Tabletop Campaigns I'd like to Run

Since we’ve got enough ‘not currently playing’ RPG-folks here, I thought I’d share some of my list of RPG campaigns I’d love to run. My RPG Bucket List as it were. This will be a mix of home-brew and printed material: I’ll avoid spoilers for the latter, but some of the stuff I’m going to list may be 20+ years old, so you’ve had time to do the reading assignment!

I’m going for a single campaign per post: Please feel free to ask questions, comment, or add your own.

First up: Beyond the Mountains of Madness (Call of Cthulhu rpg)

This is one of the ‘big campaigns’ that have been produced for the Call of Cthulhu RPG, and I think it’s less well known than the Mask of Nyarlathotep adventure, but it’s still one I’d like to run if I had the chance. Basically, The Mountains of Madness is one of the better Lovecraft stories (and longer, too) combining a long trek to Antarctica with discovery of alien entities. It’s where Lovecraft pivoted from ‘fantasy’ to ‘sci-fi’ in many ways.

The adventure is based around a follow-up expedition to find out what really happened with the first expedition, which means the players can read the original story without being too spoiled. They’ll know what they’re going to run into, but in very vague terms.The PCs are part of one of three expeditions, and must deal with natural challenges of adventuring in the arctic as well as mythos weirdness. It’s set in the 1930s.

Adventurers Needed: Player Characters are heavy on field scientist types and people who’d make sense on a months-long antarctic expedition. Lots of room for geologists, biologists, and similar. Also mechanics, pilots, and even dog-handlers. I think I could stretch this, as one valid reason to join the expedition is “supplied a wad of cash.” One archetype I’d suggest is a gangster who needs to get away for a while, and buys his or her way into the voyage because a few months at sea sounds like a better deal than watching one’s back in NYC.

Risks and Caveats: There’s a few concerns. One is that the opening of the adventure is written is heavy on ‘mundane’ challenges: It’s a slow burn to the alien entities and horrors of the later acts. I might resolve this by inserting short character-specific vignettes into the first act: If PC1 is a medical doctor who’s seen too much I might run a short scene where the other PCs jump in to fill-in roles as we play through the doctor’s horrifying experience.

Also, one of gaming’s historic threats: girls. By that, I mean that while the writers did an admirable job making it so female characters are viable and should be included, it’d be more difficult if I was in the unlikely situation of having more than a couple. (There’s basically a small subplot where the expedition leader insists on having a woman on the expedition because another expedition has one.) Plus the redshirts ship’s crew are canonically all male, so finding a replacement character for some women players would be tough: There’s only a few rare options to insert new characters that aren’t inspired by the crew. The adventure does, generally, take the view that sexism and racism are stupid and not to be admired, but does use them as character flaws in places.

Finally the version I have (in PDF) is an edition behind, and I think i’d prefer the newest version of CoC as it cleans up some weirdness (in mechanics) and adds some fun ‘stuff’ for PCs. (There’s a neat new rule for ‘pushing’ roles where you can re-roll a failed roll, but if you fail you take penalties. For example, if you try to shoulder a door down and fail, you can reroll but if you fail this time you might hurt your arm. Try to research a tome while crazy and fail, you can push it but if you fail you might cast something you didn’t intend to or eat the book.) Version tweaking shouldn’t be too hard as CoC has evolved slowly over time but is still broadly similar.

In addition to flashbacks and version upgrades, I’d also want to use a service like Slack or a forum for this specific campaign: A big part is the PCs should be able to discuss their plans as well as looking at the ‘exhibits’ the adventure presents: Maps, images of artifacts discovered, even inventories of storage holds and such.

I do feel the adventure might be a bit slow-moving for some players, too. Another reason for the flashbacks I suggest.

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Next up:

Planescape’s The Great Modron March and Dead Gods (Dungeons & Dragons)

D&D is the lingua franca of many (not all) tabletop gamers. I’ve gone through phases where I was just so over it but currently I’m enjoying:

  • An edition I mostly like
  • A community I feel is (mostly) positive
  • An abundance of older material as affordable-ish PDFs.

So I’m perfectly willing to play D&D, and there’s a few things I’d run in it (given the chance).

