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.

Dragonmarks: Lizard Dreams

My previous post dealt with creating an Eberron campaign based in Q’barra, and it spawned the following question.

How do you see a human (or dwarf or whatever) barbarian raised by Cold Sun lizardfolk working in this campaign?

As I mentioned in my article on exotic races, the first thing I’d want to do with this is to find out why the player wants to play this character. Why do they want to have been raised by scales? What impact has it had on them? How do they see this background playing into their future? The critical issue here is that Q’barra has three distinct reptilian cultures. Each one plays a dramatically different role in the campaign. I’m not thrilled about the idea of having a player character with deep connections to the Cold Sun Federation, because they have a very alien culture. Learning their motivations and figuring out how to communicate with them is something that I’d planned on being a significant challenge that would play out over the course of multiple adventures. Having a player who has been raised among them and thus inherently understands their customs and has contacts within the Federation completely changes that story.

But: this isn’t my story. It’s our story. If the player understands what the Cold Sun Lizardfolk are all about and specifically wants to have a connection to their culture, I want to find a way to work with that. I can change the direction of the story to embrace this new hook, and I’ll talk about that below. But the thing is that I doubt the player has that in mind. I suspect that they just like the idea of being an outsider raised among the indigenous culture, of walking between two worlds, trying to reconcile the values and culture they were raised with against the common culture of their biological kin. That’s a great story. But if that’s all they are looking for, I will steer them away from the Cold Sun lizardfolk – the Masvirik’uala – and encourage them to have ties to the Trothlorsvek dragonborn.

To explain in any more detail, I have to delve into potential spoilers for a Q’barra campaign. Most of what I’m about to discuss is drawn from the Q’barra articles I wrote for Dungeon 182 and Dungeon 185. If you’ve only read the core Eberron sourcebooks you won’t have encountered some of these ideas… and it’s important to remember that in Eberron, everything is optional. If you don’t like these ideas, don’t use them – and if you’re a player, don’t assume that your DM is using these things. But this is where I’d be going in my Q’barra campaign.

TROTHLORSVEK: The Dragonborn of Ka’rhashan

Long ago the dragons of Argonnessen dispatched forces to Q’barra to stand watch over places where fiendish influences lingered from the Age of Demons. To cut a long story short, over the course of thousands of years the dragonborn grew bored with their duties and spread out to the west, establishing a nation in the Talenta Plains and Blade Desert. They clashed with the goblins that dominated the heart of Khorvaire, but it was the corruption of Rhashaak and the rise of the Poison Dusk that destroyed their empire. They fell back to Q’barra and have never regained their power; what strength they have is spent guarding the cursed sites and fighting the Poison Dusk.

The dragonborn are divided into clans. They are a martial culture, still hungry for glory; they split their energies between battling the Poison Dusk and ritual battles against other clans. There are clans and leaders who believe that the it’s time for their people to abandon the ancient duties and turn their eyes to more glorious battles… perhaps beginning by driving the softskins from Q’barra.

So looking back to the question: while it would be unusual, I can definitely imagine a human (or dwarf, or halfling) who somehow ends up being raised by dragonborn. Perhaps the child’s parents earned the respect of a dragonborn champion before they died. Perhaps it was some form of debt of honor… or perhaps an elder believed that the Prophecy called for the protection of the child. This creates a host of possible story hooks. Was the character taken in by an entire clan, or were they only accepted by a specific champion or elder? Either way, did this create conflict for the clan or champion, either with another clan or within the clan itself? Does the character still have a place among the dragonborn, or were they driven out from the clan? Over the course of a campaign, members of the clan could show up; they might need the PC’s help on a mission, or could call the PC back to clan lands to defend their foster family or to represent the clan in a ritual battle or a rivalry with another clan. Or, a rival clan could show up in pursuit of a vendetta. Or trouble could arise with the Poison Dusk – and by the traditions of the character’s clan, they’re duty bound to oppose the Poison Dusk. Will they uphold the duties of their clan, or have they turned their back on that life?

