As I have whinged about here many times over the years, the biggest difficulties for me about the preparation for new campaigns has always been finding some kind of decent motivation for why the PCs should care about the main threat or antagonist of the campaign, in a way that gets the players invested beyond the basic “Well, that’s what the GM wants us to do”. I’m not a fan of this type of typical campaign and find it much more interesting and rewarding when the players take the oar and pick the direction they want to sail in next. Most often the excuses that pass as motivations are “we’re the heroes and that’s what heroes do” or “someone’s paying us to do it”. Both of these work, of course, for a basic game, but I always aspire to have my campaigns to be something more than that.
But you can absolutely overthink these things, too! After some not very impressive attempts at setting up campaigns in which the characters are motivated by a desire to rediscover the lost history and arcane secrets of the land, I decided to go back to the basics and embrace classic Sword & Sorcery instead of trying to do something clever and original about it. In the end, actually playing is the whole purpose of the entire exercise. Exploring new ways of what a hero can be in fantasy today and going is better left to other forms of creative outlets. What a game needs to be first and foremost is playable.
While conventional wisdom (that is, ultra-orthodox purists) tells us that Sword & Sorcery is never about assaulting the Dark Lord in his castle from where he is trying to conquer the world, an awful lot of classic Sword & Sorcery stories actually do conclude with the heroes assaulting a powerful evil sorcerer in his castle and putting an end to his plans to conquer the world (or at least the kingdom). It’s just that the hero doesn’t do it for the purpose of saving the kingdom or its people. (Unless it’s Conan, who literally does that in The Hour of the Dragon.)
I really quite like the idea of having a Sword & Sorcery campaign with the goal to defeat an evil sorcerer and had a very interesting conversation about how I could come up with decent motivations for the PCs. And the best suggestion I got was basically “let the players decide”.
At first the whole thing felt a bit backwards, because it goes completely against the common storytelling conventions of RPGs, where you begin with the player as ordinary schmucks doing regular adventure stuff, and hopefully by the end of the first adventure the true nature and goal of the campaign will be revealed. But you really don’t have to. Nothing is stopping anyone from starting a new fame with the pitch “We’re going to play a campaign in which you play characters who have all sworn to find and kill Wangrod the Vile.” That actually sounds a lot more exciting than the usual “we’re going to play a game in which you play adventurers and the story will be revealed later”. Nobody will be disappointed that you spoiled something that would be revealed within the first 5% of the story. That’s what people in the business call “the premise”.
Doing so allows you as a GM to prepare a lot of material in advance, but also leave it up to the players to decide who their characters will be and what their motivations are. You set up the goal, but the players create the motivation. Motivations that they care about and that feel interesting to them. You could of course prepare what the motivations of the PCs will be and tell the players to create characters around that. But if a player isn’t really feeling the excitement for that motivation, that doesn’t work out that well. As it concerns the story and events of the campaign, the motivations of the PCs don’t really matter. As long as the players keep working on the goal to confront and kill Wangrod, things will play out the same way.
Conan the Barbarian might actually be a really good reference for how such a campaign could be structured. When Conan is freed and sets out to find Thulsa Doom, he has no idea where he is or even who he’s looking for. The only clue he has is the standard carried by the warriors who raided his village. First he tries to make a deal with a witch who seems to know something about the symbol, but that ends up getting him nowhere. Then he raids the snake temple looking for more clues, and finds the emblem which tells him he’s on the right track. After the raid, he’s taken to the king who reveals that he’s also an enemy of the sorcerer and finally gives Conan a name. Because he wants his daughter back from the snake cult, he provides Conan with the information where to find the sorcerer and things play out from there. I think that could be a really cool structure to be used for a campaign. The players make their character tailored to be seeking an evil sorcerer and defeating him for whatever reason. Information about who exactly the sorcerer is, where they can find him, and how they can defeat him can be very good motivations to go on all kinds of otherwise unconnected adventures. And information of this kind can be put into the possession of basically every NPC, which makes this structure very flexible. If one adventure doesn’t work out and they don’t get the information there were promised, they can always get it somewhere else. If they leave one adventure for later, you can always just switch around what specific information the respective NPCs have to share to keep the flow of the ongoing investigation. You’re also not strictly married to any specific length for the campaign. When things seem to drag on, you can always have the NPCs give out bigger chunks of information, and should everyone want to make the campaign longer, you can throttle down the rate of progress that is made with each adventure. And even with the sorcerer dead, it doesn’t have to be the end of the campaign. Along the way the players might well have made many friends and new enemies that can be worth coming back to once the original goal has been completed.
