Tag: Orbis Leonis

The Creep On the Borderlands

The Mad Hermit

Last night was our first session of The Keep on the Borderlands, played almost entirely via Google Hangouts with my iPhone mounted on a camera tripod over the gaming mat. The setup worked pretty well once we got the kinks worked out, but one of the big annoyances with Google Hangouts is that there are different kinks every time. So when planning the sessions, I’m going to have to allow for the fact that the first half-hour is always going to be fixing whatever broke this time.

The adventure starts with the party arriving at the gate of the Keep, where they are ordered to state their names and purpose before being allowed entry. The characters were:

  • Brother Drang, a human tempest cleric of Kord, come to the wilderness to kick butt for great justice
  • Togar, a dragonborn paladin of Bahamut, drawn to the Borderlands by forces unknown to battle against Chaos [1]
  • Nikki, an anthropomorhic flying squirrel rogue with magic juggling clubs
  • Rina Gremaer, a young wood elf ranger looking for adventure
  • Sheala Amastacia, an even younger (seeming) high elf wizard with the aspect of an 11-year-old girl
  • Miskan, a purrsian (large, intelligent winged cat race) bard, looking for adventure and new tales to tell

An odd collection, to be sure, but as the corporal of the watch recognized the holy symbols of Kord and Bahamut, and the group seemed friendly enough, they were let into the Keep, although they did notice a scribe taking note of their names and particulars upon arrival.

Inside the Keep, tensions were clearly high. A jewel merchant tried desperately to interest them in his wares, which were obviously not selling, and they eventually learned that the lord of the Keep’s daughter (Lady Cynthia) had been captured by gnolls, for nefarious purposes unknown, and that there was an enormous reward for her rescue. There was also talk of bandits, and of course rumblings about bands of widely different groups of evil humanoids, who would not normally be associating, but were all together in an area referred to as the Caves of Chaos.

In the tavern, they were also chatted up by Brother Sampson, a travelling monk and most jovial fellow, who insisted on buying drinks for Brother Drang and eventually dinner for Sheala, and happily chattered away about anything and everything. His two acolytes, a sour pair who had taken vows of silence and so could not join in the conversation, sat nearby impassively.

The group finally decided on a general plan of trying to investigate both the bandits and the missing Lady Cynthia. They spoke to Helgist, the captain of the guard at the Keep, who told them that Lady Cynthia had loved to go out hunting as she grew up, and that as the relatively low threat of nearby kobolds turned into the more pressing threat of aggressive goblin-kind and gnolls, Lord Blakewell had started insisting that she be escorted by guards. On one of these outings, they’d been ambushed by gnolls and all of the guards wiped out, with Helgist only managing to escape by pretending to be dead himself. The gnolls had carried off Lady Cynthia and there’d been no sign of her since, despite the Keep regularly sending out squads of troops to look for her– many of which didn’t return.

Further investigation revealed that the bandit activity, and the humanoid attacks, were coming from opposite directions. Unable to pursue both simultaneously, the party decided to begin by investigating the woods where Lady Cynthia used to hunt to look for clues.

Tromping through the woods, they eventually encountered a hermit called Old Bob, who I described as being “Not quite Tom Bombadil, and not quite George Carlin, but somewhere between the two.” They greeted Old Bob cordially and he returned the same, and they began to chat. He gave them general directions to the Caves of Chaos, but as they talked to him they gradually began to realize he wasn’t exactly playing with a full deck– particularly when he began to talk about how “the king” spoke to him in his dreams at night and gave him strange commands.

Once they came to the conclusion that they’d learned all they were going to from Old Bob, they continued their trek, following the directions he’d given them. As the sun began to go down and they searched for somewhere to camp, they came upon a hollow with a grisly scene: several dead kobolds and a few dead goblins, with goblin arrows scattered everywhere (including in the kobolds). So it would appear that the various bands of humanoids did not necessarily get along as well as all that.

