Welp…I dropped a line to the gaming group with a few of the ideas I had and they bit on the one I hadn’t expected, but kinda hoped they would.

The setting is an alternate Earth where the various pantheons are around, their monstrous progeny are present, and magic is real. Instead of the mid to late medieval period that seems the equivalent for most Dungeons & Dragons games, we are going with Late Antiquity/Early Middle Ages.

So far, I’ve worked out that we are going to be near the end of the fourth century, when the waves of nomads started washing west into Roman territory, each wave running away from something worse behind them. But instead of Vandals, Visigoths, Ostraogths, Huns, Franks, and the like, I’m some replacing these groups with the typical bad guy races from D&D. These people and critters are running from something terrible coming out of the Central Asian steppes and are finding Rome and Constantinople ripe for the picking.

Some of the  main playable races of the Players’ Handbook will move to NPC races — the gnomes, dragonborn, and half-orcs (especially the latter) wont’ work for the setting. Humans are the main race, of course, but elves — predominantly from Hibernia and Britannia, and from the Galician areas of Hispania but present everywhere; halflings — for us the descendents of humans and dwarves, and dwarves (the Nordic sort) are commonly found throughout Northern Europe. Tiefling and Aasimar will be playable, but I haven’t worked out exactly what I’m doing with them yet, other than they will be connected to the monotheism and Zoroastrianism coming out of Judea and the Sassanid Empire.

Orcs are getting rolled into trolls; they are a creation of Tolkein and I’m trying to strip a lot of the Lord of the Rings influences for the campaign. Angles and demons work in the setting — I’m tying them to the tiefling and aasimar angle, coming out of the monotheistic regions. The mythic creatures of the Norse, Celtic, Urgo-Finnish, Russian, and the Greco-Roman pantheons will be around.

Now I have to figure out what is pushing the influx of people from Asia.

As to the Europe of this period, the Roman Empire is technically still around. Garrisons keep the peace here and there, but the influx of warlike tribes and creatures is breaking the Prefecture of Gaul into personal fiefdoms. This is made worse by the coloni system, the precursor for the feudal system. The Goth Wars have shattered the aqueduct systems and agriculture is collapsing. High taxes, weak bureaucracy and military, and banditry are crushing trade. It’s all falling apart.

This shift also means that the players will find themselves having to work up some decent backgrounds for their characters. This is probably going to require a night or two of character generation.

This combination of more realistic alternate history and classical mythologies has me actually interested in running fantasy for the first time in decades. Best of all, half my game prep is done for me — hello, bookshelf! Hello, class notes! (I’m glad the university stuck me with teaching all those Early Western Civ classes, now…) Need some maps? Google up some period maps, or raid my library.

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[While these tips and thoughts are oriented toward Dungeons & Dragons, at present, they are just as useful for other settings. SCR]

So, you’re building a new campaign for your group. There are a couple of things to think about, right off the bat. There are several canned settings for Dungeons & Dragons — Forgotten Realms is the Wizards of the Coast “official” setting, but there’s Eberron, Dark Suns, Al-Qadim (an “Arabized” version of Forgotten Realms, if I remember correctly…), Blackmoor, Dragonlance, etc. etc… Or you could build your own high fantasy setting, building off of various influences. (And let’s face it…the big one is Tolkein.)

The first thing you have to realize is how much time do you have to put into this. For the high school kid, the college kid studying alternative Feminist Dance Theory, or the dude sitting doing security at a remote site, this could be “a whole lot.” For the rest of the world, there’s work, kids (bah! kids! little time sinks!), college, errands, etc. It can be at a premium, especially if you lack good time management skills.

Published settings like Forgotten Realms can be very handy for the newbie dungeon master, or one that is pressed for preparation time. Having a “world in a can” allows you to get right to plotting a story in a ready-made framework, or to use published adventures to kickstart your game, or even run it without doing much work outside of reading the modules. There’s nothing wrong with this approach, particularly if the players haven’t run through any of the materials you are going to use.

