Crossing the Streams of Time and Space

Whenever I am at a loss about how to make my dreams for my Greatest Campaign Ever™ closer to reality, I go back to reading old posts on Against the Wicked City and Hill Cantons. Joseph and Chris are the best. I would never have gotten here without their great ideas.

While I consider myself as adequately competent when it comes to running adventures, I never really had much success with the running of campaigns. Most games I ran were one-shots or mini-campaigns that quickly found a natural end when there wasn’t really any drive to expand them into longer running campaigns. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and I suspect that this is how the majority of games actually turn out. But I think most GMs have a dream of a multi-year campaign that takes characters far across the world and into the higher levels. Which I think of as a worthy goal to pursue, even if you never get anywhere near to that perfect image.

One thing that I have learned over the years of soaking up the wisdom of those who had come before, is to adjust your expectations to something that can actually work in play. An RPG is a game that is being played, which is an inherently different beast from a big movie or long novel series. You can create something equally amazing and fantastic as a GM, but you have very different methods available to you. The first very important thing is that you will get much better results if you don’t try to make the players act out a movie or a book. Square pegs, round holes. What this medium uniquely offers is to let the players control what happens. They can make the choices what the protagonists do. Not using this aspect with which RPGs can create fun and engagement is a huge waste, and at the same time also make the medium fight you in your attempt to tell your story.

Not having the game follow a written down script has become hugely important to me. If I don’t do that, I could just write a novel and that would work out much better. But it does come with a big challenge of how the players will be making choices about what they want their characters to do next. When RPGs began as dungeon crawlers, the answer was pretty simple and the question not an issue: Everyone came to the game to sneak through dungeons, face dangerous monsters, and get away with their treasures. So when you want to give the players a choice in what they want to do next, you really only have to offer them new dungeon levels that differ in the kinds of threats they contain. Lava monster, ice monsters, or hidden traps? Pick your poison. Or change your mind, leave the dungeon, and head over to another one.

Thing is, crawlers aren’t really doing it for me. I am being pulled by more fanciful ambitions of running campaigns for characters who are facing the eldritch dangers of the wild for more than a generic greed for treasure and power, or a generic sense of saving people. And I think that’s where I painted myself into a corner, wanting to do too many things at once.

I’ve been sitting down and made a list of the various things that I would like to have in my dream campaign:

  • An social environment and culture that really brings across the concept of Points of Light.
  • A world that feels imposingly large and like a Mythical Wilderness.
  • Long distance journeys to different parts of the world.
  • Letting the players take charge of where they want to go and what they want to do.
  • Working strongly with connections to regular NPCs.
  • A long time scale that has adventures happen over many years.

While looking at this list, I noticed that there are pretty much two different campaign concepts lined out. The first and third item point to a world that is highly decentralized, with strong separations between places, and few connections. The fourth to sixth item require an environment that is tightly connected and centered around a home base and familiarity with the local inhabitants and sights.

One is a campaign about widely different places separated by long distances, while the other is a campaign about closely interconnected people over a long time. This obviously is a non-insignificant mismatch. And it very much looks like a very likely root of my problem. It’s not that my plans for past campaigns had regularly failed. In the end, I always went into a new campaign without a long term plan and just hoped that maybe this one would naturally evolve into something bigger. So being able to identify why I never could come up with a proper long term plan feels like real progress.

The first obvious solution would be to make a choice which one of the two approaches I want to use for my next campaign and which one to drop. But perhaps there is a way to eat my cake and have it too. There clearly are two quite distinctive forms of play that are conflicting with each other. But while it very much seems you can’t have both at the same time, I don’t see anything immediately jumping out that would speak against using them in an alternating pattern.

The hypothetical fix is this: The PCs have a semi-permanent home base where they have their followers, assistants, and most of their contacts, and where they can invest their wealth in improving the place to provide them with better resources in the future. They go on adventures to distant places because their home base can be improved with a resource that can be found somewhere else, or because it is threatened by an antagonist who tries to take something away from them.

