D&D Campaign Mode

I’ve recently been reading Francesco Nepitello’s The One Ring roleplaying game. Chris Tulach picked up the book for me at Gen Con, after I mentioned how impressed I was by its aesthetic style.

The one element of the book that interested me most was the “Fellowship Phase,” which addressed a question that had nagged me for some time: What is the best way to capture the time in between adventures in roleplaying games?

Let me preface my answer with a bit of explanation: I run games laden with intrigue and sweeping plot arcs. I juggle multiple storylines, each with a write-up. I invest time creating elaborate background for nonplayer characters and player characters. The problem is, when you’re only meeting once every other week for five or six hours, you can only relate so much of all that story over the course of a game.

To that effect, I’ve taken inspiration from Nepitello’s system and created something suitable for my own needs, and I call it: Campaign Mode.

Campaign mode isn’t for everyone, but I hope some people find it useful. My hope is that I might actually be able to use the following rules set to (a) wrap up all the character story lines and (b) include some players who have left the campaign due to relocations. This system is still something I’m developing, so please comment with your feedback. If you’re a player and not a Dungeon Master, I still welcome feedback, and if you like what you see, please encourage your Dungeon Master to take a look.

Campaign Mode

Campaign mode is a new instrument in a Dungeon Master’s toolbox for time and story management. It can be used to pass days, months, or even years, without forcing either the players or Dungeon Master to go into great minutia about the actions taking place in the campaign world. As a Dungeon Master, you should decide whether or not campaign mode is right for your game, though it’s a good idea to take into consideration the types of players at your table and to consult them before introducing it.

The Flow of Time

Time in a Dungeons & Dragon game normally flows in three ways compared to game table time: either at a fractional pace, an equivalent pace, or at a moderately accelerated pace. For example, time flows at a fractional pace during combat. The time “in game” is only a fraction of game table time.  In 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons, one combat (five minutes) is about an hour at the game table, or approximately one-tenth game table time. Exploration or social interaction occurs at an equivalent pace. You say what your character says to the nonplayer character, or alternatively, in the time it takes you to explain that your character is searching the room and roll the die, the character could have made a good start on his or her search. Finally, game time proceeds at a moderately accelerated pace. You might explain to the Dungeon Master how your character spends his or her day in town, or how the part is traveling by horse to a nearby cave. In this case, the game time might be equal to anywhere from one-hundred to one-thousand times the game table time. That is, it takes you 1 minute to explain what your character is doing, and in that time, a couple hours might pass, or a day might pass.

Nothing in the game limits escalating of this system of time to a higher magnitude. Why shouldn’t a player be able to explain what a character does over the course of a week, a month, or even a year? In a traditional Dungeons & Dragons game, the answer to that question is that the adventure or the campaign doesn’t allow it. A Dungeon Master can’t have his or her players saying “I spend the next year of my character’s life going to recover the Rod of Seven Parts.” For one, it puts a Dungeon Master in the awkward position of telling that player to not bother showing up for the next session, plus all the sessions after that. It is also impractical because a Dungeon Master can’t just let the players complete quests without challenge. For that reason, a Dungeon Master should decide whether to use campaign mode in his or her game, and when to use it.

Campaign Mode Basics

Once you decide to use campaign mode, ideally with consulting your players, you should provide or communicate the following rules to them.

Initiate: A Dungeon Master initiates campaign mode at the end of a rest, generally in a safe location, such as a town. However, in order to expedite travel through wilderness, a Dungeon Master might decide to initiate campaign mode during a rest while the heroes are traveling through or exploring harsh or dangerous environs. The Dungeon Master can announce that the game is entering campaign mode or can do so through the narrative. For example, you might state that in subsequent days, travel passes uneventfully, and it looks as though the party faces no immediate threats and has no pressing matters to address.
Determine Timespan: Both the players and the Dungeon Master determine how much time passes. Before asking the players how much time they want to spend in campaign mode, you determine the upper limit of time the characters can spend. This amount of time should generally not exceed 5 years, and it is usually limited by events related to the campaign. Villains are unlikely to let the characters relax for too long, and threats of war and the promise of treasure can interrupt the actions characters perform in campaign mode. Determine the maximum timepsan by choosing an increment of time. Also, decide what campaign event, if any, interrupts the characters actions in campaign mode.