One problem I’ve seen to these prepared settings, especially in some of the science fiction RPGs is the use of metaplots: there are large scale events going on, described in the books, and the idea is that your characters can or will be somehow involved in these world/solar system/galaxy shaping moments, but often these metaplots feel like they are being played out in the background, affecting your characters, but rarely vice-versa. Two games I’ve always wanted to run, but just couldn’t quite find a hook are Jovian Chronicles and Eclipse Phase — and both have this metaplot thing going on. Every supplement moves the publishers’ stories along, but where do you fit in? do you shove your characters into the interstices of these big plots? Do they simply exist, keeping their heads down, while empires rise and fall, or do you want them in the thick of it…where they will inevitably take you off script. (And a good thing, I’d say…)

Another option is the Chinese Buffet Method® where you pick the stuff you want, and leave the rest that doesn’t work behind. For the game I’m working up, I’m keeping the pantheon of gods from Forgotten Realms, but I’m ditching most of the rest of the setting — creating my own map and political structures on the fly. (There’s a reason for this not connected to time management…well, partly connected to time management…) I wanted something that felt familiar to any of the players who had played D&D, but I wanted my particular stamp on it.

Connected to this — don’t feel you have to use every creature in the Monster Manual. In fact, it’s a good idea to chuck quite a bit of it. There are all sorts of variants of critters presented, and a lot of them are really cool…but not everything needs to be jammed into your dungeon or castle or whatever (unless you have a reason for it.) Read the descriptions, figure out what works best for the story, maybe look for some consistency in which critters would live where.

The most work is to create your own home brew setting. Even if you offload some of this on the players — “Hey, why don’t you tell me what Zaybo the Barbarian’s culture looks like?” — you’ll be carrying a heavy load in preparation. This also can be the most rewarding, if the campaign catches everyone’s imagination.

My suggestions, even for the experienced DM are: 1) Start small. Do a short adventure that introduces elements of the world, but leaves it open for you to expand. Even with an established world, you could fit a small town or ruin in without wrecking things. 2) Steal from all over. You want the Norse gods in your setting? Go for it! You want Isengard and Saruman? Cool! 3) Let the players help you out. As they build their characters’ backstories, you might consider letting them tell you about where they are from — the place, the people, the beliefs. Give them a chunk of the worldbuilding, to lighten your load.

I did some of this with my Battlestar Galactica game, where one of the more motivated players would throw out quips about former presidents, places, or things that I would then weave into the background of the Colonies. Wondering aloud about certain things lead me to either use their thoughts as red herrings, or actual plot elements. I would advise against the “too many cooks in the kitchen” approach of modern indie games, especially if you have a very specific story arc to work with, but I’m also a crotchety old guy who’s been running games for three plus decades…so I’m biased.

Ordinarily, my group tends to do a lot of backstory for their characters, and we interweave them with things that make them more than a bunch of guys that meet at a tavern, then start adventuring. This is not necessarily the way to go about things, but most of our games tend to be either modern(ish) pulp fiction games, or space opera.

How much backstory is enough or too much? Depends on what you need for the story. Some characters can have a pages long backstory with all sorts of things the dungeon master can hook into for plots. Or it could be something simple, like Indiana Jones, for instance: he’s an archeologist with a reputation. He’s a bit shady, was in love with a character he will encounter, and isn’t afraid of much save snakes. Go!

So how to give characters interconnections that make them not just want to travel together, but give them common purpose?

The first way is to have them be in the employ of a particular NPC or organization. This works very well in military, police, or spy -oriented games very well, but might not fly in a D&D game, depending on the classes you’ve chosen. It also works to give the characters purpose for their adventure. Simply put, you got orders.

An example of this might be the town garrison of a city. Warriors have an obvious role here, but so do rangers and rogues — who could both be used as scouts or spies. Clerics as medics; wizards as artillery or leadership. For whatever reason, they’ve joined up — be it honor, money, love, adventure, religion.

Or maybe they’re all from the same town. This can be a bit difficult if they are all different species/races in D&D. Why are elves, dwarves, and humans all residents of the town? The explanation can be pieced together by the DM, or it can be a join effort. Maybe it is an trading post on the edge of various territories — a medieval Casablanca or Babylon 5. Maybe it’s a major city, like Venice was in the 14th Century, bringing people together.

Maybe some are related. Obvious linkage.

Or they could have different reasons to go after the Big Bad™. Maybe he has one of he character’s loved ones hostage, or has some McGuffin you need for one of the characters (like, say, a scroll for the wizard) — they could come together because they (or at least some of them) have a common enemy.

