Alternate Structures for open-ended "party-based, challenge-oriented" play

In the SHOTGUN WIZARD thread, Eero writes:

Sounds solid to me. If it's party-based and challenge-oriented, it might be interesting if instead of the usual adventure paradigm you did explicit missions, as befits wizard-marshals. For example, the players could manage a wizard-marshal headquarters that sends their characters to ride specific circuits among the frontier settlements. This would then form the framework for determining where and when the party goes, with implications for what sort of trouble they end up in.

My best recentish games have all fallen into that category of "party-based, challenge-oriented", and additionally somewhat open-ended. I think there are kinda five-ish traditional PB&CO paradigms that I'm familiar with, which can kinda fade into each other at the doors and corners...

Overland Exploration, a kinda sandboxy explore-the-wilderness game, with points of interest and dungeons and stuff scattered about. Hexcrawls, Western Marches, pointcrawls. Goals are to explore and to acquire treasure. Fixtures are overland maps, encounter tables, sometimes location generators, sometimes treasure tables. Sometimes totally random hex generators.

Dungeon Delving, either a megadungeon or a ton of smaller dungeons. It's open-ended when the party gets to decide what paths to take, how far to push on, etc. Less so when the dungeon is not sufficiently Jaquayed as to present real choices to the players, or the DM takes a "here's your duengeon of the week" attitude that removes the possiblity of punting and going somewhere else. Goals are again, to explore and acquire treasure. Fixtures are dungeon maps, encounter tables, sometimes treasure tables. Sometimes totally random dungeon generators.

Investigation, in the CoC style. I'm pretty much completely unfamiliar with this style. Goals are to unravel the mysteries.

Missions, a la traditional Shadowrun. I've never really seen this done in a properly open-ended fashion, but I know it could be! (How would it be?) Goals are to complete objectives and get paid. I don't have much experience here either.

Mercantile, as in some Traveller modes. You've got settlements and frontiers, you move around among them doing jobs and trading goods. Goals are to get paid and build out your operation. Fixtures are trade and route maps, location generators, maybe focusing on economic / political factors and what work is available, sometimes encounter tables or NPC generators.


I'm sure there's tons of other possibilities out there. What other structures could you build a game or campaign around, particularly using something like D&D and its cousins as a substrate? What would the present day OSR look like, if in 1974 Gary had built the first RPG not from a medieval infantry game, but from a game of Napoleonic naval combat, or something like Diplomacy or Axis and Allies?


  • I have a draft DW hack (that might work better as a Blades hack) where religion is replaced by “science cults” that pursue scientific knowledge as a path to higher truth & esteem. So you go on expeditions to gather data and validate theories about the world and how things work.
  • Blades in the Dark for Missions?
  • That is a very interesting and relevant question. I like the structural thinking it presupposes, that's very much in line with how I approach the game myself.

    I think I've got two more to add to the list:

    Political intrigue scenarios have been a thing very occasionally in our old school-ish D&D, but they're also a centerpiece in some other games that can be played in a similar way. Amber is a possibility, but my own experience is with Paranoia. I've done some preliminary work with a few friends on organizing a general format and procedure for D&D, of course.

    Wargame scenarios are actually an ancient staple in the game, it's just that they made a relatively weak transition to the general gaming culture. Still, in my experience it's not uncommon at all for D&D campaign to end up doing things like pitched battles and sieges. I've found it very useful to treat these activities as scenario frames just the same as dungeons and such.

    Also, I'll note that Investigation has slightly more foot-hold in older D&D in the guise of urban adventure; it's essentially the same thing as a CoC investigation, just presented less specifically in a "you're a detective" manner. Not nearly as comprehensively used and systematized as dungeon and wilderness adventures, but perhaps the third most common structure in D&D.

    In general I encourage investigation and development of alternate adventure modes for D&D. Some people favour an interpretation of the game where it's all dungeons all the time, but I think that ship had already sailed by the time the game went to press the first time, and it's true nature is much closer to an universal wargaming system of a particularly character-focused bend. Developing alternate scenario systems aside from dungeons and hexcrawls is very helpful for allowing the individual campaign to have variety and appropriate tools for different fictional content.
  • edited October 2018
    The mercantile structure crossed with the mission structure pretty much describes what criminal oriented Gangbusters campaigns are like. That came out, what, 1980?

    That was mostly accomplished by the rulebook laying out the idea, in the first few pages, that criminal characters were expected to be self-starters in a way other classes were not.

    A later rules section on individual classes saw the section on all of the different sorts of activities that criminals could get up to in the support of advancement being nearly as long as the sections on all other classes combined.

    Finally, while the boxed set/single rule book ( depends on edition) had a (not terribly useful for criminals) demo adventure, it also came with a well coded starter setting map series that was absurdly useful for criminal characters planning various nefarious activities.

    That setting was further fleshed out in the first module released for the game ( GB1 Trouble Brewing), which was a combo of setting guide and a short, largely guided/funneled, campaign to kick off the players' home campaign. That was et up to bring in starting low-level characters of all classes, but was especially useful for criminal characters as it centered largely around a bootlegger street war that inevitably left a number of power vacuums in the setting.

    Somewhat related, that module also fleshed out the setting in a way that it gave other, non-criminal classes ( all investigators or cops of one sort or another) something of a sandbox to play in also, as there was a fair bit of interlocking NPC criminal activity worth checking out and investigating, with some capability of choosing which order to go after the crooks in ( or pursue any PC criminals, if that's what you preferred).
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