The Edge – Thoughts on Setting Design

In the first few pages of Old School Hack (a game I adore), there’s a word on where the game is set. Kirin Robinson says the game is set on the edge of civilization, whether that’s geographical or historical. I thought that was great advice, and built my own setting around it. Over time, I’ve thought about it more and realized that this “edge of civilization” idea could be expanded to cover more settings and types thereof. Here are my thoughts on the matter.

 

Physical:

You could be on the frontier of a growing nation expanding into the wild unknown (like the Wild West or Fantasy Flight’s Rogue Trader), the front lines of a war zone (Only War comes to mind). The interesting things about these kinds of games come from the meeting (and usually the clash) between two distinct entities or regions.

from Rogue Trader

from Rogue Trader

Temporal:

Temporal edges are defined by something big and important that happened, but at a time outside when the game is actually played. A good example are the multitude of D&D settings featuring fallen civilizations whose ruins you can visit (usually as dungeons). The Cthulhu Mythos is similar: in the vast expanses of time there are many things that may creep upon the sane world of man. The players’ relationship to this kind of setting is defined by its past, with gameplay usually occurring where the past meets the present.

The Mouth of Orcus in Sacro Bosco, Italy

The Mouth of Orcus in Sacro Bosco, Italy

Social:

Social edges can go high or low. In Shadowrun, player characters are professional criminals existing on the edges of society, the proverbial high-tech lowlifes. In Dark Heresy, PCs are acolytes of the Inquisition, agents of the Emperor that operate above the law. In both cases, the PCs exist in tangent to the society-at-large of the setting, interacting with it without being part of it.

artist unknown

artist unknown

 

Of course, you can mix and match these edges to your heart’s content. In a space-oriented game there are tons of opportunities. The universe is huge and ancient beyond human understanding. In fantasy settings you can localize that, like a region where once there was a mighty empire where now there are petty kingdoms squabbling over the magical relics left behind. Keeping the edges in mind can help make for very gameable worlds.

Structure of Devils on the Loose

I’ve been thinking about how I want to organize and write Devils on the Loose. What I’ve decided on is to write it like an in-universe document (or documents). It’s a collection of notes and dossiers written by a society of investigators, conspiracy theorists, occultists, and other such people. Maybe one of them has a strange obsession with “statting” things, much to the puzzlement of their colleagues.

As such, it will have many “authors;” each with different focus, voice, reliability, and ideas as to what the information they’re gathering means. The conspiracy theorist weaves a web of suspicion about the rich and affluent. The occultist collects notes on supernatural occurrences, monster sightings, and cult activities (which may have connections to the rich and affluent). The journalist conducts interviews, gathers facts, and takes photographs (possibly blurry ones of monsters documented by the occultist).

by Sara Dunkerton

The document will pose questions about the setting, but the answers may not be clear. There will be blank spots for the readers to fill with their imaginations. The authors are not omniscient and they’re likely unreliable, the extent of which is up to the DM to decide. In a way, reading the document will tell a story in itself, if you can piece it together.

I want to put together a setting document that’ll be fun and interesting to read, but also gives enough detail for someone other than me to run a game in it yet give them plenty of room for their own ideas to run wild. It’s a tall order.

Ultimately what I want to do is kind of like the storytelling the Souls video games. According to legend the game’s lead developer, Hidetaka Miyazaki, was a prolific reader as a child and came to stretches of text he didn’t quite understand. So he did what kids do instinctively: he used his imagination.

This experience informed the way Miyazaki designed his games’ stories. The games are evocative and rich with atmosphere, yet the information players have is not complete; there are tantalizing mysteries that beg you to come up with your own answers. That’s what I want to do with Devils on the Loose.

General Update and Idea for a Future Project

It’s been a while since I’ve updated this thing. Been busy.

I’m still running Curse of Strahd and still enjoying it. The party’s been in Vallaki for several sessions now, orchestrating the removal of the “decadent bourgeoisie” (the Vallakovich and the Wachter families) and replacing them with Ismark, son of Barovia Village’s late burgomaster. Ireena was kidnapped by Strahd in a surprisingly dramatic scene I didn’t expect to actually happen, and the party will soon begin following the tarokka reading I performed for them weeks ago.

But that’s not really what I want to talk about in this post.

What I really want to talk about is an idea for a project I want to work on. As you may or may not know, there’s a thriving scene of individuals publishing materials for RPGs themselves, especially the DIY D&D crowd. Maybe I could do that. I’d like to create something and put it out there, something unique and flavorful and worthwhile.

