The Truths of the World

Last week I watched a video by Matt Colville that as a short side note had him mention that from the perspective of a writer, a major part of making the game compelling is “the ability to convey the truths of the world in an easy to grasp manner”. He didn’t go much more into detail than that, but this stuck me as something very close to my unconscious motivations to create a setting like this to begin with. There are of course the aesthetic things. I think huge forests, dinosaurs, giant insects, giant mushrooms, ruined towers, and dramatic weather are cool. But they are not just cool in themselves, they also mean something to me. They are not just elements of a surface picture of the world, but also components of a deeper character and identity of the setting that fuels my inspiration and sense of purpose for all this work. “The truths of the world”is a great phrase to describe it. Maybe you could also call it the internal dynamics or logic of a setting. I think this is where settings really start to shine and become something special. Like Planescape, Dark Sun, Morrowind, and Star Wars. People in these worlds approach the things in their environment in a unique way, and think in concepts and a logic that make sense only in this particular setting. When you get the players to internalize this unique way in which the setting ticks and start to think in its logic without conscious effort, then you succeeded in conveying the truths of the world.

I have written about basic concepts for the serting before, in the very first post. And of course there mostly is an overlap with this post. But those concepts were rather abstract, and don’t answer what they actually mean when it it comes to creating adventures for the setting and running the game with players. “Conveying the truths” was a very useful phrase for me to figure out how to translate it into practice.

The World is huge

Of course, every world is world-sized. For all intents and purposes, all non-multi-dimensional fantasy worlds have the same planet size. But in practice, we never think of a world in planet-scale. Most of western society exists in the modern cities and towns located in the cultivates coastal lowlands. Our native environment consists of landscapes heavily modified or purpose build for humans. The plants around us have been cultivated to grow to sizes that are convenient for the purposes humans intend for them. They only grow in the places and the amounts humans have decided to be the most convenient to them. If you see a very large tree in or near a city, it’s because city planners have decided that a very large tree is perfect for their plans for that spot. We also have no more sense of distance. Flying from Europe to Australia is an 18 hour flight? Wow, that’s long. No! That’s not long! We think of any place in the world as being reachable within a day.

Of course, nature isn’t that way. Nature does not care a single bit what environments would be convenient for human use. Nature is not human-scaled. The world is absolutely massive in scale. This does not mean that the setting needs to have large amounts of content, but for the purposes of player characters, everything in nature is just really inconveniently big. In practice, this means that overland journeys should always be long. On how to make this fun and not a chore, I plan to write some ideas later. But no simple leaving in the morning and being back before sunset. In most cases, I would say getting there should take at least a day, with exploration only starting the next morning at the earlierst.

When it comes to environmental features, everything can be big. Maybe the single biggest influence on the style for this setting is Endor in Return of the Jedi, and those are the biggest trees found anywhere in the world (and quite probably of all time). But that’s just visuals. Tree height has little practical impact. But whenever something would be a serious problem of major inconvenience if it were bigger, that’s a great occasion to make it bigger. When cliffs become really high, gorges really deep, and rivers really wide and strong, they become obstacles that the players have to come up with solutions for to get past. Or monsters could be making their lairs up in trees, but the lowest branches are really high up. Fallen giant trees can be included in ambush sites, serving as 3 meter high walls that affeft the tactics of a fight.

If it were inconvenient if it were bigger, make it bigger.

The World is ancient

Very ancient civilizations like the Sumerians and Egyptians are fascinating. 5,000 years ago is an incredibly long time and most people couldn’t even imagine that. It seems like civilizations have been around for practically forever. But what would things have looked like to the ancient Egyptians and Summerians? Their records and historical accounts would go back maybe 400 or 500 years, and then what? Of course there had been people before that for hundreds of thousands of year, but how much would they have known about them? To them, as for us, 99% of humanity’s past would likely have been unknown. But the amount of known history for them would have been much smaller and a much shorter timespan than it is now for us. In a similar way to how we don’t really perceive the size of the world anymore, we are also ignorant of how tiny a fraction the history of human civilization makes up in the full history of the Earth. Unless you are into early Bronze Age cultures like me, you can pick any culture or period from history, and always see how it’s the continuation of something that came before. You can always ask what came before that? My intention with the setting is to make it feel like whatever civilization exists now is just a drop in the vast ocean of time.

