Same stuff, different destination…

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.

When did this become…
…hotter than this?

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.

More Weirdness

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.

More Desolation

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.

8 thoughts on “Same stuff, different destination…”

  1. A few thoughts on this:

    D&D 5 is truly the World’s BLANDEST RPG

    Also, D&D 5, from a dungeon master point of view, is not so simple at all despite its reputation to this effect. I’m telling you, 19 sessions is not much to master the system. Master maybe isn’t the right word, how to HACK the system so it does work (i.e messing with the rest mechanics). Now, is it worth it, to make it work for you? It isn’t effortless, that’s for sure. For myself, I’ll finish my Chult campaign someday, and then alleluia! I’ll try something else. Or maybe I’ll go full throttle and do my first megadungeon in D&D, who knows.

    About adventurers. I think I’m well read and I’ve never found a satisfying equivalent to a group of adventurers in a work of fiction. The Argonauts? Certainly not with Howard. The closest thing I found, in fact, was reading about the East Indian Company. Real-world murderhoboism. Fascinating stuff really.

    About the Dying Earth tone. My somewhat tangent take on this one is to have AMBIVALENT deities, things are never black & white. Fickleness all the way.

    1. I found 5th edition to be many times easier to run than 3rd edition.
      Really, what was everyone thinking using the base d20 system for everything?

      Deities are probably the one biggest in my worldbuilding that is still completely open and up in the air. Right now it’s basically a complete blank. I had several concepts in the past, but they never really came up during the adventures and campaigns that were actually played. Which probably was a huge wasted opportunity to make the setting more evocative.

      Currently I am entertaining the idea of making the “gods” very inhuman without making them demons. Things like 300 meter long snakes or gigantic dragons that don’t communicate with mortals in any way. They’d be like forces of nature in corporeal form. Priests try to get their attention by prayers and rituals, but even when the gods are aware of their calls they don’t really particularly care. The gods might remember to spare the small patch were a city is standing when they send through the next flood or wildfire, but they also might not because they have other inscrutable priorities.
      A form of animism might serve the people better, by trying to appeal to the spirit of an ancient tree, a small lake, or a hill for assistance with their problems, who might actually be able to perceive a person as a sentient individual. But even then the relationship will be mostly transactional and based on offering and sacrifices, with the spirits not being able to have real empathy towards mortals or understanding why certain things matter to them. The spirits from Princess Mononoke always feel like they might be a good starting point for this, though the great wolf and great boar are still much to human for my purpose.

      There certainly is huge room for improvement in that regard and I’ve been working for quite a while on finding some good middle ground between nature spirits and eldritch abominations.

      1. I would argue that less otherwhordly entities have the advantage of having motives. And thus present a more approachable way for the players to interact and maybe even shape the world one way or the other.

        But that said what is REALLY fun (for the DM) is all the unintended, unthought consequences of unleashing those powerful, 300 meters long snakes, forces on the world!

        1. I’m not sure if I’d really want the heroes to be able to shape the world on the supernatural level. I’m quite fond of the themes of inevitability and doom, and the idea to turn them into something that isn’t necessarily negative and fatalistic. Everyone in the city knows that it will fall and disappear into the sea. Might be in a hundred years, two hundred years, or five hundred years. But it will fall, without the slightest bit of doubt about that. The heroes might be able to stop one deluded mortal sorcerer for destroying the city today, or banish a little demon that is terrorizing a village. But when its doom comes from the gods, there will be nothing anyone can do to stop it.

          I also quite like the folkloristic idea that spirits can be forced to obey by nonsensical rules that have no discernible logic to them and no power over mortals. You can force minor spirits to leave you alone or even enslave them into your service, even though you have no means to harm or physically restrain them. There are rules which they are physically unable to break, and which mortals can learn and remember. But the patterns and mechanisms behind them are completely incomprehensible to mortals.
          Interacting with dangerous spirits in such a way is exciting because it forces the heroes to play a game whose rules they can never understand. You’re always under the permanent risk of missing a tiny detail that completely changed the whole situation, but nobody ever thought to mention to you. Dealing with spirits in this way is like handling live bombs.
          For that to work, I think spirits need to be fundamentally incomprehensible. “They look like us, but they are not like us.”

    1. What an odd site. :D

      But a really interesting read.

      “This environment is shaped by forces which still have agency but no agent”
      “The extinct elite, despite their absence, still control this realm.”

      That’s great stuff to work with.

  2. If you want freedom from resource management and a very shallow power-curve (and little need to focus on GP/XP) have a look at OD&D — or more simply Swords & Wizardry. It’s free and Finch’s wonderful encouragement to “imagine the hell out of it” permeates all the written text. Based on my experience, you can get were you want to go with it. It puts you as DM in the driver’s seat and detaches your players focus away from their characters (advancement) and towards the world.

    My $0.02. Good luck!

    1. I’m passingly familiar with those. They seemed very much interchangeable with B/C clones.

      While they certainly address most of the most annoying traits of d20 system games, and I would still run a campaign with those if a group of players asked me to, they are at the end of the day still D&D. With classes and levels, with hit points, with D&D spells, and D&D monsters. Which are certainly one way to play fantasy campaigns, but I don’t find it a particularly interesting one. I’ve been running and playing D&D campaigns on again, off again for 20 years now, and I feel I got all the fun out of it that I’m going to get.

      There are a number of games that make me think “that sounds interesting, I really want to see how those play and what campaigns I can get out of it”. D&D isn’t one of them.

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