EXCLUSIVE: New products for 2021

Happy April Fool’s!

D&D fans are always on the lookout for ways to spend their hard-earned cash. Now, in a world exclusive, Scroll for Initiative can reveal that the following D&D products are confirmed for autumn 2021. Merch, merch, merch!

Spelljammer: Adventures in Wild Space

The final frontier. May the Force be with you.
– Elminster

Finally, after years of hints, Spelljammer IS confirmed. The much beloved campaign setting was long overdue for a 5e reboot, and fans of the original sourcebooks will not be disappointed.

We can reveal that the new sourcebook willl contain:

  • Revised rules for ship combat, including heavy weapons, ramming, and hexcrawls between spheres
  • Two new playable races: the giff and the neogi
  • Four new subclasses
  • Stats for at least four new monsters, including comet steeds, radiant dragons, giant space hamsters, and more
  • A short introductory adventure: Lost Mine of Phandelver . . . in Space!
  • A 3D poster map

It is expected that the next few hardback adventures will focus on Wild Space. However, following in the tradition of 5th edition Forgotten Realms adventures, only ten percent of the Wild Space setting will actually appear.

An alternative cover design containing real space dust will be revealed next month on my YouTube channel (I just need to set it up first). Stay tuned!

Curse of Strahd: Kill Strahd Yet Again

Following the success of 2016’s Curse of Strahd and last year’s Curse of Strahd Revamped, fans will be delighted to learn that the next published adventure will be Kill Strahd Yet Again. Plot details are scant at this stage, but it’s rumoured that this $50 adventure will take adventurers back to Barovia to find that Strahd has once again . . . ah, you know the rest.

47th anniversary dragon and dice

To celebrate nearly 50 years since the original Dungeons & Dragons game was published, we can expect to see a new amethyst dice set, expected to retail for just $400. The dice set will come with a custom dice box and dice tray combo and an exclusive sticker set. There are also plans to release an amethyst dragon made of real plastic, which will be snapped up by collectors for the price of just $90!

Lifesize Tiamat model

Fans were delighted to learn this week that an official update of the Tiamat miniature is in the works: the biggest D&D mini yet. It’s expected to retail for under $400. What is yet to be revealed, however, is the lifesize Tiamat model, constructed at 1:1 scale. D&D fans with a spare garage/aircraft hangar will be able to house this magnificent mini biggie for just $24,000.

Player’s Handbook: Neckbeard Edition

D&D is as popular as it has ever been, and there’s no desire for a new edition any time soon. However, for some of the game’s oldest fans, D&D isn’t what it used to be, so a special edition Player’s Handbook is now in the works for December 2021.

If you’re a sexist and a racist uncomfortable with the concept of diversity, you will be pleased to see a return to the male pronoun throughout, and almost all the humans depicted in the artwork will be white men (because D&D IS EUROPEAN MEDIEVAL FANTASY GODDAMNIT!!!!1!). Some women females will be shown, but they will be depicted exclusively in boob plate and chainmail bikinis. Orcs will be back to their always-evil, pig-faced selves.

In terms of rule changes, Armour Class is likely to be replaced by THAC0, fighters will be renamed ‘fighting men’, and the grapple rules of 3rd edition will return with all their tactical crunch (get your flowcharts ready). Female characters will start with lower Strength scores, bards will be a complex multiclass option, and best of all, the rulebook will return to 9-point Futura. We can’t wait.

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Gods in D&D

Do you have deities in your campaign? How many? What are they called? What are their portfolios? Are they active in the world or mysterious and withdrawn?

For some DMs, deities are one of the most enjoyable aspects of world-building: a fun way to define their setting. For others, gods and demigods are just a headache, a chore, and something they wish the game could do without. In this article, I’m going to look at the history of deities within the game and some suggestions for how to introduce divinity into your game in perhaps more imaginative ways.

A (selective) history

Do clerics need a deity? Many players assume the answer is ‘yes’ and has always been the case. The reality is perhaps a little more nuanced.

