Sunday, April 4, 2010

What's the Campaign Premise?

First off, I'm making up a term here, so sorry if your usage of the phrase "campaign premise" differs from mine.

A campaign premise is different from the campaign setting. It is based on the concept of a series premise, which is also different from a series setting. Here's an example of two series premises -- both set in the same, er, setting:

  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer: a young woman attending a small town high school discovers that she is the latest in a line of Slayers -- young women chosen by fate to battle against vampires, demons, and other forces of darkness. Aided by a Watcher (guide, teacher, trainer and source of useful exposition), and a circle of loyal (though not entirely normal) friends, she faces off against these creatures drawn or spawned by the Hellmouth.
  • Angel: A vampire whose human soul was restored to him as a punishment  -- tormented with guilt and remorse -- works as a private detective in Los Angeles, California. Along with a variety of associates they  "help the helpless" and "save the powerless", normally doing battle with evil demons or demonically allied humans who are increasingly affiliated with a supernaturally evil law firm Wolfram & Hart.

Same setting, different unifying concept that plausibly (or implausibly in some causes) rationalizes the monster of the week that plagues this type of show.

So how is this useful for D&D-type campaigns?

For people like me who want some kind of plausibility and perhaps continuity in a campaign, I like to think in terms of campaign premises because it helps me address several issues that often challenge plausibility and continuity, such as:

  • "How many of these things are there?" - assuming it's not a mega-dungeon and you've got sufficient time and skill to go through a dungeon in a single gaming session, after several months you (or your players) may begin to wonder exactly how many of these dungeons got the countryside, how they keep happening upon missions and rumors about them, and how they might be able to earn money as a dungeon construction company;
  • "I'm his sister, Red Dougal." - PCs tend to die without hope for resurrection, necessitating fresh PCs to reinforce the party, and it's not necessarily fun to role-play the sometimes in-dungeon meet-and-greet. I mean, would you really trust some creature that suddenly appears -- fully decked out in adventuring gear -- during your adventure?
  • "No one's heard from them since!" - A total party kill means another group of adventurers must show up and go through the dungeon as well. How do they know about it, and why weren't they hot on the heels of the last party, and good thing there are a lot of adventurers just waiting to go out on these expeditions immediately after the last one failed to return. If the party was trying to complete a series of quests to stop some evil overlord thing -- so much for all the clues and continuity built up with the last group!

A good campaign premise can address some, if not all of these problems. And while they may seem hokey, to me that's better than no attempt at plausibility at all! Here are some off the top of my head (gleefully ripped off from various media):

The Goons of the Invincible Overlord

Inspired by the X-files, there is an organization that recruits, trains, and sends out adventurers that deal with various problems of the empire/city-state. Most of their jobs are more mundane: breaking up/enforcing monopolies, weeding out enemies of the state, stopping rebellions, investigating high-profile crimes.

But a small group of adventurers are awarded/punished with the "short-straw" missions -- clearing out humanoid infestations along the borderlands, securing rumored caches of fiercely-guarded locations of ancient treasure, investigating rumors of unusual deaths in outlying towns and villages, and the ever-popular "it may be nothing, but it doesn't hurt to check if there really is a tomb of a lich there, and yes you have to pay for everything for this expedition yourself".

If you wish to retain the 'sandbox' feel, (and remind the players that there ain't no such thing as 'script immunity') make sure there are a cast of NPCs and PCs up for this unusual type of work in the organization, keep a constantly updated list of mission listings (and rumors about them from other folks in the org) and have entire groups of them die, or returned horribly maimed.

Also remember that -- early on in the X-files series -- Fox Mulder was granted access to the X-files casework because of his excellence in serial killer profiling. The reward for a job well done may well be that characters can eventually pick their own missions. Just like their superiors are probably doing.

Settings that seem easily adaptable to this concept would be the CityState of the Invincible Overlord and the Majestic Wilderlands.

Port of Call

Inspired by the Babylon 5 core idea ("we don't seek adventure, adventures seek us out"), this campaign premise establishes the adventurer pool as residents with many organizational, institutional, and personal attachments to a city located at the crossroads of adventure. Key members of the party may find out about a potential wilderness trek or dungeon crawl from a dying man in a tavern, an unusual altercation in the market square, or from strange new travelers arriving at the docks.

Travel to new locations can be over land as part of a caravan, or via sea trading routes. Powerful political factions with their own agendas can also set themselves up in the city and cause trouble, resulting in occasional city-based adventures. Established patrons may be able to tie loose strands of rumor and fact together and urge the party out with specific missions -- and handsome rewards.

Freeport seems like a nice fit for this type of campaign premise.


Inspired by TV shows Warehouse 13 and Friday the 13th, the PCs are part of a secret organization trained and tasked with the recovery and nullification of various ancient mystical threats and artifacts of varying degrees of power. There are powerful NPCs who both help and hinder the PCs (many which are doomed to die, retire, fall from grace and in general be replaced by one or more of the PCs). There is potential for  betrayals and power struggles, and some pretty nasty rival organizations and lone wolf operatives as well.

Great for campaigns that want an excuse to roll out world backstory exposition quickly, but with the occasionally annoying "need to know basis" stonewall from superiors. Tends to raise the question: who's bankrolling these operations and why do they really want us to recover and eliminate all this stuff? Resolving that question tends to make a great transition into another type of campaign premise.

Both Greyhawk and Mystara (because of the Blackmoor and Immortal/Gods elements) seem particularly apropos for lots of ancient artifact retrieval.


No really! I like the setting's history and how it sets up the rationale for many underground lairs, cities and mega-dungeons. Essentially, at some point near the height of an ancient set of empires in the past -- the stars became "right". Terrifyingly powerful, maddeningly cruel outsiders and elder beings entered reality and ravaged the world and drove even some of the gods insane. Fortunately, oracles and seers saw it coming and were able to convince a lot of civilizations to prepare. Unfortunately, not all of their preparations worked.

Now that the stars are no longer exactly "right", but still "right enough" for the lesser outsiders and elder beings to exist in a greatly weakened fashion, the remnants of various empires and powers are sending out people to investigate, reclaim, and cleanse the glories of the past.


  1. I've been out for the longest time, but I'm just posting to say nice write up dude. You make very good distinctions here.

  2. good to see you back with us, spielmeister!

  3. Very useful categories, good food for thought there.

    Triskadekaturions is quite a brilliant title!


That's my side of things. Let me know what you think, my friend.

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