Return to The Savage Frontier

Forgotten Realms Campaign Set

As I might have mentioned in my recent posts, the Forgotten Realms bug has bitten me again. In particular the world presented in the AD&D 1st edition Grey Box and The Savage Frontier. This is the setting of Icewind Dale and Neverwinter Nights, which were two my first fantasy games, and a few years later I was one of the GMs and level designers of a huge German NWN server network that ran for several years and set in the same region. It really was my first campaign setting and I lived and breathed that stuff for several years during my whole time as a 3rd edition GM. I pretty much lost interest in it after that and eventually went into homebrewing my own settings, but every couple of years, I remember that little The Savage Frontier book, that I earlier had dismissed as being entirely superseded by the much superior The North box and the Silver Marches book, and think of all the cool ideas that were lost in the later versions and I never got to use in the adventures I ran. While I currently have a new homebrew setting in the fire and another one in the drawer to work on any time the fancy strikes me, I also really just want to start a new campaign in the new year and go out to take the OSE Advanced rules for a spin. And The Savage Frontier is looking as attractive as it always does.

The Savage Frontier

FR6: The Savage Frontier is one of 12 expansions for the original Grey Box campaign set. I think it’s Janelle Jaquays’ greatest work and possibly the best campaign setting sourcebook released for any RPG. Like all the books in the FR series, this one is really thin. Only 64 pages plus a really cool map of the entire region, which I used as the basis for my own giant hexmap. But this thing is just packed with content. One way in which it accomplishes that is that it is entirely setting description. There are no pages spend on new character options, spells, magic items, or monsters. This is all content for GMs to use as starting points for creating their own adventures. The amount of information that is provided on each subject that is covered is usually very sparse. Neverwinter gets a third of a page in total and Sundabar half of that. In contrast to that, The North box has lavish descriptions of various inns and taverns in every town and village. But looking back at it now, those descriptions didn’t actually give you anything that could be used to create adventurers for PCs. I guess that’s where the weird “laughing people around a table” trend started for D&D.

Baldur’s Gate

Dungeon descriptions are just as sparse and in many cases you don’t get anything more than a name and the reason why it has that name. That can seem quite underwhelming and not that helpful, but what The Savage Frontier is made for is to give you ideas to start of creation of your own game content. You’re not meant to discover the Forgotten Realms that have already been made for you, but to create your own version based on the provided seeds and stepping stones. And the stuff here is just really inspiring.

Icewind Dale

My plan for the campaign is to take the Forgotten Realms just as they are presented in these two sources and expand on what is on the page, without referring to any information from later sources that overwrite, contradict, or are thematically mismatched with what was established in 1988. I put the villages of Mornbryn’s Shield and Uluvin on my map because they don’t contradict or subtract anything from the original sources, but it is still the year 1357 with Hellgate Keep and the Blue Bear tribe, a massive orc stronghold right outside Silverymoon and Sundabar, Bane, Bhaal, and Myrkul, and all that other awesome metal shit! Also, the North is truly a Savage Frontier! It is a region that has been settled by humans from the South only fairly recently and outside of Waterdeep there is only a sparse scattering of homesteads raising cattle, sheep, and horses on the prairies. The elves are long gone. All that remains are a few stragglers occasionally showing up in human cities. The dwarves are still hanging on, but only barely. King Harbromm of Citadel Adbar is the last dwarven king in the North. They all know that the days of their people are over and that they are the last survivors of a great civilization who are left with the only two choices of fleeing to human cities or isolating themselves completely from the outer world in their greatly diminished underground strongholds.

The Fellowship of the Ring

The concept for the campaign is that the players start out as a (recently) established adventurer company. As laid out and explained in great detail in the Grey Box, adventurers in the Forgotten Realms are very much like mercenary companies roaming from town to town in search for work. Not single wanderers who just happen to be in the same backwater tavern when the plot hook comes crashing through the door. It also makes sense when you take into consideration how the rules for 1st edition were designed and the game presented. A party does not consists of 3 to 4 PCs, but of 10 to 15 PCs, henchmen, and hirelings with a whole baggage train of supplies. I’ve found that with this context, the whole setting makes a lot more sense. Individuals roaming around, hoping that someone is in need of a weird stranger to rescue Lassie from the well never felt really believable to me. But small armies for hire in a huge and sparsely populated wilderness where the next Lord’s knights are weeks away? I can see that being an actual career option.