Image result for 1974 basic set D&D

I wasn’t able to consult the 1974 boxed set (‘original D&D’), but from what I could find online, there is no list of deities, and clerics are more or less a half-way house between ‘magic-users’ and ‘fighting-men’. I’m not even sure there are any references to ‘gods’ or ‘deities’ in the original Men & Magic booklet. What’s more, from what I’ve read of Gygax and home campaign, he didn’t bother much with specific deities in the earlier years either. Since his players’ characters were generally low level, he assumed they were unlikely to interact directly with the gods, so he glossed over them. Some of his players ended up taking matters into their own hands and started to call on deities from Greek and Norse mythology and even Howard’s Conan stories. When his players evenntually asked Gygax to give them a deity of his own creation – something less vague than just ‘the gods’ – he jokingly invented Saint Cuthbert. In-game stats were eventually presented for Thor, Zeus, and so on in the fourth D&D supplement, Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes, in 1976.

Image result for D&D red box basic set

The 1977 ‘Basic Rules’ (as opposed to ‘Advanced D&D’) describes clerics as ‘humans who have dedicated themselves to one or more of the gods.’ Are these gods listed? No. The ‘red box’ of 1983 goes one step further, saying that the cleric is ‘dedicated to serving a great and worthy cause [. . .] usually the cleric’s Alignment; for example, a cleric may be dedicated to spreading law and order.’ Strikingly, it goes on to say this: ‘In D&D games, as in real life, people have ethical and theological beliefs. This game does not deal with those beliefs.’ Correspondingly, no gods or deities are listed.

From what I can see, the 1st edition AD&D Player’s Handbook (1978) also doesn’t have much to say on the subject of gods. It states that ‘a cleric is dedicated to a deity, or deities’ (italics mine), and that their spells are ‘bestowed upon them by a deity for correct and diligent prayers and deeds’, but again, no list of deities is provided or referred to.

Image result for dieties and demigods

This all changed in 1980 with the publication of Deities & Demigods, a 144-page hardcover supplement which provided background details and in-game stats for 17 different pantheons: some from fiction (eg, Cthulhu), some for nonhumans (eg, Moradin and Gruumsh), and the rest from real-life sources (eg, Egyptian, Norse, and Celtic). Deities & Demigods also addressed questions like how clerics of these religions should behave and how they are affected by the afterlife. The book was later repackaged as Legends & Lore to avoid potential conflicts with fundamentalist Christians, but the content remained more or less the same.

Like the first edition, the 2nd edition of AD&D (1989) does not provide a list of deities. Again, the Player’s Handbook refers to the cleric (now a type of ‘priest’) as ‘a believer and advocate of a god from a particular mythos,’ but goes on to say this, which is interesting: ‘In the simplest version of the AD&D game, clerics serve religions that can be generally described as “good” or “evil.” Nothing more needs to be said about it; the game will play perfectly well at this level.’ The game continued to assume that clerics were servants of a divine power, however, and a second edition of Legends & Lore was published using much of the original text.

An interesting change came in 2000 with the advent of 3rd edition. Here, as with the red box, the Player’s Handbook explicitly states that ‘some clerics devote themselves not to a god but to cause or source of divine power.’ The gods of the Player’s Handbook were borrowed from Greyhawk. Deities and Demigods returned to D&D in April 2002 and discussed different models of religion, from the traditional ‘loose’ pantheon of D&D, to monotheism, dualism, and animism. 4th edition in 2008 arguably tightened things up again, stating that a cleric ‘must choose a deity compatible with [their] alignment’.

And now 5e. Here again, as in fourth edition, it is assumed that clerics are ‘divine agents’. Indeed, the Player’s Handbook even states that ‘the most important question to eonsider is whieh deity to serve and what principies you want your character to embody.’ An appendix, ‘Gods of the Multiverse,’ provides a summary of various fictional and historical pantheons, but with none of the detail of Deities and Demigods.

Your world, your rules

Image result for shar selune

Todd Lockwood

Many D&D players assume that a D&D world has to have gods. Not just gods, but a pantheon of gods: something for every alignment, every domain. This is certainly an option, but there are others.

