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How DMs can make the Most of Patron-Driven Dungeons & Dragons Campaigns

Art by Brian Valeza

Last time we reviewed the rules for patrons. Let’s look into examples of patron-driven campaigns and how to make the most of the rules!

Listen on Dragon Talk

I was fortunate to talk about this subject on Dragon Talk, the official D&D podcast! You can hear host Shelly Mazzanoble and I talk about this subject on episode #361.

Dragon Talk episode #361

Patron Choice

To make the most of the rules, we want to first align our patron with our campaign. Our patron provides a set of goals. When these goals coincide with the campaign goals and character goals, our campaign becomes more interesting and engaging.

Let’s take a look at some example patrons and how the goals can strengthen our campaign, including applying them to some of the 5E official adventures.

Art from the Player’s Handbook

Academy

When the characters’ patron is an academy, we can align the academy’s focus with the plot of the campaign. For example, an academy studying the occult seeks knowledge, but they can also be looking into matters that tie directly into our campaign. Was something stolen from the academy? Did a member go missing, go rogue, or turn against the academy? Has the academy fallen on hard times due to a rival? These kinds of situations can tie the campaign and patron together, while placing the characters in a position where they can become the patron’s heroes.

Imagine we are running the adventure Out of the Abyss. Our initial premise could be that an academy member was captured shortly after sending a cryptic message saying they had made a critical discovery. The academy urges the characters to infiltrate the drow prison where the academy member is held captive. This now explains the beginning of the adventure, gives our characters goals (find the academy member, learn what they discovered). The academy member could be in the prison cells, or may have escaped after leaving a few clues to guide play and engage the players.

An academy devoted to studying elemental forces could instead tie into Princes of the Apocalypse. It’s easy to lose focus in that adventure, but a patron can help keep the party on track, pointing them in the right direction when needed.

An occult academy can also work well for a Ravenloft campaign, with the academy providing clues that lead into the mists and perhaps a powerful NPC member or associate such as Van Richten.

Candlekeep could serve as an academy patron, directing the heroes on adventures (including those in the Candlekeep book) as they seek rare tomes. As the characters solve missions, they rise in prominence, receiving tougher assignments and increased rewards.

Volo – Art from Waterdeep: Dragon Heist

Merchant Guild

A merchant guild can serve as a patron, financing expeditions and hiring adventurers to seek safe trade routes. Such a patron could lead to Chult and a Tomb of Annihilation campaign, or to the frozen north and the Ten Towns of Icewind Dale in a Rime of the Frostmaiden campaign. For Rime, the patron can help guide the characters to particular towns and locations, focusing on the duergar and Auril themes so as to create a tighter narrative.

A campaign with a merchant guild patron could combine many smaller adventures or parts of large adventures as the heroes establish a trade network throughout the Sword Coast. The patron can help you move from one adventure to the next. You could start with Phandalin to end direct threats to the town, head to Saltmarsh for the first parts of that adventure, and continue dealing with threats you pick from hardback adventures (Storm King works well) or DMs Guild material.

Art by Zuzanna Wuzyk

Religious Order

A religious order swears the characters to secrecy over the rise of a dangerous cult, asking them to infiltrate the Flaming Fist in Baldur’s Gate. This can lead to Descent into Avernus. The patron could be a church, or it could even be a member of the Hellriders of Elturel. Such a patron can help underscore the high stakes, both celestial (the war against the Hells) and earthly (the fate of Elturel and Baldur’s Gate, the necessity to protect Baldur’s Gate from cults).

A faction such as The Order of the Gauntlet can serve as a religious patron, hiring the characters to help them establish a presence in a dangerous area. With Tomb of Annihilation, The Order of the Gauntlet in Baldur’s Gate can send the characters to check on the fate of their first camp (Camp Righteous) before the death curse arrives. This allows the characters to fully explore Port Nyanzaru. The death curse could strike as the heroes prepare to head into the jungle. The patron will help underscore the immediate importance of securing the Gauntlet’s new camp (Camp Vengeance) from the undead, as well as the larger goal of ending the death curse. Camp Vengeance can act as a base for the heroes as they seek to find clues and a way to the lost city. In this campaign, the characters can exert great influence, convincing the Gauntlet to change leadership at the camp and to recognize and strengthen the Merchant Princes’ right to rule Chult.

