Racial Backgrounds to Fit Your Campaign

cropped-chibi-brent.jpgOne of the most satisfying pieces of creating the world for my D&D campaign was selectively re-skinning the races to fit my world history. I didn’t want to change any of the mechanics, but I needed the racial descriptions to better fit my world. Besides satisfying that need, re-skinning also helped inspire some of the history I created. So there was the added benefit of additionally fleshing out my game world, simply by making essentially cosmetic changes to racial descriptions.

A bit of history. The nation the players start their adventures in is called Cotterell. A little over a thousand years ago, fleeing a losing war with the Dark Fey, the Light Fey (Elves) appeared in Cotterell’s heartland, ripping their way into the world through a massive inter-dimensional gate. Unable to close the gate after them, the Dark Fey army followed, embroiling Cotterell in a centuries long war. Despite blaming the Light Fey for the the ongoing conflict, Cotterell had no choice but to ally with the Elves. In a desperate attempt to end the conflict, the Light Fey enacted a plan to forcibly close the gate. They succeeded, but in doing so caused an explosion of mystical energy, carving an enormous caldera out of Cotterell’s heartland and ringing the world with a magical shock-wave which forever altered the face of the world.  Our story picks up almost five hundred years after that Cataclysm, when the nation of Cotterell is finally strong enough to begin the arduous task of reclaiming the lands outside the cities.

I’ll talk in a bit more detail about that history in future posts. But that is the world in which my player’s characters exist. You can sort of see why I couldn’t just leave the racial descriptions as they are, especially for the Elves. But the above history bite also changed how Tieflings came about in my world, where gnomes come from, and the origin of the dragonborn. And making changes to the racial backstory of these caused changes to occur in my campaign world.

Let’s look at the Tiefling race as an example. The standard background for tieflings is that somewhere in their family’s history, someone consorted with an evil outsider. That caused a taint in the bloodline, which allowed tieflings to be born. This demonic origin made tieflings mistrusted at best and despised at worst. In post-Cataclysm Cotterell, tieflings do not come from extra-planar evil, but from the arcane shock-wave which followed the closing of the Gate. Every living thing on the planet was “infected” by the wave of runaway dark energy. This led not only to perfectly healthy parents of all races giving birth to tieflings even hundreds of years later, but was the source of many of the world’s Aberrations. As a result of this, while tieflings are an uneasy reminder of the Cataclysm, they aren’t reviled by the majority of the races, and generations later have gained tenuous acceptance.

There you go. Same race, same mechanics, but re-worked to better fit the history of my game world, where High Elves (and to a lesser extent, Wood Elves) and not Tieflings are the oppressed race. If you are creating your own world, I highly recommend looking hard at the history you’ve created to see where you can sneak in changes to both player and NPC races. It will add a unique flavour to your campaign, and might also be a welcome surprise for your more experienced players.

Have you altered racial backgrounds or re-skinned a race for your campaign? Let me know in the comments.

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New Campaign Smell

cropped-brent-chibi-96.jpgA week ago we started our brand-new 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons campaign. Ever since I got the new books (a birthday gift from my Thursday night Pathfinder group, oddly enough) I knew I would want to run a 5th Ed game. But I also knew I wanted to do things a little differently from the Pathfinder campaigns I was running. Now, I love Pathfinder, have done since it came out. But from a GM standpoint I have gotten in a bit of an Adventure Path rut. The Adventure Paths for Pathfinder (along with the campaign world, Golarion) are an amazing tool, especially for a GM like me with a limited amount of time to spend on prep. But the APs do tend to lock you into a certain framework as a GM. Still fun, but after a bit I was missing some of the campaign creation I used to do. I could probably solve that issue by cutting back on the amount of Pathfinder I’m running/playing, but that would mean less gaming, so…no.

I also found I was playing Pathfinder with a lot of the same people with whom I tended to game on a regular basis. Nothing wrong with that per se, but I figured since I was making changes already, I might as well go all the way and drag some new players into the insanity. In talking with my various nerdy friends, I remembered the ones who had lamented not playing RPGs in a while for whatever reason. That seemed an excellent place to start. I contacted all three, hoping I might get two and expecting to wind up with just one. To my delight and surprise, all three responded enthusiastically (and within an hour or so of my sending the message) and even suggested a fourth player, giving me the table size I was looking for. With players in place and a date set for the first session, the count down to D&D goodness began.

