World Building Month: The First Mark on the Map

For the month of July, I’ve decided to try something new.  I’m going to dedicate this entire month to topics around the noble and enjoyable task of world building.  For me, the creation of a fantastic new world is the best part of running a regular campaign.  I know my current game is run in a created setting, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t added my own elements.  I love creating this new, exciting place, where all of the players’ characters live side by side with the things I’ve built.

The most important thing is that first step, the key you use to open that new world.  There are lots of ways to start world building, lots of different first steps to take.  Here are three I’ve used:

  • Place the starting point and spread out.  You start with where the players meet or live before the game starts and work your way out, inventing new locations as you go.  I did this for a campaign I ran where the players started in the farming community of Goldfields.  I sat down and sketched a map, with Goldfield at the center.  The first thing I drew on the map after was the ‘Temple of the Sun Dragon’.  I kept drawing more locations and trails connecting them (or not) to Goldfields.  I like this way of building up things as it gives you a definite mental image of your world.  It gives you places and boundaries.   What I don’t like is this: do you share this map with the players?  If you do, there’s always the possibility they’ll move to a place you didn’t plan for….
  • Let yourself be inspired.  You’re watching Firefly.  Great show right?  You love the idea of a society at the fringe of an empire.  So take it.  You’re looking through your Dark Sun book, thinking how much you love the Sorcerer Kings, use them.  No one ever said it all had to be your creation.  I once created a world called Gotheer.  Basically, I had my players in a fantasy version of Coruscant with the Houses from Eberron.  The players really enjoyed the game (it featured one of my favorite reoccurring villains) and I loved to test the limits of the world.  The upside is putting things together couldn’t be easier.  There is very little work on your part.  The downside is the exact same thing.  You miss out on the joy of creating.
  • Build the world from a single idea.  Sometimes you just get taken by something, a seed is planted in your mind and it grows.  Soon, you become fascinated by the idea and can’t help but use it.  I was taken by the world of Arnor (a setting I’ve yet to use on players) for a very long time.  The world is based off an idea I had of what a fantasy setting might be like were it to take place in something similar to Antarctica. From there I started to think up the threats that would live in this place, the habitats people would create in this world, and how your archetypal races (dwarves, elves, etc.) would live in it.  This is my favorite way to make a world for my games.  It has no downsides, but the upsides are endless.  You create something new and completely your own.   This is the most organic method I’ve mentioned here.
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‘I Have a Thing for Airships’

During the last session, I gave my players their first taste of airship combat.  One of the things that drew me to Eberron is the amount of vehicles and places that can be used as locations for interesting and intricate encounters.  These are the kind of set pieces that are so interesting that they become characters in and of themselves.   Trains and airships are both viable settings for adventures.  I’ve used trains before to great effect.  I’ve had players dueling enemies on top of the lightning rail as it speeds toward its destination.    My players have found themselves on an airship called The Brokenhearted, which is flown by the smuggler Koulton Brightwind.

They met Koulton when they arrived in the Lhazaar Principalities looking for passage to Xen’drik.  Koulton, a wanted man, agreed to help them in exchange for a hefty smuggling contract.  This gave them access to an airship, access I immediately revoked when their ship was shot down by Lyrandar airships.  But not before some serious ship to ship combat.

For the encounters that followed I used reflavored monsters with flight or special movement abilities to represent the Lyrandar boarding parties.  The players were given a ballista to fire at the enemy ships.  These encounters taught me several things that I’ll put into place when they see more airship combat.  One thing is that the weapons on the airship should be useful against enemies on the deck.  The players wanted to try and shoot an enemy at one point but didn’t, fearing they would damage their own ship too much.  Another is to reward the players for trying to throw enemies from the ship.  I was reluctant to let that go too far with these fights (they were fighting elites and I wanted the fight to last) but with future fights, I’ll be sure to allow these things to happen, and reward them.  A final lesson was that players respond to familiar terrain.  More than one combat on the same map gives them a sense of familiarity and they start to do more interesting things with the terrain available them.  Familiarity breeds a sense of ownership for them and this can be enhanced when I play the monsters as not having the familiarity they have or I have as the DM.

So, with all these upsides, why would any good and just DM take their new airship away?  Well it wasn’t their airship.  Not yet.  By taking the ship from them and destroying, I give them the chance to rebuild it.  The ship, when rebuilt with their input, will truly be theirs.  They’ll have a base of operations for future adventure (which make or may not take place across the entire game world) and will give them something they may have to defend in the future.  It gives me options to expand the story, gives them options to expand their characters (I assume each character will eventually have their own room on the ship) and it gives them something they feel they earned.  Something that’s truly theirs.