So they set up camp for the night, giving Miskan the first watch. All was well until suddenly, much to his surprise, the purrsian bard felt a vice-like grip around his throat– Old Bob had crept into the camp while the rest slept and was strangling Miskan from behind! Fortunately in his near-death throes Miskan had managed to yowl and kick enough to wake up the rest of the party– unarmored but ready to fight as they realized the true nature of Old Bob’s madness. Old Bob’s pets– a pair of mountain lions– joined in the battle, and things looked grim as Miskan had been dropped to 0 hit points by the opening attack (Old Bob was a 5th level assassin, doing 3d6+1 with an unarmed sneak attack). Togar used his laying on hands ability to bring Miskan back from the brink, as the rest of the party slew one of the mountain lions and attacked Old Bob, causing him to flee. Miskan cast sleep spell on the lunatic as he ran and he faceplanted, allowing them to tie him up as his other mountain lion fled.

When Old Bob awoke, they interrogated him, discovering that he was convinced that “The Yellow King” had ordered him to kill and eat people, and had been doing so for years. Old Bob also said that the stars were watching everything they did. When pressed for more details about who this Yellow King was, Bob was vague, other than that he was yellow, and had a crown, thus making him the Yellow King.

They marched Old Bob back to his home, a giant hollowed out tree, looking for evidence of his crimes, but there was nothing to be found. So they instead took him back to the Keep, delivering him to the Bailiff and explaining what had happened. The Bailiff locked him up, and the heroes (having been up all night) headed to the Inn to get some rest.

That afternoon, after getting much-needed sleep, they set out into the woods again. They followed the trail towards where they believed the Caves of Chaos to be until it got dark, at which point they camped again. Fortunately, Miskan’s watch completed without incident this time. On the second watch, Nikki and Togar were somewhat surprised to discover that the party was surrounded by a company of wood elf scouts, who were apparently simply observing the characters to see what they were about. The elves were not terribly chatty, but seemed like good enough sorts, who wandered off into the darkness.

In the morning, the group continued their march east [2]. As they traveled, they heard a vicious cackling and yapping– gnolls, converging on them fast. Most of the party hid, except for Togar who, being an enormous dragonborn in heavy armor, made a better Giant Distraction than anything else.

Unfortunately, being a Giant Distraction meant that the gnolls opened the fight by all three of them chucking spears at him. Togar dropped, and this time Brother Drang ran to his aid with a healing spell. The remainder of the battle was short but intense– the gnolls were quickly defeated, and the characters decided to take a short rest to recover.

We ended the session there; the characters had earned enough experience points to become 2nd level [3], so we dealt with that before signing off, and plan to continue next week. Everyone seemed to have a good time, and I certainly enjoyed it. I never got to run Keep On the Borderlands “back in the day,” so I’m happy to have the chance now.

-The Gneech

[1] That’s Chaos with a capital C! The Keep on the Borderlands is a very Moorcockian place.

[2] Even though I kept calling it west. Stupid map dyslexia.

[3] 5E deliberately tries to shoot you up to at least 3rd level very quickly, but levels out a bit from there to keep you in that 3rd-8th level “sweet spot” for a long time.

Baby’s First Total Party Kill

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ME: “You open the door and see– 200 orcs!”
JAMIE: “I shut the door!”

D&D session, c. 1983-1984

 

Working on my 5E Keep On the Borderlands conversion last night, I put in a room that’s CR 13. That is to say, it’s “a good fight” for a party of 13th level characters. Just, y’know, sitting there, where a first level party could easily just waltz into it. And this is an introductory module! Y’know, for people who’ve never played the game before.

Now I see why this module has so many tales of TPKs associated with it! If you blunder into the Caves of Chaos “room by room” style, you’re gonna get killed. But of course, that’s how ol’ Gary liked it. Master Gygax had very exacting standards of what constituted “good play” or “bad play,” and his view was that player characters, especially at low levels, were disposable, like lives in a video game. Bob the First (level one fighter) gets killed? You roll up the next one and try again. The fact that Bob the Second instinctively knows that the bugbears have placed a deadfall trap behind the door to their cave doesn’t matter. Besides, Bob was smart enough to hire NPCs (doubtless wearing red shirts) to bring along and go first, right?