Acquiring four new players was actually what made me decide that I would not use a pre-fab world for my D&D campaign, tempting as it was to revisit my earlier love, the Forgotten Realms. I’ll get in to the details of the world I’m creating, the Shattered Realm of Cattarell, in future posts. But that was my next step, creating the world for my players. I didn’t do much more than create a broad framework, and then fill in some details I knew we’d need for character creation. Everything I’ve written for the campaign world to this point fills just shy of 5-6 pages, including the rough hex map I’ve made of Cattarell. You can read earlier Campaign Creation posts (just search the tag) to get an idea of how I approach world building. But in general, I try not to detail much beyond where I expect the characters will go. This allows me two main benefits: I don’t waste my time over-prepping things for the players, and the players can then come up with world details of their own, which I can fit in on the fly.

Our first session was all character creation, which is a great way to see if the players are going to be a good fit together. There is a fair amount of inter-personal alchemy involved in putting together a new gaming group. However good the individuals may be (and they were all awesome), you can’t predict how they’ll get along at the table. I needn’t have worried; we had descended into what I refer to as “snarky camaraderie” in mere minutes. Character creation proceeded, fuelled by equal parts junk food and laughter, and our band of brave adventurers took shape. By evening’s end, we had:

  • a violet-coloured Tiefling Bard, daring the world not to pay attention to her;
  • a Half-elf Cleric of Knowledge, kicking ass to create her dream library;
  • an Elven Rogue, raised by the streets;
  • and a Human Fighter, ex-soldier looking for a cause.

I can work with that.

Stay tuned for future campaign reports, as I explore the Shattered Realms and talk more about our upcoming sessions.

Campaign Creation: What’s Dead Can Never Die…

Looking back through the logs, and it has been a while since I did one of these. So let’s start with a quick recap of what I’ve done so far:

Let’s have some fun, and figure out my first layer Big Bad Guy. ‘First layer’, you ask? I like to start with a nasty antagonist the party can grow into, sort of a ‘Starter Big Bad’. Depending on the system you use, this would be a villain who remains a challenge until about low-mid level.   Since I’m designing this primarily for Pathfinder, I want a villain that threatens into level 6-8. At that point, of course, the next layer of BBG will be revealed and the new threat will bring with it new, tougher adventures.

Maybe it’s the time of year, but I’d really like the villain to be undead. Intelligent undead, in my opinion, are some of the nastiest things in gaming canon. And with the exception of vampires and the occasional lich, horribly under-utilized in most of the games I’ve played. Plus a vampire or lich would be a bit too powerful for our party to deal with off the jump.

Looking down the list of intelligent undead (and taking note of useful non-intelligent undead for later), I’m torn between a ghoul or a wight. In either case I’ll be adding character levels to the creature, making it unique and powerful enough to be a threat. Both have the ability to create versions of itself, and there are enough low-level humanoids in the area for a steady supply of ‘instant minions’.  But I think the wight wins in that respect; while its created wights are weaker, they are at least under its control. The ghoul has no control over its creations, making them less-than-ideal minions and competition for food.

Wight it is! The party will definitely still run into ghouls at some point, and I haven’t ruled out a ghoul second-in-command for my wight. A steady flow of bodies from your master and all the mayhem you can create? What ghoul wouldn’t take that job? Having both a wight and ghoul present opens up encounters with both goblin and grippli mini-wights and ghouls, which could be fun.

Now to level up my wight, so he can be a proper BBG. I mentioned earlier that many of the undead would be centred in the Ruin’s Temple District. So it makes sense that my wight be tied to that area. It might be fun to give it some cleric levels, but looking through the Advanced Player’s Guide, I think I like the oracle better. Mechanically, oracle works better with a wight’s CHA of 15 (as opposed to a WIS of only 13). And I’m already seeing a backstory where the wight was once a cleric of Norgorber, and in undeath retained some vestige of its former power in the form of oracle abilities. It could be trying to regain its earlier abilities, sending minions out into the Ruin to discover and retrieve ancient texts and tomes toward that end.