This one is a set of adventures for the late-second-edition Planescape setting. So AD&D 2e came out of the gate in a somewhat ‘back to basics’ form for various reasons: Cleanup of rules that had grown cumbersome, concerns about being a bad influence, etc. So ‘evil’ options got removed, demons and devils renamed, etc. Out of the box 2e was pretty plain. It got Weird early on with Spelljammer (and that’s a whole other topic…) but that sputtered out after a few years. I loved Spelljammer, but it has some definite flaws.

Spelljammer’s kinda-sorta replacement (several years later) also replaced the 1e Manual of the Planes by taking D&D’s cumbersome ‘great wheel’ of Dangerous Places for High-level Characters and making it more accessible for low-level characters. It also added philosophical concerns and the unique city of Sigil to explore. Bonus of some great artwork but Tony de Terlizzi.

Two key adventure books for this were The Great Modron March and Dead Gods which are kinda-sorta linked in that plot threads continue between them, but they could be run totally separately.

Adventurers Needed: Standard D&D heroic archetypes! One of the best advantages here is the adventures expect heroic leaning, but are pretty open. I have some loose notes on a ‘framework’ to give Player Characters a common goal, but one advantage of running D&D is it’s pretty easy to work anything in.

Risks and Caveats: One big question is to convert to 5e or stick with the original 2e. 2e seems very crude, so I’d probably only run it for people who I felt really wanted to deal with the older rules. Conversion is easier, even if 5e doesn’t have stat blocks for many of the more obscure monsters you might find in the planes.

(There’s actually a brief ‘dream sequence’ segment I might run in 2e, as it’s literally the PCs taking on roles as heroes of an ancient era. But that’s one session.)

In general, D&D is an ‘easy’ suggestion for most groups as people have actually heard of it that might be new to tabletop RPGs, and most have probably played it.

It’s a long stretch of adventures, though. That’s an issue, as it’s a lot of content. It’s also older content, so some surprises might not be… surprising.

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Addendum to previous, because I didn’t explain anything about the adventures.

So The Great Modron March centers on a weird oddity of D&D lore, the “modron” which is a race of creatures from another plane where Law as a sort of concept is the entire focus of it. Modronds premiered in (I think ) AD&D 1e, and are infamous for several things:

  • They look a lot like D&D dice and other basic geometric shapes, with simpler Modrons as spheres or pyramids, then through cubes and such. Higher tier modrons are weird vaguely-humanoid flower-hybrid things. They’re led/descended from Primus a funk metal band a diety commited to law in a very passionate yet somewhat idealistic fashion. Primus doesn’t really do a lot, other than keep his home plane of Mechanus running.
  • Mechanus is, of course, themed like a bunch of gears.
  • These ranks are re-filling, with promotions filling ranks as needed. Kill low-level ‘monodrones’ *the lowest rank) and they get respawned at Primus’ side. Kill higher-ranking modrons and the closest modrons of the next lower rank are instantly promoted, which may cause a chain of promotions…
  • Strict Hierarchy. A modron of rank X knows about the ranks below it and the rank above it. They don’t even know their diety exists in many cases.

Also, it should be said that the art styla changed a lot from 1st to 2nd edition. First edition modrons are just weird geometric shapes with faces. Like fleshy balls/cubes with faces and strange limbs:

Monodrone1e

While in 2e Planescape and newer material they took on a bit more of a ‘Steampunk Borg’ aspect, with added screws, brass elements, and mechanical bits, but still fleshy cores:

Monodrone-5e

So in the adventure, the Modrons are doing “The Modron March” decades early. This is something they do periodically and, as one might expect from creatures of law who live on giant gears, like clockwork. The adventure delves into dealing with this unexpected march as the Modrons make a grand tour of the major planes of the setting, going through the upper (good) planes where they’re pests and annoyances, then the lower (evil) planes where they take massive losses because they’re apparently tasty to demons. Modrons aren’t good or evil, they just kind of are.

It’s a neat adventure because it wanders around a central plot thread but the Modrons aren’t the enemy: Killing them is kind of like trying to fight a flood and twice as pointless. The PCs may not get involved in every misadventure the march gets involved in, and some use the march as a backstory to get the PCs involved with worse threats.

