Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Campaign Creation - Part 2: Campaign Systems & Settings

Last time we decided what campaign we were going to run with; something short, sweet, and story-driven. Now that we know what we're doing, we ought to figure out where we're doing it. A campaign setting adds a level of personality and depth to the story you are trying to tell. The more rich and diverse the setting, the more you have to work with as far as your story is concerned.

But settings aren't just locations where you tale takes place. They're systems and genres that define the tone of the game both mechanically and thematically. While I won't be showing you how to create your own campaign setting here, you can take a look at my series "Let's Build A Campaign Setting" for some tips starting out. Instead, what I will be doing in this article is help you to narrow down what kind of setting best suits the kind of game you want to run and that your players want to play.

And hopefully, get my own campaign straightened out. Allons-y!

"It's French."

What Genre?
The genre is very important when deciding what kind of monster you have on your hands. A Horror game can be drastically different than a Comedy game. Sci-fi and Fantasy, while similar, have some pretty big distinctions. The kind of story you want to tell or the type of world you want to introduce to your players can be greatly enhanced or diminished depending on the genre you decide to go with.

If you are running a sandbox game, you could engage in a plethora of different genres depending on what adventure they are on at any given moment. If the characters are dealing with the political intrigue of warring noble houses, a thriller would work well in the context. If they are venturing through a haunted house, horror is a given. The advantage of the sandbox game is that you can submit your players to more variety. The downside, however, is that things can change so quickly that they might only get a taste of something they really dig and then find themselves left unfulfilled.

"Everybody hurts... sometimes."

For those running something more story-oriented, it is best to focus on one or two particular genres for the overall tone. Paizo's Pathfinder Adventure Paths are perfect examples of this. Strange Aeons looks to be a spine-tingling cosmic horror story with a few science fiction undertones that define the Strange Fiction genre. They're making one or two genres the central theme of the tale. The advantage to this is crafting an immersive environment for the characters to explore. The disadvantage is while you focus on one genre all the time, you miss out on providing others for your players to enjoy, and run the risk of denying them a chance to experience what else is out there.

Like all things, it is best to strike a balance. Communicate with your players, know the kind of game you want to run, and figure out what genres work well with it and which detract from what you are trying to do.

What Genre Am I Going With?
I am a big fantasy fan, but lately, I have had such a hankering to run a wild west-style game. Strangely enough, the two genres fit together surprisingly well, and so the campaign I will be writing along the way will be a Fantasy Western, if for no other reason than I love a challenge. This is what I get for listening to the Bastion soundtrack while writing this.

"Music. Makes the people. Come together. Yeah."

What System?
You know you genre, which comes in really handy when you are deciding on a system. It lets you eliminate some of the hundreds of choices that lay before you. You could literally spend the whole day just trying to figure out the best system to use for your game. This is one of the few times in which I could offer you a short cut, but really this comes down to Game Master and player preference. Talk to your players, ask them what their favorite system, and see if works for your campaign, or could work for your campaign with a few tweaks.

The goal is to find something that synergizes (yay buzzwords!) with your story and your players. If you can get that system-story-player trifecta figured out, you are golden. Don't be afraid to try new systems either. The best way to learn a new one is to play in it and run it. I am a hands-on kind of Game Master, so hammering it out at the table just makes sense for me. That being said, give the book at least a fleeting glance.

 "Levels of commitment may vary."

If you are still trying to figure something out, here are a few suggestions from settings I have personally played in/run. Each of these systems could work in just about any genre, but these are the ones in which they are best associated with.

Fantasy: D&D, Pathfinder, Savage Worlds, Swords & Wizardry, Numenera, Palladium Fantasy RPG, and Dungeon Crawl Classics

Modern: d20 Modern, Cortex, Fate, White Wolf (old style), Palladium's Heroes Unlimited, Twilight 2099, and Savage Worlds.

Sci-Fi: Palladium's Rifts, Gamma World, Starfinder (when it's out), Star Wars (from Fantasy Flight), Cortex, Savage Worlds and Numenera.

