Wizards of the Coast bought Dungeons & Dragons from TSR in 1997.
With the game first being sold in 1974 and now being 2019, we are now reaching the point where it’s going to be a property of WotC for longer than it was of TSR.
Wizards of the Coast bought Dungeons & Dragons from TSR in 1997.
With the game first being sold in 1974 and now being 2019, we are now reaching the point where it’s going to be a property of WotC for longer than it was of TSR.
Terry Carr once famously quoted a friend who said “The Golden Age of Science Fiction is twelve.” And when you look at any big list of “Greatest Songs of all time”, you will always find it consisting almost exclusively of songs from the 60s and early 70s. When the generation of today’s music journalists were in their teens. So it really came to absolutely no surprise to me to realize that the really big aesthetic influences on Green Sun all come from around the year 2000, when I was 16.
The seed of the aesthetic that fills my brain was planted by Star Wars, in particular Dagobah, Cloud City, Jabba’s Palace, and Endor. I had first seen the movies in 1994, but my undying love really began in 1997 with the rerelease of the movies and us getting them on video.
Albion is a neat but rather obscure little German RPG that was released in 1995, but which I only became aware of a couple of years later once I had been hooked by RPGs. It’s a game about a prospecting ship crashing on a planet and discovering that the clouds and strange magnetic field had been hiding a jungle world swarming with life. The two starting characters are rescued by local cat people living in cities consisting of houses made from living trees and I believe there was also supernatural powers involved. From a technical point the game is really ugly and I think it also was even back when it was released, but the design of the world is really quite amazing.
Riven is probably the best remembered adventure game today after The Longest Journey and was released in 1997. The aesthetics of the game are literally out of this world, which I think comes partly from the primitive 3D-pre-rendering technology used to create the environments.
Baldur’s Gate was my gateway to both fantasy and RPGs, but it’s successor Baldur’s Gate II in 2000 surpasses it in every conceivable way. I felt a bit conflicted about the change in visual aesthetics that was quite a move away from the traditional medieval style of the first game. But it is precisely that change to a mediteranean aesthetic with influences from Planescape that stayed with me over the years. I also did play Planescape: Torment around that time and while the game itself never fully won me over, it’s very faithful adaptation of the setting’s visual style and the perfectly matching soundtrack that came with is still nothing but astonishing.
Off all the influences after Star Wars, Morrowind was the big one in 2002. I was captivated by the previews that I had read that I even got the English version before the German version was translated several months later. And I have to say that at this point, my English wasn’t quite up to the task yet. I could kind of manage, but it turned out to always be a strugle. And it certainly didn’t help that Bethesda RPG design still doesn’t click with me to this day. I still don’t understand how you’re meant to play them to get the proper experience. But the world was a whole different story. I was still in the mindset that proper fantasy way was magical rennaisance fair and Morrowind was most certainly not that. Not knowing anything else about the setting, this was more like an alien planet with medieval technology. And I found it to be just pure awesome. Huge mushrooms side by side with trees. Giant insects used for transport, and dinosaurs as farm animals. And of course living god kings represented by their soldiers in bronze armor with bronze masks. I never progressed far into the story and I tried getting back into the game many times, never being able to maintain my interest into playing it for more than a week or two. But every couple of years it’s the strange and alien setting that makes me want to go back.
Shortly after, in 2003, came Knights of the Old Republic, still widely regarded as the best Star Wars game ever made and in hindsight the clear prototype for Mass Effect (a series that ended up being super-80’s-retro itself). When I played it again recently, I found the game to be quite lacking in many respects, but the style and feel of that game still is as outstanding as it always was. The visual and audio design feels like it is what game creators would have wanted to make a decade earlier if their technology had been up to it.