There’s a “big plot” I’m avoiding too much detail on: That plot continues into Dead Gods which swerves to be about a very different aspect of the D&D setting of the mid-late 90s: What happens to deities who have been defeated and abandoned by their faithful? This turns into another sprawling adventure, as the more experienced PCs get caught up in machinations by powerful entities thought long-dead seek to return to the living. To quote Lovecraft:

That is not dead which can eternal lie.
And with strange aeons even death may die.

It’s got some neat stuff in it. As I said, at one point there’s a protracted flashback/vision of adventurers of an older era. I think if I ran this I’d at least offer to have that adventure-in-an-adventure run in 2e or similar. I wouldn’t try to force a lot of players to play AD&D-era rules long term, but for a couple sessions it might be fun to show people where stuff came from (and that is assuming I had time to prepare cheat-sheets for the players).

The two adventure books do have a central ‘spine’ of sorts which is one the metaplot events that got popular around the late 90s through the mid 2000s.I didn’t get to really run or play Planescape when it was out due to a gaming hiatus and some stupid anger over Spelljammer being ‘replaced’ and I kind of feel that was a missed opportunity.

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For today, let’s talk action movie fights with:

1850s Street Fighter (Feng Shui 2)

(My title, and one I’d hopefully replace with something better if I actually ran this…)

Feng Shui 2 is a favorite RPG of mine. It’s an RPG that has some very clever design behind it that makes it extremely tuned for doing action movie fights, subtype ‘Asian action films’ (which, of course, has further subtypes). One thing in my notes should I get to run FS2 again is:

The secret of this RPG is it’s rigged… in the Player’s favor. You will probably win most fights, and that’s OK, because that’s how the inspriation works. “Winning” in this game is coming up with a cool scene description that makes everyone at the table go “whoah, that was cool!”

This campaign is an original-ish concept: The PCs are in Hong Kong to compete in an underground fighting tournament, which goes weird in a way every character from Big Trouble in Little China would approve of. Exotic locales, weird contestants, scenery to chew.

One inspiration to this campaign is a preponderance of newer gamers who want to run ‘tournament arcs’ as a concept borrowed from anime and similar. I won’t comment on the use in anime, but in RPGs I think having a meaningless combat is pointless and counterproductive: Every encounter should have some meaning, no matter if it’s as minor as taking up some resources before the ‘big boss’ fight. A “Tournament arc” has a high potential to only interest some PCs, to feel like filler, and potentially involve a lot of the DM/GM/Hollyhock God having to roll through fights the PCs aren’t involved in.

So, my guidelines for how I’d run this campaign:

  • There is no ‘bracket’ maintained. We only care about combats PCs want to be involved in.
  • The characters may not know this, but players should know: The organizers are at least a little corrupt, and want exciting fights.
  • Arena combats will have a purpose: PCs can use them as a distraction or to weaken a bodyguard to someone they need to talk to. Others may be there to establish an NPC or as background while plot-relevant stuff goes on.
  • Even though the ‘Tournament’ is nominally ‘unarmed/melee weapons martial arts’ there’s going to be ‘exhibitions’ and side-bets on other contests. Your Archer or Gunslinger can compete in these (but she can probably do OK in melee combat, too, because FS2 characters are pretty competent).

So, basically, it’s a ‘Tournament Arc’ but mainly as a backdrop to the real plot.

Adventurers Wanted: Feng Shui has some node-based time travel as a core aspect, but all characters at the start would be native to 1850s and are in Hong Kong Many of the Archetypes in the FS2 book would work as-is, with several more with minor tweaks (like swapping skills and gear for for appropriate version). Only a few would be hard sells. Not everyone needs to be a ‘pure’ Martial Arts type. The Archeologist might be interested in the tournament to get to a source of artifacts, while anyone might be missing a sibling. Feng Shui encourages a certain amount of leaning in to basic, working tropes.

(Feng Shui 2 uses a very simplistic Character Creation system which is basically picking from a list of 20-some Archetypes like “Big Bruiser”, “Road Warrior”, or “Everyman Hero.” You then fill in details including your more detailed backstory, gender and description, and the all-important Melodramatic Hook. Talk to the GM, and you’re ready to go…)
Feng Shui also uses time travel to mix genres a bit: The FS2 version means you might have a Mad Max style survivor dealing with ancient sorcerers from a couple thousand years ago, while an ancient illuminati of transformed animals tries to keep control during the modern day.