So yeah, there’s a CR 13 room just sitting in the Caves of Chaos, minding its own business. The thing of it is, you’re not intended to wade into the room, any more than Bilbo pulled out his sword and assaulted Goblin Town. The Caves are not a series of set piece encounters to be “beaten,” they’re a dangerous environment in which the PCs become wild cards in the ongoing situation.

Basically, Keep On the Borderlands is Yojimbo, with orcs. A lot of Gary Gygax’s adventures particularly are like this, the most famous example being The Temple of Elemental Evil, where the monsters are powerful and numerous but broken into factions, and crafty players can use that to their advantage.

But the adventure doesn’t tell you this other than a throwaway paragraph buried in some establishing text, and certainly doesn’t tell the newbie players who have just strapped on their swords and learned their first magic missile and are eager to smite the badguys. There are no guardrails, and nothing like the modern concepts of “encounter balance” to provide a safety net. The Caves of Chaos are dangerous, and it is assumed that not everyone will be coming home.

I wonder how many modern gamers, reared on strings of perfectly-balanced-encounters, walk into this module and just get creamed. “The DM wouldn’t put something down here we weren’t intended to fight” definitely does not apply to 1E modules. Which honestly? I kinda like– but it’s a dangerous way to run the game. Lots of players don’t want to take “no” for an answer, and lots of players don’t seem to be able to sense when they’re in over their heads… and lots of players get really bummed when their character dies. And honestly, as the DM I get bummed too. I’ve killed my share of player characters over the years and I’m usually very reluctant to do so, but you just can’t always pull their fat out of the fire. (I’m looking at you, Jamie.)

The thing of it is, within the context of Keep On the Borderlands, this CR 13 room is there for a perfectly good reason, balance be damned. I’m not an OSR grognard who wants those damn ’90s kids to get off my lawn, but I will say that the 1E mindset was a lot more flexible in this regard. “Why are there 40 orcs in this cave?” “Because communal living makes sense for cave-based nomads.” “But an encounter like that will slaughter six PCs!” “So be it. Maybe the PCs shouldn’t go in there.”

A more modern adventure might still have those 40 orcs, but they’d be in eight rooms with five orcs each instead of all in one giant pit. (Well, no, now I think of it, modern design would consider that monotonous. There’d be 16 orcs in four rooms with four orcs each plus a boss with a fire drake. But I digress.) That one relatively minor shift in scenario design philosophy makes a big difference, tho! Small clusters of enemies, you can take on in bunches at your own pace, are easy pickings for players with a modicum of tactical sense. 40 orcs, all on alert that surface invaders are in their caves? You might want to run. Or at least wait until you can come back with a fireball or two at your disposal.

I can’t honestly say how I would have run this adventure “back in the day,” I never tried. I was nine when I first read Keep On the Borderlands and its subtexts and design ramifications were lost on me, but it did inform my own “Castle Strongstone” dungeon design, including Jamie’s infamous 200 orcs encounter. Running this as an adult with more sophisticated sensibilities, the dungeon looks like a very different place to me. But in a strangely Campbellian way, it’s kind of neat to have come back around to it.

-The Gneech

Keep On the Borderlands: 40 Years and Still Kicking

The quickie teach-newbies-D&D game I was planning to start this weekend got bumped to next weekend, which actually helps because there’s a bit more work in converting The Keep on the Borderlands to (what I consider) a playable 5E adventure than you might think. Just going through and giving the NPCs names rather than THE CASTELLAN and THE CURATE is a fair amount of work. On the other hand, last night I had a sudden inspiration as to what the “Caves of Chaos” were actually all about (and why there is effectively an apartment complex with six different types of humanoids all living together), and suddenly the adventure goes from THE MOST GENERIC D&D CRAWL EVER[1] to actually having a theme and potential for cool stories.

Milk Run Or Meat Grinder?

I’m a little concerned about the difficulty scale. KotB was designed to take characters from roughly 1-3 in the original “basic” D&D, in which thieves levelled up fairly fast and wizards levelled up glacially slow etc. You could expect the overall level of the party to remain stable at a given level through several sessions. Modern games pretty much have everyone progress at the same pace, and that pace is mighty fast at low level. If I put in encounters that are balanced for 1st level characters, they’ll be like tissue paper just a few sessions in when the characters have all jumped to 3rd.