Back when I finished the Inixon campaign half a year ago, I wrote that I am done with Dungeons & Dragons and that it just isn’t what I am looking for in a game. I neither like the baggage of assumptions about the world that players bring to a new campaign (to no fault of their own), nor the encounter and XP treadmill. But even back then, I did leave myself a door open that I wouldn’t rule out running a game using some variant or another of the Basic/Expert edition. The mechanical problems are mostly something specific to the d20 system that no tweaks and overhauls ever manged (or even tried) to solve, and the worldbuilding baggage comes from the AD&D tradition. When I actually read B/X for the first time six years ago, the thing that stuck out to me the most was how different it all felt from all the D&D I had known.
When I was taking a break from the whole Bronze Age and Sword & Sorcery fantasy for a while, I always knew that I would be coming back to it. Do something that feels more like Conan and Elric than my last campaign, with stronger influences from Morrowind and Barsoom. My plan was to either go with Barbarians of Lemuria or some kind of PtbA hack. But here I am, and that thing is starting at me again.
When I wrote my first post outlining the purpose and goal of my latest worldbuilding efforts, I got a lot of replies, including this interesting link from Oliver Simon to a great academic article about the role of the environment in Conan: Exiles. .It gave me a couple of great ideas for Planet Kaendor and I made some notes for a new post, and then completely forgot about it for the next six years while writing other posts I had already planned. Of my three notes, I only remembered the meaning of the first one, and I had to reread both the entire article and my post that led to ot being recommended to me to figure out the second. And I still have no clue what idea the third note was supposed to be about. Don’t be me! Take better notes when you get great ideas for your own work.
The article takes a look at the open world survival game Conan: Exiles as a horrifying analogy of the cruel exploitation within human economic activity. While many of these survival games have the killing of other player characters and the looting of their equipment and resources as a key gameplay element, this game uses the well established and accepted norms of the Hyborian Age to take it to a much more grotesque level. Not only can you loot the possessions of your slain foes, you can also butcher their dismembered corpses for meat and crafting materials. Nonplayer characters can be taken alive and made slaves, that are a hugely important resource for expanding your own base. And some magical powers require human sacrifice to attain. Other people are reduced to “human resources” in the most literal sense. They are commodified as tools to be exploited for your own quest for wealth and power.
Being basically a sociological paper, it’s not an easy read, and the first part is crammed full of attributed quotations of other writers that don’t really add to the topic and mostly seem to be there to pad out the references list at the end to boost academic credibility. But after that it goes into how the environment with its ruined buildings, abandoned weapons and tools, and human remains also tells a story of how economic exploitation build the fallen civilizations as well.
I didn’t expect Marx and Derrida to contribute to my worldbuilding, but I guess stranger things have happened. One passage in particular really got me thinking about how I can give the ruins that fill the environment of Kaendor a more meaningful presence in the actual game instead of being irrelevant pieces of lore in some file.
Faithful to Howard’s original Conan stories, the landscape is one which Derrida would have recognised as being distinctly hauntological; it is a world scarred by its past. This environment is shaped by forces which still have agency but no agent, generating effects which exert great power over the player’s experience of and interaction with their surroundings.
Agency without an agent. Now that’s an expression that really appeals to me. In this case, we have to treat agency as different from the concept of player agency in roleplaying games, which is the ability of players to make choices about the actions of their characters that meaningfully affect the outcome of the developing story of the game. Without an agent, there are no choices that are being made or actions that are being taken. Instead we have the idea here of choices that were made and actions that were taken long ago by the long dead builders of the ruins that led to the creation of the current environment. The choices were made many centuries ago, but their consequences still affect and constrain the options that are open to the player characters in the present. The idea is that the ruins are not simply featureless and inert stones that litter the surroundings, but active entities that challenge and threaten the intruding explorers.
(At this point I want to apologise for falling into academia speech and getting abstractly philosophical. Four years in cultural studies do this to you. It comes automatically and leaves it marks on you forever.)
As a simple example, take an ordinary arrow trap that shots an arrow when someone steps on a certain part of the floor. To quote the endlessly poetically and quotable Darkest Dungeon:
Curious is the trap-maker’s art… his efficacy unwitnessed by his own eyes.
