by Mike Shea on 17 January 2012
There's been a lot of talk and speculation about the new edition of Dungeons and Dragons, particularly in WOTC's attempt to build a more modular form of D&D. Of course, we'll all be keeping an eye on this new edition as it progresses but what can we do in the mean time? How can we capture some of that modular form in our existing 4th edition D&D games? Today we'll look at what you can do to build a modular 4th edition D&D game.
Begin building your modular D&D game by choosing a setting and including the source material that best fits that setting. It's the unique flavor of each of these settings that will keep your game fresh from campaign to campaign.
With a setting selected, it's time to pick a theme. Do you want your game to feel like Lord of the Rings or Ocean's 11? Do you want it to be low-magic barbarian stuff or more of a Final Fantasy feel? This theme should guide the rest of your choices in building out your campaign.
Finally, heed the wise words of the Chatty DM and run a more focused and select range of levels for your campaign. If it's a treasure hunt through the Astral Sea, choose something in high paragon or low epic. If it's something a bit more down to earth, choose something in mid heroic. If it's more of a straight-forward return to the old-school feel of D&D, start at level 1. With a limited scope in levels, you don't have to worry about running a full 1 to 30 open-ended mega-campaign. Now you're focused on a set of levels and a limited number of adventures.
Finally, select the seed or goal of the campaign. What's the main purpose? Whatever you choose, keep the goal relatively simple such as "stealing Szass Tam's phylactery" or "finding the Orb of the Sun in Xen Drek" or "Dethrone Prince Rolan in Gloomwrought" or "Stop Kalak's last Templar from resurrecting the dead sorcerer king". This central goal should steer the rest of your modular campaign.
With a good theme and setting in mind, choose the source material allowed for both you and your players. The core classes and races from the Essentials books is always a good start. Add any other races, classes, or sourcebooks you think will fit well in this campaign. For example, the Heroes of Shadow book is a perfect fit for a Gloomwrought adventure but maybe not so much for a Feywild romp. The same is true for running satyrs and pixies in the Elemental Chaos. For some campaign worlds, like Dark Sun, it's much easier to choose.
If you open up race and class choices too wide your campaign might lose its thematic element. Switching up available classes and races will also keep your players from getting stuck on a particular class every time you run a new campaign. Switching things up gives them as much exposure to new material as it does you.
The addition of themes in the Dark Sun book opened up a new way to tailor your campaign. Pick a set of twelve or so themes that uniquely identify your campaign world. Consider having players roll randomly to determine their theme before they choose a race or class. Let the theme dictate the rest of the character. Since it's a shorter campaign, they won't be too upset if they don't get the exact thing they want. However, you might want to give players a chance to re-roll in case they get something they really don't want.
Newer sets like the Gloomwrought and Gardmore Abbey include unique and interesting thematic aids with the Despair Deck and the Deck of Many Things. Any time you can include a new game element to your mini-campaign that sets it apart from the other games you run, it will help tie together the rest of the game. Not all of those aids need come from D&D products. Maybe your Dark Sun game uses a lot of Jenga puzzles.
Building a modular 4e game is often nothing more than selecting specific components you want to use to build out your game. Cutting out so much existing material may seem counterproductive, but this limitation builds the whole feel of your campaign from one to the next. Running a shorter series of adventures gives you the chance to try out a few different ideas and build unique games that give your players a fresh look every two to three months. Give it a try.