A straightforward idea that GMs could employ as they embark on their first campaign is to present a series of adventures set on civilization’s frontier.
In a frontier campaign, PCs are part of an effort to explore wilderness territory. They can confront the threat represented by monstrous races who roam unchecked, and the petty kingdoms set up by society’s outcasts.
Initially, the PCs go as directed by a noble patron or governing authority, which provides incentives — such as the promise of lands, titles or riches — to adventurers.
A frontier outpost or town serves as the PCs’ base of operations. Because it is remote, too, it is vulnerable during an attack. It is at risk of being cut off from both supply lines and martial reinforcements.
The real advantage of a frontier campaign is that a GM can make excellent use of the game’s monster manual or bestiary. Many monsters are a good fit for wilderness play. Relying on the descriptions of the entries, GM’s should select those monsters that serve their story best.
The PCs will also encounter the inhabitants of these lands, whether they be elves, gnomes or indigenous peoples. Have the PCs entreat with them, a process that should challenge their characters’ own beliefs, values and conceptions about discovery, exploration and settlement of the territory.
A frontier outpost is established on the fringes of an expanding kingdom or empire. For their part, the PCs look to exploit the promises of land or treasure should they manage to pacify part of it on their sovereign’s behalf.
A favorite trope is that of the “reluctant governor.” The PCs take their marching orders from a noble who has been exiled, banished or otherwise compelled to go to the frontier because they are either inept, corrupt or by birth represent a threat to the establishment.
As the campaign develops, this patron figure either continues as a mentor, or for a dramatic turn, realizes this appointment can be used to build a power base. In that case, the patron may cease viewing the PCs as loyal allies, but see them as rivals as their abilities and influence grows.
Common themes and adversaries
Here is the fun part, picking monsters that go with possible episodes of the campaign. Monster descriptions in your bestiary or monster manual often contain good inspirational cues.
Here are some suggestions for a D&D 5E campaign:
Make use of regular animals
Appendix A is filled with what are largely ordinary creatures that are appropriate challenges for beginning parties. Such animals are ordinarily not a threat to humans, except when some change in their environment encourages more aggressive behavior. Consider using situations that have riled up these animals.
Example: Quessie, a big mama bear known to local rangers and trappers, has been spotted on the outskirts of town. This is unusual behavior. Some people are alarmed and want Quessie hunted down before she attacks someone. Others wonder if there is a reason Quessie has ventured far from her lair. Investigation of the den could reveal any number of intruders, such as a scouting party of goblins, an infestation of giant fire beetles, a giant spider, a worg or human bandits.
Root out monstrous inhabitants
Rampaging gnolls – they can’t be reasoned with, can’t be corralled, and quite honestly, they can’t be eradicated. But can the gnolls and their chieftain be defeated to a degree that causes them to skulk away? Capturing a single gnoll and learning from it might be the first step. But the PCs had better hurry, because the gnoll horde is coming down the mountain and will lay siege to the fortress or outpost soon. If that happens, there’s no way for reinforcements to arrive.
The enemy of my enemy is my friend
The introduction of a human outpost in lands occupied by wood elves might bring the two civilized races into conflict. A hobgoblin captain offers to ally his troops with the new arrivals. The hobgoblins, being lawful in alignment and martial in character, seem to have — at least on the surface — more in common with the human settlers than the chaotic, fey-inspired wood elves. And the hobgoblin captain looks to exploit that, especially after a mishap between humans and elves escalates things. The hobgoblin captain has an ulterior — evil — motive, to be sure, and actions that appear aggressive by the elves are clearly misunderstood. Having the PCs unweave this tangle of conflict can be quite a challenge. Is the PCs greatest fear — a hobgoblin alliance — simply letting a wolf guard the hen house?
Squatters rights! Hey, we were here first!
The outpost wasn’t the first human habitation in the region. What about those scattered pioneers who were hacking their own living out of the woods? They may resent the appearance of a fort. Is their desire to live away from civilization sincere, or do they harbor their own wicked intentions?
Wicked men with wicked designs
A small fortress of black stone that’s well defended is home to an unscrupulous cabal of wizards with fanatical followers. Perhaps they’ve even gained sway over tribes of monstrous creatures, say bugbears or kobolds. They’ve gained a foothold in the hills, where a lot of creatures of an evil bent live. Can the wizards be stopped? Can the fortress be infiltrated? What dark evil is being harbored, or possibly, constructed, underneath the dark tower?
A word about weather
A GM should be evocative in descriptions of the natural landscape, and everyday weather is a part of that. Make sure the PCs experience all the extremes of temperature and precipitation that can exist in the locale.
However, the GM should reserve only one instance in a campaign where the effects of weather are so powerful they have a mechanical effect on game play. This is to make it particularly memorable.
This special occurrence could be a particularly powerful storm, and feature a powerful encounter. Save that driving sleet storm of hail and icy rain for the showdown with the green dragon or the swirl of tornado-spawning thunderstorm for the time the PCs confront the renegade tiefling warlock and her band of hill giants.
A published road map
Solid examples of published materials that provide road maps to frontier campaigns, if a GM needs an outline to work from:
- Dungeons and Dragons Expert Rulebook, c 1983 TSR (Frank Mentzer revision), which uses the environs around the frontier town of Threshold as adventuring locales, including two pages of suggested wilderness adventures.
- Conquest of Bloodsworn Vale, c 2007 Paizo Publishing (3.5 OGL), by Jason Bulmahn, which provides a series of progressively more challenging encounters for PCs trying to pacify the forested regions around Fort Thorn, an outpost under the command of Sir Tolgrith.
- Silver Marches, c 2002 Wizards of the Coast, by Ed Greenwood and Jason Carl, which includes four adventures intended to facilitate wilderness exploration and play.
Another useful resource is the GameMastery Guide, c. 2010 Paizo Publishing (Pathfinder rpg), which in addition to a section on creating a campaign guide has eight pages devoted to wilderness adventuring and tables listing encounters by terrain. Likewise, the Dungeon Master’s Guide for D&D fifth edition has charts and suggestions scattered throughout on wilderness campaigns.