GM Guide: Building a Campaign part 3: Save the Princess

Last Article in this Series

It’s time to Save The princess! In the previous articles I covered my six-step process to building a story, and covered Setting A Goal, Deciding the Ending & Igniting the Spark. I also went over The Barriers and Consequences. In this article I will layout how to put together The Setting & Building the Scenes. At the end you will find the adventure I built using this method.

The Setting

Save the Princess Forest Path | Total Party GuildIn my mind the setting of the story is the window dressing layered on top of the story.

What I see happen to new GM’s who are writing their first story is they focus a lot on the setting of the story, and less about the story itself. What I see when playing though is that the players want to play!

When you sit down for your first adventure your players are eager to start the adventure. They don’t need to know about the last 500 years and why there is a Princess traveling to or from the main city. Especially since this is a simple story, we really don’t even need a whole lot of details about the town your players are starting in. If there is information that you want the players to know about the world, make sure it is the most pertinent information that they can use right now.

So let’s look over our story and see what kind of story elements we will need for the players.

1) The goal: Save the Princess.

Okay, we know we are going to need a Princess. Let’s come up with a brief description of the Princess: Determined, Sharp, Strong. Comes from a Kingdom of middle grade wealth.

Can you picture someone like that in your mind? Then go ahead and name her and write down what she looks like. Since this is a fantasy setting, make sure you write down the race as well. Why middle grade wealth?

Well, she was traveling on the road and got ambushed and captured. If she was really rich she would have had more guards, or more competent guards, so I’m going with middle grade wealth.

2) The Spark: A bleeding guardsman rushes into the tavern.

Imagine the typical fantasy tavern and write down a few brief descriptors. Also you will need a name for the tavern. And a name for the bar person. Trust me, players always want to know these guys’ names, even if they are in only one scene.

You will also need to describe any patrons inside the bar. This tavern is on a well traveled road on the way to the capital. It would normally see a lot of people, but for this scene I am going to say that there just isn’t anybody else here except for maybe a town local or two. That way the party is the only real people a bleeding guardsman who stumbles in from the dark will want to talk to.

Describe the guardsman. Imagine a somewhat capable man who got ambushed and left for dead, bleeding all over the tavern floor. What does he look like? What’s his name?

Lastly, you will need the town that this tavern is in. Just think up a suitably fantasy name. It’s important to note for the purposes of this story, that this is really all you need to know about the town. There is no reason to write a detailed backstory about Mrs. O’grady and how she loves to garden at night because she is secretly a hag that steals people’s dreams. Mrs. O’grady won’t even appear in this story, neither will the mayor, blacksmith or town crier. All the players need to know is the name of the town and that it is on the main highway to and from the capital.

3) Barrier number one: On the way to the caves.

For this barrier we will need to know where the tracks originate. The guardsman said that the ambush took place while on the highway. The party would need to go to the ambush site and find the initial tracks. Think about what that sight would entail. Maybe the bodies of horses as the attack occurred while travelling. Perhaps there are one or two more dead guardsmen laying on the highway. Maybe there are one or two dead evil guys here too. Jot down a few descriptions of this, and the descriptions of the tracks.

While we are here, we might as well get an idea of who the bad guys are. They could just be some bandits that are serving a dark god. Since this is a fantasy setting, maybe they are one of the nominal evil bad guys, like orcs or goblins. I like the idea of orcs sacrificing a bunch of royals to their dark god, so I am going to go with that.

If they left some of their dead behind, describe how they look. If they took the bodies, maybe have a hero roll a skill check to see that they are dragging bodies with them. Also, now is when we would think of the surviving guardsmen. We know that three are captured, so quickly come up with their names and a brief description. You probably don’t need a detailed biography, since some, if not all of these guys are going to die by the end of the story.

We also need a description of the forest. I always imagined this taking place at night. A description of what the forest looks and smells like, the sound of the animals at night should be in your description. Please note that you don’t need a name for the forest. If you do want to make one up that’s fine, and if a player asks you could have that handy. I have noticed that most of the time just describing the forest is good for the players.

4) Barrier two: The cave.

Write a brief description of the cave. How dank it is, if it’s mossy, what it smells like. If you want to draw a small map of the cave. Otherwise, just make a list of how many encounters with the orcs you want the party to run across, and maybe what they are doing at the time the party runs across them. If it’s late at night and you just got back from a raid, what do you think the orcs are doing?

5) Barrier three: The sacrifice room.

Imagine a larger cave space, with a table to sacrifice our princess on in the center of the room. What does the cave look like? Also, since this is a ritual and it has the chance to start before the party gets here, what kind of cues can we give the party that the ritual is commencing? I’m always partial to big drums beating in a rhythmic pattern, or the sounds of chanting. You can add these sounds to Barrier Two if the show starts before the party gets here.

That’s all you really need for the setting of the first story. Just the bare minimum of details to work out so that you can tell a compelling story. All we have to do now is organize the information into scenes and bullet points and we are ready to go.

What do you mean I didn’t mention scenes? Well, fine…


Save the Princess Ducks in a swamp | Total Party GuildA scene in our story is like a scene in a movie. It is a location where our characters are at to have all the cool decision making and playing of our characters and all that stuff, before they move on and the scene closes. When you watch a movie, the characters usually just appear at
a shop, or in a car, or at the bar. Each of those locations house the action that the characters perform and then when they are done we jump to the next scene.