 

Okay…so the universe has been signaling I should run a D&D campaign for a few months now. First, I get a set of the 5th edition books for free; their original owner didn’t want them. Next, there’s a crap ton of people on the local Meetup looking to play, to the point there’s two full groups on Thursday. The guy heading up the Meetup group (who also gave me the books) asks me if i want to step in and run a game for the Meetup. I mention this in passing on Facef#$k and to a few friends. Suddenly, I’ve got about 5-6 people who are interested, and a few of my long term gamers telling me they’re interested in how I would do fantasy… Other incidents conspire to say, “Hey, why don’t you run a D&D game?”

Me: I haven’t run it since 1984 for a reason…I did the epic game back then, it was awesome, but I don’t much care for d20 or fantasy…go away, universe.

Then I read the books. Oh, says I, it’s AD&D, but with some nice fixes. Sure, it’s still got classes and alignments (really!?!) and AC and HP, but now I’m nostalgic for those time when we (no, fooling) played D&D in my friend’s basement (they had a bar setup; it was cool…) or Car Wars, or James Bond: 007, or  or or…

So, a few days ago, having started to suffer from no gaming due to the holidays, and having a bit of free time, since I can’t really get much work done when everyone is on vacation, I start tinkering with ideas for my first Dungeons & Dragons campaign in 32 years. (Christ, I’m old…)

So after 279 words of prologue (Christ, I’m verbose!):

I have a metaplot that will wrap the entire game, no matter if we have to dump it early, or it goes on forever. Dropping hints will be part of it, but it will explain the why of the game universe, including all the shitty inconsistencies that come along with a D&D game. It is also a fine reason for why you have characters with as much or little backstory as we might have. I’m planning on a lot less backstory that we usually have for our characters in this group.

So the world —  First, no lost technology or sci-fantasy we’re the remnants of some lost space colony where the tech is what makes magic, that’s been done. A lot.

I have a few choices but I’m narrowing on two main ideas. 1) a modified Forgotten Realms game keeping their pantheon of gods and some of the planar stuff, and 2) a modified Earth where the old gods never left and their horrific progeny — the monsters — are still wandering the world during the medieval period. I’m leaning toward the first, though I miss playing with the Olympians, as we did with Battlestar Galactica.

On either of these I’ve decided to throw out a goodly chunk of the Monster Manual. With the modifed FR game, I’m thinking of doing a bit of tinkering — pulling some of the races together to use elements of the classic bad guy races while cutting chaff. Orcs, for instance, are a Tolkein thing, but he uses them interchangeably with goblins and ogres, so I’m thinking ogres and orcs are the same thing, just named differently, depending on where you are. “It’s an orc!” “Oh…we call these ogres where I’m from.” “Let’s kill them!” “We call that murder where I come from.” “Shut up, Sir Thesaurus! Chaaaaaarge!”

Similarly, I’m thinking the “angels” of the game will be the avatars or manifestations of the various gods; you can’t kill ’em, but you can take their proxies off the board. Demons and devils — same thing — but they’re the manifestations of “evil” gods. I can raid the MM for stats on the fly, but keep some level of consistency in the world’s cosmology. I want to use the tiefling. For some reason they really speak to me, so I want the aasimar as their “cousin” race. They’re the half-breeds of these good or evil avatars. Maybe. Still thinking on it.

The world itself will start off badly defined — a small county/country that will be part of a world that will be designed on the fly or in very broad swathes. I’m usually pretty good at extemporaneous world-building, but it’s also part of the metaplot.

For the type of adventures, I’m leaning toward wilderness crawls and mercenary work over big maps and dungeon crawls, politics and morality plays over murder and treasure gathering. With my group, it’ll fly.

 

 

I was looking at the various pantheons in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, and while they don’t expand on the personalities, etc. I’m leaning toward using either the Dawn War and Forgotten Realms pantheons (as competing religious traditions in different areas), as well as the nonhuman deities from the Players’ Handbook.

Are these gods “real”? Maybe — as gods by ancient standards weren’t omniscient or omnipotent, but powerful enough to impact the world in grand ways. I’m leaning toward a Hindu-like division of devi and asura. They’re both “gods”, but one is divine and other malign. This works well with the traditional fantasy tropes of good and evil, but also fits the alignment conceit of the rules. Rather than a necessary behavioral guideline, it’s more a tie to which side of the grand fight you’re on. Demigods and demons are the foot soldiers of their mythic creatures.