One way in which this is already worked into the setting is the lack of a historic timeline. The currently existing cities have an age since their founding, and the most recently ruined cities have have an age since they were destroyed, but those are all mostly in the last 400 years with the founding of the very oldest existing city being 800 years ago. Before that, nothing is known. No stories, no names.

Without a history of the wilderness and the spirits, it’s pretty much impossible to convey their age. But what can be done is to show practically how civilizations come and go, but nature always persists the entire time. While barely anything is known about the most recently destroyed cities, other than stories of how they were destroyed by one of the still existing cities, and nothing about the cities that came before them, there are still plenty of ruins left behind by the Ancient Builders. When showing how much these have been overgrown by the forest, you get some vague implications about the timescales in which the wilderness exists. Imagine a giant ancient palace that has its roof collapsed long ago, and the through the hole get trees growing that are a hundred meters tall and 20 meters in circumference. These giant trees must be ancient, and they only started to grow after the palace had already be turned into rubble. Or you could have the remains of ancient harbors, a hundred miles away from the coast. Occasional signs that there was a large city in a place a long time ago, but there are only the faintest of hints left. Which does come with the implication that there could be even more even older cities pretty much anywhere that have already been completely erradicated by the forest. I also like to put large underground halls under simple unassuming grounds holes in the ground where the ceiling has collapses, burried by several meters of dead leaves that have build up over the centuries. Corral growth on coastal ruins are also fun, showing that the area was at one time beneath the sea and at some point rose above it again. (I’ve seen one such case in Italy, which was the evidence for the discovery of plate tectonics.)

It’s impossible to convey the sense of millions of years of past ages, but showing the short lived nature of current civilizations and how the forest completely erases any of their traces might perhaps evoke some feeling of incredible age.

The Material Realm is not the full world

I’ve been somewhat undecided about how the Spiritworld and other planes are supposed to work in this setting, and I am still not fully commited to any specific solution. But thinking about the truths of the world, I believe that this definitely should be one. The world that mortals perceive and interact with is only the surface of true reality. The specific mechanics might still change (probably), but the wilderness through which characters are travelling when they go beyond the borders of settled and explored areas should be full of magical phenomenons that have causes that are invisible to them. When they enter the domains of particularly powerful spirits or descend into the Underworld where the distinction between the natural and the supernatural is no longer as clear as it seems to be in settled areas.

One way in which I think this can be done in practice is to have areas in which the passing of time is inconsistent with what they think of as normal. The length of a day could be considerably longer than 24 hours, or the sun and moons appear to not be moving in the sky at all. Spirits don’t get bored staying in the same place for ages and people could be trapped for decades or centuries without growing hungry, old, or completely insane. Castles could collapse into rubble within minutes, or wildfires burn in place for decades without consuming the trees. And of course, a journey into the wilderness could have you be away for considerably longer than the time you thought you had spend there. (Though in practice I think I want to keep the lost time in months or a small handful of years at the most.)

Spirits are powerful

I am not a fan of the fey from Monster Manuals for several reasons. One thing I realized is that they are pretty much always very weak. This is a world that is not at human-scale, and that also means that its spirits are on a different scale as well. Not much deeper philosophy than this. In practical terms, this means that most spirits that are encountered should be in the mid-range of difficulty, about CR 6 to 12. Alternatively, they appear in groups. I recently revised my naga and shie by downscaling them from their base stats as a yuan-ti from CR7 to CR 5, and a succubus from CR 4 to CR 3. Otherwise, even small groups could slaughter even 6th level groups of above average size.

Another modifications to creatures that serve as spirits is to give them both lair effects and perhaps even regional effects. The bigger spirits are the gods of the land after all.

One of the main ways in which spirits affect the world is in their control of the weather and climate. To show that the spirits are powerful, I want any weather effects to be big. When there are storms, they should be big storms. Not just background flavor, but actually impacting gameplay. And they should be used frequently. The Wilderness exploration system I am working on will have the current weather as one of the random parameters in the rolling of random wilderness encounters.

