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World-Hopping Campaigns

by Paul Mitchener
Jun 14,2005


Methods of Campaign and Adventure Design 10

By Paul Mitchener

World-Hopping Campaigns

A number of potential RPG genres, including time travel, space opera, and some old AD&D settings such as Planescape and Spelljammer, have the feature that the PCs can potentially visit a vast number of possible locations. My belief is that it is a good idea to design some of these locations in detail. Thinking about such things in advance makes it far easier to come up with interestingly alien worlds, and to indicate both similarities and differences between cultures, which is much of the fun of such a campaign. On the other hand, without artificial constraints, the number of places involved is far larger than anything a GM can disign in advance.

In this column, I want to look at my method of designing things taking these opposing problems into account.

Getting there is half the fun

The first issue in any world-hopping campaign is the method used to travel between locations, whether travelling in a starship, or using inter-dimensional portals or a time machine. It is somewhat boring for the journey to always be completely straightforward. Fortunately, there are ways to make things slightly more interesting for each of the above methods of travel.

  • When travelling through space, there can always be encounters on the journey. Admittedly, this is statistically improbable to say the least. On the other hand, this issue can probably be ignored in a space opera game. In a more 'realistic' space-travelling game, in order to obtain interesting encounters, it is necessary to think of some reason starships or other entities would naturally converge at points on a journey. For example, there could be very specific locations where it is possible to travel between star systems, or there could be technology to detect the presence of active starhip engines at an incredible range.
  • If the method of travel involves moving through portals, travel can be made more interesting by making the portals slightly less than ideal for the journey concerned. There could be a problem actually finding a portal for the journey to be made, the portal could be guarded, or the portal could only lead to the general vicinity of the desired destination. It is even possible to set up a journey where travellers must move through a string of portals, many of which have associated inconveniences.
  • In a time travel campaign, even if a time machine can reach any time, it does not necessarily give complete control over the physical location reached by time travellers. Thus, travel at an interesting time or in an inconvenient alternate reality are possible problems.

Major Locations

As I mentioned above, some locations should be designed in detail, much as for any other prepared campaign. As well as locations for individual adventures, possible designed locations include the following.

  • A trading nexus. In a portal-based campaign, the place could be a trade nexus because of the presence of an unusual number of such gates. In a space travel campaign, the location could simply be convenient because of more mundane geography.
  • A place of knowledge. This could be a place where wizards are trained in the art of locating and using portals, a training academy for interstellar navigators, or the one place where the technology is sufficiently advanced to make time machines or the hyperdrive engines enabling interstellar travel.
  • Home for the characters at the start of the campaign. One possible way to begin a world-hopping campaign is for the PCs to begin unaware of the presence of other worlds, and to learn gradually of their existence, possibly in order to deal with some other-worldly threat.


In a portal-based campaign, the main piece of geographical planning needed is showing which portals connect important locations, and how convenient they are. This can be an important consideration in making certain locations important for planar trade or even conquest.

Space travel campaigns can be planned similarly. To see this, let us assume that a starship can typically only travel a certain maximum distance between systems without needing to refuel. Then some systems will be in range of many other systems. Assuming these systems have resources, they will become important central locations, as described above.

Time travel campaigns may be free of this type of geographical consideration. On the other hand, it is possible that the background consists of a number of alternate realities, each of which is best reached from another that it is similar to in some way.

Showcase Locations

Showcase locations are not necessarily frequently visited, but can be used to indicate the sheer range of possibilities available in a world-hopping campaign. These unusual places can be designed to highlight one overwhelming mood, or simply to emphasise one particular difference with 'more typical' locations in the campaign. Here are some examples.

  • A place where technology more advanced than that seen in the stone age simply does not work.
  • A planet where all life on the surface is wiped out once every seven years by solar activity.
  • A godly realm where it is actually physically impossible to commit a crime, as defined by the rules of that realm.
  • A place where emotions run amok. Alternatively, a place of cold analysis, where people who live there are able to justify everything they do according to the rules of their own personal logic. Those who stay there long enough will be able to justify their every action in the past, even those which they knew at the time to be wrong.
  • A place where fights are extremely common, even over trivial things. However, wounds heal extremely rapidly, and it is virtually impossible to actually die.<
  • In a non-magical campaign, a place where 'magic' works. In a magical campaign, a place where magic is either very limited or does not work.

Of course, there should be some reason, such as a specific resource or source of information, to visit such odd areas. The main population in showcase locations may or may not be human.

Less Detailed Locations

If there are many worlds present in a campaign, most will probably be described by at most one or two paragraphs of text.

It is therefore useful to have a number of descriptions of fairly generic places. These places can then be used during a game if for some reason more detail is needed on a location where not much information is prepared. Of course, some improvisation will still be needed.

Sources of Conflict

As in any campaign, in order to generate adventures, it is helpful to include natural sources of conflict. I have looked at such things in more detail in other columns; for now I will just mention just a few ideas that are more or less clichés, but nonetheless provide good starting points for something more interesting.

  • In a space opera campaign, the obvious cliché is threatened invasion by a hostile alien force from outside of known space. Another possibility is war with a non-alien but nonetheless avaricious interstellar empire.
  • In a fantasy campaign involving different planes of existence, some of these planes can be infernal, and therefore home to demons and devils. Other planes could be the homes of more benign celestial entities. These beings will war over more human-centric planes. As an alternative to the most obvious scenario, a demonic force might attempt to corrupt rather than directly invade a human world. Watching humans perform evil acts, worship demons, and destroy each-other of their own free will is likely to be more satisfying to an infernal being than simply killing. Not that there is anything wrong with killing when necessary, of course.
  • In a time travel campaign, a group could have the goal to bring a particular undesirable reality into existence. One or more other temporarily aware groups will be trying to stop them, or possibly trying to forge another specific competing future.

Encounters and Events

Encounters and events can be planned as in any other campaign, by looking at the campaign background, major sources of conflict, and possible planned or ongoing adventures.

One trick when using these encounters and events is not to fix a location. That way, extra detail or interest can be added at any point or time in the game where it is needed.

Wrapping Up

Well- once again a late column. Apologies; I hope to be more punctual next month. As usual, feedback and ideas for future columns are more than welcome.

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