After you’ve decided upon the timespan and campaign event, it’s time for the players to decide how much time to expend. This decision should be a collaborative process, in which the players examine their characters’ goals, obligations, and interests, and then come to a consensus. If a consensus is not possible, you can deal with the disagreement in two ways: go with the length of time the majority of the players want, or go with the minimum amount of time a player proposes.

Determine Actions: Once both DM and players have decided on a timespan, each player decides how to spend his or her actions during that time. A player chooses how to spend his or her actions based on the entire unit of time. For example, a player can’t break a month down into several week-long increments, or a year down into twelve month-long increments.

A character’s activities in campaign mode are represented by two types of actions: a major action and a travel action. A major action, similar to a standard action, makes up the bulk of a character’s activities during the campaign mode timespan. A travel action, similar to a move action, represents a character traveling some distance overland, based on what can be accomplished during the timepsan.

Going around the table, each player tells the DM how his or her character will spend these actions during the timespan, and in what order. Whether or not a proposed task can be accomplished within the timespan is determine by the Dungeon Master. If a player’s proposal is too ambitious, let the player know how long his or her character expects the action to take. At your option, you can allow a player to accomplish part of his or her major action if time runs out or if an event interrupts the action (see “Unfinished Business”). Here are some general suggestions for what a character might accomplish with his or her major action.

More Than 1 Year

Creation: Build a castle or tower, create a mundane or magic item of exquisite craftsmanship, found a city, invent a new spell, create a magical beast, write a book

Education: Retrain your character classes, learn a hard language, adopt a new career requiring years of training, such as captain of the guard, general, a guild leader, a governor, a chieftain, a physician, an abbot, or a high-ranking member of the clergy.

Exploration: Track down an object or location lost for centuries,  mount a major expedition, map an a vast uncharted region, complete a challenging major quest

Relationships: Start a family, develop a vendetta, gain a nemesis, train a dangerous or untame beast, rekindle a friendship with a long-lost family member, gain an apprentice, develop a lifelong friendship with a person or a rapport with the citizens of a city.


6 Months – 1 Year

Creation: Build a large house, create a mundane or magic item of fine craftsmanship, found a village, invent a new cantrip, research a secretive organization or obscure arcane subject,

Education: Attend a university, train a domesticated beast, retrain your theme, skills, feats, powers, or class features, learn an easy language, adopt a new career requiring considerable training, such as a knight, a lieutenant in the army, an armorer,  aweaponsmith, a metalsmith, a merchant, a mayor, a constable, a steward, a scholar, an innkeeper, an apothecary, an animal trainer, an artist or performer, an acolyte, or a mid-ranking member of the clergy.

Exploration: Track down an object, location, or a person that has been seen or heard from for decades, mount an expedition, map a dungeon or small uncharted region, complete a major quest,

Relationships: Get married or develop a relationship, gain a reputation for something incredible, develop a rivalry, develop a strong friendship with a person or a rapport with the citizens of a large town.

1 Month – 6 Months

Creation: Build a small house,, create a mundane item of good quality

Education: Research an obscure organization or esoteric subject, train a simple domesticated animal, retrain one of your skills, powers, or class features, learn fragments of a difficult language, become a squire, a soldier in the army, a mercenary, an apprentice armorer, an apprentice weaponsmith, an apprentice metalsmith, a counter, a scribe, a stablehand, a deputy, a server, or a low-ranking member of the clergy.

Exploration: Track down an object, a location, or a person that hasn’t been seen or heard from in several years, mount a minor expedition, map a river or a path through a wilderness region, complete a challenging minor quest

Relationships: Fall in love, meet a rival or adversary, gain a reputation, develop a good friendship with a person or a rapport with the citizens of a small town.


1 Week – 3 Weeks

Creation: Purchase land, start a farm

Education: Read a tome, decipher a faded scroll, research a widely documented organization or subject, train an intelligent domesticated animal, find out the local rumors or legends, retrain one of your powers, learn fragments of a common language.

Exploration: Track down an elusive local object or a person that hasn’t been seen or heard from in weeks, explore a local forest or mountain, gain insight or hints into completing a quest.

Relationships: Become smitten, develop a friendly rivalry, gain a minor reputation

Coming next week…

  • Characters aiding each other
  • Interrupting character actions.
  • Integrating rewards.
  • Providing a narrative.
  • Adding complications.
  • Advancing the story.

Do you have some suggestions? Something else you want to see integrated? Help me playtest this system and build more robust options for characters. When I’m finished, I’ll compile all the rules into a single, easy-to use document.