Spirits are alien

The other thing that I don’t like about fey from the Monster Manuals. They are too human. Fey should be dangerous, not just because they have great powers (lots of mortal NPCs do so) but because you don’t know what they might want to do to you. Even when a spirits does not intend to do harm, or feels actively hostile, there is a risk that they could do something that would be harmful for mortals. Even if they intend to help, they might make things worse, and then be unaware that anything is wrong. The concept for the shie is “they look like us, but they are not us”.

Complete random behavior is not desireable, though. To have meaningful interactions with anything, players need to have at least something to work with. My approach to this is to run spirits with “predictable patterns, but unintelligible motives”. Some spirits to certain things. That apparently make perfect sense to them, but not to anyone else. They are incapable of fully explaining themselves to mortals, and in most situations don’t see any need to. They have priorities that stay consistent, even extremely so, but the purpose of those stays completely mysterious. Spirits should never really make full sense, but they must never be random. Before players start to interact with them, their priorities and main behaviors need to be established and fixed into place.

People don’t really matter

This truth is a consequence of several other aspects. The wilderness is huge and ancient, and eventually will swollow up anything that people have made. Spirits are much more powerful and very inflexible in their wishes and as such pretty much always get their will, but what that will is is not only outside of people’s control but also understanding. In the big picture, at the end of the day, all the things that mortals do don’t have any meaningful impact on the world as a whole. Nothing lasts forever. Except for the forest.

The first way in which I approach this is to think that in the hierarchy of creatures, people are the weasels. They are predators who can be very deadly to most smaller creatures and even cause unpleasantness for several larger ones. But against determined bigger beasts, really the only thing they can do is to get out of the way. They don’t rule this world, they are really more at the smaller side of things, their impact not really that visible from a zoomed out perspective. Far from helpless, and far from harmless, but they aren’t anywhere where near the top of the food chain.

In practical terms, this means that players don’t have real hopes to defeat or even stop a god. When a change comes down from the top, the task of the players is to help the population to adapt to the new conditions or escape before it is too late. The only situation in which a coming disaster can be averted is when appeasing the wrath of a god. These things started with people trying to make a change and can only be stopped if the change is reversed and things returned to how they were. When people are the cause of a god’s wrath, then only removing the cause will end the god’s wrath. This builds on the concept of spirits being utterly inflexible in their priorities. It is not possible to prevent the god from using its power, or to change its mind while the cause still exist.

Whatever accoplishments the players might reach can only be important in the here and in the now. They can not fundamentally change anything in the big picture. You can not claim any new land for settling unless it is offered by the local gods. You can not remove a god or make any changes to the environment. You can not remove a type of dangerous creature from its habitat. You could kill a monster that has started to attack farms at the edge of the forest. But you can not clear the valley from which it origially came to make sure none will ever come again.

Adventures should be planned arounf this truth. At the end of the game, the players want to feel that they have accomplished something and have made a difference. When dealing with purely mortal opponents this is not an issue. But when the main threat is supernatural and unstopable, the adventure should be framed in a way that makes it clear that the goal is not to prevent the disaster, but to save the people who will be affected by it.

Overreaching is disastrous

This is part of the ecological subtext of the setting. I’m a trained gardener and was in cultural studies and geography at university, and all of this has given me a perspective on the relationship between people and the environent that “there are no natural disasters”, as one researcher put it. What we percieve as natural and ecological disasters are not random freak accidents of nature, but simple the environment doing what it always does. It’s just that people didn’t look at the patterns in a long enough scale, and build in places where they shouldn’t build, refused to move aside or adjust when a predictable and regular change was coming, and then had no plan what do if anything changes. Or when people made changes to the environment that benefit them in the short term, but didn’t consider that they removed important regulating and moderating from the ecosystem. When you get hit by a massive asteroid, that’s just bad luck, and when you drown in a tsunami that really isn’t your fault. But if you die from disease or starvation after a tsunami or an earthquake, that’s entirely on the people who build build your city. Humans are amazing creatures. In nature there are only a small number of creature that can threaten us and almost none of them want to get anywhere near us if they can avoid it. Pretty much anything else bad that nature can do to us is because people thought they had great ideas to improve the environment and were not aware of the full impact their modifications would have. This really is the underlying philosophy of the entire setting. If you try to make big changes, you get a huge risk. If you want to improve your situation, adjust and try to adapt to the environment. Don’t try to change the environment to suit your wishes.

