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Designing Your First Episodic Campaign


Wondering what your first module should be? Probably a small area with a few buildings and NPCs, and a monster or two. You'll be testing out your first area, learning how the scripts are running. Then you'll expand it a bit and test it online with some friends for half an hour or so. If you haven't even started planning for a campaign, this area could easily become part of your first "real" module. You'll need to choose how you want your module to play. You could turn it into an arena and have your characters duke it out. You might turn it into a maze or puzzle to solve. Or toss in a bunch of storytelling NPCs. Better yet, throw in monsters and treasure!

Or, you could step back, take your time, put it all together, and design an Episodic Campaign.

An Episodic Campaign uses a series of modules designed to tell a larger story, while each individual module acts as an "episode" which can tell its own, shorter story. The size and number of areas changes for each episode, but is usually small. The DM's presence is always required. Quest areas are played through once, and rarely visited again. The Player Characters' home base (and immediate vicinity) is usually the only area that is revisited in every episode, and most areas will be completely new. This type of campaign works best with a group of three to seven players, and is most similar to PnP ("Pen and Paper") or "Tabletop" forms of roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons, when a group of friends get together to play every week (more or less).

You can start designing a campaign like this without even owning the Neverwinter Nights game or its rules. All you need is a few good ideas, some interesting characters, a good setting (with some rough maps), and an outline for a story. That's the hard part. The easy part (thanks to Bioware) comes when you purchase Neverwinter Nights and turn those ideas into modules.

The Basics

Before deciding on whether you want to design an episodic campaign, make sure that your players are interested in the same type of gameplay that you are. Some players don't care for solving mysteries, others don't want to save the world, and others don't care too much about killing lots of monsters. So be sure your campaign fits your players. Although you may be designing a persistent world, a good group of players must meet and play in it together at the same time. In an Episodic Campaign, you are not trying to create a MMORPG that's online 24 hours a day. Plan on playing through your first episode in one to three hours.

Start by using the basic first-level trappings, including first-level PCs and monsters with a CR of 1 or less. A good challenge for a first-level party can have a CR of 2, and a major challenge might have a CR of 3 (or even higher if the party is large or combat oriented). However, chances are your players will be level two or higher before thay are faced with a major challenge. If not, you may want to tip the odds in their favor by giving a powerful creature a situational disadvantage; it may already be injured, or is susceptible to a spell or ability the party just happens to have on hand. As you get better at becoming a DM, you can add more players, larger maps, longer episodes, bigger monsters, and more interesting background stories.

Once you have your background story outline, you can concentrate on your first episode module without having to design any of the following modules until after the first episode is played out. Even if you have your entire world mapped out on paper, you won't need to make a whole bunch of areas in your module to map out every square meter of it. You only need to concern yourself with the areas that your players will be going to in the next episode.


The Prologue

Your first module is perhaps the most important module you will design. Your players' first impression can set the tone for the whole campaign. Don't make the mistake of starting them out with the old cliche of meeting at a tavern and allowing them to introducing themselves to each other. Start your first episode off with a bang! Use a novel location or uncommon event. They could start as part of a caravan on the road that is attacked by bandits. Maybe the PCs meet each other as prisoners on a slave ship and have to plan their escape. Create a conflict to get the players' attention and test their mettle.

Act I

Once the excitement is over, then the PCs can meet at the tavern or make camp. Immediately present a situation to them where they need to make a decision. This figurative (or literal) fork in the road allows them choose their own destiny. Plan on designing both outcomes. Do they track their assailants, or help the injured hermit? There is nothing better than an ethical or moral dilemma to reveal the PC's personalities to each other. This might also be a good time to introduce a few long-term NPCs that the party will get to know over the course of the campaign.

Act II

Reveal your main story a little bit at a time. Introduce a Big ThreatTM to the party. It could be a Big Villain, an Impending Disaster, or a Mysterious Anomaly, or tricky monster. Whatever it is, you don't need to reveal it to the players all at once. Use an NPC, event or encounter that informs them of the threat, but challenges them on a smaller scale. This is another good time to add a battle or other physical challenge. Introduce the Villain's henchmen, or have the villagers all transform into statues. Design situations where progressing without the use of some of the PCs' special skills, feats, or spells would be very difficult. It is especially entertaining to highlight abilities specific to each PC, rather than just their combat abilities.

The Epilogue

Ending an episode should close loose ends and clearly be the end of a story so that players are aware that it's almost over. Often it needs to be nothing more than gathering back at the tavern or encampment after a big challenge. Wrapping-up with an anecdote or joke can never hurt.

You may want to end with a cliffhanger, hinting at what is to come in the next episode; this can be a genuine two-parter where the heroes are left encountering this week's Big ThreatTM, but have to wait until next episode to actually react to their predicament. A cliffhanger could also just be a simple revelation that one of the loose ends that the party had forgotten may come back and haunt the them later.


Mapping the Episode

Each episodic module will only need a few maps. You may want to sketch out their connections as shown in the diagram below.

Prologue      ActI           ActII   Epilogue

Ship's Hold - Shore    ,---- hut

               |       |

              Road - fork -- town -- tavern




This diagram shows an example using eight maps.  Naturally, the number of maps depends on the setting (and the number of acts). Yours might have anywhere between four and ten areas, as a suggestion.

Note that the road in Act I doesn't need to lead to shore; the PCs can travel from there to find a road running parallel to the shore. In this case, you could place a portal on both ends of the road; both portals lead to the same fork (for now) to avoid wandering away from the episode's story.


Special Effects

You will have to make allowances for players who decide on going their own route, or who want to go somewhere you have not yet mapped. There are ways to deal with this, some good, and some not so good. Don't just stop the players in their tracks and tell them they're going the wrong way. Have the map loop to where the players need to go (as in the example diagram above) or blocked by rubble, or guarded by a far superior monster, trap or magical effect. One of the best ways to control the Wandering Player Syndrome is to keep the story moving.

Design each act in the episode to end in a specific way. When a scene plays itself out, find out if the players are ready to move on. Fade to black. Fade in... they are now there! Don't waste time traveling between areas if it doesn't add to the story. If traveling does become integral to a scene, you may need a way to make it obvious that going astray will be useless to the party.

Although handy, wandering monsters and random encounters are generally not a good thing in an Episodic Campaign. The only time you should drop monsters into the player's path is when the players need a combat, when the story seems to call for it, or when the DM absolutely needs to kill time. Running a script in an area to randomly pop in a few monsters should only be used when you are pressed for time, or you just want some filler areas to add a little spice.


The Next Episode

Some of the maps in your first episode can be re-used in the next. If the party has a base of operations, like a town, castle, or encampment, you can use it again by removing elements that were only needed in the first episode. In fact, you might want to design template areas that you can re-use by adding elements that are specific to each episode.

Once your first episode ends, you may have gotten ideas from your players on what you can put into the next episode, while weaving in your background story. At this point you may even have ideas for several episodes. You can keep things entertaining by varying your themes. Some episodes can feature each of the PCs by having a scene that highlights their abilities, or reveals their past. You might have an episode that is packed with combat, another full of role-playing, and another having the party exploring unknown territory.

Whatever your campaign turns out to be, most of all it should be fun for you and your players!

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