Bring It to the Table
We’re presently blessed by a banquet of interesting RPG systems, and that’s good. But almost as big as my pile of unread RPG books is my pile of unfinished campaign ideas, and that’s bad. If a campaign idea actually makes it out of the hazy concept stage, it rarely ends up in any condition to hit a table. The delay is in the details; while I might have a solid hand on the story I’m trying to tell, I have a hard time finishing all the particulars that would take it from an elaborate outline, to a scenario ready to come to life. But I think I have a solution: I’m going to stop trying to finish them. Instead of building stories, I’m going to build tools.
This isn’t an original idea. Zak Sabbath wrote an entire book about this sort of thing, and he’s certainly not the only person to talk about random generation tables. The difference between his book, Vornheim: The Complete City Kit and random generation tables like the Moldvay dungeon-populating tables (from Basic D&D; sort of reproduced in the Labyrinth Lord: Advanced Edition Companion ), is that things like the Moldvay tables are generally used when building a dungeon (or some other part of a campaign). They’re preparatory; they’re off the table by the time your friends show up to play. Comparatively, Vornheim does the same dungeon-filling work, but it’s designed to be used while the game is afoot. It’s reactive, not preparatory. The campaign grows in reaction to what the party does and where the party goes, instead of the party just walking through the pages of a prebuilt adventure.
As I see it, this sort of organic growth is the primary strength of reactive campaign building: the characters exist in a dynamic, changing world. The longer people play in that world, the more detailed it becomes. And there’s no way to wander off the edge of the world, because the world expands as needed, session after session; the GM is never left scrambling (or deus ex machina-ing) because the party decided to go around to the back of the fort instead of walking through the front door. Even if the GM didn’t get around to detailing that part of the fort yet, a handful of D6s dropped on a dicemap mean that doesn’t matter. (Dicemap: a grid or diagram or actual map, where the location of a die means something, like a room location or a treasure type, and the number on the die means something else, like the number of orcs attacking or whether the floor is booby-trapped). As a GM with more ideas than time, this is the difference between having something ready to run or not playing.
Even as a hopeful GMing novice, I can see all sorts of ways this approach could go wrong. Generating tables will take a decent amount of time, possibly as much as writing out the campaign. I might screw up with my random monster tables, and end up with a campaign of a thousand bears. (Although that would let me use this excellent Bear With Me table.) I’m still going to have to spend a bunch of time thinking about what the world is like — what’s the terrain like? — what sort of monsters would live there? what sort of people would live there? — but once I’ve figured out a detail, I can repeat that detail as needed. Once the tables for a small town are finished, I have all I need to generate any small town the party visits. If the randomly generated towns end up weirdly similar (“Why do all these towns have a tavern called ‘The Brass something’?”) then that becomes part of the story (“Well, there was this alchemist…”). It might put my improvisational storytelling skills to the test, but the more time I spend thinking about the scenario (working on those tables!), the easier the improvisation will be. Or I’ll just fling more bears at the party.
Some resources (in case you don’t want to do it all yourself)
- The aforementioned Vornheim: The Complete City Kit book, which is Zak Sabbath’s toolkit for his ongoing campaigns in the massive city of Vornheim. It’s amazingly useful, in both content and concepts. While it does exist as a print book, that version’s out of print so you’ll have to settle for a PDF or find it on the secondary market. Zak’s blog “Playing D&D With Porn Stars” also has many articles about reactive campaign building (although he doesn’t call it that), like this one about different types of tables and which is good for what. (Yes, the blog is called “Playing D&D With Porn Stars”, and if you think that might not be something you want to look at you’re probably right, although it’s your loss.)
- A number of companies have random generators for all sorts of stuff. Skirmisher Publishing has random generators for brothels, taverns, and cults, which puts you halfway to a completed town and more than halfway to a storyline. They’re available in PDF form, for whatever you want to pay.
- The interwebs contain many, many random tables (like the table of the consequences of over-indulging). Lots of them are more suited to pre-building attempts than reactive campaign use (and only a fool counts on a solid internet connection in times of GM crisis), but ideas come from everywhere, and don’t you have some tables to build?