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Being a dungeon master is not an easy task. You have to build the world, create the plot, remember the names of all the important characters, chronicle the adventure, and figure out how to deal with any and all unexpected happenings (read, player actions) that come your way.
With all of that struggle to juggle, is it any surprise that a lot of dungeon masters might fall into a rut when it comes to coming up with a premise for a new campaign?
Well, allow me to help get those creative juices flowing. Here are 10 concepts for a game that isn't just your usual dungeon dive, or hack-and-slash.
If you enjoy this list, you should also check out 10 Questions to Put on Your Character Creation Document, here in my Gamers archive. For more gaming insights, head over to my blog Improved Initiative!
Prompt #1: Escaped Experiments
While there are a lot of fantasy purists out there, this one is all about genre blending. The PCs all have something unique or unusual about them, and they have been held captive in order to be studied further. Until something happens, and they have to combine their unique powers in order to escape into the wider world.
Whether this is finally your chance to play a psionic character being scrutinized by wizards, you'd like to play a fighter who was resurrected from the dead with secret cybernetics hidden beneath his skin. Or you've been looking for a campaign to play a barbarian who has been used as a guinea pig in an attempt to introduce Aberrant blood into a human host, this is an ideal place to bring all those, "that's too weird for MY game," concepts.
If you're the dungeon master, then the first part of this arc is going to be escaping the complex in the first place, but what happens after that? Well, the experiments are on the run, so they need to stay one step ahead of bounty hunters, angry wizards, and others looking to cage them again. They'll need to understand what they are, and how they came to be as well. Also, perhaps, they didn't actually escape at all. Maybe they were let go to see what would happen "in the wild," so to speak.
Prompt #2: Special Operations
When serious problems rear their heads, or decisive action needs to be taken on a small scale, who does the nation entrust to get the job done? Who has the skills, and the will, to work in the shadows for the betterment of their country?
Adventurers, of course.
There are all kinds of different things you can do with this one. For example, your squad might be sent into an enemy country to cause disruption and chaos, sabotaging their war effort at home so they never find the wherewithal to bring troops to the field. You might be sent to extract an asset who is about to be compromised, or you could be the eyes on the ground gathering intelligence about what's going on somewhere. In some circumstances, you might even be tasked with assassinating a high-priority target.
A lot of what went on in my Pathfinder Tale The Irregulars, if you're looking for further inspiration.
Prompt #3: Athletic Competition
This one's inspiration is taken right out of the game XCrawl, and films like Salute of The Jugger (or Blood of Heroes in the U.S.). Because while most parties come together to fight off an orc incursion, or to raid a forgotten tomb, individuals with unique skills can often become champions in a nation's sport. Especially, if that nation prefers bloodsport.
The easy way to do this is a kind of team-based gladiator setup, where one team fights another in a series of carefully calculated bouts with appropriate CR. However, you could take inspiration from games like Blood Pig in Pathfinder's Curse of The Crimson Throne adventure path as well, giving players a legitimate sport they're trying to play. Outside of the ring, though, the PCs will have to build their reputation, figure out the best sponsorship deals, and use their platform to make allies in the wider world. And, every now and again, they may find themselves called upon to deal with unexpected events; like a party they're at being crashed by violent bandits, or avoiding being poisoned so that a rival team can take them down more easily and make a big payday by gambling on an upcoming match.
This setup won't be for everyone, but it can provide a unique experience for celebrity adventurers, and turn working the crowd into a legitimate skill set. Whether you want to be a masked wrestler, a black-armored knight hiding their true identity, or just a singing sensation looking to cut a record deal off of their arena fame, this isn't a campaign anyone would soon forget.
Prompt #4: Neighborhood Heroes
Most players are used to the idea of being small-town heroes. You know, an outlying farm settlement is attacked by goblins, the PC's push the goblins back, and huzzah, the town has new heroes! Things typically escalate, with more and more stuff coming their way, and the PCs have to handle it because there isn't a militia outpost or lord who would be willing to lend their strength for miles.
Well, neighborhood heroes follows the same general approach, but puts the PCs in a major city.
A solid opener for this one is that the neighborhood faces a specific problem that the powers-that-be either can't or won't deal with. It might be a gang that's taken over the block, or people going missing, or a supposed monster lurking in the sewers. Whatever it is, the PC's are the ones who step up and get the job done.
Of course, now this is their block. Which means they have targets painted on their backs for anyone who wants it.