How to Put Your Game on Hiatus

Paul and I are always saying live by the dice, die by the dice.  It was never truer than during my last session.  This post was going to be about giving your players more control; it was going to be about giving your players what they want.  It’s going to start like that, but just like the game session it describes, it’s going to turn dark.  And quickly.

I am not exactly the gold standard among DMs.  I know this, most people say I’m among the best they know, but I know I’m not the best.  I, most of all, want my players to have fun.  I decided during this session, since they were defending a compound, they should have access to traps and preparations.  So for three encounters I gave them the option of adding a trap.  They really took to the idea.  I gave them access to things they’d usually face.  I broke the normal mold for them, I did something unexpected that their other DMs hadn’t done and they didn’t use it.  The system I made took xp from the overall encounter and they decided they just didn’t need any of it.  I think one of the encounters actually challenged them.  I was disappointed but I was more excited about the big twist I’d planned for them.  For the past few weeks, their fates have been tied to and NPC I keep bringing up called Black Claw, they just can’t seem to get away from him (completely by design) and now I decide the give them the chance to finally fight him again. And they do (almost getting beaten into the ground by his lackeys as they decided they were less important).  And I even let them kill him, heart stabbing and everything!  Until he got back up.  The looks on their faces were the most rewarding thing.  I took their hated enemy, gave him to them, and then took him right back.  They responded more to that than the access to traps.  With the simple words ‘Black Claw gets back up’ I planted a seed that could grow into new adventures and a whole new story line.

The session was going well.  And then things went south.  I killed my players with the hardest encounter AGAIN.  I’m starting to wonder if I’m doing it on purpose.  It was a fight against two level 6 elites (3 about their current level, well within the parameters).  It seems every time I give them an encounter that’s supposed to be hard, they breeze through it, but when they get to the encounters that are hard but possible, their dice turn on them while my dice decide it’s twenty time.  This is the third time this happened, and as a group, we decided it was time to scrap the campaign. They’d lost, the attack on the city was happening no matter what now, and some of them needed to die.  It looked like Eberron was doomed…

Or is it?

As I told my players, Fate can’t be avoided, and I’m not one to give up.

On Trusting and Failure (Gnomeagheddon)

This week, my players failed for the first time.  A mixture of hard luck, a  difficult encounter (more on that later), poor tactics, and my hotter than magma dice led to all of them being knocked unconscious.  It seemed the only luck they had was with their death saving throws.  This all came after not playing for a month and long hours of them trusting everyone entirely too much.  They seem to want to gravitate instantly toward anyone who doesn’t immediately try to murder them.  At the beginning of the session I presented them with a choice.  Last time they had kidnapped a shifter named Black Claw and then met a group of Halflings called the Rats.  The leader of the Halflings, Tarvyn, an excoriate from House Jorasco, offers them sanctuary and help if they give him Black Claw.  Black Claw tells them Tarvyn is a psychotic monster and that he’ll lead them to the one man who can help them if they’ll only help him get away from the Rats.

They, like I should have known they would have, choose option three: leave Black Claw and find the guy themselves.  This was a spectacular failure for them.  The Rats offered to lead them to him, but, like Black Claw told them they would, turned on the players.  They then wandered the underground and ran into yet another group, this time a group of goblins known as the Quiet Folk.  They offered the help the players desperately needed, but they had to back track and kill Tarvyn, or no deal.  And while all of this is happening, the Swords of Liberty are preparing their next terrorist attack which is getting ever closer. But, Tarvyn was ready for, hoping for in fact, their return, which led to the beating and imprisonment.  Then they are saved by none other than Black Claw who immediately takes back his offer of help.

The point here is sometimes players will get something in their head and it just won’t leave.  Black Claw attacked them when they first entered the sewers and they can’t get the idea that he’s ‘the enemy’ out of their heads.  After Tarvyn breaks in front of them, showing his dark side, they still choose to trust the Halfling they don’t know over the shifter that attacked them.  Even after he saves them from being eaten, one of the players is still telling me he wants him dead (probably because Black Claw is making Fie walk around as he is, as in as a changeling).