The Savage Frontier is a sourcebook for Dungeons & Dragons that was actually released in 1988, but I think it must have been around 2003 that I first read it. Having played Icewind Dale and Neverwinter Nights, read all the Drizzt books that existed at that time, and becoming involved in the development of an NWN server set on the edge of the High Forest, I hunted down and devoured all material available on the North. And I have to admit that I thought The Savage Frontier was pretty rubbish. To start it all off, it was short. To a teenage German fantasy nerd, detail and minutia are everything. The information was also outdated, and when you have bought in entirely into metaplot and the need for accuracy, old information superceeded by newer sourcebooks is entirely obsolete. It also felt somewhat off. Not sufficently traditionally medieval in style as the 2nd Edition material. But the later, much bigger box of The North has pretty much faded entirely from my mind years ago, while the thin little The Savage Frontier still inspires me again and again.
Given how strikingly memorable things in the 80s were, the 90s often feel very much overlooked or even forgotten. But in hindsight, there was a huge sphere of fantasy works that shared a common and actually quite distinct style that was still similar to its precursors from the 70s and 80s, but also evolved into a new form of otherworldly strangeness that at the same time felt weirdly inviting. Like Masters of the Universe, but with a slightly more dreamlike quality. At least to me. I’ve recently become quite a big fan of the wave of Dune games that followed the 1984 movie and tried to evoke it’s aesthetics. I don’t know why, but somehow desert space fantasy settings seem to be one of the biggest influences on my own forest bronze-age fantasy setting.
But yeah, I don’t really have any actual insights to share. I basically just wanted to gush. This style of fantasy settings is awesome but seems to be getting almost no love. Well, I still love it and I feel no shame in fully embracing it’s slight kitshy undertones.
Yes, that thing. Or “thing”. OSR.
I was just peeking in again at Dragonsfoot, and unexpectedly, though it really shouldn’t have surprised me, I almost immediately came upon onother recent discussion of “What is OSR?” And my first reaction was “probably better not click at it, it’s almost certainly just more bickering and doom mongering about the state of western society”. This is the point where we are now. Where I think we’ve been for quite a while now. And I very much doubt that I am in a small minority of people having this reaction. I did end up looking into that thread and yes it was primarily about bitching about the collapse of western society. I didn’t read very far, but there were some intitial points raised that made me come to a conclusion about the various feelings I’ve had on the subject.
OSR has been over for a couple of years now. It’s not dead, it’s been concluded.
From how I experienced it, that thing that later became known as OSR began in the mid 2000s when the 3rd Edition of Dungeons & Dragons kept bloating and bloating until it was eventually discontinued and the plans for the new 4th Edition were increasingly looking like a drastic departure from all that had come before. And for a lot of people, that was the point where they said “I’m no longer wishing to keep up with current developments. I’m just going back to play the game the way I had enjoyed the most and stick with that.” OSRIC had actually been out since 2006, two years before 4th Edition. But I think the end of 3rd Edition really was the point where a lot of people paused to reflect about whether they wanted to hop onto this new thing or stick with their current thing, or perhaps even go back to an older thing.
And I think it is this reflection that really was this thing that went on to become known as OSR. Old School Reflections? It wasn’t just people thiking to themselves with which game edtion they had the most fun, but engaging in a wider conversation on why they feel they had more fun through the medium of blogspot sites. It was a period in which people dug into old rulebooks to critically analyze the mechanics and advice given in them, and exchange their experience with other GMs who were doing the same. Many things that had been discarded and dismissed as silly where quite literally rediscovered, and with the great wealth of experiences that had been gathered over the decades could now actually be much better understood. Old School Research?
The thing with research of this kind is that you often make lots of easy big discoveries early on, some more difficult discoveries later, and after that only very rarely minor and obscure discoveries of little impact to the bigger field. And I think this is exactly what we’ve been seeing here. All the really big and exciting stuff in OSR happened between about 2008 and 2010. Then the ocasional neat new idea up to maybe 2014, but since then I don’t think anyone has been making any new major contributions to the field. The Rennaisance had reached its end, it’s work been done.