I do know I want to lose the connection to Earthly pantheons and notions of divinity. There’s too much baggage with that, and I’m doing Hindu and classical riffs for our Hollow Earth Expedition game, and Battlestar Galactica was completely infused with Greek myth (which I love.)

Connected to that are the “planes” and the idea that they house these creatures. The dozens of planes aren’t needed. Astral and etherial are more as a function of their connection to spell-users. The Shadowfell and Feywild are much more useful — strange worlds just a half twist off of our own. (I’m seeing the Upside Down from Stranger Things for the Shadowfell, and a MAxfield Parish-like realm for the Feywild.) Then you need the positive and negative energies, or planes. It’s not Hell or Heaven, but rather Life and Death. But are they really dualistic? That could be part of the mystery for the wizards or magic users — what’s the real nature of the universe?

So…much to my surprise and chagrin, I’m considering running a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, using 5th edition. Before any of the veterans of the editions wars gets started: shut up. I haven’t played D&D since one session in 1993-ish, and before that 1984.

That last high school campaign ended with the characters taking on the “ultimate evil” of our campaign and winning. What the hell do you do after that? Our answer was more James Bond: 007 and Car Wars. I haven’t returned to fantasy since; in fact, I’ve actively avoided it.

The guy managing the local Meetup group for RPGs saw a sudden jump in interest after one of the members started running D&D 5e on their Meetup night. He’s a bit butthurt, since he had envisioned the group as a place where folks would get together and try loads of different (read, indie) games. Membership is high, but participation is low — Albuquerque is one of those places where you find a group and stick with it, mostly due to the commute time if you live on the Westside — but with the D&D game, suddenly people were coming out of the woodwork. Two tables of D&D are running and there is a waiting list. Apparently, people prefer D&D to Dogs in the Vineyard, and Night’s Dark Agents, and Apocalypse World, and all those artsy-fartsy games.

He asked me to run a game, and since he gave me his set for free, I feel a bit obligated. I made the mistake of mentioning his conundrum (people don’t want to try a different game every damned week; they want something to sink their teeth into…) and got four people say “You run it, I’ll play…” So without even trying, I’ve got a viable group. What the what!?! One of those is a regular in my other group (and an important part of the fledgling Black Campbell Entertainment), and his response was “I’d be interested to see what yu’d do with it…)

Well, now, so am I. I busted out the books and looked through the rules — it’s almost exactly the old AD&D I remember, but with some improvements. I’m intrigued by the tiefling, which weren’t around when I played. Thinking on it, I started laying out some rules for myself to avoid a lot of the “traps” of fantasy games…

First, start small. A county or province or whatever…I don’t need the whole world mapped out and an 80-page primer on the world to get started. (Yeah…the guy from 1993 wanted us to familiarize ourselves wth his world bible before playing…he also gave my ex-wife a female cleric character that was mute.)

Second, game balance — fuck that. If someone wants to play a starting character and another a more experienced one, I think I’m going to let them. Players don’t necessarily advance at the same rate in a game, as it is. Let them play what they want. That said — keep the levels manageable. Level 4 and down to start.

Third, no random tavern meeting BS. They should all have some sort of connection, or sets of connections that meet up. They need a reason to adventure beyond killing monsters and getting treasure.

And on that — monsters, magic, treasure…these things should be rare or at least uncommon, to my mind. Dropping in on the monster of the week isn’t exciting or shocking. After a while, it’s just another day on the job. Keep the magic use to a minimum and make it something surprising, even if it’s a PC using it. Make them get the bits for the spell, make them have to have time to enchant. Monsters should make sense — why is this thing here? Where did it come from? What’s the impact on the surroundings?

Connected to that: You don’t need to use the whole Monster Manual. pick things that make sense for the story and the campaign arc. I’m thinking of cutting out the old stand-bys like orcs and kobolds in favor of focusing on the main PC races as bad guys.