Yes, loving this idea already. Okay, the CR of a wight is 3, and I want it to be a credible threat to a level 6-8 group. So I’m going to give it 7 levels of oracle, which will make it roughly a CR 9 creature. A lot can change between now and when the characters encounter it, but this gives me a place to start. Doubling down on undeath I’m giving it the Bones mystery, and tentatively I’m going to assign the revelations death’s touch, armor of bones, and soul siphon. Those will make it less squishy if the party makes it passed the wall of minions I envision the wight maintaining. And I like the potential look of panic on a player’s face as the wight inflicts negative levels on their character from a distance.

I’ll flesh out the details later, since the character won’t confront our BBG directly for a while. When I do put it all together, I’ll post a link to a PDF so you can make use of it for your own game. For now we’ll leave it alone, brooding in its ruined temple lair, waiting for its witless minions to bring it another scrap of text or ancient artefact. Soon, soon…

What do you think of my initial BBG? Have any suggestions or ideas? Drop them in the comments below.

Campaign Creation: Messing with FATE

If you tune in regularly to the blog you wouldn’t be faulted for thinking all I play is Pathfinder. I’m the Venture-Captain for Edmonton, Golarion is my current favourite setting, and I am currently GMing three different Pathfinder campaigns. But despite that busy schedule, I do find time to cheat on Pathfinder play other role-playing games.

One of those games is FATE. I’m relatively new to the system, but everything I’ve read I’ve loved. So when my buddy Scott wanted to start a FATE campaign and invited me to play I jumped on-board. As we developed the ideas for the campaign we decided to set it in an alternate version of our own city of Edmonton. As part of that process, Scott asked each of us to come up with two Faces and two Places to populate our world. I thought I’d share what I created.

While the other players chose to create people and places from scratch, I used actual people and places here in my neighbourhood. I like making alternate versions of actual locations and people for games like this, and I did similar things when I ran both Shadowrun and D20 Modern games set in Edmonton. So if you’re local these might seem familiar; if you aren’t, here’s a little taste of my town.

*     *     *

Faces

Mike Perrino – Mike is the owner/proprietor of Whyte Knight Market. Mike seems to know what anything (or anyone) is worth; as a result he’s become the go-to guy for folks looking to buy and sell the weird, wonderful, and worrisome. You might not like the price he offers (or the price he charges) but Mike will buy and sell anything, from a bulk lot of lightly used 1920’s bed pans to a simian phrenology statue to that weird thing that’s hung on the Market’s wall forever. It’s also common knowledge a good story might help you get a price down or an offer up. Because it’s common knowledge, your story had better be pretty damn good.

Known Aspects: Size You Up with a Glance, Amuse Me

Sam the Hat – A fixture of Whyte Avenue’s bar scene, Sam the Hat is easily spotted by the stack of cheap cowboy hats he wears on his head at any given moment. A friendly Cree man of indeterminate age, Sam appears to make his living selling his hats for a Twonie a pop to drunk bar-flies along the Avenue. Always friendly, always with a joke or a bit of clowning…and always with a stack of hats. Sometimes dozens, sometimes as few as three or four, but never running out. Maybe he has them stashed all along Whyte Avenue. Maybe some unseen partner drops them off to him. Maybe he’s Wesakechak (that’s Whiskey Jack to you).

Known Aspects: Can’t Help But Smile, Fear the Clown

Places

Whyte Knight Market (Whyte Avenue) – Some might call it a curio shop, some might call it a junk store. But if you are looking for something truly weird or eclectic and can’t think of who in the world would sell it, chances are the Market has two of them. You might just be able to find anything on the shelves or hanging on a hook. And sometimes you find things you didn’t even know you needed until you saw them. For a price, of course.

