Tuesday, January 31, 2017
Try to Introduce the Campaign You Actually Run
Well okay, but it's hard.
The campaign I run is called The Eastwylde (pronounced like "wild" but gussied up with fake Renny-Saunce spelling). It's a Pathfinder campaign that tries its best to ape OSR/DIY-D&D aesthetics/sensibilities. It's a limited-area sandbox with an outlined area maybe 60 miles across and 60 miles broad. Yes that is ridiculously tiny. I squeezed a lot of things into a very small area without meaning to but given that the campaign has now lasted a full year and finished its 23rd session January 29, it's a little late to walk that back now.
There is a backstory to the setting, there are active villains, there are political movers and shakers on all points of the alignment spectrum. The players, however, are free to move through all this basically at will. Even after twenty three sessions the degree to which they are free to drop one thing and pick up something else, and move around willy-nilly is staggering. That is partly due to their own craftiness at avoiding/disregarding entanglements of the kind sandboxes always incur but also partly how I designed the setting to work.
So, running through this setting is a border between two areas termed The Shield Baronies, and the Eastwylde. Long ago, the whole region was broadly known as "the East" and was a developed region with towns and castles and only a few pockets of wilderness. Then came the Third Mage War, and The East fell victim to spells of utmost destructiveness. Spells of awesome power leveled fortresses and settlements and irradiated the land with Wild Magic, an uncontrollable force of mutation and death. This resulted in the exodus known as The Flight From the East, when thousands of people abandoned their destroyed homeland to settle in the broader, lower lands of the West.
Four hundred years later, the Court Magi of the King of Pellegrine, the kingdom nearest to the destruction, reported that the Wild Magic had died down to a few pockets and that the East was---at least atmospherically--safe for habitation. Over the next century a melange of fortune-hunters, settlers, scavengers, trappers, thrill-seekers and antiquarians crossed into that desolation, which had become nearly overgrown with a single dense forest that became known as The Eastwylde. The earliest settlements were hidden pockets of civilization carved out of the forest, constantly menaced by orcs and animals, little more than trading posts and halfway stations.
But over the decades the Eastwylde was driven back. The Dire Animals were hunted out of their burrows, the Orcs beaten, and lost shrines and sacred sites reconsecrated in the name of the Saints. A block of territory now roughly 48 miles across and 72 miles broad, divided into six newly-minted castellanies, has been established as safe for farming, markets and all the rudiments of civilization. This is The Shield Baronies, and its six lords are new-made men among the Peerage of Pellegrine.
Marissa Spell-Wise of Spellwyse; Silas the Vulture of Verdance; Hugh Hector Ogrebane of New Bastion; Abraham "Lightning" Van Hussel of Surgarde; Abel Silvertongue of Gardenwall; Otgar Greatsword of Stormcrown; these six were once adventurers who entered the Eastwylde armed only with steel or spell and their own wits to guide them. Each one survived where dozens of their peers fell, and each eventually cleared out an area of at least 24x24 miles as per the King's Writ. For the Kings of Pellegrine made a standing offer that century ago which has been often renewed but rarely taken up: anyone who can clear the forest and guarantee safety of habitation over an area of at least 24x24 miles may establish a stronghold there, and enter with the title of Baron the Peerage of Pellegrine. The first to establish her stronghold was Marissa, 50 years ago; the newest is Otgar, who founded the Barony of Stormcrown just fifteen years back.
Most who enter the Eastwylde have no greater ambition than plundering one of the many ruins dotting the forest---many of which were ancient and dreaded long before the Flight From the East---making a quick fortune and returning to the comfort of civilization. Very few have the burning ambition---let alone the chutzpah---to scheme of bootstrapping themselves into the High Nobility through the strength of their sword-arm and sharpness of their wits. In either case few who cross the line from the Shield Baronies into the shady vastness of the Wylde ever return.