25 thoughts on “D&D Campaign Mode

  1. Your suggested goals for a year all make me want to do them. Heck, I could have a character whose whole schtick was that he was writing a book.

    All the exploration ones sound like they would start combats.

    “Campaign mode” in sports games means training, roster swapping, injury healing. Maybe you could put in some “team management” goals like “train a network of informants (Baker Street Boys), establish a patrol on the nation’s borders (Rangers), recruit a druid to help increase crop yields.”

    1. Undoubtedly the exploration would lead to some combat. However, this mode operates under the assumption that the character is taking on challenges within the scope of what the DM feels is permissable. Therefore, your average combat is successful and can be glossed over. If a character is exploring a nearby forest, you don’t need to play out every battle against goblins and wolves. Success is assumed. On the other hand, a DM isn’t going to let a player who has a level 1 character say “I explore the Tomb of Horrors,” at least not without risk. In my next post, I’ll be writing a little bit about adding challenge to actions and having players make checks to determine success in the next post.

  2. I think one thing that you almost bring up (but not quite) is player actionS (emphasis on the plural). How many major actions does a player get during a giving Campaign Mode?
    And what is the weight of a given action?

    An easy way to implement this is that any given Campaign Mode should be broken down into “fifths”. That is, a player is given 5 Major/Travel actions, and perhaps, if the rules are elaborated further, 5 Minor actions as well (Minor actions would cover things that require time invested, but can be done alongside Major actions).

    Then, in general for rules, standards on what a Major Action is worth for each time-frame are given. By having multiple actions in a time-frame, it frees players to elect to diversify if they want (I know I have players who LOVE to split their time up when there is a lot of downtime).

    So if you have a week of downtime, each Major Action would represent a day. If you had a month of downtime, each Major Action would represent a week’s work. Since they are approximated in the first place, it doesn’t matter that they don’t multiple/add exactly.

    And, as always, if a player wanted to spend all of their major actions on the same thing (or multiple of the same thing in the event of spell research, item forging, or other objectives that have a completion point), they are allowed to do so.

    Next, as a DM, I hate telling my PCs “you will have X amount of time”. It removes the sense of importance/rush on the most urgent matters. Your system allows for a bit of this, with players dictating timeframe. Additionally, by splitting the chosen time up into 5ths, it makes it much easier for the DM to determine what events have occured if/when the downtime is interrupted.
    My approach with a system like this would be:
    –If the villain is going to move on to the next stage of his plan in 4 months, I would tell my PCs “You have at least a month or two before VillainName’s evil actions will have made enough of an impact anywhere nearby, but it may take even longer before you can successfully track him down. How much time would you each like to invest before forming up and seeing if you can find any clues as to what VillainName has begun his operations anew?”
    –If the PCs agree on an amount under 4 months, I’d have a side adventure lined up where they are able to slowly uncover some tidbits of information to provide a boost in the upcoming confrontation.
    –If the PCs agree on 3-5 months, then shortly after they all finish up their tasks, the next Major Event occurs, and the PCs spring into action.
    –If the PCs agree on some length of time over 5 months, then they miss out on the last of their chosen actions, and may not even all be together right as the plot hammer hits them all.

    For example, if they wanted to spend 8 months, then each Major Action would represent about 6 weeks. I’d let them know that they can use their Major Actions on the “1 month” items, but have a small bonus to any required rolls due to the luxury of having a bit of extra time available. However, after the 3rd action (4-5 months having passed), the plot would come in, and anything not yet done would have to wait.

  3. This is a great concept. My game is in the Birthright setting with a home brew conversion to 4e. Domain Turns, as Birthright labels them, have played a huge role in my campaign so far, and I think more campaigns could benefit from taking the long view.

    Might Campaign Mode benefit from having a more turn format with certain actions taking multiple turns? That approach, of course, has its advantages and draw backs, so it would really depend upon the final feel you are going for.

    Do you plan on addressing how to integrate skill challenges into Campaign Mode? I find that many people do not think of a skill challenge as possibly lasting for months of game time, but the two formats go great together.

    I am really looking forward to where you go with this.

    1. I never played Birthright, but I’ve heard a lot about it, and the idea had some influence in developing this system. I do plan on talking about integrating skills into the success or failure of certain tasks, though I’m not sure whether I will build in skill challenges, since I want Campaign Mode to be edition- (and potentially game-) agnostic.