That’s not a problem per se– with a good mix of encounters it’s not a problem if the party blows through some of them– but it is something I have to be aware of. In a sandbox environment (which KotB mostly is, albeit a small one), there’s a real danger of the players getting in way over their heads. Play reports from KotB across all editions are rife with stories of TPKs or near-TPKs, because the party killed a couple of goblins, got cocky, and suddenly found themselves facing 20 more when the alarm went up.

(Yeah, pretty sure everyone in the party was at least 3rd level by that point.)

I recently read a blog post in which the author opined that D&D can basically be played two ways: first is a group of stalwart adventurers slaughtering monsters and reaping great rewards, while the second is a black comedy in which a bunch of ne’er do wells throw themselves into deathtraps, get slaughtered in horrifying ways, and occasionally escape with a few bits of gold to show for it. Modern D&D, the theory goes, aims more for the former, while old-school D&D was more of the latter.

I don’t entirely buy this– I played old-school D&D when it was still pretty young school and while we did have some entertainingly horrific character deaths (“eaten alive by mutant cannibal smurfs” is one that made a lasting impression), it wasn’t quite the meat grinder it’s sometimes made out to be. Maybe it was just our group, but I remember the general consensus was that if you were in a game where the DM was eager to kill the characters, it meant the DM was an ass and you just didn’t play in that game again. [2]

Finding Traps: Pick a Skill Already! And Other Concerns

I love 5E. Like, really love it. It plays fast, furious, and fun in a way I haven’t really seen since Tunnels and Trolls, but is rigorous enough that it has meat to latch onto for building unique and interesting characters, scenarios, and challenges.

However, as with all new editions, it has its rough spots. It still doesn’t quite know what to do with rogues, for instance. I’ve talked before about the rogue problem, and while 5E does bring back Thieves’ Cant, it has decoupled burglary from the rogue class entirely, putting that stuff mostly in the realm of “thieves’ tools proficiency,” and keeping the rogue class as a situational damage dealer. (What that means is that anyone who wants to learn the tool proficiency can be the party trap-disarmer and chest-unlocker, which is part of 5E’s “party role not required class” philosophy, and that part is actually fine, thumbs up!)

In their apparent rush to put something in for thieves to do, without really having much in the way of a solution to the rogue problem, they have left a lot of the whole traps and locked doors bit with very sketchy implementation at best. Random dungeon hazards have a Perception DC that compares not to the characters’ check, but to their passive Perception check. So… the characters either always pass or always fail? What’s the point of that? As a DM, creating adventures for your own party, you know what the characters’ passive Perception is. If you assign a DC, you already know if the characters will pass or fail. It’s silly.

Then there’s the Perception vs. Investigation thing. On p. 178 of the Players Handbook, under Investigation, it says “When you look around for clues and make deductions based on those clues, you make an Intelligence (Investigation) check. You might deduce the location of a hidden object, discern from the appearance of a wound what kind of weapon dealt it, or determine the weakest point in a tunnel that could cause it to collapse.” That, combined with the fact that the Starter Set pregen rogue had proficiency with Investigation and not Perception, suggests that Investigation is the intended skill for searching for traps, right?

Except right next to that is a sidebar called “Finding a Hidden Object,” in which it clearly says, “When your character searches for a hidden object such as a secret door or a trap, the DM typically asks you to make a Wisdom (Perception) check. Such a check can be used to find hidden details or other information and clues that you might otherwise overlook.”

So… you make a Perception check to spot details, and then an Investigation check to interpret them? I can see that being worth the effort for some “the entire room is a giant deathtrap” puzzle, but for every locked door and chest?

In my games I tend to split the difference– if there is a spottable trap (e.g., a trapdoor or a pressure plate), I set the DC and tell the players “You’ve walked into a trap. Make a Perception check to see if you spotted it in time!” If the trap is hidden in a mechanism (such as a locked chest) or if the characters are actively on the lookout for it rather than “passively perceiving,” so to speak, I call for an Investigation check. It annoys me that a system that was famously publicly playtested for two years still requires house-ruling like that, but nothing’s perfect.

