One of the great things about playing D&D is that as long as everybody is having fun, there’s no real way to play it wrong. You can build a game around courtly intrigue, economic trade wars, actual wars, or even romantic entanglements. Pretty much however you want to play, there’s no reason why you can’t.
If you started at a young age, like I did, then you are already familiar with the idea of just crashing through doors to kill monsters and loot everything in sight. When I was ten, this was the whole appeal of D&D, and since there weren’t a ton of resources available on then then non-existent internet, it took a while to figure out you could play the game any other way.
These days, not a lot of people are interested in the idea of just bashing and crashing through a dungeon. It isn’t that the idea of playing that way is frowned on, so much as it is folks want more out of their gaming experience. Which is completely understandable.
The smash and grab method is different than just straight up being murder hobo’s however. It’s important to draw that line. Murder hobo’s kill everybody in sight. Smash and grab just kills monsters for the sweet treasure they give. Most MMO’s are actually smash and grab games dressed up with a thin plot line to give you a reason for killing random monsters in their own home and stealing whatever they have in their pockets, after all. Try killing an NPC and see how well that goes.
The thing is, the whole smash and grab approach to gaming can be a pretty rewarding experience in and of itself. While epic plot arcs and deeply powerful character moments are what I like as well, now and then, it’s just plain fun to kick down a door, kill a creature, and steal everything in sight.
I will always cherish that minotaur’s fine china.
Just because you’re kicking down doors all willy nilly, however, doesn’t mean that the game has no substance. Here’s four ways to build a smash and grab campaign that makes it more.
Dungeon Raiding Is A Job
Characters become adventurers for a lot of reasons, usually motivated to do so by something in their past. Consider the alternative, however, that raiding a dungeon is actually a job in the world you have created.
Like, an actual job.
In this kind of a world, dungeons are everywhere, relics of another age, their purpose long forgotten. Vast hoards of treasure lay buried in these places, jealously guarded by monster races. Back in the day, this inspired people to explore and seize these valuables for their own wealth, but there days, it’s just a business.
Guilds have risen up around the exploration of dungeons, with each guild closely guarding the secrets of dungeons they have located. Adventurers are hired to explore these places, recover the treasure, and return with it. For this, they get a cut of the profit, and probably some health benefits. At least dental, I’d think.
The party begins as a group of new hires, put together by the Guild they have joined, and sent to clear a recently discovered new section of a dungeon the Guild mines. Should any of them fall in battle, the Guild will send a nice fruit basket to their loved ones.
As the players level, new and more dangerous areas of a dungeon are assigned to them, or they are given the job of scouting for undiscovered dungeons. Their standing in the Guild rises, and maybe one day, they can become a share holder, allowing them to retire and live a life of luxury.
Perhaps a rival Guild has discovered the location of the dungeon yours mines, and you are sent to insure that none of their adventurers return from it alive. Perhaps a Guild war breaks out, and the party must fight other adventurers like themselves.
There’s a lot you can do with an idea such as this. It would involve lots of encounters and fighting, but it can have a great deal of depth as the survival of the Guild depends on the party returning with vast amounts of gold and treasure. This puts their employer, and the party, under a different kind of stress.
The Economy Depends On It
Similar to the idea above, another approach is that a local noble man has discovered a dungeon with in the lands he controls. It’s full of dangerous creatures, as well as lots of treasure, and the party are newbie adventurers he has gathered to do something about both.
How it’s different is in the ways it alters the party’s focus. It’s still a smash and grab, but it keeps all the out of dungeon action focused on the town nearest the dungeon, as this will be their base of operations. They can get to know the townsfolk, and become a part of their community.
They can see the rewards of their efforts in this way, as the noble man lowers taxes on the town, allowing them to lead better lives. The party also protects the town from the monsters in the dungeon breeding out of control, and ravaging the countryside, making them heroes to the people, and a valuable asset to the noble man. Both as a symbol his people rally behind, and as a source of financial income.
