Campaign model: The Unstoppable Horror
This Month's theme is : Campaigns, and so all month long Duck and Roll will be talking about campaign styles, how to build a progression of adventures, how to build an open sandbox game, and more.
We're going to kick things off with a nice little sample campaign structure. We're gonna start off with a pretty basic structure that can work in just about any kind of game. This model focuses strongly on getting the most out of a very small range of foes and it starts with a lot of excitement and builds up continually from there. Because of the tight focus it serves best for short campaigns and works well without having many or even any side adventures. This model also provides a good mix of fear, action, and excitement. It's heavy on stealth but has plenty of room for some combat and problem solving and provides a heavy dark atmosphere. Let's take a look:
Adventure 1: The first encounter
The first encounter is a horror themed adventure. The player characters find themselves together in an isolated area. This works best in an enclosed space where options for escape are few. Good approaches to this are: A carnival funhouse, an office building after dark, the dungeon of a castle, a derelict ship, a small colony on a remote island/planet/moon, in a restricted military base, a pocket plane, or a space station. In this location the players are stalked by your villain of choice. This foe should be powerful, persistent, terrifying, and in some way unnatural. Ideal foes are implacable undead, murderous robots, frightening eldritch beings, killer golems, or the like. The foe stalks them through the location of choice, killing npc allies and making its best attempt on the players themselves. The foe should either be immortal, or at least durable beyond the ability of the party members and it should be clear. If the players have guns then it should soak lead, collapse, and then crawl back to its feet and continue pursuit. If the players have knives it should take a stabbing without even bleeding or slowing. Classic examples of this foe are foes like the Terminator, Jason Vorhees, DND Trolls, and Resident Evil's Nemesis or Tyrant. The foe pursues them slowly but unfailingly and finally through the perfect set of circumstances the party is able to slay or escape the foe and live another day. During the adventure any information about the enemy is very well concealed and very minimal. No one knows what it is or where it came from or what it's after, and what little can be determined is hard to piece together. It's important however that the final result of adventure#3 is in some way foreshadowed here. And make sure you save your map if you made one, we might need it later.
Adventure#2: The nightmare returns
This adventure is the least like a traditional adventure in the series because it's quite the opposite of the first one. In this adventure the party from the previous encounter becomes aware of signs that whatever stalked and hunted them is back. Maybe a group of slayings on the news match the monsters M.O, maybe the trail of filth it leaves behind has been seen around, maybe the nightmares that it brings with it start all over. Some way the players know that the thing is back. This can also be done by having a group of npc's approach them, they say they know what the players have been through and now the monster is after them!
From there however the players are able to act accordingly. They can try to get help, but who would believe what they've been through, and more important who could actually be powerful enough to help them? The intention here is to build a sense of fear and helplessness. The monster is out there, it's taking lives and only a few people have ever seen it and survived. The players may use this opportunity to reach out to eachother but even if they don't they'll still be in a great position for the climax of the adventure. Once the fear and paranoia has been cranked up it's time for the monster to emerge, but this time it's different somehow. It fights different, or looks different, or it's wounds and scars are gone, it's still closer to the foe they faced than anything else, but something is wrong. It may seem like it's evolved, or devolved, but as the players engage, flee, or hide from the threat they get "the message". A cell phone call from someone who contacted the players, a desperate message spell, a psychic scream, a cry for help in the night, the distant howl of... a second monster. This threat, this foe is not the one they faced before, the invincible unstoppable threat they barely survived, there's more than one. The party escapes, maybe fleeing, maybe somehow slaying both monsters. But they find neither is the one they faced before. These things are out there, and now there can be no doubt, answers must be found before it's too late...if it isn't already.
Adventure#3 The delve.