The 13th Warrior

My idea for adventures is to have essentially miniature sandboxes. The players hear that a town has been suffering from an ongoing threat from barbarians, orcs, monsters from the wilderness, or a strange curse and set out to offer the locals their services to protect them for a fee. It is then up to the party to go explore the surrounding woods and marshes to find the source of the threat and deal with it. They either can make a contract to find and kill a specific monster that is terrorizing the town, or to simply guard the town and patrol the nearby area until the townsfolk think it’s safe enough to not extend the contract for another week or month. I think this is a great setup to combine wilderness exploration and dungeon crawling and have the players discover all kinds of lairs, strange spirits, and odd hermits, while at the same time leaving it entirely in their hands where they want to go and how they want to respond to the things they encounter. No need to script any events with predetermined outcomes. Like any West Marches campaign, this also makes the game very flexible, with the game being able to continue with whatever players are present on that day. The characters of players not playing that day would be staying back guarding the town while the party is out on patrol or hunting.

Thief Dark Project
Thief

I first got into the setting around 2002, a few years after I’ve first started playing, and was still regularly playing Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, and Thief. It was also right after the Lord of the Rings movies had come out. All of which obviously had a huge impact on how I was imagining all those things I was reading about. And which I am using now extensively to scrounge for ideas for the new campaign. The Savage Frontier does not mention gnolls existing in the region. But the gnolls in Baldur’s Gate are extremely cool, way cooler than the mad cackling idiots that appear in more recent D&D material. And of course Kuldahar, the Severed Hand, and the Dragon’s Eye from Icewind Dale are just totally awesome.

Skyrim

I don’t recall when I first watched The 13th Warrior, but that movie is as oldschool D&D as it can possibly get. And it’s vikings, so a perfect fit for the North. They are perhaps my own ideal archetype for what an adventuring company should be like. And the dungeon at the end is a thousand times cooler than straight 10-foot wide stone corridors and square rooms. Skyrim of course came out many years after all these other works. But I still think it’s very much in the same general style as the Savage Frontier. There’s a couple of cool dungeons and caves and other interesting stuff. Again, the sources don’t say if there are any Mammoths in the North, but there very much could be. And pairing them up with stone giants? Yes please!

Ay, where all the Secret Societies at?

Just wrote this to revive an old discussion on Enworld and thought it actually fits really well to post here:

I’ve been thinking about possible new Forgotten Realms campaigns several times this year. And while I often get quite excited about seeing adventures in many of these interesting places and with these interesting organizations, I’ve typically run very quickly into the same problem that I can’t really think of anything interesting for the players to do.

Say you have a group of PCs arrive in Daggerford or step of the boat in Telflamm, what’s next? Going into some nearby dungeons to get their footing is of course always an option. The very first Forgotten Realms adventure Under Illefarn does exactly that. Classic Dungeon Crawling to hunt for treasure works as a campaign, but when you look at a world like Forgotten Realms with these huge fancy maps and all the colorful cities on it, I think that would feel underwhelming and like not making proper use of the setting.

Another option that became very popular especially during the 90s is the now also classic approach of “Local mayor/sage/priest calls for heroes to fight a dangerous evil and sends the PCs to an increasingly dangerous series of dungeons until they get to the main villain’s lair”. Again, this works. And I think 20 years ago, that would have been absolutely perfect for me as either a GM or a player.

But now I find such campaigns insufficient and unsatisfying. A campaign should be about the PCs dealing with the consequences of their successes and failures, giving meaning to their wise decisions and wrong calls. Taking the players by the hand to get them introduced to the starting area is not a bad thing, and often actually much better than dropping them off in a tavern to fend for themselves. But very soon, the players should be able to decide on their own what things they want to pursue, which NPCs to pursue for closer cooperation, and which NPCs’ activities they want to interfere with. And it seems to me that of all the available material that exists for the setting, there is very little that is directly useful in this regard.

