Last year, I mulled over the possibility of running a story-arc based D&D game without the usual tropes of phat lewt and my strict following of the doling out of XP. I was told, by several readers, that it was a bad idea and just plain bad wrong fun.
I ran the game anyways over 12 sessions.
It was a blast.
When people hear “story arc based game” the immediate response seems to be “WARBARGLE! RAILROADING BASTARD!” instead of what my players did which was “Awesome, we’ll focus on our awesomeness instead of the awesomeness of the dungeons this time around!”. And we did. The players made Labyrinth Lord / Advanced Edition Companion characters, came up with a background and a goal for the characters and the team, and went about changing the world.
Each game session represented a major adventure, with one adventure per game year. I would also work together with the players between sessions and play out the growth of their endeavours. One player was a half-elf magic-user/assassin who became a merchant prince and one of the rulers of the city where the game began, another founded a very successful thieves’ guild after taking over the stomping grounds of another guild (who were working with an upstart merchant who was competing with the half-elf). The Sorcerer-Priest had a bunch of lousy reaction rolls in his first two games and was disliked by all the major powers in his church, and had to fight tooth and nail to establish himself as a true power among the rest of the flock. It was a sandbox game of epic dimensions.
We played our hearts out. The players invested big-time into their characters and the primary reward for good play transitioned from XP and phat lewt to advancing their temporal power in the setting. Two characters died in the first two sessions, and another was lost to us at level 5, but the replacements showed up (albeit at lower levels) and had a great time also. In my eyes, the main reward mechanics of the game (having fun, building up your character, surviving) were all intact and the players’ response was that they enjoyed the looser feel of the setting in this “turn everything up to 11” version of the game.
The setting is richer for it also – when the players sat down for a “regular” game a month later, there were interactions with a cabal of assassins, a merchant prince, and the church that involved greater powers than them that they got to feel connected to. They felt more closely tied to the setting having powered through a character each into the upper echelons of the world before starting out a new party in the classic style of the game.
So, raise a cheer to bad-wrong-fun!