When dealing with religious patrons, prophecies or ancient texts can foretell the heroes playing a vital role. Sacred items can also be used. An intelligent item can act as your voice, even if that voice is cryptic. Or, important items could have been stolen from the order, requiring heroes to find the culprits across a campaign.

Lottie the Lich – Art by Aviv Or

NPCs

Patrons will typically have many possible NPCs, from current members or associates to ex-employees. Patrons work best when you detail at least one NPC to act as the point of contact. This gives the patron a more approachable and recognizable element. The Thieves’ Guild is vast, but Darek Quick-Fingers is the sly rogue with whom the characters can relate.

You can have additional NPCs who are initially less-detailed, but which can be fleshed out if the characters develop a liking for that NPC. An academy, for example, could have a lead professor with whom the characters typically interact. The characters might also run into the grumpy custodian who knows many secrets, the librarian who always has an answer, the bumbling old fool whose nonsense somehow ends up being helpful, and the academy dropout who may or may not be working for a rival. A few lightly-detailed NPCs make the organization seem real, and the favorites can be fleshed out to become important resources over time.

Enabling Communication

If characters are often away from their patron and a home base, you can use some of the tips we discussed in Solving the Problem of Heroes Leaving Their Home Behind. In particular, consider ways to enable communication between the patron and the heroes during long adventures away from home.

  • NPCs: NPCs associated with the patron can show up as the party travels and explores. An NPC can be in a town or outpost, in a camp along a trail, in a dungeon as a prisoner, or posing undercover amongst enemy forces. Once they deliver any critical information, they can leave to return to the patron, letting the patron know how the party is doing.  
  • Crystal Ball of telepathy, sending stones, or the sending spell… even animal messenger: Such magic lets the organization/patron reach out to them. Sending stones or scrolls can let PCs phone a friend. You can create special artifacts for this.
  • The Documancer role from Acquisitions Incorporated or the magic satchel from that book: These allow one character to be in constant contact with the patron. It’s a great way to let a player shine.
  • Mobile NPC: I first used this in the adventure Cloud Giant’s Bargain. The PCs are given a talking skull, who is an instructor called Tulach. Tulach speaks up in various encounters, rating their performance and keeping them on track. Rime of the Frostmaiden uses a similar concept in some parts, providing a ghostly presence that can guide PCs. I love this technique, especially when the entity has a reason to only speak up periodically.
Art from Acquisitions Incorporated, by Kris Straub

Combining Patron and Franchise Rules

Characters can aspire to grow in prominence within their patron’s organization. This creates a sense of achievement and accomplishment over time.

You can combine the Patron rules with the Franchise rules found in Acquisitions Incorporated. The franchise rules provide characters with a base of operations, letting them lead a small part of the patron’s operation. Over time they can expand their operation, gaining more resources, including hirelings who can carry out downtime activities for them. Some ideas:

  • An explorer’s society or merchant guild grants the characters control of a ramshackle tavern in a remote area. The PCs are told to search the area’s ruins for lore and treasure. In time, they can build up their tavern, even adding magical doorways that allow teleportation to other taverns from which they can launch further expeditions. Maybe even across the planes!
  • A cloud giant is the characters’ Ancient Being patron. If the heroes do well, she will grant the group a small castle, eventually allowing it to fly as a mobile base of operations.
  • In Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, we make Volo the patron. Trollskull becomes the headquarters and we use the franchise rules to govern how the tavern grows over time. The hirelings can take downtime actions, expanding their influence in the city.

I hope this has been helpful. Have you used patrons? What have been the keys to success with patrons in your game?

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2 comments on “How DMs can make the Most of Patron-Driven Dungeons & Dragons Campaigns

  1. Pingback: Dragon Talk: Give Your D&D Campaigns Purpose with Group Patrons | Alphastream

  2. Pingback: Routinely Itemised: RPGs #132

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