What happens then could go a lot of different ways. Do the PCs have to contend with more powerful organized crime bodies who don't take kindly to this disruption? Do their actions uncover a cult that's hiding in the city's bureaucracy, meaning they now have to contend with the militia, and city guards as well as shadowy enemies? Do they eventually uncover a conspiracy going on beneath the city that reaches all the way to the King's court, requiring them to prevent an assassination, free him from being controlled, or some other equally heroic thing?
All sorts of options. This game would be ideal for vigilantes, though, since they just can't catch a break with a game that goes all over the map.
Prompt #5: Traveling Band
One reason that so many players put together homeless vagabonds with no friends or family is that they don't want to have to pull up stakes to follow the adventure wherever it goes. There's no doting husband begging them to stay home, and no blacksmith's forge they've built up for the past five years with a backlog of work. Just the open road, the cloak on their back, and a death wish that can be seen from space.
However, if you need a reason to travel around from place to place, then what better reason than because the party is on tour? Hell, it was good enough to build the entire premise of Jabberjaw around, and if a comedy relief talking shark who plays the tambourine isn't something someone has tried to play at your table, how long have you actually been a dungeon master?
While this concept might sound like you'd have an entire table of bards, that isn't necessarily true. A bard or a skald on vocals, sure, but the other members of the band would just need to be able to play their instruments, and contribute to the overall performance. Why not a hulking red dragon born on lead guitar who spumes fire into the air when he shreds? Why not a half-orc barbarian on drums, whose tireless playing lets him go on for hours? You could even have a wizard or a sorcerer as the special effects and pyrotechnic guy, and a rogue as the manager who keeps networking and getting them new gigs.
From that point onward, just ask what happens.
Does the band get booked, only for something to happen at a show? So now they have to keep playing, "Skullsplitter Mountain," but they have to make sure the audience doesn't panic about the ghosts trying to wreck their performance? Do they end up playing for a lord and getting accused of being spies or assassins, and then have to escape, or prove their innocence? Do they find an ancient masterpiece, play it, and accidentally summon a dead god?
Scooby-Doo or Deathclock, whatever speaks to you with this one.
Prompt #6: A Noble Party
Noble-born characters are not new by any stretch of the imagination, but something that a lot of folks overlook is that they are literally the easiest PCs to get involved in an adventure. Whether it's the prissy daughter of Duchess Croupe, or the quiet son of Lord Vance, these characters are expected to perform the tasks they are ordered to. And if the banner lord of the region asks for a team to solve a given issue, it's possible that the various lords and ladies would volun—told their children to go bring honor to their names.
Whether your characters all know each other personally (perhaps you grew up at court together), or you only know each other by reputation and crest (more on that in Character Reputation in RPGs: The Small Legend) you have an easy way to assemble the party, and direct them toward a goal.
However, an entire party of noble-born characters also offers other opportunities for story complication. What happens when someone finds out that members of their own, or a party-member's, family were part of a plot? How do you deal with loss of face, even if it was in the name of a good cause? Are you here because you're not the first-born, and thus you need to carve out your own estate, knowing that though you have education, skills, and a good horse that all of the money comes from someone else? What if you get involved in an international incident? Could your status shield you, just as easily as it might cause a war?
If this idea appeals to you, then you should take a look at A Baker's Dozen of Noble Families for some clans and crests to get your players thinking.
Prompt #7: Traveling Circus
When you have a group of individuals capable of performing death-defying acts of skill, and who possess bizarre and unusual powers, it's often far easier to put on some tights and perform in front of a town than it is to kick in the door of a dungeon. And even a first-level PC could find a place in the circus.
All you need is a good enough schtick.
Trixantherium Gelder is the fastest crossbow shot anyone's ever seen. She can put three bolts in the air faster than most bowmen can knock and draw. Not only that, but she can shoot in pitch darkness, bulls-eyeing every target flung into the air. Gorrrun the Clutcher was found in the depths of the Bloodscar Mountains, and after being taught the common tongue, agreed to travel with them. The hulking brute's feats of raw strength are enough to shame even a plow ox, and he performs them almost effortlessly! Shi'rinai Baum can speak the tongue of beasts, and every animal bows to her mastery of nature!
How much of this is true? Well, enough to make for a good show, and to keep the crowd coming into the big top. But chances are good that everyone has to constantly rehearse, prep, practice, and that Glorfin Lightfingers is providing a little behind-the-scenes boost to their abilities with a choice spell or potion.
