Saturday, April 11, 2020

Compost Heaps and Snowflakes - a Look at Hommlet, Phandalin, and the Keep

Last post I laid out a thesis - as the style of play in D&D has shifted towards "unique and special heroes", it's significantly altered how designers approach world-building - particularly around setting demographics.  I used the Fight Club/Tyler Durden movie quote as a launch point for a look at how styles have changed.  As an experiment I'm now reviewing the design choices in a few of the iconic starting locations for early D&D and then Fifth Edition - comparing the Village of Hommlet and Keep on the Borderlands with the Village of Phandalin (the starting locale in both of 5E's boxed sets).  The designer's approach to detailing the demographics and factions of the home base imply what the game is about and activities contemplated in the respective locales.

Home Bases in the Compost Heap
Two of the most well-known starting bases in D&D's history are The Village of Hommlet (from module T1 of the same name), and the Keep, from module B1 The Keep on the Borderlands.  Both were penned by Gary Gygax, co-creator of the game, and have a lot to say about his world-building philosophy and view of player characters.  Let's start with a look at Hommlet.

Hommlet's main track
I've started so many AD&D campaigns in Hommlet through the years I can practically close my eyes and imagine entering the village from the west on foot, passing Elmo's farmhouse, and turning up the tree-lined road towards the Inn of the Welcome Wench - with the sounds of the blacksmith's shop across the way ringing out in the morning air.  It's a D&D equivalent of the Prancing Pony and the Village of Bree, a launchpad for adventure.  What jumps out to you when reading the depictions of Hommlet is how every cottage and building has a description that goes beyond a superficial view of what the players see - it'll include the strongbox with 50sp under the loose floorboard, or how the farmer is a member of the "Old Faith" and trains with his strapping sons for the village militia.  Their spears and ringmail armor are polished and in the shed out back, in case you need to know.

In fact, many of the people in Hommlet have character levels as adventurers.  Elmo is a 4th level Ranger, who keeps a magic battle ax, chain armor, and shield, buried in a lead-lined chest to foil detect magic attempts.  The Druid of the Grove is 7th level.  Not only are the nearby rulers, Rufus and Burne, retired adventurers themselves (8th level fighter and magic user respectively), but the players can hear local tales about how the pair fought a green dragon and a large horde of bandits in their younger days.  Now they're spending their adventuring hoard on a sturdy tower and keep, and protecting the area with a troop of mercenaries, the Badgers.

What does this approach to setting design imply about the world?  First - the player characters are not particularly special.  The world is full of monsters and dangerous places, and the player characters will not be the first people to take up arms against the night creatures and return from their exploits with wealth and experience.  Hommlet has 15 non-player characters (out of about 75 or so) that have character levels.  In fact, the village boasts a 10th level thief, a 7th level assassin, 8th level fighter and magic user, 7th level druid, 6th level cleric, and then a handful of lower level NPCs.  Essentially 20% of the village has a level like an adventurer!  This is a place that could mount a defense against an assault on the village, or put a bunch of rogue player characters in their place if they turned into actual "murder hobos" and unleashed mayhem, as the haters would say.

This type of design anticipates a range of alignments and play styles at the table - not everyone is expected to be Dudley Do-Right.  Gary planned for scoundrels.  You don't hide Elmo's magic armor in a lead-lined chest under the floor unless you expect mischievous player characters to use their detect magic spell to try and find something to steal.  Hommlet envisions a game world where characters with magic and powers are known, and reasonable people train and prepare because the wilds have bandits and monsters.  People that come to town might have low morals.  Be ready for them.

Furthermore, it shows a career arc for player characters, right from the beginning, that grounds their journey in the world of the setting.  Adventurers accumulate wealth and fame, and then settle down as rulers or leaders in the community.  The clerics build chapels or temples or groves, wizards create towers and places for their libraries, fighters attract men-at-arms and settle the wilds.  They don't necessarily stop adventuring, but the types of challenges that cause them to take up arms are different, the threats must be greater.

Approaching the Keep on the Borderlands
Let's pivot to the Keep on the Borderlands.  The civilian section of the Keep is far more limited, with only about 30 or so non-military personnel in the "outer bailey".  Overall, the Keep has about 10 people with character levels, ranging up to a 6th level fighter and 5th level cleric.  However, because it's a military installation on the frontier, there's a much larger contingent of guards - 140 level 1 fighters as soldiers.  Much like Hommlet, the depictions of the Keep include details that would only be relevant if the players attempted some mischief, like stealing from the jeweler or looting the chapel.  Also like Hommlet, there's enough "beef" present to make short work of any clumsy attempts to rob the good citizens of the Keep.  The players can try, but they'd better be careful and lucky.