But of course, the party formed by the Player Characters is just such a group. The place where they meet is the Hamlet of Grifflet, the furthest settlement in Stormcrown, which is the newest and furthest of the Shield Baronies from civilization. Grifflet merely lies no less than a bowshot from the towering treeline which marks the edge of safety. Its thin herds of cattle graze in those trees' shadow. Beyond those wooded vaults and the shallow but noisome stream called Red Creek, is the domain of the Fairies, the domain of the orcs, the domain of death, madness and ruination.
*waves hands in the air* I call it The Aristocrats!
So what's cool and different about your game?
I hope the sheer number of factions and players makes things interesting to my players, and makes the setting feel ACTIVE and ALIVE (this was definitely my big goal when I set out---I wanted the gameworld to feel like it would keep right on running if all the players dropped dead). So far they've heard of four different Fairy Queens who hold court somewhere in the forest. They've met or heard of three different orc chieftains (one of whom is a half-ogre). They've met two strange, powerful beings in the forest that they've mistaken for Fairy Queens but aren't, and were told of a third, a living god called the King of Beasts who lives somewhere in the forest. They've discovered Ogres and Orogs (half-orc-half-ogres---which they quickly dubbed "Ocres") have a thorny relationship with the Orcs. They've dipped into local politics as the free people of Grifflet and Baron Otgar wrangle over the boundaries of his lordship and several "free companies" (mercenaries) navigate the complicated political scene. They've even sussed out some of the complicated maneuvers Otgar employs against his nearest rival, Abel Silvertongue of Gardenwall, which involves a powerful bandit captain hiding in the woods who just might be a disgraced nobleman. Not including him there are two powerful noble families from Pellegrine also sticking their nose into local affairs either as members of a mercenary band or as leaders of adventuring parties. There are also three "big villains" loosely allied, a conspiracy/detente which the PCs have only gotten a few hints at: a half-fay sorceress schemes to awaken her father the Verdant Prince and bury the whole land in darkness; the orog warlord who believes it is his destiny to unite all the tribes into one great horde and take back the Shield Baronies; a chaotic evil cleric with a sword that lets him control a growing army of ghouls who plans to launch an Anti-Crusade of the dead against the civilized lands.
And yeah I haven't even gotten to the other adventuring parties yet. Three other groups have been introduced: one party arrived in Grifflet at about the same time as the PCs, disappeared into the forest early and haven't been seen since. The PCs allied themselves with a second party only to discover that when you have close to ten PCs or PC-Classed NPCs in your band that XP and treasure gets spread reeeally thin so that turned out to be a bad idea and the parties split under mutual opprobrium. The third group arrived fairly late but has already established themselves as a serious rival and probably scooped the party on at least one dungeon. This isn't including what I call "the Hireling Pool" of unattached adventurers, most of whom can be found in the big village of Stormcrown itself but a few of whom can be picked up at Grifflet's tavern. I initially drew up 14 distinct level 1 characters who could be taken as lackeys, and the current number is something like 24. This isn't including higher-level lone badass types who'd draw a much higher fee but could probably wipe out an entire dungeon level for you singlehanded if you want.
All these moving parts more or less literally require a flow chart to keep track of, so that's what I made. I have something like one of those FBI organization flowcharts they use in Mafia investigations just to keep it straight for myself who all the NPCs are, who's connected to whom and how. I also have a calendar with marked events that will happen unless interrupted by the PCs. For example, those three adventurers the PCs haven't seen in 20 sessions have been inside a karst plateau for weeks now, beneath the promontory of which the Bandit Lord made his camp----if they have two more weeks to work, they will completely undermine the front section of the plateau and trigger an avalanche which will destroy the bandits and also the orcs who are living inside the plateau. At a certain point, the Orog warlord will launch an invasion of Stormcrown. At a certain point Ghoul-Cleric will launch his invasion of neighboring Surgarde, and Half-Fay Sorceress will launch her coup attempt on the Fairy Queens. These three badguys aren't exactly working together---they've merely agreed to leave each other alone while they pursue their own agendas. If everything works out though, the Sorceress's father is powerful enough that he'll engulf all the land in his choking vines, including the orcs and the undead.