The idea is a setting I’m tentatively calling Devils on the Loose. Conceptually, it’s a Southern Gothic fantasy setting inspired by the American South of the late 19th century. It’ll be dark, filled with madness, despair, and decay.

It won’t be a historical setting; there will be definite similarities, but hopefully no more than the similarities between Greyhawk and Medieval Europe. Only details I’m willing to set in stone upon the face of the internet are these: the land was embroiled in bloody civil war, the supernatural got involved, things got bad for everyone, and now civilization is in decline.

Maybe my brother will do some art for it. I dream of having it for sale in print – maybe through Lulu, or maybe I can convince a publisher to pick it up (ha!). Either way, now that I’ve talked about it, this should serve as a kind of motivator for me.

Pact of the Apple

This is a pact for 5e warlocks (like the Pact of the Chain and the Pact of the Tome). I made this just now for a friend, who’s playing a warlock in the Curse of Strahd campaign I’m running.

He felt that the pact boons in the PHB didn’t really fit his character and neither of us particularly liked the ones we found on the internet, so we made one ourselves. I’ll update this post if it proves to be under/overpowered.

Also. My brother is playing as a Child of the Wolf in that same campaign. I put together a nice little PDF for it, which you’ll find a link to in that post.

 

PACT OF THE THE APPLE

You get a magical apple (or similar round object) that has five charges, the nature of which are determined by chance. Flip a coin 5 times and write down the results. If heads, that charge is positive; if tails, it’s negative. Your apple regains all spent charges when you finish a long rest.

As an action, you can use a charge to select one creature within 15 feet of the apple. Creatures that you want to affect with a negative charge get to make a Charisma saving throw. If it succeeds, the charge is used but with no effect. When a creature affected by a charge makes a d20 roll, you can choose to modify its roll by 1d4; +1d4 if you used a positive charge, -1d4 if you used a negative one.

As a bonus action, you can roll the apple to an unoccupied space up to 30 feet away from you.

If you lose the apple, you can perform a 1-hour ceremony to get it back.

 

INVOCATION: INTENSE CHAOS

Prerequisite: Pact of the Apple

Your apples charges increase from 1d4 to 1d6.

 

INVOCATION: VIVA DISCORDIA

Prerequisites: 9th level, Pact of the Apple

You can use your apple to cast Confusion without using a warlock spell slot. The spell effect is centered on the apple. You cannot cast Confusion this way again until you finish a long rest.

 

INVOCATION: GRAYBEARD’S LAMENT

Prerequisite: Pact of the Apple

You can use your reaction to apply a charge to another creature when it makes a d20 roll.

The Cathedral of Sound and Fury

The Cathedral of Sound and Fury is an ancient place. Its acoustics are such that all sounds made within – even whispers – are amplified incredibly. The Cathedral’s origins have been lost to time, but there are two groups inhabiting it currently.

First are an order of monks following the Way of the Church Mouse. They train to be silent and tune out noise via meditation. Some are deaf – 50% chance that it’s psychosomatic.

Second are a bunch of bards that use the Cathedral as like their own personal concert hall. The bards are the ones who gave it the name. They’re very popular, and people come from miles around to listen to them play.

The Cathedral is big, but the groups butt heads over space – and noise – from time to time.

 

The Truth of the Cathedral

It was built to lull an ancient evil to sleep long ago. The lullaby was amplified so the thing couldn’t help but hear it. Once if fell asleep it was sealed away in a secret undercroft deep beneath the Cathedral, where it slumbers to this day.

If too much noise is made up above, it will awaken. But the amplification is also the key to stopping it. If another lullaby is played by talented musicians in the Cathedral, the thing can be lulled to sleep once again.

The Man-Man

Part man and part… other man. The man-man is a terror upon the universe.

For man-man stats, use centaurs but give them the following feature:

Handgrab: When the man-man hits a creature with an unarmed strike, the target has to make a Strength Save DC 14  (5e) or a Save vs. Paralysis (OSR). If the target fails the save, they’re grappled. The man-man can only have two creatures grappled in this way.

from a /tg/ drawthread, artist unknown

from a /tg/ drawthread, artist unknown

Hungary as told by an Islamic Missionary

In the 12th century, the Islamic missionary and traveler Abu Hamid al-Gharnati visited Hungary and wrote about it. His descriptions are strange and fantastical.

“But beyond Wisu by the Sea of Darkness there lies a land known by the name of Yugra. In summers the days are very long there, so that the Sun does not set for forty days, as the merchants say; but in winters the nights are equally long. The merchants report that Darkness is not far (from them), and that the people of Yugra go there and enter it with torches, and find a huge tree there which is like a big village. But on top of the tree there sits a large creature, they say it is a bird. And they bring merchandise along, and each merchant sets down his goods apart from those of the others; and he makes a mark on them and leaves, but when he comes back, he finds commodities there, necessary for his own country…”

If this doesn’t sound like the coolest place to put in your D&D setting you can get out of my face.