Known Aspects: The Weirder the Better, You Might Just Find You Get What You Need

The Strathcona Hotel (Whyte Avenue) – The Strat, as she is affectionately known to locals, has stood on the corner of Whyte and 103 Street since before there was a Whyte and 103rd Street, or any street, really. They’ve prettied up the outside and slapped a nice historical plaque by the door, but everyone knows the Strat for what it is: a flophouse. If you need a cheap place to hang your hat undisturbed, the Strat has a room for you. In fact the Strat always seems to have a room, regardless of how many folks check in. At least no one will bother you.

Known Aspects: Bigger on the Inside, Can Not Disturb

Any FATE players out there? What Faces and Places have you created? Share in the comments if you are so inclined.

Campaign Creation: Random Encounters

As we head ever closer to Christmas, I want to make sure I stay on top of blog posts. So they’ll keep coming this week, they’ll just be shorter.

In that spirit, here is a Random Encounter Table for The Ruins. You can use whatever method you like to determine when an encounter happens; I generally roll a d10 twice during the day, and once during each watch at night. On a 1 or 2 an encounter happens, roll a d20 to determine which encounter. If the party is having a tough go of it, feel free to skip random encounters or adjust the CR as you feel necessary. While I’ve included a wide range of CRs, feel free to modify encounters with the addition of difficult terrain or environmental factors if you want a tougher challenge. But resist the urge to make all the encounters level appropriate; exploring The Ruins should have unexpected dangers.

All monster descriptions can be found in the Pathfinder Bestiary and Bestiary 2.

1. Three goblin warriors wait in ambush for members of the grippli tribe. They’re more than happy to ambush the party, however. (CR 1)

2. A yellow musk creeper, tucked away in the corner of an ancient garden, defends its lair with a variety of musk zombies; goblins, goblin dogs, gripplis, villagers. (CR 2)

3. Two giant spiders lurk in an old chamber, surviving on a diet of rats, gripplis, goblins…and maybe now adventurers. (CR 3)

4. The party discovers the remains of a library. The shelves are empty except for one. While the books and scrolls are real, the shelf is a mimic awaiting new prey. (CR 4)

5. Four goblin warriors riding goblin dogs, returning from a quick raid on the grippli. Should they be defeated, party finds an extra 20% treasure (looted from the grippli) (CR 5)

6. A will-o’-wisp has relied on the goblin/grippli conflict for food, and fed quite well. It attaches itself (invisibly, at first) to the characters, to see what delicacies they can provide. (CR 6)

7. Two grippli rangers are hunting for food; long-pig will do… (CR 1)

8. Goblins have covered over the broken ceiling to an old wine cellar full of broken pottery and bottles, essentially making it a Spiked Pit Trap (CR 2)

9. A section of street collapses below the party, dropping them into old sewers. Treat as a Camouflaged Pit Trap (CR 3)

10. Three ghouls have survived the aeons on a steady but limited diet of vermin. Now that the party has cracked open the ancient crypt that trapped them, they’re on the hunt for something more fresh. (CR 4)

11. Tired of her steady diet of goblins and grippli, a leucrotta is happy to “play” with the party for a while. (CR 5)

12. A giant mosquito homes in on the party, eager for a fresh meal. (CR 6)

13. Walking through the Ruins, a character disturbs a spider swarm. (CR 1)

14. The party encounters a rare site in the ruins; a lush fruit tree. But they also encounter the monkey swarm that calls the tree home. (CR 2)

15. One of the hazards of living close to swamps, the party is beset by a mosquito swarm. Note, this encounter can also occur in the village; if it does, treat it as a CR 2 encounter, as the village watch is used to dealing with these occurences. Otherwise, CR 3.

16. Separated from their pack, a pair of blink dogs follows the party from a distance, only attacking if attacked. The blink dogs can also come to the party’s rescue if they are facing an encounter too tough for them, at the GM’s discretion. (CR 4)

17. All that remains of a necromancer’s coterie of undead servants, this giant crawling hand has stalked the Ruins for ages. (CR 5)

18. Foul and ancient magics have tainted a section of an old park, resulting in a hungry tendriculous. Due to the many victims it has claimed over the years, treasure found is 25% higher than normal, though most treasure found is of the goblin and grippli variety. (CR 6)

19. Bound in an ancient mage’s laboratory and demented by its long captivity, an invisible stalker carries out his final instructions to defend its master’s belongings. (CR 7)

20. Its host fell victim to one of the many dangers of the Ruins, and now this intellect devourer must find safe passage back to the Depths…or another host. (CR 8)

What are some of your go to random encounters? Do you use them? Drop me a comment!

