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Like about 70% of the internet, I went and bought Stardew Valley when it came out this last week; while I’m certainly not one of the people who’ve logged multiple tens of hours in it so far, I’ve been enjoying it a great deal. That, coupled with some thoughts about other games in similar veins, has brought me to thinking about a ‘local’ campaign – one where the players never really leave the area they begin in. Most games of Minecraft are like this, and there are plenty of others of a similar nature.
The idea behind this is that, most of the time, campaigns have a distinct tendency to hand the players threads of a plot and let them go haring off, often crossing continents, worlds, and planes of existence. Even the modest ones tend to involve repeatedly crisscrossing regions and venturing to legendary (or notorious) locales. Very rarely are players given a chance to stake a claim to a portion of the game world, deeply and thoroughly – but over and over, you can see where players make an attempt to do just that. The existence of a single nation-buildng adventure path for the Pathfinder was popular enough to give rise to an entire sourcebook of similar systems, including ways to build up businesses and cities.
The obvious caveat here is that the players need to be on board with this concept for a campaign; if they build their characters expecting a heroic adventure and get handed a plot of land to tame and build up, they’re going to be disappointed and not put much effort into it. Pitching it as ‘Farms and Foresters’ isn’t likely to get much enthusiasm, either. There’s plenty of adventure to be had with this kind of campaign, however! If the players are given a plot of untamed wilderness to look after, or if they inherit land from an ancestor or a friend of an ancestor that hasn’t been tended to in decades or more, there’s plenty of room for the kinds of heroic adventure the players would normally get, with the added bonus of looking after and improving something they directly have a stake in.
While the hypothetical I’m looking at is one where the players are given land and have to work to develop it, starting from either bare ground or a dilapidated wreck and going from there as the newest minor lords of the land, this is far from the only possible model for this. They could just as easily begin as aspiring merchants, new members of a run-down town watch, inductees into a brand-new military force, the first members of a fledgling bandit kingdom, or whatever; the key point is to give the players something that they can claim as their own and help build up.
The hypothetical game I’m considering would begin like most campaigns tend to – the players, being neophyte adventurers, are asked to help deal with a local infestation of some minor threat – monstrous vermin, goblins, or undead – and then, when they succeed, they’re given a gift by the local count or baron: the ‘most noble’ of them gets a title as a lord, the rest are given knighthoods as the vassals of the first one, and they’re collectively given a large stretch of land along one border of the settled lands.
From there, I’d look to tap this part of the Pathfinder SRD; the players need to survey their new land and pick a place to build their new home(s). Ideally, the area should be large enough to be broken up into multiple tiles to explore, each one taking time to properly map out and flush out any immediate risks. Dealing with the kinds of things low-level adventurers deal with, but with the added incentive of clearing these risks out for their own personal benefit rather than for a reward of a sack of gold from someone else.
The second thing I’d aim to tap would be the Downtime segment of the PRD for the purpose of letting the players build things by gathering capital and sinking it into their structures. Specifically, the rooms and buildings segments of it provide a template, regardless of the game system you choose to use. Encouraging them to begin with building a defensible home, followed by letting them plan out their home area and, once they attract some settlers, let them lay out the town to their own benefit. They can eventually construct a full keep to rule from, if they keep at it.
Investment and Contacts provide guidelines to allow the players to expand on their fledgling home, investing directly in merchants and craftsfolk who come to settle in their lands and providing ideas for how to let them build up alliances and friendships in the court of the local king and among foreign traders, if they want to do so. If not, the king probably won’t mind much if his new lord and knights are too busy taming the frontier to attend court unless summoned.
Lastly, the Reputation and Fame portion provide a nice framework for everything from negotiations with traders to how readily the new settlement draws settlers. Players can gain reputations and become famous – or infamous – based on their exploits in taming the land, handling disputes, helping or abusing settlers, and so on. Over the course of the campaign, this is what I’d use to model the odds of the players gaining new titles and new prestige with the kingdom (or with the king’s lord, if one exists.)
Of course, all of this is just part of the campaign. Mixed in with this come additional segments of more traditional adventuring; orcs attempting to raid the newly settled lands, mischievous fey creatures causing trouble on outlying farms, a series of low hills turning out to be barrows with wights lurking in them, a flock of flame drakes come in and start harassing the herds, and so on. Ample room for the players to use their characters and abilities n traditional ways as well as in more creatively unconventional ways. When a manticore or an owlbear comes knocking, the players are going to want to handle that themselves rather than risk the lives of their people and risk bankrupting themselves to hire mercenary adventurers.
The campaign could play out over the course of the lifetimes of a party, or even past that, with the children of the original adventurers rising to lead when their parents grow too old or pass away; there will always be new threats to the security of their lands, and when the group wants to go back to regular adventuring, they now have a deeply detailed place that they have a great deal of connection to for their new adventuring party to hail from.
So perhaps you might give this kind of campaign a try! I know it’s on my list of ideas for not-too-far-distant campaigns to pitch.