Thinking about this again today, I was having the thought that perhaps the issue here lies in the fact that pretty much all the organizations and factions that would gladly do harm to the good people of civilization happen to be secret societies with fairly nebulous goals. The vast majority of threats are conspiracies, and the whole point of conspiring is to not only keep the plan secret from outsiders, but to also hide the fact that there is any kind of plan in the works to begin with.

To be aware that something shifty is going on, you already have to be in the game. And the generic aspiring adventurers who just stepped off the proverbial boat happen to be completely oblivious to the local power structures and unspoken rules, and have no connections who trust them with sensitive information. I think that’s exactly the issue that has made the Forgotten Realms such a difficult beast to tackle since I started looking for more than Elminster Fetch Quests and Kill The Orcs Because They Are Orcs. There is a mismatch of what the PCs are supposed to be and what is the most interesting feature of the setting. Which isn’t unique to Forgotten Realms, of course. The exact same thing has always been plaguing Vampire: The Masquerade, and it is quite similar to why Planescape is way more fun to read than creating adventures for it.

There is an opinion that has thankfully become a lot more common in campaign setting creation circles in recent years that a good campaign setting begins with identifying the kind of adventures that are going to take place in actual campaigns that are being played. Once you have figured out what the PCs will be doing you can define what PCs in this world will be. And then you can develop all the content regarding factions, cultures, history, and so on tailored to be in support of that play style. I don’t want to give Forgotten Realms too much crap on this as a big failure in worldbuilding. The setting was officially released as a D&D setting in 1987, just three years after Dragonlance had completely rewritten the entire paradigm for what a great D&D campaign is meant to be. Go to dungeons and kill villains while every step is directed to you by a powerful NPC who explains what’s going on probably was just what people wanted to see.

As was the style at the time.

Dungeons & Swords & Sorcery

I’ve written about my thoughts on how to evoke the style of Sword & Sorcery in a fantasy adventure game before in the past. I’ve been thinking about it again recently while looking to find the spark again to continue work on my setting, and my thoughts have been revolving primarily around the role of dungeon crawling in a Sword & Sorcery campaign.

While classic dungeon crawling is a very fascinating and fun form of gameplay in its own right, I think the archetypical dungeon crawl is not a good basis to build a Sword & Sorcery campaign around. The classic dungeon crawl, with its complex underground labyrinths, countless traps, secret doors, and numerous small hidden stashes of treasures all over the place naturally promotes a play style that is very cautious, methodical, and calculated. It encourages players to progress slowly and with care, to examine all the small and possibly insignificant details, and to take any precautions before following through with well thought through plans. In a well deaigned dungeon, this can be hugely exciting and thrilling. But it’s a kind of exitement and tension that is very different from the style of Sword & Sorcery. This is a style that is all about fearless and even reckless initiative, where fortune favors the bold. Heroes are certainly relying heavily on cunning and trickery to take down foes much stronger than themselves, but often these are things improvsed in the heat of the action and more of a gamble than much of a plan. In a Sword & Sorcery themes campaign, players spending a lot of time over maps and rummaging through large boxes of tools to disable a dangerous mechanism with a minimum of risk is something that you want to avoid, not to have as the default approach to playing the game. While a lot of useful things can be taken to create a great Sword & Sorcery campaign from oldschool roleplaying, the classic dungeon crawl probably isn’t one of them.

Still dungeons as a concept and an environment are really cool and absolutely have their place. But I think they need to be approached quite differently.

The first thing that I see is that dungeons should be relatively small in scope. Typically in a Sword & Sorcery adventure, a dungeon is only one chapter of a larger story. As such, I think dungeons of a size that the players can get through in two or three hours should be quite big enough. Heroes usually don’t enter a dungeon to explore its secrets, but to track down something or someone specific that they have good reason to believe to be somewhere inside. Going into a dungeon is usually more a kind of raid than an exploration. Get in fast and quietly if possible, grab what you came for, and get the hell out again fast. The dungeon is not a place to be mastered or conquered, but to be survived.