  4. I can also point out the system that I typically use. I’m running a 4e game currently (everything 4e rules, with liberties taken on the skill system so that physical characters don’t feel too left out in the big picture stuff)…

    I have a old calendar that I use for the PCs to keep track of what’s happened/happening in the game.
    Each player earns 1 major token and 1 minor token (called whatever you want) every Sunday that they can spend or save. In order to spend these tokens, the player has to send me (via email) a list of things that they want to accomplish outside the adventures. Then at the sessions, I have that list for them with how many tokens taking the action will cost.
    Any week that the PCs engage in adventure(s) denies them earning the major token that following Sunday. They still get the minor one.

    Minor tokens are used for tons of stuff, and all take 1-2 tokens to accomplish. No player can have more than 3 minor tokens at once. Popular ones are “find someone to make a commonly available magical item (or to sell them it)” and “use my skills to make some extra coin” (which generates about 5% as much wealth as a 5 person equal level encounter).
    Major tokens are used for anything that takes a week or more of effort. And there is no limit to how many major tokens can be saved up.

    This system has really added fluidity to the game, because the PCs don’t worry about what they’re doing during downtime. Anything that typically “needs to happen” before the next adventure that they didn’t have plans for before the session, they will have minor tokens available for. More major undertakings similarly don’t take away from the sessions, because the player can just save up tokens until he/she has enough, and then “finish” the task (such as crafting an item, establishing a church/guild, etc).

    1. I’ve tried to use a calendar before, but I always just end up forgotten to keep up with it. I originally was thinking about an imitation of the combat actions, including standard, move, and minor actions, but I ultimately went with a simpler system, which left jurisdiction more in the DM’s court. This system isn’t intended to provide a really hard-and-fast framework of rules. If someone tries to game the system, I want to leave it within the DM’s purview to say, “No, I don’t think so.”

  5. Why should crafting an item take 6 mos-a year? A smith could do it a week probably, and a mage can use enchant magic item in 8 hours.

    A character can take linguist as a feat and gain 3 languages, which if you only level annually might be slower…

    I suppose these figures only really make sense if you normally operate on this scale. In our campaign, we reach mid paragon in one year of campaign time, so all these numbers seem ridiculous.

    1. The system doesn’t assume ritual or a 4E magic item creation system. I prefer that creating magic items require a substantial amount of time, because it makes more sense in the story of the world. If you have a world where magic items are rare and coveted, requiring heroes to battle dragons and explore ancient dungeons, it makes sense any random level 4 wizard couldn’t make items in 1 day. I like magic items to feel special and precious, and I think requiring a substantial investment of time accomplishes that.

  6. Greg, I love this concept, and really want to see this fleshed out more. I like the idea of these events being turned based (as suggested by another commenter). In fact, I can see sort of a “gazetteer” type event occurring where the DM describes to the players major events as news of them reaches whatever location the characters are in. In this way, characters can be informed if the Villain is active or if some disaster is taking place. It also allows for seeding hooks for the characters to follow up on when the “campaign mode” period ends.

    Question: I can assume that when you say a character has time to do some thing (create a magic item, build a house, etc.) that that doesn’t mean they actually can. A character would still need the necessary resources (in money and materials) to get that done, right? “Campaign Mode” just allows them built in time to do those things.

    Great stuff, looking forward to seeing more!

    1. To answer your question: I plan to leave that decision up to the DM. In the next set of rules, I’m going to talk about rewards and creating challenge and the possibility of failure. How you run it might depend on your group. If you have a group that’s going to game the system and look at this as a way of getting free magic items or animal companions, then you might want a resource requirement. If you have players that are going to make decisions based on what’s right for the story of their characters, it might not be necessary.

  7. This is a great blog surrounding some of the potential modifiable elements surrounding Dungeon and Dragons particularly the abstract of time. I will definately share this with other Dungeons and Dragons players/DM’s.

  8. You should check out the old Runequest Cities book. It has a great section on “Character Catch Up” where you roll for random events that happen to a character while he lives in a city for an extended period of time. You might get married, create new friends or enemies, go into debt from gambling, get sick, get a job, or your house might burn down. It’s a fun mini-game all on its own.

  9. I like codifying the passage of downtime . . . especially when that codifying is not too overt or restrictive. Good job, and I will be using.

