Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Picking the Next Setting

I've had a setting project on and off for over a year now called the Black City - most long time readers have come across Black City posts, I'm sure - and I'm expecting to send some adventurers into the Black City sometime in the next few weeks, hopefully after we wrap up the current Cthulhu scenario.  The Black City is a mix of Vikings and science-fantasy and Lovecraftian aliens in the frozen north.  It's got plenty of weird stuff, but one thing I miss is the classic gothic horror elements that don't quite fit.  Furthermore, I've been searching for something that would work well in the 17th century (1620's or so) as an early modern setting for D&D style adventures, but with a splash of guns and rapiers instead of heavy plate and battle axes.  So while the Black City moves into active play, I'm about ready to add a second project to the queue where ideas that don't fit into the Black City campaign have a place to go.  If my Black City pace is any indication, this next setting will be ready to play around 2014 (kidding, I hope).

The early modern  has a different set of challenges than the microcosmic "points of light" trope in a purely fantastic setting.  It's a populous age with more long distance travel and potentially less space for monsters; depending on the approach, it likely requires more than hastily sketching out the home town village and the local dungeon filled with orcs and goblins.  I'm going to step through some of the ideas I've been considering and point out my view of the challenges.  Maybe even the dear readers can help me choose.

Library of De La Torre
The idea here was that a famous adventurer in the mold of Solomon Kane has recently passed away, bequeathing a library or journal to the party at the start of the campaign.  During his career, this adventurer had explored dungeons and tombs and combated horrors in the dark corners of Europe, but much of the treasure was still left behind.

The library is a platform to do an info-dump, seeding a target rich environment, since the players would get leads to various adventuring sites right at the campaign start and could engage in a highly player-driven campaign.  Contrasted to the typical micro-sandbox, I was calling it a "wide area sandbox".

Would require wide-area maps of 17th century Europe created, high level background on many areas of Europe during the 30 years war, and systems to facilitate mundane travel, staying at inns, and so on, including how to keep travel interesting.  Too much historical research is a risk.  A dozen or so one-page dungeons for distant adventuring sites would be needed.

Colonial Hex Crawl
Reading some accounts of Dutch New York and French-Canadian fur traders from Montreal got me thinking how early 17th century America was basically a dangerous hex crawl to the European explorers.  The concept here would be to sketch out a few Dutch settlements and trading posts as home bases, and build a sprawling hex crawl that covers New York through the Great Lakes - a blend of wilderness and Iroquois and Algonquin territory and competing nations and traders.

American folklore and mythology is underrepresented in gaming materials and there's a great chance here to build out a horror mythology in the new world similar to Lovecraft or Stephen King, just placed much earlier in the country's history.  Plus I live right in the area these days.

Hex crawling can be inherently dull.  The exploration challenges of traveling by canoe, portaging from river to river or past waterfalls, camping, seeking out new settlements for trade and negotiation, seem much more exciting in my head than I think they would play out on the table; there's great risk here in building a campaign solely around such a hex crawl.  Meanwhile, traditional dungeons would be unusual in the new world - although I can envision some strange cave complexes like in the story, The Mound.

Telecanter has been putting up a lot of interesting travel "mini-games" for creating resource challenges during a hex crawl, and small systems like that could be created to make basic travel by canoe a little more interesting than purely narrative.

Goblins of the Spanish Main
This idea started as an example of how a non-standard setting (in this case, island hopping during the age of piracy) could be adjusted to fit the tropes of D&D despite the assumptions of the game.  It got some interest in the comments and ways were identified to manage a few of the problems with being part of a ship's crew, so I'm bringing it back here for more discussion.

D&D never has enough pirates.  Or ninjas.

I've given zero thought to placing a megadungeon in the Caribbean, although going with a 'lost Atlantis' angle might be interesting, or making it related to the fantastic ruins and mythology of Mesoamerica (or both).  Systems to support the swashbuckling flavor could be developed - shipboard combat and swinging on ropes, fighting in the rigging, that kind of stuff.

Harrow Home Manor
Harrow Home is a crumbling manse on the Yorkshire moors, on a remote heath of northeast England.  It's the center of a small gothic sandbox in England (as opposed to placing it in Transylvania or central Europe) and the dungeons would be home to factions of treacherous wizards and undead sorcerers competing over arcane lore.  An ancient sleeping god akin to one of Lovecraft's "great old ones" slumbers beneath the moors, awaiting the time it's reawakened by the cultists to spread death and madness across the world.

This is the closest to the traditional D&D sandbox - a limited sized region, a small set of villages, abbeys, and coastal towns, and a rugged interior surrounding the titular megadungeon ruin.  What makes this megadungeon "different" is the number of treacherous, insane, wizards and cultists that haunt the cavern depths beneath the old ruins, drawing inspiration from Edgar Allan Poe, Lovecraft, CAS, and similar authors.