A good story isn’t without tension among the characters.  They’re going to need Black Claw to kill Tarvyn, but, have they burned him too many times?  Will they continue not to trust him?  And, most importantly, is he safer to align with than the very dangerous goblins?

The encounter that knocked the players unconscious was never meant to be that hard.  Originally, it was going to be a level 1 encounter, but, with things changing quickly, I had to level up the fight in order to keep them leveling on the schedule I had planned for them.  What was a level 1 encounter became a level 3 slaughter.  The encounter consisted of the Gnome Arcanist from the Monster Manual, two reflavored Ghallanda Enclave Guards (found in the Eberron Campaign Guide) and a Halfling Warlock which looks like this:

The four of them were level 3 and behind a barricade.  The barricade offered them cover, which stacked with the Gnome’s aura.  The barricade also dealt damage if you tried to climb this.  All of this was at the end of a long hall with some debris strewn across.  The obvious strategy for this fight would be for the melee characters to run up and jump the barricade after soaking some damage, the players did a much slower approach, trying to be more cautious and let the Tarrin take as much damage as possible.  This might have worked if my dice hadn’t suddenly lit up.  I began rolling crits at an alarming rate, and when my d20s weren’t showing twenties, my damage dice made sure the players were still hurt.  And when they needed some good rolling most, it simply didn’t happen.  They’ll see that same Gnome again, maybe even the same encounter, because if there’s one thing players like, its revenge.

The Most Important Lesson (Opening With a Bang)

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One of the first lessons I learned as a DM (and one of the hardest really) is that you have absolutely no control over your campaign.  As much as I joke about being god or the master of fate, I have little to no control over the week to week happenings in my kitchen.  I am merely a facilitator.  I am just the means through which my friends play Dungeons and Dragons. Yes, without me, there would be no game, but the opposite is also true.

Because of this, writing an ongoing campaign can be a tricky thing.  No matter how well you lay your plans, no matter how deep your narrative is, no matter what you have in mind, it can all go wrong.  Players make the choice you expected they wouldn’t; bad (or good) dice rolls change the course of the game.  You never know what will happen when you sit at that table.

When I write, I try to anticipate these things, if a skill challenge fails, I have a plan for success or failure, if there is a situation where there is more than one choice, I plane for all of them.  But, you can’t plan for everything.

Here’s an example from the Eberron game.

The players are currently trying to prevent the terrorist organization known as the Swords of Liberty from performing an attack on Sharn.  They were there during the first attack (more on that later) and have fought two groups of these terrorists.  The first group was the one that performed the first attack and was supposed to meet another cell to get orders for the next attack.  After they killed the first group, the players decided to pose as them so they could get close to the Swords of Liberty.  Aha! Here’s something I planned for!  I had put together a skill challenge for just such a situation (and an encounter for if it went bad).  They went through both (they failed the challenge) and killed the second group after getting the information they needed, where the Swords of Liberty had their base.  They head for the sewers, hoping to enter the ruins under Sharn and are attacked by a shifter who has nothing to do with the Swords of Liberty known as Black Claw.  They defeat him and ask him for information, he tells them what he knows (which isn’t much) and I fully expect them to now murder him.  They’ve built a track record of murder leading up to this moment.

Nope, they take him hostage saying he might be useful later.

I had no plans for this…

But I will.  The players have taken the game in a new direction with their actions.  I had plans for what would happen, but now that’s changed.  I’m not sure whether they’re going to regret kidnapping Black Claw yet or not, but it’s going to lead to something.  It’s my job to reward their ideas. If I were to just let them take him and have nothing happen, what fun would that be?

I like to start my campaigns with some excitement.  In the past I’ve done things like pirate attacks or murders, but this time I really wanted to draw my players in and to start things off with a real bang.  So I decided my players would witness, and then be heavily involved with, an airship crash.  I then decided they would witness the Swords of Liberty agents shooting down the airship.  I went through a few ideas of how it would play out.  One was a skill challenge where they would have to escape the wreckage while helping to save people but I couldn’t come up with an alternative to success that wasn’t death.  Another idea was they’d fight the Swords of Liberty as the city came down around them, but I decided that they should chase down the terrorists before fight them.  But this idea was closer to what I wanted.  I wanted them to fight and also to save people.  I thought about the flavor for Lyrandar airships.  Lyrandar airships are powered by bound fire elementals and I thought ‘well, what happens to that elemental when the ship crashes?’  I decided that the players would fight the enraged elemental.  I also decided, because I wanted to keep the saving people element, they’d have the option of helping the unconscious crew of the airship during the fight for extra experience.  Now I just need a really good location for the fight, I decided to place them at the actual scene of the crash, fight the elemental on the downed airship as it hung precariously between two buildings; I used the Essential City dungeon tiles made by Wizards of the Coast and boat tiles they produced to set the scene.  Now all I needed was a monster.  I thought I’d use a monster that I’d put to use before and just re-flavor it.  I went with this:

