On the Edge of Hope: Building a Foundation

One of my resolutions for 2018 is to play more roleplaying games. I’ve been running an 5E D&D campaign in Eberron, and I’m about to start a second one, and I thought I’d share my process as I kick off a new campaign.

In some ways, I approach creating a campaign the same way I’d approach creating a TV series (I imagine). It needs a compelling basic story; a vision for a long-term arc, broken down with smaller “seasonal” arcs; an interesting set of core characters. And most of all, it needs to be compelling and engaging for the audience… which in this case is myself and my players. And like a show, it’s not mine alone. As the DM, I may be the creator of this series… but the players are all part of the writer’s room. They know the audience better than I do, so I want to make sure that I’m drawing on them to build a “series” we all want to be a part of.

The Theme: Hope

When I’m preparing to launch a campaign, I’d usually reach out to the players and discuss different possible paths. Looking back to the TV analogy, I’d pitch a few different show ideas. A spy thriller dealing with the cold war between the Five Nations? Over the top pulp adventure in Xen’drik? A crime drama on the mean streets of Sharn? In this instance, however, I have a specific idea want to explore… and enough players to draw on that I can present the idea and say “Who wants to play in this?”

That idea is a fantasy western, D&D by way of Deadwood and Godless. There’s a place in Eberron for almost anything, and the place for this is Q’barra. Human settlers came to Q’barra to escape the horrors of the Last War, establishing the region of New Galifar. As they laid down roots, they discovered that the region was rich in precious dragonshards… and this drew a host of prospectors hoping to make their fortune. The wild frontier also offers a haven for deserters, war criminals and refugees fleeing the Last War. These people moved beyond New Galifar, establishing a region known simply as Hope.

The idea here is that the “show” is set in a small mining town on the edge of Hope. In many campaigns the player characters are constantly moving from place to place. Here, I want to root the campaign in this one location. The town is going to be another character; I want the players to become invested in the town and its people. I want its success or failure to matter to them. And that means that I need to work closely with them to develop characters that have a reason both to be here and to stay here… and to have a vision of what they want. Again, if we were making a TV show, we’d want to have some idea of the arcs of each main character. What makes them interesting? Why are they here? And what conflicts or drama do they have that we can mine for stories in future episodes?

So I’ve presented the basic idea and have a group of players who want to be a part of it. Here’s what I sent out to those players.

You’ve got a stake in a small shard-mining town in Q’barra, Eberron’s eastern frontier. The campaign is going to be centered on this town; it will serve as a hub and your actions will directly affect the success or failure of the town itself. With that said, it’s important to establish YOUR connection to the town: why you’re here, why you’ll stay if things get hard, what you’re looking for out here. In particular, there’s a few roles that you could take on.

  • Someone needs to be the Law in town – serving the role of sheriff, taking the responsibility of keeping people safe and maintaining order. A fighter or paladin would be the obvious choice here, but this is Eberron; any class could do the job.
  • Someone could be the Faith of the town – the preacher who serves the spiritual needs of the community and aims to keep them on a path. There’s multiple religions in Eberron, but this is a small town… so if one of you takes this role, you’re establishing the dominant faith in the area. Logically this would be a cleric, druid, or paladin.
  • Someone could be the Money… someone with a stake in a local business. Perhaps you’re the owner of the local saloon, or have a mining claim. Note that this doesn’t actually mean you’ll have more money to use; it means you have an economic tie to the success of the town.

Now, you don’t have to take on any of these roles, but if you don’t, someone will. There’s going to be law, and there’s going to be faith; if you don’t fill these spots, I’ll create NPCs who will. So you can be the Law, or you can deal with the Law.