That all just sounds kind of generic fantasy tropes, fam. I mean Orcs, Evil Cultists, Fairies....
Well, like, that's like, well, your opinion, man.
I mean, look, this is sort of my second really serious effort at running a D&D campaign ever. My first effort was strung out over nearly a decade and was much more uh, idiosyncratic. It had a very different setup from the "standard" D&D setting. And that was fun. But with this I was looking to take on a more surface-generic D&D setting where the players and I would have more of a common language to draw on, but still do it my own way.
Talk more about this, your "generic" setting.
This post is already insanely long though?
Do it. Doitdoitdoitdoit.
Alright, but like, BULLET POINTS
-Orcs and Elves are sorta-kinda the same race, as in Lord of the Rings. I use an online Akkadian dictionary to come up with Orc names, or I just go with something that sounds vaguely Mesopotamian/Black Speech-y, or I go with "translated" names (mainly so my players can remember who's who). Some prominent Orc NPCs, for example: Chief Rotten Axe, Warlord Long Pole*, Topknot, Prettygirl, Smash (he's an orog actually), Milk. Examples of untranslated names: Hanba-Kil, Qhudum-Tug, Bhish-Pish, Posh-Dul, Bhakku. Elves have names that just sound super quasi-Tolkienien elvish like - the Priestess Arydel, or the siblings Vulmer and Antepycta Tanithien (not a lot of elves have shown up yet).
*This was the unfortunate result of me scrambling for a name on the spot. My immediate thought was, well, he's a major political leader, his name might reflect that he has a "big tent" to show his status and how he's a uniter, like a tall tent pole.... and it wasn't until the name was out of my mouth I realized what I'd done. It is sort of orc-y to make your political leader's name a sex joke anyway.
So what the PCs have learned (by talking to Arydel and Smash actually) is that the Elves are the children of a god called the Boar-King Freyr by the Giantess (Titaness?) Gerd. Freyr was one of a group of gods called The Vanir, all of whom are now deceased. Freyr had a brother named Gruumsh, who killed him, and the Orcs were born from the Boar-King's blood (hence why they resemble... boars). The Elves tell the story that Gruumsh wanted to sleep with Gerd and murdered Freyr for refusing him. The Orcs tell it (or at least Smash, who's no expert, told it) that Freyr picked on Gruumsh for being bent and ugly until one day Gruumsh had enough and killed his brother in a wrestling match after Freyr put out his eye. Both sides agree that the Orcs and Elves have been enemies since the Orcs were created and warred for thousands of years.
That was way too detailed and boring. Bullet points! What is the broadest and shortest possible overview of your world's history?
-Gods, giants, dragons. Dragons figured out how to put magic into writing, giants refined it, giants built glorious Atlantis-like cities and warred/intermarried with the divers clans of gods such as the Vanir. Eventually the gods were like "we're sick of your shit" and blew up the Giants' civilization.
-After that quasi-mythological age, Elves built a world-spanning civilization. They got their shit wrecked by the Hobgoblins, who then collapsed, and then it was Man's turn. If you had like a single archeological site in layers dating back to the earliest civilizations it'd go Giants--->High Elves--->Dark Elves--->Hobgoblins--->Druids--->Roman Humans--->Medieval Humans
-Man used to believe in a bunch of Gods but about a thousand years back something called The Cult of the Saints took over. Pagan gods were mostly transformed into semidivine human characters. The most important saint is St. Beatrix Paraklete: Beatrix was a human wizard a couple hundred years back who saved the world from a return by the giants and ascended to godhood doing it, and she's worshipped as the Queen of Heaven by most humans. She's Wizard Jesus basically. So nobody thinks arcane magic is of the devil in my setting because that's a dumb overused trope anyway.