Jospeh Manola had some interesting ideas about Adventuring Seasons and Winter Phases, which was the main thing that created my interest in long time scale campaign when I first read it years ago. And I think these two phases are exactly what I might need. During the winter phase, the players learn about new opportunities that could benefit then in the future, and new threats that might become problems if they are not adressed. Some of them might be right outside their door and be dealt with in a week. But many of them would require long voyages to distant places, that would take them away from their home base for months. When they come back, there won’t be enough time to go on a second adventure before the winter. Every spring they will be facing the same question: Which opportunity is too good to risk slipping away and which threat is too great to ignore any longer.

A nice thing about this is that it gives the players a great amount of freedom of who they want their characters to be. They can chose to try to become rulers of their home base, couragous servants of their lord, explorers, or treasure hunters. They also can chose how to invest the resources they gained during their adventures, be it for their own luxury, to gain influence and power, or to improve the living of the people or the defenses of the town. The players don’t even have to pick any of these together. Each one can chose individually and it still makes sense for all of them to follow when one of them prepares for a new expedition.

There is some real potential here, and I am feeling pretty good about it.

Wounds and Longer Rests

Two changes that I am considering for D&D 5th Ed.:


Thinking of hit points as the ability to shrug of scrapes and bruises until your attention and reflexes are suffering enough for one unlucky hit to slip through your defenses has long seemed to me as the most sensible way to imagine damage in D&D. The spell name cure wounds does imply otherwise, but it’s still the most plausible reasoning for why being down 40 hit points with only 1 hit point left will have no negative impacts and you can be as good as new after a night’s sleep. If you can fight, run, jump, and lift without any penalty, then you’re not really injured.

However, when you do get from 1 hp to 0 hp, you’re in immediate danger of bleeding out within literally seconds. That clearly is a potentially fatal injury. That a bandage and an hour of rest can get you back to full strength just can’t be reasonably explained when you are playing a campaign that puts the “fiction first”. It’s an issue that simply can be ignored completely without causing any problems. But it can’t make sense.

Personally, I quite enjoy it in action and adventure fiction when characters have to adjust or completely change their whole plans because of an injured ally they don’t want to risk dying. It’s a great narrative complication, and one that I think can add a lot to a campaign. My goal here really isn’t to be any more realistic, but to add complications and dramatic tension to the game.

The new rule for wounds is pretty simple. I think that’s actually always an important part of any new house rule. You want the players to have to learn and remember as few new things as possible. Whenever a character drops to 0 hit points, he suffers 1d4 levels of exhaustion. This means a character who already has 2 levels of exhaustion has a 25% chance to die immediately. Since exhaustion is not that common I consider this an acceptible increase of risk. And it does provide a strong incentive for exhausted/wounded characters to avoid combat.

Longer Rests

The DMG suggests an alternative rule for handling rests that increases the time for a short rest to 8 hours and for a long rest to 7 days. On the one hand, I favor adventures that have few fights often separated by days, so I like the idea of the PCs not being at full strength at the start of every day. Giving them only a short rest every night has some appeal. But when you have to rest 7 days for a long rest, then you really need to retreat to the safety of a town (and one that isn’t currently under attack). Effectively, this means that long resta only happen between adventures. And I like adventures that have the characters in the wilderness for a week or two. No long rests during a journey into the wilds seems way too extreme.

The main things that a long rest provides for most characters is the restoration of all hit points, the regaining of Hit Dice, and perhaps most importantly the regaining of spell slots, amd the ability to switch out prepared spells. Hit points can also be regained through spells, so spell slots really is the big problem when you can’t take long rests during adventures. However, both wizards and druids have the class feature of Recovery, which allows them to regain some spell slots during a short rest, once pet lomg rest. I think this makes for a good mechanism to regain some spells for all spellcasters. When you finish a short rest, you recover expended spell slots that have a combined level that is lower or equal to half your level. Unlike the class feature, this ability can be used on every short rest. If you cast very few spells over a couple of days, you can recover all of your spell slots.