It’s not like all of it went up in smoke and feded into the wind. I would argue the opposite. Of course, it seems quite ridiculous to say that the 5th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons is an OSR game. It really isn’t. But it is also very hard to deny that during the creation of this new game, the creators did draw significantly from this knowledge reintroduced into the sphere of fantasy adventure games by the old school revivalists. Not everything has been widely embraced, some things remain the domain of fringe enthusiasts. But the creative and intelectual space of roleplaying games today is fully suffused by ideas that came out of this period of reflections about what made early RPGs tick. If the term Old School Rennaisance makes any sense, then this is what it’s really about.
This does leave us with this somewhat strange position in which we are finding us today. Today, when something gets labled as OSR, it really is an “Old School Roleplaying Game”, which is “D&D Editions released by TSR”. It is a group of games, one among many other options that groups can chose from. But I think many people are fondly remembering the creative movement from a decade ago and are still somewhat under the impression that the two are still the same thing. And when there is nothing really left to discover or create, the only thing left to “the movement” is an endless cycle of self-reflection. Which is a conversation lots of people see little appeal in, which in turn provides much more space and attention for people who relish bickering. There probably has always been bickering, but with the intelectual and creative conversation having been concluded, that little bickering is now the only thing that is still going on.
Looking at my archive of posts, I stoppded using the OSR tag in mid 2017, almost two years ago now. It’s not that I no longer care about reaction rolls and morale checks, random encounters, encumbrance, noncombat-XP, and monsters that are safer to circumnavigate then to fight. I still love them, and I discovered their value from the great ongoing conversation about older RPGs. But all the things I am doing and writing now don’t feel to me like contributions to this discussion. A discussion that has concluded.
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:
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
I went into the creation of the Green Sun setting (which I think could get a proper name by now) deliberately avoiding any elements that are specific original creations of Dungeons & Dragons. And I still think that this was a really good idea. Dark Sun and Planscape are both my favorite D&D settings, and I am far from alone in that opinion. And they both have their own setting specific casts of monsters, many of which became quite iconic, that aren’t part of the regular D&D economy. Especially with Dark Sun, which has only unique creatures other than elves, dwarves, and halflings, but even with Planescape most of the famous monsters first appeared in that setting and where added to the regular monster manuals later.
Setting out to make a non-D&D world first and only later starting to think of how it would translate to D&D rules (which wasn’t even a given when I started the work) led to a very different outcome than if I had just sat down with a Player’s Handbook and Monster Manual and browsed for the classes and creatures that I want to use. But now that I decided to start the first campaign using the setting in D&D 5th Edition and a lot of my creatures can be done perfectly with reskins of existing creature stats, I don’t feel bad about picking other creatures that I find fitting for the setting from the Monster Manual and Volo’s Guide to Monsters as well.
These are dangerous creatures of the wilderness that are not magical in nature but clearly more than normal animals.
This category consists of fey, as well as all plant creatures and most elementals. They are all detected by a detect good or evil spell and affected by similar magic.
This category covers spirits that are native to the Realm Beneath, the subterranean wilderness that is inspired by Pandemonium and Gehenna, and also beings from the stars, though there aren’t any of those at this point. They are all either aberrations or fiends.
Undead are limited to the very basics. Undead in the world are always the result of warlocks using powers gained from Spirits from Below and Beyond and never rise naturally.
This category covers all the natural animals that are enough of a threat to deserve getting stats.
There are a handful of additional creatures that I want to incorporate, but for those I have to write stats first. When I have them, I will share them here with descriptions.
I didn’t plan that eight of the Top 10 biggest critters are all underworld monsters, but that’s actually a pretty cool outcome.
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.
When the Basic Rules pdf for Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition was released, I was not impressed by it. I had had high hopes for it when the playtests started, but it didn’t turn out as the game I was hoping it to be and I lost most interest in it. What I had been looking for at that time was an improved version of the ancient Basic/Expert rules, or at the very least a polished version of AD&D. Which is not what this game is. I was not impressed.
But now I find myself in a rather different position. As my apprenticeship, and accordingly my current living arangements, are coming to an end in a months, the stars will be right to get my new campaign off the ground. I created the setting deliberately avoiding making it a D&D world, inhabited by D&D races and D&D monsters, with the D&D classes making up the ranks of influential figures, and societies being build around the presence of D&D spells. I wanted it to be something that has its own identity first and gets rules applied to it later. I envisoned something very much like Dark Sun, which technically is AD&D, but with some tweaks to races and classes and serious reflavoring turned out into something distinctively different from Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, or Dragonlance.
