) Difficult Objectives are a must.
Yes, the more difficult the better. The group needs to look at something, an encounter, an adventure hook, or a plot and say to themselves, "Can we really complete this and survive?" Nothing in any handbook or any manual says that every single conflict must be winnable by the players. Humility must be a part of a player’s resume I think. If they sweep through every obstacle they are given then how are they going to take loss? Not very good I think. Players will get upset and possibly leave. Who knows what could happen. The point being is that a GM should throw a task so difficult at the players at times that it makes them sit back and wonder what went wrong, how can it be fixed? Anything that evokes a response.

The best example of this just recently happened to me and the group I play in.

We are coming off a high level campaign. After seven years of me playing the same character and eight total years playing a total of three characters, this campaign finally came to an end. And what an end it was. My high level cleric was able to do many things that only a high level cleric could aspire to. I spoke with the Gods personally and was their hand and tool in their fight against evil.

When we rolled up new characters for a whole new campaign, some of us had forgotten what low level was like. How difficult it was at times. Well our entire group of ten was whittled down to two in a single combat in a span of two melee rounds. That woke us up real quick. Lucky for me I was one of the two. I will admit, I ran to save myself. We then realized we had to step back and take a new outlook on how to run and play a low level character.

It should be impossible for a low level group to complete and surpass every objective they come across. Sure, the group are supposed to be the cream of the crop of their world, hence why they are adventurers (No one would want to play a peasant, although Palladium has rules for rolling up peasants and scribes.), but they should not be able to muscle their way through everything.

Which brings me to another point of rewards.

3) Keeping rewards down.
I know I was speaking of rewards earlier and how we can help fix some of the, too much experience problem by giving out other things. At low level, granting rewards such as experience and too much coinage is a failure of a campaign. To much experience to a low level campaign bull rushes the characters too fast into the world. Similar to mind of high school kids who get drafted into the NFL because they are "SO GOOD!" If you think about the similarities here it’s scary.

Take a football (American Football) player out of high school. He is good yes, for a high school player. But recruiters are always out to make a name and they draft this young 18 year old kid to play in the NFL, a place where the average age is mid to late twenties. The skill and knowledge learned within that six year difference is astounding. This high school kid doesn’t know how the real game is played. The real rules, the real hardships, the real hits, nothing is learned so nothing is gained.

Now, take a first level character who is given so much experience within the first few times they are played that they bump a level or two. The same thing happens to them as the high school football player. They do not understand the strife and the skill needed to get there, basically being spoon fed. They don’t understand or know what the real monsters of the world are and can do. And anyone portraying someone with that knowledge is doing so wrongly in my opinion. Player knowledge and character knowledge should always be separate, but that is me.

Mid Level Campaign
The definition of a mid level campaign for me is just a joining point between the low and high level campaign. It is a time to break away from stories and plot lines and get into world fluff.

A mid level campaign for me is a continuation of the low level campaign. We have already established the characters and their ticks, their flaws, their habits, and most of all their plot hooks. By the time a character hits mid level I try to have at least three distinct plot hooks for each individual. This may seem like a lot, especially when running with five or more players, but it gives a lot of room to work with for drama and reoccurring problems and villains.

Where in a low level campaign it is the lives of the individual that are important, now it is the lives of cities and large groups of people. Perhaps small armies are now important but still nothing larger than the importance of a few cities involved. Perhaps the reign of a noble, which in the long run and high level campaign could affect a kingdom. This is a good way to lead into the larger plots, the larger picture. But again, it is a mid level campaign and the group should not take on something they can not handle themselves.

Once a character reaches this point, they know what their strengths and weaknesses are. They know strife, and have struggled with loss and probably death depending on the game system. I usually use this time to allow the players to roam and tie up loose ends that may have transpired during their low level campaign.

