After several years of running tabletop one-offs I decided to try a campaign format that would let casual players hop in and out without straining disbelief while allowing for dedicated players to get more deeply involved in the world.
The concept is that the three players who are available on a regular basis are the founding members and guild masters of an adventurer's guild that's exploring/looting the ruins of a vast ancient city. Each of the guild masters has a deep personal motivation for this - one is a merfolk looking for a cure for a family member cursed by an ancient elf artifact, one is a living construct looking for a 'sibling' that disappeared in the ruins, and one is an ancient undead elf looking to understand the cataclysm that destroyed his nation (found in the first sitting buried under a collapsed building). Players who have less availability are guild members who have other professions and who only join up with the guild to adventure occasionally.
I've highlighted several points of interest in the ruins to serve as adventures with some clearly identified through gather information as being way above their challenge rating or environmentally challenging (there's a very hot ruin for instance) while most of the others I plan to adjust to be appropriately challenging. There are also several settlements around the ancient ruins which can offer alternative adventures to dungeon crawls (for example; a rival guild might abduct one of the guildmasters who has intimate knowledge of the ruins necessitating a rescue mission, the guild could get political by freeing some elven slaves from one of the more evil settlements, etc). Each night the ruins are haunted by innumerable elven ghosts which put a time limit on exploration and along with aberrations below ground / magical beasts above ground explain why the ruins haven't been completely plundered by this point.
I'm trying to keep things in the "sweet spot" as long as possible, for me that's levels 8 to 16. So I'm not using experience but just ruling that everyone active or inactive is the same level. That means that the primary power differentiation will be wealth which leads to the question...
How would you recommend balancing Wealth for player characters in this context?
Over the first few sittings I've been rewarding the three Guildmasters significantly more than wealth by level with the understanding that they'll use those funds to start up the guild - establish a base, deck out said base, contract information brokers, pick up useful resource items, etc. I'm not as concerned about the Guildmasters since they'll have plenty of motivation to spend excess wealth on developing the guild but I am concerned about casual characters who end up being more active or inactive than anticipated. Here are some of my thoughts...
- Below WPL: If a casual character hasn't played in a level or two, I'm thinking that I should give them the difference in wealth by level to bring them into the same ballpark.
- Above WPL: I'm not sure how to respond to a casual character acquiring more wealth than anticipated. I don't want to discourage their initiative, especially if they do something fun, but I do want to keep things relatively balanced (i.e. As a PC I've been given high level items at level 12 and then tossed against Pit Fiends and the like, it wasn't that fun of an experience as the individual PCs either got slaughtered or dominated the encounter due to the random items they'd picked up).
- Guild Items: How should I calculate guild resource items as wealth by level? If players can check out a Ring of Freedom of Movement from the guild for underwater adventures, shouldn't that be reflected in the challenge rating?
- Artifacts: I'm feeling more lenient in allowing the Guild to acquire artifacts than I would normally be with a standard group (I usually limit it to one artifact at a time)...but I'm not sure how to reflect that in the challenge rating or if I should fight the urge to make artifacts more available than usual as bonus treasure (thinking of having them hidden in higher CR subareas that the guild could discover while on an adventure)?
- Crafting: This is going to be a slow paced campaign so there will be regular opportunity for crafting. I'm going to strictly enforce the rules but I'm trying to decide how I'll respond to casual characters who reappear after long absences with custom top tier items for themselves or to altruistically hand out to the group (generosity that's perhaps out of place in a guild setting where the world isn't on the line). I don't want to dissuade crafting but I've seen it unbalance games in the past so I'm looking for limitations.