 

Campaign Creation: In the Depths

Last time, we talked about all the nasties awaiting our brave adventurers above ground. Now I want to look at what (or who) might be lurking underground.

Giving it some thought, I want to split the Depths, as I’ll call them, into three main areas. The first area will be just below the surface, at roughly the depth of all the cellars, basements, and underground crypts in the city. In addition to these there will be a network of ancient passages and newer, rough-hewn tunnels connecting these older spaces. Whether pre-existing, formed by accident from whatever cataclysm befell the city, or formed by generations of the current inhabitants, the areas in this level will teem with a variety of challenges for our party. Some monsters can come from above, perhaps lairing in or exploring ancient cellars and caverns. But these spaces can also be the home to nocturnal or cavern-dwelling creatures (oozes, myconids, scorpions, spiders and so forth) and serve to give the party their first taste of the world that awaits them deeper underground. Throw in the occasional discovery of some construct or magical beast, leftover and trapped in a secret lab for centuries, just to add some spice and variety.

Depth-wise, this first layer isn’t going to extend much more than 80′ or so below the surface. The majority of the creatures in this area, being natural flora and fauna (albeit monstrous and horrible), should replenish themselves or be replaced by other creatures moving in. This level should never be entirely safe, unless the party takes extreme measures to eradicate dangers.

The middle layer of the Depths is going to be a combination of natural caverns and built-up areas (underground temples, small settlements, and so on). This area will be the group’s first real introduction to an alien environment, lightless and cool but teaming with denizens suited to the environs. While there are other creatures the characters will encounter, I’m making this largely the domain of the troglodytes. I don’t really see them enough in adventures except as random underground or sewer encounters, so I’m going to take this opportunity to have some fun with them and really flesh them out. I think a couple or three tribes, all fighting back and forth through the caverns and ancient chambers, will make things suitably challenging for my party. Of course there are other dangers for the party: cave fishers, stray elementals, ancient and intelligent undead…all of these and more could be waiting in the dark.

One of the things to keep in mind when running adventures underground: the environment is as much an adversary as any of the monsters. Natural caverns don’t always have level passageways (or passageways at all); there can be sudden drops or unstable areas; rocks or plants can be toxic. The darkness itself is a challenge that must be overcome. Do you carry light sources that allow you at least some limited range of sight, but pinpoint you (and your light dependency) for everyone to see? Gaining the ability to see in darkness could become a fairly important side-quest for the party. And while you don’t want travelling underground to become so onerous the party won’t do it, never let them forget they are in an alien place.

The last layer, the true Depths, is going to contain the biggest surprise for our party: another vast city, similar in size and scope to the Ruins above, even down to the architecture (excepting adaptations made for subterranean construction, of course). But while whatever befell the Ruins also happened here, it didn’t happen to as great an extent. This city is still largely intact. And occupied.

While it is tempting to trot out the drow at this point, I’m going to instead turn to another old favourite, the duergar. Perfectly suited to life in the Depths, and tenacious enough to rebuild after whatever ancient tragedy befell their city, the duergar have over time rebuilt much of what was theirs. Later I’ll determine exactly what the connection between the Ruins and the City in the Depths is or was, but for now it is enough to know the duergar blame the surface city for what happened. And their memories are long.

And because I can’t let anything be simple, I’m adding a fun little twist to the mix: intellect devourers. They are the perfect, behind-the-scenes schemers, literally living in and amongst their victims. They are particularly insidious, because it’s entirely possible that people known to the party from the very beginning, could simply be the host disguise of a devourer. Maybe even one of those main NPCs we developed earlier…

So there we go. We’ve sketched in the general outline of encounters for our party, and as you can see we have plenty to work on. Remember, though, we’re only going to start detailing the things the party is likely to encounter first. Details for the Depths will remain largely untouched for a while, as the party will tend to adventure above ground at first. But knowing what’s waiting down there allows us to start laying in hints and seeds for future adventures early. Not a lot, we don’t want to give too much away. But if the occasional troglodyte or duergar artefact surfaces, well, that’s perfectly natural. And if someone the characters have known begins acting strange, that’s certainly worth investigating.

