How do you pace a campaign? How do you know if you’re giving too much or too little in experience and treasure? And how do you get the PCs to explore more than the local area?

Ask the gamemasters

Hello Johnn and Mike,

I have been gaming on and off for about 10 years but am a rather new GM (about to start my second campaign). My goal is to create an epic “explore the world” type campaign, but I have run into a roadblock when it comes to pacing it.

I would like to avoid going into the epic levels, but at the same time I actually want the players to see most of my world at one point or another. The tricky part is that my current gaming group likes to fully explore everything to the smallest detail (in our current game, we are all level 6 and have never ventured beyond a 25 mile radius).

So, basically, my question is how would I pace my campaign in such a way to allow players to explore to their heart’s content, not gimp them on XP, and still somehow have them explore the world by level 20?

Thanks in advance for your help!

Ask the GMs - Mike

Mike’s answer:

The short answer – and unfortunate reality – is that it can’t be done. You can’t buy a shopping mall for the price of a concession stand and you can’t give people a dollar a day for a year and not expect them to have $365 at the end of that year, and both of those are analogous to what you’re trying to achieve. It is small wonder, then, that you’re experiencing a great deal of frustration.

Having said that, it’s not the end of the world. [Johnn: groan, nice pun Mike.]  There are solutions to your problems, but it means making some fundamental changes to the assumptions of your campaign. I might add that these are problems most new GMs have to come to terms with; I certainly did, and have seen others struggle with them as well.

You don’t specify which game system you are using, which makes it a little harder to give specific advice, but the ‘level 20’ cutoff is indicative of D&D 3.x, so I’ll assume this is the game you’re playing. The advice offered will need tweaking to suit other game systems.

Encounter Density & Effectiveness

The 3.x DMG states that it should take thirteen evenly matched encounters for characters to earn a level, that is to say 13 encounters with enemies whose numbers and levels are the same as those of the PCs party; other game systems might have a different method of handling encounter balance, but the general principle remains. More difficult encounters earn more experience, easier encounters earn less. That means, over a 20-level campaign’s life, there should be encounters totalling 260 evenly-balanced encounters. If there are more ‘light’ encounters then the total number of encounters will be higher, if there are more encounters designed to be difficult for the party, then there will be less than 260 in the total campaign from 1st to 20th level.

However, many GMs don’t use encounters effectively; it’s a constant struggle finding tactics that enable encounters to live up to to their full potential. I include myself in this category, by the way, so you aren’t alone. Because players find it so easy to achieve victories, it’s tempting to throw bigger and meaner monsters at them instead of getting better at using what you’ve got. This solves the immediate problem of giving the characters a challenge, but it’s a false economy, because they earn more XP from the bigger encounter, reaching epic levels (or the end of the road) far too soon, and long before the campaign is finished. What’s more, because the PCs’ abilities increase with their XP totals, this is a self-destructive spiral to campaign obliteration.

It’s made even worse because bigger encounters have bigger treasures, which further amplify the party’s effectiveness, which require an escelation in the size of the creatures needed to challenge the party. The result has come to be known as a “Monty Haul” campaign. Here’s a test: add up the total value of magic items each PC has and compare them with the recommended totals for an NPC of equivalent level. If the PCs total is much higher, then they have more treasure than they should.

I don’t know how many encounters your PCs have had while exploring the 25-mile radius area, but I would be greatly surprised if the total was anything close to the 78 (6 levels with 13 encounters each) evenly-matched encounters that the ‘book’ says it should be, for the simple reason that there should not BE that many evenly-matched encounters in so small an area. I would guess the number to be closer to 20-30, with the balance being made up of much smaller encounters. That would indicate that you’ve been throwing CR at the problem; far from shortchanging the PCs on experience, I suspect that you’re giving unearned XP away.

So how can you make your encounters more effective? That’s a subject for a blog post in it’s own right, if not a whole series of them. But here are a few tricks that I’ve found useful in this respect:

  • Identify the most powerful ability of the creature, then determine a tactical situation that permits it to be used to greatest effect.
  • Identify the biggest weakness of the creature, then identify a means of preventing the party from exploiting it. That might be a relevant magic item, or it might be environmental.
  • Humanoids: find a tactical situation that would make them a fair match for the party if the encounter was down a couple of CR. Generally, that means identifying advantages that give each of them between +2 and +4 to hit.
  • Make sure that magic items in the possession of intelligent creatures are exploited.
Recovering from ‘Monty Haul’ mistakes

Again, this really deserves a series of blog posts of it’s own! But here’s a few thoughts for consideration.