This is a good time to begin bringing back those plot hooks you determined were important or juicy enough to keep back in the Low Level aspect of the game. Friends thought long dead resurface to call in past debts or favors. A slighted husband finally tracks them to a far removed city and corners them with few options. Still keep the overall campaign in mind but do not push the characters to that direction unless you are on a time based campaign, and if you are then I recommend suspending it for a few sessions to get some flavor.

That is it for this level of detail, not much to it. At least, not much that I put to it that is. It more closely resembles a open forum or talk group. I think of the companions from the original Dragonlance novels. They begin after leaving each other for five years to tie up loose ends. Hence, they left their low level campaign to enter their mid level campaign and agreed to get back together for their high level campaign. A bit of a cut and dry example of a book series but it worked for me.

Once again however, do not threaten all that is worked for by throwing out to much experience so the mid level range is passed by too quickly.

High Level Campaign
A high level campaign for me is special. It follows few major steps that are important. No longer should the plots be simple. No more point A to point B type of search or hunt. The high level campaign was built on a massive scale. No longer are the lives of individuals involved, but the health and the life of kingdoms.

By kingdoms I mean a mass scale involvement of the lands. Involvement of multiple kingdoms, mass hordes of creatures, demons, or other beings sweeping through the lands of the populated and wiping out everything. Everything is on a mass scale. All of this is left up to interpretation of course but you must think on a much grander scale when dealing with high end campaigns. Battles should seldom exist as a one on one instance unless it is with a highly powerful enemy or being. Combat should be on a mass scale to show the growth of the character. Sure, some would ask, "What is the point of raising a character up to a high level if they are not going to fight anymore?" I didn’t say that.

The characters will still fight. But they will fight larger opponents. Forget dragons, as unless you have some weak Pern dragon that exists on your world. A real dragon should be too powerful for a single person or small gorup no matter their experience. I had some friends that played Dangerous Journeys once and they told me of a fight with a single dragon that was true to what it SHOULD be. It was a group of five high level characters who hired a literal army and twelve stone giants as support. Three characters and one giant survived but in the end they succeeded. That is a high level conflict and how a dragon should really be done. No one shot death kind of encounter. But I digress.

The characters will still fight. Mix it up. Our high level campaign consisted of us fighting off hordes of low level creatures. A group of ten of us were fighting an entire tribe of goblins usually numbering close to 50 to 75 at a time. They could still beat us easily because of numbers, but due to good planning and well timed attacks we succeeded. Also, we fought servants of gods, not gods themselves. Anything that can kill you even at high level is important. I have gone off on a tangent from my original though so I will try to back track to it.

When characters reach high levels they are no longer responsible for themselves but for others as well. Followers, hirelings, henchmen, retainers, you name it they should have it. Whether they are in command of an army or a lord of a manse, they have responsibilities that they need to protect.

So think about a campaign before it even starts. Think of the end game. Think of how it will begin, and where it will end. Because it will end regardless of what we desire as no character can live forever, death takes its charge eventually.

I really hope this helped.

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Comments ( 20 )
Commenters gain extra XP from Author votes.

Voted Cheka Man
May 2, 2006, 16:57
Very useful to any GM.
May 25, 2006, 16:07
I don't think only Gms can help with this. True players who view this can see what to expect and how to project their characters into the next level of role-playing I think. This should help both I'm thinking.
Voted Murometz
May 2, 2006, 17:23
Let me echo what Cheka said. Very useful to any GM!

Especially GM's starting out. For inexperienced GMs this is priceless!

I like the Football Draft analogy! Just got through watching it this past weekend :D
May 4, 2006, 13:15
Alas, the fears of our conversation have come to pass... and has been put on the shelf for the ages.
May 4, 2006, 14:33
Yep...well, that was my thought. 5-6 people (the usual suspects) will vote and comment, but most of the less experienced GM's floating around, who can really improve their mojo by reading and implementing this piece, wont see it. Again, hopefully over time that might change.
Voted Kinslayer
May 3, 2006, 20:38
It's a very useful campaign design tool to have the type of adventures broadly traced in advance all the way up, and this scroll gives a good description of this.
Voted valadaar
October 16, 2006, 14:25
Another excellent sub. Personally, I tend to prefer high-level campaigns (though even this comes in cycles. Some campaigns I like to be down to counting your coppers and arrows.)