There are two other facets of Hommlet and The Keep to discuss - the idea of factions and quests.  Factions represent roleplaying opportunities for the characters to establish their identities and develop allies.  In Hommlet, the factions include the new faith (based around the church of St Cuthbert) and the old faith (represented by the druid of the grove).  Most citizens are identified as belonging to one or the other of the village's principal religions.  There is also a loose faction concerned with law and order - not far from Hommlet is the large ruined dungeon, the Temple of Elemental Evil, and various factions for good in the nearby kingdoms have agents in or near Hommlet keeping watch on the nearby evil temple.  Elmo reports back to the Viscount of Verbobonc, for instance.  These factions give the players opportunities to learn rumors and lore for adventures - an early form of quest-giving.

The Keep on the Borderlands is straightforward; basic D&D used a simple Law vs Chaos alignment structure, and the Keep is a bastion of law (civilization) out on the chaotic frontier.  Everyone in the Keep stands for a Law, other than one of the prominent NPCs in the outer bailey who is a secret agent of Chaos.  Like Hommlet, the players have the opportunity to collect rumors from citizens of the Keep, which can lead them towards various adventure sites in the nearby wilds.

Where Snowflakes Get their Jobs
Fifth Edition has two boxed sets - the 5E Starter Set and the 5E Essentials Kit.  Both sets came with a basic set of rules and a starting adventure, featuring the village of Phandalin.  If you're a newer player, you may have encountered Phandalin as your model for an introductory home base - either through Lost Mine of Phandelver or Dragon of Icespire Peak, the two starting adventure books.  Phandalin doesn't loom in my memory as a living, breathing place the same way as Hommlet, but Hommlet had 40 years and several beloved AD&D campaigns to establish itself.  I came to appreciate Winterfell and the Nentir Vale during 4E, so newer settings can resonate.  The Forgotten Realms have never excited me, so the bar for Phandalin is higher.  But let's assume I'm a newer player that started with a 5E boxed set, the way I started with the Moldvay Basic Set way back in 1981.  What lessons would I glean from Phandalin about world building and expectations of the game?

First off, Phandalin is sparsely described.  There are 30-35 buildings in the village, but only a handful have descriptions.  There are 14 named characters in the village across the two adventure books.  There are no game stats anywhere.  The text literally says "The characters have no reason to fight ordinary townsfolk, hence no game statistics are provided for them".  Nor are there guards, soldiers, or any type of law & order beyond a non-combatant "town master".  There's a saying - in the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.  In a village where everyone is a mere commoner with 4 hit points, a couple of player characters with infinite magic cantrips (take your pick - fire bolt, ray of frost, or eldritch blast) could declare themselves emperors of the village.  I guess there's no point in sacking Phandalin, since none of the locations have anything of value.

You begin to understand what a 5E setting implies about the game.  Characters with adventuring levels are extremely rare - a typical village has no one like the player characters.  Settlements are vulnerable to bandits, ruffians, and any type of predatory humanoid unless adventurers come along to save them.  A town or village is only there to provide clues, hooks, and rumors that quickly route the players out of town to where the adventures happen.  Town is not  a place for action.  Obviously, this also requires everyone at the table to agree to play a "hero" - scoundrels and rogues need not apply.  I'm imagining one of those badly designed video games, where you try and use your attack button on the store clerk, and the game flashes a "you can't do that here" warning on the screen.

One thing Phandalin does well is quests.  Both starting adventures have ample rumors, clues, and quests scattered liberally across the NPCs in the village.  Icespire Peak is a little more heavy handed, with an actual "job board" posted at the town masters, but I don't disagree with the sentiment there.  The surrounding areas are presented like an open world, with many small adventuring sites.  I like the approach the writers (Perkins and Baker) made in building out the nearby wilds.  There are also a handful of the Forgotten Realms "factions" represented in Phandalin, such as the Harpers, Order of the Gauntlet, Zhentarim, etc.  These can be allies and sources of information for similarly aligned player characters.  None of the contacts are retired adventurers.

What a strange turn modern D&D has taken from the roots of the hobby!  The presentation of Phandalin characterizes how D&D has moved away from explicitly supporting Sword & Sorcery fantasy fiction, clever tricksters, or sullen anti-heroes; there's no longer any model for a career arc from adventurer to authority figure or ruler; even absolute novice adventurers are rare and powerful compared to ordinary people, and could quickly overwhelm a "rugged" frontier settlement like Phandalin.  I will say, in later adventures like the hardcover Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, more care and attention was placed on establishing a city that has institutions and authority figures experienced with dealing with powerful adventurers.  Waterdeep works as a more sensible 5E settlement that assumes adventurers are present in the world and society has adapted to their presence.  Unfortunately, new players get stuck with Phandalin as their model.

Despite my criticisms, I'm currently playing 5E and my players love it.  My project has been to fold, spindle, and mutilate the Fifth so it behaves more like the older editions.  It's a work in progress.  And don't get me wrong - AD&D 1E is full of its own warts.  Weapon speed factors, weapon vs armor class, training costs, psionics, the whole of Unearthed Arcana, the monk class.  It's a rough game to try and play "by the book".  The only truly perfect edition is Moldvay basic (and yet there are detractors of race as class out there).  So don't take any of this too seriously, I'm just poking fun when I use descriptors like compost heaps and snowflakes for game styles.