Magic Item Construction Rules– As In, There Aren’t Any

This is an interesting divide. One of my players has been very disappointed in the way 5E not only “doesn’t really have” magic item construction guidelines, but at how it was deliberately removed from the game as a going concern.

What interests me most about this is that when 5E came out, this was something that a lot of people in the discussions I followed stood up and cheered about. “Goodbye to the Magic Shop Economy, and good riddance!” about summed it up. Reasons for this varied from “It sucks all the mystery out of magic items!” to “Conan never went to a magic shop!” to “Hooray, I don’t have to math-check another twinked out game-breaking magic item again!”

For myself, I didn’t have such strong feelings on the matter. I did think the whole magic item economy contributed to the ever-increasing rules overhead of the 3.x/PF era, but I also understood the reasoning that went into it. If your campaign didn’t assume “build a keep and retire” as the characters’ endgame, and didn’t have built-in money sinks like paying for training to raise levels (both of which were pretty much gone by the end of 2E), well you had to have something to spend all that gold on, and effectively having magic items as their own progression/character customization track would seem to kill two birds with one stone.

On the other hand, once upon a time DMs stocked dungeons with magic fountains that made weapons do double damage, or randomly turned characters into bugbears, and “game balance” wasn’t even an issue. When did we all get so obsessed with finely-tuned math within a game that’s theoretically all about letting your imagination run wild?

In any case, Josh (the player in question) not only did not stand up and cheer, he considers the lack of a robust magic item creation system to be a major failing on the part of 5E, and his reasoning is sound. Having a system spelled out in black-and-white removes a lot of the vagaries of system mastery. “Is ‘vorpal’ a game-breaking property at 3rd level? Well it adds +10,000 gp to the price, and that’s more money than the entire party has put together at the moment, so yeah, it must be. On the other hand, ‘shock’ only adds +3,000, so it must be legit.”

It also means the player has more control over how their character develops. If your whole character concept is based around having a Captain America-style shield that you can throw around and bang off mooks’ heads, you don’t have to hope you get lucky and the DM stocks one in the dungeon somewhere, you just save up your gold until you can afford to buy the thing.

And finally, as already alluded to, it gives the characters something to do with all that treasure they cart home from the dungeon! Josh particularly spoke in glowing terms of that moment of striding into town with bags full of gold itching to be spent and seeing what could be done with it, something I refer to as the Candy Store moment. And honestly, I can totally see that, although it also has the darker side of the “high level item tease,” where vorpal swords are there on the theoretical shelf, but you’ll never be able to afford one.

I don’t think this is an issue with a “right” or “wrong” answer, just preferences. MMOs and similar games particularly have made the gear-as-progression model a style that people are used to and expect, whereas someone coming from an era in which finding a +1 sword was notable, but you could also randomly become immune to all poisons because you kissed the statue of a goddess, is going to be a lot more comfortable with (or at least resigned to) DM fiat.

I’m working on ways to split the difference– I want to give Josh his Candy Store moments, but I also don’t want to have to retro-fit the magic item economy back into the game. I’ve set up a potential “magic shop” situation in my Keep On the Borderlands adaptation, but it’s hidden and will take some digging to find it, even assuming the characters manage to amass enough loot to make buying magic items a feasible concern.

In any case, hoping for some fun. If the game takes off, maybe I’ll pull out The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth and let the players argue over how that’s supposed to be pronounced. 😉

-The Gneech

[1] This is not a criticism, it was written in 1978? 79? to be an introductory module teaching would-be DMs the basics of adventure structure, and giving would-be players a taste of how the game was supposed to go. Its very existence pushed the envelope of D&D, the design within didn’t have to. Today’s equivalent is the Lost Mine of Phandelver, from the 5E Starter Set. But half the group just went through that in my game, I can’t just run that one again!

[2] Unless the adventure in question was The Tomb of Horrors, but even back in the day that was pretty clearly its own distinct experience compared to regular campaign gaming. I met a few DMs who seemed to think ToH was what every adventure should be all the time. I didn’t stay in their games.