For the last week I have been playing a lot of Baldur’s Gate, the game that first introduced me to not just Dungeons & Dragons, but also RPGs, and made me see that fantasy is more than just The Lord of the Rings. And it got me interested in running D&D again. I had briefly flirted with Dungeon World, but that game is neither D&D, nor Apocalypse World; something less than the sum of its parts. I got excited again for actual D&D, with classes and levels. Which for me meant B/X. The game much simpler than 3rd Edition and much less messy than AD&D. But when talking with people with a general interest in playing a campaign in the forseeable future, I got to consider the possibility that there might be an overwhelming popular demand to play 5th Edition again. And I wanted to check if this is a game that I could be persuaded with sufficient force to run, or something that I would fight against with my dying breath.
This time I sat down with the actual Player’s Handbook. Not just the Basic Rules or the SRD with their limited coverage of all the class specializations. And as it turned out, it really has quite a bit to offer for a Green Sun campaign. While talking about systems, the conversation came to the big problems that made me regard 3rd Edition and Pathfinder as completely unplayable by now: Ever growing gaps between modifiers as levels go up, way too many small situational modifiers to remember during combat, skill points and feats slowing down character creation and especially creating NPCs and monsters, and spell slot preparation. And all of these have been adressed, quite successfully, in 5th Edition. The proficiency bonus and fixed saving throws keep modifiers from escalating, the advantage mechanic takes care of most situational modifiers, and skill points are gone and feats are much rarer and optional. Spell slots are still called spell slots, but they are actually a kind of spell points now. Regarding the mechanics, this is a game I can definitely run without any pain.
When it comes to character races and classes, I am still feeling somewhat ambiguous. Humans getting +1 to all ability scores still feels very wrong. Rogues getting 1d8 hit points per level still feels too much. Superiority Dice and Ki Points let characters do nonmagical things only a limited amount of times per day. And other things like that. But with some I can live, and when adapting the system to the setting, I am going to have to limit the options of classes and specializations anyway.
The first thing that really draw me to the system is the bard. Because I soon realized that the bard makes for an awesome shaman. If you say that the character does not use inspiring music but chants to the spirits for blessings and protection, you got yourself a solid shaman. The class has access to all the basic healing spells and the enchantments and illusions can be treated as spirits messing with the targets’ minds and perception. There are a few cleric and druid spells that would round out the spell list very nicely, but even with just the default bard spells, you can have a campaign setting that has only bards but no clrics, druids, and paladins.
That already had me intrigued, but what really got me excited was the warlock.
The warlock is just the thing that I need to represent the sorcerers of the Green Sun setting. The Fiery Spirits of the Realm Below from which the Sorcerer Lords of Ven Marhend gain their powers are perfectly matched by The Fiend. The Sorcerer Queen of Halva is an Archfey. And the Old One is just what the Dark Spirits of the Realm Beyond are meant to be. The warlock is a class that to my Baldur’s Gate defined sensibilities has always been inappropriate and out of place. But this is different now. I don’t want to run 90’s Forgotten Realms. I want to run Green Sun. And shaman bards and warlocks fit it perfectly.
Here is my current idea how the campaign in D&D 5th Edition could look like:
I’ve always been of the opinion that the main thing that makes a setting interesting and compelling is a distinctive style. You can have wonderful top notch stories set in the most generic settings with all the default elements, but in those cases it’s the plot and characters that are compelling, not the setting. It works, of course, but when your goal is to make a setting that is a fascinating and exciting place, then you really have to think about a distinct style. Planescape, Dark Sun, and Star Wars all being great examples.
I’ve been playing around with different campaigns and settings for years now, and over time I discovered a couple of stylistic elements that keep coming up again and again, and that just really work for me. With this new setting, I want to build them into the fabric of the world not just accidentally, but deliberately.