I think the biggest uncertainty with this variants are warlocks. With their really heavily limited number of spell slots, this class is perhaps the most dependant on short rests. But on the other hand, this isn’t going to make a huge difference when there are only two or three encounters in a day, as they also have several invocations that don’t require spell slots at all.

One important thing to keep in mind is that this change primarily affects “narrative time”. Whether the GM says that you rested for 8 hours or for 7 days, does not greatly impact the actual “tactical time” of encounters. Not letting the party rest for a week in the wilderness is the same as not letting it rest in a dungeon for 8 hours. It’s just fluffed in a different way. However, a GM would also have to keep this in mind when considering the frequency of random encounters and the scale of the wilderness. It’s not quite the same thing, but I don’t think it will be too drastically different if this is kept in mind.

More things that I made and no GM needs

I’ve been spending most of yesterday turning my predetermined parameters for a calendar from two years back into actual calendar sheets showing moon phases, solstices, equinoxes, and potential eclipses. Turns out there’s actually three leap years for every 16 year cycle in which there are only 23 months instead of 24.

Since the moon is considerably larger in the sky than the sun, I decided that eclipses might not actually happen only on the 16th of a month, but ooccasionally also on a 15th or 1st. And there is a possibility that you get two eclipses two days in a row.

With all these things taken into consideration, the results look like this.

There are of course 16 of these. I plan on making these always available for players, though I don’t expect them to ever look on them. But they should. There could be rather important information on it. Eclipses are no time to be wandering around in the forest or be out on sea, and things might also get a bit more dicy on the equinoxes.

While I put together these charts, I noticed that there are 12 special days every cycle on which celestial events overlapp. There are the four days when the solstices and equinoxes fall  on a full moon, and four days on which eclipses might happen during regular equinoxes. Two days on which the solstices fall on a New Moon, and finally there are the two days on which an eclipse might happen on a new moon equinox. Those are really bad days. Somehow every ancient legend of heroes dying and cities being destroyed seems to date it to one of these days. Crazy shit will be going down on these days, no matter where the party will happen to be then.

As I said, this really isn’t something that any GM needs. But when you do have it, I think it might actually be quite fun.

Silly Stuff with Statistics

Yesterday I did what I always tell people not to bother with. Work out the population numbers and distribution of classed and leveled NPCs for your setting. It’s almost always pointless and often leads to nonsensical results. But I did it anyway, not because the setting and campaign need it, but because I sometimes simply enjoy the fun of working with numbers.

I went into this  with the following premises:

  • The global population of Murya, Fenhail, Yao, Kuri, Kaska, and Sui is 1 million.
  • 1 out of every 100 people has classes and levels.
  • The highest level any mortal can reach is 10th.
  • For every two 1st level NPCs there is one 2nd level NPC, for every two 2nd level NPCs there is one third level NPC, and so on.
  • Half of all leveled NPCs are spellcasters (half of which are Priests).

I first planned on having a global population of 10 million and make 1 out of 1,000 NPCs have levels. But someone pointed out to me that that seems too high if all the population lives on the coast and given the size of my map sketch. There are about 4,000 miles of coast and I estimated civilization being within 10 miles of the sea (on average, there are also some major rivers and highland settlements), which results in a habitable area of only 100,000 km². That’s about the area of Hungary, Portugal, or Cuba. And three quarters of Greece, which is always my default reference point. That’s not a lot of land to live on, even if the continent itself is the size of Europe. With 1 million people, this leads to an average population density of 10 people per km². Which is roughly the estimate for Greece during Roman times, which does include all the uninhabited mountains. Perfect.