A Character’s “Kit” in RPGs

I’ve working on a little filler game of D&D, and I’ve run into an interesting little wrinkle this time around, in which a couple of the players want outside-the-box options, like moreso than usual. And while I’m happy to oblige, even if it makes more work for me, it has led me to some interesting thoughts on the role a character’s “kit” (or the abilities provided by their race/class combination) plays in the broader metagame considerations.

One of the players wants a 3rd-party race whose signature bit is wings. The ability to fly, especially at low levels, is one that tends to generate a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth in D&D, because so much of what happens on a tactical level is dependent on your interactions with the map. A character who can fly bypasses pits, ignores difficult terrain, can go right over climbing/jumping obstacles, etc. This is expected behavior for 5th+ level heroes, but completely negates a lot of the initial “just learning to survive” challenges that 1st level heroes are expected to face. This is a powerful signature bit– but at the same time, 5E has an underlying philosophy of “let the players do the cool thing,” and so do I, so we bashed around the ability a bit until we got to a state where it was useful and cool but not game-breaking.

Another player, basically wants MMO-style crafting (which is an issue the same player was having in my regular campaign). Magic item creation rules are something that existed in 3.x/PF, but are conspicuously absent in 5E, and I think the real reason for that is that it creates a lot of “rules overhead” for the DM compared to the actual amount of use it’s likely to see at the table. Crafting of any kind (including the spaceship building rules from Traveller, the Summoner class from Pathfinder, or all the everything of Champions) is a fun game-within-the-game for a non-trivial segment of the gaming population, made of up mathy engineery geeks who love having systems to stress and break– but it’s something of a headache for everyone who isn’t among their number.

For this player, I suggested the Artificer class. This adds the crafting subsystem that they want, and makes it their “cool thing.” In my e-mail discussions with the player, I explained my thinking thus:

[5E is] written primarily to make life easier for the GM after decades of rules-heavy systems. (And really, the entirety of the OSR is kind of a reaction to the same issues.) GMs spend so much time coming up with NPCs, scenarios, neat images, etc., that they often don’t have the mental bandwidth to spend lots of time on system mastery beyond what’s absolutely necessary for the immediate task in front of them. Detailed magic item creation rules in that context only exist to keep the players from running amok and spamming the world with vorpal swords. The GM doesn’t need any such stuff.

I think we’ve talked before about how the real currency in any tabletop game is “face time”– i.e., who gets to do the cool thing when, and how often? To that end, I’d say, if you want crafting and fiddling around with the ins and outs of your items be what time in the game is spent on, that’s fine, but that should be where your character’s mechanics are (hence pointing at the artificer class). Somebody who doesn’t care about crafting and just wants to punch badguys, makes a fighter. Someone who wants to engage in all the social stuff, makes a bard. Their class choice defines how and where their face time will be spent. Adding on a whole subsystem to a game that only one player really gets into, while they also get the face time benefits of another class, is where the real “imbalance” would start to come in.

This led me to thinking in broader terms of a character’s kit, and how the choices a player makes when creating their character really inform the game that you will actually be playing once the group comes together. The character’s kit is where the concept (“a heroic warrior” or “a wily rogue” or whatever) interface with the game construct (the numbers you have to roll on the dice to achieve your desired story goals), and point to the sort of things the player wants to be spending their time in the game doing. The problem comes when your player’s mechanical choices don’t synch with what they actually seem to want to do.

In a game I had some time ago, I had a player who had a tendency to want their character to be able to fill every role all the time. Said player made a rogue who would immediately run up to the biggest monster in the fight and try to tank it; the same player made an archery-based ranger who was forever wading into melee, and a mad scientist in Deadlands who kept getting into one-on-one gunfights. In short, he wanted to be the one Doing The Cool Thing all the time, regardless of what his character’s abilities actually were.

This just doesn’t work in a group game, and in fact will pretty much always backfire. I kept trying to throw “Here’s your chance to do the Cool Thing!” moments at the player, but their character was either engaged elsewhere in a losing battle that didn’t match their kit… or dead, because they’d brought a rapier to a greataxe fight. When you build a character, you have to commit to putting that character into situations where they’ll be playing to their strengths! You also have to be able to sit back and applaud when some other player is doing Their Cool Thing. If you’re a rogue, and the group is being swarmed by zombies? That means it’s the cleric’s turn to do the Cool Thing. You’ll get your chance in the Chamber of Deathtraps.

