Saturday, August 15, 2015

Get Your Campaign Outta My Beer & Pretzels!

Christopher Rice talked about how his (and other) pure beer & pretzels Dungeon Fantasy games start to inevitably morph into larger, deeper campaigns.

But this doesn't have to be.

If you basically all agree on a Beer & Pretzels game, here is how you keep it from slowly but surely morphing into anything bigger. I think most readers and all of my actual players will agree that my Felltower campaign has been straight-up old-school inspired DF since session 1 and all the way through to our latest, session 65.

Choose Shallowness over Depth

This might seem like I'm being sarcastic, but I'm not. Inevitably, as you play in a series of connected sessions, you start answering questions about the world around the dungeon or dungeons. You deal with issues of theology and economics and culture outside of "Can I get healed in town at the church?" and "Can I sell a karkadannan horn in town?" and "Does everyone walk around without pants in your tribe Bjorn?"

When these questions happen, choose the most shallow answer. Those answers should be yes, yes and it's worth $x, and yes. And done.

I'm perfectly serious here.

For a game to stay light and B&P, you can't let it get weighed down with the ballast of inter-church politics, problems of wages vs. coin availability, or cultural nuances between barbarian tribes. The more detail you put on there that isn't a simple answer that lets you get back to the reaving and the slaying and hearing the lamentations of their door hinges as you kick the doors down, the more your campaign gets away from that. This is why my campaign basically has one megadungeon and one town. Oh, sure, there are off-screen places and other dungeons the players can go to. But I channel everything into a small set of adventuring locales to keep the campaign from growing - and inevitably gaining weight and importance that pulls us too far towards Tolkein on the Munchkin<->Tolkein Continuum.

Keep it light. Better "Church of the Good God" and "Evil things live in the dungeon and you can kill them" than complex religious politics and legal issues of subterranean murder.

Confront Expansion Head On

Remember the quandary we had over PCs spreading anti-NPC rumors in town to take the fight from the dungeon to the town? And the solution?

Basically, the players got an idea. I realized said idea would expand the game and undermine a basic simplification of the game. I explained why to the players, and they said, right, let's not do that thing. That's it.

This worked because we pretty simply and directly dealt with the possible expansion of the game from "beer and pretzels dungeon bashing with a safe base" into "dungeon bashing with social conflict on the surface and no safe areas." The former is what we want to play, the latter isn't.

Keep it Fun

Whatever it takes, keep doubling down on the stuff people enjoy in the game. If you introduce an element and it doesn't make the game more fun, take it out or tone it down. Whatever got the campaign started and rolling, keep doing that. Don't let even logical extensions of those elements creep in if they ultimately detract from the issue at hand. Remember the problem of Sequelitis - they're so busy dealing with the fallout of the previous one they forgot what was fun about it (See, all sequels to Pirates of the Carribean). Don't do that. Just repeat the stuff you enjoy and ditch the stuff you don't even if it logically flows from there.

Do this even if you have retcon the things that turn out to be bigger, or more of a drag, than you expected.

Like Minded People

This only works if you have enough like-minded people to sustain the game. And if you're willing to put that vision of the game first. We have that - a core of people who want this kind of B&P gaming. We let people know when they start thinking a little more expansively that this is not the game for that. Generally, that works, because we all know what we're signing up for.

And that's pretty much how you do it. Hold the line, ditch the expansions that take you out of the light and fast elements, and all stay on the same page about what fits this game. 65 sessions and counting. Some players joined, some left, some drifted off, and still others poke at me occasional about coming to try out the game. And it's still as beer and pretzels as it was before, because we don't let it become anything more than we want from it. And if it gets stale, we take a break and come right back to it.


  1. I think these are great suggestions. It's so easy to let a campaign get "heavier" than initially intended.

    1. It's ridiculously easy. Like I said in response to a comment below, you just have to refuse to let "logically this would happen and become the focus of play" have anything to do with what actually happens and becomes the focus of play.

  2. I think there is a sort of pendulum to campaigns. Maybe at first players want just dungeon delving, killing monsters and taking their stuff and then later the player want to explore the city and have a deeper campaign world but then the pendulum swings back again and players want to kill monster and take their stuff again. Players don't seem to like doing the same thing over and over too much, they like to mix things up.

    1. I general, I think it's true that the desires of the players go back and forth.

      It hasn't happened in this game - the only time players talk about depth outside the dungeon is when they want to leverage what's outside the dungeon to affect what's in it. Part of the reason for the longevity of the game is that a) all the players are on board with this kind of play and b) we don't add elements that don't feed into that kind of play.

      It's only inevitable that campaigns expand if you accept that you must let them expand.

  3. Very interesting...I kept thinking "Here's how to emulate an ARPG on the table top" while reading. That said, some of your ideas work well for more conventional games, too. It's really easy to let the devil in the details sweep a campaign away by accident.

    1. I didn't even know that term until just now. But yes, it's tabletop Diablo, with the ability to add elements because there is a GM right there.

  4. I like a bit of both in my game. Northport was an outgrowth of 3e Fantasy and was influenced heavily by Tredroy, and worked with rules based on the long defunct's Advanced Grotoes and Goblins rules, had layers of intrigue written in, althpugh he only actual play was a dungeon crawl back when.

    1. My previous game was a lot of both - lots of things going on outside of fighting and looting. Honestly, fighting - looting was just something that happened after fights that were important for non-loot reasons. It's a matter of taste.

      The important thing in any game is to not let the elements that people find less interesting dominate play to any extent just because logic demands that they should.

  5. I think on a micro level your campaign has a lot of story. Named NPCs that have grudges against the PCs and with whom the PCs have grudges. Items the PCs are seeking, debts to churches, relationships between the PCs etc

    Its just almost everything in your game is resolved in the dungeon and if it doesn't affect the Dungeon you don't focus on that.

    There are many similar campaigns outside of DF


    WW1 fighter aces where the game sessions are dog fighting and not much else.

    A group of paratroopers routinely dropped behind enemy lines (aka Dungeon) (even a game from the pov of the soldiers in Xcom would be like this regardless of the research and storylines)

    A group of gladiators/ competitive fighters that travel from stadium to stadium and the sessions are only the fight and associated activities.

    1. I think that's a good point that I missed. The game has depth within the parts we care about. It's just about not letting the extraneous details become more important than they need to be.

      We've played many sessions without a serious change because we recognized what to expand and what to keep narrow. And the closest thing to a reboot was launching the Cold Fens sub-section of the game because Felltower is now too dangerous for brand-new PCs. Which was welcomed by those with the most to lose - Dryst's player and Vryce's player, because they had other guys they wanted to try out but couldn't when they needed to carry the heavy weights for the existing group.

    2. I completely forgot you've got Red Raggi too, who is a great example of how a story can grow out of completely coincidental events in a game sessions.

      He's Someone who should have just been an incidental NPC killed off by an unlucky roll sooner or later. Instead your PCs named their band after him and his survival should be evidence to the PCs that they live in a world governed by narrative causality (even though you've been rolling fairly).


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