So: Lots of story hooks here. The only problem is that the dragonborn aren’t especially barbaric. They have a sophisticated martial tradition and excellent smiths, and would be more inclined to produce fighters or paladins than barbarians. But if the player is set on barbarian, you could establish this as the traditions of their particular clan – which could be something else that sets that clan at odds with others.

MASVIRIK’UALA: The Lizardfolk of Q’barra

In developing the lizardfolk of Q’barra, I wanted to make them a truly alien culture. They aren’t just humans with scales; there are fundamental differences that make it very difficult for them to understand and communicate with humans, and this is something that has led to the current conflict with the colonists. In my Eberron, part of a Q’barra campaign would be coming to understand these differences and finding a way to improve communication. So, spoilers to that mystery lie ahead.

On the surface, the lizardfolk are a primitive tribal culture. They have no written language, and in conversation they often seem terse and cryptic. While they initially held to treaties established with the colonists, they’ve recently engaged in savage attacks on mining camps and caravans, leaving no survivors.

The lizardfolk are an ancient race. The Overlord Masvirik dominated their ancestors, and the couatl freed them from this demonic tyranny. Following to the great sacrifice that kindled the Silver Flame, the couatl planted a seed in the collective unconscious of the lizardfolk of the region — something that would guide them and unite them, and help prevent Masvirik from rising again. And that is this: The lizardfolk of Q’barra have shared dreams. Their dreams aren’t in any way random: they are lessons. They dream of the battles their ancestors fought, and from those dreams they learn both how to fight. They dream of the tyranny of the Overlord, and from this they know what they are fighting against. They have no written language because they don’t need one; everything they need to know comes to them in their dreams. This is why their culture remains largely unchanged even though their civilization is ancient; their dreams haven’t changed, and their dreams show them how to live. So they follow the exact same paths of war and magic that their ancestors followed, and have never tried to improve upon them.

Because of their shared dreams, all lizardfolk know the same stories. The idea of explaining one of these stories is an alien concept, because how could someone not know the story of the infamous traitor or the brave martyr? As such, one of the lizardfolk might say “We do not embrace T’karr.” What he means is “We cannot be fooled and we will not take a traitor into our midst; we recognize your treachery.” Should someone say “Wait, I don’t understand what you mean by that” he’d be at a loss – how can you NOT know the story of T’karr? EVERYONE knows that story.

This is why communication with the lizardfolk is so difficult… because even comprehend languages can’t unpack context and metaphor. The lizardfolk call themselves the Masvirik’uala, which literally translates to “The Cold Sun Alliance” or “Cold Sun Federation.” It is obvious to the lizardfolk that what this means is the alliance that stands against the Cold Sun, and this isn’t something they have to explain… but most humans assume that it’s the federation of the Cold Sun. Likewise, I’ll preserve one mystery and won’t say exactly while the Masvirik’uala have become hostile (you can get my reasoning in Dungeon 185), but I’ll say that to them it is entirely obvious that the people they are killing are agents of the Overlord Masvirik, and they know from their own experience with the Poison Dusk that such creatures cannot be saved or reasoned with; the only thing to do is to kill them quickly. No one could be accidentally doing the foolish and dangerous things these colonists are doing, because everyone knows how foolish and dangerous those things are.

A secondary point here is that the Masvirik’uala are entirely united. They don’t appear to have a structure that bonds all the tribes together, because they don’t need one; they all share the same background and values. So their tribes never fight. They work together to share territory and resources. They aren’t set apart by petty feuds or desire for glory, because they all know the enemy they must stand against, and that’s a struggle that will never end. So the PC raised among the dragonborn can be caught up in (or the cause of) feuds between dragonborn clans, and have to deal with those rivalries and vendettas… but the Masvirik’uala don’t waste time on such petty things.