    However, I’m struck by the arbitrariness of a major action and a travel action. While not complex, it seems more intuitive to keep the standard/minor/move organization. It is familiar to the players of 4e. It grants a little more leeway as to what the player’s can achieve (depending on how a minor action becomes defined). And, it eliminates the need to explain a major and travel action.

    I offer the above only as a smidgeon of constructive criticism. You may well have a good reason for the change, and, if so, I’d love to hear it.

    1. Thanks for the input.

      I had three reasons for avoiding the move/minor/standard system. For one, those terms already have meaning in the game, so if you use the terms to have a second meaning, you start to get strange interactions. For example, what does an action point do, if you use the term “standard action.” Easier to just dodge the issue entirely than to carry in a bunch of other rules baggage.

      I initially designed the system to have an action type similar to a minor action, but ultimately I abandoned it, because I couldn’t clearly delineate between what should be minor and what should be standard. Two actions felt more elegant.

      I also wanted to keep the system edition- and game-agnostic, allowing the greatest number of people to take advantage of it. I tried to avoid too much edition-specific jargon.

  10. Great idea! This introduces several elements I like: slowing character advancement in the game world (since they take downtime between adventures), introducing political and social elements of the gameworld that are often unexplored in single adventures, and provides more context for magic item acquisition that doesn’t break verisimilitude.

    One element I would like to see is the money side–how much extra money can PCs make during downtime, and in turn, how much do they have to spend on these other activities like building strongholds, making alliances, etc. Maybe not the most interesting thing to explore at face value, but it would give PCs omething to spend their money on besides magic items.

    Look forward to seeing more!

    1. As I mentioned in my reply above to @deadorcs, I’m going to talk about optional resource requirements in my next post. I don’t want to force a group to rigorously track resources if they don’t want to, but I realize that some groups need that type of structure to prevent abuse.

  11. Pretty cool idea, and a nice step towards formalizing it. I have only really played in one long-term campaign, but we tended to hit “Campaign Mode” at the end of each of the adventures in Scales of War. Our DM would tell us that there was x number of weeks after this adventure – and once he lied so that our characters would be in the middle of some long term stuff when the next adventure rolled around. We would take that time, and imagine what our characters would be up to during the off time. I think in a lot of ways, that was one of the best parts of advancing tiers. At Heroic Tier, our Campaign Mode would include things like doing our day job, or caravan duty, or charity work around Overlook. When we were at Paragon levels, we were taking story elements of our paragon path, and in some cases starting towards our goals of Epic Destinies during the down time. At Epic, we were full participants in the shared story aspect of the game, since each of the six of us were leaving an impact on the world, and we had the DM to balance our character’s goals with where the adventure path led. I blame most of this working on having a great DM, but I think your article here could add a nice bunch of guidelines or even rules to put into a DMG 3 – especially if it focuses on Epic DMing.

  12. Two applications where I can see this system really shining are:

    1) As a pre-hero system. I know @ChattyDM just had level-0 rules published in DDi, but this system could be used in a level-0 scenario.

    2) As a way to get around the slogging of 10 encounters per level. It’s often discussed on the net that encounters should only be played through if they make sense within the overall plot. The problem in 4E is that you need to run a certain number of encounters in order to gather enough XP for a level boost. Using this system, you can play out your specific adventures and the most important fights within them, while skipping over any random “As you walk down the road you see a group of giant spiders approaching quickly! Roll initiative!” fights. You could then use the Campaign Mode system to push time forward and grant levels based on story, rather than forcing encounters to fit into the mechanical system.

  13. I’d like to mention another option that can be used to enhance your proposed system (or even replace it): skill challenges. I often use them to “gloss over” long-distance travel as you have described and/or long passages of time, with failures in the challenge resulting in potential complications, delays, narrative twists, story changes, and/or encounters they could have otherwise avoided. This allows players to abstractly describe their actions during campaign mode much in the manner you have described, but also allows them to roll some dice that can affect its outcome. It also allows you, as the DM, a way to sprinkle in some flavor and uncertainty, and an interesting way to keep the story arc of your campaign moving forward while keeping players vested in their campaign-mode long-term goals and actions. It also gives the players an opportunity to roll some dice and feel like they are part of it, potentially changing the overall outcome and wondering what is going to happen next.

  14. This is a really neat way of catching up, especially if players leave the group due to real-life reasons. I will be using this one in my gametable. I also built a similar system, but yours hit the right spot.

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