Campaigns Set in One Location

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on August 29, 2011

It’s hard to imagine a D&D adventure that doesn’t involve travel. Most PCs have a back-story that involves them leaving home in order to see the word and seek adventures. Who wants to stay in one location when there’s a whole world of excitement out there? If you do it right, there could be plenty of characters who are very content and even excited to stay in one place.

Location, Location, Location

In order for a campaign set in one location to really work the setting has to be interesting. I’ve participated in two campaigns that were set in one location. Once the setting was a lavish Tavern/Inn called the Sun & Moon, the other was set on board a pirate ship. In both cases the locations were as much a character as the other NPCs.

The Sun & Moon Tavern was a large structure that was more than just a taproom and a few rooms for rent. It also included a small theater, a courtyard garden, and even a Wizard’s tower. The setting varied enough that the PCs never got bored hanging around.

The adventure on the ship brought its own excitement. The ship itself was interesting, but the fact that it was a vehicle meant that we could stop at various ports whenever the plot called for it. But even so, the majority of the adventuring took place on the ship, at sea, and usually involved ship-to-ship battles or combat against giant solo monsters.

Just think of your favourite sit-com, and chances are it takes place in only one location. Most take place entirely on one or two sets and these are usually part of the same building. The fact that most of the action involving the principle cast happens in one place rarely hurts the show. Some of the most popular and longest running shows took place in only one or two locations (e.g., All In The Family, Cheers, Gilligan’s Island, Two and a Half Men, and Night Court).

Why Stay?

In order for a campaign that’s set in one place to really work the PCs need a good reason to stay there. Before getting too involved in this type of campaign, the DM and players should discus the idea and agree on a suitable location. After all, some players will resent begin forced to stay put since one of the great things about RPGs over other games is the freedom of choice.

One way to pull off a campaign in one location without consulting the players ahead of time is to set the adventure in a prison. This is an easy way to explain why they’re stuck here. A cast away themed adventure is another good way to keep the players in one location. In the aforementioned campaigns I’ve played in the DM gave the PCs reasons for remaining in the one location.

For example, in the Sun & Moon game, the PCs were immigrants who were working off a debt. The PCs were given a set of rules at the beginning of the adventure and any time they were caught violating the rules they were fined. This lead to increased debt and they were forced to stay there longer. This created real conflict when the weekly adventure presented easy solutions if the PCs violated the rules. The PCs had to decide if they should risk actions that could lead to them getting caught or if they should play by the rules and do things the hard way.

The People

Once you’ve decided where you’re going to set this adventure and why the PCs would continue to stick around the next step is to fill that location with memorable NPCs. The setting may not change that often (if at all) but the NPCs can come and go as the story demands it. Adding and removing NPCs from the campaign can be more interesting than going from town to town.

Reoccurring villains are always a good staple in any campaign, but if the villain knows where the PCs are going to be most (or all) of the time, this can really add some spice to the adventure. NPCs who continually straddle the line between friend and foe make for NPCs that the players love to hate.

The Importance of Familiarity

By setting your campaign in one static location, the PCs (and the players) have a chance to get very familiar with the setting. At first this is as simple as memorizing the map, discovered a secret passage or two, or finding a few good hiding places. But as the game progresses the PCs are also likely to get a better idea of who the important NPCs are in this setting. If the setting is a place where people can come and go freely (like a tavern) then there are likely to be regulars. A game set in a prison will have guards and a warden. A game set on a ship would have an assortment of crewmen and likely some regular suppliers, tradesmen, and fences that they meet when in port.

The details that come from this familiarity make the game more interesting. The NPCs are more likely to come alive as players actually remember their names and want to know more about them. This kind of interest isn’t usually found in a typical dungeon crawl adventure. NPCs are called “that guy with the axe” and “Mr. Halfling” even though the DM has given them names.

Increased Role-Playing

Any campaign that is set in one location is going to have less combat and more role-playing. After all, if the PCs are constantly killing everyone who walks into their tavern then they’ll quickly find themselves without any customers. As described above, the familiarity that comes from keeping the adventure in one place provides the players and their PCs with a comfort level not usually found in normal D&D adventures. They’re more likely to get to know the important NPCs likely because there are fewer of them.

Seeing and interacting with the same NPCs over and over again makes them richer characters to the overall story and lets the DM use them in ways that monsters can’t be used. Think about the emotional reaction from the players when their favourite NPC goes missing or is killed. If they’ve interacted with this NPC during every game for the past three months they’ll really feel like they know him and will be saddened or outraged when they learn he’s in danger.