I was also curious what results these premises would give me for the amount of NPCs of each level. And those got really quite interesting. For simplicity, I didn’t calculate with 10,000 leveled NPCs but 8,190. When you’re a bit of a math nerd, you know the powers of 2 by heart, which makes continuous halving of numbers very easy. The distribution I got out was this:

  • 4,096 1st level characters
  • 2,048 2nd level characters
  • 1,024 3rd level characters
  • 512 4th level characters
  • 256 5th level characters
  • 128 6th level characters
  • 64 7th level characters
  • 32 8th level characters
  • 16 9th level characters
  • 8 10th level characters
  • (4 11th level immortal sorcerer kings)
  • (2 12th level immortal sorcerer kings)

That’s really not a lot. And actually gets really fascinating when you consider players wanting NPCs to casts spells for them. The number of those gets really low.

  • 4,098 people can cast 1st level spells
  • 1,026 people can cast 2nd level spells
  • 258 people can cast 3rd level spells
  • 66 characters can cast 4th level spells
  • 18 characters can cast 5th level spells
  • (6 characters who can cast 6th level spells)

Only half of those are Priests who have access to the cleric spell list. Getting one of those 9 priests alive who can cast raise dead to resurrect your friend could be quite challenging. However, if you are among the 100 most powerful people in the world, getting access to these guys might not be that far out of reach.

I’ve got no intentions to track the numbers and levels of NPCs that appear in my campaign. That’s too silly and impractical even for me. Instead, I came up with some rules of thumb, when it comes to creating NPCs for the campaign, that do reflect these population numbers of the setting:

  • If the character does not seem important enough to get a name, personality, and motivations, it’s going to be a generic acolyte, bandit, cultist, guard, tribal warrior, or commoner with 2d8 hit points.
  • Leveled NPCs who aren’t important regional individuals are 1st to 3rd level. (There are thousands of them in the world.)
  • NPCs  of 4th to 6th level are among the most powerful individuals of their region and regionally famous. (There are hundreds of them in the world.)
  • NPCs of 7th to 10th level are among the most powerful individuals in the world and famous throughout the continent. (There’s barely more than a hundred of them in the world.)

These numbers all seem amazingly low, but when I looked at them I really started to like the resulting implications. These are distributions for campaigns in which the players play individuals like Conan and Elric, or the various ancient Greek heroes.

And still this is a world where there are CR 7 yuan-ti and CR 10 aboleths around, and CR 6 wyverns and CR 7 stone giants. A 1st level PC is not yet standing out, but when you get to 3rd or 4th level, you’ve already made it big. You are playing in the top league of heroes.

I am really looking forward to this campaign more and more every day.

What is in the box?!

Things are getting real. My apprenticeship as a gardener is coming to an end in barely more than a week and then it’s off to university for me again. And that means hypothetical ponderings for a future campaign are now turning into actual preparations for the next campaign. Probably not in february, and perhaps not in march either. But then it’s time to get butts on chairs and dice rolling.

I must confess that even as a GM with two decades of experience, I don’t think I’ve ever been a great GM. Judging from players’ reactions in the past, not a terrible GM, but really not a great one either. To me, all the campaigns I’ve ran where pretty meh. This time I am vowing to do better. I have spend a lot of time and effort into learning what makes great games in theory, and why I didn’t manage to pull it off in practice yet since my last campaign.

I think there are two things that have changed in how I approach a campaign now, both very much influenced by learning how Apocalypse World works and is meant to be run, even though I am now preparing for a Dungeons & Dragons 5th Ed. campaign. The first one is that a campaign is about the player characters. The PCs are the protagonists who are driving the story and who are its heroes. We all play the game to see the PCs doing exciting things. Any NPCs that I have are supporting cast to enable the PCs to do exciting things. The second thing is that the world that I made also exists to enable the players experiencing exciting things. Every place that I create, every faction that I make, and also all the NPCs that I prepare exist for the explicit purpose of creating excitement for the players. If it burns, let it burn. If if dies, let it die. This world doesn’t exist to be the setting for a metaplot that gets constantly updated by some company. If the world looks completely different once the players have been through it, that’s totally fine. If everything gets fucked up by the players’ antics, then it was probably very exciting for the players to experience it. And that’s the whole purpose of playing the game.

