I’ve been trying an experiment lately in one of my weekly games. The players are aged 11-13 and are very much caught up in the reward loop of D&D- kill, get money, get xp, level up so you can kill, get money, get xp… and so it goes. In another game I play with them, they are getting to be higher level, which means longer times between leveling up and more xp needed. To make sure they keep getting xp, the game is seeming to become more and more combat heavy and some sessions it just seems like endless monster slaughter. When they wanted to start a new campaign in Theros, I wanted to do something different.
I feel like it’s a common thing to get super into Greek Myths around that age and perhaps even more so with the Percy Jackson franchise. When Theros dropped, they were super stoked to play in it. Honestly, I’m not usually excited to run games in prepublished settings. I’ve realized that I’ll read the setting, get excited about it, but then want to do my own thing. I’m not sure what it is about Theros, but I got pretty excited to run it as well after reading it. They did a great job with that book and injecting very gameable concise lore into it. There was a lot for me to work with, but not too much where it felt like there wasn’t room for creativity.
Since the kids were really excited about the fiction of the setting and had all these awesome character ideas and how they related to the gods, I decided to go with milestone leveling for the game. For anyone that doesn’t know, milestone leveling throws XP out the window. When the party reaches a certain “milestone”, they get to level up. I’ve found it handy when you don’t want a game to be completely combat focused, as you can level up for participating in political intrigue or crossing a desert just as easily as you can for killing 1000 goblins. It seemed like a great fit for this type of campaign the kids were envisioning.
When it came time for me to plan the campaign’s structure, I also wanted to do something different. We’d been playing in hex crawls and point crawls (which I absolutely adore). I wanted the Theros game to feel more… well, mythological. I wanted there to be a literary quality to it. After tossing some ideas abound in my head, I came up with the Chapters and Objectives idea. It was a way to tell the story (which is what I view campaign structure as a vehicle for) while tying their characters intimately to it. So far, it’s been great. Lately, it’s my favorite game to run each week.
To start out, I had the players make characters and give me what info they had about them. Race, class, god they served, goals… whatever they knew. I stressed it wasn’t important they had a lot of backstory, but I’d use what they gave me. Once I had it and digested it, I created a list of Tinderbox questions. Click the link for the in depth rundown on what that means. The short version is that Tinderbox questions mess with the power dynamic of DMs and players a bit. They’re leading questions about a character that both give the character a bit of history and lets the player construct part of the campaign world. As an example, one of my favorites from this current campaign is. “When you were walking away from the garden, not looking back as the witch told you, you heard noises. What did you hear?” I told them they were walking out of the garden, but they in turn told me an important fact about the event.
Once they filled out their questionnaires, giving me tons of material to work with and tying their characters to the narrative in a way they were super invested in, I started on chapter 1. There was no need to run a “you all meet in a tavern” or its equivalent – chapter 1 took care of it. A chapter in this context is basically what happens between levels. I wrote a few paragraphs for each player, explaining what they’ve been doing and how they came to the current situation. It made it easy to drop them right into the action and avoid the strangeness of why their characters were working together. It was also a way to distill some campaign lore and information to their character. It was important to keep it short – longer than a page and it starts to feel a bit too self congratulatory. A few paragraphs seems just right.
At the end of the chapter, I included 2 things – their individual level up milestone and another tinderbox question. The milestone is the specific thing their character needed to do to level up. Each character had their own, which created a fun bit of intrigue as the players wondered if they should share their motivations. This is a fun thing to play with – the milestone doesn’t need to make sense when you give it to them. “Open the silver box” could be a valid milestone, even if the player has no idea what the silver box is at the time it’s given to them. Then the tinderbox question keeps them invested in the meta narrative as they, by nature of answering the question, are writing part of it.
When doing this, I’d suggest keeping your player’s personalities in mind when setting those objectives. I knew I couldn’t set their characters to drastic cross purposes with the kids. That would just be a recipe for fights and misery at the table. I could, however, give them some fun Easter eggs and things that seemed sneaky. One of the PCs had a vision that they were supposed to slip a powder into the king’s drink. In actuality, the powder saved the king from being poisoned, the exact opposite of what the player thought would happen.
To keep things somewhat balanced, they don’t receive their next milestone until every player’s current milestone has been completed. This encourages teamwork and makes sure no one jumps too far ahead level wise. This can also be used to pace the game, geographically speaking. If you want the players to follow a certain path, you can plot the various characters’ milestones at different points on it. This may seem a bit railroady, and it is – but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Games can exist on a spectrum of sandbox to railroad. It’s been my experience most players prefer something in-between. They would shy away from a pure hex crawl to get a bit of character driven plot. (I’m not to say such a thing can’t exist in a hex crawl, because it totally can.)
It’s almost important to make sure that the player agrees with the milestone. In the example mentioned above, there is some trust involved since the player doesn’t know why they are opening this box. If it’s a new group or you’re not certain, straight up talk to each player about it. Does this goal sound like something your character wants to achieve? If not, rework the mile stone. The goal isn’t to eliminate player agency, but instead celebrate player choices. If they made a character who wants to do x, y, and z, then x, y, or z makes a great milestone.
Once the whole party achieves their milestone, they all get their second chapter. This contains an interlude, which can be a great time to make time or distance pass in the game. Need to advance the timeline by a few seasons? Need them to take a long sailing trip and you don’t want to bother with random encounters? Gloss over it in the chapter, giving just enough information to mark that it happened. This is a great way to set up the next part of the adventure and also gives a great sense of completion, as it means chapter 1 is finished. After the chapter, add another milestone for the player, as well as another tinderbox question. You can do this for every level from 1 to 20.
I wouldn’t suggest writing out the chapters and milestones any more than 1 level in advance. First off, there is no need for you to write up a whole campaign’s worth of them before you start playing. More importantly, you want to leave room in the game for players’ choices. You might have very different ideas about what level 7 looks like once you get there as opposed to when you start the game. That said, you can start making yourself a loose outline if you want to pace the game, putting the big turning points at around chapters (levels) 3, 9, and 16 if you plan to go all the way to level 20. If you do, just be ready to revise them as you get closer. Things are going to change and it’s not fair to hold the players to a completely linear plot.
This structure isn’t going to be right for every game or group. If you’re doing a bunch of dungeon crawls, this doesn’t really serve to move things along. If the players are there more for the tactical side of the game and wouldn’t have fun with the worldbuilding aspect of tinderbox questions, there’s no need to force it. If they’d feel railroaded by such well defined level objectives, maybe you’d be better running a point crawl. There isn’t a wrong way to have fun here. That said, this method has been incredibly rewarding for me thus far with this current group. Most of them have said this is their favorite campaign thus far, putting it above large open world hex crawls. If you have a Roleplay heavy group, long dense backstories, or a party that likes to avoid combat, it’s worth considering flexing your writing muscle with the milestones and chapters approach.