A trap is not simply a feature of the environment, even though many games treat them like that. An actual trap is not simply just there. It is there because someone made a choice and took action to put it there. With an intent to kill. The builder of the trap does not know who will fall victim to it, and the people it injures will most likely have no idea who caused them harm. In a ruined dungeon, the builder will have died centuries before the victims were born. But still, one person exercised agency to cause serious harm to another person. The agent is long gone, but the effects of the agency are present in the present.
It is not just traps. Every artificial obstacle that characters encounter is there because someone put it there with intent. Every constructed tool or weapon they find is in its place because someone made it for a purpose and put it in its present location as a consequence of choices and actions. And this even carries over to much larger scales. Planet Kaendor is conceptualized as a world in which the natural environment is outside of the control of mortals. Whatever they do in their attempts to shape the world that surronds them will quickly be negated once the wilderness returns. But things look very different when it comes to the marks left behind by unnatural sorcery. A charred wasteland of ash haunted by ghouls attacking cateless travelers surrounding a ruined city does not exist randomly. Its existence is the consequence of choices mafe by a sorcerer long ago. A consequence that directly affects the characters in the present. And the natural world in Kaendor is often directly controlled by spirits, who can exercise their own agency as well. Though being essentialy immortal, this does not fall under the agency without agent. They are merely agents with an invisible presence, but I think the overall effect is quite similar.
The key idea that is presented here (indirectly) to worldbuilders is to create environments for adventures that are not simply passive and interchangeable backdrops that maybe have a couple of unusual but random backgrounds in them. Instead, they should give indications that obstacles and useful finds are the result of someone’s deliberate exercising of agency. Bad things don’t exist in the present at random. They exist because someone in the past wanted it or did a careless mistake. There was a purpose behind it and it was someone’s fault. And that someone’s presence should still be felt as a malevolent force seeking the destruction of any intruders, or a shade lingering among the ruins of its crumbled dreams. Of course this might not be a universal requirement for all fantasy environments. But I had written about looking for ways to give ruins and magical places are more active role in my world, and this article provided great insights on how I could be moving closer to that goal.
All the mentions of cannibalism also got me some interesting idea for ghouls, which have been a favorite of mine since I encountered a new take on them in Dragon Age, and have held a very important position in my deliberations about the nature of the supernatural in Kaendor basically from the start. But those deserve an entire post of their own.
Despite my expectations, I actually stumbled across a great idea for my Planet Kaendor reworking yesterday, shortly after writing the last post.
I’ve had a long on-again, off-again relationship with Sword & Sorcery campaigns. I’m absolutely a huge fan of Conan and Kane, but generally enjoy reading them in small portions. For long term campaigns, the typical bleakness and violence seems like a bit too much for me, and when you descend down into the abyss of Sword & Sorcery fandom, you get quickly swept up in the currents of hyper-violent grimdark orthodoxy. Which in my opinion is considerably more extreme and intellectually hollowed out than the tales of the great masters ever where. Yes, they always were violent, reveled in (implied) debauchery, and had elements of horror. But the popular perception today is like a copy of a copy of a copy that only captures the most extreme expressions of black and white and losing all nuances.
But I digress.
The piece of advice for S&S campaigns that I came across was a reminder that the stories are usually highly episodic and the heroes begin each new adventure in a completely different place, with all the gains from their last undertaking already lost and forgotten. Which was put in direct opposition to the infamous quote from Gary Gygax that “YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT”. I never was a fan of Gygax and his ideas of adventures and gamemastering (*boo*, *hiss*, I know…), but this piece of advice I always found very compelling. And I did rigorously apply it during the Inixon campaign, though that turned out to not have made any difference because we never went through with managing long expeditions into the wilderness from a fortified base camp.
But now that I think about it, this is really an approach to managing time that works in direct opposite to the aesthetic goal of making the world feel unmoored in time, with no real sense of either the past or the future. The rest of the world is not keeping track of what happened before, then why would the hero. The inevitability of all their deeds being forgotten and leaving no lasting legacy is supposed to be part of the setting’s tone.