As such, I decided to take another shot at a sandbox. Of the non-hexcrawl, non-megadungeon type. An environment that is full of strange sights and interesting people that will react based on what the players do. I have heard many great things about such campaigns, but one of the challenges is that for the world to react, the players first have to do something. And for the players to do anything, their curiosity first has to be caught by something. That’s the big problem with “Yo all start in a tavern. You can do anything you want.” If the whole world so far just consists of a nondescript tavern, there isn’t anything for the players to want yet. While there is a lot of information and advice around for preparing a sandbox campaign and for running a sandbox campaign, there appears to be very litle about starting one. Lots of people can tell you how to run session 0 and session 2, but what about session 1?

A good while ago I did come across one promising looking option someone wrote about years ago. At the start of a sandbox campaign, don’t let the players do whatever they want, but tell them what they should do. Start the campaign on a train, but then drop them off at the train station. If you do it right, you will have introduced them to enough things about the starting area during that initial train ride that they have sufficient information and incentives to take off on their own from there. Thinking about it, I remembered one of my favorite scenes from the Fellowship of the Ring movie. The hobbits have been on a quite wild adventure, that is much larger and wilder in The Lord of the Rings, and finally reach their destination where Gandalf told them he would take over as their leader and guide again. And they also expect him to take care of the threat that is following them. But he’s not there, and hasn’t been seen in the area for months. “What are going to do now?”

The hobbits of course still have their bigger goal of having to get the Ring to Rivendell, but I think this moment in the story is precisely that train station. The initial instructions are completed and the heroes find themselves in a place that is new and full of possibilities for them, but simply going back home and waiting for a new call to adventure isn’t a practical option either. Based on that, I have come up with an early concept for a campaign start that I currently very much consider using.

“In a wrecked ship that was washed up on the shore, you discovered a sturdy chest bound with iron. It resisted your attempts to open it, but a sage was able to detect an enchantment on the chest and  identify the lead seal on the hinge as that of a wizard who lives in a town a week’s travel up the coast to the North.

At the end of the first day of your journey to the wizard, you reach the local trade post where you can complete your preparations for the rest of the journey north.

The trade post is kind of a tavern, but the players start there as an existing party and with a destination where to head for when they leave. After they have bought whatever supplies they want and can afford, they have the option to take the coastal road north, or to get passage on a boat to their destination. If they take the road, they get two opportunities to chose between staying close to the shore or take a shortcut through the forested hills. Perhaps have any ship they take make a stop halfway along the road, between the shortcuts, so the players have another opportunity to switch from boat to one of the land routes on the second leg of the journey. This serves to teach the players that they have to chose between different aproaches themselves, without any guidance. Even at this point when their destination has been set for them.

Along each path there will be several encounters that introduce the players to various aspects of this world they are not yet familiar with. Some of which I want to include clues to something more interesting nearby. The players can chose to come back and check them out later once they have delivered the chest, or they can decide that the chest can wait and they go checking it out now. This also puts the players into situations where they can chose without any guidance. They have an objective, that isn’t really that interesting, but there also isn’t an hurry to complete it. If they run into something that seems to be more interesting to them, they are free to chase after that instead. Now one could argue that this has the major drawback of having to create three adventures while knowing that you will only be using one, which is super inefficient. However, this is meant to be a sandbox campaign. The players traveling along this coastal road again is quite possible. But even if they don’t, all of this content can easily be used on any other costal road in the future. It’s not wasted work, but rather some pregenerated content to use whenever it might come handy.