D&D is fairly well-suited for this type of setting, I don't see any major issues.

So there you have it - those are the different ideas bouncing around Beedo's head.  The funny thing is, none of these are exclusive - I could develop my own vision of a "Gothic 17th Century" and place all four of these campaign ideas in the same world over time - so it's really just a question of what to develop first.  Someone on the LOTFP message board mentioned that War Hammer Fantasy uses a dark/fantastic version of early modern Europe, so I'm thinking I should check that out some time for ideas as well - they recommended WFRP 1E.

Seems like a good time for a poll, too - which of these settings would be interesting to read about?  Or drop a note in the comments.  Thanks!


  1. I think the Manor would best. I like the historical ones too, but the actually history could be an obstacle.

  2. I vote manor (of course I would) but my inner Gothic lit teacher is forcing me to point out that you spelled Poe's name wrong ;)

  3. Harro Home seems self contained and therefore manageable for the DM, and your last post describing it really got me amped up with its possibilities. Mind you, a hex crawl across early colonial North America (with the odd wendigo thrown in?) sounds super cool as well.

  4. I love the Library of De La Torre. It was actually a big inspiration for the sandbox campaign I'm doing now- not in terms of setting so much as supplying lots of unscaled plot hooks and allowing players to follow up on whatever seemed coolest.

  5. I voted Manor, but the most successful campaign I have participated in was similar in concept to the Library. PCs were all friends or associates of a mysterious archmage who disappeared. They inherited the archmage's mansion. Home base and megadungeon in one.

    1. @Brendan: that is my absolute favourite thing about Ars Magica: setting up the Covenant is all the hook you need for a campaign.

  6. My vote was for Goblins of the Spanish Main, but in terms of interest it was really split between that and the Library of De La Torre. Both seemed to me to be premises that are unusual, but can also hit a number of common touchstones.

    Of course, you could always combine them, put the library in Port Royal or Havanna or someplace - after all, what was one of your original rumors?

    Must investigate the coastal village of Braga - rumors of sea devils and gold trinkets from Atlantis.

  7. I have a couple of posts on my blog that might be of some help to you, like this and perhaps this and almost certainly this and this - as well as my campaign wiki which might be of interest.

  8. Thanks for the feedback so far. @Jack: Fixed Poe's name (duh).

    It's true that the Library concept (infodump) could combine nicely with either the Pirates theme or the Gothic dungeon theme. Makes sense to take that approach either way.

    So far the gothic dungeon is in the lead - lots of time though.

  9. Early modern? There's always Clockwork and Chivalry, and its free SRD Renaissance which should be enough if you don't want C&C's Fantasy English Civil War setting. They're based on OpenQuest, but contains some nice improvements/changes.

  10. Does the american continents have to be historically correct?

    One idea I toss around for my own European pseudo-history/fantasy campaign is that if I ever run out of space, there is always possible that some sailor takes the leap and sail westward to discover...

    Strange new species roaming endless plains, forgotten, jungle over-grown cities (with extensive dungeons!) and lots of other weird stuff.

    And part of that is not that far off, if you expand the scope to include Mayan, Aztek and such cultures. Their cities would provide plenty of opportunities för dungeons.

  11. I'm with Sapient on how mundane or fantastical America might be - my first thought is for it to be a receding fairyland: California, after all, means pretty much that. I could imagine a kind of Heisenbergian hexcrawl where the players decide through play whether the Susquehanna hinterland is the country we know or if it's something else entirely.

    I could develop my own vision of a "Gothic 17th Century" and place all four of these campaign ideas

    ...I choose this as my coward's way out: I love all four ideas. The more I hear about Harrow Home the more it sounds like Ramsey Campbell's Severn valley to me, which makes me wonder if it might be better, instead of a single point of access to the megadungeon, to have that dungeon crop up in various places like a rhizome, breaking surface across a hexcrawly region. Maybe that's what you were thinking.

    As usual I'm biased toward the one I could think of running immediately - Goblin Pirates - but then I'd run it all over the oceans rather than limiting it to the Caribbean, tracking the movement of European piracy itself and ranging as far as the Pequod after wild rumours. That would give you access to Eldorado and St Brendan's Isle and the Island of Seven Cities of Gold and the Two Sicilies and Borobudur and even Ponape or Rapa Nui, if your players bit on a particularly abstruse reference offered by an Austronesian mystic and did their own bit of Columbusing across the Pacific.

    But I'd also love to see stuff I'd never have thought of. What interests you strangely?

  12. I ran a whole campaign in 18th century America. Native American magic, political tensions between colonials and their British masters, French meddling and sinister dark powers were all involved. It's a great setting that combines exploration, war, diplomacy and investigation very easily.