Wall & the Gates of Hell began in November of 2014 and ran for 60 almost-weekly sessions across 16 months. It used 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons rules and saw 12 players, mostly first-timers, explore a long-closed dungeon, rural Hell, a titanic void ship, and more.
When I started designing the campaign, I did so around a few desires:
1) Accommodate a weekly drop-in model of D&D. Anywhere from 3 to 8 players might come to any given session, and sessions can’t last more than 4 hours since everyone works the next day. This meant getting characters “home” at the end of each session in case a different group attended the next; everyone could sally forth from their base together
2) Avoid Tolkienesque fantasy. While the implied villains of the campaign, the demons of Hell, are a familiar trope, the creatures and factions of the caves and wilderness around town were intended to surprise my players, most of whom were wary of generic fantasy. Even when I ended up getting tapping into that stuff (fairies and elves, for example), I tried to lean more toward old fairy tales and D&D-originated monsters than to modern fantasy fiction. I also didn’t want to use “savage” races as tides of disposable Others. NPC factions needed more motivation than “they are all evil.” This leads to…
3) Create an ecology of assholes, which is a term coined by a friend to describe his DMing style. It consisted of dropping the PCs into a situation with two or more competing sides, none of which were particularly savory or “good.” (Think Yojimbo or A Fistful of Dollars.) It was up to the PCs to determine which side (if any) was better to support, and choices should always have both positive and negative consequences that lead to further stories
(It was important to me not to turn these choices into “gotcha!” moments. Instead, think of it as a choice between raw materials. In this situation, you aren’t choosing between two awesome weapons; you’re choosing between two dirty, trouble-filled mines. You might be able to do a bit of research on each that can inform your choice, but in the end, regardless of which you go with, there’s more work to do afterward. The awesome weapons can be created eventually, but it’ll take some commitment.)
4) No read-aloud text. I hate that stuff. Nothing kills a mood faster than forced text that doesn’t match the tone that players have established. I went with minimal imagery and other sensory information and let the players ask questions from there. If they asked if something specific was near them, I’d almost always say yes, and this led to rooms as good or better than rooms I’d have designed (and it saved me a lot of time).
5) Use 5th Edition D&D. As far as D20 systems go, 5e is pretty malleable. Since almost everyone was new to the game, 3.x and 4e both felt too cumbersome. My only veteran player was familiar with OD&D and Advanced, so 5e wasn’t hard to pick up. In the posts on the blog here, I’ve tried to keep edition-specific rules out, hoping to keep stuff compatible with OD&D, AD&D and OSR stuff, but I’m sure 5e “flavored” the original campaign in ways that other editions might not.
And naturally, I drew (stole stuff) from a ton of sources:
The Village of Hommlet by Gary Gygax
- I love the amount of detail in this old module. I love that they’re presented as a toolbox without telling you what to build.
Planescape: Torment by Black Isle Studios (Chris Avellone, et al.)
- I wanted factions and social situations that weren’t discretely good or bad. They could be odious, but they might also be salvageable.
Elder Scrolls work of Michael Kirkbride
- There’s some weird stuff in his writing: flying Arctic whales who drop hallucinogenic snow, fractal cloud cyborgs, etc. I wanted weird stuff.
Sagas of the Icelanders by various
- Choices in the sagas have bloody and long-lasting consequences. Also, I have tons of respect for their brevity and their combination of humor and seriousness.
Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser by Fritz Leiber
- The only fantasy books I regularly return to. So urbane. And full of picaresque continent-crossing adventures, small heists, tragedy, jokes, and even trips into our real world.
The War Hound & the World’s Pain by Michael Moorcock
- Full of different realms with different rules. Powerful creatures have unfathomable drives. My favorite opening sentence: “It was in that year when the fashion in cruelty demanded not only the crucifixion of peasant children, but a similar fate for their household animals, that I first met Lucifer and was transported into Hell; for the Prince of Darkness wished to strike a bargain with me.”
False Machine by Patrick Stuart
- I specifically stole Mr. Stuart’s idea for an apocalypse-preventing dwarven fortress.
- My true inspiration for a weekly drop-in campaign. I love their weekly previews, and they’re the kindest-sounding podcasters ever.
Dreams in the Lich House by John Arendt
- I could not have made this happen without his play-by-play description of creating his Black City campaign.
The Wrenchies by Farel Dalrymple
Prophet by Brandon Graham
Hellboy by Mike Mignola
- Bio-weirdness meets fairy tales and demonic fate.
Yojimbo by Akira Kurosawa (director)
Django by Sergio Corbucci (director)
The Tale of Zatoichi by Kenji Misumi (director)
- Sundry factions, none of them wholly good or evil, meet and battle over wealth and freedom. Yojimbo particularly features an intimacy and ownership of space that I tried to replicate.