World Building 101: There Can Be Only One—Single Power Source Campaigns

One of the conceits of 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons is that each character class falls into a power source. Over the past few weeks, we’ve been discussing and exploring ways to fit each power source into your own personal setting—but what if you want to go a different direction? While it’s usually a good idea to offer as many options as possible, 4th Edition lends itself reasonably well to running campaigns that use a single power source for all characters, creating a unique feel for your campaign setting. Today we’ll look at considerations for this kind of campaign.

One of the chief issues with a single power source campaign is that your players will almost certainly be limited in their options for class selection. For this kind of campaign, therefore, it’s particularly important to ensure that your players are on board with the idea from the outset. To be perfectly clear: currently counting all character classes from all official sources, a player with no restrictions can select from over twenty distinct options; limiting your campaign to a single power source can drop this number to as few as four choices.

In other words, make sure your group is okay with this beforehand, and make sure everyone communicates their intentions to minimize redundancy—while there are several options for building each class, with a group of five players there’s a very good possibility that you will have more than one player interested in a given class. Try to ensure that your players give each other enough room to make unique characters within the restrictions of the campaign.

Martial Campaigns could represent a group of soldiers on the front lines of a war, or could be used in a low-magic setting. You may opt for a gritty feel, or emulate the epics of grand heroes of old. A martial campaign can be very easy to conceptualize, but it does present certain challenges on a mechanical level. Moreso than any other fully fleshed out power source, the options for players are limited—there is no controller class in the martial power source, and with a group of five players, one or more party roles will be a little redundant. Fortunately, there are enough builds for each martial class to make it likely that no two characters will feel identical, but as Dungeon Master you will need to be somewhat more aware of the makeup of your party when designing encounters.

You will also need to decide, if you have a low-magic setting, precisely what variety of fantastic creatures exist. Be careful not to restrict racial options too heavily in a single power source campaign, as you are already limiting your players fairly severely. Talk to them before beginning to ensure that any additional restrictions are acceptable.

Arcane Campaigns, by contrast, represent a high-magic environment. Perhaps your campaign focuses around an arcane academy, or perhaps magic is so common in your setting that everyone uses it in some form. Whatever the underlying reason, an arcane campaign will generally have a high fantasy feel, with magical creatures and fantastic terrain being everywhere. Arcane campaigns have the largest number of available classes, and cover all player roles, so your players should hopefully not feel too restricted in their options—especially since any race fits quite well into the high-fantasy feel.

Divine Campaigns involve a heavy investment of time into detailing your pantheon, as the gods themselves will almost certainly play a vital role in the campaign, as will their servants. Divine orders of a single deity might send out a group of faithful to accomplish a specific purpose, or a group of aligned deities may each provide one of their servants towards the task at hand. Traditional foes for a divine campaign could include demons, undead, or the servants of dark gods, among other things, though there’s no need to limit yourself to these. From a player perspective, much the same as with a martial campaign there will be some doubling up on at least one class, though unlike the martial campaign each player role is represented among the divine classes.

Primal Campaigns are keyed to a setting without so many of the trappings of civilization. Your player’s characters belong to a tribe in the hinterlands somewhere far from cities and more civilized life, or your campaign world itself may have no such places. It’s even possible to have them hail from cities and reject the ways of the “civilized” world. It’s important not to think of primal characters as foolish or ignorant, especially when they are to be the core focus of a campaign. Campaign hooks could include fighting off threats to the natural world, or following the guidance of a patron spirit or spirits. In this kind of campaign especially it’s critical to ensure that you have a very strong sense of the spirits that exist in your setting. The Primal source is heavy on controllers currently, but should have enough options to give a full party choices when creating their characters.

While there are other power sources available now or in the near future—the psionic and shadow sources, for example, and more to come as more material is released—the above should provide a good sense of what is available and the kinds of things to consider when you decide to run a campaign focusing on a single power source. If your players are up for it, a single source campaign can be exciting and an interesting way to create a memorable world.

Comments (5)

Andy (February 4th, 2010)

It’s definitely an interesting idea, although like you note, there’s a very big piece missing: the variety offered to players. What I would say is that when there’s many power sources, the game becomes all about the variety of characters’ means of power, about how they click together.

I would consider actually working on the “allied” aspect of the party. All of them use a single power source? Maybe they get a bonus for that. Encouraging Guild or Tribe feats is also a really good idea.

Brandan Landgraff (February 4th, 2010)

The guild or tribe feats presented so far are definitely useful for encouraging group unity. You might also consider creating a set of items that gives benefits if other members of your party are using items in the same set…

Miguel Valdespino (February 19th, 2010)

Another suggestion that can help keep much of the theme while opening up character ideas is to allow hybrid and/or multiclass characters to qualify. For multiclass, you have the option of requiring the main class to be of your power source or letting them choose another for the main class. I’m involved in a campaign where everybody is required to have at least a multiclass in a divine source and to have good relationships with a good church.

Hybrid and multiclass chracters open up lots of options. Perhaps a character who discovered a new aptitude later in life? Or one who trained in magic but found out he didn’t have much talent at it. Perhaps a rogue who has been masquerading as a different class and then finds themselves thrust in among people who know the difference.

For a higher level game, paragon multiclassing is a good way to show somebody who’s switched paths along the way. Personally, I let somebody who’s done that choose powers from either class from then on (it helps balance a somewhat limited choice).

Grant Marthinsen (March 2nd, 2010)

I love the idea.
But in your ideas here do you envision NPC’s utilizing the other power sources, or that all NPC’s would also face these restrictions? I think that would be hard to explain in an all arcane power source campaign especially.

Brandan Landgraff (March 2nd, 2010)

Depends on the nature of the world you’re using as a setting. It’s pretty simple to picture a world that uses solely martial power, for example. You’re correct in your assertion that other power sources are more difficult to explain if everyone in the world follows the same restrictions—certainly they require a lot more work to make them feel logical.

An arcane-only world would probably feel a lot like Eberron—you’d need to explore the consequences of plentiful access to commonplace magic use. If magic is an inherent power for every individual, on one level or another, how does that flavor the way they go about their daily lives? Remember too that the PCs are exceptional. Even in a regular campaign, not every rank and file soldier is a Fighter. In a full-arcane world, perhaps war is conducted by dueling champions, with no large-scale battles. Perhaps both sides create armies of arcane creatures, from undead to animated soldiers to warforged, and do battle by proxy. Perhaps the majority of people have enough magic to perform a few simple tricks, but still pick up pikes and spears to defend their farms when the threats come out.

There are a lot of ways you can explore the single-source campaign world, really, but ultimately it comes down to what you and your players feel is the most interesting. If it seems unweildy to create a setting where no other power source exists, then the campaign restriction could be something as simple as the players all having trained at the same arcane college, or being part of the same society of arcane scholars—basically shifting the reason for the restriction from a world-level one to something that ties the party together.

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