Sunday, February 26, 2017

Two Groups in the Same Campaign: Madness or Brilliance?

For years I have been planning an Asian-inspired campaign, in fact, since before D&D 5E even came out. Originally it was to be a Pathfinder campaign. Instead, something better came together out of a combination of 5E, some homebrew, and the Forgotten Realms Kara-Tur setting. The campaign concept evolved over a period of years to become a group of monster hunters in Asian-inspired Kara-Tur somehow getting caught up in the Blood War, the eternal war between demons and devils. I knew to do this right it was going to take a lot of homebrew and a lot of prep. In the end, there are 3 custom races, 7 custom classes / archetypes, a whole new weapon set, and several house rules. Prep involves coming up with lots of place names and character names in a setting I am not particular well-versed in, either specifically or by genre. To save myself a lot of work, both of my Roll20 groups play different parties in the exact same campaign.  Prep once, play twice.

Half the prep is a wonderful thing. It turns out, however, that running two groups through the same campaign has far greater advantages. As GMs, we all put together those interesting fights, only to have a quick series of failed saves or critical hits skew the fight into something different than we planned. We've all had players miss clues and drag the campaign off in unexpected directions. The question lingers: was it bad design or was it just a crazy random happenstance. Now with two groups in play, I often get those answers. I learn what is design and what is random.

A good example was a recent mission that both parties undertook in the town of Trunau. Something was killing commoners in one part of the city. They needed to figure out what was killing, find it, and kill it. It is a classic trope: investigate, locate, and kill. Both parties followed the same rough path through investigation, each clue leading to the next. One party had great luck at determining most of the special immunities and resistances of the monster. The other party had no luck.  Both parties ended up camped out in the middle of town at night trying to catch the creature. However, one party upset the local guard captain so badly that a PC was temporarily jailed, while the other party followed rules of honor and kept in the guard captain's good graces.

In the yokai fight, one party made most of their saves. The summoner failed and had to stay back during the fight. They knew very little about the yokai and charged into melee, killing the monster quickly, but still getting badly hurt by the tentacles flying in every direction. The second party almost entirely failed their saves. Being frightened, they couldn't move in on the creature. The summoner instead summoned a giant snake onto the monster which easily grappled it. The snake then moved the yokai within range of the PCs so they could attempt to hit it. This party had several PCs with little or no ranged weapons and it was a challenge.  Unfortunately, despite the much longer fight, the yokai couldn't seem to hit anything and the PCs mostly walked away unscathed, with the giant snake taking most of the damage.

By seeing the different ways this investigation, hunt, and eventual combat went, I learned a lot more about the overall design. I learned where things pulled the PCs in a consistent direction. I learned where dice rolls made a huge difference and where they didn't matter. If I were writing this campaign to share, running two or three groups through it simultaneously would have been the optimal approach for testing the design. By choice, I would run 3 groups through: 2 to test the initial material, and a 3rd to test the material after I made some tweaks.

Now this approach isn't for everyone. Trying to run two or more games at the same time takes some serious time commitment and organization skills. It turns out, it also takes some thorough notes to keep the parties straight and the information that the parties know separate. It is a real challenge, but if you are up for the challenge, there are some definite advantages that come out of it.