The chest is, obviously, a bit of a Macguffin. The players will recognize it as a plot cupon that they need to follow to find the main adventure. But it’s not like they actually have to take it to the wizard. What keeps them from opening it is a simple arcane lock spell. The chest can be opened by the wizard who it belongs to, but also by most 3rd level wizards with a knock spell and pretty much every 5th level spellcaster with a dispel magic spell. Or the players could chose to just chop the whole chest to pieces with enough persistence. In fact, it is going to turn out that the wizard isn’t going to take the chest off them for a reward.

And that’s the train station moment I am aiming for. The players find themselves in a town, that I hopefully can make appear as interesting to explore, with a chest they can’t deliver and would need to find help to open, some things they could go back to and explore further on the coastal road, and what I feel as being quite important, no place or quest giver to return to. If an NPC gives the players a mission and they can’t complete it, I would very much expect them to go back and ask what they should do now. If the wizard had hired them to get back his Macguffin and he isn’t there when they return, they most likely would assume that they are supposed to go searching for him because that’s what the GM has planned for the story. Making the starting adventure have no quest giver seems like something quite important to me to get that transition from preset goal to player drive  play.

Making the most out of combat encounters

Working myself into the deeper layers of 5th Edition, I noticed that defeating enemies in battle gives the PC massive amounts of experience points. If a party of four PCs were to only fight opponents with a CR equal to their current party level, it would take only 6 such encounters to get to 2nd and 3rd level, and after that 11 encounters for any further level. Though I have been told that in most cases, a single opponent of equal CR is a pretty easy fight.

Now at this point I want to repeat that I don’t believe in setting up encounters tailored to the current party size and level. While megadungeons and hexcrawls are leaving me completely cold, I feel like non-linear, open-world environments make the most interesting stories and experiences. When there are no places the party has to get to, and paths they have to take to get there, then there are no grounds to assume that the GM will take steps to ensure that the party will overcome any given obstacle. As players, you have no assurance that an obstacle can be overcome reliably by the party at their current strength, or that there any paths to their destination that they can take safely at their current strength. This puts it into the hands of the players to judge what dangers they are willing to risk, and when to try trickery or diplomacy over direct confrontation. Of course, to make this work, it is necessary to make it possible for players to judge the dangers ahead of them, and to attempt a retreat from a fight that turns bad on them. Otherwise the GM is just forcing random fights at the players, without giving them the agency to choose the level of risk they are willing to take. In practice, this primarily means not setting up ambushes by hard hitting opponents, and not cutting off the party’s only escape route.

Another thing is that I don’t believe the math to calculate CR being in any way reliable. But for the topic at hand, let’s continue with the assumption that challenge ratings and the encounter building guidelines were actually precise.

Under hypothetical ideal circumstances, a party of four characters fighting only single opponents with a CR matching their own level would, according to the tables, get a new level in six and a half days of adventure after roughly 10 fights. On first and second level even faster than that. This is of course ridiculous, and the designers did acknowledge that. Fighting only single opponents makes it very easy on the players. If multiple opponents attack all at once, the party will be able to fight significantly less of them on a day before they require rest to regain their strength. So if you want to fit more fights into a campaign that goes up to only 10th level for example, you could make opponents usually appear in groups of 5 to 10. Going with the hypothetical tables, that gets you only half the amount of XP before you statistically run out of power. Or 13 days of adventure with 20 fights. And when you think about it, for lots of common opponents it makes perfect sense to fight in groups. From the perspective of bandits or monsters, they want to win fights and survive, not put up a good fight before being defeated. And in a world where there is always a bigger beast, those at the lower end have every reason to band together for their safety. Just like PCs do.

But that’s still for the assumption of fights taking place in open fields. If you want to get the most out of your monsters, make them make their stands in places that are to their advantage. And frankly, fighting with the environment instead of just ignoring it makes every encounter at least twice as interesting and fun. Why would you ever not want to do that? Eyeballing the tables, I would say that if you make your opponents fight as teams and using the terrain to their advantage, it could probably take the party up to 30 “level appropriate encounters” to make it to the next level. This really isn’t insanely fast anymore. It actually seems pretty slow to me.