Similarly, when building a character, think about what you want to be doing in the game and build a character to suit. If you know you want to be up front cleaving your foes and sucking up damage, then you should probably play a barbarian, not a bard. If you want to dynamically mess around with your character’s kit and have a something in your pocket for every challenge, you should probably play a wizard so you can tweak your spell selection. If you want to be Indiana Jones/Lara Croft, play a rogue, not a cleric. Think about what your character’s Cool Thing is, and build your character’s kit around that. (And let the other members of the group have their own Cool Thing. It’s not always your moment to shine!)

-The Gneech

The Grand Unified Theory of Gneech’s Campaign Worlds

I have run a lot of fantasy games over the years. Many of them have only had a few sessions before the group changed or something turned me off about them, while others have lasted for years. This has left a long string of half-realized settings, abandoned PCs and potentially interesting scenarios, cluttering up my hard drive (and my creative subconscious).

I have discovered, with the arrival of 5E, a strange urge to reclaim the pieces of this patchwork, and try to weave them together into something resembling a persistent and connected setting, which I can use going forward as background for diverse games without having to throw away everything and start from scratch over and over. This is part of a larger rekindled love for the game, which I have to admit had been struggling, and I am very happy to see returned. I imagine I’ll explore the why and how of that aspect later, but for now, I’m looking at the campaign worlds and how they can work as a unified world.

The Ones Still Left Behind

Not all of my games can be united this way. Eberron is too distinctively itself to be put into another setting, and the fate of that particular campaign is still TBD. Fortress of Tears, likewise, cannot be simply transplanted. The cosmology and structure of that game was designed to be a cohesive whole with a very specific feel, and while I doubt I’ll do anything with it any time soon, I think it deserves its own space on the shelf, so to speak. The tongue-in-cheek setting of “Mid-Evil” is not itself going to be integrated into the world, although bits of it that I liked might be imported. Finally, my Fantasy Hero setting was too far removed from the premises of a “D&D-land” style setting to really integrate, so it also remains its own thing.

Orbis Leonis

This is the setting as it currently stands. Racial/cultural notes are broad strokes and not intended as a straightjacket: it’s a wide, colorful world and there are enclaves of different cultural groups in every major city. Demihumans and monstrous humanoids have been largely left out of the discussion because for the most part I don’t have a whole lot of different cultures for them worked out and I don’t want to put in any limits I don’t have to. Assume the usual baseline for Dungeons & Dragons for such folk unless you have a reason to do otherwise. Campaign-specific races (such as the nephilim from Zan-Xadar or Sirfox’s gnoll cleric in Red Hand of Doom) exist, but are local populations rather than world-defining ones.

The Silver Coast
Bringing the world together begins with The Silver Coast. Argent is on the northwest edge of a large continent which is bordered by several seas and island continents to the south. Not too far north of Argent the climate quickly becomes cold, and there is a large glacial “land mass” that expands and contracts with the seasons, connecting the main continent with an arctic continent for half the year (being a cold and stormy sea for the other half). Legends tell of a zone of permanent warm paradise in the center of this arctic zone, but you know what legends are.

South of Argent is the kingdom of Ertikan. North and northeast of Argent are various “barbarous” (by Argentile standards) peoples, the friendliest of which are the blonde- and red-haired Calladgangers, but most people of the northwestern part of the continent tend towards fair or ruddy skin and hair colors and curly or wavy locks. The religion of this area resembles the core religion of Faerun, unless specified otherwise, although the gods of Oerth are also known here.

Fellhollow/Rise of the Argent Lord
That game (all two sessions of it) took place 600 years ago; Argenti, “The Silver City,” was later rebuilt as Avileigne… only to have Mt. Thunderdelve erupt and destroy it. That place can’t catch a break. (The modern city of Argent takes its name from the older one, even though it is actually some thirty miles to the northwest. Sort of a “New Argent,” as it were.) The town of Fellhollow was destroyed during the orcish invasion known as the Rise of the Argent Lord; the later town of Pelann was built near its ruins (and, like Avileigne, destroyed again by the eruption of Thunderdelve).