People don’t really matter in the bigger picture and what threy can accoplish is pretty strictly limited. This doesn’t just apply for the players, but for all NPCs as well. If people try to go beyond these limitations, they will always fail. And the harder they tried, the worse the resulting damage will be. Sometimes the opponents of the players can be villains who want to do evil things. But in this setting, the opponents can just as well be people who have put ambition over caution, setting events into motions that will have disastrous consequences. Not only is there a need to save people from these consequences, the players will also have to get the opponents to give up their ambitions and change their plans. Warlocks are great candidates to play both role, as their art of sorcery is all about getting around the rules of regular magic and the God Kings and Sorcerer Lords of Senkand all work on wrestling control over the environment from the spirits.

Humility will keep you safe

This is the inverse of the previous truth. To survive in the wilderness and deal with the spirits, the key is to aknowledge the limits of your powers and to adapt to the situations you are facing. But I think this approach should apply to all challenges that the players will encounter during adventures. Whenever the players use trickery or make offers of cooperation, this should increase the odds of leading to success. Taking great risks to themselves for the benefit of other should be held in their favor as well.

On the other hand, relying on force and threats, and acting selfish or with pride should not be doing them any favors.

This does not mean that all PCs are required to be humble and kind all the time. But use of force and intimidation will not quickly be forgotten, and the target numbers for success might be a bit higher. Bull headed characters can still succeed. They just are not making things easy for themselves. On the other hand, if such characters do show moments of humility and reserve, this should be held in their favor when deciding on NPC reaction and target numbers.

Exploration System, Part 1: Setting the hex-scale

While working on my wilderness setting it became obvious that running it would require a solid and easy to use system for overland travel. There are tables for Travel Pace in the Player’s Handbook and additional rules in the Dungeon Master’s Guide to deal with overland travel in 5th Ed., but just like the tables and mechanics in 3rd Ed., I find them very impractical to use in actual play. If you use them rarely, it’s difficult to remember how it all works, and if you use them frequently it’s way too much calculating and eating up too much time. I plan this to be a series that will put together a complete system that is easy and fun to use and covers all the relevant aspects that are part of wilderness travel. Which is movement speeds, resoure management, encumbrance, random encounters, and weather. All of this will be based heavily on the 1981 Expert Rules by David Cook. Those are a really good start and reference point, but they can be improved and require some tweaking to work with 5th Ed.

I have a long and very conflicted relationship with hex maps, which I attribute primarily for my distaste of hexcrawl campaigns and my appreciation of pointcrawls. But using hexes to measure distances and treating hexes as discrete areas are completely different things, and my dislike of the later is no reason to completely discard the former. One reason I don’t like hexmaps is the amount of time it takes me to make anything good looking. Another is the way in which it makes the players interact with the fantastic imagined world. Filling in little white hexes with as you move along really feels just plain wrong to me. But when you just want to measure distances and see whether the movement is along roads or through plains or not, then you can simply add a hex grid overlay to any existing map. In most situations, you are going to need separate maps for the players and the GM anyway. I recommend the GM-map with all the secret locations marked on it getting a hex grid overlay, while the player map does not. But ultimately, what made me decide to use hex grids for this system, was the issue of parties getting lost. This seems quite important for a system intended to be used in a giant forest without roads, and I just can’t think of any way in which this could be handled on a point map.

Using a hex grid to measure distances for a journey has been a long established tool, but neither 3rd nor 5th Ed. are designed for it. When you try to convert movement rates to hexes, you always keep ending up  with the party traveling 1/2 hexes over a full day, or 3/4 hexes. Which I think defeats the entire purpose of measuring distances in hexes in the first place. So I made the decision to not attempt doing that and instead begin the entire design process by creating a system in which movement can only ever happen in full hexes and everything else will be tailored to fit on top of that.

