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:


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:


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


Alice in Sunderland

By: Bryan Talbot
Genre: history
Context: published as a big ol’ hardcover by Dark Horse in 2007

Another long book! I didn’t read this book until a couple years ago. I recall seeing a number of reviews saying that it would make the “Best Of” lists the year it came out, but I paged through it in a comic store and was turned off by all the computer effects used in making the many collages throughout the book. I also thought it was a remix of Alice in Wonderland coupled with a biography of Lewis Carroll.

When I finally did read it, I was working part time in a library and not doing much else, so I grabbed Alice almost only on the basis that it was a comic book and I had time to read comics. I was still a little turned off by the computer filters on a lot of the art (there are a number of pages online if you want to see what I’m talking about), but I think that’s just a personal quirk of my tastes that comes with growing to maturity alongside Photoshop. Talbot’s more traditional cartooning is present throughout the book and is as good as its ever been, and since the guy has collaborations with Neil Gaiman and Ed Brubaker under his belt, you can assume that’s pretty good.

I was very happy with what Alice was actually about. It’s sort of a remix of Lewis Carroll’s book in that someone goes on a phantasmagorical journey. It’s sort of a biography of Carroll himself. In its fullness, though, it’s really about the history of human encounters with outsiders and the stories we tell ourselves in order to understand that history and place ourselves in it.

Pretty big, right? Carroll’s place in it all is that both Oxford and Sunderland have “claimed” him as their own. In examining Sunderland’s influence on Carroll and his works, Talbot, a Sunderland resident, gets drawn into the web of Sunderland’s history. What he finds is that nothing ends up being purely Sunderland; everything comes from somewhere else, but nothing goes back out without being changed. From the Picts through the Romans to the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans all the way to contemporary immigrants, the identity of a place gets built by the people who live and die there and the stories they leave behind.

Given this, Talbot’s collages are formally appropriate. His cartooning, already shifting chimerically from British boys’ adventure to Beano-style humor, is layered with and pasted over photographs and paintings. The experience of wandering through Talbot’s reconstructions of Sunderland throughout time is a uniquely comic experience, but its lessons on the building of truths and fictions are universal.

Adventures in Oz

by Eric Shanower
Genre: all-ages fantasy
Context: published in a collected edition by IDW in 2006; originally published by First and Dark Horse from 1986-1993

This comic has page numbers! Looking back, the Act-I-Vate Primer had page numbers, too, but Abe Sapien and Actions Speak both lacked them. It’s hard for me to take a publisher serious if they don’t number the pages in their books. How are things supposed to be cited? It’s like they’re not willing to adhere to the dress code despite wanting to be taken seriously for so long.

Another important question: how am I supposed to know if I skipped a page? It’s easy enough in a book, as page turns are usually mid-sentence or even mid-word. However, in a printed comic, a page is a narrative unit. While things will occasionally cross or occur in the gulf between panels, I don’t recall ever seeing a comic story somehow cross the page turn. It’s the equivalent of having a paragraph finish on every page in a book. Given the fact that narrative jumps from page to page are pretty important in comics (i.e., page 12 ends on a cliffhanger of someone’s surprised look, page 13 cuts elsewhere), I’ve gotten accustomed to accepting that the start of a page might be in a place or time far separate from the action of the previous page. It makes it hard, then, when I skip a page, force the next page into my comprehension of the story, and don’t realize I missed a vital sequence until pages later.

In fact, awareness of the page as a unit is probably one of my prerequisites for thinking an artist is really, really great. Aragones and Mignola, (from my first two reviews) know how to do this. JH Williams does it. Jack Cole does it. Being able to stage a page clearly so that it means more than just a series of panels, being able to control the pacing and eye movement of the reader — this is the iron foundation of a cartoonist over which flash and style can be added.

End the ranting. Adventures in Oz is a really pretty book. It’s a collection of smaller graphic novels that Shanower’s produced over the years, so there are a number of complete stories. It has a “This book belongs to” plate at the beginning. If I were a kid who enjoyed Oz, Narnia, and Wonderland, this book would be perfect. The plot progressions and syntax aren’t challenging, but they’re not necessarily fluff, either. They occupy that sweet spot of truly all-ages.

The book is slightly oversized, which does a service to the art. I first encountered Shanower as an inker over Steve Rude (and maybe an artist of the backup stories?) in Nexus, where he was a perfect fit. Like Rude, Shanower walks the fine line between classic illustrator and quality storyteller: his realistic anatomy and technical linework don’t get in the way of the sense of motion that’s integral to comic storytelling.

This is helped by the colors. Oh, goodness, the colors. For the first two novellas, there are vibrant flat colors that match closely the nice work that First was doing at the time. The last three, though, have amazing watercolors that, to me, redefine what painted comics can be.

(‘Cause I hate painted comics. Alex Ross, while a fantastic draughtsman, will never be a comic artist in my mind. Similarly, comics with overly digital colors, with gradients and lens flares and muddy blurs that obscure the linework make my eyes glaze and dry.)

I don’t want to drag this out anymore, but I just want to say that the soft washes of the watercolor model shapes and show light while receding behind Shanower’s linework where harder paints or arbitrary digital fills would take over, respectively making the art more static or mechanical.