While Faith is on its season break, now is a good time to talk about the other campaign I’m running. Under the Stars is, as I’ve said before, roughly “Breath of the Wild meets Ni No Kuni 2.” Unlike Faith, I’m not challenging DMing or system norms or violating any core narrative principles in this campaign, or not any more than I normally do. This is a fairly straightforward D&D 5E campaign in which the players are supporting an outpost in untamed wilderness, defending it from some locals and forging allies with others, trying to turn this poorly-supported, nearly-empty camp into a meaningful settlement. It’s D&D without tavern fights and sewer crawls, but it’s still bog-standard D&D.
Oh, I guess we’re using hexes instead of squares. That’s something.
If you’re interested in the campaign lore, here’s the description I’ve given the players in the introduction to our frequently-updated campaign document:
The Lindow Empire is in the midst of a great expansion. As part of its tricentennial celebration, Emperor Brom II declared a vast colonization initiative with the aim of giving the empire a foothold in every part of the world. Lesser nobles, and wealthy citizens put their funding and energy behind it, enlisting anybody they could find to create new colonies and gain land, prestige, and the empire’s favor. Among those colonies is one located several miles from the northwest edge of an inland sea, accessible only via hardy ships capable of withstanding both the hostile terrain and the long, lonely voyage there and back. Properly, this colony appears on records and a few mostly-vacant maps as Isolda, named after Duchess Isolde, third daughter of Brom II. None of its occupants call it that. They call it the Outpost.
Founded in the year 308, Isolda exists mostly for political purposes. As long as it stands, the Lindow Empire has a claim on the area around it, intended to deter any rival kingdoms from venturing to and occupying the same land. Because of its remote location, several weeks’ sail from the nearest major town, it speaks to the breadth of the empire’s reach. But that same separation makes it a poor trading partner, and the empire has found nothing in the area worth making the journey more often than strictly necessary. Even its financier, the now-Viscount Mosshelm turned it over to the empire’s control as a gift, willfully exchanging it for a cushy title and control of a small land with clean air and flowing hillsides. The empire feels little need to expand its territory beyond Isolda, content with its mere existence.
As such, the occupants of the Outpost find themselves on their own, relying only on the empire for rare personnel changes. The Outpost is self-sufficient, maintaining a stable but meager living on the strength of its few local experts. It maintains enough resources to satisfy occasional visitors as well; though the empire sends boats only occasionally, Isolda’s location is public, and explorers, scholars, ne’er-do-wells, and others do arrive on smaller vessels with various plans for the land. Most do not survive their first month outside the safety of the Outpost. Only a few travelers make a living in the wilderness around Isolda, either by allying with the surrounding tribes and making themselves useful or avoiding those tribes altogether. When a person does return to the Outpost with wares and stories in tow, it’s cause for celebration.
But trouble looms on the horizon. The local tribes of goblins, orcs, and other creatures seem no longer content with avoiding the Outpost and each other in understood segregation. Some have formed alliances, currying favor with other tribes out of a desire to expand or simple self-preservation. Others have grown belligerent, attacking anybody and anything intruding on their territory. Even animals are striking back, to say nothing of plants or the land itself. The occupants of the Outpost don’t know the reason for these changes. They only know they need to react decisively and effectively lest Isolda fall, uncharted and forgotten.
The campaign started when the party arrived at the Outpost and found nobody there to greet them. They uncovered evidence of a recent raid and gave chase, rescuing the Outpost’s leader / stable master from hobgoblins. She gave the party some directions and a choice: the Outpost had a craftsperson, a blacksmith, a hunter, and a cook already taken by various local factions, and in the very short term the party only had time to save one.
I’ve been calling this the Stable Campaign or the Frontier Campaign, but it’s just as properly the Resource Management Campaign. I made it clear to the players that they could not rely on resources like food or weapons or magic unless they themselves made those resources reliable. I wanted to see what the players prioritized and react accordingly. Would they get the blacksmith, to help them make tools? The hunter, to provide food? The cook, to make that food stretch further? The players, naturally, took a route I did not expect and prioritized their rescues based on who they thought had the lowest chance of survival if left unaided. It made sense from a character perspective, but it did give them a blacksmith with no materials and a cook with no ingredients, so things were a bit touch-and-go at first.
That’s one of the things I like about the campaign, though. I don’t intend to make any situation overtly unsurvivable. If the colony’s food consumption exceeds its production, people will go hungry. They may not be able to do their jobs. Some may die. But the colony itself will continue, and the players can route around any failure. Even total party kills are forgiving; if the PCs all die, new PCs will arrive via boat (perhaps after some delay, in which things may go from bad to worse, but they will arrive). There are no unfair instant-death scenarios. The players aren’t going to find a new plant, take it back to base, and have have the Outpost wiped out by poison spores overnight. This isn’t a Sierra game. What type of game it is, exactly, is a topic for another day.
Also, I set up the campaign so NPCs would appear to perform any jobs the PCs needed. If the players had not saved the cook, they would have met a goblin cook early on to help, and so on. I like to challenge my players but I’m not heartless.
Another thing we’ve been using in this campaign is downtime mechanics. The NPCs at the colony aren’t idle while the PCs are adventuring. They perform some off-camera tasks; the hunter gathers X meat per week, the cook turns Y meat into Z food, and the blacksmith makes items out of metal (or would if the colony had any). If a player can’t make it to a session, his PC also goes into downtime mode, exploring the world or creating maps or performing research. Characters are always contributing, even if they’re not actively gaining XP, and the quality of life at the colony is slowly increasing.
To me, that’s probably the most exciting part of the campaign, looking back at how things used to be and seeing how far the colony has come. After the first session, the party had two people at home base and they were trying to rescue a third. Now the colony has thirteen people with stable food production, a few fledgling alliances with local groups, and, hopefully, defenses sufficient for them to survive another attack. They still have to deal with gnolls to the east, orcs and goblins to the north, hobgoblins to the northeast, a vast expanse of ogre lands, an imminent war in the south between sahuagins and lobsterfolk, the threat of incoming winter, and the nagging sense that they haven’t even started on the myth arc I promised them, but it’s a start.