Monotheism. Perhaps the people of your world worship an overdeity or creator god. The different domains could be different aspects of the same deity. Perhaps the deity is worshipped by different names in different churches. Is the god neutral, at the centre of all things? Good: a force for hope? Or evil: an inescapable darkness that haunts every corner of the world?

Dualism. Instead of a pantheon, you could have just two deities in opposition with one another. What do they represent? Sun and moon? Law and chaos? Life and death? In the same way that the world of The Dark Crystal is ruled by the mystical urRu and the hideous skeksis, your world could be defined by two primal forces. Perhaps, like the urRu and the skeksis, your deities started as a single god that split somehow into two.

Pantheons. The default for many D&D worlds: perhaps you want lots and lots of gods. If so, consider the various cleric domains, the nine alignments, the twelve core classes. Is there someone for everyone to worship? You need to decide if it is a ‘tight’ pantheon where all the gods belong to one religion (eg, the gods of Asgard or Mount Olympus) or a ‘loose’ pantheon like hte gods of Greyhawk and Faerûn. Are there different deities for different ancestries: gnomes, dwarves, elves, and so on?

Animism. This is the idea that spirits inhabit every part of the natural world: animals, plants, stones, fire, wind. In Legend of the Five Rings, for instance, shugenja cast their spells by calling on spirits called the kami to aid them.

Cheats. Do you want to steal the deities from another campaign setting, or skip over the lore completely? Don’t feel bad about it! You can always introduce new elements later, and if it’s good enough for Gygax, it’s good enough for you. Even if you use the gods of Asgard and Olypmus in your world, they will still be defined by your fiction, not the myths and legends of our world. (I would, however, avoid real-life religions: apart from running the risk of offending someone, it’s also jarring, and potentially breaks the immersion in a fantasy setting.)

Whatever model of divinity you go with, you should probably think about your answers to some of the questions below.

  • Are the gods all powerful, or are there limits to their divinity?
  • What do they know that mortals do not?
  • How did they become gods? Is it possible to ascend to godhood or give it up? Can divinity be stolen or earned?
  • Do they need worshippers? Why do mortals worship them? Out of love? Fear? Gratitude?
  • Are the gods benevolent, hostile, or indifferent? Are they active or distant?
  • Where do they reside? Why do they live there? Can mortals reach them?
  • Can they die? If so, how?

In my current campaign, which started as a dark fantasy one-shot, the gods are almost forgotten: they slumber in distant worlds beyond the prime material, and the churches and cults that do exist are both corrupt and corrupting. Yet there are occasional glimpses of divine power: an answered prayer, perhaps, or an ancient artifact. It’s a story thread I plan to take further.

And no religion, too

Finally: there’s nothing wrong with a godless campaign setting.

‘Blasphemy!’ Really? Let’s take an example of how it might work.

Image result for aeris gainsborough

Meet Aerith Gainsborough (originally transliterated as ‘Aeris’). If that name sounds familiar, it’s probably because you played Final Fantasy VII. Aeris is never given a class in the game, but she is clearly part of the white mage tradition within the Final Fantasy franchise. She has high magic stats, fights with rods and staves, and her special abilities (‘limit breaks’) heal the party. In D&D, she would probably be a healing-domain cleric. She even grows flowers in a church. Yet there is no organized religion in the world of Final Fantasy VII. Neither are there deities, only ‘the Planet’ and a mysterious, ethereal substance called ‘Lifestream’.

To me, Final Fantasy VII is a really neat example of how you can have divine magic without deities. Don’t feel beholden to what has gone before: make your gods unique.

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Far Cry in D&D

Ubisoft

I have recently been playing through some of the Far Cry games, and it occurred to me that much of what makes the series distinctive could also be fun in a D&D campaign.

On the face of it, this might be surprising. The Far Cry games are first-person shooters: D&D is a collaborative fantasy roleplaying game. What the Far Cry series does well, though, is facilitating open-world gameplay, which has been part of D&D since its earliest editions and has recently seen something of a resurgence.   

