This last campaign ran for 17 sessions over about 6 months, from level 5 to the end of level 7. We started with 5 players and ended with 6! No one died, though we came close a bunch of times. And we found friends and pets, proteges and mentors, dreams of the past and future, communions with angels and horrors, a terrifying creek, and one most excellent shovel.
Along the way, I tried a lot of things to make the campaign fun and interesting. Some worked. Some didn’t. Here are some things I learned.
I created 47 magic items, including a bunch of swords and armor, books and rings, eyeballs and gauntlets. For the most part, the designs were fine. Although a few times I had to tweak the language after the fact to balance them.
Good Idea: Most of the items required Attunement, so the players had to agonize about which cool things to attune to and which to put away.
Bad Idea: The items kept getting more powerful, which made the PCs more powerful, which required the enemies to be more powerful, and so on. This arms race proved to be a major headache. In the future, I hope to keep the items a bit simpler. I will focus on “interesting utility” and not “devastating power”. One of the most popular items was the Master Shovel, which simply cast the Mold Earth cantrip!
I do not enjoy running combat at high levels. Everyone has a ton of abilities and spells, so they each take longer to read their sheets and make decisions. That includes both players and monsters. This is slow and boring, the exact opposite of what combat should feel like!
Good Idea: I adopted Matt Colville’s “action oriented design” principles to make my baddies easier to run, and to keep them interesting. I also tried to make the landscape dynamic, such as moving shafts of sunlight in a vampire battle.
Bad Idea: By the end of the campaign, I was trying to make battles that would challenge six PCs at Level 7. Each player had a minimum of one action and one bonus action and a maximum of 4-5 attacks per turn!!! Running a straight-up battle of attrition was just a slog of tearing through bags of hit points, even with dynamic battlefields or lair actions or legendary actions, etc. I personally found it fatiguing to run, and I worried constantly that it was boring for the non-active players to watch.
I love inventing unique and flavorful monsters. I often took a standard creature and changed it to reflect something about the story, such as having Apex and Common werewolves, and four types of vampires, and dozens of other undead.
Good Idea: As mentioned above, I used Colville’s action-oriented design to write my monster stat blocks. This simplified everything. I had two Actions (melee and ranged), one Reaction (backlash), and one Feature (like walking on walls). I also got rid of the normal Resistances and Skills, and just gave each one an Immunity. With 13 types of damage and a pile of Conditions, it was just easier to decide that every creature was immune to one or two things.
Bad Idea: I ran a lot of different types of battles, but the recurring mistake (especially toward the end) was to have a single Big Bad fighting a party of 5-6 heroes. The action economy was just brutal. The best battles had a group of baddies, all moving around and doing different things. Unfortunately, toward the end, many of my battles were plot points, so it didn’t make sense for a whole bunch of baddies to show up.
I made tons of NPCs! Good guys, bad guys, and weird guys galore. I really enjoy roleplay and doing voices, and I think my players really like meeting memorable weirdos.
Good Idea: To make my NPCs unique and memorable, I often based them on the characters from TV shows. Inspirations in this campaign included Brooklyn 99, What We Do In The Shadows, and Schitt’s Creek.
Bad Idea: Because this was a dark and gothic campaign, a lot of the NPCs had tragic backstories. They were grim and sad people. They were not super friendly or eager to help the party. This made the PCs less inclined to form positive relationships with the “good guys”. On the other hand, the villains were more flamboyant and complex, which made the PCs more conflicted about fighting them. By the end of the campaign, I think this muddle of feelings led to a less triumphant-feeling climax.
Dreams and Side Stories
Most of my players had complex backstories connected to religion. To support those themes, I gave the PCs frequent dreams from their deities to give them hints and insights to guide their choices, which they really enjoyed. It felt personal and unique. A few times, they wanted to take a rest just in the hope of having more dreams!
Good Idea: Make each player feel special and unique.
Bad Idea: Try to keep track of 5 completely unrelated personal stories, cramming a bunch of those subplots into a session with 1-2 combats plus a central group story. In the future, assuming I continue to have a large group, I hope to wrangle them into having a smaller number of subplots that involve the PCs in pairs or threes.
Railroads and Sandboxes
I wrote this campaign as a railroady sandbox. That means I designed a big area full of stuff, but I made it all slightly connected around a Central Tension (the threat of the vampires). So the players could wander around in any direction, and the world evolved in response to their choices and actions. But as things moved forward, they were gently being corralled into a confrontation with the vampires.
Good Idea: I wrote a ton of locations, NPCs, items, and events at the beginning of the campaign, so later they could change their mind at any moment and I was always prepared with something cool to do.
Bad Idea: While there were lots of ways for our story to play out (working with the vampire hunters, the shapeshifters, the vampire factions, etc.), it was always destined to end in a confrontation with the vampire queen. This meant the campaign felt more railroady because as it progressed I had less and less fresh material to show. This made me more inclined to point them toward my foregone conclusion.
That’s all for now. Hopefully you find some of these notes useful for your own campaign design and planning.