As I said above, in a Sword & Sorcery style campaign, we don’t typically want the players to stay in one place long and go through everything with a fine comb. There are two main ways to encourage that. The first one is to avoid having the players be weary of traps. If every floor tile could be a trap, things will slow down a lot. And most of the time, there won’t even be any actual danger in the first place. Environmental dangers and constucted defenses against intruders can totally work, but they should be announcing themselves to the players instead of  being hidden. Be it obvious pits of spikes, moats with hungry crocodiles, a hallway with mummies in open coffins that line the wall, or two dramatic gargoyle statues on top of the gate. What we want to accomplish is to have the players understand that if a passage looks empty and perfectly safe, there is no point for them to stop and take all the time consuming precautions to make sure there really is no trap. And this has to be absolutely consistent. It might seem fun to have a completely unexpected trap jump at the players now and then, but when you do it once, the plaeyers learn that it could happen at any time when they don’t expect it, and then they will always expect it.

Similar to the placement of traps is the placement of treasure. Having some spare change hidden between the couch cushions to reward players who spend the time to check for there is a great way to encourage them to really search everything in an area they come through, and it can be quite a lot of fun for players to do this easter egg hunt. But just as wit traps, this is something that w don’t really want in Sword & Sorcery adventures. Instead of lots of small portions of valuables being hidden all over the place, I think having just one big hoard of all the treasure in one place works much better. Yes, it’s all the joy of discovering treasures crammed into a single scene instead of having it spread out evenly, but that also means to joy in that moment is more intense. This hoard can be placed right behind the greatest danger in the dungeon, but it doesn’t have to. Getting the whole haul out while the biggest threat is still on the prowl can be even more exciting. And the main pice of the loot could also be somwthing that might be a very powerful weapon against that threat when the players encounter it later.

The role of PC Heroes in Star Wars

While I am working on my Hyperspace Opera setting, I am frequently getting out various Star Wars RPG books to look for ideas. And unsurprisingly, it’s always just a matter of time until I start to think “Man, I should run a d6 Star Wars campaign in the meantime.” It’s Star Wars! It’s amazing!

But then I grab something to take some notes and start looking for ideas what the campaign could be about, and where and when it would be set, and the whole thing begins to lose traction really rapidly. The main reference for what Star Wars is and what makes Star Wars cool are the adventures of Luke, Han, Leia, Chewbacca, and Lando. They quickly turn out to be major movers and shakers, destroying the two Death Stars, having several encounters with Darth Vader, and being directly responsible for facilitating the death of the Emperor. Their interactions with the setting and the major power players within it, and their perspective on the world as a whole are very different from what a group of freshly made PCs could ever experience.

But why does that have to be?

It is convention in RPGs that a party of new PCs consists of people with no significant accomplishments who are each just one out of a thousand or even a million of similar people with similar aspirations. They are bit players and peons, who through their deeds can slowly grow in strength and make connections to possibly one day become important actors in the fate of their worlds. And this works great for a great range of games, settings, and campaigns. But for a Star Wars game, this just doesn’t hook me. Playing rebel grunts ambushing imperial patrols to steal a crate of blasters, or irrelevant cargo pilots who have a rival crew trying to steal their cargo doesn’t really capture any of the things that make Star Wars amazing.

So instead of having a party of fresh new characters who first arrive on the scene at the start of the campaign and then look on the big picture from far below, why not have the players play PCs who are capital H Heroes? We have established that the Emperor and Vader killed all the Jedi except for two, but in that big galaxy, there could very well be a third who is also out fighting the Empire on his own in a complete different region. When we meet Han and Lando for the first time, they are not ordinary scoundrels. They both have reputation and influence that indicates they are pretty big shots in the circles they associate with. And Leia is an imperial senator and appears to be at least in the second tier of the leadership of the whole Rebel Alliance. Luke really is the very notable exception here, and that’s because he’s the main point of view character for the first movie. By the second movie, his role has already changed completely.

