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. 


  1. This is wonderful, and very much in line with my own thinking of the subject.

    I ran a campaign a few years ago where each time they cleared one of the five dungeons of the overworld they gained a new PC type - mushroom giant, goblin, undead, mermaid, or fairy.

    _Most_ players stayed human, but if someone died mid dungeon there was an obvious way to pull in a new player that was thematically appropriate. It made the campaign feel human-centric but also have some weirdness that was fun.

    1. Nice! When I ran a West Marches game a couple of years ago, there was an interesting ship-of-theseus effect, where by the end of the campaign very few of the original PCs were still there. Despite that—or maybe because of it?—those OG PCs were critical in teaching new characters (and players) the ropes of the game, both in terms of lore/history/secrets and in basic survival.

  2. i like it.

    why not go whole hog from the beginning? start everybody as a fighter/'adventurer', they are bound to run into a wizard/cleric/rogue sooner than later, and those classes being so fundental would be good impetus for people to start adopting all manner of vagabonds alomst immediately.

    id give xp per class/specialism as well, really incentivize players to go explore

  3. I've had this idea before, and I've always thought of it as a hexcrawl where each hex is a micro-plane, but a megadungeon fixes a lot of the problems with that concept.

    I'm a big fan of the Viking Death Squad system by Runehammer Games, so I might start hacking that down to assume that character options expand with exploration

    1. My specific vision for this would be a standard group of players, but an adventuring company sized selection of characters, starting with 10 or so.

      When you go into the dungeon, each player chooses their character for that "run". If that character dies, you hope that the party finds a replacement.

      Because of how Viking Death Squad works, you can make characters super stripped down, and the inventory becomes important as well, since hit Points aren't a thing.

      Maybe you lock certain items to specific archetypes.

  4. Hey, I'm doing this now! (Kind of) I've got a 5e west marches game going (that I kind of put together as an experiment in "is 5e something I can make enjoyable to myself again," and has kept going because my players really like it). In each region (each one is a 30-ish-node pointcrawl, dungeons, lairs, etc. scattered about) there is one new class, one new race, and two-ish new archetypes for an existing class. So far, it's all homebrew stuff, but I've lightly edited official splatbook material for a few of them. I've also got a system where spending enough money on carousing gives players a pick of interesting people to attract to the home-base town, each bringing with them a (homebrewed) feat.

    So far - my players have unlocked one new archetype and one new race: a warlock option that lets you play as a servant of an eternal self-replicating automation process, and the new race is the olm (as from Veins of the Earth). The warlock option was immediately adopted by the player who found it, but I keep on forgetting to put the race description up for the players to read. Nobody's asked me about it since I mentioned that they've got to keep their skin moist and have vision 30'. (Not darkvision, only the ability to focus eyes to 30') - probably should have told them the upsides first, rather than the downsides!

    My greatest challenge has been making clues for the classes / archetypes. The races are easy enough - there's some humanoids in the dungeon, players communicate with them, they track down their home stronghold and help them out until the new kind of humanoid has folks in their society who want to adventure with the weird people from the town in the south. Archetypes and classes are present, though, as collections of relics - relic texts, weapons, enchantments, devices. They don't (usually) move, more importantly, they're only in one place and don't talk. (I've resisted the "Stones of Barenziah" approach from Skyrim so far, of scattering pieces about a larger area, mainly out of the memory of that huge annoyance.) The one my players found so far was by complete accident. So there's something I've got to do besides my current approach of theme a dungeon area (for archetypes) or theme a whole dungeon complex (for classes).

    My players have like the feats and used a few of them, despite 5e not really being feat-focused like earlier editions - here's what they've got so far:
    -one that lets them get visions in dreams of what they seek in the waking world. (1 person got, uses a lot)
    -one that gives them randomly rolled boons when they almost die.
    -a feat that adds four new skills: Ballistics, Hydraulics, Pneumatics, and Statics, and the ability to use slide-rules and arithmetic tables to apply them. (1 person got it, gets used a lot)
    (the game is a bit of an early-modern Europe vibe, so there's lots of these late-1500s-ish kind of things around)
    -one letting someone brew potions - turning monster pieces into magic potions, and turning raw metals into a bunch of wierd utilities. (some interest, nobody took it yet)
    -and my newest and weirdest yet - a ritual that sticks a little bit of divine magic to the soul, giving a person an actual little angel and devil on their shoulders. (got a lot of "ooh"s out of revealing it, no bites yet)

    So all told, this kind of unlocking is a nice part of the game - the problems I've had in running it almost always come down to the absurd scale I picked for it (fifteen-ish regions of thirty-ish places, most of them a single line of description, but a good many are whole dungeons), which means that the setting is so large that I've only covered maybe 5% of the preparation, and I'm constantly running out in front of my players with prep. Also, to my player's occasional consternation, because there's so many things out there, the connections between places give them an enormous bunch of things they want to investigate, and having two lines of investigation come together is quite rare.