To keep things interesting, have the dungeon be under an ancient curse, one that causes the monsters to breed extremely fast, and the walls to shift around, giving it a lot more value in terms of revisiting it. Ancient curses can do pretty much anything, after all, and are every DM’s best friend.
I love ancient curses.
Should the players ever get tired of the smash and grab approach, their ties to the noble man allow you to turn to a courtly intrigue story line at the drop of a hat. Perhaps the noble man wasn’t really as nice as he seemed, and after being arrested for tax evasion, the party is now put in charge of his lands by the king. Who is also evil. Maybe.
If you’d rather, the town that has been their base of operations offer plenty of story fodder as well. Basically, this set up lets you jump in and out of the smash and grab approach as the players want.
Plus, ancient curse. You know you want some of that.
Ever wonder what a fantasy world would be like after the collapse of civilization?
Eh? That really is just me? Huh…
For our next way to make the smash and grab approach interesting, set it in the post fantasy collapse of civilization. Any reason why will do. Wars ended up toppling the nations. A magical plague wiped out too many people. Giant dancing spiders using people as tap shoes. Ya know, the usual stuff.
The party is a group of survivors who have banded together for mutual protection as they travel the ravaged remains of the world, just trying to stay alive as monster races flourish, roving bands of raiders pillage all they can, and innocent people just try not to be crushed under the ruthless world they find themselves in.
Every day is a brutal battle for survival, and a constant hunt for resources. There are no more shops, so getting potions is almost impossible, as is restocking spell supplies and repairing equipment. The party must fight monsters and fellow survivors for whatever they can get.
It’s like Mad Max, but without the cars. Still has lots of fireballs, though, so pretty similar.
In time, if the players get tired of it, it’s easy to switch gears and have them find a safe place where they can establish a new village, gather survivors, and start rebuilding. That comes with all kinds of new challenges as they have to defend the town, negotiate with rather than battle their foes, and try to find a way to establish order once more.
Until the ancient curse shows up, of course.
What? I really like ancient curses, okay?
The Gods Are Cruel
In this scenario, the Gods of the world have suddenly decided that they are bored, and want a little entertainment. By which I mean, they want to see some blood sport. The more, the better.
How this works is that the Gods decide they want to see mortals fighting, and keep yanking folks into fight to the death situations. It can be against monsters, or other character class based NPC’s. They are just dropped into a labyrinth, or a dungeon, and told to find the way out.
Oh, the place is stocked with goodies, too, and whatever they can find, they can keep. If they can get out alive, of course.
The tricky part of this scenario is how to handle the Clerics. They basically find themselves suddenly at the mercy of their God gone a bit loopy, and how they adjust to this can range from grim determination to serve their now crazy deity, to rejecting the whole idea and having to sort out how to continue on. Either way, depending on the God in question, their healing spells may no longer be as accessible as they once were.
Which is where we get into the really fun part of this. Since this is meant to be a fight to see who escapes first, any party member who dies will find themselves brought back to life. Until either all the monsters are dead, or the NPC party has escaped the maze, they just keep getting brought back and tossed somewhere random, or back at the start.
This can quickly create a sense of tension, as the party is forcibly separated, and now have to look for each other, since they can only leave as a group.
Like I said, the Gods are cruel.
Granted, this kind of thing would get old fast, so it’s probably better as a short campaign, unless you plan for the party to eventually challenge the Gods in order to restore order. If that’s the goal, then you can work in a lot of interesting plot elements as they broker alliances with other groups, and search for a way to both reach the Gods, and slay them.
At that point, this kind of thing can get pretty interesting. Provided they don’t all die horribly first.
The thing about the smash and grab approach to playing is that lets the players be rolling dice often, and constantly tense about if this fight is going to be their characters last. There’s a certain sense of euphoria that comes from surviving, and while it can old quick, for that time it lasts, it’s a real rush.
Don’t be afraid to kick the door in, kill everything, and loot the rest. Sometimes, that’s just plain fun, and that’s the whole point, right?