This idea is certainly not new, but it has never occured to me. PCs in a Star Wars campaign don’t have to be extras in the story of the Rebellion against the Empire. They absolutely can be protagonists in a story just as big as the one of Luke and Vader.

Pathcrawls

We are now resuming our irregular schedule.

I’ve never been friends with the idea of hexcrawling. Lots of people fill the term with all kinds of different meanings as long as there is at least one hex map involved somewhere, but to me it always carries the clear meaning of being the same concept as dungeoncrawling, translated from dungeon rooms to wilderness hexes. Which means the players are going from hex to hex, color in the new hex on their map as the terrain type they discover, and ask the GM if they see anything that they can check out. Like the player map for The Isle of Dread.

Some people will say that hexcrawling is much more than that, but there’s plenty of people around who strongly assert that every single hex should have something in it to discover, so the idea is there. That just doesn’t sound very fun to me, as it easily turns into wandering around aimlessly waiting for something to happen. I also think it breaks the believability of the world as a 24 square mile area is massive and you could spend month exploring just a single 6-mile hex without ever spotting a cave, statue, or tower that is somewhere between the hills and trees. As I outlined in a previous post, I think it is much more plausible for PCs to find new sites when they either have instructions for how to reach them, or they are visible from a road or river the party is travelling on. In many ways, this is simply a pointcrawl. But there are various things about the pointcrawl map as originally proposed that I find inconvenient for how I want to run my campaigns. Where do you put boxes for new sites that are added to the world as a consequence of players tracking randomly encountered creatures to their lair or base without messing up the map? What if players decide to take shortcuts through woodlands or swamps where there are no roads or rivers to follow? These issues can be quite easily fixed without really overturning the whole system, so consider this a tweak on pointcrawl maps.

First thing is to draw the map for the area in freehand with no grid. (Even the hexmaps I posted recently started that way before I added the hex grid.) Primarily coastlines, mountains, rivers, lakes, and swamps, and such things.

Second, add the major settlements, strongholds, and ruined cities to the map.

Third, draw the roads that people build to connected these settlements.

Now that we have the main rivers and major roads, as the fourth step, add any other sites that people in the area might have discovered already and could give the players instructions on how to find them.

Fifth, add the secondary paths that connect these sites to the main roads and rivers.

Now we know all the paths through the region that parties are likely to travel on. As the sixth step, add sites that could be spotted by simply traveling on one of the primary and secondary paths.

Seventh, mark paths that connect those tertiary sites to the road and river network. Since characters can see those sites from the road, they don’t need any kind of trail to follow. Just keep it in your sight and move towards it. Depending on the granularity you want with distances, these can even be marked as being right on the trail from which they can be spotted.

Only now comes the step to add a hex grid to the whole map. This hex grid is not to divide the wilderness into segments, but simply as a visual aid to easily estimate the length of swirling paths as they meander through the environment. If you’d want to, you could just note the distances between two points next to the path of the map and remove the grid again if you’re working with a digital map. Back in the day, the 2nd edition Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting box had a hex grid printed on a sheet of clear plastic at the same scale as the maps in the box for just that purpose. I think any print shop would still be able to make such a sheet for you if you have an apprpropriately scaled file of a hex grid on a USB stick.

The advantage of making a wilderness map like this is that I can easily add more dots and more lines to the map, and since the map is based on physical geography instead of a flow-chart abstraction, I can determine the length of any new path easily by counting the number of hexes it passes through. If the players say “You know what, we get off the trail here and just keep heading straight south until we reach the river and then follow it downstream to the town”, it’s trivial to figure out the length of the path, though it would be something you’d have to purely handwave on a default pointcrawl map.

Which might of course be a complete non-issue for many people. This is simply my method that I am using to get the mix of abstraction and precision that I find ideal for my campaigns.

