Help! Starting a new nonlinear campaign

Earlier this week I mentioned between classes that I’d really like to play an RPG again. And as luck has it, my friends all got quite excited about the idea. Only two of them have actually played any games before, but all the others are also quite enthusiastic and so I know have 6 players already and a good chance that this game will keep going for two or three years. The kind of opportunity every small-time GM would wish for.

I’ve decited to ditch Pathfinder and instead go with Castles & Crusades, which is much easier to learn, faster to play, and allows much more freedom because preparing for multiple possible outcomes requires much less time and work, and I can even make up things on the fly. However, having always run rather linear games in which there was a clearly structured sequence of setpieces, I don’t really have any experience with planning a much more open-ended campaign. While I like the possibilities of sandbox games, I don’t want to make it a hexcrawl, but instead provide an interesting starting situation in which the players are free to take sides and steer events towards and outcome that is in their favor. There probably is a huge amount of information out there on the subject and reports of campaigns that people actually ran, but finding those is the difficult part.

If anyone has any pointers towards articles, campaign reports, and similar sources, it would be hugely appreciated if you could share the links in the comments.

That’s no ordinary rabbit!

I got this idea watching a video about Machine for Pigs a few days ago, in which the primary enemies are pigmen. For some reason it got me thining about werwolves, probably because a half-man-half-pig is similar to a half-man-half-wolf. However, one is a person afflicted by a disease that makes him turn under the light of the full moon and invulnerable to anything but silver, while the other is an alchemically warped hybrid of two creatures that doesn’t have any of these special traits.

With a werwolf, you know exactly what you are dealing with. You know what caused it, what triggered it, how the creature behaves, and how to kill it. But while a pigman might also stalk the night an brutally tear its victims to pieces, you don’t know anything about its behavior patterns and how it can be killed. And that’s the key to making horror monsters. Fear is essentially a response to not knowing how to respond to a dangrous situation. When you understand the danger, you can deal with it in a safe way, or at least get yourself out of harms way. You are in control of the situation, so there is no reason to fear.

So when it comes to creating or using horror creatures, it’s vital that the players do not know what they are dealing with. And I think it might be even more effective if the players think they know what they are dealing with and that they are in control of the situation, only to have them realize that the weapons and protective items they brought don’t do anything against the creature. Right now, I really want to make a short adventure in which an unseen creature attacks people during nights of the full moon, leaves behind mangled corpses, and is only seen as a shaggy bipedal shape that jumps in great leaps over roofs and walls. But then it keeps attacking even after the full moon has passed and its entirely unaffected by silver and wolfsbane. Which the players will only realize once they sprung their trap and have the beast cornered.

Reading the AD&D 1st Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide

Ask anywhere which older RPG books (pre-2000) are among the best and you are pretty sure to get at least some people praising the AD&D 1st Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide. I flipped through it a few times but never saw anything that looked even remotely interesting. Now I’ve been running D&D games for well over a decade and already know quite a bit about the basics and actual experience, but I think most people who recommend the book have been doing so for much longer than that. Could be pure nostalgia speaking, or there are actually some interesting sentences to find under the generic sounding section lables.

So I am going to bite the bullet and start reading a 200+ pages long book that doesn’t look appealing to me to any degree. But while large group of people can still be entirely wrong, they usually are not. Let’s see what I’ll find in these pages.

Continue reading “Reading the AD&D 1st Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide”

Fantasy Safari: Bestiary of the Hyborian Age, Part 2

Starved Ones are basically zombies or ghouls who are constantly decaying at a relative rapid rate, losing 10% of their hit points every day. They regain their full strength and can regenerate decayed or lost body parts by eating the matching parts and organs of a dead creature. However, the newly regrowing organ will have the appearance of the organ that was consumed, not the form of the originally lost parts.
There’s some potential here, but I think how scary they will actually be depends a lot on the GMs imagination for what kinds of corpses the starved ones are feeding.

Tentacle Spawn are rather weak demons but tend to appear in large numbers. They are not actually individual creatures but rather just the ends of tentacles of much more massive and horrible beings from beyond this world, which often come grasping through portals much to small to allow the passage of the abominations entire body. I think they are making a great addition to encounters with evil sorcerers and the like and are more part of a dangerous environment than actual enemies themselves. Still, treating them as individual creatures would probably make a good job to make them appear as real threats.
The Black Spawn of Jullah (see part 1) serve as conduits to the realms of otherworldly horrors and can let tentacle spawn burst from their bodies.

Continue reading “Fantasy Safari: Bestiary of the Hyborian Age, Part 2”

Fantasy Safari: Bestiary of the Hyborian Age, Part 1

I love monster books. To me they are clearly the greatest thing about RPGs. Most of the books I have are monster books, many even for games I don’t play. But when I flip through them, I often just look at the illustration and read the first few lines of text before I get bored with a creature that seems completely uninspired and overdone, and continue to the next one. But occasionally, there are creatures that are actually quite interesting and unique if you really give them a chance. And sometimes their greatness is immediately visible from the first second.

Over the next weeks, I want to return to many of the old monster books that I’ve pretty much forgotten about, and maybe occasionally pick up some new ones, to go hunting for rare and exotic creatures that you rarely get to see.

Conan - Bestiary of the Hyborian Age
Conan – Bestiary of the Hyborian Age

Today, I am starting with Conan d20 – Bestiary of the Hyborian Age by Mongoose Publishing, 2008.

The Black Fiend is the first creature in the book which actually is somewhat interesting. A black fiend is a roughly human-shaped demon that can pass for a human at a distance and in the dark, but has horns, claws, fangs, and pointed ears, that clearly mark it as a monster. They prefer to stay in darkness and often wear dark cloaks and hoods to hide their demonic nature from casual observers. They are not particularly powerful, but very stealthy, which makes them good assassins, and also have a great talent for sorcery, and many are spellcasters who can be summoned to learn rare and exotic spells from them. I think it’s the combination of being both an assassin and spellcasters, that makes the black fiend a bit more than just another demonic looking man.