In this article, I want to examine what makes the Far Cry games special and how you could incorporate these elements into your D&D campaigns.

Key features

Ubisoft

There have been five main entries in the Far Cry series since 2004 and three standalone expansions. Let’s take a moment to pinpoint what they have in common. (Because the original Far Cry was a more typical first-person shooter, without the open-world elements, I will exclude it from consideration here.)

  • A varied, lawless land. Far Cry 2 was set somewhere in central Africa, 3 in Indonesia, 4 in ‘Kyrat’ (the Himalayas), and 5 in Montana. While these settings are beautiful, each with its own rich history, they are also presented as wartorn and sparsely populated. They might not be especially vast in real-life terms – you can walk across Kyrat in 43 minutes – but the variety of biomes makes each world more interesting to explore.
  • Memorable villains. Despite their open-world credentials, the Far Cry games usually have a strong central storyline with prominent, interesting antagonists. Far Cry 3 has Vaas, a violent, unstable psychopath: 4 has Pagan Min, a ruthless autocrat.
  • Wildlife. Far Cry 2 only really features human mercenaries, but from 3 onwards there is a big focus on animals in the world: lions and tigers and bears, oh my!
  • Vehicles. In Far Cry, you may find yourself in a car, on a boat, flying a plane, or driving cross country in an ATV. Getting from A to B quickly (and in one piece) is often part of the fun.
  • Side quests. You don’t have to stick to the main storyline, and there is a huge number of optional missions. They could involve assassinations, delivering supplies, rescuing hostages, or controlling local wildlife. Some of the NPC ‘quest givers’ are almost as memorable as the main villains.
  • Guns, guns, guns. Yes, there are a lot of guns in Far Cry. Choosing and upgrading them is part of the fun.
  • Outposts and hub towns. In order to explore the map, players have to take control of outposts: fortified strongholds guarded by mercenaries, snipers, dogs, and so on.
  • Factions. There are usually at least three factions in the Far Cry games, and the player often has to make a choice between two groups of allies.

How, then, can we adapt these elements to D&D?

Converting to D&D

Ubisoft

Many of the features listed above are already part of D&D or simply need tweaking.

  • A varied, lawless land. This is the big one, really. A Far Cry open-world game is essentially a hexcrawl with random encounters. Justin Alexander has written extensively on how to run hexcrawls (@hexcrawl is his Twitter handle!), so I would start there. It’s important to have a variety of terrain types to create a sense of increasing challenge: TV Tropes even has a page on this.
  • Memorable villains. See my post on how to run a big bad. The Far Cry villains are an excellent template for D&D campaigns.
  • Wildlife. There are stats for lions and tigers and bears in the Monster Manual, of course, but there’s nothing to stop you adding a D&D flourish to your flora and fauna. Embrace the fantasy: replace bears with owlbears, wolves with worgs, cougars with displacer beasts.
  • Vehicles. This might be trickier in D&D, considering the medieval setting, unless you’re playing a magitek campaign like Eberron. Instead, consider having a range of different mounts. Depending on the setting, this might include dire wolves, dinosaurs, flying creatures like griffons and pegasi, even dragons and wyverns.
  • Side quests. These can be generated randomly using the tables in Chapter Three of the DMG. Really! And the monster lists in Appendix B can give you a sense of what to use as adversaries.
  • Guns, guns, guns. For this, I recommend The Complete Armorer’s Handbook on the DMs Guild. At $9.95, it’s well worth your money, and gives you some really cool options for upgrading arms and armour.
  • Outposts and hub towns. This requires a bit of prep on your part. There are around 20 outposts in every Far Cry game (from 3 onward), and they are satisfying because they are a tactical challenge. So, put some maps together (or borrow one from the brilliant Dyson Logos) and come up with an adversary roster. Be sure to account for reinforcements when the alarms go off!
  • Factions. You don’t necessarily need new mechanics for this. Just think about two or three main factions, what makes them distinctive, who leads them, and go from there. As I wrote in using publish campaign settings, three big schemers is plenty. Consider using the alignment system as a starting point (eg, Neutral Good, Lawful Evil, Chaotic Evil). Sly Flourish has a good post on this, too, where he takes inspiration from Dungeon World.