  • For every 2 levels the party’s treasure exceeds what they should have, consider their level to be one higher than it actually is. This reduces the xp they earn from an encounter to a number more reflective of what they actually learn in combat training under the circumstances; it’s not them beating the encounters so much as it is the magic weaponry.
  • If the party have been getting too much XP because the encounters have been a higher CR than they should be, even up the balance. Throw lots of low-level encounters at the party instead of one big one. For example, there might be nothing left in the 25-mile radius that’s higher than CR2. They will still be getting the XP that they earn, but their progress will slow. And eventually they will get bored enough to move on.
  • Tax them: Capital Gains on treasures might force them to sell off some of their grosser items to pay the bill.
  • Start doling out low-level treasures. +1 swords are not very interesting when the PC already has a +3 sword. And, of course, no-one has the hard currency to actually BUY the +1 swords from them.
Don’t set interesting encounters/locations too close together

Another mistake that is common to new GMs is thinking that the players have to be entertained no matter what they do. If the party knows  there will be a new dungeon next week, no matter how close-to-home they stay, they have no incentive to go out and see the world. If you want the PCs to explore an area of 5000 square miles in the course of a campaign, and there are 250 encounters in levels 1-20, then that’s an encounter every 20 square miles. Of course, low level encounters will be ubiquitous; so the first twenty, say, will be found within a couple of miles of their starting point. That further boosts the rarity of higher-level encounters.

The PCs have to ‘seek out’ the adventure after a while; it doesn’t walk up and knock on the door. Not if you want a ‘see the world’ campaign. If they’ve explored everything interesting in an area, bore them while rumours circulate around them of interesting goings-on further afield. They will soon get the hint.

Make sure you’re playing the same campaign

But there’s a danger to be recognised in that advice: you might be running, or think you’re running, an “explore-the-world” campaign, but your players don’t seem that interested in exploring the world, just one small corner of it. You need to find out what they want, and make sure that you’re both playing the same campaign! If the players don’t want to “explore the world”, suddenly you need to switch gears and perhaps start developing a local campaign of political intrigue. Do this before deciding whether or not to kick them out of the nest!

Avoid XP for it’s own sake

Some GMs feel they have to handout XP every session. Bah, Humbug! say I; PCs should be rewarded for what they do, but those rewards don’t have to be in the form of experience. Political influence, social recognition, being considered an expert in a field – these are all rewards that can and should be issued instead of XP when it’s warranted – not in addition to XP!

Heck, I consider magic items and hard currency to be valid alternative forms of reward, the value of which should be deducted from any XP award received from an encounter.

Here’s another ‘food for thought’ comment: just how much is a +1 magic item worth? If it’s +1 to hit, that’s the equivalent of a character gaining a level! How about handing out an item that gives +1 to a particular skill, instead? Well, feats give +4 to a single skill, or +2 to a related pair of skills, or +1 to a related set of 4 skills. And you get a feat every 4 levels (ignoring bonus feats for some classes). Once again, a +1 is equivalent to a free character level! How about hard currency? Enough money to buy a magic item is the same thing as having that magic item up your sleeve.

Okay, that’s all a little extreme; you get +1’s to a whole heap of things when you gain a level, so the actual value in XP terms of such rewards is less than a level per +1, probably something like 1/10th of a level, but it gets you thinking, doesn’t it?

Epic Campaigns demand Epic Levels…or serial campaigns!

What happens when characters reach 21st level, anyway? Do they turn into pumpkins, or something? It’s incredibly rare for characters to get a campaign of epic scale and scope completed by then. That leaves four choices:

  • Abandon the campaign incomplete
  • Epic Levels, here we come!
  • No more levels
  • Retirement

Each of these has its own advantages or downsides. Abandoning the campaign leaves lots of unexplored ideas to be appropriated for the next one. Epic levels permits the campaign continue to a storyline conclusion at its own pace. ‘No more levels’ does the same thing, but means that the PCs can no longer advance, and cannot improve except by finding bigger or better magic items; they will rarely face significant opposition and will quickly get bored and start agitating for one of the other solutions (but they’ll generally put up with it if there is an end in sight). And the last lets them start over again with new characters in a new location; their old characters become NPCs under the DM’s control.

Closed vs Open-Ended campaigns

“Explore the world” is an open-ended campaign concept. There’s always more world out there to explore, and the PCs will never get to see it all before reaching any arbitrary conclusion point. That’s why it should never be the dominant theme of a campaign, in my opinion; instead, campaigns should be decided in story terms, and if that story lasts so long that the PCs achieve epic levels, so be it.

The only way for open-ended campaigns to work is by adopting a “killer GM” mentality, at least in part. You need to kill off PCs at a steady rate and have them start with new low-level characters. This means continuity of party, not of characters; individual members may come and go, but the adventuring party itself continues. As a rule of thumb, four players with a level cap of 20 should mean that one character gets killed every 5 levels and starts at 1st level again.

