Interlude: Musings on Money

This most recent weekend those of us living in the United States, including me and my local gaming group, celebrated Thanksgiving. Thus, we were unable to get together to have another session, meaning I have no new campaign developments to post. However, I thought I would fill the gap with some thoughts on campaign design that have occupied me over the past few weeks.

The Problem
In any campaign like mine, where limited resources and difficult decision-making are a large part of the campaign, the problem of rewarding your players for their efforts will inevitably arise. Normally, itís easy to provide monetary rewards by inserting treasure hordes, wealthy NPCís, and all the other tricks DMís use to provide wealth to the characters. In this context, however, the main antagonists carry little if any gear, the players have a severely limited range of motion, and the complete destruction of normal society makes the ďye olde magick shoppeĒ model improbable at best.

The main dilemma as I see it is twofold. First, the point of the campaign is to limit the playersí resources, meaning that the DM needs to walk a thin line between rewarding the players enough that they enjoy the game and keeping with the tone of the campaign. Second, the nature of the main antagonists and the catastrophic effects of zombie apocalypse on the economic life of the city make it difficult for a traditional D&D economy to function. How does one reward players in this circumstance?

Dilemma One Solutions?
In most cases, the first dilemma can and should be addressed out-of-character. DMís planning on running this sort of campaign need to make it clear to their players that the campaign will probably result in less material wealth than they may be used to. In my case, I presented the campaign idea with this as the main concept of the campaign, emphasizing how resourcefulness and adaptability would be encouraged. If you lower your players expectations of wealth, it frees you up to be more creative in the rewards you give. As always, however, DMís should be aware of whether their players are having fun. Even if you mention it in advance of the campaign, players may still dislike their newly-tight-fisted DM and you may want to rework the campaign or ratchet up the gear.

Dilemma Two Solutions?
Of these two dilemmas, the second is easier to address in-game and the solution, at least at low levels, lies in emphasizing creative and non-traditional rewards. The key is to provide your players with tangible rewards for their efforts. XP and treasure are the traditional rewards, but in this sort of non-traditional campaign, DMís should get creative. Perhaps, after a long session in which the intrepid PCís concoct a brilliant plan and venture outside of their safe-house, they stumble upon a bakery that has been overlooked by looters and zombies. The bread, flour, water, and other foodstuffs inside arenít usually considered ďtreasure,Ē but for a group of individuals stuck on the roof of an apartment building for a week, this food is definitely a reward. In this context of scarcity and desperation, simple things that are normally overlooked can become crucially important and providing a safe place to sleep, enough food to keep everyone healthy for another week, or materials to build a simple shelter can take the place of normal treasure.

Eventually, however, players are going to outgrow the time when these alternatives are exciting and youíll need to start providing more traditional treasure. I can think of a couple of options here.

The first (and easiest) option would be to simply dangle some good looting opportunities in front of them. Have someone stumble upon an armory, guard barracks, or old wizardís tower. Maybe the zombies themselves still have some valuable items even though they donít consciously use them. Either way, this could provide a quick gear fix and inject some variety into the campaign.

Ultimately, however, looting becomes unrealistic rather quickly. The imperative to verisimilitude would dictate that, unless the no other groups of survivors are left alive within the city, substantial looting would have already occurred, especially of items that would be useful to PCís. Any items still left would probably be too well-guarded to be easily-obtainable, though breaking into a wizardís keep or magic item shop could provide an interesting change of pace from the rest of the zombie-filled campaign. There might be tons of items available, but the PCís already own most of it and canít sell redundant items. What do you do when your PCís have exhausted the looting opportunities the city provides?

At this point, it is likely that the PCís presence in the infested city is a conscious choice. PCís have the resources to easily escape the city by level 5 (when Fly becomes available), possibly earlier if they make a concerted effort to escape. Depending on the scale of your outbreak, this could be a solution to the rewards problem. If the outbreak is limited to one city or region, the PCís can simply leave that region for easier and more prosperous areas. If the outbreak is global, the PCís can find some place to weather the storm or seek new places to explore and fight. Either way, their travel will provide you with opportunities to insert lost tombs, crumbling ruins, mobile bandit groups, and other possible sources of plunder.

If the PCís have chosen to remain in the city, you still have the problem of how to provide them with rewards and how to facilitate their use of money and treasure. Keep in mind, however, that in this circumstance it is likely that the PCís arenít the only group with similar goals and that these groups could easily meet up in a secure or floating location to trade, barter, buy, and sell. The establishment of a floating market could easily solve your reward problems and provide opportunities for roleplaying encounters, new plot hooks, new NPCís and PCís, and anything else your plot may require.

The Case of XP
Because XP is so integral to the d20 system and so coveted by players, I feel it deserves special mention.

While my first session involved mostly straight-forward combat encounters, I expect that future sessions will be far less combat-focused. This means that alternative methods for determining XP will become increasingly important. Yes, the PCís will fight zombies during most sessions, but a lot of the action takes place in the context of non-combat maneuvers. Sneaking around the neighborhood to find useful buildings or resources. Developing creative fortifications to shore up the defenses. Dealing with the effects of disease/exposure/fatigue/starvation. These are real challenges and can become the meat of the campaign, but donít fit within the traditional formulas for granting XP.

The Dungeon Masterís Guide outlines some alternatives for granting XP. DMís should familiarize themselves with these methods and employ them where appropriate. I recommend deciding how quickly you want the PCís to advance and awarding more or less XP for each session based on that approximation and the action that occurred. Particularly eventful sessions should result in more XP. PCís that actively venture out of their safe house overcome more significant challenges and should advance more quickly than those that play a conservative strategy and venture out only when necessary.

Finally, it is important that DMís maintain a degree of parity between their PCís. Certain PCís have skill sets that lend themselves to this sort of campaign and would obviously be chosen more frequently for expeditions that result in XP gain (clerics and their anti-undead abilities, rogues/bards/rangers and their stealth and movement skills, etc). DMís should help players make plans that incorporate all members of the party and should provide encounters that lend themselves to the talents of the less useful (for lack of a better term) party members, ensuring that the party advances more-or-less together. If your players donít object, it might even behoove you to grant XP for the entire party after each session, even if each character didnít contribute equally to the events of the session. After all, just surviving for one day in this environment is a challenge.

Obviously, these arenít the only possible solutions, but they do provide DMís with a few options for building resource-tight survival-focused campaigns. Hopefully this has been enjoyable and helpful. We will return to our regularly-scheduled programming early next week.