Red Hand of Doom/Revenge of the Giants
A wide, grassy plain on the eastern side of the Silver Ridge Mountains eventually connects to “The Endless Plain” in the northwest corner of the Elsir Vale map. Most of the plain is sparsely populated, but there are nomadic horse tribes related to the Calladganger peoples (think Rohirrim) and at least one large civilized city-state (as yet undefined) lies by a large freshwater lake or inland sea on the one major road between Argent and Elsir Vale. The events in the Silver Coast game are concurrent with the indefinitely-hiatused Revenge of the Giants game (thus, Elsir Vale is currently in the midst of a deep and unnatural winter), and it is conceivable that the two games could connect in the future, allowing characters to overlap. The people of Elsir Vale tend to be of fair complexion, with thick, dark hair, although much variation is common. The religion of this region resembles the core religion of Oerth.

The Greyhawk Campaign/Shadows of Thessalaine
The country of Thessalaine, which bears a remarkable resemblance to a similar country on the world of Oerth named ‘Bissel’, lies to the northeast of Elsir Vale, beyond the Giantshield Mountains (referred to in Thessalaine as The Barrier Peaks). Some years ago now, the infamous necromancer Evard the Black attempted to conquer Thessalaine, but was eventually defeated by “The Watchful Seven” (a group whose variable roster most reliably included Kyriela of Kithria, Jaer, Dragor, Angelina, and Verdhaven). Thessalaine has a very diverse population, being a sort of “crossroads of the world”. The religion of this region generally also resembles the core religion of Oerth. To the east of Thessalaine is terra incognita for the moment.

Zan-Xadar, Jewel of the South, City of the Wicked
Zan-Xadar is on the southernmost tip of the continent, far southeast of the kingdom of Ertikan and south of Thessalaine across the Desert of Xadar, as is its neighbor/rival city-state of Khaldun. The island city-states of Kithria and Nellevar are in the warm Opal Sea, south of the continent, and the near-mythical (to the Silver Coast, anyway) nations of Alcairam and Setranophis are on the northern lip of a vast continent far to the south populated by nations largely unknown to the north. The one adventure we actually ran in Zan-Xadar (“The Fallen Fortress”) can be assumed to have “just happened” if and when a future game takes us back there. The peoples of this region tend towards darker skin and hair colors, with dark brown or black skin dominating Alcairam particularly. The people of Setranophis are a distinct racial group with reddish-brown skin and very fine black hair. The religion of this area is a crazy hodge-podge of cults from around the world, although the worship of Bahamut, Tiamat, Methis/Erathis/Titania, Nergal/Garagos, Baaltis/Ioun, Fortuna, and Kelaeno (a.k.a. Mother Hydra, a.k.a. Umberlee) are prominent in the great glittering cities. Setranophis and Khaldun have sanctioned state religions, an ancestor cult and the Goddess of the Black Flame respectively, and the worship of other deities is strictly illegal in both places. The people of Zan-Xadar and its neighbors are cosmopolitan and sophisticated, and regard the people of the northern realms (with the possible exception of Thesselaine) largely as bumpkins. (Thessalaine replaces Beltharain from the original Zan-Xadar setting; heck, they even sound similar.)

Castle Strongstone, the “Tower of Power”, and the Tomb of the Zodiac
These are places of myth and legend, associated with the tales of the great human wizard Mystic the Strange, the wily elf-rogue Fgyarbt, and the gnomish trickster Zarfbardafardwards. It is generally believed that their adventures took place in a lost country somewhere north of Thessalaine or Elsir Vale, although many lands claim to be “where it really happened.” The objective truth of the matter has long been lost to the ravages of eons; who or what a “Slick Rick” might be, no man may say.

The Empty Spaces Between…

Assume that unless it is explicitly states otherwise, there are other nations in between the ones listed here which have simply “not become important yet,” but will be added in around these as needed. These realms, though connected, are all distant lands, and travel between them is done via map montage. 😉

Thoughts/comments/suggestions, players…?

-The Gneech