That makes it harder to decide on the right balance of encounters. A high level character can kill anything that’s a fair fight for someone 5 levels lower than them without breaking a sweat, under most circumstances, and will get virtually no experience for it. Anything that’s a fair fight for the higher level character will be able to obliterate the low-level characters without blinking. It makes the whole campaign harder to GM, and that’s why I dislike open-ended campaign concepts.

Developing a Plot-Driven campaign

I design my campaigns to tell a story, with beginning, middle, and end. Then I map it out according to the number of encounters I expect to take place in each phase of the story. Within that story structure, I create scenarios that are complete stories within their own right, but that also advance the main plot and let the PCs determine the outcome of the events with which they get involved. The plotline itself develops and evolves with character actions; I don’t create plot trains, just a list of what the next situation is that the PCs are going to encounter and have to deal with. The plotline also evolves to include specific character goals and ideas.

By way of demonstration, here’s a campaign outline, created on the spot:

  • Levels 1-3: Intro campaign, demonstrate house rules, establish PCs, NPCs, and setting. A small village at the point of intersection between the Elvish Empire, Dwarven Confederation, and Human Kingdom. PCs are all locals or have settled here for some reason. Adventures are all local to the setting, introduce elves and dwarves.
  • Levels 4-5: Dwarvish traders stop appearing in the village. PCs are sent to find out why, and discover that a plague is sweeping through the population. Evidence suggests a plot by Elves. They deny responsibility. While the PCs are investigating, the Elves come under attack by Bugbears and Orcs wielding Dwarvish-made weapons.
  • Levels 6-7: Elves and Dwarves go to war, PCs caught in the crossfire. PCs locate ancient Elvish maps to the Drow Tunnels.
  • Levels 8-9: PCs enter the Drow tunnels in search of answers. Slowly, they discover that Lolth has undergone a radical shift of character, reflected in religious and social practices. Ultimately, it is revealed that Lolth has been “possessed” by the ghost of a Demon Prince who is seeking to create a new body for himself; he needs elven magic and dwarven expertise to create a Demonic Warforged to inhabit. Then he can turn his attention to the human kingdom currently under the sway of his ‘killer’ and arch-rival, another Demon Prince. He succeeds in tricking the two warring parties into creating “super-weapons” which he combines into the Demonic Warforged, takes up residence within (abandoning Lolth to try and plead her innocence) and abandons the Drow.
  • Levels 10-11: PCs are able to negotiate a tentative truce between Elves and Dwarves by showing each side how they were tricked. Reports reach them of a ‘plague of demons’ infesting the human kingdom and of mass conversions to demon-worship. Party is sent to force the Orcish Tribes into backing down by killing the Orcish General and making it look like a power-play by the Bugbears.
  • Levels 12-15: Having ended the Orcish/Bugbear invasion and restored peace amongst the Elves and Dwarves, the PCs must now turn their attention to the ‘demonic plague’ of the Human Kingdom. They discover that each Demon Prince has summoned hordes of his followers, burnt down the churches, etc. PCs must discover why the Gods have not intervened. Eventually, they learn that the Gates Of Heaven have been sealed by a Necromancer Demi-lich.
  • Levels 16-18: PCs search out the Demi-Lich in the Trollwastes and overcome him, opening the gates of heaven. The Gods make the PCs their standard bearers. The PCs discover that the Demi-Lich’s plan was to weaken both Demon Princes sufficiently so he could overthrow both of them and become the most powerful Prince in Hades, that he was the one who set the conflict between them in motion in the first place, that his plan was for them both to bind themselves to the human kingdom so that when his prepared invasion force wiped out the humans, the Princes would lose enough power to become vulnerable. The PCs are faced with moral dilemma: Protect humanity and save the Demon Princes, or permit the destruction of the Demon Princes at the price of millions of innocent deaths. They don’t have much time to ponder, the attack force is already on its way.
  • Levels 19-20: Resigned to trying to restore the status quo (the best of a pair of bad choices), the PCs take on the Red Dragon Army and their Goblin Cleric riders in a do-or-die battle while fighting off the demons they are trying to ‘save’. Just as they look like they’re winning, Drow Armies invade as Lolth seeks revenge. The war quickly spills over into the Elven forests which are set ablaze. At campaign’s end, humanity is scattered and at least half corrupted irredeemably by Demons, the Elvish Empire lies in ruins, the Dwarven Mines have been sealed. The Drow have been driven off, and the PCs are left to try and rebuild the broken pieces of the former societies; but the Demon Princes have been expelled, and the Demi-lich is dead, and the Drow are also a broken society. For many years to come, the re-emerging societies will be vulnerable – and the Orcs and Bugbears are still lurking…

This is a campaign outline that puts the PCs in the middle of epic events, in a position to shape the outcome in a number of ways. It forces the PCs to get out and explore the world, but that is always secondary. Note that they are always reacting to what other people are doing, but that there’s no strict timetable – if the PCs want to spend a couple of extra sessions exploring the Elven Forest or the Dwarven Mines, then they can. Nor is it all that confined in terms of levels – the PCs could easily pick up an extra level during the initial Elvish/Dwarvish War and make up for it by getting one fewer level elsewhere, or even advancing into epic levels if necessary. Finally, because it’s plot driven, the campaign has a built-in endpoint that still leaves plenty of the world to explore and practically begs for a sequel campaign in which to explore it.