Risks and Caveats: Feng Shui is not for everyone. It’s hard for me to run, but it’s hard in a way I find enjoyable: It’s kind of like how when I worked out more regularly, I hated doing it and had to force myself to do it, but then felt good that I had done so. For FS, you need to think quick and adapt as improv is a much bigger part of the game than most RPGs.

Some dislike Feng Shui’s Archetype-based character creation, too. It’s very basic and focuses on “The background is the interesting part.” It’s a simple system because it focuses on the idea that stuff you do in-game is more fun than shuffling numbers around out of game.

Feng Shui is a neat game, but it does one thing and does it well. It would be a poor choice for players wanting a game that gets into politics or deep investigation.

FS2 is a neat game: The original Feng Shui RPG was written in the late 90s/early 2000s and is a lot ‘heavier’ and more confusing. FS2 is, if anything, a bit thin… but it gets many things ‘right’ in my mind, like working genre emulation, realizing that you don’t need to micromanage a lot of things few care about in RPGs, and similar.

Quick one for today:

The Curse of Strahd (D&D 5e)
It’s probably the plainest entry on the list, as it’s a prepared campaign using mostly-stock rules, but what’s wrong with that? This might honestly be the best if I was gaming for newer players: It’s not bringing in a bunch of weird homebrew or such that my earlier Planescape might involve, and D&D is at least a known entity to much of the world.

it’s a big campaign that for those familiar with Ravenloft history is basically the original I6: Ravenloft but massively expanded (the original is actually quite short!) to fit modern tastes. The bad side of this, to me, is it also mostly ignored the long 2e run of Ravenloft as it’s own setting, which expanded from a single ‘county’ to dozens, each with their own Strahd-like ruler. This material is not present or at least not the focus here. The analogy is I’ve heard of a few comics series where an author is major influence, leaves the book, then returns and mostly disregards the years of continuity in between. Even the good parts. That’s what happened here.

Adventurers Needed: Pretty much ‘standard D&D characters’ is it. One thing I’d discourage is trying to bring in ‘horror’ characters. A lot of people seem to want to play undead and such in this campaign, when really I feel it works best if it’s mostly ‘good’ characters who may become twisted by the adventure. I might also play up that the people of Ravenloft are often good-hearted, but are fearful of monsters which could include many ‘monstrous’ PC races.

Risks & Caveats: This is considered a slightly tough adventure I’ve heard. I feel I’d want to stress that the way I’d run it is very open-ended: The PCs are dropped in a setting with a few towns, some obvious ‘dungeon’ sites, and the exceedingly creepy castle on top of a mountain with the bat-motif. The PCs must have free will which means they can try to go to the castle right away if they choose, but if they do… I’m only going to pull punches so far if they decide to try and just push their way through Castle Evilstein.

I would also ask for an end-of-session planning discussion (or use a Slack or email/forum thread) for discussion of next steps so I can read up on the Village of Deadadventurers or wherever they think it’s safe to go next.

This is the most ‘normal’ campaign on the list, though.

Untitled Gatecrashing Mystery (Eclipse Phase 23)
I’ve talked about Eclipse Phase elsewhere, but it’s basically post-Cyberpunk Transhumanist Horror. Gatecrashing is a game term for people who explore other worlds via Stargate-style artifacts. This is usually for corporate interests.

My concept, which I have several pages of notes for, is based around the player characters being hires by a relatively small corporation that basically is known for doing fashion and accessories that are knock-offs of what real exploratory teams use. They’re not North Face (are they a real brand mountain climbers buy?) but they’re not a total knockoff, just sell similar gear at 1/5 the price. This corp decided to try and go upscale, by building a few adventuring teams of their own: Cue the PCs, who are all given a chance to get out of debt.

This turns into visiting a weird alien world in search of the first team, which was a bit more ‘science’ focuses, and less ‘a bunch of people with big guns.’ (That’s the PCs job!) They go out, they explore, they find out some deep mysteries. It’s got a lot of ‘survival horror’ tropes, beginning with the world they visit. I’m thinking some hostile life forms as well as a death cloud or similar that makes attempting to fly above maybe 10 meters a Bad Idea.

