Crossing the Streams of Time and Space

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More things that I made and no GM needs

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

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

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

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

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

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

Demons

When you don’t have a really good name for it, call it what it is. And these are demons.

Yog-Sothoth
Shub-Niggurath
Tharizdun
Pale Night
Ghaunadaur
Reaper
Xel’lotath

Shadows
Darkweaver
Silent Hill
The Marker

The original idea for these dark and dangerous spirits goes back to when I first read about Daedra in Morrowind, without really knowing anything about them before. The description that the elves called the gods “our ancestors” and those other beings “not our ancestors” was really evocative and made a big impression on me. I only actually met any daedra many years later when giving Skyrim a shot, and it turned out that they are actually just very generic demons. They are described as strange immortal spirits with alien minds, but in practice they are really just lizardmen or humanoids who do evil for the lulz. That was really lame.

I was reminded of that image I had had when encountering demons in Dragon Age, which in that world are simply called demons. They are somewhat more abstract, but I found them still not nearly as weird and alien and horrific as they could have been.

The third source of inspiration for what I want demons to be like, comes from Mass Effect. In the first and second game they are woderfully strange and terrifying, and not being able to do something proper with that buildup is one of the many disappointing flaws of the third game. (I’m still disappointed.)

“A god – a real god – is a verb. Not some old man with magic powers. It’s a force. It warps reality just by being there. It doesn’t have to want to. It doesn’t have to think about it. It just does.”

When I decided that I want to run my Green Sun campaign in D&D, I entertained the idea of using yugoloths as the dangerous alien spirits of the underworld. But then, how do you make them actually weird? Ultroloths may have some potential, but the rest are just too much regular humanoid enemies. They really can’t stand up to this lineup, so I might actually discard them entirely.

Working with images has always worked quite well for me. It makes it easy to notice the common elements between various different things you think have a somewhat general style. In this case, I think it’s quite obvious. The common characteristics of these beings are associations with darkness and shadows, to the point of not having any really discernable shape. They are more vague impressions of beings than truly physcial beings, combined with a lack of humanoid faces. I can work with that.

Silly Stuff with Statistics

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

I went into this  with the following premises:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is in the box?!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creatures under Leaf and Moon

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.

Monsters

These are dangerous creatures of the wilderness that are not magical in nature but clearly more than normal animals.

  • Hydra (CR 8)
  • Giant Ape (CR 7)
  • Wyvern (CR 6)
  • Phase Spider (CR 5)
  • Umber Hulk (CR 5)
  • Girallon (CR 4)
  • Manticore (CR 3)
  • Carrion Crawler (CR 2)
  • Ettercap (CR 2)
  • Ogre (CR 2)
  • Yuan-ti Pureblood (CR 1)
  • Aaracockra (1/4)
  • Kuo-toa (CR 1/4)

Spirits of Forest, Mountains, and Sea

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.

  • Treant (CR 9)
  • Genie (CR 8)
  • Stone Giant (CR 7)
  • Air Elemental (CR 5)
  • Earth Elemental (CR 5)
  • Water Elemental (CR 5)
  • Night Hag  (CR 5)
  • Unicorn (CR 5)
  • Yuan-ti Abomination (CR 5)
  • Wood Woad (CR 4)
  • Succubus (CR 3)
  • Merrow (CR 2)
  • Will-o-wisp (CR 1)
  • Deep Gnome (CR 1/2)
  • Myconids (CR 1/2)
  • Blights (CR 1/8 – 1/2)

Spirits of Beneath and Beyond

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.

  • Aboleth (CR 10)
  • Efreeti (CR 8)
  • Mind Flayer (CR 7)
  • Fire Elemental (CR 5)
  • Helmed Horror (CR 4)
  • Grell (CR 3)
  • Choldrith (CR 3)
  • Howler (CR 3)
  • Dark Stalker (CR 2)
  • Grick (CR 2)
  • Meenlock (CR 2)
  • Chitine (CR 1/2)
  • Dark Creeper (CR 1/2)

Undead

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.

  • Wraith (CR 5)
  • Wight (CR 3)
  • Ghoul (CR 1)
  • Specter (CR 1)
  • Shadow (CR 1/2)
  • Skeleton (CR 1/4)

Beasts

This category covers all the natural animals that are enough of a threat to deserve getting stats.

  • Axe Beak
  • Brontosaurus
  • Crocodiles
  • Giant Badger
  • Giant Beetle
  • Giant Boar
  • Giant Centipede
  • Giant Crab
  • Giant Hyena
  • Giant Octopus
  • Giant Rat
  • Giant Wasp
  • Hadrosaurus
  • Plesiosaur
  • Pteranodon
  • Sharks
  • Snakes
  • Tiger
  • Triceratops

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.

Making the most out of combat encounters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After 1640 days, 5th Edition started to look rather appealing

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.

“We said: meh.”
“M-E-H. Meh.”

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:

  • E10 style world: Without unlimited feats, actual E10 makes no sense, but both PCs and NPCs are capped at 10th level. Spells of 6th level or higher do not exist, though they might still appear as monster abilities.
  • Classes: Barbarian (Totem Warrior), Bard (Lore), Fighter (Champion), Ranger (Hunter), Rogue (Thief), Warlock (Archfey, Fiend, Old One), Wizard (Enchanter, Transmuter).
  • Spells: Only 1st to 5th level. No teleportation, matter creation, force barriers, extradimensional spaces, or light. No evocations and necromancies for wizards.
  • Armor: Leather scale (studded leather), lamellar (scale), heavy lamellar (chainmail), shields.
  • Weapons: No light hammer, crossbows, flail, greatsword, lance, morningstar, rapier, trident, warhammer, warpick. They are all not matching the tech level of the setting.
  • No Two-Weapon Fighting and no full healing on a long rest. Because I have the right to be pedantic about some things.

Developing a Distinct Style

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.

Towers

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.

Masks

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.

Lamps

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.

Fungi

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.

Worms

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.