I decided to use the Travel Pace table from the PHB as reference, which has speed always being either fast, normal, or slow, and the terrain either being regular (easy) or difficult, with difficult terrain taking double the time to cross than easy terrain. 3rd Ed. also had terrains that would take 1/4 or 3/4 normal time to cross and while that may seem more “realistic” it really makes things needlessly complicated. All of this is pure make believe anyway, somewhat inspired by reality, but completely disconnected from it. Two types of terrain is enough, and I also don’t consider it to be useful to account for the different walking speeds of smaller and larger creatures. While there are significant differences in running speed that matter in tactical combat, when travelling an entire day we can simply assume that smaller characters have the natural stamina to walk at a faster pace to keep up with the walking speed of larger characters. Stamina is also the reason why horses generally don’t travel further in a day than humans. The important difference is that a horse can carry all your heavy supplies with ease without being slowed down by them as you would. So three movement speeds and two types of terrain it is. And I think there are really just two practical ways this resulting table could look like.

Simple System

Speed Easy Terrain Difficult Terrain
Fast 6 hexes 3 hexes
Normal 4 hexes 2 hexes
Slow 2 hexes 1 hex

PHB System

Speed Easy Terrain Difficult Terrain
Fast 8 hexes 4 hexes
Normal 6 hexes 3 hexes
Slow 4 hexes 2 hex

In the Simple System, we have movement speeds in the ratios 3:2:1. The Travel Pace table gives movement in miles per day, but these are in the ratios 4:3:2, which I replicated in the PHB System table.

The next question is now “how big is a hex?” I tried out different hex sizes, and again there are only two solutions that really make sense and get close to the distances in the Travel Pace table in the PHB. The following tables show how much distance would be covered when traveling the number of hexes given in the previous tables.

Simple System, 6-mile hexes

Speed Easy Terrain Difficult Terrain
Fast 36 miles (+20%) 18 miles (+20%)
Normal 24 miles 12 miles
Slow 12 miles (-33%) 6 miles (-33%)

PHB System, 4-mile hexes

Speed Easy Terrain Difficult Terrain
Fast 32 miles (+7%) 16 miles (+7%)
Normal 24 miles 12 miles
Slow 16 miles (-11%) 8 miles (-11%)

Both tables happen to have 24 miles for normal pace in easy terrain, which is exactly the same number as in the Travel Pace table. Using the Symple System with the speed ratios of 3:2:1 and and 6-mile hexes, we get significantly more miles covered at fast speed and fewer miles covered at low speed, when compared to the distances given in the Travel Pace table.

In contrast, when using the PHB System with speed ratios of 4:3:2 and 4-mile hexes, these differences are much smaller. Exactly one third the difference we get in the Simple System. So when it comes to replicating the Travel Pace table from the PHB as closely as possible in full hexes without fractions, this one is the clear winner.

But in the end, I am still going to go forward into creating my additional travel mechanics using the Simple System with its speed ratios of 3:2:1 and 6-mile hexes. As a simple matter of practicality. 6-mile hexes are quite probably the most commonly used size for hexes by far. There are a huge amount of existing resources out there that have hex maps at the 6-mile scale. And there are other reasons why 6-mile hexes are really good. In contrast, I don’t think I’ve ever come across any map that uses 4-mile hexes.

Yes, if you would start from scratch in a vacuum, 4-mile hexes are clearly the better choice. But when dealing with hex maps in D&D, we are looking back at four decades of established customs and existing resources. And I really don’t want to muddle with that.

xkcd

My ideas for sea travel hexes aren’t worth a separate post, so I am adding them here:

While movement speed on land appear to be somewhat plausible when compared to reality, speeds for water travel are completely fictional. The numbers in the PHB seem considerably too low, but then you also get the complication that ships being propelled by wind depend on the wind conditions to move and because of the way sails work, going in a straight line is generally not the quickest path to get where you want to. Creating an even halfway decent approximation of ship speeds is way more complex than it would ever be worth it in a game like this, and so whatever system you are using will be a very basic abstraction.

For the same reasons that I prefer the 6-mile hex for land travel, I also like to go with the 30-mile hex for sea travel. 24-mile hexes would have more flexibility if you would want to have ships with many different speeds, but I am satisfied with ships being either “fast” or “slow”, with no further differentiation.

