Ask The GM: Can I Keep My Players In One Place

By John Serpico on


Marissa A. asks – I’m running a D&D game for my group. We’ve been playing together for a while and two other people have run campaigns already. It’s my turn now and I want to do something different. The first campaign was very focused on dungeon exploration and the second one had a lot of moving from town to town (we were following clues as part of a mystery). But I want to see what would happen if we kept the party together and in a single location. I was thinking a Dwarven kingdom with a ton of caves or a large city. What do you think?


This is a great idea and one that plenty of GMs have had success with across various systems. In fact, I think a party setting down roots in a single place is an absolute blast, and presents opportunities that your average “let’s wander around with backpacks” adventure might not.

When we hear the phrase “D&D campaign,” many of us picture a motley group hoofing it across the countryside, running into monsters, stumbling upon little towns that have problems, and discovering caves that just beg for exploring. Progress in a campaign like that is measured not just in levels gained but in places seen. It’s like the party is putting “I’ve been there” pins on a map. And that is a wonderful thing. But a “wandering” campaign like that has a very interesting quirk to it that we may not even realize – when a problem is solved, everyone moves on. You kill the monsters, you move on. You lift the curse on the town, you move on. You find the loot in the cave, you move on. The question that a single location campaign answers is an interesting one – what happens when you don’t move on?

Let’s imagine a large city on the coast as your campaign setting, and build it out a bit. This city is old, and built upon even older ruins. There are noble families vying for influence in a well-to-do district. There is a college of magic run by an inscrutable order of wizards. It is a major trade hub, so ships and caravans from all over the continent pass through. There are mines in the hills a day’s ride outside the city walls, the ever-present threat of pirates and brigands, and rumblings that the queen of the empire to the north wants to expand.

Within a space that rich, you can explore all the trappings of a “wandering” campaign – monsters and lost treasure in the ruins below the city, scheming nobles that want to hire the party to do things, encounters with pirates, meetings with new races, trading riddles with wizards. All of those things that players must travel to find are in one place, and one thing can lead smoothly into the next. Imagine a noble hiring the party to find a family artifact deep within the undercity. They find it, but also discover evidence that soldiers from the empire to the north have also been exploring down here. They relay this information to the city government and uncover a conspiracy involving one of the wizards from the college. That wizard traps them in his enchanted mansion, which they escape from only to discover that the city has been paralyzed by a terrible snowstorm. Tensions are running high on the docks as the crew of various ships start to grow tired of each other, and the party learns that a thieves guild is deliberately stoking tensions. They must then try to infiltrate that thieves guild to learn the real story, and the first mission a recruiter gives the party is to steal something from a hermit that lives in the haunted woods nearby.

See? You can “play the favorites” of a D&D campaign without forcing week-long marches from place to place. And on top of that, there are distinct narrative games you can play with in a single location you can’t if the party keeps moving. Your players can have favorite bars and parks and fishing spots. They could own property and have to worry about keeping it up and throwing parties and working with their neighbors. There are festivals, and growing and harvesting seasons. There are fun, interesting, trustworthy friends with penchants for getting into trouble. There are rival adventurers that you see again and again. The party could have romantic relationships that aren’t just one night stands in seedy roadside taverns. Heck, the party could have families, who have their own hopes and dreams. To explore a place over time is just as rich as exploring many places all at once.

So my vote is to plant your campaign in the middle of a big, interesting place. Give your players the monsters and loot and quests they expect, and the friendships and consequences and familiarity they don’t. It’s a very different and very fun way to see D&D.

Happy GMing!

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