For many homebrew campaigns your players’ characters will travel in a straight line through the story, progressing from town to town and dungeon to dungeon. While this type of narrative progression from one location to the next often flows with the story, it can make the world seem flat and like you’ve railroaded your players onto a set path.
There is a bit of railroading in almost every campaign, but if you provide your players with a central campaign hub you can build a world that feels more like an open sandbox.
What is a Campaign Hub?
A campaign hub is a central location that your players will return to again and again. This can be a certain town your players call home, a room full of magical portals, or even a secret base your players build themselves. No matter how the hub is actualized in the game it will always serve the same purpose.
Hubs offer your players three main things: a spot to unload or resupply, a place to regroup from an adventure and rest or train, and a place to pick and plan the next location they want to head to. Let’s look at each piece of a campaign hub one by one.
A Place to Call Home
Any good campaign hub will be a place where your players can be assured they will return to. This allows them to store goods, treasure, and anything else they want without keeping their entire fortunes on their backs. This is a critical feature for your game to prevent players from hoarding.
Not only that, but by creating a safe space for your players to unload and resupply, you encourage them to plan routes that go through this hub, which you’ll see later is an advantage for the flow of your campaign.
There’s Resting and Then There’s Resting
When your players have a place to return to they’ll often have an area where they can level up, train new skills, and progress as characters in their downtime. It’s hard to imagine any spellcaster doing arcane research on the road. For anyone who’s tried to do their homework on the bus, we know this situation is less than ideal.
What this really represents for your campaign is a central area for your players to handle all the things that are impractical on a journey with no home. A wizard (probably) won’t have a lab in their backpack and a fighters won’t carry around a practice dummy.
If you have any crafters in your group, this is the place where they can leave all their supplies and works in progress. These are the spaces that are made for your real downtime activities.
Planning Their Next Adventure
A hub in your campaign works the same as a player options screen in a video game. This is the place where your players are going to sit down and look at that map. This is where they will take stock of their items, check if they’re prepared, and then set a point that they want to travel to.
Often this location will be the place where they have allies, informants, or other helpful NPCs to guide them as well. It’s not just a place to rest, it’s a place to prepare. Through this mechanic your players can feel more in control of plotting out the next stop on their adventure.
World Hub Mechanics
Mechanically a campaign hub acts differently for the DM. For you it is the place to manage your players. While you give them many useful features in a hub, you can also restrict and guide the choices they make from there. A hub also tethers your players in place. If they store items they need for the next leg of their quest, then they have to go get them; it’s as simple as that.
In addition to offering you an anchor point for your players, you can also put rails on their character progression that feel more accessible with a hub. You could require players to level up at home base, especially if you use the milestone system. You simply have to enforce that the milestone is crossed when a player gets home and reflects on what they’ve experienced.
Another fun thing that a world hub allows you to do is place mail, NPCs, and other story elements exactly in the path of your players without any guess work. If your players are going to rely on the hub for their actions then you know that you can reliably get them information they need to progress the story by putting it at that specific location.
Beyond Mechanics and a Touch of Home
A big advantage that a campaign hub has for your players is a place that they care about and want to protect. If they hear that the town that acts as their hub was raided by bandits, they’ll rush right back. If they spend time there, they will get to know NPCs that you don’t have to discard after.
By grounding the campaign in a central recurring location you’ve raised the value of that location for you and for your players to the point where they might refer to it as a home.
You should sincerely feel the importance of that concept, because as a DM you need to know what your player characters care about to be able to effectively apply drama when that thing is threatened. With a home, your players have something to protect. The larger the threat, the more they’ll have to strive to get to that next level and ensure that they still have a home to come back to.
And if you really have a good reason, you should note that homes can be lost. This can trigger a big shift in your campaign and really become an emotional storyline for your players to be invested in. It’s not to be taken lightly, but it is another tool in your toolbox.
A Simple Tool With Plenty of Uses
Campaign hubs offer your players almost the same functionality as they offer you as a DM. They give your players a place to rest, unload, re-equip, and plan ahead. They offer a reliable anchor point in the narrative, a place to inject story elements, a mechanical way to keep tabs on progression, and most importantly, give your players something to really care about.
When used properly in your game, a campaign hub can be an elegant alternative to the straightforward march into the unknown.