Back in the regular world (Mars) they’d get involved in some more investigative stuff. Really stress that unlike the new world they were exploring, Mars is civilized and people frown on tankbots breaking in to people’s quarters and such.

The final act probably involves going into a giant Lovecraftian/Terminator structure.

Adventurers Needed: Eclipse Phase basic characters, which is to say skilled agents with guns. The ‘new world’ aspect would be up front, so characters can plan to take skills in survival and such. Oh, and characters need to be willing to work for a Mars-based corporation and have a debt they need paid off. This is done in part to intentionally avoid focusing on too many setting elements and mechanics at one time.

Risks & Caveats: EP2 is much simpler than EP1, but is still complex. Some may dislike that the 3rd act definitely has some body-horror aspects.

Dungeonland/The Land Beyond the Magic Mirror (AD&D or related)

These are two weird, wacky official adventures for AD&D. They are, to explain quickly, what happens when you base a D&D adventure off Alice in Wonderland, but in the early 1980s so it is neither subtle (There’s a Cheshire cat, a White Rabbit, etc…) nor safe (They’re Gygax originals and noted as being for a ‘fun break from regular adventures’ they also have things like Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum as high-level “can kill with a single hit” monks because, hey, why not?). It’s full of old-D&D weirdness like deathtraps and randomness.

Adventurers Needed: This is one of the few adventures (well, sets of) I might run with actual AD&D rules. The other is I6: Ravenloft, but I feel Curse of Strahd might replace that. I’d also consider some of the ‘modernizations’ like The Black Hack or the aforementioned Dungeon Crawl Classics. AD&D is a baroque mess in many places, and I’d feel bad introducing it to some people as there’s an ugly necessary “So, yes, this game has some slight embedded weirdness like female characters having some different stat limits” and generally being a bit regressive. It’d need to be a group that knows that and accepts that I do mean it that I’m not endorsing or condoning these limits… One reason I’d only run it as a one-shot, I think.

Otherwise, it’s looking for pretty much standard AD&D characters (albeit levels 9-12) who can deal with it being very silly at times. As a bonus, there’s an excellent chance that any loot collected will be rendered near worthless.

Risks & Caveats: See above. As an AD&D adventure it’d be possible to port it to 5e or similar, but there’s a lot of weird little custom stuff in this one that’d make it difficult to do so. I feel it would be disruptive or jarring if inserted into a more ‘serious’ campaign.

I’ve heard Spoony talk about the “one last run” he did with his primary AD&D character which ended up being Dungeonland and that is…really only one of those adventures that you want to run as kind of a last hurrah for an established party who really knows each other and has decent party dynamics, given how many insta-kills or other types of extremely harsh situations you’ll encounter…

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It’s definitely a Gygax adventure in what I think has been termed the ‘fun house’ model: A bunch of mostly disconnected things to mess with with no real overarching plot. I’m rereading these right now, and I think Land Beyond the Magic Mirror may be the better as it’s got a bit more of a story, but it’s still thing.

I feel it would be fun for Alice in Wonderland fans (even just the Disney version) who accept that this is not a character-driven story, but more just something to mess around in.

I believe one of these two is also where Gygax bragged about running the module (in it’s pre-published form) for various early-80s celebs inclduing Dr. Ruth Westheimer!

One thought on running it is that ‘replacement PCs’ would be hard to come by. “Seeding” the PCs with magic items to grant raises/reincarnations might be useful.

Emphasis on reincarnations I think. If not a deck of many things/wand of wonder type of raise dead spinner.

So like Tomb of Horrors then?

Yes and no: Tomb of Horrors is pretty clearly designed to be a ‘tournament’ module or a ‘punishment’ module, while this is much more of a ‘fun house’ in that there’s a lot more actual interaction with NPC and chances to have your characters do potentially fun things like play with AiW inspired potions, recreate memorable scenes with added D&D combat, and such.