Speed is determined by the vessel and the water and wind conditions. Favorable Conditions means that the wind blows in the right direction at a good strength, or that the boat is going down a river with a significant current. Unfavorable Conditions means that the wind is weak and blowing from a bad direction, or that the boat is going up a river against a significant current. Average Conditions simply mean that the wind is neither particularly good or bad, or that the river does not have a significant current.

Ships out at sea can travel for 24 hours per day. By the PHB, rowboats are 50% faster than river boats. But a sailed river boat requires less work to move, so you can travel for more hours until it gets too dark. I say the two cancel each other out and the total distance per day comes out the same.

Water Travel

Speed Favorable Average Unfavorable
Boat 6 hexes (6-miles) 4 hexes (6-miles) 2 hexes (6-miles)
Slow Ship 3 hexes (30-miles) 2 hexes (30-miles) 1 hex (30-miles)
Fast Ship 6 hexes (30-miles) 4 hexes (30-miles) 2 hexes (30-miles)

From what I was able to find out, doing 36 miles rowing downriver is quite realistic, and for the sake of abstraction we’re ignoring that actual rivers aren’t straight. And again, the reality of travel speeds are much more complicated than this. This is the speed characters with light encumbrance would do in easy terrain. Since most wilderness in my campaigns isn’t easy and supplies for a long trip can easyily mean having heavy encumbrance, this is very good.

Going upriver would only be 2 hexes per day. Which is also what you get when travelling on foot through difficult terrain with heavy encumbrance. Since a long expedition is probably going to haul a lot of stuff with them and most wilderness will be difficult terrain, doing such a trip by boat isn’t going to be any faster or slower than doing it on foot. No change when going up the river, but huge advantage when going back down totally justifies the use of boats to travel deep into the wilderness for me.

So why don’t you use the regular guards? What do you need us for?

I’ve been playing RPGs for almost 20 years now, most of it as a gamemaster. And the one thing that has always bothered me the most, with every single campaign, was to find a way to get the first couple of adventures going in a way that doesn’t feel terribly implausible and forced. When a new campaign starts and the characters are more or less blank canvases, your only practical options are having a dungeon sitting right outside town and the players checking it out because they know that’s what they are supposed to, or to have a random stranger approach them and offer payment for getting a thing or rescuing someone. It just really doesn’t feel believable that people would trust this to unknown vagabonds instead of joining forces with others from the community. It is more reasonable at higher levels, but 1st level PCs are not much more capable than a posse with spears and bows led by a halfway capable leader.

I think to some degree, this is a personal problem. It’s something nobody else ever seems to worry about and players are completely happy to run with when they are dropped into a new campaign. But it always bothers me a lot and I feel it’s the primary reason why it always takes me so long to get a new campaign started.

But after all this time, I finally got the solution. And it’s really stupidly simple.

The characters may be more or less blank slates at the start of the campaign and completely new to the area they know nothing about yet, but that doesn’t mean they had no existence before the start of the campaign. Even if the players don’t know about them, the characters will have friends, relatives, and acquaintences outside their nondescriptive native villages.

It makes little sense to try to get help with very sensitive things from random strangers of dubious appearance. But things change completely when they come with personal recommendation. The letter from a distant relative might be a bit cliched, and I wouldn’t use it myself. But you can very well have the party arrive in a random, looking for a place to rest while making new plans, and randomly meeting people from their previous life. And these might just be the people who right now happen to need some tough and smart guys to help with a serious problem. To them, seeing their old pals showing up out of the blue at just this moment, would be a blessing from the gods.

I don’t know why I never thought of this before. It’s terribly simple, but compared to most generic low-level adventure hooks it’s amazingly elegant. The best thing about this is that it should work with every adventure ever written. You can always insert a minor NPCs whose only role is to introduce the quest starter to the players.

I really wish I had thought of this 15 years ago.

The most useless RPG advice ever

“If you want that, you really should be running a different game.”

That’s not advice. That’s just stupid. You might notice that it’s always “a different game”, never any actual specific game.

This is not helping. Never suggest this to anybody if you can’t recommend a specific system and explain why this might potentially be an interesting game to take into consideration for the campaign in question.