Here’s a few other basic ideas that could fit the campaign, just to help get wheels turning…

  • A warlock, bard or rogue could easily be a gambler, grifter or professional wandslinger – or a bit of all three. Alternately, you could be a legitimate entertainer trying to maintain morale.
  • A wizard or artificer could be a scholar who’s come to this region because of the ancient ruins in the area, or to search for unusual dragonshards. Such a character could also potentially double as a schoolteacher if they felt like it.
  • A ranger or rogue could be a professional bounty hunter, hoping opportunity will wander through town.
  • Any character could be scarred by involvement with the Last War, a bitter conflict that only came to an end two years ago. For the best of reasons, you could be a deserter or accused of war crimes; perhaps you disobeyed orders to protect innocents or killed a corrupt commander.
  • The halflings of the nearby Talenta Plains are a relatively primitive nomadic culture. A halfling ranger, barbarian or druid could have formed a bond to one of the other PCs and followed them to Q’barra.
  • You came to town because of your significant other or your family. Are they still here, or did they tragically die recently? If so, are you on a quest for revenge?

These are just a few ideas; please feel free to come up with completely different thoughts. The main question is what would bring you to a mining town on the edge of the world, and what would keep you there?

Deepwater

I started this off with a basic concept of the town, which has the default name of Deepwater. It’s newly established — less than a year old. It’s on the edge of a small lake, which is both a source of fish and water and tied to streams used by shard miners. The area is a manifest zone to either Thelanis or Lamannia, which is one reason the lake is so fresh and well stocked. I also have the idea that while House Tharashk runs a number of large mining operations, this is an independent town; they sell shards to Tharashk, but Tharashk is going to mainly exist in the shadows as the scary Big Company that might show up to buy everyone out. With that in mind, here’s the three factions I see as making up the population of Deepwater.

  • Dwarves from the Mror Holds. An Aurum concordian has underwritten many of the costs of establishing Deepwater, and these dwarves are working her claims. The dwarvers are miners and masons, working claims and doing much of the work of building the city itself.
  • Refugees from the war. The simplest answer is for these to be Cyrans, but they could be from any nation.
  • Members of a particular religion, interested in establishing a community for members of their faith.

This provides a general concept for the town and the balance of power… but now, as the players start to develop their characters, I marry the two things together. If a player chooses to take on the Faith role, then the religion of their PC defines that religious community. Depending on the character and the religion, the region could have some special significance to the faith. Likewise, the nature of the refugees is something I can adjust to match the background of the characters; if someone has strong ties to the Last War, then the refugees can be from their nation and potentially even include their family or people they served with in the war. Essentially, I’ve got a concrete model for a town… but with a lot of pieces I can flip around to immediately connect with player backgrounds.

Building A Party

Looking at my current run of this scenario, the first place volunteered to be the Faith, and wanted to be a Greensinger. First of all, this cemented the idea that the town was in a manifest zone to Thelanis. The religious members of the community are Greensingers from across the Five Nations, drawn together by their shared faith and a belief that Deepwater is a truly magical place; they look to the PC as their guide and their ambassador to the fey. I’ve introduced the term ‘Singer as a shortened way to refer to the faithful, noting that many of their rituals do involve group singing.

Next up, a player liked the idea of being a recently freed warforged with a tie to the Money. Talking it through, we decided that he’d fought for Cyre and had led a group of refugees to the Mror Holds after the Mourning. There, Londurak — the Aurum concordian — agreed to provide for the refugees, if the PC would agree to be her agent and look after her interests in Deepwater. As a result, his ties are primarily to the Dwarves… and he may have to deal with specific directives from Londurak.

Another player volunteered to be the Law. His idea is that he was a shifter who fought for Cyre in the Last War… and who was disillusioned both with his own actions in the war and with the actions of the nobility and the dragonmarked houses — the greedy and powerful putting their own interests ahead of those of the people. He’s a paladin of the Silver Flame, but the idea is that he doesn’t know it yet. He’s come to Deepwater to help these people prosper and to protect the town, and this new conviction has put him in touch with the Flame… but he’s still finding that out. As a result, he’s given me as the DM control of all of his supernatural paladin abilities. decide when Divine Sense activates, or if this is a moment when his urging his friend to keep it together will trigger Lay On Hands. He’ll figure it out soon enough, but it’s been fun so far. With this in mind, this definitely establishes the refugee community as being from Cyre. It also gives the Law and the warforged a solid connection, though they’ve taken very different paths; the warforged is working for a big industrialist, while the Law is crusading against industrial power.