Final thoughts

Ubisoft

This post is meant as a starting point, not a complete guide, so here’s some more food for thought.

  • How big a map? The DMG has some good advice on this on page 14. I would strongly consider province scale (1 hex per mile) to create a sense of meaningful travel, although kingdom scale could work after the first few levels of play.
  • Random encounters. The trick here is not to overcomplicate things. Why not make a simple table of 1d6 encounters? Or 1d12? Don’t make more work for yourself on the basis of verisimilitude. The players won’t notice it, it probably won’t make the game more enjoyable, and you’ll end up burning yourself out.
  • Level range. There are points in 5th edition D&D where the game starts to feel fundamentally different. Level 5 is a big one: spellcasters get 3rd-level spells, front liners get a second attack, and so on. Things also start to feel different around 10th or 11th level (Tier 3). Personally, I would probably go the route of the published campaign-adventures and keep this kind of playstyle to Tiers 1 and 2.
  • How many players? Given the focus on free choice and going wherever you want, this style of play could actually work well a very small party, or even one player and a sidekick (using the rules in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything).
  • Resting. Consider using the rules for slow natural healing or healing kit dependency on page 266 of the DMG. Give the players an incentive to use tactics when liberating outposts, and make sanctuaries feel precious.
  • Low magic. If you want to preserve a gritty, survivalist feel, consider using the classes in Adventures in Middle-Earth. They are roughly equivalent in power to 5th edition classes but they lack routine access to magic.
  • Reward systems. The Far Cry series tends to have multiple reward systems. For example, in Far Cry 4 you have cash (Kyrati Rupees) and experience points (which buy skills), just like in D&D, but also karma, which unlocks allies and loot, and bell towers, which, once liberated, reveal more of the world map. Perhaps you could have a ‘reputation meter’ in your game which gives the players access to new mounts and magic items.
  • Skill challenges. If you want to abstractify the outpost challenges of Far Cry 3, 4, and 5, consider using the skill challenge mechanic from 4th edition. There’s a great post on how to do this by Jon Lemich at critical-hits.com. His table for skill challenge construction shows a really neat way of upping the difficulty with each successive outpost, and could work equally well for climbing bell towers.

Would you run a Far Cry–style campaign? What would you do differently? Feel free to comment below.

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In Praise of Adventures in Middle-Earth

I was very sad to learn (belatedly) that Cubicle 7 would no longer be publishing new material for their excellent Adventures in Middle-Earth roleplaying game, created by Dominic McDowall and Jon Hodgson. 2019 was Cubicle 7’s most successful year to date, and Adventures in Middle-Earth won the 2017 Origins Award for Best Role-Playing Game, but the Irish company, which also publishes the fourth edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, has chosen to end its agreement with the licence-holder over contractual differences.

Adventures in Middle-Earth (AiME henceforth) is based on 5th edition D&D but makes a number of tweaks to the system to better incorporate the themes of Tolkien’s storytelling. This article will highlight some of the most innovative changes and consider how they might work well in other D&D games.

New classes

Cubicle 7

I have long been a fan of low-magic fantasy. Don’t get me wrong, conventional D&D is a lot of fun, too! But for me, the less overt fantasy there is in the setting, the more wonderful and fantastical it becomes. Thanks to the addition of bonded accuracy, 5th edition feels like a better fit for a low-magic setting than earlier versions of D&D might.

However, in 5th edition, most classes are spellcasters or have the option to be. Spellcasters have much more freedom over the spells they can cast: cantrips can be used at will, and Vancian magic has largely been replaced with spontaneous spellcasting. To all intents and purposes, magic is now routine. It might make spellcasters easier to play, or more fun, but it’s a stumbling block for those looking to create a world where magic is subtle or hidden.