To take it a step further, you could not just stop using a calendar (even though I made such a cool one) but also forgo keeping detailed records what the players did entirely. Taking notes about what is currently going on in the current adventure is of course still a good practice, but once it is wrapped up and the campaign moves on to the next adventure, you can discard them and rely entirely on your own fallible memory. When the players ask who exactly an NPC was who they supposedly had been talking to some adventures earlier, just shrug your shoulder and tell them that their vague memories of those encounters are probably reasonably close enough to what really happened. Don’t try to help them remember. At this point it doesn’t matter anymore anyway and whatever they can agree on now becomes the new reality. Even if as the GM, you still remember what really happened.
So here I am, again, planning a new fantasy campaign, again, determined to make it so much better than previous attempts. Again.
Now my last fantasy campaign did end differently and sooner than I had expected. But it did finish with an actual conclusion. With the villains beaten and the day saved. Which by this metric makes it the most successful campaign I’ve ever been involved with. At 19 sessions in total, it was also the longest campaign I’ve ever been involved with. And in the early and middle parts, I felt that my performance as GM was leagues above anything I’ve ever done before. In part because I really learned quite a lot about gamemastering in the four years or so since I had last run a campaign, but I think at least to an equal if not even higher degree because I used a much more open-ended approach to what the story will be. Despite my initial plans, it wasn’t really a sandbox campaign by any stretch of that term, but dropping the players off in a place with only vague hints that there are some useful things in the area that could help them later on their journey directly resulted in the most fun sessions I’ve ever had as either GM or player.
It was only on the final leg of the campaign, when I made it into a more conventional dungeon assault to reach some kind of conclusion, that I felt myself increasingly fighting with the constraints of D&D and my enthusiasm for the game dropped considerably. The players still seemed to have a great time, but my heart really wasn’t into it anymore. I was already looking forward to try again with mechanics that work for me, not against me.
Down the Dungeon
One realization that I made during the later parts of the Inixon campaign is that dungeons really don’t do it for me. I am a huge fan of the idea and the aesthetics of magical caves and ruined cities. But I really don’t like the gameplay concept of the dungeon.
Having a dungeon with a few dozen rooms which are inhabited by various groups of guards and creatures makes sense for a dungeon crawling campaign. But I found that when the players go to a place to meet a NPCs, be it to rescue, negotiate with, or fighting them, going through an entire dungeon really just becomes a drag and a nuisance that gets in the way of making progress with the game. A castle may well have hundreds of rooms, but the story of sneaking into one specific room in that castle does not require hundreds of scenes to play out. Look at books and movies that have cool locations that could be considered dungeons, and I think almost all of them come down to really just three or four rooms in which all the scenes play out. Jabba’s Palace: Main gate, throne room, rancor pit. Thulsa Doom’s Lair: Main stairs, cave passage, throne room. Fully mapped dungeons are for dungeon crawling games. For narrative focused games, they seem to be out of place.
From Crawling to Walking
Very much related to purpose of dungeons is the usefulness of resource management. Typical fantasy adventuring gear is mostly for dealing with the many obstacles that are encountered in dungeons. Most objects can be used in scenes in a narrative focused game as well, but there generally isn’t the expectation that you always have to carry around your golf bag of adventuring gear with you all the time because you know you’ll be needing most of it very soon. Tracking how much stuff characters can carry makes sense when you have an expectation that supplies will run out after frequent use and restocking won’t be easily possible before that happens. It also becomes relevant when the weight of all the stuff impacts how fast or how slow the characters can be progressing through the places they are in.
When I prepared the Inixon campaign, doing a traditional wilderness exploration based on long expeditions into The Isle of Dread had actually been my plan. But while we were playing Against the Cult of the Reptile God we already settled into dynamics and character motivations that were much more narrative focused. And it became even more so during the completely unscripted stay in the pirate town that went on much longer than the one or two sessions I had calculated for it.
The experience with these parts of the campaign had been amazingly positive. Not only did I get great responses from the players, I also felt like my performance as GM went up steeply and the workload both during games and when preparing new content seemed to plummet down to a fraction. You can of course set up a wilderness crawl completely blind and leave it entirely in the hands of the players to do or die. But I feel like this would only be fun with players who really want this style of game and who are quite decent at it. Otherwise making sure that the obstacles they are facing will be challenging but not too dangerous and keeping an eye on how much resources they have left and will need to find in the near future becomes quite a lot of work. Work that I now can absolutely live without. Resource management is another thing I want to leave by the side for the time being.
When I am sitting by myself, coming up with great ideas for worldbuilding, the Sword & Sorcery setting I imagine is full of alien and exotic stuff like Tekumel, Barsoom, or Morrowind. But in every single campaign I’ve run in this type of setting, I always ended up describing a fairly ordinary generic fantasyland to the players. In this case it was generic pirates and serpents fantasyland, but that’s still just in a different climate zone in fantasyland.