This is clearly not a fire elemental.  I decided to switch some of the damages and tone down some of the powers (this monster was known for killing players and I didn’t want them dying during the first encounter of the campaign).  What I put together was this:

This monster is much less brutal, yet, I felt still challenging.  I got rid of the pushing ability because I didn’t want them falling to certain death, I dropped the ranged attack because I felt his melee attacks were already doing enough damage, and I toned down the aura because I felt the original was just too punishing for a first encounter.

The players responded very well to the overall experience.  They liked the monster and were really into the location for the fight.  The dungeon tiles really brought it to life for them.  The added challenge of trying to save the crew also added more to the fight for them.  Overall, I’d say it was one of the better encounters I’ve run, not the best, but good.

The Prophecy (Getting Started)

When I first sat down with my group, after weeks of getting them together, helping them with characters, backstories, all of those things, I read them this piece of the Draconic Prophecy (I wrote it):

Five beasts, still bloodied and ragged,

will rise again,

And fight til they are no more.

Thirteen dragons,

One once lost, but now returned,

will rise

and take the shattered bone

for their own.

 For those who don’t know, the Draconic Prophecy is the living story of Eberron, written in the sky, the mountains, even on the flesh of the Dragonmarked Heirs.  Many scholars in the world study it.  Half my table knew the importance of the Draconic Prophecy to the game world.  Rob was counting the players trying to see if they were the ‘five beasts’ as Paul was nodding, trying to read deeper into what was written I assume.  The other two just kind of nodded and thought this might be an eccentric thing I did to open the game, but it isn’t.  This is the campaign.  The entire story of what’s going to happen has been given to them in the first five minutes of the campaign.

Madness, I know!

With this, I’m setting up a major theme of the campaign.  Can they change fate?  Will they work to fulfill this prophecy?  Or will this happen no matter what they do?  As the events of the game begin to match the prophecy, I’m interested to see how they’ll react.  At this point, they don’t even know if they’re part of this prophecy, even though they’ve already been drawn into it.

This is where I’ll usually go deeper into an encounter that I wrote that I thought was really cool or particularly epic.  I’ll analyze the nuts and bolts of it, give information on what inspired it, post monster stat blocks, and tell how the players liked it.

But, because this is about beginnings, I’ll talk a bit about one of my player’s character and his beginnings.

Andy is new to DnD.  He’s been playing Gamma World with me, but beyond that I think he has maybe two or three sessions of DnD under his belt.  Because he’s a very good friend of mine and I wanted him to get the full DnD experience, I invited him to join this campaign.  The character building was easy for him, doing it by hand was new to him, but it went without a hitch (side note: one trick I use to help a new player make a character is to ask them to think of a character from fantasy or sci fi books or movies that they’d like to emulate and then use my knowledge of the classes and races to help them make that character.  It’s never failed me). He made a Dragonborn Fighter and it’s a very good character.  Where he had trouble was the back story.  Andy knows practically nothing about Dungeons and Dragons and even less about Eberron.  He’s used to playing an avatar, like in World of Warcraft or other video games; he’s not used to playing a fully realized person.  So I had to help him by feeding him information and facts about the game world.  Eventually we figured out that Tarion was born in Q’Barra among the primal Dragonborn tribes that live there.  He decided to leave for Sharn to learn new fighting techniques and strategies.  He’s heard of the proud military tradition of his people and also heard of the proud military traditions of Karnnath and House Deneith.  While helping him with this, I tried to give him enough to make a good back story, one with substance he can use to mold his character and with juicy hooks for me to bite into, while also trying not to inundate him with information, giving him too much and making him feel like his back story was lacking.  It was a tough balance, but there was one fact I feed him that seemed to do the trick and make everything click.  I mentioned that he’d heard stories of Argonnessen, the continent that dragons live on.  I told him that the Dragonborn there have proud military traditions like the Romans.  That was all we needed and from there the rest grew.