There is little in the way of ‘blatant’ or ‘showy’ magic in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, and, to recreate this atmosphere, AiME uses six new character classes. One, the scholar, is a loremaster and rudimentary healer (more on healing later). The other five, to a greater or lesser degree, are modelled on existing D&D classes, with a Middle-Earth twist: slayer, treasure hunter, wanderer, warden, and warrior, modelled on the 5e barbarian, rogue, ranger, bard, and fighter, respectively. (On a side-note, I do wish they hadn’t chosen three classes beginning with ‘w’.)

An experienced D&D player might look at these classes and think they are ‘weak’ or ‘broken’, and yes, if you were to drop them into a regular D&D game, they might feel under-powered, the scholar especially. However, this is because these classes are not designed for conventional D&D. Journeys and exploration play a far greater role in AiME, and what might seem like ‘fluff’ or ‘flavour’ at first glance could become vitally important in a long period of exploration. More on this later.

Cultures embedded in the setting

New Line Cinema

By my reckoning, there are now close to 40 playable races in 5th edition D&D, including seven kinds of elf. Some players love this. For me, it’s system bloat. To paraphrase Keith Baker, creator of Eberron, I prefer to focus on fewer races but make sure that each one has a strong place in the setting. I don’t want my taverns to resemble a Mos Eisley cantina.

This is something AiME does really well. There are eleven cultures, most of them human (‘men’): the exceptions are, unsurprisingly, dwarves, elves, and hobbits. Your choice of culture affects not just your ability scores and racial features but also the way other NPCs respond to you: the Dúnedain, for example, are considered somewhat suspect by Bree-folk, hobbits, and the people of Minas Tirith, whereas hobbits are openly welcomed by Bardings, Bree-folk, and dwarves. Your culture also affects your starting equipment: wealthy dwarves begin with the better equipment than the more frugal Woodmen.

AiME also replaces feats with virtues, only five of which are open to all cultures. The others are culturally specific, meaning that only elves can take ‘Deadly Archery’, for instance, and only the Rohirrim can choose ‘Born to the Saddle’. Each virtue comes with a quote from Tolkien’s work, so you feel like your choice of culture matters and you are part of a wider world.

There and back again

Lord of the Rings - Choose Your Own Adventure

New Line Cinema

5th edition D&D claims to be built upon three pillars: combat, exploration, and social interaction. When you experience D&D in play, though, you could be forgiven for thinking that only the first of these mattered. After all, the Player’s Handbook devotes an entire chapter to combat: exploration gets maybe a couple of pages.

In AiME, however, journeys are more important than dungeons. As the rules themselves say, ‘travelling is not simply a means of getting to a destination, nor something to be undertaken lightly.’ Heroes have to make a number of ability checks along the way, and depending on their successes, the DM’s die rolls, the length of the journey, and the difficulty of the terrain they are crossing, the company can arrive at its destination inspired and invigorated or crushed and exhausted.

It’s worth noting that, by default, heroes may only take short rests while on the road, and, of course, as befits the rest the low-magic atmosphere of Tolkien’s work, there is little magical healing. The mechanics of the game encourage players to find allies and build friendships on their travels in the hope that they can rely on their hospitality. Thus, the new rules for ‘audiences’ (social interaction) and ‘the fellowship phase’ (downtime) become very important.

The Shadow and corruption

I came, I saw...: Fog of War, Part 12: Mordor & Barad-Dur

New Line Cinema

AiME does not use the alignment system. Player characters are assumed to be heroes (and are referred to as such in the rules), and every hero has a Shadow Weakness: a failing in their character that the Shadow seeks to exploit. This is based on their class: thus, a slayer might succumb to the curse of vengance, becoming spiteful or cruel or murderous, whereas a warden or a warrior can feel the lure of power, becoming arrogant, overconfident, or even tyrannical.