And once again, I suspect a primary source of this might be D&D. In particular, it’s power gradient as monsters and other enemies are concerned. I tend to to create monsters of a style that makes them seem like they could potentially be actual animals that once existed somewhere on Earth, or which at least are not inconceivable as hypothetical branches that could have had evolved naturally. When statting such creatures for D&D, it usually is the easiest way to simply reskin some kind of monster that already exists, like an owlbear or rhinoceros. But when you do that, you already have locked in the relative power level of many of your new original critters. And in my case, the more exotic and stranger creatures are almost all more dangerous and powerful than the more mundane ones, so their D&D stats have to be correspondingly higher as well. And at that point I had already trapped myself, making a good portion of the more interesting creatures so powerful that PCs would have to have a good number of levels under their belt to face them with a real chance to win. Now the Inixon campaign ran over 19 games and at the end the PCs would have reached 6th level if the campaign would have continued. It was a long campaign with a not unusually slow advancement, but even so I never got an opportunity to show of many of the creatures in their natural environment without wiping out the party.
What actually happened was that I filled the encounters that the players got up with the smallest and most uninteresting of critters. Mostly cultists and snakes, with the occasional wolf-reskin and yuan-ti boss. Total fail. It also didn’t help that so much time was spend fighting those little critters because you need to get plenty of fights under your belt to get to the higher levels. Time that wasn’t spend interacting with the local cultures. This really ties in directly with the issue of dungeons.
Hopefully I can avoid this mistake when I am converting my material to Barbarians of Lemuria.
This is something that I’ve never got to work. Not even remotely. The aesthetic and tone that this type of Bronze Age Pangea setting is meant to evoke the style of Dying Earth fiction. With a world that is huge and wild and covered in ruins, but barely inhabited by people at all. Nothing of that kind ever came up in any of my previous campaigns. I thought the solution to that would be to have long wilderness journeys on which the players have to chart their course along landmarks and manage their supplies and deal with the difficulties of transportation. Usually that never happened because the PCs never got a level where I thought they would be ready to deal with such a challenge. And with a more narrative focus for the next campaign and ditching resource management, that won’t really be an option either. No real clue how to work on that, but it’s one more priority in which I’ll have to find ways to include it.
Why are we doing all of this?
One thing that had really bothered my for several years when setting up new campaigns was with setting up situations and environments in which it would feel believable to me that the PCs are risking their lives to go on these adventures. Typically in fantasy RPGs, you get two kinds of characters: Murderhobos and magic boy scouts.
When you’re running a dungeon crawl campaign and the goal of the campaign is to overcome monsters and get their treasure to get XP for being able to overcome more powerful monsters to get their treasure, then there really is no need for anything more complicated than characters who are risking their lives for riches and don’t really concern themselves with anything else. But for something that has more focus on an unfolding narrative where more time is spend on conversations and making arrangements between various competing groups, such characters won’t work. They just want to know where the monsters with the treasure are.
On the other hand you have the shining heroes who have nothing better to do with their lives than permanently wandering around looking for any opportunity to risk their lives against terrifying foes for people they don’t have any connection to. These are characters that work for games where everyone knows the campaign is about brave heroes saving the world from evil. But I don’t feel them being suitable for campaigns where there is no black and white good and evil, and no obvious end goal that all PCs would automatically pursue. Which I think is where all the much more interesting stories take place.
I’ve struggled for many years with finding a good description of what kind of people “adventurers” are in my setting and what players should expect of their role in the campaign. But now I think I always made this much more complicated than it really needs to be. I think all you really need to get players engaged with a dangerous situations and get invested in the outcome is to tell them to make characters who are deep down decent people and put them in situations where they have the means to make a real difference for good. Most sane people really like doing good things but avoid being heroic in everyday life out of uncertainty and fear of doing something wrong or getting into danger. In a game, this isn’t really a factor. Games let you do the right thing without any actual risk or cost, and in these situations most people are more than happy to play the hero. Many videogames check off trophies and achievements for ending the game in a heroic or villainous way, and in most cases you see vastly more players who did save all the kittens instead of kicking the dogs. (And I believe large numbers of those who kicked the dogs did it on a second or third playthrough after having saved the kittens in their first run.)