Horror: Call of Cthulu, Dread, Call of Cthulu, Savage Worlds, Call of Cthulu, All Flesh Must Be Eaten, and Palladium's Nightbane.

Or, you could be insidious and use this as an opportunity to test out a new system of your own devising upon your unsuspecting players.

What System Am I Going With?
Because this will be a narrative heavy game with a lot of emphasis on things that can't necessarily be quantified by simple game mechanics, I've decided to go with Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition. It lends itself perfectly to the kind of story I want to tell. Also, I may or may not be having a steamy affair with D&D 5E. Shhh, don't tell Pathfinder. It gets so angry when I see other systems.

 "Oh... wow. This is... exactly what it looks like."

What Setting?
You have a genre, you have a system, and the next thing you need is a setting. Settings are the world or universe in which your game will be set. You literally have an infinite number of worlds to choose from, but if there is anything I am good at, it's boiling things down into easy to access nuggets. Really, the only choice you have before you is whether you want to run the campaign in an already established setting, or throw caution to the wind and showcase a world of your own design.

Established Settings: These worlds are already built, published, and played through by thousands or millions of gamers. The setting is usually well known and comes with its own history, major NPCs, and flavor. Some of the more well-known ones are The Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, Eberron, and Golarian.
Advantages: The world building is already done from the kingdoms and towns to the geographical features. All you need to do is get familiar with the setting. There are usually a fair number of books available to peruse that flesh out whole areas of these worlds. With the hard part already done by professionals, your prep time is reduced from creation to just getting caught up, leaving you free to focus on your villains, monsters, NPC, and story elements.
Disadvantages: You have very little wiggle room because the world is already so established. If you want something set in Waterdeep, but would rather have your game revolving around the Lake of Steam region, you are going to find that you have a lot of work ahead of you making things fit the way you want. You give up certain freedoms to achieve what you want.

Homebrew Settings: The world is at your fingertips. There are few things as satisfying than introducing your players to a world of your own devising. You
Advantages: You control every aspect of this world, from the geography to the nations, to the NPCs. This gives you an unlimited amount of freedom to shape and change the world around the characters. You can edit and cater things to better fit the story, and the best of all, you are the sole expert on the setting. After all, it was your brainchild.
Disadvantages: Creating your campaign setting is a lot of work. It is no small undertaking, and the prep work that goes into just the setting before you even sit down to Session 0 could take months. Sometimes even years.

Personally, I like to mix and match here and there, borrowing Gods from one setting, stealing cities and nations from another, and cobbling them together. It's a time-saver to be sure, and you still have tons of wiggle room to change things as you like.

What Setting Am I Using?
I could pick from any number of settings, but the strong desire to make this a western (thanks a bunch Bastions, you dick), I felt that it was best to use a homebrewed setting. And since I already have one in developments (shameless plug), I'll be going with that. Cliffnotes: The bad guys won, and the world isn't a sing-songy wonderland.

Also, for extra credit, I took the liberty of whipping up a map of the area that the story will be taking place in...

So there we are. Just to recap on the campaign, I am writing here; I am developing a short, story-driven fantasy western set in a homebrewed world where the bad guys are the authority. The game is expected to last about 15 sessions.

Next time I will show you how to construct the heart of your campaign. The driving force behind it that holds all the answers you will need to answer... The Campaign Bible.

Also, if you want to follow along, I will be hosting information on this new campaign on Scabard. If you would like to check it out, here is the home page.

Roll well, me friends,
+Ed The Bard 

And thanks to my Epic-Adventurer Level Patrons
Levi Davis
Michael Stevens

Would you like to support the bard in another way, and still get some pretty cool stuff out of it? Kick in the door to the Open Gaming Store. They have a mountain of affordable aids to help you be all the player or Game Master you can be. Just tell them Ed The Bard sent you.

Looking for an article? Just want to browse the archives? Wander over to my Master List, a directory of every article I've ever written, right here.