However, since I am trying to get my 5E settings to behave more like Hommlet, and less like Phandalin, I need to take a harder look at NPCs in the Fifth and what we can do there.  How would we do a 5E version of Hommlet?  How do we create rival adventuring parties?  That's coming up next.

In the meantime, I've posted a new poll.  Some of our best games involved roguish scoundrels landing themselves in regular fiascoes when they tried to rob the bank at the Keep, or break into the evil trading post in Hommlet.  In your games, do you treat your towns and villages like adventuring sites (fair game for unscrupulous players) or more like the Phandalin "video game" approach - "you cannot take the attack action here in town"?

Update:  I needed to pull the poll down as I exceeded "monthly views" for the free gadget - will need to find an alternative.


  1. I have been gaming since 1982 and what a shame it is that I never once explored Hommlet as either a PC or DM. Quality article!

  2. In the spirit of expanding existing rules, you could look at the Sidekicks in the Essential Kit for fleshing out communities. A combination of Sidekick + Background would go leagues in the direction of creating interesting NPCs. And that's simple enough any GM could plonk down a half dozen or so in a hamlet within a few minutes and tune the feeling of the setting to their liking.

  3. I have been exploring 5e from the DM's side since the ongoing pandemic lockdown has me wanting to get a family D&D going at home. I've been playing in a roll20 Tomb of Annihilation for a couple years now, so I have some 5e experience as a player, but as a DM it's just been run my ongoing B/X megadungeon for years now.

    I'm not sure there's anything about the 5e rules or "default setting" that require you to view the PCs as "snowflakes". Even the Lost Mine of Phandelver adventure, while obviously designed to ease new players into D&D, presents a reasonably open sandbox with a few "retired adventurer" NPCs as well as several other NPCs with actual character class levels (admittedly they aren't statted out like in Hommlet, but you could pretty quickly do so between sessions if it ever looked like you would need them).

    To answer your question about cities, it depends on the campaign for me. In my B/X megadungeon campaign, the city is largely treated as a safe home base, and the "adventuring" is all down in the megadungeon underneath. Yes, there are interesting people and places up in the city, but in general it stays static, because the whole arrangement is meant to support episodic play, and I don't want to disrupt that with too much adventuring in the city itself.

    On the other hand, if I were running Ravenloft or something, then everywhere is the "adventure site", including the village of Barovia, and the players should not assume that they are always safe in their inn, etc.

  4. I think this article hits one of the main nails on the head when it comes to distinguishing the so-called OSR style (a term I have a lot of criticisms about) with the style against which it is a reaction.

    Since returning to the hobby recently after a few decades, I have loudly lamented the division of role-players into tribes.

    I think your take on it gets at what may be the basic distinction: how valuable are the PCs? Of course, many issues are tied up in that, including campaign longevity and player fun, but you nailed it.

    I do have one request, though. Gamers have politicized OSR vs D&D (or Story Games) in terms that mirror US cultural politics. Adopting the term "snowflake" for PCs in games in which they are extra special heroes co-opts the right-wing use of the term. Like it or not, the term (like "Old School") politicizes the hobby in ways that have evidently been detrimental to it over the last few years.

    I suggest, therefore, not allowing your interesting commentary to get politicized, inadvertently or not, by adopting different terms (even if less catchy).

    Precious PCs vs Disposable PCs? Anything other than terms used for derision in political discourse.

    1. Hi Lich - it's a fair point. I find the Fight Club quote funny, but don't want to be conflated with the right-wing, and we all should be able to discuss game styles without that level of acrimony in the US politics.

      Regarding an alternate set of tags - I was less concerned starting with the game's lethality to PC's, and more interested in how the specialness or uniqueness of the PC's was reflected in world demographics and how the referee built the world. So maybe the divide is more like "adventurers are common / adventurers are rare". It does follow in a world where the adventurers are special, the game is likely less lethal to them, and when adventurers are a dime a dozen in the setting, it's likely a bit more risky!

    2. I see more now what you mean. This strikes me as part of the reaction against D&D that set in immediately with its first publication. There were plenty of gamers who wanted to play roles in their games. They developed games and supplements in which characters came from societies (rather than from a generic blank space).

      Take this link between RuneQuest and Chivlary & Sorcery, which brings us back to 1977/78.

      Your blog entry on people as monsters (with which I can only agree, basically) is a reversal of the take by the gamers from that time:

      I will refer to your distinction in a later entry and link to it. Over at Noisms' blog, May 16, he discusses "adventurer-dense" vs "adventurer-sparse" settings, quite like the idea you're discussing.

      I am persuaded that the economy of adventurers per capita must make a big difference to play styles. Whether as precious or as rare, it's all the same to me! :)