Character motivation in a game with no goals

There have been two thing about campaigns that have been torturing me for many years and caused me endless frustration about never really getting to run the kind of game I really want to. The first of the two is how to make dungeons interesting places to explore, which I finally did discover eventually. (In short, it’s the tension of being careful but not lingering too long in dangerous places, and rewarding poking around in dark holes with treausre as the main XP source.) The other one is the question of what motivates characters in campaigns centered around rogues and scoundrels to go on dangerous adventures other than unashamed selfish greed. You don’t need any additional reason to fight evil snd save the innocents in campaigns in which the party consist of chivalrous heroes, but for many types of campaigns such characters really wouldn’t be fitting the basic premise.

I was recently thinking about how Kenshi could provide useful ideas for the B/X campaign I am working on. It is a videogame with no victory conditions, no quests, no plot, and no real dialogs, but the way the mechanics of the game are set up, it automatically creates the most fantastic stories full of tension and drama all the time. Amd that got me thinking about push and pull factors when it comes to motivating characters in any kind of story.

Typical stories of heroism are all about pull factors. The heroes see an evil, injustice, or threat against others, and being heroes feel compelled to get involved and do something about it. The fact that they choose to take action when everyone else didn’t care or didn’t dare, amd they themselves don’t really have to either, is what makes them heroic. Heroic characters are always popular and characters who are motivated by pull factors tend to charge towards the greatest danger, where all the cool action is. Which is why we see stories with pull incentives being so dominant in fiction. Pull factors also make things easy for GMs since you know what the PCs will be attempting to achieve and which possible paths can lead there even before the players have been introduced to the adventure. Adventures motivated by pull factors are very predictable.

Push factors work rather different. A push incentive is anything that makes it impossible for characters to remain in the situation they are in and force them to leave their default starting position. In most media, a simple push incentive can be that characters hate their current life and want to head out to head for excitement. This works very well in most narrative media where the writer is always in complete control of the whole story and nothing bad will happen to the characters unless the writer wants it to. Players in an RPG have no such control and there are real dangers for their characters that can cause severe damage up to death even when the players really don’t want that at that moment. Within the context of an RPG, players have a strong incentive to minimize the risks to their characters. At the same time, it’s a medium that’s at its strongest during scenes of external action, while being generally very weak at internal reflection. You can write inner monologs and characters struggling with their emotions, and there are many great techniques to communicate such things visually in film. This is something that just doesn’t translate to RPGs.

While internal push factors like unhappiness, dissatisfaction, and boredom don’t really work in RPGs, there are still external push factors. In Kenshi, there is a single external push factor, which is the need for food. All characters need food, and with Kenshi being a desert moon, there is ver little available. It is very easy for your characters to stay safe in a spot where they won’t be spotted by wirld predators or raiders. But there is no food in the barren desert and so you have no choice but to try getting some. You can try killing wild animals, stealing food from settlements, taking food from unconscious NPCs, or buying food from shops. The first three require skills and come with considerable risk. The last one only takes money, but to make money you also need skills and expose yourself to risk. You can try to reduce your risk by getting better weapons and armor, which again costs money, or you can try building a farm to produce your own food. But then your new farm will attract raiders like flies, so you need to build fortifications and get more characters to keep your food from getting stolen. And those new characters also need better equipment, which means finding ways to make money. And you can see how this snowballs very quickly until you might end up with dozens of characters, several strongholds, and multiple ore mines and workshops to equip your people with the best gear possible. All of this hinges on that little hunger bar on each character that is alwsys going down slowly.

For an RPG, the best push incentives can be the ones that continue pushing indefinitely. Something that just keeps forcing PCs to get up, move out, and do something. The other RPG thing I’ve been tinkering with on and off besides Planet Kaendor is a space campaign about a group of PCs with a small ship cruising around a frontier region of known space. The idea I have for the campaign is one with little room for idealistic charity workers with big guns, but I am also not really interested in making it a campaign about outright nasty criminals. Characters who are mostly just trying to get by but keep ending up in exciting situations is more what I have in mind. Such a premise really needs motivations in the form of push factors. A very convenient one in this case is spaceship maintenance costs. If at any point the players don’t really know what their characters would be motivated to at that moment, when they are set up nicely and life is good away from any immediate danger, simply advance the time a couple of month and deduct the maintenance cost for their ship from their money. Eventually money will start to run out and they have no other choice than start asking around for something that will pay.