And a final point that ties to all of these things and again emphasizes how alien the lizardfolk are: they don’t experience emotion the way that humans do. Their brain chemistry is different; while they HAVE emotions, they are generally at a flatter level than how humans and demihumans experience things. It’s not like a Vulcan who choses to embrace logic over emotion; it’s that the lizardfolk simply never become as consumed with extremes of rage or sorrow as a human can. When the lizardfolk massacre a mining camp, they aren’t driven by fury: they’re approaching it with the detachment of a gardener plucking weeds. They can feel sorrow when a friend dies unexpectedly or anger when they are unexpectedly betrayed – but even their, they don’t experience those emotions as deeply as other races; they are quite literally cold blooded. They certainly have barbarians among their warriors, but their “barbarian rage” is literally a triggered adrenaline rush, not “rage” as humans experience it.

Now, if a player really wanted to play a character raised among the Masvirik’uala – if they couldn’t get what they were looking for from the Dragonborn – I’d let them run with it. The critical question is does the human share their dreams? There’s no logical reason why they would… and without knowing their dreams the human would always be an outsider. They’d have learned some of the stories and references over time and they’d have a weird emotional affect, but they’d always be an outsider. However, at the end of the day the dreams of the Masvirik’uala come from the Silver Flame. It was the couatl who planted the dreams in their unconscious, and in many ways this is a model of the Voice of the Flame revered in the Five Nations. So you could say that a human raised among the lizardfolk actually learned to hear their Voice of the Flame — and as such, though human, they dream the lizardfolk dream. This would mean that they understand the ways and culture of the lizardfolk, that they can interpret their metaphors — that when the elder says “We don’t embrace T’karr” they know what that means; and they understand why the lizardfolk would massacre a mining camp, and that such an action would actually make sense to them. A critical question is why this character would LEAVE the Masvirik’uala and live among humans who don’t know any of these things. One logical reason would be because they want to serve as a bridge between the two cultures, and to try to mediate or rally the colonists — in which case that story should be a major part of the campaign. But it could also be that they were raised by lizardfolk but then “rescued” at a relatively early age by colonists. So they dream the lizardfolk dream and that keeps them on the path of the barbarian… but they haven’t actually been part of a tribe for a while.

With that said: My original plan for a campaign was that learning the motivations of the lizardfolk and figuring out how to communicate with them would be an ongoing challenge. If there’s a player who gets all of this, I might add a new mystery. The Masvirik’uala are driven by dreams. Those dreams are shaped by a divine force and thus, in theory, immune to manipulation by, say, Quori. But what if they aren’t? What if the Dreaming Dark has been manipulating the shared dream to create conflict? In Sarlona, the Dreaming Dark created a terrible war so that their Inspired vessels could emerge as the heroes of that conflict. They could do the same thing here — escalate the conflict, and have their new chosen vessels (who could be a noble family in Newthrone, a dragonmarked house, followers of some religion, etc…) take the spotlight as the people who will defend against this threat. Because the player character also dreams the dreams, they know why the lizardfolk are fighting; but because they are among the colonists, they know that what the dreams claim is untrue. Can they uncover the Quori manipulation and find a way to stop it before the conflict goes too far?

How would you handle a Q’barran lizardfolk leaving the tribe to become an adventurer, or a lizardfolk acting against the cultural norms in general? Would they be ostracised? Is there room for interpretation in the Lizardfolk Dream?

Sure. The lizardfolk are less driven by raw emotion than humans are, and they essentially know they have a purpose in a way humans don’t. They aren’t generally driven by a desire for change or innovation, and thus their civilization has remained largely unchanged for tens of thousands of years. They all know all the same stories. But once you set all that aside, they aren’t mindless. They have elders and priests to help guide them — and that means that individuals can always find their own paths.

So, my question is WHY one of the lizardfolk would leave their people and travel among the softskins – these strange savages who know so little of the world. Here’s a few ideas I could see.