-There are a couple broadly popular pagan survivals, such as leaving offerings to the Fairies, the Druid Orders, and there's the occasional unreformed actual fucking pagan temple sitting in the middle of a major city. People are for the most part just not interested enough to kill each other over who's a druid and who's a saint-follower and who worships the Giant Snake Sex God. Most people overlap in their own lives a little bit---you had a Saintist wedding but you'd be happy to let a passing druid bless your crops and who doesn't like an occasional orgy down at the Giant Snake Sex God temple? Basically think like the opposite of warhammer--religiously intolerant people exist but they're weird assholes and nobody likes them.
-There's three human kingdoms of immediate concern: Pellegrine, Dasan, and Arroede. Do you get the joke? DO YOU? What if I add the Free City of Montpells?? Pellegrine is your generic West-European land of lords and ladies; Dasan is sort of like a big conglomeration of Italian city-states, Sicily, and the Almohads maybe; Arroede is a Spanish-speaking desert kingdom. There's also The North, which doesn't exactly have nationstates but is sort of your Skyrim type area. But instead of Odin they worship a lich who lives in an iceberg called The Ice Father. None of these broad details has been remotely relevant to the game so far. There is a Pseudo-Asia somewhere, because I have quite a few adventurers with Chinese and Japanese names running around. I don't know much about them yet but like all Pseudo-Asias they just totally break the mythology of the setting and nothing makes sense because of them and they're like "lol 5,000 years of continuous civilization, bitch."
I aim, aesthetically, for mimicking a loose time period of roughly 1500-1550. I try to avoid Elizabethan hallmarks like ruffs and high pointy hats. Inevitably some totally anachronistic modern coat cuts and gaiters have crept in due to the preeminence of Cavaliers and Gunslingers in Pathfinder, but I try hard to avoid the 17th Century as much as possible. Munitions armor is way rarer than it should be but I can sort of explain that with the Shield Baronies being a backwater without a lot of access to industrial forges. I have designed a sort of loosely Samurai-esque "scale mail" which 16th-C. people might have worn if 16th C. people ever wore scale mail. Again thanks to Asian cultures being present I can much more freely look to Asian armors for inspiration with some of D&D's odder conventions like "studded leather." Serious artillery hasn't been seen yet, but then again there's been no reason to. Matchlocks of various makes exist alongside powerful winch-operated crossbows. Wheellocks and doglocks are limited to fancier models, usually only seen in the hands of gunslingers. I haven't altered Pathfinder's firearms rules yet (which I hate) but I mean to once plate armor starts being seen more frequently---elite plate harness should be quite sturdy against bullets, you know.
Although aesthetically Henrician, in social mores and structure the setting is way more classically feudal, inevitably so because I am a medievalist (for my sins) and when it comes to politics/economics the 11th-13th century is where I default. Again that can be explained as the Shield Baronies being a weird backwater with newly written and necessarily simplistic charters governing what law there is. I wrote a 4-page explanation of the laws in Stormcrown like, 10+ weeks ago and literally keep forgetting to mention it to my players. Alchemy is common (since one of Pathfinder's basic classes is "Alchemist"). This means fire and acid are frequently used weapons of war. Carrying a firebomb into a city or town is invariably a hanging offense----like, most communities are pretty much big tinderboxes so they take that shit super-seriously. You could literally get fined for lighting a torch indoors. Thus, "disfiguring" weapons like acid grenades are more frequently used, although the Primarch of the Cult has banned them except for use against orcs and other foes from beyond civilization. Low-level magical potions and scrolls are super-common. In fact, you can make a "scroll" by writing on anything, and it's fairly common for warriors or assassins to inscribe, say, True Strike on the stock of their musket and build up just enough ranks in Use Magic Device to put that shit to deadly effect. The exact measurement of magical potion needed to be effective is 2 oz, and by the strictures of the Wizards' Guild/Arcane Order (same thing---pompous wizards will add "AO" after their name to note their status but everyone just calls it The Guild) all magical potions sold measure exactly 2 oz and carry exactly the same effect. Weapons with release-valves for oil of magic weapon to slide down the blade are common (although this interferes with the weapon's balance and so it can't be a Masterwork weapon).
this post got enormous so I'm just going to stop here