And also take into consideration my earlier choice to drop the idea of regularly clearing out whole dungeons of all the monsters. This drops the total amount of lethal fights that PCs get into considerably and makes a much higher fraction of them actually directly matter. You get much fewer situations where the players would be killing bands of goblins or swarms of giant centipedes simply because they are there. This makes the life of an “adventurer” seem considerably less suicidal and makes it much more believable that relatively ordinary people would accept the risks that come with it. Think of the four hobbits for example. They didn’t sign up to clear out Moria or conquer Mordor. And the story doesn’t make them do that. I have no idea of their kill counts during their year long quest to reach the heart of their enemy’s power, but I think most of them would be able to count them on one hand. Or at the other end, my two favorite scoundrels Han Solo and Lando Calrissian. They aren’t selfless people full of endless compassion and driven to self sacrifice. But when they find themselves in situation where a terrible injustice has to be stopped, and they have the means to attempt it, they find their decency to not just stand by and ignore it.
Getting away from D&D’s class system probably might help with this as well.
And what is it all about?
Now we’re going to get really pretentious. When I was learning more about ancient cultures and their belief systems back in university, I got the strong impression that all civilizations with organized states and agriculture develop a belief that they are separate from nature and that humans are really much more similar to the gods. They are the masters of their environment, and in some cases the world really was made for them. Today it becomes obvious how that attitude leads to huge environmental problems and disasters, but to some degrees this has been going on for thousands of years. I thought it would be really interesting to come up with fantasy cultures in a world where there is absolutely no doubt that nature does whatever the hell it wants, the constant environmental changes are much faster to be more visible during a human lifetime, and people get inevitably crushed if they think they can make nature obey their wishes. There are no natural disasters. There are only extreme weather events. They only become disasters because humans build inadequate houses in high risk areas and have no plan B for when their human-build infrastructure is destroyed.
My idea for such a setting is to make it an extreme weather world, where typhoons, earthquakes, and active volcanoes are very common, and the nature gods in charge of these phenomenons pay no attention to the needs and wishes of mortals. This world is not made for people to live in and make use of. Going with my favorite Eldritch Abomination quote: “You exist because we allow it. And you will end because we demand it.” Except that the nature gods wouldn’t bother explaining themselves to mortals.
One analogy I came up with and that I quite like is that in this world, people aren’t the apex predators like bears or tigers, but sit more in the middle like weasels. They certainly are predators who have no trouble killing almost everything else in their weight class and can even take on other animals considerably larger than themselves. But there’s absolutely nothing they can do against a bear and their only option is to get out of the way. (Not counting wolverines and honey badgers. Those are just fury and madness.)
To bring in the Dying Earth tone, even though it’s a world that is full of life and going nowhere, my idea is for people to have an approach to history that nothing that they do will have a lasting impact in the long run. They can build cities that might grow into small kingdoms, but it’s inevitable that sooner or later something will topple their walls or destroy their farmland, and the people will return to the wilderness to live among the savages, with their descendants knowing nothing of their civilized origin. That’s how it always has been, and always will be. The broken ruins that stand as proof are found everywhere. Refusing to see the signs and abandoning the dying cities for a better life elsewhere will only make the inevitable end worse.
Of course, there are always some powerful people who don’t accept this fate and believe that they have the strength to avert this doom and create a legacy that will last forever. And some of them are turning to dark magic to pursue this goal or even seeking immortality. They always fail, but the terrifying results of their foolishness survive in infamy long after other kings and cities have been forgotten.
I think this is a really cool concept with some real solid substance to it. But it never really came up during low-level exploration adventures. But I think it might be more useful in a campaign with a more narrative focus, where the sorcerer king doesn’t have to be a 15th or 20th level wizard. As with many other things, I don’t really have anything definitive nailed down on this front yet. But it’s something I want to focus on much stronger going forward from here.
To wrap up this sprawling abomination of a past, this is where I stand right now in both my hindsight reflection on previous campaigns and with my lofty ambitions going forward. Currently I am feeling that I don’t really need to change much regarding the worldbuilding of the setting. I don’t think there’s any need to drop existing creatures or create new ones, alter the general geography, or come up with different ideas for the cities. I don’t seem to have to make any changes to my big box of toys. Instead, I feel this process will be a lot more about how I could be playing with them in different ways, and perhaps spend a lot more time with some of the stuff that’s so far been lying unused at the bottom of the box.