Though on the other hand, you sometimes really want to have big bad boss monsters. But I don’t think these really need to be that common. Most of the time it makes lots of sense for them to surround themselves with plenty of minions. After all, they also want to stay alive and should know that they are at a big disadvantage when they are outnumbered.

All in all, I think my initial suspicion that characters are gaining new levels way too fast in 5th edition doesn’t really stand up to looking at the tables. Now, of course I don’t trust the tables and I don’t plan on actually using them beyond the first couple of starting locations to get a first feel for the system. But still, I don’t think I will have to worry about making adjustments for how many XP characters will get for defeated opponents.

The Map is not the Setting

When you try to look for advice on how to create a campaign setting, the most common answer you get is to start with drawning the coast lines. The possibility that the creation of a setting might not start with the geography is not even considered. My own opinion is that you should always start with a design concept that outlines themes and style and thinking of a map doesn’t come until step four or five, but that’s a discussion for another day.

For the last week or two, I have not been feeling really creative and so I turned to spend my time thinking about the theoretical aspects of the worldbuilding process. The initial spark to work on this setting has not really led to a full ignition yet. And after some pondering I found that all the work I did so far was really about creating a style, but this did not automatically lead to the emergence of something that feels like an actual place. I have put together a toolbox and constructed a lot of prefabs, but these are not yet assembled into actual structures. I actually do have a number of notes for settlements and places, but these feel more like tables of content than actual content. Intentions to make things but not actual things.

And this is something that I actually find in a lot of published campaign settings. They give you lots of things that are interesting to look at, but fail to give you any impression of what you could do with them. Just this week I was reading a discussion about Planescape. And pretty much everyone involved agreed that it is a wonderful setting but they have not yet found any good ways to actually use it for playing. I think that a good campaign setting does not actually consist of places, or even of specific people, but of things to do. You can describe a place with lots of details on the many buildings and their inhabitants. But if you describe a static place, then there is not really a reason for players to go there. Or if they get there, to stay there.

Perhaps it is actually much more useful to create gameable material by conceptualizing a place as a conflict first, and then creating the involved people and buildings second. As a GM, what I really want from a campaign setting book, or my own prepared notes, is to hand me material that I can use as the base to build my next adventure on. This had me thinking back to the Kobold’s Guide to Worldbuilding, which has its best pieces in the introduction. A good campaign setting isn’t an execlopedia, but a precarious stack of boxes of dynamite that you hand to the GM whose players are already fidgeting with matches. I had always though of this on the scope of whole worlds, applying to charged conflicts between contries or global organizations. But now I think it might really apply much more to the very small scale of individual villages. Because that’s where play does take place. That’s where players are personally involved and able to influence things. A big global conflict can be nice to have to tie individual adventures in different places together with a shared theme and common continuity. But it is not a substitute for adventure potential right before and around the PCs. You can have a perfectly fine campaign without a global conflict. But not one without conflict where the players are.

Villains for a treacherous forest world

Almost a year ago, I made up a list of great villains from fiction that I want to use as direct inspirations for my own antagonists. Even though this setting is very different in style and tone, I found that this list is still representing my top picks for great antagonists to emulate. They need to be human in their desires and limitations and failings, but also absolutely dispicable. This is what great enemies look like.

Adventures in the Dark World

This really should have been part of the first post. In the end, a setting is only a framework that supports things happening and gives them a context. Settings build with a specific type of stories in mind are always much stronger in my opinion. And really, who needs another generic Northern European fantasy setting?

At the very heart of the setting is the idea of hardened warriors stalking through dark forests and misty swamps, being on constant watch for savage eldritch beasts and treacherous cutthroat villains. This casts them in the role of monster hunters, mercenaries, or enforcers of the various competing factions. Iron and blood are their business, but they also have to be investigators if they don’t want to become disposable pawns to people smarter and more ruthless than themselves.