On the first look, the Black Spawn of Jullah are just another type of large demon that look like large black apes with fur that seems to be permanently soaked in blood. As servants of the ape god, they can produce a roar that will summon large numbers of actual apes from the surrounding jungles to attack their enemies. An even weirder trait is their ability to use their own bodies as a kind of portal to hell, allowing tentacles and tendrils of some hellish abominations to burst through their bloody fur and grasp and bash at their enemies.
The black spawn looks like a generic evil ape, but I think figting one of these will actually get quite frightening to players when they suddenly find themselves swarmed by large apes from all directions and the tentacles burst from the beasts bodie. I think I want to use these ones in my campaign.

A Bodiless Slimer is a demon made of almost insubstential slime that is also entirely invisible. They are very hard to detect and to injure and can also use a breath of flames in addition to their normal attack of grappling and choking their victims. Before a fight, they use a kind of subconscious telepathy to demoralize their enemies. These could make for interesting encouters, but the creature itself is rather bland. Continue reading “Fantasy Safari: Bestiary of the Hyborian Age, Part 1”

Review: The Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding

Creating a setting for an RPG is a quite different thing than creating a world for a novel or a movie, or even a TV show or video game. In a normal story, the writers control what characters will be appearing and what places they will visit and what kinds of people they will meet. Everything only has to be consistent with the rest of the story and you can make up new things as you go along. A writer can even go back and change things during editing before the final work is released. Creating a campaign setting for an RPG is different, especially if you write it not only for use in your own campaigns as a GM, but might make it available to other people as well. You don’t know who the characters will be and only have limited control over what places they will be visiting because everything can still change as the story develops. To make a good campaign setting, you always have to think of a larger world, even if it is only the size of a single country or city. (Though in my experience, most new setting creators go for entire planets or at least continents, which I think is actually too grand a scale.)

But where do you start? There are a couple of guides out there, mostly online but also in print, that attempt to provide a good overview over the subject of worldbuilding and hand the reader a kind of step-by-step checklist. The AD&D Worldbuilder’s Guidebook is probably one of the most well known, but once I got the opportunity to give it a read I found it rather lacking. Yes, first you start with a globe (or other type of body), then you decide what is water and what is land, place the mountains and rivers, forests and deserts, kingdoms and towns, and so on. But unless you really have no clue at all about the creation of a new fictional world (in which case you’re probably not the main audience for such guides), these are things you all already know. The real questions are how you create a world in a way that it is exciting, unique, and has real traction, and avoid it just being generic, inconsistent, and overly exotic to the point of getting silly?

Kobold-GuideToWorldbuilding-Cover_450px-199x300Earlier this year, I stumbled upon The Kobolds Guide to Worldbuilding, and it turned out to be just the kind of book that adresses exactly these things!

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What are the Ancient Lands?

One of the reasons to start Spriggan’s Den was to have a place to post updates on my work on the Ancient Lands, and I also plan to use it as a label to publish my RPG related material in the forseeable future. So I guess a short introduction would be in place.

Ancient Lands is a campaign setting that goes back to 2005 when I was working on the setting for a larger online project that never really got off the ground, but from which I learned a lot of things about the creation of campaign settings and my personal preferences. Work on the Ancient Lands began in earnest in early 2011 when I was dabbling in creating a revised version of the generic character classes variant rules of D&D 3rd Ed. for E6 and I really started to like the idea of a low-level setting as in the worlds of Conan or The Witcher. While I eventually abandoned the plan of using the E6 variant in favor of simply establishing a sort-of level-cap at 10th level (on which I might elaborate on in a separate post), and switched to Pathfinder over D&D, the basic premise remained the same and has seen significant development over the last two years.

One of the primary reasons to consider creating a setting myself was my dissatisfaction with the fact that most “high fantasy” or “generic” fantasy setting portray a world in which dragons, giants, elves, and dwarves do exist, but they are all way past their prime and fading into obscurity in the face of a rapidly spreading humanity. Now, in the Lord of the Rings this is an important plot element; the whole story is about the end of an era and the transition from myth to history. But there really is no reason to make this the standard for all fantasy settings. Also, settings like Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, or Eberron portray worlds that are actually emulating the Renaissance and early modernity, while I personally much favor the early Middle Ages and Iron Age. When reading sourcebooks on other campaign settings, there is almost always lots of references to the old kingdoms of elves and dwarves and their wars against dragons, giants, and massive hordes of orcs. These sections always intrigued me much more than the current age of these settings and so the basic idea of the Ancient Lands was born: A wild and barely explored world of the Bronze or early Iron Age, where humans are simply one of several races of “barbarians” and ancient nature spirits still possess great power of the lands and their creatures.

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The Bane of Dungeon Design


Inception is a movie about many things, but primarily it’s a movie about telling stories. And for both GMs and game designers, what I consider the most important scene in the entire movie is the one where Cobb hands Ariadne a block of graph paper and asks her to show him a demonstration of her creative abilities as an architect. And none of the mazes she draws for him are satisfactory until she flips over the block and uses the plain backside instead of the graph paper.

If you are playing on a battle grid and want to be able to exactly determine the number of squares in any given room, you can still copy or trace the map onto graph paper. But other than modern houses, the world is not arranged along neatly places squares. Trying to create maps for forests or caves, and even villages or castles along the grid of graph paper never really gets you anything that looks really good.

But once you ditch the grid all kinds of new possibilities become open to you. Which can result in such awesome maps as the ones made by Kevin Camplell presented at Dyson’s Dodecahedron.