Alignments. Hate ’em. Always did. It might not be a bad place to base your character’s actions on. I was thinking of the notion of a tiefling that wants to be good…but in the end, that’s not their nature, and no matter how hard they fight it, sometimes, mature is going to trump nurture… But that brings up the necessary questions of what is good and bad in this game? What god/s and their antitheses exist (or don’t but we think they do..?)

You don’t need to have the universe jump, fully formed from your head, but anything that might be connected to the players’ motivations and back stories should be, at least half-assedly, laid down.

But, as always, I could be full of shit.

DNDtriumvirate

It’s the grandaddy of the roleplaying game industry, and for many — if not most gamers — the standard to which all other games are measured. It’s important enough in the gaming community that we’ve had vicious “edition wars” throughout the 1990s and 2000s. For many of us, and nearly all of us, if you’ve been playing since the 1970s or 1980s, it was your first exposure to RPGS (it was for me, rapidly followed by Traveler.) I missed out on all the edition war idiocy, as I walked away from d20 with the end of my high school D&D campaign.

The new edition of Dungeons & Dragons went through heavy playtesting with loads of input from players around the world as a response to the harsh (maybe overly so) reaction to 4th Edition, which tried to win the “kids” back to the tabletop by emulating computer RPGs — a bit of recursive irony, as computer RPGs (really, all versions of role playing games) owed its existence to the original D&D.

So what did all this hard work spawn? Answer: a modern version of AD&D with a few vestigial trappings of 3rd Edition — the most popular engine for RPGs at the beginning of the century, thanks to the Open Game License. For a while there, everything was f#$%ing d20 (and now it’s Fate.) The most popular version of D&D (if we’re being honest — that’s what it is) is Pathfinder, which uses a modified 3rd ed. rules set.

The system scrapped skills for the old school Abilities checks. Want to see if you did a balancing act on the thin wooden plank over a dangerous chasm, and do some complicated bit of lockpicking? Roll a d20 and add your dexterity bonus. Want to cast a spell or figure out a riddle? Intelligence. Just like AD&D. There’s class and race features and the usual Hit Point, Armor Class, and save thrown mods — just like in AD&D. I blew threw the Player’s Handbook in record time, because it was so familiar, even after 30 years, I barely needed to read it. There’s some new player character races (at least for me, but these have been around in various incarnations for decades), and some variations on the usual classes, but it’s all boilerplate Dungeons & Dragons. Spells work pretty much the same. There’s an equipment guide. Essentially, everything you need to play is in this book.

On to the Dungeon Master’s Guide: this book is not needed if you aren’t running the game, but it give the DM a massive tool kit for how to run a game. From worldbuilding elements like gods, planes of existence, to the minutiae of building a town or dungeon for exploration or adventuring, the book is a grand example of doing one thing really well — creating a world, adventures, picking treasures and monsters, and other aspects of the world or the encounters for a D&D campaign.

The third important book for the D&D gamer is the Monster Manual. I was pleased to see all the old standbys: the gelatinous cube, the bugbear, dragons of every color, orcs, monsters borrowed from all across the mythologies of the planet. There’s something for everyone, and every level of game. Looking for a total party kill? They gotcha covered.

The big difference between these products and those from back when I played D&D — the books are bloody gorgeous! Well bound, each coming in at about 330 pages, and filled with glossy paper with full color art of top-notch quality (no talented amateurs and somebody’s pal doing art here…) The fonts are clear and large enough for me to read without issue. The charts are well laid out and clear in purpose. The layout of the material proceeds logically; it’s unlikely you will get lost looking for a rule here. The table of contents and indexing are good, as well. The three books are an example of superior workmanship.

So — on substance, it’s a 5 out of 5. Everything you need to play is here. If you are not running a game, or are an experienced DM, the DM’s Guide is probably not especially useful. Style — again, 5 out of 5: layout, fonts, artwork are all top-shelf. I was very pleasantly surprised by the quality, and that it made me somewhat interested in what I might do with a D&D campaign…something I hadn’t considered since 1984.

Is it worth it? Well, I got them for the price of a pint and a desert because a friend didn’t think he’d play 5th ed. again. At Amazon prices (about $30/book), it’s a definite YES, and at the normal $50-70 a book I’ve seen in stores, if you want to play D&D, a qualified yes. If you don’t know if you’re going to play, or don’t think you need the books because someone else in your group has them — go the Amazon route.