That last statement is the final secret to unlocking what you are trying to achieve. Why lock yourself into trying to fit everything into one 20-level span? Why not 2, or 3, or 4 campaigns? You can even do things like having a sequel campaign starting in a part of the world far removed from the events of the preceding one – the players might not even realise that it’s the same game world until they travel to an area still suffering from the aftereffects of the previous campaign!

So, my concluding advice would be to develop a rough master plan, one that will draw the PCs into the wider world around them, and don’t worry so much about having this particular group of characters do it all. Get the players used to exploring on a broader front and let time take care of the rest.

Ask the Game Masters - Johnn

Johnn’s answer:

Good stuff, as always, Mike. You covered things off nicely, and I have only a couple of things to add that might help our new GM.

Talk with your group – get specific

Mike already pitched the excellent idea of speaking with your group about their preferences. I would also suggest you get specific. Often, leaving things in general terms doesn’t reveal the heart of the matter. So, come prepared with a few questions that will get a conversation started and get you specific answers.

For example, I’d like to learn more about why your group explores areas in such minute detail. Is this due to type of gameplay, GMing style, player preference? If you can clearly understand their motivation in this regard, you can apply Mike’s advice above to greater effect.

Be aware that many players don’t like to chew up precious game time with such discussion. Consider organizing the conversation to occur away from the game table if you think this is the case. Maybe do a group dinner, or get a group forum thread going somewhere.

One preference you might reveal is exploration versus XP. My friend’s wife Liz loves to explore and discover new places, for example, and she’ll choose this activity over XP-earning activities. If your group is strong in the exploration desire, then you might be able to scale back XP rewards to keep levels in check. However, this does not solve the problem of time. If it takes 10 real life years of gaming weekly to explore the world at this pace, you’re still stuck with an unworkable situation.

Does everything turn up interesting?

Are you, by chance, rewarding micro-exploration by serving up something interesting wherever the party goes? If so, what incentive do you provide for wandering further from safety, contacts, and familiar environs? I’ve been guilty of this in the past in an effort to keep things interesting regardless of character choices. However, in the long run, your best bet, as Mike explained, is to mete out your encounters carefully along a timeline and inside your desired map scale.

It will take an adjustment period, but in the long run it’s better to develop GM skills and group processes to communicate that there’s nothing interesting going on in this corner of the world. For example, create informative descriptions using character skills. “You each take a brief look around and find nothing remarkable. Gord and Rellan, with your keen perceptions, you are pretty confident this area has nothing notable in it.”

Sometimes, if the party is stuck on a false assumption an area must contain a clue or interesting feature, I’ll switch to out-of-character mode and tell them outright. This breaks immersion a bit, but with limited game time each session, and increasing player frustration at pursuing what will ultimately be a waste of time, I’m always willing to give my friends a clear message to move on.

Avoid unnecessary XP sources

There are a few situations, depending on your GMing style, where unplanned XP awards crop up. With a bit of forethought, you can mitigate these to keep things moving along a timeline quickly and not rack up unexpected XPs.

The first common culprit is travel. Do you feel the need to fill travel time with random encounters or drop-in encounters? Resist this urge where appropriate. You might, for example, summarize an uneventful trip in a minute or two of description, and then have the PCs arrive at their destination – no encounters necessary. I hand wave PC travel often, and sometimes the group is quite relieved, believe it or not. They might be pursuing an objective, for example, and a bunch of roadside or overland encounters just delays things for them when they are anxious and excited to keep on the path of their goal. [Mike: And don’t forget that the same effect can be used to build suspense and expectations when these aren’t high enough – IF it’s clear that someone is deliberately trying to stop the group achieving their objective.]

Another trap is large dungeons. Consider shorter crawls. The 5 Room Dungeon format might be perfect for you.

A third pitfall is all or nothing encounters where full XP are earned just by surviving, which the meddling PCs always seem to do. :) Instead, plan specific outcomes as encounter goals for PCs and reward and penalize accordingly. For example, combats are almost always fought to the death. Instead, require the PCs to take the leader prisoner, or to reduce the overall threat of a tribe. Not doing this means 50% XP for all kills.



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