  • They have had a unique and personal diving vision beyond the shared dream. This could be the direct intervention of a couatl spirit — just as Tira Miron had a couatl guide her on her path. Or if could be a Quori who’s intentionally misleading them. Either way, this vision could establish that there is something they must do away from their tribe.
  • They could have a role that’s clearly defined IN the shared dream. Perhaps the lizardfolk PC is tied to the Prophecy and has a role to play in dealizing with Rhashaak or Masvirik, and all the Masvirik’uala know it. Whenever they encounter lizardfolk, they’ll treat the “chosen one” with respect… meanwhile, the Poison Dusk is particularly targeting this PC.
  • Due to extended contact with outsiders, the PC has come to question the dreams. They believe that the dreams are holding their people back and are determined to find out more about other places and cultures. Meanwhile, they have been banished from the Masvirik’uala for these heretical beliefs. Yet they still dream the shared Dream — something terrible threatens their people, they’ll know about it through the dream.
  • The PC was touched by the Poison Dusk, which cut them off from the Dream. The PC then overcame the corruption and broke free from the influence of the Cold Sun, which no one has ever done before… but their connection to the Dream was never restored. The Masvirik’uala believe the PC is corrupted and has exiled them. Is the PC corrupted, or is their victory proof that they are the one who can bring down the Poison Dusk once and for all?

The idea that people can’t tell the difference between lizardfolk and dragonborn seems hard to swallow. 

The idea was never that people literally can’t tell the two species apart; it’s that most people have never cared enough TO tell the species apart. The distinction isn’t part of the common knowledge of a person living in Khorvaire. The settlement of Q’barra only began seventy years ago, and during a time of war. Q’barra includes multiple species: kobolds, troglodytes, lizardfolk (who come in multiple shades and sizes) and dragonborn. All of these cultures are insular and many are either actively hostile to the colonists or have difficulty communicating. So: A jungle guide or a Newthrone envoy will know ALL about the differences between these difference species and cultures. But even a typical prospector doesn’t CARE to know the difference. They’re all creepy. They’re all dangerous. It doesn’t make a difference if they’re tall or short, if they have tails or don’t have tails; they’re all scales. Meanwhile, in the Five Nations Q’barra is little more than a curiosity. People know stories of miners being attacked by dinosaurs and reptilian humanoids. There are probably stories that dragons live in the jungle, or even that the colonists domesticate dinosaurs. A SCHOLAR may know all about the Trothlorsvek and the Masivirik’uala… but the commoner doesn’t know and probably doesn’t care. They’re lizard people halfway across the world.

THE POISON DUSK

So what about the third faction: The Poison Dusk? Per Dungeon 182/185, the colonists have never understood the true nature of the Poison Dusk. They’ve assumed it’s just another tribe, when in fact they are the victims of fiendish corruption — reptilian creatures of many species who have fallen under the sway of Masvirik and Rhashaak. This is why they’ve never been completely destroyed. Even if they are wiped out, they eventually return; often those most involved in the destruction end up falling prey to corruption. Per canon, humans – and for that matter, any warmblooded creatures – aren’t vulnerable to Masvirik’s influence. However, just as with the shared dream of the Cold Sun, you could say that THIS human was touched by Masvirik, which would explain why the Poison Dusk took them in.

If I were to do this, I’d probably say that there is a dusk shard – a dragonshard imbued with demonic energy – embedded in the body of the player character. For most of their life, the demon in the shard has controlled them. At some point the PC was on a raid; their scaled comrades were killed; and something happened that broke the demon’s hold over the PC. If another member of the party is a divine character, I’d suggest that it was their power that freed the PC. Now the PC is in control, but they don’t entirely know what that means; they’ve been driven by a demon their entire life, and they have to discover what it means to make their own choices. Assuming you stuck with barbarian as a class, I might come up with a new Barbarian path playing with the idea that their “rage” draws on the demonic power of their shard. This is a way to justify the PC growing up in a savage culture while giving them an opportunity to be innocent of atrocities they may have committed while with the Poison Dusk (and I would definitely have them end up visiting villages they raided while with the PD and facing the families of people they murdered)… to have them have to decide if they want to embrace a brighter path or cling to their demonic instincts. And is there a risk that the demon could regain control of them?

