D&D: The Final Frontier

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on April 4, 2012

It’s unusual for a D&D campaign to take place in on location. Most adventures involve extensive travel and exploration. The heroes go out, adventure, kills some monsters, find some treasure, and then return home to spend their hard earned cash and brag about their accomplishments. As the PCs get more powerful they will usually venture farther out and fight tougher monsters, but inevitably they return home.

In most established campaign setting there are very few areas of the world map that are considered to be untamed or unexplored. The likelihood of the PCs finding someplace that is truly the frontier of society is extremely rare in most campaigns. By the time the heroes started their adventuring career everything had already been discovered. Sure some civilizations might have fallen and their runes are now a place of great mystery, but the idea of going someplace and finding something truly new (at least to the PCs in your campaign) is pretty much revolutionary. And you know what, that really sucks for the players. After all, trailblazing the wild frontier is a thrilling adventure in itself and can add considerable depth to any campaign.

This kind of adventure has nothing but potential. Think about it, in a campaign setting where vast expanses of the world are completely unknown the PCs will face danger and adventure with every single step they take. Getting there will be half the fun for the first time in a very long time. Random encounters will become the norm since they really have no clue what the standards are in a wild and untamed land.

The road not taken

What road? Your PCs are the fist ones here so they can go where they want. They’ll likely follow the natural contours and game trails, but essentially they can go in any direction at any time. They don’t have a specific destination in mind (like a town) because there likely aren’t any out here. It’s go where you want, when you want, at the speed you want and in the direction you want. Some DMs hate putting this kind of freedom into the players’ hands because it can lead to almost anything. But crafty DMs will simply make things happen regardless of what the PCs choose.

If you want them to find a lake and have an encounter with some lizardfolk then guess what? They find a lake whether they go north or south and they encounter the lizardfolk whether they get there during the day or night. By giving the players the illusions of choice they get tremendous satisfaction in shaping the adventure, and by knowing that you’re going to run them through a set encounter or two or three no matter what they do you can be prepared for their antics.

Travelling in general is overlooked in many 4e D&D games. After all, if it’s going to take a week to get from point A to point B then the PCs will have plenty of time to heal up and expend healing surges after any random encounters. And if they only get into one or two fights a day then they should have no trouble defeating them because they’ll have so many of their resources available. But in a campaign where the PCs are doing nothing but travelling you can introduce some house rules to reflect the weariness that travel brings.

For example, after the heroes have been travelling for a week or longer they only regain half hit points from healing surges, or maybe they cannot regain full surges after an extended rest. This encourages the PCs to still play smart and not meta-game every encounter along the way. It also encourages them to do whatever you deem necessary to get back to full health. Suddenly skill challenges for travelling overland, foraging for food and creating shelter actually matter.

Monster knowledge? Yeah, right.

Experienced players know that as soon as a battle begins they can make monster knowledge checks to try and learn something about the monsters they’re facing. The idea is that you’ve either fought these creatures before or pick up some knowledge about them from other adventurers or possibly even an old book. None of these things really apply if you’re exploring the wild frontier. Sure there will be some standard monsters that are native to similar climates in other parts of the known world, but many if not most of the creatures the PCs will face should be new (at least to their PCs). You can rule that monster knowledge checks are simply not possible or you can pump up the DC. Doing this is a good way to reward PCs with exceptionally high knowledge skills.

The rewards of exploring

Not only will PCs face new monsters but there’s a good chance that they’ll find exotic treasures. At first this might be in the form of valuable gems or minerals, but as many monsters are intelligent the PCs could find magic items that they’ve never seen before. Of course knowledge is also a more tangible and valuable reward in this kind of adventure. Everything the PCs can document accurately, be it new monsters, new plants, and even the cartography of the unknown areas will be valuable to someone when they get home. If the campaign’s long-term arc is for the PCs to choose the sight for a settlement then they can get the pick of the best locations in the area where the future town is going to be built.

Safe passage

In a path-finding adventure where the PCs are trying to find the best pace for a new community or village, finding the spot is only the first part of a much longer campaign. The PCs are hardened and experienced adventurers capable of fighting monsters and surviving the harsh conditions that this new frontier brings; however the regular people that will be expected to come to this new settlement will likely be typical, regular, non-adventuring NPCs. Ensuring their safety will be a full time job. And it’s not just defending the town as it grows. Whatever means is established for transporting good and people will likely be hazardous as well. Attacks from monsters initially and bandits eventually means that someone will need to work at protecting the lines of transportation.