This is both a vote (4.5) and a bump, cause this one should be looked at!
October 16, 2006, 14:39
Thanks valadaar. I hope this helps someone in their adventureing or role-playing needs.
Voted Chaosmark
September 28, 2007, 17:59
I like this one. It's came up on the 'random' box a while back, but I didn't have time to read it, so it's been sitting around in a tab waiting. Finally got to it today, and I like it. I think it's quite useful, especially as a potential GM. Unfortunately, it seemed to me that it was a bit short. Perhaps we could flesh it out more sometime?
Voted Prowler
August 4, 2008, 9:24
I'm a newbie and found this extremely useful, thank you very much.
October 19, 2008, 19:55
Coming back to this a year later, I find that this is a very good write-up, and recommend it to even experienced GMs as a brush-up on how they GM.
Voted klauston
April 12, 2009, 1:53
The necessity of character growth in the early stages is the most important stage of an adventuring career. I've played low, mid and high level campaigns as well as the new GM's give-away campaign. I enjoyed the struggling character building campaign the most. A well put together article and an important rule to remember by both GM's and players alike.
November 29, 2010, 21:55

A little resurfacing of the past to get some of the newer members some incite into their gaming stages.

Voted Silveressa
April 16, 2011, 3:09

A nice helpful guide to those playing "leveled" rule sets (Palladium, D&D etc..) For those using more open ended systems (Cortex, Shadowrun/Earth Dawn etc...) it can be harder to regulate or even define the term "low/high level campaign" since character power level and influence  progresses on a very different scale game mechanic wise. 

April 16, 2011, 14:28
Yes, this was originally created in mind of an XP based gaming system as that was the question that was asked of a member. However, that being said I don't see much of a difference in the concept of it really. I've played in non-XP based systems and I think this still has some merit.

I've actually been trying to read and get into the Cortex system so I can understand your hesitation.
Voted RGTraynor
April 16, 2011, 10:36

Aside from other comments, I agree with many of the sentiments and disagree with others ... but heck, this is, after all, an editorial of sorts.  That's bound to happen.

That being said, hell yeah on the difficulty in killing dragons.  A few months back saw only the third dragon killed in the 33 year history of my campaign.  The warrior responsible for the first one became legendary through doing it; the minstrel who took out the second one with a colossal eye critical shot would never speak of it, because she felt that (with some justification) there'd be few who wouldn't laugh in her face at the thought that a slight rapier-and-dagger fighter could conceivably take one out.  The one which just got dropped fell at the hands of the most powerful PC wizard in the campaign's history, who was invisible at the time, and picked it off from above when it was heavily engaged with a platoon of adventurers.

Voted Michael Jotne Slayer
April 19, 2011, 10:07

Extremely usable for both new and jaded GMs and players. The thing is, even though we are jaded we still need to have important points highlighted and arranged for us as a reminder, at least I do. Good article Mourn, glad I read it.

Voted MysticMoon
April 23, 2011, 12:48

I read this early on when I had very few votes but forgot to come back around and vote on it. I'm glad it made its way back around.

Even though the language is geared around systems with levels, I find it easy to view it in more abstract terms. In fact, I think it helps to put mechanical "levels" into more generic terms that cross gaming systems. Going up in power can mean gathering XP and hoarding magic items, but it can also mean gaining political clout in a more role-playing heavy system or boosting attributes and skills in systems like Cortex or Savage Worlds.

As a GM developing a campaign, I find this to be a good set of guidelines to keep in mind.

June 10, 2012, 10:05

The irony here is when I originally wrote this my Hewdamia system was XP based and now it isn't. I still think it applies however a review and rewrite may be forth coming to address the non-XP systems.

Voted Bendalf
December 27, 2015, 14:42
Only voted


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