Friday, May 11, 2012

Goblins of the Spanish Main

Yesterday, I was suggesting some elements that are core to D&D that need to be addressed by the campaign setting.  The more of these elements that work in the setting "as is", the better is the fit between the setting idea and D&D; the closer it is to a core D&D experience.  Just to try it out, I thought I'd come up with a random half-baked idea and see how it tests as a D&D setting.

Yo Ho, me hearties!  Let's set sail for a fantastic version of the Gulf of Mexico and trawl the waters of the Spanish Main during the golden age of piracy - buried treasure, bottles of rum, and 15 men on a dead man's chest.  And monsters.

First up, dungeons and adventure sites.  How could you handle dungeons in a "saltbox"?  Exploring a wild stretch of sea, it's got to be sprinkled with islands.  Each island could be a simple hex crawl.  You could arrange the islands by distance, such that the furthest islands are more dangerous - a bit like dungeon levels.  Some of the islands themselves could have a few simple ruins on them, or basic sea caves.  You're not going to have anything quite like a traditional dungeon, though you could have ancient Atlantean ruins or something similar.

I don't see any problems using the following D&D tropes on the Spanish Main - classes, levels, alignment, high magic, and XP for gold.  One could even place demi-humans back in folkloric Europe and have the odd halfling, dwarf or elf in a crew.

It's not hard to imagine populating the mythic Caribbean with various monsters from the bestiaries, both sea monsters of nautical lore and monsters appropriate for the tropics.  A dinosaur-filled "lost world" like the Isle of Dread seems de rigueur.  What about two-legged opponents?  There'd be no end of foreign nationals, opposing pirates and buccaneers, or hostile natives that could be found on the islands - assuming you want to stay away from using traditional D&D-style humanoids.

If you cared about "domain level play", what would the end-game be like here?  Maybe mid-level to high-level characters buy their own ships instead of building castles.  I seem to recall Pirate Lords are like 11th level fighters in the Expert set, so you could adapt the end-game to a maritime milieu.

Actually, the biggest issue I see in adapting the tropes of the D&D campaign to such a setting is the fact that those NPC ships are commanded by high level characters!

The party is the unit of autonomy and exploration in the dungeon, and the idea behind the setting needs to support these small groups of picaresque adventurers setting out to scrabble for loot.  It's a bit hard to plan your own capers when you're on board a ship commanded by someone else.  This could be a fatal flaw.

Maybe the adventuring "unit" in such a campaign would be the longboat - just large enough for the players, their gear, and retainers, and once they get to shore they're on their own to plan and explore.  From that perspective, the ship becomes the local "town", the place the adventurers return to drink some rum, hear rumors, and plan their next expedition.  A tidy sum of loot is "taxed" back to the captain.

That's a potential solution - still doesn't provide a satisfactory solution for piloting the ship and crew from place to place, or how combat on the high seas would work when the players are a small group of pirates on a much larger ship.  I've got to think about it some more - the list was skewed towards mechanical elements and adherence to a core D&D experience, but there clearly needs to be some things on the list that address these non-mechanical concerns, like the importance of planning, autonomy, and small group play in the setting.  Playing the role of minions at the whim of a high level NPC is not a great recipe for D&D.

*Picture is NC Wyeth Treasure Island


  1. I was running my own "saltbox" for a game group. Yet it imploded after two sessions. Various reasons why. Yet, I did have the same thought you did. How can they go to all of these islands when they are lvl.1 or 2?
    Well, they solved it themselves by first capturing a derelict ship that was anchored near an adventure site. Then, they were able to use the money that they gained from plunder and from a job to get the ship repaired. Add to that, two of the characters were able to pilot the boat and they were sailing off to the next shore.

  2. Yeah, that gives me some ideas. This exercise is meant as a though experiment, and I had the chance to reflect further on the problem of party autonomy on the way to the office.

    Continuing the idea that the pirate ship acts as the "home base, tavern, and village" from a traditional campaign, here's how to frame the campaign: In recent years, explorers discovered ancient ruins on the island of Havana (sic), returning to Port Royal with ancient gold coins. Some captains now gather groups to explore the ruins rather than sail the high seas; during low level play (levels 1-3) the players can make traditional dungeon crawls and light wilderness exploration in an around the Atlantean ruins of Havana. During the mid-levels (4-7), they have enough wealth to secure their own ship and begin exploring the extended archipelago, just like a traditional campaign or a saltbox hex crawl often moves to the wilds. The high level game gives them the opportunity to establish island kingdoms and their own pirate fleets.

    I think it could work. It's a way to take something that seems like a poor fit for a D&D campaign arc and adapt it to the D&D structure. Plus it helps fill some voids in my list of campaign elements that need to be addressed.

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  4. I think the rest of the crew could also be considered the party's retainers. I like the idea of the ship as base and tavern, though perhaps not village (that's what port would be for). Ever since I played Final Fantasy VI, one of my back burner campaign ideas has been to do something similar with an airship. Another variation of the pirates idea that might work well is reavers on the Mediterranean during the age of heroes. Sort of like the Conan story, Scourge of the Bloody Coast I think it was. The size of ships back then might fit adventuring party + retainers as crew better also. Or maybe Sinbad.

  5. Final Fantasy VI:

    The airship is where you go to switch out your party members. There is a shop on board too.

  6. I'm running this concept (set a little earlier, in the equivalent of the early 1500's) in my "Emern" campaign. The PCs don't always own a boat, but they can hire one to go where they want, or can get one from a patron until they can afford one.

    Currently, they own the unexplored island of Jamaica. We just finished a sequence in which they created new characters - a group of low-level surveyors sent out to explore Jamaica on behalf of their current characters.

  7. I wouldn't make owning a ship the endgame. I'd start the PCs with a small ship & crew, and they could work up through bigger ships, eventually establishing their own port/base and a fleet of ships.

    1. Or perhaps better start them at 1st level as part of a crew in newbie dungeon mode, but with the expectation they'll have their own ship by ca 3rd/4th level when the exploration phase begins.

  8. IMO the key to the natives in this kind of campaign is to have them be humans, but call them orcs and goblins and such. Or perhaps you could have orc slaves imported from Africa and the natives are different kinds of goblins.

    Racism is inherent in D&D, especially considering that all the races seem to be just that - different races of the same species. Or perhaps hey could qualify as different species, because they don't normally interbreed.

    Anyway, Europeans viewed the Indians as sub-humans, so calling the natives demi-humans or fits perfectly.

  9. I'm finally free to talk - about this and your 1650 game, which could actually be the same, now I think of it. Let me know if you're still up for it - it might actually be best to really talk via g+ hangout to hash out ideas at high speed... I'm most free this coming week. And I'm sorry to have kept you waiting - been traveling all over.

    For the pirate game, I've been noodling on this for years, ever since I worked in videogames. The ship gives you something to futz with offline and then test online, which I think could be a really interesting paradigm for g+ games... shopping and designing chargen that goes on throughout the campaign. As for how to start at 1st level with autonomy, Charles Johnson's Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates gives an example of one guy (I forget who) that started by stealing a rowing boat and robbing traders on the Delaware, seizing ships and working his way up to 3-masted Caribbean notoriety. In my southeast asian pirates game you start with one or two skiffs and family obligations to a tribe of folks who will be happy to crew for you if only you show some success.