Keeping It Fresh

Any adventure that takes place in one location runs the risk of becoming stale fast. It’s up to the DM to keep the adventure fresh and come up with new things for the PCs to do. As described above, adding or removing NPCs is one way to keeping things fresh. Another is to occasionally let the PCs venture outside of their comfort zone by letting them (or forcing them) to leave the location they’ve come to trust.

In my Sun & Moon campaign leaving the tavern grounds was a serious violation of the rules, but every now and then the PCs were given a really enticing reason to break this rule. Sometimes they did and sometimes they didn’t but it was always an interesting adventure when this carrot was dangled in front of them.

Moving On

Eventually this kind of campaign will run its course. When this happens the PCs will return to a more traditional D&D campaign in which they travel the countryside in search of adventure. DMs should not see this as a bad thing. It’s extremely unlikely that the players will want to remain in one location forever. Eventually they’ll feel they’ve accomplished whatever they were here to do or they’ll just get bored. Listen to the players, ask for their feedback, and when they’re ready to move on, let them.

Remember that this location has likely become an important part of these characters’ lives so be sure to have a send off that’s worthy of its station. If the PCs were the owners of a tavern maybe they finally get an offer to sell that they can’t pass on, if they were castaways then maybe they are rescued, and if they were prisoners the final adventure could be a climatic escape. Leaving this location will be like leaving a member of the party behind so be sure to do it right or the players will never forgive you.

What are some interesting locations that you can think of that would work for this kind of setting? Have you ever played in a campaign that was set in one location for an extended period of time? What’s the longest your campaign has ever been set in one location? What kinds of things did the DM do to make you want to stay?

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1 Chronosome August 29, 2011 at 10:53 am

Great post. This kind of campaign can be fun.

2 Anaxeto August 29, 2011 at 5:48 pm

This article was perfectly timed. I am running my first game centered around kenzer co’s Frandor’s Keep this Saturday. The campaign takes place inside the keep and the surrounding mountains.

If all goes well, I hope the well developed npcs and side quests engage the players without your typical save the world plot line.

3 Camelot August 30, 2011 at 7:56 am

Dragon Age 2 does this. The whole game, which spans 10 years, takes place in and around one city. It’s so huge, that at first it’s easy to be confused as to how to get around and where things you saw were, but after playing for a while, since the setting doesn’t change, you become accustomed to it and familiar with how to get around. It’s a really neat effect because it relies purely on the player. I think the same effect in a D&D campaign would be just as cool.

4 Ameron August 30, 2011 at 11:42 am

Glad you enjoyed it. I actually wrote the bulk of this article over a year ago and was shocked when I realized I never finished it. Revisiting the idea brought back a lot of great memories from my Sun & Moon campaign and has inspired me to set an upcoming adventure for my level 20 party in one place.
(PS, thanks for the correction notice.)

As long as the players see the potential of staying put and as long as you make the location interesting, I think everyone will have a great time. Strongly developed NPCs will really help.

Although I’ve never played Dragon Age 2 it doesn’t surprise me that others have come up with this idea before and used it successfully. It’s a tried and true idea but I sadly don’t see it very often in D&D. The players usually want their PCs to travel and see stuff. Get them to stay put is a skill challenge I’ve failed as a DM many times. For all the DMs out there, I strongly encourage you to try setting a small campaign in once location at least once. If after a level or two the players hate it, move on. But I suspect many will be glad to stay if there’s intrigue and excitement.

5 Kiel Chenier August 30, 2011 at 10:28 pm

If you want a great supplement for running a campaign in one city/town/large keep location, forget the Neverwinter Campaign Guide.

Buy this:

It’s inexpensive, it’s immense, and it’s super useful for building an entire city location without having to memorize an entire tome of back story and info. Best product currently on the market for building a location-centric campaign.

6 Sunyaku September 1, 2011 at 2:33 am

To maintain player interest in an area, the area needs to be dynamic, and change over time. In the best case scenario, the environment will change in response to the actions of player characters.

A party can easily spend most of the heroic tier in a fairly small region, but after that, outside influences can invade a familiar stomping ground. This can come in many forms– perhaps there is an invading army, like the Lord of the Ring, or dimensional gates open like the game Oblivion, or perhaps the entire region begins to phase in and out of existence like the town of Dupond in the last season of encounters.

Worldbuilding activities such as designing opposing power structures (factions) vying for control over the region can go a long way towards building intrigue, and provides a nearly endless supply of conflict to resolve.

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