Next time in Campaign Creation we’ll talk maps! In the meantime, what are your favourite underground encounters? Share them in comments.

Campaign Creation: Here Lie Monsters!

In the previous Campaign Creation posts we established the basics of the campaign’s starting point and the NPCs surrounding the party. Today I want to look at monsters the party is likely to encounter, for at least the first few levels and beyond.

The Ruin is the remains of a vast, ancient city. Little is known about the original occupants except something either caused them to abandon the city, or killed them in such a way that it left the city intact enough to crumble over time. I’m deliberately keeping this part vague in order to fill in details later on, based at least partly on player speculation. Often players brainstorm great ideas when they are discussing possible adventure directions, and a good GM will leave room to take advantage of that.

But the characters can’t fight vague speculation, they need monsters! For my purposes there will be two main encounter areas, the ruins above ground and a series of ancient caverns deep under The Ruin. Connecting the two areas are all the cellar, crypt and basement areas of The Ruin’s buildings; these will serve as a transitional region between the surface and the depths. Today’s post will focus on The Surface.

The Surface

One of the cornerstone monster races of the Pathfinder setting is goblins. I love the direction Paizo took them, transforming them from disposable cannon fodder to the psychotic, fire-obsessed maniacs I’ve come to love. So The Ruins are going to feature a tribe of goblins, infesting crumbled buildings across the city. But to add some conflict to the situation and keep the players on their toes, I want another humanoid tribe, forever in conflict with the goblins. Kobolds would be an obvious choice, but I want something the players might not be as familiar with.

Every time I picture The Ruin, I imagine it surrounded by jungle and cloaked in vines and mosses. Given that, it makes sense to me to add something reptilian or amphibious to the mix. Because of an idea I already have for subterranean foes I’m going to avoid the obvious lizard folk. Instead, I’m going to go with a little used race, the frog-like grippli. I imagine them occupying washed-out, swampy areas on the edges of the city, coming into conflict with the goblins as the grippli push into the city scavenging for treasure, and the goblins push outwards in search of food. Each tribe believes they were the original builders of the city, and will once again rise to take their rightful place as rulers over all. Whether this is true isn’t important, but it adds an interesting dimension to the conflict between the two groups. The presence of two small-sized humanoid tribes also allows for numerous trap encounters, as each tribe uses cunning to their advantage against the other, as well as the “big-folk” constantly encroaching on “their” city.

With these two main groups in place, we can easily fill in some other monster types. Now that we’ve added elements of swampy and jungle terrain, we can easily create encounters with appropriate jungle animals: apes, snakes, spiders, scorpions, and all the larger and dire versions of said creatures. A jungle setting, especially if the jungle encroaches on The Ruin, also allows for the use of all the dangerous plant creatures that rarely see time at the table: tendriculos, hangman trees, and a variety of oozes and fungal creatures. Travelling through the jungle, or overgrown sections of The Ruins, should be fraught with potential danger. Using these plant and animal creatures will allow me to drop in a challenge when I think the party least expects it, while immersing them in the setting.

I don’t think the setting would be complete without undead, especially an ancient, dead city. The obvious place to centre undead encounters would be the city’s temple district, though of course the players might not realize that without a bit of digging (sometime literally) and research. Of course undead can be encountered anywhere in The Ruins; zombies can shamble anywhere, ghouls can range widely for food, and other types of undead might inhabit the ruins of private homes and family crypts. The undead will also serve as transitional encounters between the Surface and the Depths, as they can be found in underground crypts ranging all over The Ruins.

That gives me enough to start building encounters and generate the initial adventures. Next time we’ll look at the evils lurking deep (and not so deep) beneath The Ruins, waiting to strike against the surface.

Are there any monsters I haven’t mentioned you think would fit the setting so far? Drop your ideas in the comments!