Five ways to recycle an old D&D campaign

recycle-symbolMost Dungeon Masters (DMs) have run multiple Dungeons & Dragons campaigns during their hours behind the screen. Whether these games ended with a proverbial bang or whimper, many DMs justifiably view past games as completed projects. Like any story, though, a D&D campaign doesn’t have to be “the whole story,” or even a story with a definite end; viewing old campaigns in this way creates new options for recycling old game material to enhance players’ connection with the current game and reduce stress on overworked DMs.

While there are more ways to recycle old campaigns than could be described below, five common methods are described hereafter.

1. Recycle records kept by players.

Some players keep records of adventures, such as maps and notes about events. A few players go so far as actually writing narratives of their characters’ adventures. Some of this information is suitable for re-use in a current game. For example, nearly all towns in a typical D&D setting have at least one tavern where patrons are entertained by music; most DMs don’t pay much attention to the music being played, but what if the minstrel in the tavern was singing about heroes from the last campaign? Or if a mysterious treasure map two townsfolk are crouched over was one drawn by the players in a previous game? Details like that won’t impact the outcome of the current adventure, but they will affect the play experience.

Another example comes from a campaign run by this writer about 20 years ago. A player decided that his character, a druid, would spend his adventuring career writing a bestiary, detailing as much information as possible about every monster the druid met, with particular emphasis on monsters’ vulnerabilities in combat and alchemical/magical uses for monsters’ body parts. The player actually wrote the text for this document in character, musing about what he thought the various monsters ate, whether and where they slept, and what he believed their origins to be. Although the campaign ended with an anti-climax – a college semester ended, a couple of players transferred to different schools, and the group never picked up where it left off – the 30 pages of scribbling on notebook paper that was the bestiary survived. Ten years later, the traveling bestiary of Farlad the Blue appeared as an item of treasure in an evil wizard’s library, and the old Druid’s player was ecstatic to be handed back his sloppy notebook, this time to be used as an in-game resource for his current character.

The players, especially the two who took part in the campaign that spawned the bestiary, loved it.

2. Recycle tales from old campaigns into legends for the current campaign.

Whether or not they deserve it, the achievements or reputations of some individuals impact their surrounding worlds. A primary historical example would be Julius Caesar, whose name became synonymous with power to a point where other cultures used it to identify their rulers, such as the German kaiser or Russian czar (or tsar). Why wouldn’t high-level D&D heroes, for whom immortality is only one of several career options, affect their worlds in similar or more profound ways?

It doesn’t matter if the setting for the old campaign was several worlds away, since stories can travel even farther than that. Imagine how someone who played the halfling rogue heroine Haldrina Lightfingers in a prior campaign would feel when her current character overhears halfling children playing “Haldrina and the Dragon” on the village green? Or how one who once played Fenwick the Fearless might feel at a shadow puppetry performance of  King Fenwick and the Fiends of Fyd?

Veteran DMs may remember the Fiends of Fyd from the Advanced D&D first edition supplement, Adventure Pack I. In addition to showing how a recycled tale can add to a game, the “fiends” example also proves that the tales from old games don’t have to be original. Materials from any game, even published adventures, can be effectively re-used in this manner.

3. Recycle an entire campaign and use it as historical background for a new game.

This option is a pragmatic time-saver. A DM who has already created a game world (or assembled one from published products) doesn’t have to waste his or her creative effort by setting it all aside in favor of a new game setting. What if, at the start of a new game, the group decided to use the same setting, but started the new story 25 years after the old campaign ended? The players’ previous heroes may still be alive, and the new characters may even be the children of those previous heroes. The land could be under a new threat from the forces of evil, or have become so decadent that it is on the verge of social collapse. During their travels, the new heroes might meet heroes from the last game or retainers in their employ, pass sites of historic battles from the last game, or even meet non-player characters (NPCs) who knew the heroes from the last game.

In a similar vein, well-known power centers, such as governments, temples, knightly orders, thieves’ guilds or wizards’ academies will probably still be running, although new leadership may change the way the new heroes interact with some of them.

In addition, the players may notice how the passage of time affected places they knew from the old game, even though their characters would have no way of knowing. If you hear a player say something like, “Ferondale was always such a cheerful place. Something evil has taken root here,” you’re on the right track.

4. Recycle old adventure sites.

Generally, adventuring parties don’t stay in one area for long, and the episodic nature of some D&D adventures doesn’t usually drive heroes to revisit the sites of prior exploits. There is usually a greater threat over the next hill, after all, and most adventure sites are considered waypoints on the heroes’ journey to a greater destiny.

But by recycling an adventure site, either from an old campaign or even from the current game, a DM can put a significant twist into the game while reducing adventure preparation time. For example, consider a cavern complex which once served as a kobold lair. Would it remain vacant forever? That complex would have a very different flavor if, after the heroes drove off the kobolds, a cadre of mind flayers or clutch or foulspawn took up residence there.

In any case, the DM has been able to re-use the map and notes about the complex as a foundation for the current adventure, saving the time needed to create an entirely new adventure environment.

5. Recycle villains.

Practically speaking, D&D villains exist for the purpose of being defeated by heroes. But in a setting where magic is real, gods are active in mortal affairs and the phrase “mostly dead” is more than a movie quote, D&D villains have the ability to return with minimal effort from the DM.

This option shouldn’t be exercised for mundane villains, those standard foes of the heroes forgotten when an adventure is over. Rather, it is most effectively employed for villains that the players, not just their characters, truly hated. The visceral response that the players had to the villain – and the emotional engagement in the game that came with it – will return the minute the heroes learn that their old adversary has returned, be it in undead form, a reincarnated shape, or reborn in a different body. Give the reborn villain a couple of new powers to make things interesting, and let the players do the rest.

Have you employed other methods of recycling your old campaign material? If you have, consider sharing your methods – and their outcomes – in a comment to this post.

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5 comments on “Five ways to recycle an old D&D campaign

  1. Oz says:

    One way I recycled a campaign was a next generation game… the players played children of their old characters.

    • Alric says:

      That must have been fun, Oz.

      It must have been amusing to see the first generation heroes as parents, too – anybody can go hand-to-hand with Orcus, but potty training? You have to be a hero to overcome that…

  2. Pierre Gagnon says:

    I do the same, having built my own setting over the years. Every new campaign is set in a different place and time, but is always somewhat linked to what the players had previously known.

    Once, it was a generation later and they were escorts to one of their old characters. In another, they were the heroes who inspired their previous characters and had left them their legacy…

    Right now, we’re playing far, far in the past… and they’re becoming the gods of the known world.

  3. Rick Herron says:

    My newest campaign, the 5th set in my own world, has one of the main PC’s as the child of one of the PC’s from my 2nd campaign. Set in the same part of the world 22 years later I’ll be able to use about 70% of the material, maps, etc. from that 2nd campaign, plus some from the 3rd campaign because they were on the same continent.

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