Where you go from here varies. Perhaps someone in the show is hiding from another life, and their enemies come looking for them. Perhaps the town you perform in is cursed, and when the big top is attacked you end up breaking the curse and slaying the beasts that have plagued them. Perhaps you've become the subject of important patrons who wish you to perform in bigger cities, and for stranger audiences, forcing you to walk a narrow tightrope of court intrigues, or figuring out that a cult intends to sacrifice you unless you can escape their clutches!
Good times all around, really.
Prompt #8: The Strange Family
They're mysterious and spooky. They're creepy and they're ooky. And in some cases they might even be downright unsettling. But while this one might feel like it's meant for an evil campaign, you don't have to go that route if you don't want to.
If you want to go the dark route with this setup, then you make something like the Firefly family from Rob Zombie's House of A Thousand Corpses. You still have your face, your hitter, your skulker, and your healer, but now you can play up the wicked aspects of this clan. Perhaps your bard likes to play with victims, before tricking them into her brother's room, where the malformed giant tears them apart if they flinch from the sight of his face. Perhaps the mother offers guttering sermons praising the Flayed God while wearing the skin of a recent victim, healing the wounds of her children and leaving strange, uneven scars behind.
And so on, and so forth.
However, you don't have to turn the horror up to 11 with this concept. Instead, if you ratchet it back, you can play with a lot of the themes we saw in The Adams Family. So you have a party who gets confused when the townsfolk are afraid of the slavering werewolf, cooing to him and bringing him under control, holding him until the change reverses. Perhaps you turn out to be distantly related to a vampire lord, so you sit down and discuss things like kin rather than resorting to a bloody, Belmont-style fight. Add in how they just don't seem to understand "normal" townsfolk, and are oblivious to how utterly bizarre others find them, and you have a setup for a fun romp.
Also, keep in mind that this isn't just for goths. If you want to have a bunch of dragon-blooded characters who share a lineage, groups of tieflings or aasimars, and so on and so forth, let it roll! The key is that you are strange and unusual to the outside world, even if you don't seem to understand why.
Prompt #9: On the Beat
Most of the time the PC's see the town guard as just another nuisance to deal with. They're there to provide resistance at lower levels, but if the guard was made up of adventurers, then they wouldn't need the PCs to solve their problems.
Which is precisely the idea behind this one.
The wild world is full of all kinds of challenges, but keeping the city safe, and solving the crimes in it, is your job. Whether you start on a beat with the rest of the party, or you're a special investigations branch tasked with solving particularly difficult crimes, this gives PC's a whole different way to utilize their powers. It can also present unique challenges if enemies need to be taken alive and captured, making items like tanglefoot bags, saps, pseudo-dragon venom, and spells like sleep much more valuable than they would be in a game where you don't get XP until everything is dead.
If you want to step out of the urban arena, though, there are other areas the PC's might be tasked with overseeing. They might be something like hunt masters, making sure that no one goes missing in the woods (such as wandering children, merchants trying to shave travel time off their routes, etc.), and ensuring that threats are dealt with before they reach civilization. They might also be tasked with watching for fires, and fighting natural disasters. If you need inspiration for this one, look for park ranger creepy-pastas and extrapolate your plots from there. Everything from buried bodies, to capricious fey, to angry ghosts, to inexplicable ruins could be in the depths of that forest... and it's your problem now.
For further inspiration on the sort of stuff PC's might have to deal with, check out 100 Encounters in a Fey Forest as well as 100 Random Encounters For on The Road or in the Wilderness. From lost shrines, to the dens of serial killers, there are all kinds of campaign seeds in there.
Prompt #10: The Incredible Shrunken Party!
This is a weird one, and it might not work for an entire campaign by itself, but it has some strange potential. In short, your party has been shrunk. Not just by one size category, but by several! So now, the size of a child's doll, you have to figure out how to undo what was done to you, while navigating the challenges of the world you find yourself in.
There's the usual Incredible Shrinking Man challenges, where things like house cats are now serious threats that could kill and eat most members of the party, for example. And if you were locked in a wizard's tower you might now have to climb to the summit, making your way past obstacles that are 10 times harder thanks to your reduced size. Or you might be in the middle of the forest, and you have to traverse the hundred miles to a witch's hut—a hundred miles which is now particularly daunting.
If you really want to get the most out of this one, embrace the strangeness, and play around with tiny creatures and weird sub-worlds. Maybe there are tiny fey who ride sparrows that you can ally with, and they'll help you if you assist them in driving off a badger that's rooting out one of their settlements. You could have intelligent animals if you want to go full Rats of NIMH with this game.
Whether you do it as an arc of a campaign, or build the whole game around trying to get back to your proper size, this one will certainly be memorable!