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Troy’s Crock Pot: Frontier Campaign

img_6069A 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.

The Hook

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.

The patron

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

4 Comments (Open | Close)

4 Comments To "Troy’s Crock Pot: Frontier Campaign"

#1 Comment By Blackjack On November 21, 2016 @ 1:55 pm

The edge of the realm, where one civilization’s norms give way to something else, is always a rich setting for adventures. I’ve used it for probably more than half the scenarios I’ve designed. I’ve used all the themes you outline above– and more.

The most notable “and more” theme I’d add to your list is that the local governor representing the empire may not be corrupt or foolish or disfavored but simply overwhelmed. S/he is fundamentally a good person (or basically shares the PCs’ worldview, if they’re not “good”) who merely lacks resources to address the many challenges of life in the borderlands. This gives the PCs a chance not only to achieve goals in line with their worldview but also to develop important long-term relationships within the empire. The governor will appreciate them for their help. As his/her star rises the PCs’ will rise, too. Other leaders within the empire will take note: some as additional allies, others as rivals. There are so many ways to develop these stories.

#2 Comment By NikMak On November 21, 2016 @ 2:35 pm

nice article, many thanks 🙂

its a little ‘trad fantasy / D&D-ee’ though for my tastes – the same frontier mentality is ripe for almost all settings – westerns, ancient rome, sci-fi (who wants to be the first miners at the Kuiper belt?)

#3 Comment By Roxysteve On November 22, 2016 @ 10:39 am

I love this idea and always have enjoyed campaigns that make use of similar tropes. Exploration of unknown terrain fires my juices much more than combat with the Monster of the Day does. I get a big kick from discovering a deserted ancient ruin that is totally abandoned yet redolent with clues about who built it and why. Sticking monsters in just breaks the immersion for me when I’m in that mood.

I’m also up for a frontier game where the fauna tends to be mostly the same. I’d be thrilled to have to deal with a permanent (if distant) Goblin presence that would provide different challenges than the Rico standard “Kill them! Kill them all!” Maybe they send raiding parties or scouting expeditions who must be persuaded to go home without provoking outright war if possible.

And yes, let’s please have some mundane if dangerous fauna to deal with. The most underused part of any bestiary is the bit with bears in it. Maybe the wolves get taken out for an outing every now and again, but a bear poses a real problem for low level characters. Trapping should not be rejected out of hand, but should require the players to properly plan and not rely on the dice to save the day.

In fact, that is probably at the heart of my love of this idea: the possibility to get challenges solved without rolling dice at all. Pie in the sky.

Personally, I’ve been kicking around an idea for a setting using that from The DNA Cowboys trilogy, suitably modified, and all the crap I’ve collected over the years like Greyhawk.

The idea of the setting is one in which reality has come unstuck for most of the world, leaving tiny island universes separated by dense fog in which nothing actually exists. I’m stripping the idea back to ONE island of stability, with frontier forts facing “the nothing” waiting for those times when the fog lifts for a few hours or days, revealing newly created terrain to be looted for anything useful to sustaining life.

I’m dithering with the economics of the place and fiddling with the various ideas on systems – I’m favoring D&D5e or Pathfinder, but considering doing an ungodly hybrid of Savage Worlds with a Pathfinder-like grimoire.

I know, I know, SW’s beauty is in its stripped-down approach, but the magic system lacks oomph* and I’m kinda looking at a Jack Vance/Dying Earth model for the magic anyway, where individual spells are a scarce resource to be traded, new spells only found by the aforementioned exploration.

Anyway, this frontier fort idea is a real winner in my book and were we in close proximity I’d be begging to join your frontier game.

Ooh, how about making the frontier fort a place like unto Gormenghast? A huge, rambling, castle falling into disrepair in places, full of weird politics and customs? Players might take quests just to get away from the place.

Anyway, great article Troy.

* Anyone who has run a SW game with Weird/Mad Science finds this out when the same four devices keep being invented – the ones that use powers that can actually do worthwhile stuff hard enough to make a difference – and any high fantasy game will cause whining wizard syndrome in no short order at “level up time”. In games with no magic expectations or preconceptions it works well enough.

#4 Comment By DanJW On November 23, 2016 @ 12:10 pm

I wrote this small supplement for the 5E starter box campaign, but it might come in useful for the type of Frontier Campaign you are describing: [1]