Characters can acquire Shadow points from behaving dishonourably, from experiencing distressing events, or from crosing an area tainted by the Shadow, as well as from taking possession of a cursed treasure. Overtime, this corruption can lead to degeneration and bouts of madness. Eventually, a hero who falls under the Shadow’s influence can be removed from the game. An elf of Mirkwood must sail to the West, and a character from any another culture will either starve to death in a solitary place, forsaken by men and beasts, or threaten others to the extent that they must be killed.

Deceit, theft, murder, even violent threats will quickly inrease your Shadow points, and once your Shadow points exceed your Wisdom score, you start to suffer bouts of madness. There are no murder hobos in AiME.

The road goes ever on and on

Virtual Tolkien Is A Free VR Recreation Of An Iconic LOTR Film Scene

New Line Cinema

With a bit of tweaking, AiME could work for any 5e game. I could see it as the basis for a low-magic Game of Thrones campaign or a D&D version of Legend of the Five Rings, where taint and corruption are a key part of the story. It’s a real shame the line has been discontinued, but with multiple region guides out there and even entire campaigns, there’s plenty of material on offer to help you get started. Give it a try.

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Using Published Campaign Settings

Wizards of the Coast

Making your own homebrew campaign setting can be a daunting undertaking. World-building can be very time-consuming, and if you’re not really that interested in cartography, demographics, cosmologies, pantheons, and so forth, you might find yourself reaching for a someone else’s work.

How should you go about using a published campaign setting?

Where to start?

A published campaign setting can be overwhelming because of the sheer volume of lore you are drawing upon. The Forgotten Realms Campaign Set was released in 1987. Greyhawk, Gary Gygax’s home setting, was created at least a decade earlier. Even Eberron, a relative newcomer on the D&D scene, is now 16 years old and has appeared in three different editions of the game. It can be hard to know where to start.

Here are my tips.

1. Choose your flavour

Published D&D settings can be very different. Think about the general ‘vibe’ you’re going for, and go from there. To summarize a few:

  • The Forgotten Realms is the official campaign setting of 5th edition and probably the most widely played. It is a fairly ‘vanilla’ fantasy world.
  • Greyhawk, too, is something of a ‘generic fantasy setting’. (That’s not necessarily a bad thing, of course!)
  • Eberron might best be described as ‘magitek’ or ‘dungeon punk’, drawing its inspiration from pulp advenure stories and film noir.
  • Dragonlance, based on the novel series of the same name, is a bit more high fantasy. The balance of good and evil is a key theme.
  • Ravenloft is dark fantasy or gothic. Curse of Strahd gives you a good sense of its tone.
  • Dark Sun is a godless post-apocalyptic desert world with sword and sorcery elements.
  • Planescape centres around Sigil, the City of Doors, a strange metropolis that lies outside the multiverse and a hub for a vast network of magic portals.
  • Spelljammer is . . . D&D in space.

You’ve also got the Inner Sea region, the excellent setting of the Pathfinder RPG, and the various Magic: The Gathering crossovers, if that’s your thing.

It’s worth mentioning that only two of these settings have received substantial 5th edition support: Eberron and the Forgotten Realms. It’s also worth setting that many of these settings have many different flavours within them. Eberron, for example, could be a Raiders of the Lost Ark–style temple run in Xen’drik, a Chandleresque hard-boiler in Sharn, a Lovecraftian cosmic horror story from the Far Realms, or something else entirely.

2. Start local

Storytelling in All its Forms: The Dragon of Icespire Peak Campaign Diary -  Episode 1 - Welcome to Phandalin

Wizards of the Coast

This is the approach of Lost Mine of Phandelver and Dragon of Icespire Peak, both set in the small frontier town of Phandalin and its environs. ‘The Forgotten Forge’, the 1st-level adventure in the original Eberron Campaign Setting, takes place entirely in Sharn. There is no reason to cover the whole world at once. Start small and build out from there.

This is a good tip for any campaign, frankly, especially if you start at 1st level. The world that matters the most is the world you build with the players. However, there does come a point where you want to increase the scope. As a rule of thumb, consider expanding out a little with each tier of play. Go to Xen’drik in Tier 2. Have a big bust-up between nations in Tier 3. Walk the planes in Tier 4. Or mix it up. The Dungeon Master’s Guide has some good guidance on pages 36–38.

