Friday Favourite: Campaigns Set in One Location

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on October 18, 2013

On Friday we comb through our extensive archives to find an older article that we feel deserves another look. From August 29, 2011, Dungeon’s Master once again presents: Campaigns Set in One Location.

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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