The remaining three characters included…

  • A Cannith artificer, on the outs with the house (though not actually excoriated) and conducting research. She’s a sage and decided that she maintains the towns’ library, which is to say she has a few books in a closet. We also call her out as acting as a general teacher.
  • A half-orc ranger. He’s a hunter licensed by Tharashk, but also has a distant relationship with the house. He’s a foundling who likes the stories of the house’s origins in the Shadow Marches, but doesn’t see that reflected by the industrial force running mining in Q’barra.
  • A human hexblade warlock. We decided he was from a merchant family in Newthrone, but started running with a bad crowd. He stole an heirloom wand from his family which turned out to have more power and mystery than he bargained for, and this wand is his patron. He killed a noble in Newthrone and is currently on the lam in Hope. He owes a few favors to some bad people, and he’s still figuring out the story of his mysterious wand.

Working On The Town

For the next stage I brought the group together. I explained that the Law, the Faith, and the Money PCs each represented one of the three forces that had brought this town into existence and asked if they had a preferred name for the town; they were happy to leave it as Deepwater. I gave them all an overview of the region and the town, including the critical NPCs I’d created (such as Thorn Velderan, the local Tharashk agent). Then I had each player introduce their character to the group, and as they discussed their characters, I asked them questions about the town. For each character, I asked the player to tell me about a friend or a rival they had in the town; to tell me about a location they were attached to in town; and to tell me something about the local tavern. The Law pointed out that he had a background ability that let him spot the bad apples in a community, so I asked him to tell me about one of those bad apples; we talked that through and established Dwyer, a smuggler and dreamlily dealer in the dwarven community. Meanwhile, I also suggested ties people might have with the NPCs we’d already established. By the time we were done, people felt like they knew this town, and we’d already established some interesting allies and rivals.

What Comes Next…

The next step is to start planning adventures. I’ll talk about that in a future post, but I’ve got a lot of hooks to work with. Q’barra comes with threats of its own, tied to the modern scales and to the mythic history of the region. Will people stumble onto ancient ruins charged with dangerous magic? Will they come into conflict with the lizardfolk… or will they have more problems with the greed of the locals or the threat posed by House Tharashk? The presence of the Greensingers means I’m definitely going to weave Thelanis into the story. Meanwhile, three of the characters have people they’ve sworn to protect. So there’s a lot of toys in the sandbox.

Q&A

A big element of frontier towns is the isolation that makes it a frontier and how groups and individuals compensate… Are there seasonal or manifest zone periods which limit ingress/egress to Deepwater? How frequent are new arrivals? Do people mainly get around by foot, horse, rail, oar, or sail? How strong are any monopolies?

Absolutely. This article mainly focuses on the characters, and next time I’ll talk more about the town. But these are definitely the sort of things you need to know. All of this ties to the basic question of why settle here? What is it that made people choose this particular spot? Is it confirmed mineral wealth, or is it because of the reliable source of food and water? With this being Eberron, a critical question is what magical services are available and what dragonmarked houses are represented? What goods and services are easily available (and from whom), and what is in short supply?

Some of these subjects I called out ahead of time. For example, I told players that there’s no lightning rail and no speaking stone; there’s a Orien coach every week, and if you want to send messages, you send them with the coach. At the same time, I also don’t want to overwhelm players with too much exposition too soon. Just as with a TV show, I want to make sure that I draw the viewers in and reveal critical details over time as opposed to doing a huge info dump from the start. Case in point, the first adventure dealt with an unexpected seasonal effect of the manifest zone — something that will definitely be an ongoing problem for the settlement, and something that helps explain why this nice spot wasn’t already claimed by the scales. Now the players need to actively determine how to deal with it, and how to minimize the impact on the town. Similarly with the factions: I’ve established the three main factions in the town. Some of the player have connections with specific factions. I’ve mentioned critical NPCs tied to them. But I want to take a little time for the players to get to know these groups and people in the context of the story before I play up the conflict between them. I want the players to get to know the old dwarf mason and the ‘Singer who runs the tavern before I set the ‘Singers and dwarves at odds, so the players have a bit of a stronger personal tie to that conflict. But I’ll talk more about that in the future.  

