Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Character Options as Reward: A Campaign Pitch

A few months ago, I started a sporadic game of UVG with my roommates; all pretty casual, pretty goofy. 

During character creation, they asked me: "Hey Sam, do we have to play humans? Aren't there like, weird freaks out here? Can we play as them?"

This gave me pause. UVG has an interesting issue with regards to the "gradient of weirdness," where if you aren't careful the very first session in the Violet City can be totally off-the-wall wild, and thus none of the ensuing weirdness the Grasslands have to offer really sticks. We had a touch of that already (their starting loan came from the Grand Isopod Bank), so I was hesitant.

At the time, this is what I told them: "For now, no. But, if you recruit a weird freak into your party, like a para-human or an ultra or a vome, then any characters you make later can be one of those." 

This was, on its face, a pretty straightforward solution. If/when their current dudes died, their new ones could be different, they were encouraged to recruit strange freaks they met on the road, and the gradient of weirdness was preserved a little longer.

Recently, that solution got me thinking. What if you expanded this idea? What if more character options were gated behind progress through a campaign? What if this was, like, a major part of the campaign?


It's megadungeon campaign. You've got a big pool of players, a proper adventuring company, maybe 10 or 20 or so. You pile them all into one server, get everybody excited.

A half-day's travel out of town, there's an old castle on a seaside cliff. Rumors of unholy magic, foul beasts, and piles of gold. The classic. 

by Red Hook

A first, you tell everybody to make regular old adventurers: Thieves, (Orthodox) Wizards, Clerics (of the Light Undying), and Fighters, all human. Bog-standard.

But, you tell them the same thing I told my UVG roommates: if they recruit any weird freaks inside the megadungeon, they can use those as options for their new characters (since, let's face it, it's pretty likely they'll die at some point in these dungeons).


So they play a couple sessions, and they meet some goblins. They fight a few, thrash a miniboss or two, and then meet Snargle. Snargle's a coward and a wretch, a little runt of a goblin, but the party takes pity on them, and decide to recruit Snargle to the adventuring company. Now, anybody making a new character can a) just play Snargle, or b) roll up a new goblin.

Fast-forward a few sessions, and the party has just rescued three dwarves who were going to be sacrificed to an undead god, who get recruited into the party. The company can now roll up dwarves—but that's not all! One of these dwarves is a Fighter (nothing new there), but one is a Berzerker, and one is a Rune-Carver Cleric. Now, they've got a whole new class to play (berzerker), and there's a new set of spells that clerics can take, rune-carving spells.

Over the course of the new few months, the party also recruit a couple of fish-people (one of whom is a Mariner, and one of whom knows the Lore of the Depths, a bunch of Wizard spells), a goblin Assassin, and a pale elf Cleric of the Whispering Moon.

So, six months in, new characters can now be humans, dwarves, goblins, fish-people, or pale elves (they can't yet be automata, orcs, ghouls, or minotaurs, not to mention all of the non-humanoid monsters). Their martially-inclined characters can be Fighters, Thieves, Berzerkers, Assassins, or Mariners. Their Clerics can worship the Light Undying, the Whispering Moon, or practice Runecarving; their Wizards know both Orthodox Lore and the Lore of the Depths (plus whatever scrolls they've found).

You can see how, over the course of months or years, the options available to players would continue to expand, until by late in the game there could be dozens of options. You can also move beyond mere classes and species—you could have feats, ritual spells, micro- or prestige- or multi-class options, new starting equipment packages, and just about anything else you want. The rule stays the same: to unlock it as an option, you've got to bring one (willingly) home first.


Several reasons.

First, it's just strong incentive to explore. All players love new options, and so by dangling the hook of "you could play a weird fish-man, but only if you brave the Icy Coves," they're suddenly very interested in going to dangerous places and meeting dangerous people. 

Second, it's a good way to take the edge off of characters dying. A lot of my D&D players tend to be fresh out of 5e, so they're very averse to risk-taking, and I'm always trying to nudge them out of the nest. Getting to play a freaky pale elf or dwarf berzerker next is a good way to ease the sting. 

Third, it provides a very natural way to ease into the gradient of weirdness. I like players being able to play bizarre characters, but I also don't like the party always being the center of weirdness-attention, which can happen sometimes in games with lots of options. This way, before any players can start to be weird, they have to deal with that weirdness first. 

Fourth, and this is connected to the third, it's a good way to get players hooked into the overarching conflicts of your campaign. If, say, the orcs and the pale elves have a long-running blood feud over a mithril mine, your players will learn that pretty quick. Then, if a player wants to play a pale elf, they'll know, firsthand, that any orcs they meet will hate their guts on sight. Likewise, if chaos dwarves tend to be mutated freaks (especially their pyro-mongers), players using the Lore of the Chaos Flame will understand the risks involved with mutations. By essentially demanding a level of investment before players get their toys, you make sure they're, well, invested.

Fifth, and this is my metroidvania/darksouls brain at work, you can gate certain options behind requisite PC choices. If it takes six dwarvish hands on the ancient glyphs to open the Screaming Rust Gate, well, the company better recruit three dwarves. Likewise, if the Greater Depths require traveling through a mile of icy water, you'll either need fish-people or spells to protect you against that kind of stuff (which you probably get from the fish-people). If they want to access the deeper levels, they need to solve challenges that require solutions found on the higher levels. 

There's other, lesser reasons, obviously—it lets players make cool theorycrafted builds but only after eating their proverbial vegetables, it encourages not just murdering everything they see—but those are the main ones. It encourages exploration and risking characters, it eases the gradient of weirdness and worldbuilding engagement, and it unlocks interesting dungeon designs. 

I haven't really run a campaign like this, obviously. But the more I think about it, the more infectious the idea becomes, and the more I want to design and run this kind of megadungeon. We'll see if I can find the time.