So yeah, rambling’s over. I worked three days on this without any real major revelation to share with the world. This is what I got right now, but there’s been quite some response from a number of people for this topic, so I hope it’s not been completely in vain. I’m looking forward to see where this is going myself.
Last month I finished my fourth campaign in which I tried to bring my ideas for a Sword & Sorcery wilderness setting to life. While the campaign was overall a great success, and by far the longest of the four, the way the setting came to be actually realized in practice was not at all what I had been aiming for.
I believe I first had the idea for a Bronze Age Barbarians & Dinosaurs setting some six years ago after reading Robert Howard’s Conan and Kull stories and Edgar Burroughs A Princess of Mars, and remembering my old affections for Morrowind and dinosaur books.
The first attempt was Ancient Lands, which I ended up using in a short lived Pathfinder campaign. Not being happy with the result I tried reworking it as Lands of the Barbarian Kings for the low-level E6 variant for D&D 3rd edition. Still unhappy with the results, I brought back the same basic ideas when I got interested in rules-light oldschool RPGs as Ancient Lands (v.2), first for Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea and later Basic Fantasy. After that campaign I threw a lot of material and ideas out once again to get a better focus on the elements that really mattered for my core concept in the form of Green Sun. Which I wanted to run in original B/X, but convenience at the moment led to me giving it a shot with D&D 5th edition instead. Which again, also didn’t really lift of, ignite, or whatever other metaphor you want to use.
Some of the players actually really tried to dig into the setting that I had outlined in a basic overview file. Which I really did appreciate, but at that point, the events of the campaign and goals of the party had already set the future adventures down a pretty clear path. And I didn’t feel like I wouldn’t be able to keep the great quest coherently together if we were to set out to new unrelated detours. Maybe it would have been possible to do, but at that point I was already clear on not wanting to run D&D 5th edition any more than necessary. Keeping a straight heading towards the ultimate goal of the party to conclude the campaign and then start over with something else seemed the much preferable option to me.
Looking back at all the campaigns now, it seems pretty obvious why each one only brought a slight incremental improvement towards realizing my concept, but never making an actual breakthrough. Each time, for reasons of convenience, I ended up running some variant of Dungeons & Dragons again. And at the heart of all the sweet, sweet awesome ideas I have for a Sword & Sorcery campaign in a Barbarians & Dinosaurs setting, is that I want it to be specifically not like Dungeons & Dragons.
I don’t have anyone to blame for this but myself, but still, curse the tyranny of market leader!
At first I was genuinely thinking that my ideas should work with D&D without problems. Dark Sun did it, right? (I’m not sure, I never got to actually see Dark Sun in any kind of prolonged action, and lots of settings look much better on paper than in play.) Going from regular Pathfinder to E6 with limited classes and my own bestiary seemed like a sufficient solution. Looking around on my site, it’s actually been almost exactly two years since I had great ideas for trying make the setting concept work better with Apocalypse World. But at some point I got interested again in the dungeon and wilderness exploration system of B/X and thought that would work just as well. That I thought 5th edition could be a suitable substitute when response to a B/X campaign invitation was muted is just my own damn fault. I got seduced by the warlock class.
I think the problem is not just strictly with the mechanics. D&D and it’s derivatives all circle around the permanent hunt for XP and climbing the ladder of level advancement. And the way the combat systems are designed, they are really made for lots of smaller fights rather than the occasional big ones. It’s also, which might be even more important, that playing D&D brings with it huge amounts of expectations from the players. And as a GM, I am always very conscious of not acting like the kind of jerk GM who tells the players how to play the game correctly, even if I had something else in mind for how the tone and dynamics should play out in action. I understand the role of the GM to be an entertainer, not a conductor. I make it possible for the players to play their story, I don’t direct them to play my story. With the group I had for the Inixon campaign, the players really were interested in exploring the world that I had prepared, which makes me feel that I am at least on the right track with my ideas. But I just never could consider telling them to stop playing like it’s D&D. I invited them to play D&D and they joined the game being excited to play D&D. That’s just not something you do as a GM.
But now the campaign is concluded (actually concluded and not just sputtered out and abandoned), and while it wasn’t the epic grand finale that you always imagine to get, it still ended with fighting a giant snake on the roof of a tower rising above a ruined city, it’s shattered body being slain by arrows and magic bolts, in mid-transformation into a sorceress after being blown over the edge by one of the warlocks. That’s still pretty metal.
