Days of High Adventure
A Key Tip to Creating a Memorable Tabletop RPG Campaign

CJ Miozzi | 1 Sep 2014 20:00
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Important events

Sometimes, the opposite of subtlety is desired. The theme is important to your story, so suitably important events should revolve around your theme.

"Your players will tap their feet to the rhythm of the beat."

In my campaign, the players found themselves traveling through an isolated mountain range and became implicated in a longstanding rivalry between a camp of trolls and a camp of ettins. They wound up having to pick a side and partake in an all-out war that would completely wipe out one side or the other. The entire scenario actually served as an allegory for the two warring kingdoms.

An important scene involved the players passing through the war front during a lull in the action. After two dozen sessions spent hearing about the war and seeing the effects of the war, they were finally going to get a glimpse of the armies. To lend proper pomp to the scene, I provided evocative descriptions and accompanying music.

The final mission of the campaign was when they actually fought small-scale skirmishes against the enemy army in a strategically important location that was impassable by an entire army, and the conclusion of the campaign saw an end to the war.

Send a message

Themes in stories often carry a message, often out of necessity based on the actions taken by the protagonists and antagonists. Again, it's best to avoid being heavy-handed here unless you know your players feel the same way as you. If your theme is religion and your message is "religion is bad," you may offend someone.

While you may think that the message of my campaign was "war is bad," the actual message is simply, "war is." It exists because we do; it's part of human nature. In fact, the final irony of the campaign was that war against a common enemy (an invasion of devils) ended up uniting the two warring kingdoms in a lasting truce. After spending the campaign focusing on the more negative aspects of war, the twist ending provokes thought and discussion: "Well, is war good or bad, then?" This ties into the other major theme of my campaign: morality. Do the ends justify the means?

They got it!

How do you know if you've successfully communicated your campaign's theme(s)? Your players will tap their feet to the rhythm of the beat.

A tabletop RPG is collaborative storytelling. The theme of your campaign becomes a theme in the story of the player characters, and when your players start running with your theme, you know they got it.

When my players went on a mission to steal a precious gem from a faraway kingdom (they only needed to borrow it as part of a magic ritual), they became concerned about the politics. "What if we're caught?" one asked. "They'll be able to tie us back to our home kingdom. This gem is their kingdom's most prized possession - we may spark a whole new war."

"A tabletop RPG is collaborative storytelling."

There it was. Without me breathing a word about the potential ramifications, without me even hinting at any war tie-in, and - if I'm to be honest - without me even considering what that player had brought up, he carried the theme of war into this mission. Why? Because the thematic pattern kept "war" at the back of his mind.

Another example was a player who came from the kingdom that was ruining itself in pursuit of this war - in fact, he was a former soldier. Part of his character development included frustration over the stubborn ways of his warmongering people and concern for what would happen to his brethren, his family, and his homeland as a result of this war.

When your players embrace your theme and begin using it to shape the story, you know that you've successfully communicated your theme. The result? Your campaign will have cohesion in your players' minds, and you've paved the road to a memorable story.

Sidebar: Crossing the war front

I leave you with a final sidebar: the passages I read to my players when they crossed through the two rival armies at the war front. Included are the two songs I played alongside the descriptions; hit play on the video and read slowly, letting the feel of the music carry you through the descriptions.

You approach a town built between the crests of two cliffs, with a heavily fortified wall running between them. A watch tower stands at the pinnacle of each cliff, flying the colors of the Lion Kingdom, and as you grow nearer, you see the Galefridish army stationed behind the fortifications: thousands of tents, enough to house a couple hundred thousand men. Soldiers mill about, helping unload supplies from legions of caravans. You've never before seen such a large gathering of armed forces.

As you cross through the town, cavalry men ride by on armored steeds, nodding to you in greeting. You pass a group of Gold-Trims - higher-rank Galefridish soldiers - as they are discussing logistics. You spot two knights dismount from ivory horses in front of a commander's tent, their polished, golden plate armor shimmering in the radiant sunlight. Their white tabards bear the symbol of the sun god, confirming that these are the famed Knights Hospitalers of Pelor.

From out of the tent strides a regal man wearing a helmet stylized to resemble a lion's head, with a white-plumed transverse crest that flows behind him like a mane - one of the Knight Commanders of the Lion. You know that within that tent, some of the world's most brilliant tacticians are strategizing.

You pass an awe-struck crowd gathered around a woman who seems to almost glow with the Light of Pelor. She is handing out rations; dressed in chainmail armor, she wears a cloth of gold tabard, and out of the back of her gorget rises a large holy symbol, like a golden halo behind her head - the Radiant Servants of Pelor are present as well.

As you near the fortified wall to exit the town, it stands tall before you with dignity, its smooth surfaces carrying the decorum of the knights in shining armor at your backs.

And so you leave Crestburgh.

As you travel the road, you spot a town in the distance, swallowed whole by a sea of grey: Brushmoor, and the Gavric army stationed around it. Drab tents pierce through a mass of grey-furred soldiers in unfathomable numbers, easily twice the size of the Galefridish army stationed at Crestburgh.

Trebuchets loom at the rear, casting harsh shadows across the landscape. Innumerable Gavric battle standards brandish that fist clenched in defiance of any who would oppose the Kingdom.

Everywhere, soldiers spar; weapons clang and thud against sword and shield. Warriors wearing horned helmets consort in gruff voices, and a black-furred commander barks at an assembled crowd - one of the infamous Veterans of the Black Baron. The crowd barks back a cheer, and in rhythmic unison, weapons are thrust skyward: sword, spear and axe.

As you continue down the road, flanked by tents, deeper into the Gavric war machine, soldiers glare at you with scarred faces and black eyes. Sharpened logs jut out of the ground, both off and on the road, daring the foolhardy to impale themselves. Around the town walls lies a fresh moat filled with wooden spikes.

You arrive before the Brushmoor gates, ready to enter the belly of the beast.

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