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Monday, June 27, 2016

Racial Bias: Half-Orcs

Hang on to your horned helms, my friends. We are about to get 50 Shades of heavy metal today! There are many badass races that have graced the pages of our favorite role-playing games, but few can hold a candle.. screw that, few can hold a roaring torch to the monumental badassery that is the half-orc; a creature that might as well be a walking, talking Black Sabbath album (The ones with Dio)!

Half-orcs are my all time second favorite race of all time, just barely edged out by the dwarf. If only half-orcs had better beards, it would be a cinch. Sadly, they don't... because it was probably hacked, slashed, ripped or burned off in a fight with something God-awful!

Just the way it should be.

Best Of Both Worlds
Half-orcs have the glorious distinction of having the best parts of both orcs and human. From their orcish kin, they gain powerful muscles, insatiable bloodlust, and stubborn ability to tell death to wait his goddamned turn! From the human stock, they experience the ability to adapt to just about any situation or climate as well as a little perspective.

While orcs love themselves a kill-crazy rampage and ripping out someone's spine to make a nice belt, a half-orc' part-human brain may wrestle with the ethical dilemma of ripping out someone's spine to make a nice belt. And when they do finally decide to engage in high fashion via the bones of their enemies (because what sane person wouldn't), they may feel a twinge of guilt or perhaps even a sense honor regarding the poor sap whose former back now hold up their pants.

"Now THAT is fashion with a backbone."

Everyone Hates Them... So F*** Everyone!
Half-orcs have the glorious distinction of having the worst parts of both orcs and humans, at least in the eyes of just about everyone that casts them so much as a sideways glance. They have the bestial appearance of their muscle-bound be-tusked kin which does not set to well with any race that has been savaged by orcs... so basically everyone. Even tieflings.  And everyone hates tieflings.

This leads to a great deal of prejudice among the "kinder", gentler races. After all, the sight of an orc typically means  head for the hills. Most folks don't want that moving in next door, even if they're only ever seen watering the tulips or waving at you on your way to work while they grab the morning paper.

Screw that noise.

"There goes the neighborhood."

This creates a bit of an issue for our half-orc pals. You see, the civilized races want nothing to do with them, but the orcs that everyone keeps mistaking them for really don't want anything to do with them. You see, to orcs that half-orc typically falls into two categories in their eyes; they are either too weak because of their flowery human blood, or too clever, because of their sneaky human brains. Orcs often enslave these half-breeds (and occasionally breed them to become slaves), because while they may be weaker than orcs, they are still stronger than puny humans, and are a bit more durable. Also, when you have something in chains, they're less of a threat.

"But only just..."

With few places in the world that want to suffer their ilk, it is little wonder why many half-orcs turn to a life of crime and brutality. If that is what civilized society expects of them, they might as well not disappoint, even if this only serves to perpetuate the stereotype that these are the only things they are capable of. In many cases, this is the only way a half-orc can achieve even a modicum of success. There are very few half-orc shop workers, merchants, city watch members, or jewelers, but there are plenty that are thieves' guild enforcers, mercenaries, muggers, assassins, and bouncers at dive bars.

"You ain't gettin' in here with those shoes, little man. Back of the line before I cleave you."

And if you thought it was tough for the guys, it is twice as hard for the ladies. It seems that half-orc females don't typically fall into the societal definition of beauty, but they are still considered (foolishly) by many to be weaker and more frail than their male counterparts. This means that on top of racial bigotry from the better part of society, they also have to prove themselves to be every bit as capable as any other ass-kicking half-orc. Because of this, it is not uncommon to see a female half-orc that is head and shoulders more hardcore than the males.

"And with a vastly superior fashion sense."

It is either a life of back-breaking physical labor or brutalizing/murdering people for money with little in between. Still, there are a few that break the mold and try to make themselves better than what society views them as. However, this often polarizes them to their own kind, and since their own kind is such a small sect they find themselves even more isolated than the average half-orc. Still, it beats a life of chains or death at the hands of their nihilistic cousins.

No wonder most half-orcs are so crabby.