After pressing their contacts, consulting the stars, or a lengthy investigation the players become aware of a location that may hold the secrets they're after. An abandoned lab, a distant planet, a forgotten portal, a long closed amusement park, some desolate location holds the secret of the monsters. This may sound a lot like adventre#1, and it should, in fact if it's at all possible this adventure is best set in the ruins or remains of wherever adventure 1 happened, making your map twice as useful. This time however the players know that one or more of the monsters is out there, and they may even be coming from the very bowels of this location. This time escape is not enough, they need answers. This is where all the clues dropped in part 1 can come around and become important messages, the final pieces, or at least more pieces, fall into place and the players understand the full scale of the problem. While evading capture and whatever natural hazards fill the area the party learns that this is just the beginning, that the country, kingdom, world or galaxy could be threatened by this epidemic. What they face now are just the first things awakened from cryosleep, prototype robots, the weaker brood. The players also find the origins of these things and more importantly, how to stop them. They have a weakness, not just for defeating the creatures individually, but for stopping all of them. An EMP, a computer virus, an airborne toxin, a single specially made ritual, some Achilles heel. But in order to make use of it, the party must venture to the very heart of the enemy itself.
Adventure#4 The final adventure.
The party must now infiltrate the root of the enemy. Now powerful foes, nearly unstoppable threats, are in a multitude and hope wears thin. Now the players can put all the skills and allies they've gained to the test in the climax of the campaign. The nature of the enemy means an all out assault is insane in the best of times so the key for this adventure is stealth. This helps play on the same ideas and themes as the first adventure, but now, thematically, the players are on the offensive, stalking, sneaking, hiding and surviving. This is also a good place to include a few very easy combat encounters, a chance for the players to show off how strong they've become. The element of danger and excitement in these battles though is that the foes don't have to win, they only have to raise an alarm in order for the fight to go very badly for the players. These smaller encounters should be with scientists, failed experiments, security drones or the like to ensure that the big monster of the campaign doesn't get devalued. Finally the players reach the end goal, the final switch. Customarily there should be a nice big boss fight here. If the power creep has been minimal then it could be the first monster from the first adventure, provided it was defeated in a way that leaves a chance for its return. Alternatively it could be an aberrant mutant, a superior next generation model, or the original being that was cloned to make the others. Ideally this monster should be powerful, relentless, and unbeatable, but all the party has to do is keep it busy long enough to execute the program or flip the switch and turn the key or complete the ritual in the right place and then, sweet sweet victory will be had. The threat is finally over, the monsters are banished or de-activated or slain, and the players have earned a long rest.
Variation: This arc is flexible enough to leave a lot of room for variation. You can use robots, plant people, demons, evil clone demigods, animatronic fursuits, aliens, all kinds of stuff fit this model quite nicely. One could also lighten the tone considerably by casting everything in the light of a B movie. The police are useless to help and don't believe anything, the monster has improbable and sometimes wildly changing powers, the deaths are over the top and gory, and despite mortal danger NPC's are inexplicably prone to making out alone in the bushes.
Works well with:
Paranoia: Someone or something was behind all of this. This kind of technology isn't cheap. Somewhere pulling the strings is a huge bureaucratic entity. It could be an evil corporation, or a secret branch of the government, but somewhere there were people of power who put their seal of approval on these nightmares.
Eldritch horror: These things simply should not be. Perhaps they are monsters from another reality, perhaps they are created and fed by fear itself, perhaps they came here from beyond the stars. Even if they're defeated the players will forever be haunted by what they've seen, and by the knowledge that things like that exist.
After the ending:
The nightmare continues: The robots are all shut down, except that one who the players shocked so bad it's uplink was severed. A single mutated variant of the creatures survived. The progenitor of the species didn't die in the final battle and went into hiding. Somehow, someway the creature that always comes back...came back! This can lead to either a final adventure where the players must finally face off against the last remaining monster in a no holds barred battle to the death. Or it could also be used to have that creature propagate, reproduce, and begin a whole new arc.
Enter phase two: The project was a failure, but valuable information was gained, and while costly, the wheels of industry keep on turning. A new monster can be cloned, or bred, or captured, one immune to the weaknesses of the predecessor.
The heroes of the past: Once you've battle against terrifying monsters and save the country/world/galaxy regular challenges feel dull and muted. From here we follow the players after their great adventure. The GM should throw a simple, boring, easy challenge, emphasizing how much the players have grown, what they're capable of, and how much more they could accomplish. From there a new opportunity arises. A monster that needs defeating, a special ops team, the call of the king or president, someone needs the heroes to regroup and face a new challenge.