3. Steal, steal, steal

One of the advantages of using a published campaign setting is the abundance of material you can borrow from, so take advantage of it! Raid old modules, ask questions on subreddits, consult the Dungeon Masters Guild and DriveThruRPG for sourcebooks old and new. The biggest campaign settings have wikis that are fairly reliable, and creators like Ed Greenwood and Keith Baker (to name but two) are fantastic for regularly sharing their thoughts about their settings on Twitter and their own websites.

What can you steal? Maps, art, monsters, NPCs, dungeons, artifacts, storylines, lore. In short: anything! It’s your campaign, and the published material is there to make your life easier. There’s no shame whatsoever and borrowing liberally from any sources you can find.

4. Drill down the ‘aspects’

This is a trick from Fate Core that I find handy.

‘Aspects’ are Fate’s big thing. An aspect is a phrase that describes something unique or noteworthy about whatever it’s attached to. If you find the copious background reading on your campaign setting to be a bit much, try reducing the setting down to a series of aspects.

Silver Marches | 5th Age Campaigns' home rules | Obsidian Portal

Wizards of the Coast

For example, let’s say we’re running a campaign in the Forgotten Realms. One of my favourite parts of the Realms is the Silver Marches, sometimes called Luruar. At kingdom scale, I might pick out eight to ten key sites that want to remember and then reduce them to ‘aspects’. It might look something like this:

  • Silverymoon: beautiful city of culture and magic
  • Everlund: mercantile city ruled by council of elders
  • Sundabar: harsh fortress city
  • Citadel Adbar: massive dwarven fortress
  • Citadel Felbarr: reclaimed dwarven citadel
  • Mithral Hall: dwarven mining stronghold
  • Beorunna’s Well: ancestral home of the Black Lion barbarians
  • The Evermoors: vast, foggy, troll-infested bog

This might be a bit minimalist for some, but for time-pressed DMs, it can be a useful shorthand. You can then improvise around these descriptions and make the setting your own (see the sixth point, below).

5. Three big schemers

Published campaign settings are not just a series of locations: they are also filled with people and organizations. And sometimes, the sheer number of forces at work can be a little intimidating for someone new to the setting.

My tip: restrict yourself to three big movers and shakers at any one time. In the Forgotten Realms, your campaign might revolve around the Lords’ Alliance, the Arcane Brotherhood, and the Kingdom of Many-Arrows. For Eberron, you might focus on the Aurum, the Dark Lanterns, and House Cannith. Obviously there’s no need to make this an absolute rule – by all means throw in a fourth or fifth if you want – but too many factions can lead to gambit pileup. Give your players a chance to learn more and more about the factions they know well and let the others slip into the background.

6. Break canon: kill your darlings

Wizards of the Coast

One of the biggest problems with a published campaign setting is the feeling that you have to honour it in some way. ‘What if my players know the setting better than I do?’ ‘Is my Sharn “accurate”?’ ‘Will the players want to meet Drizzt Do’Urden?’

Don’t let a published setting overshadow your own creativity. Ed Greenwood doesn’t want you to do that. Keith Baker doesn’t want you to do that. Your players don’t want you to do that.

More important than any of the other tips in this article is this one: make the setting your own. Do you want to run a Waterdeep campaign with Victorian-era technology? Go for it. Do you want an Eberron campaign where the Lord of Blades won the Last War and machines rule the world, Terminator style? Sounds fun. Fancy a Rime of the Frostmaiden–Dark Sun mash-up, with a post-apocalyptic tundra instead of a blasted desert world? Give it a try.

Whatever game you run, make sure the heroes at the heart of it. If you want to introduce Volo or Elminster or Drizzt or Mordenkainen, feel free to. But its your heroes’ story, not theirs. Treat a published campaign setting as a starting point, not an endpoint. If you want to rip it up and do your own thing with it, do. Make whatever changes you want.

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