Campaign Updates

It’s been a while since I wrote about the campaigns I was running, and I’m at a point where some of them are undergoing some big changes, so I thought I’d jot it all down to help me process. Here are the 4ish games I’m currently DMing, all of which are fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons.

The Chained Worlds: Above & Below

An indirect sequel to our long-running Wall campaign, this one’s been going on since May 2016. It’s actually two campaigns…or maybe it’s one campaign with two adventuring parties? When Wall finished, I had a group of 12 players interested in continuing to play, and while the weekly drop-in method of Wall worked for a while, as story details accrued, people started feeling like they’d missed too much important stuff to continue dropping in. So what could I do?

X-Factor #70 - Fourteen X-Men

From X-Factor (v1) #70, by Peter David, Kirk Jarvinen, et al.

Based almost entirely on scheduling needs, I broke the players into two groups. They were both from the same hometown and working for the same organization, but they were charged with exploring different parallel worlds: one went “up” the chain to a fae-filled world of imagination (actually the same world as the Wall campaign but a couple centuries later) while the other went “down” the chain to a gray and feudal realm of dying kingdoms and encroaching glaciers.

The first group became known as Date Team because, well, that’s most of what they do. They’ve dated a slug-eyed sewer secretary, a marquis, a ghost of books, a mouse king, a sailor’s daughter/swanmay, and more. They’ve destroyed dates, gotten revenge for jilted lovers, and caroused at every bar in town.

The second group is Boy Team. If they see a door, they go through. If they see a mountain, they climb it. If they see baddies, they rough them up.

Every few months, the two groups would get together for an all-day session where they’d celebrate a holiday, tackle an opponent too big for a single party, or do team-building exercises.

Now, after two years and 85 total sessions, things are nearing an end. They’ve discovered that the chain of worlds is actually a cage that’s keeping an apocalyptic entity, The Maw, from consuming everything. Boy Team is traveling across every world in the chain Sliders-style, trying to find allies against The Maw and uncover its history. Date Team is looking for the missing godhead of their world, the First Titan, under orders of the faerie queen Titania.

With people having left and joined each group, they’re currently on track to join into a single 8-person party for the remainder of the campaign. This big act will probably be done by the end of the year. And then?

Then I’m thinking of keeping them as one group but having them run through three separate campaigns at the same time. Each week, they can vote on which characters they want to play: their Chained World characters, a post-apocalyptic Bronze Age community-building game, or a post-post-apocalyptic Romantic/Victorian/Western game (see below).

Patchwork World: The Hex Crawl

This one’s only nine sessions in, but it’s set in a world I developed for a series of one-shots I ran for people learning D&D. It’s predicated on a few big points.

  1. “Fantasy” does not only mean “magic.” It also means “a way people wish things could be.” A fantasy RPG should represent the latter by way of the former. Middle Earth was Tolkien’s fantasy of a rural paradise where evil outsiders are kept at bay. Lankhmar was Fritz Leiber’s urbane, adventurous boys’ utopia. Conan was Robert E. Howard’s libertarian and feudal dream. But we don’t have to do things that way. Our fantasies can be places gender is exploded, where brown people aren’t attacked or discriminated against, where basic needs are met and adventure is a way to build bridges and spread abundance without also bringing colonialism. Which leads to…
  2. D&D doesn’t have to be Medieval. Given the rules-as-written and the possibilities implied in magic, extraplanar cosmology, and the various species and creatures, D&D can exist anywhere on the historical spectrum or, as I prefer, entirely outside of it. We can deal with historical ills if they’re of interest to us, but we can also use D&D to make a place where those things never happened or where they were happened and punished according to our desires. Slavery can be universally regarded as evil. Money can track an exchange of favors without the burden of capitalism. People can communicate across vast distances in the blink of an eye, ride trains, have light-up shoes, be teenagers. There’s no such thing as “that’s not how it happened in the real world.”

Given those two interwoven points, the Patchwork World is a post-post-apocalyptic planet made of chunks of other planets. There are radiation-blasted deserts, rural utopias, steampunk cities, and hells and heavens of varying degrees. The difficulty isn’t in creating a utopia; it’s in reconciling everyone’s different utopias.

This is complicated by an additional wrinkle: the players asked for this campaign to be a sort of overworld exploration game. They want to see all the weird things the world holds. To this end, I’m running my first hex-crawl:

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The map as it stood a couple months ago.