Failure is always an option

Yesterday there was a post on Mythic Fantasy about the idea that “combat is a fail state” is nonsense. Sadly it’s not possible to comment there directly without a Google Account, but now Necropraxis also picked it up so let’s make this a proper discussion.

“Combat means that the players have failed” is wrong, I agree with that. But I think this is just an oversimplification resulting from years of careless repetition, about an actually significant observation.

As I see it, it’s not that “combat means the party failed their task of stealing treasure undetected”. For ease of use by people who assumed everyone already knew what they were talking about, critical details were no longer mentioned in the ongoing discussion of the subject. But what I think it really means is that “unprepared combat in an environment not of their chosing means the party failed their task of maximizing their odds of survivial”. Combat is always an option. It’s a tool in the toolbox and one of the original classes was specifically made for this job. But swords are only one tool and not meant to be used alone. You don’t just walk through doors, put your hands into holes, make a lot of noise, and see what happens. Because then the opponents prepare for a fight and pick a battlefield of their choice. When this happens and the players chose to stand their ground and fight under the conditions their enemies want them to, then they have failed.

If they die in a fight that isn’t stacked in their favor, then they have nobody to blame but themselves. They have plenty of options to scout the environment and the numbers and positions of potential threats, to plan for retreats and set ambushes, to protect themselves with spells and potions, and to prepare a battlefield by setting or clearing onstacles. If they don’t make use of these tools, they failed in playing the game right. Which they might not know, so it is one of the GM’s duties to show the players that these options do exist and to set up dungeons in which they can be applied. You don’t need to tell them what to do in a fight, but to players who are not familiar with such games, it is not obvious that your allowed options are not restricted to their character sheets.

And also: Just because something is stupid doesn’t mean it isn’t fun. There are lots of reasons why players might want to create situations they know could have been avoided. I think most of us don’t play for a score, but for excitement. RPGs are not meant to be an optimization exercise but an adventure.

Genericness in a Sandbox of Modules

When it comes to setting up a sandbox environment for a new campaign, one suggestion you can frequently come across is to begin the process by assembling a pile of your favorite modules and adventures that you always wanted to use or reuse. Arrange them around the map and then look for opportunities to make connections between them, perhaps by doing some reflavoring of NPCs or switching out some monsters.

Having tried that out in the past, this process really does work quite well. You get something pretty solid with a good amount of inviting content quite quickly. But as someone who has a big thing for worlds that are high concept, with distinctive traits that create a specific and unique style, I discovered this approach to come with a considerable drawback. If your planned campaign is a fantasy adventure game, the pool for material to draw from will primarily consist of Dungeons & Dragons releases and third party offshots. The problem with these is that they have been created to either fit neatly into first Greyhawk and later Forgotten Realms, or to fit easily into most people’s campaign. Which are generally quite comparable to Greyhawk or Forgotten Realms. It is what we can today confidently call Generic Fantasy or the Standard Fantasy Setting. Gaming Fantasy has also seen some use as a term in recent years.

That is not to say that such adventure’s aren’t good. Of course, 90% of everything is crap and so are most adventures, but there are some real gems among them that really make you want to run them. In fact, I would say that the best adventures are so good that they can grab you and you can get deeply immersed in them. Which generally is a great thing, but I found it to be a great hindrance when you are trying to create a new campaign with distinctive fresh style.

Of course it completely true that you can always reflavor everything. But my experience over the years has been that it’s always been a real struggle for me. When I want to make great adventures my own, I have to constantly fight them. Making them adjust to my setting instead of my setting adjusting to them. In a way, this gives real credit to those adventures.  They get me hooked and immersed just by reading them as a GM. When this happens, the writers certainly did something right.

But it’s not very helpful for me in my effort to create a campaign that feels very different from 15th century western Europe with magic and dragons. So I have increasingly abandoned this approach. Instead I now start by looking at a listing of the key stylistic principles and themes for my planned setting and deduce from that what kinds of adventure locations and antagonist would have the most potential to bring these to life. I still use concepts from some of my favorite modules which I take as the starting point for creating new original content, but no longer use the actual modules themselves. Except for Against the Cult of the Reptile God and The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun. Those are just too compelling not to use with only cosmetic changes.

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.:

Wounds

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.