Now it’s unlikely that the PCs will be expected to do all of these things, but a creative DM can have the PCs get involved in some way with each facet of frontier life one gaming sessions at a time. Each difference session will likely play to the strengths of different characters and classes, so it’s a really good way to keep everyone interested.

We come in peace

Just because the PCs and the society they come from has never explored this new frontier doesn’t mean that it’s uninhabited. If the land is bountiful and resources are plentiful then there’s a good chance someone else noticed this as well. It might be another humanoid race or it could be intelligent monsters. Whatever the case, the PCs should learn pretty quickly that diplomacy goes along way. Some combat will be inevitable, but this is another opportunity for the DM to use structured skill challenge to let the PCs make use of their social skills.

A lot of players, knowing that their adventure is going to be an exploration type of game, may think that strong, combat-heavy builds are best. DMs should really emphasize that the party needs diversity to succeed. With so many aspects of exploration falling to skill checks there will be a lot of opportunities for structured skill challenges with real consequences for success or failure. Encounters where the PCs realize it’s better to talk or encounters where talking is their only chance of survival should be common enough to hammer this home for all players. Suddenly they see the value of taking feats like Linguist or Skill Training.

The frontier beckons

Creating a full campaign that are based on or parallel the settling of America’s wild west frontier has a lot of potential but may not appeal to all players. It’s the kind of campaign that can be exceptionally rewarding but will require significant commitment. But that’s not to say that the details above are only good in this circumstance. A lot of these points can easily be applied to smaller, one-off adventures. Any time the PCs head into an uncivilized or wild frontier that’s uninhabited by the familiar, the DM can treat it as an exploring adventure and use the points we’ve described above.

Have you ever played or run a campaign like the kind we’ve described here? What worked and didn’t work? If you were to take on this kind of challenge what other tips or tricks would you recommend?

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Alton April 4, 2012 at 1:42 pm

I find it gives the group a chance to go homebrew instead of planning what the campaign settings line up for us. The DM, or even the players then have some degree of flexibility to do what they want for future settings. They can set up keeps etc.

Great article.
Alton´s last blog post ..Stuffer Shack: SOTY(Site of the Year Award) Update 8

2 The Gimper April 4, 2012 at 11:36 pm

I just have two questions. 1) When are you going to run it? 2) How do I sign up?

3 Victor Von Dave April 5, 2012 at 4:34 am

Sandbox style campaigns can be a lot of work for the DM, but if you have very motivated players with a drive for exploration there is nothing better.
Reminds me of the old Isle of Dread adventure, bushwhaking your way through jungle filled hexes, searching for the lost plateau of the Kopru :)

4 Jan April 5, 2012 at 6:20 am

Wow, I just though of such a type of adventure some days ago. Sign me up, too! I’d love to try this out as a player.

But as a gm, too. I think it won’t be that much work. You can reuse small dungeons that can be found across the country or some stand-alone wilderness adventure from any source. Random encounters are not that difficult, you just have to make the damn monster list and do some tables. And that’s where another possibility for the meta-gamey “we’ll heal this next night anyway” comes in: Unbalanced encounters. They are truly random, so why should they match the players level? The lizard scounting party for level 10 heroes? Bam! But why don’t send a tarrasque running lose? They surely can avoid it easily, because you can see it from a great distance. But they have to take care (and it makes a formidable plot to steer the tarrasque away if you need to find a spot for a settelement).
Jan´s last blog post ..Enter the Lost Temple of Moradin

5 Seti April 6, 2012 at 12:14 pm

I wholeheartedly agree wit the type of adventure. PCs often know too much about published campaign worlds to make this easy for a lazy or strapped for time DM, however. I’ve always gone by the rule that PCs need to forget what they think they know about Faerun, Athas, etc. Really, campaign guide type books should be labeled DM-only material on the covers. And it is nearly impossible to outlaw metagaming. I’m running a dark sun campaign were there’s no hard knowledge or trade outside of a triangle of 3 city-states. Only rumor and legend. It’s fun, and easy for me as (thankfully) my players have never read ANYTHING about the dark sun setting.

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