After having distracted myself for a couple of weeks with the preparation for a Star Wars d6 campaign (which still has to wait until later this year), I am still drawn back to the lizard infested jungles to once more try it better. I had considered Barbarians of Lemuria several times over the years, but with the many lessons learned from the Inixon campaign, I now feel more certain than ever that I really should go through with this. It’s a rules light game that is very quick to set up and easy to learn, giving it a very low entry barrier for new players. And if any players bring existing assumptions about a BoL campaign with them, it’s probably something like Conan the Barbarian, which in this case suits just fine. Maybe it will be a bit of an uphill battle to get even just three or four players together for that, but I now feel that this will be necessary to make the setting concept work, and there are no easy shortcuts around that. D&D is no longer an acceptable substitute.
I returned to university last year and right now it doesn’t look like classes will resume until may at the earliest. So I really can’t pass up on the opportunity to get a new online campaign off the ground.
And this is as good a time as any to finally make use of my old idea to combine I1 Dwellers of the Forbidden City, N1 Against the Cult of the Reptile God, and X1 The Isle of Dread into one big B/X campaign. Combining my three favorite modules is really quite easy. The Forbidden City replaces the ruins in the volcano on the Isle of Dread, and the Reptile God is an emissary of the Dwellers trying to establish a foothold on the mainland.
All of this will be set in my Green Sun setting, which I recently decided to give a little update to make it more interesting and conductive to adventures. I finally overcame my aversion to post-apocalyptic settings and decided to take inspirations from the Bronze Age collapse. The world of Kaendor is now set in the days after a century long period of increasing storms and rainfall, that has caused much of the farmland to become too swampy for local crops and many of the coastal cities to be lost to erosion. There are now only a dozen city states left with most people living scattered in small villages in the forests, where they can get by with hunting, fishing, and foresting.
The old trade networks that enabled the large scale production of bronze have collapsed, but fortunately old bronze can be recycled very easily. When the first cities were abandoned by their people, nobody saw how great the scarcity of bronze would become, and much of it was left behind for being too heavy. Now these forgotten stockpiles of bronze ingots are worth their weight in silver and a draw for many treasure hunters. But buildings that have collapsed in typhoons or landslides also uncovered large numbers of previously hidden vaults and tombs.
In the jungles of the south, the ancient serpentmen are sensing the fall of the younger civilizations, and many of them remember their old dreams of their return to power and reclaiming the lands of Kaendor for themselves. Currently there seems to be little chance of that ever happening again, but that doesn’t stop ambitious snake sorcerers from sending their minions north.
And deep beneath the sea, the primordial aquatic horrors and the fishmen are watching the events in the world above.
And given the source material, I need to have an NPC cook named Zeb. :p
Two changes that I am considering for D&D 5th Ed.:
Thinking of hit points as the ability to shrug of scrapes and bruises until your attention and reflexes are suffering enough for one unlucky hit to slip through your defenses has long seemed to me as the most sensible way to imagine damage in D&D. The spell name cure wounds does imply otherwise, but it’s still the most plausible reasoning for why being down 40 hit points with only 1 hit point left will have no negative impacts and you can be as good as new after a night’s sleep. If you can fight, run, jump, and lift without any penalty, then you’re not really injured.
However, when you do get from 1 hp to 0 hp, you’re in immediate danger of bleeding out within literally seconds. That clearly is a potentially fatal injury. That a bandage and an hour of rest can get you back to full strength just can’t be reasonably explained when you are playing a campaign that puts the “fiction first”. It’s an issue that simply can be ignored completely without causing any problems. But it can’t make sense.
Personally, I quite enjoy it in action and adventure fiction when characters have to adjust or completely change their whole plans because of an injured ally they don’t want to risk dying. It’s a great narrative complication, and one that I think can add a lot to a campaign. My goal here really isn’t to be any more realistic, but to add complications and dramatic tension to the game.
The new rule for wounds is pretty simple. I think that’s actually always an important part of any new house rule. You want the players to have to learn and remember as few new things as possible. Whenever a character drops to 0 hit points, he suffers 1d4 levels of exhaustion. This means a character who already has 2 levels of exhaustion has a 25% chance to die immediately. Since exhaustion is not that common I consider this an acceptible increase of risk. And it does provide a strong incentive for exhausted/wounded characters to avoid combat.
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.
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.