Historical accounts of foreign lands are ripe sources of inspiration. Even seemingly mundane can be seem fantastical in these old tales.

“And from Bolghar merchants travel to the land of heathens, called Wisu; marvellous beaver skins come from there, and they take there wedge-shaped unpolished swords made in Azerbaijan in their turn… But the inhabitants of Wisu take these swords to the land that lies near the Darkness by the Black Sea, and they trade the swords for sable skins. And these people take the swords and cast them into the Black Sea; but Allah the Almighty sends them a fish which size is like a mountain; and they sail out to the fish in their ships and carve its flesh for months on end.”

To our modern-educated minds, the mountain-sized fish is obviously a whale. But if you described this at your game table, the impression would likely be different.

1d10 Weird People You Might Encounter in Sigil

Sigil’s a great place for PCs to see strange sights and sounds.

  1. Demon drinking contest. It’s open to all comers, and there’s a prize involved.
  2. A fat dwarven snake-oil salesman guarded by Giff mercenaries.
  3. Xaositect down on all fours, barking at the PCs like a dog. Interacting with him requires Animal Handling checks. Touching him might give you flees.
  4. A “God King” carried about on a palanquin. He’s completely human and doesn’t know that Powers aren’t able to enter Sigil. Acts high and mighty anyway.
  5. Modrons carrying a huge metal box wrapped in chains and padlocks. Sometimes the box rattles. The modrons refuse say what’s inside.
  6. Strange creature at an exotic fruit stand sucking the juice out of fruits through a long proboscis. The owner of the stand hides his discomfort poorly.
  7. A valkyrie in disguise. She’s waiting for someone. But not you.
  8. Elven narcotics merchants, dressed in colorful robes of fine silk and with necklaces of red pearls about their necks. They’re willing to let potential customers sample the wares.
  9. Githzerai dyers with big vats of dye that change color based on mood. Will dye clothes for 5 silver pieces per article of clothing.
  10. An aquatic being wearing a diving suit full of water. It can only speak with sign language, but an interpreter follows it around. The aquatic being doesn’t seem too satisfied with the interpreter’s work.

Pacifist Kingdom

While browsing a certain imageboard, I came upon a prompt:

Pick four standard RPG classes. Got ’em? Good. Now come up with a setting where the first is reviled, the second is celebrated, the third is disappearing, and the fourth are growing in number. What does this setting look like?

Standard classes, eh? Can’t go wrong with the core four:
1. fighting man
2. thief
3. cleric
4. magic user

Outright violence is condemned as barbaric, even inhuman. Knighthood has been abolished, and the few that stick to their swords are vilified outlaws. Clerics, those mace-toting zealots, are a dying breed; the people have turned to a more pacifistic religion centered more on humans and less on gods. Rogues are celebrated as picaresque heroes because of their ability to accomplish things through wit and guile. Magic users are seen as great masters of the principle of mind over matter. Powerful magic users lead the new religion and are now in charge of the nation.

Sounds like the result of a scheming cabal of wizards that took over a kingdom.

Barbaridog and Other Amazing Tales

While at Steak n’ Shake late at night, some friends and I were discussing D&D characters we wanted to play when I said “my next character is going to be a literal dog. He’ll be a barbarian.” By this I meant I would take the 5e stats for a mastiff and apply class levels to it.

They loved the idea and we immediately started discussing a campaign where all the player characters were animals. The rules were this: pick a beast from the monster manual with a challenge rating below 1 and apply class levels to it. We came up with my barbarian dog, a gorilla bard, a jaguar fighter, a giant wasp warlock, and a rogue horse.

Let’s talk more about that rogue horse.

A warhorse is Challenge 1/2, so it’s okay by the rules we laid out. It has 60 feet of movement speed, hooves that do 2d6+4 damage, and an ability called Trample. Trample says that if the horse moves at least 20 feet straight towards a target and attacks with the hooves, there’s a chance that the target gets knocked prone and the horse can make another attack against it.

That second attack would have advantage because the target’s prone; a rogue’s sneak attack works when the rogue has advantage on an attack. That’s potentially 5d6+8 damage in one turn for a level 1 rogue horse, not counting any critical hits.

Remember that 60 movement speed? Rogues get to use Dash (moving their whole movement speed again) as a bonus action. This rogue horse could charge down an enemy 120 feet away and stomp it to death.

I really want to play in this campaign.