I don’t really remember where the idea originally came from, but several years back I had made the decision that in my fantasy, I want environments to be awesome. This means things that are huge, but in the modern world we are used to cities that stretch to the horizon and buildings with hundreds of rooms. But what still impresses us ars things that are really tall. And here I admit taking an idea directly from Tolkien. That guy put massive towers everywhere in Middle-Earth. Because giant towers are awesome. Why make a dungeon underground when you can have it in a tower?
Another thing that is thin and tall, and can get incredibly big, are trees. And this world is primarily a forest setting with just a bit of forest and the sea. I think associating towers with the tree motif is perfect for the setting.
Really not much deeper thoughts to that. I like steep spires, and I can not lie.
The idea of making masks a prominent stylistic feature of the setting wasn’t so much a decision but really a discovery. I get easily distracted by whatever cool things capture my intention and want to include them in what I am working on, but that only dilutes the strong initial premise and leads to a generic mush of random components. To counter that impulse, I regularly go back browsing through my image folder to remind me of the cool initial concept I had. I’ve shared a couple of them in previous posts about the setting to get my idea across. And at some point, a few weeks ago, I realized that of all the pictures of characters that represent the visual style of gear and clothing, a good majority of them were wearing mask, or some kind of heavy warpaint. And I quickly decided to take this purely visial element that I just thought looks cool, and turn it into an actual major component of the culture of the setting.
Masks are fascinating objects. The first thing that comes to my mind when I think simply of “mask”, is something that obscures the face. But specific masks also replace the wearer’s appearance with an alternative face. And in addition to that, many types of masks also serve to protect the face. They represent a barrier between the self and the outside world more than any other kind of armor does. In an antiquity, and to some extend medieval cultures, we encounter masks both with priests and shamans as part of rituals to contact the gods, and also with warriors as part of the helmet, the most critical piece of armor after the shield, often displaying a fearsome appearance to the enemy. I think everyone will immediately agree that masks are extremely complex cultural objects with deep and layered psychological meaning when you start thinking about them.
One idea that I got quite early on was that priests and shamans are wearing masks because the spirits they are dealing with have extreme difficulties with distinguishing and recognizing mortal faces. A problem they don’t have with crafted masks. When dealing with spirits, a mask enables the spirit to recognize the shaman as an individual. This has to very interesting consequences. The first is that by switching between masks, one becomes completely unrecognizable to spirits. The other is that stealing someone elses masks is an absolutely foolproof disguise as spirits are concerned. I think this has great potential for very interesting things to happen in a game.
Annother idea for the setting is that in certain very specific situations, while wearing a specific type of special mask, you are allowed to get around certain social restrictions. Because by wearing the mask and putting on a different face, you are assuming a new identity. And it is enforced by cultural tradition that your actions can not be held against you once the mask is taken off. As society is concerned, you did nothing objectionable and it’s a grave social offense to not respect these ancient cultural traditions. I have not put much thought into specific social tabus for the setting, but as society is concerned, the wearing of certain masks in the right circumstances makes you a different individual.
And finally there’s of course the many fun things you can do with enchanted masks. Masks that do hide your identity with unfailing reliability. Masks that shield your mind from intrusions or protect against other harmful effects. And they make of course great identifying features for special NPCs, or iconic helmets for elite soldiers.
Once I had noticed that I really love the look of masks on character images, I went back to see if there are other common motives in the reference pictures I had collected. And a less striking but still noticable pattern was the frequent appearance of unusually colored lamps. The use of striking lighting in visual arts has long fascinated made. Primarily in natural environments, but also the highly stylized urban environments of Cyberpunk and Neo-Noir in general. Over the last years I have frequently been thinking how neo-noir aesthetics and sensibilities could possibly be integrated into bronze age fantasy settings. But the neon lighting was something I had always dismissed as being obviously incompatible. But there is actually one important exception, which is the fantastic visual design of Morrowind. I’m not really a fan of The Elder Scrolls as games, but the worldbuilding and design of Morrowind is hands down the most amazing I have ever seen since Star Wars. And part of the visual design of Morrowind is the heavy use of colored lamps and luminescent mushrooms. And the result is neon lighting. I knew I had to have that in the setting!