Role Playing games are often like this. We start off in the bar, the characters sitting around enjoying themselves, then the GM says something like “what do you want to do now?” The players say something like “go shopping.” We then transition from the bar to the shopping district, which is the new scene where all the action is. You can see a story as a series of scenes, linked from one to the next, until you make it to the resolution of the story.

I run many of my games like this with the conclusion of the story, then days, weeks or months pass for the characters before a new story begins.
Even if you are running a sandbox style game, where the characters can “go anywhere” and “do anything”, If you pull back a little bit as a GM you will see that it is still just a collection of stories sewn together, each story built upon by scenes that tell the tale.

I’m sure I’ll break it down further when I talk about building a campaign, but for right now we are just going to focus on this one story that we have built, and organize it into a simple format.

Attached below is the template we use when building a story.

Save The Princess
There we go, one complete story that should be short and sweet to get our adventures going.

Save The Princess

Important People:

Princess Charleze De’Tharon: Determined, Sharp, Strong. Speaks with force. Long blond hair, human woman (19ish) Royal garb is green with a rose with thorns.
Bar Owner Haggen Oakenstaff: Smiling, talkative. Dwarf, dark hair, likes unusual ales.
Guardsmen Tibben, Mikal, Alexandra, Undren: Typical guardsmen, wearing green tabards with the rose and thorns on them. 2 humans, one half-elf, one halfling.
Priest Grangle: Orc Priest of the Iron Tooth clan. Has one tusk capped with metal, gone rusty. Wears red ragged robes. Worships the dark God Tangledark.
Warrior Grunk: Orc warrior, Priests right hand man, wears decent armor, carries a flaming sword and black iron shield. Also has one tusk capped with metal.

Scene One: The Bar.

Small town of Hawks Hollow, inside The Oakenstaff, a tavern named after the owner. This tavern is well kept, with polished tables and intricate dwarven designs carved into the table and chair legs. A pot of lamb stew roasts above a roaring fire in this cool evening.

Spark: Tibben enters the bar, bloody, and tells the PC’s someone ambushed him and they captured the Princess. He doesn’t know what hit him or how long he has been out.

Scene Two: The forest.

Pine trees and evergreens, thick underbrush, the sounds of animals in the night, the hoot of an owl. A full moon will make its appearance sometime during the evening. The main road is well maintained but still just packed dirt.

Ambush site: A bunch of horses are dead, one or two guardsmen are also dead. All weapons and money are missing, probably looted. Visible tracks lead into the forest and heavy drag marks with occasional blood as if the bad guys are dragging their dead back to camp.

Barrier: After an hour the tracks split. Guardsman Mikal got away and a few orcs followed. If they follow Mikal they will catch up to him in an hour or so, being pursued. If the party saves him they find out that the Orcs are going to sacrifice the people to their dark god tonight when the moon rises. When the party makes it to the cave the ritual is just starting. If they follow the tracks with the Princess they make it to the cave with the full time allotment.

Scene Three: The Cave.

This cave has two entrances, one that the tracks lead to and one around the back. Occasional torches light the cave on the walls and candles on small desks or end tables. It is dry and warm on the inside. If the party arrives when the ritual is starting, they can hear deep drums booming from inside the cave.

Barrier: Orcs are throughout the cave system. They are split into several groups

  1. Entrance, one group of orcs standing guard
  2. One group of Orcs playing dice at a table
  3. Two groups of Orcs cooking an after ritual meal. Some will wander away to throw trash out.
  4. One group of Orcs wandering the cave system. They are going to relieve the front guards.

Scene Four: Sacrificial Chamber.

This is a large cave opening roughly carved out from the rock. Crude artwork of Orcs is carved into the walls. There is a raised platform with steps leading up to the table and the survivors are tied up and watched over to nearby Orcs.

Barrier: Priest, Warrior and two groups of Orcs are sacrificing the prisoners. If combat is kicked off the Warrior will put one prisoner on the table on his turn and the Priest will sacrifice the prisoner on his turn, holding his initiative if he goes before a prisoner is on the table. If the Princess makes it onto the table and survives, she suffers a curse.


  • Princess saved: The party gets a reward (money, magic items, etc.) and the Princess gets returned to the Kingdom. Depending on how the Princess is treated this could be a one time event, or she could become an ally of the party, offering additional adventures for the future.
  • Princess cursed: Like Princess saved above, except she is cursed by evil. This could be an immediate new adventure (the party tries to find out how to cure the curse) or something that does not appear until later on (she turns evil and wrecks the kingdom)
  • Princess Dies: The party returns with her body or the news of her death. They still receive a reward for their bravery, but know that they failed. This could lead to additional adventure as they seek to make a better name for themselves, or have other repercussions from the death of a Princess.

Timing: Tick one box per standard action, two for sneaking action, maybe more for loud combat. After filling the boxes During the ritual, sacrifice one guardsman, then repeat. Before the Ritual: During the Rit

Background: Orc Priest was told by his evil god Tangledark to sacrifice a woman in thorns. The Priest sent the warrior out to set an ambush, waiting patiently until the Princess arrived then took her captive. The Orc Priest does not know what dark blessings he will get for completing the ritual but is hoping he will gain more power to increase the size of his Orcish tribe.

Pic Credits: Ducks in swamp: Kristjan Kotar | Forest Path Photo by Ana Briard

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