We started with only a few known locations, including their base of operations and each character’s hometown. Through exploring and talking, they’re slowly filling in the Patchwork World, walking across it in the giant ostrich robot they got for bringing a deadbeat god dad to justice. As they visit new hexes, the contents are mostly randomly generated by a spreadsheet I made giving me either a large area (with its occupants, technology level, and mood) or a seeded point of interest pulled from other sources.

This world is, potentially, a far-future version of the Chained Worlds campaign. I dunno. Maybe I’ll join the groups at some point? Or let them guest star in each other’s games?

The Lost Isle of St. Christine

This is the newest campaign; we’ve only made characters and played enough to introduce the main conceit of the game. The history of this setting is as follows:

  1. I made a “Peasants & Plowshares” hack of fourth edition D&D to teach people the game. It was set in a witch-hunty walled city.
  2. I brought the P&P players back to that city as more powerful (1st level) PCs to let them run roughshod over their peasants. The city was revealed to be on a lost island.
  3. I quit D&D and sold all my stuff.
  4. I got obsessed with “real life” lost islands like St Brendan’s Island.
  5. I started (but never finished) a “non-interactive fiction game” called Copper Falls.
  6. Got back into D&D and wanted to run a full campaign in a small, dense area.

So here’s the island so far:

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And here’s the original pitch I made the players:

400 years ago, members of a religious schism were said to have found an untouched island on which to practice their faith. They were never heard from again until today. You’re passengers on the first ship to the Isle of St Christine, accompanying traders, priests, and explorers. What does the island hold? How have the pilgrims changed? And was the island truly untouched?

Tags: exploration, mapmaking, religion, cults, dogs, dense

Audio inspiration: “Masked Ball” by Jocelyn Pook

Visual inspiration: St Brendan’s Isle

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D&D Emergent Strategies: Animal Friendship

Do you know Kira Magrann? She’s a smart and cool game writer; you can find her here on Twitter and Patreon. She tweeted this:

It caught my eye because, in the 5ish campaigns I’m currently running, this is actually really common. Kira noted that D&D mechanics don’t explicitly support this type of play, and it got me thinking about why my players do it and what I might be doing to push them in that direction (or at least not pull them away from it).

First, while there aren’t any big rules expressly pointing players toward helping animals, there are at least a number of features that might act as signposts in that direction. A few of them off the top of my head:

  • the speak with animals spell, available to rangers, druids, Oath of the Ancients paladins, Nature clerics, Path of the Totem Warrior barbarians, and potentially bards and warlocks depending on their build (and the forest gnome’s ability to speak with small animals)
  • the ability to turn into animals, especially the druid’s wildshape, but also via spells like polymorph
  • animal companions, such as from the urchin background or Beast Master ranger build
  • other animal-centric spells like awaken and animal messenger

So Kira’s definitely right; there’s no “help animals to advance your characters” or similar rule in D&D. But with all those options, if the group has the right make-up, there’s a lot of animal business in there. However, that could easily get squashed under the D&D stereotype of “kill monsters and get loot.” So why isn’t that the case in my game?

A big part is because I give XP/levels just for showing up.

I don’t track monster or encounter XP, I don’t give XP for quest milestones—everyone gets a fraction of a level after every session.

Originally, I did this because I ran a pure drop-in game where anyone from a group of 14ish players was invited over every week. They ranged from the ages of 25 to almost 50. It was a miracle that any of us could find a free night. I didn’t want to penalize anyone if they happened to come play when the game was more focused around travel, carousing, or other interactions not typically considered XP-worthy.

And it may not have been conscious, but once the players realized they didn’t have to quest for XP, they started doing all sorts of strange things: getting drunk and rambling around town, uncovering reticent NPC’s backgrounds, going on dates, and, well, talking to animals.

The party I was thinking about when I said that my D&D experience has been animal-centric has a druid, a ranger, a Totem Warrior barbarian, an urchin sorcerer, and a rogue who bought a goat. Once they realized they could do animal things, it became a primary way of scouting locations, interacting with NPC friends, and traveling. They save “dungeon monsters” from the intelligent baddies that imprisoned them. They ask me every session how their animal companions are and what they do with their downtime. They once all turned into mice and saved a mouse kingdom from a fungal invasion; the ranger almost excepted the mouse king’s proposal to rule beside him, which would have led to her retiring that character and making a new one.

It makes me wonder what other emergent themes might be hiding out in D&D.

(Shoutout to Greg the Mouse, Ricky the Goat, Rations the Pig, the swanmays, and all the other animals in my current campaign. And shoutout to adrienne maree brown, whose book title I stole for this blog post but whose work is otherwise unrelated to mine. Or is it?! Regardless, get the book. And of course, go follow Kira Magrann.)