The first time I encountered a magic lamp in fantasy was in Baldur’s Gate II, where you first have to find the magic lamp that shows you the secret path to reach the hidden elf city. In the game it was just a key item that lets you click on a new area transition, but I still found the idea fascinating and was always disapointed that I never found any other cool lamps in games or RPG books. But there’s actually a lot you can do with magic lamps once you free yourself from the d20 paradigm of magic items giving you special attacks or stat bonuses.
What I find particularly interesting about lamps is how they are a natural counterpart to masks. Masks hides faces from sight, while a lamp reveals things that are unseen. This realization was what really made me want to build certain iconic elements into the structure of the setting.
The obvious uses for special lamps is to reveal invisible supernatural things to the normal eye. Lamps that make spirits visible, reveal undead creatures, and dispel illusions. But as in the example I gave above, lamps can also be used to show the way to different certain things. A lamp can attract certain beings to it, but its light might also keep various creatures at bay. And though it dilutes the contrast with masks, lamps could also be used as a means to fool the eye and hide certain things in their glare or the shadows they cast.
One of the various thing that made the world of Morrowind so amazing and exotic to me was the use of giant mushrooms that are growing side by sides with trees that are about the same size. That imagery has always stuck with me for all the years, and it’s something I often thought of as one part in making a wilderness setting feel exotic and alien.
The last two years I’ve been training as a gardener (soon to upgrade to studying horticulture at university), and fungi are a thing we constantly have to deal with. They are perhaps the most important type of pests plants have to deal with, but fungi are also an extremely critical component of the biosphere within the soil. Mushrooms are well enough known as a vegetable, but on a closer look, fungi are an utterly bizare form of life, completely different from plants or animals.
Unlike plants, fungi don’t use photosynthesis. Instead they get their energy to grow frm, the chemical energy released in the breaking down of organic compounds. They digest the remains from other living things just like animals do, which allows them to live in darkness, subsisting on organic material brought in by animals or wind and running water.
But what’s really bizare about them is that the mushrooms that grow from the ground on on trees are really just the flowers of much larger organisms that live in the soil or wood as huge networks of microscopic strands, often too fine to see with the eye. And the underground networks of fungi can be absolutely massive, covering many hectares of forest.
Then you also have the fact that many fungi are toxic to humans, some even deadly. In a fantasy world, the spores and secretions released by fungi could have almost limitless strange effects.
I actually can not remember ever having seen depictions or descriptions of real glowing mushrooms. But in popular perception they do exist, and I think are well enough established in fantasy. And exotic but believable light sources are something I can never have enough of. Bioluminescens is the perfect solution to get a nonmagical underwater light source for flooded caves and dungeons, though I am not going to tell this to my players.
Overall, I think there is massive potential to use fungi as both monsters and environmental effects.
This is another thing I noticed only after it had already become a pattern, though this one goes back a couple of years. But at some point I realized that the majority of monsters I have created in the past are some kinds of worms, both directly and in the most abstract sense.
As a fan of Robert Howard, I of course love big giant snakes. What for Lovecraft was his fish and for Tolkien is spiders, was for Howard his snakes. It’s impossible to imagine ancient fantasy or Sword & Sorcery without giant snakes. Snake men are also super cool. But then there’s also giant centipedes. And giant eels. Giant grubs and caterpilars, And on the mammal side, I think the coolest group of predators are weasels. Which also have a generally similar body shape. And then there are various river monsters around the world that occasionally have been interpreted by artists as giant monstrous otters. And damn, I do love carrion crawlers.
So if half of all the monsters I come up with are various forms of worms, so what? It’s not something you have to fight, so why not embrace it? I can always live happily with more wormy critters crawling through the setting.
Just another random idea:
Converting Dungeon World to the d20 Conan character classes.
I like a lot of the ideas of the d20 Conan game, except for the fact that it uses the d20 system. Using the Dungeon World system might actually make them work.