The setting is a world in which the important players are the various occult and esoteric societies that are the center of religion and are pulling the strings behind the scenes. There are four things that people are craving for: Political power, eldritch power, spiritual enlightenment, and wealth. And in this world these four things are always going hand in hand. Arcane knowledge and religious revelation are the same thing. An understanding of the nature of the supernatural forces that shape the world and are the source of life. And those who gain insight into it have control over people and wealth. While their motivations may be very different, the means to achieve their goals are always the same for all the different factions. Eldritch knowledge and relics. Like in the adventures of Indiana Jones or countless wuxia plots, everyone is hunting for magic items, the tomes of great sorcerers and witches, and captured spirits that hold the key to greater power.

A lot of this perpetual struggle takes the form of political plotting and diplomatic finesse. But more often than not there will be some need for violence. Which is where the Player Characters come into the picture. They can either be the ones who are doing the dirty work, or the ones hired to protect against it. But in the end, this is not a setting for players to take the moral high ground and be virtuous defenders of peace. All the factions have some shady dealings going on and some tollerance for the more questionable deeds of certain more abitous members as long as they are keeping it out of sight. At the very least, players won’t be able to entirely avoid making deals with people of highly dubious reputation.

There are a couple of adventure frameworks that I see working really well for the setting as I imagine it.

  • Competing factions are fighting over a relic that is in the possession of one of them. The task of the party is to either get the relic for their own faction or to prevent it being stolen by a rival group. This is a good setup for a town based conspiracy adventure. Think The Maltese Falcon.
  • Competing factions are trying to get their hands on a relic before another group does. This is a setup for a classic straightforward trip to a ruin, tomb, or wizard tower and the exploration of its dungeons. But instead of orcs and giant spiders the players will have to deal with rival search parties and hostile guardian spirits.
  • Villages are being threatened by bandits. This is not directly related to the specifics of the settings, but it’s a problem that is thematically very fitting for a setting of this style and honest mercenary work to mix things up a little from time to time.
  • Villages are being threatened by hostile spirits. This is the simple setup of such classics like The 13th Warrior, Beowulf, and Princess Mononoke. How this ends up playing out can differ imensely, even when dealing with this setup multiple times. It can include anything from investigation to big dragon hunts and always includes the big question of why the spirits are tergeting the village in the first place.
  • Spirits are abducting people. This setup is more of an investigation type that can become highly complex and involve the various esoteric factions having their fingers in it somewhere. It will likely lead the party into haunted woods and the lairs of horrific beast or evil witches, but it might also involve complex conspiracies.
  • People are cursed. Another great investigation setup in which the players have to find the source of the curse and the method by which it can be broken, and then have to actually pull it off in the face of possibly very great danger.

Each of these setups can take the form of relatively simple oneshots that are wrapped up in a few hours, or turn out to be huge affairs spanning months. They are also very flexible and can play out completely different depending on the specific circumstances and how the players are approaching things. This should easily provide enough adventure ideas to last for years.

What’s the point?

I have been dabbling a bit in writing for a few years in addition to working on RPGs and campaigns, and the main problem that kept my stuck with writing something compelling and that’s always been the hardest part about campaigns is to come up with a plot. I am always doing great thinking about worlds and characters, but these aren’t any good if there is nothing interesting happening.

But now I’ve finally come across a great piece of advice. Plot is not really about conflict. Plot really starts with a goal.

Conflict is what follows from the goal not being easily reached and that conflict is what makes up the plot. But the reason why the protagonists are doing anything and how they approach the challenges they encounter result not from the conflict but from the goal.

Instead of trying to come up with a plot by picking a cool and exciting conflict, the process really begins with picking a goal. And then thinking about circumstances that get in the way of the goal, from which you get a conflict. This even holds true when your initial idea starts with a cool villain. The hero does not simply want to oppose the villain just because. He opposes him because he’s an obstacle to reaching his own goal. A villain does not make a conflict. The goal that the villain is blocking creates the conflict and in turn the plot.