I know that some rpg’s have game mechanics revolving around building, managing, and advancing strongholds and settlements. Some even make it into their own mini game. Did you implement anything like those for this game or do you prefer to keep that sort of thing loose?

Personally, I’m keeping it somewhat loose. I’ll offer the players critical choices: the town is doing well… would you rather see a speaking stone here, or a Jorasco healer? But I haven’t established it as a literal sub-game. In my opinion that really depends on your players. A certain type of player will really enjoy that sort of extra level of game; with my current group I think the higher level approach is the way to go.

It’s hard for me to imagine Western without guns. Did you make any specific effort to cover that gap, treating war wands and such like guns, or is it just sword fights in the streets?

I’m using Wand Adepts, as I described in my previous post; so far I’m pretty happy with the results. Wands follow standard arcane focus rules, and I’m currently playing with rods as two-handed focuses that increase the range of offensive cantrips by 50%… so that gives some of the flavor of pistol versus long gun.

How do you explore the faith of greensingers? 

Thelanis is close to Eberron, and there are many places where it bleeds over into the natural world. I’ve called out before that a dryad isn’t a part of the natural world. The Greensingers disagree. They respect nature — holding to the shared common beliefs of all the druid sects — but they embrace fey magic in their worldview. They don’t WORSHIP the fey; they simply seek to live in harmony with them, to respect their ways and to benefit from an association with them. It’s the classic model of the person who leaves a pair of old shoes on their doorstep with a saucer of milk, hoping some spirit will accept the offering and fix the shoes. Essentially, they believe that the world is a BETTER place when fey magic is a part of it, provided you understand their ways and know how to work with them. So the common Greensinger knows the stories of the fey, the signs of their passage and how to interact with them. They sing songs in Sylvan and celebrate those times when the worlds are close. And — as in this case — they seek out manifest zones and places where the two are close and they can find that magic in the world.

Meanwhile, Greensinger DRUIDS serve as ambassadors between the worlds, and often as agents of specific archfey. So in this case, the player character is bound to an archfey called The Forest Queen. But she balances that against her general duties to the community, which she serves as guide, protector, and ambassador.

So SOME Greensingers act very much as independent operatives. In this case, she’s first and foremost the guide of her community, using her personal ties to the fey for their benefit.

I love D&D, but sometime I feel like a limit the idea of “group”. D&d works better when the players are men on a mission. When they start wanting different things, maybe to the point of potential conflict, It’s not the good system anymore. In that kind of scenarios the apocalypse engine works far better for example.

Different systems definitely specialize in different things. With this campaign the players all agreed that what they wanted to play was D&D. So while I’m adding in this meta-level of the town as a character, it’s still understood that the primary drive of a game session will be the player characters joining together as a group to deal with a threat or to solve a mystery. Where there’s some intentional conflicts that could grow — notably, the warforged’s Aurum boss pushing him in directions the shifter sheriff won’t approve of — the warforged player is already operating on the assumption that this might be something that causes his character to rethink his allegiance and side with the party. Essentially, the players like the idea that there will be some tensions and issues they need to work through — but they are still working on the fundamental concept that events will bond them together as a party of adventurers and as friends. So if trouble arises between the Dwarves and the Greensingers, the players expect that their characters will be working together to try to heal the rift, not that they’ll take sides and fight each other.

So: I absolutely agree that it’s good to know what sort of experience your players are looking for and to consider whether you’re playing the right system to provide that experience. But in this case, people want the core D&D experience; I’m just adding more flavor around that core.

If you have questions or thoughts, post them below! And as always, thanks to my Patreon supporters for keeping this blog going.