It’s just also written in the era where life was cheap (you can always make another PC… If you can get to the party, or good luck getting to level 9 to be ready for this dungeon!) and there was no real expectation that players who saw their PC killed or otherwise incapacitated would go play with their phones or find something more fun to do than watching other people play D&D. If you can play through this in (say) 4-6 hours it’s an amusing diversion, but I have a feeling you’d lose 2-3 members of a 6 person party in that time. Much like board games from the 80s and earlier, no one was thinking about how not-fun it was to play a long game with early elimination (or being so far behind you have no chance to contribute).

I’d definitely consider this a ‘pallet cleanser’ to a more serious campaign, I think.

Tomb of Horrors has been described (I think it’s in the forward to some versions) as a response to people bragging to Gygax about their characters. It’s a meat-grinder, although I’ve heard the best response is to buy hundreds of sheep and let them find the traps.

That seems a bit cruel to the sheep.

ToH is totally meant to rack up the body count and does kind of have a plot, albeit a thin one, of being a tomb (and a relatively small one) built to protect a wizard’s treasure (Spoiler for a nearly 8- year old adventure: The wizard is only mostly dead). I feel it kind of works in that regard as it does feel like everything is modeled around that concept.

I’d probably run these over ToH because there’s at least a sense of whimsy to them and less, “You touched that door? Ha, ha, ha! You’re totally dead for doing something so stupid even if there was no foreshadowing that it was coated with contact poison/glue!”

At least in these adventures you get to talk to the door first.

For the sake of correctness, replace Dr. Ruth with Dr. Joyce Brothers in the above. I confused the two, but read the forward and didn’t want to get that wrong if anyone care.

I don’t know if there is any records of Dr. Ruth playing D&D.

Kind of a follow-up to the earlier Curse of Strahd but I’d also run:

I-6 Ravenloft (AD&D)
This is the earliest Ravenloft ‘thing’ and is a pretty compact adventure in many ways.I think it’s maybe 32 pages and covers a lot of the same material in the more recent Curse of Strahd, but lacking a lot of the diversions and side quests. It’s basically “Show up in Vampire-Town, get involved in plot, go try and kick Strahd’s ass.”

It also is one of the rare adventures that says the villain is a genius (possibly a Wile E. Coyote “Supra-Genius” for those who remember how AD&D classified Intelligence) and should act like it. The DM is encouraged to play Strahd as smart and with near total knowledge of his domain and what Player-Character types can do in it. He’s a powerful caster in addition to a Vampire (and formerly a warrior leading armies) so he knows magic and what it can do. He ignores the traditional Vampire issue with entering houses as the entire domain of Ravenloft is his by right of conquest. He can hit and run, or attack isolated PCs.

I think Curse of Strahd is arguably the better adventure: it’s more detailed, it avoids some old-style death traps. It assumes a much more reasonable starting level for PCs along with a more modern ‘XP curve’ (I believe it’s written to cover levels 1-15 with the ‘meat’ of the adventure starting around level 3-ish) and sensibilities.

I’d run I-6 Ravenloft for a group that wanted an old-fashioned experience. Start with PCs with enough XP to hit the lower-end of the suggested level and enshrine a few old D&D concepts, specifically XP for Loot (make it clear that every gold returned to the ‘safety’ of town is an XP for the group, so raiding for treasure is a major bonus) and the general wackiness of old-fashioned AD&D.

Adventurer’s Needed: As I said, I’d set an XP total that gets most characters in the right range with the expectation that enough looting should get PCs a level or two. Sure, your triple-classed character might be a bit behind, but that’s another issues. As for content, probably at least provisionally allow the AD&D core books plus Unearthed Arcana (broken as it may be) and maybe Oriental Adventures (because I think a Samurai vs. a Vampire is cool).

Risks and Caveats: Old-school D&D is not for everyone. I wouldn’t want to use some of the more complex rules or some I find troublesome (Comeliness and gender limits are two) but might leave them up for group discussion/debate. I’d want buy-in on this being an older version of things and definitely an artifact of it’s time. A lot of groups would probably be better off playing the more current CoS, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Update: Talking with a friend Sunday, and we may try to get a group together for Curse of Strahd since the other group he games with (and I used to game with) is skipping it, and I said I’d like to run it. Or, possibly, the Modron March/Dead Gods duo, but CoS is probably an easier sell to people. We just have to work out a place, schedule, and food.

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