RHASHAAK: LORD OF HAKA’TORVHAK

The black dragon Rhashaak came to Haka’torvhak as a guardian. He was corrupted by Masvirik and now channels part of the power of the Overlord… and because of this, he too is bound to Haka’torvhak. He is the figurehead of the Poison Dusk, and the colonists believe that the Poison Dusk worship Rhashaak as their living god. Which for all intents and purposes they do. But what does Rhashaak actually WANT? How can you use him in a campaign? Here’s a few ideas.

The Voice of Masvirik

Rhashaak is the living avatar of the Overlord Masvirik, one of the most powerful and evil beings ever to walk the world. Most of the Overlords essentially slumber in their prisons, but Masvirik is fully aware; the dragon is effectively a puppet. But While Masvirik is conscious, he is bound to the body of the dragon and has only a fraction of his power. His primary goal is to build his power, crush his enemies, and ultimately find a way to break the bonds of the Silver Flame and regain his full power. He calls himself “Rhashaak” because there’s no reason to let his enemies know that he has returned. But in truth, he is the Overlord Masvirik.

Under this storyline, Rhashaak remains as the god-king of the Poison Dusk. The critical aspects are that his ultimate purpose is to break the bonds and release Masvirik in his full glory.

The Mad Wyrm

Rhashaak is fused with the consciousness of Masvirik. He dreams the dreams of the slumbering Overlord, but doesn’t fully understand them. Instead, he truly believes that he, Rhashaak, is a god… or at least, he has the potential to become one. He seeks to force all of the people of Q’barra — both the lizardfolk and the softskins — to bow down and worship him. He is certain that if he can only bend enough followers to his cause, he will achieve his true divine potential, break the bonds holding him to Haka’torvhik and ascend to the heavens. It’s up to you if he thinks he’s going to become one of the Sovereigns or Dark Six, or if he will be an entirely new godlike being.

In this storyline, Rhashaak’s schemes DON’T clearly intersect with a desire to free Masvirik. His power comes from Masvirik, and the Poison Dusk are drawn to him because of this, but he will never mention the Overlord. He’s focused on dealing with dawn and dusk shards, and in fact, House Tharashk is more likely to free Masvirik than Rhashaak is. Instead, his actions purely about expanding his personal power in Q’barra, crushing his enemies, and forcing people to worship him. In this case, there could be a SEPARATE sect of dusk-shard fiendish reptilian champions that are working to free the Overlord… who resemble the servants of Rhashaak, but are actually working against him.

 

The Tortured Mastermind

Rhashaak began as a guardian. If you want to make the dragon a more complicated villain, you could say that he’s still that guardian. He’s been merged with Masvirik. The Poison Dusk worship him as a god and expect him to show them the path to unleash the Cold Sun. But he hates the Overlords and would never unleash Masvirik. At the same time, if the Poison Dusk knew this they would turn on him. He has to keep them believing that they are working towards the rise of the Cold Sun… all the while trying to find his own path to freedom and to ensure that Masvirik is never freed. In this scenario, a party of adventurers could be captured by the Poison Dusk and brought to Haka’Torvhak to be sacrificed – only to have Rhashaak himself set them free and help them escape.

Now, this is tricky enough – but if you want to make it even trickier, you could say that just because Rhashaak isn’t the villain people think he is doesn’t mean he’s a hero. Rhashaak may hate the Cold Sun and the Poison Dusk… but he could still be working towards a plan that will grant him divinity. This could be something that will let him claim Masvirik’s power as his own… or it could be something more akin to the divine power of the Undying Court. If he can fully bind Masvirik and also secure the full devotion of all of the scales, he could harness that to become something like a god. Would he use this power to redeem the Poison Dusk and be a just guide to the scales? Or would be be an even deadlier tyrant, free to unleash both his divine power and draconic might against the colonists?

This was supposed to be a quick two-paragraph answer to a question, and instead it turned into all this. Thanks as always to my Patreon supporters; the more support I have, the more time I can justify spending on the site… so if you want to see more content, check it out! I’ll be answering questions from patrons whenever time permits.