Looks Can Be Deceiving
A lot of folks pass judgment over a half-orc without having ever exchanged a word with them. Their misconceptions all stem from the poor creatures' appearance. Yes, many half-orcs share many of the physical features of their orcish cousins. They are often large, physically imposing, with strange skin tones of gray and green, and those tusks. It is hard to get over those tusks.

"I don't have the heart to tell him he has an overbite."

But that savage appearance can mask a gentle soul. On the other hand, some half-orcs can be stunningly beautiful creatures that look less like a heavy metal album covers and more like something ripped from the cover of a Harlequin romance novel.

"Savage Passion, by Susan Sizemore"

But as I can tell you from experience, being pretty doesn't necessarily make you a nice person. Shocking, I know. A lot of folks in society strongly believe that good looks mean good soul, but there are plenty beautiful people who are downright evil, and it is no different for half-orcs. Beware the Fabio orc, for he will crush you to death on his steely pecs!

If there is a word in the English language that best describes an orc, no other is better suited than brutal. This is where that orcish savagery comes into play. The half-orc is descended from generations of spine-taking, axe-wielding, fire-starting, never-dying, hardcore badasses.

"Pretty much."

Because of this, there is a recessive gene that compels half-orcs to hit a little harder than most, and I am not just talking with fist and axe. Half-orc spellcasters are often the sort that fireball first and ask questions later. It's not their fault. That's just genetics.

A few half-orcs try to quell this little fire that burns in their hearts. It often requires a great deal of patience, self-control, and concentration; three things half-orcs are not usually synonymous with. Still, those that can overcome the urge to destroy are considered paragons of their race.

Still, there is nothing more exhilarating than disemboweling your enemies and wearing their guts for garters while proclaiming to the Gods (and anyone else within earshot), "I am a pretty little hate machine! Come at me bro!"

The Names! My Gods, The Names!
If there is one category where the half-orc might edge out a dwarf, it is in the name department. Their names are beyond badass. They are the stuff that heavy metal albums (and nightmares) are made of. Many instantly come with their own intimidation score.

The naming scheme is pretty simple. The first name is usually something harsh and guttural, mostly pronounced with the throat, that's chock full of hard consonants. The last name usually consists of a combination of a weapon, unpleasant action, or piece of the anatomy A few examples are...

Arkus Chainbreaker
Thrakkus Spinetaker
Korrog Bloodaxe
Kilgore Skullripper
Borkron Bonerend

See? Aren't those downright pleasant? But those are just the orcish sounding names. Thanks to human parentage, many half-orcs have downright average names like Vin Verrow, Marlow Greycastle, or Selina Marakos.

However, if you want to mix it up and show the influence of both cultures in their name, just mix and match as your see fit. Theon Chainbreaker is just as fitting as Korrog Longfellow. It all depends on what sort of life they led. If they were raised by orcs, they're going have orc names. If they were raised by humans, human names. And if both parents were in the picture, or if one was trying to honor the memory of the other, mix 'em up.

Make Everything Attached To Them More Badass By Association
Anyone can play a half-orc barbarian or fighter. The race lends itself to those two distinctions pretty handily. Even the half-orc rogue is a common sight at the gaming table. However, sometimes a person gets it in their head to get a little weird with their tusked character, and the results are nothing if not spectacular.

Spellcasters of the half-orc variety are legendary, from the wizard who overcame the stereotype that all creatures with orcish blood are nothing but dumb brutes, to the cleric that proves themselves in the eyes of their Gods, to the sorcerer that can feel the arcane power of their blood singing to them. Half-orc spellcasters offer a variety of fun options, and the association to their race makes them even more profoundly cool because it is not what most would expect. Even the talented half-orc bard is a delightful option for those eager to play a skald, or something a little more refined.

"I have a song in my heart! Granted, it was written by Metallica, but still."

Rangers, oddly enough, are a fantastic fit for half-orcs. With the world against them, there are few places that would accept their kind, save for perhaps the wild. Those that can acclimate themselves to such a life of survival find a freedom that few other races can understand. With the wind at their backs and the sun on their face, the half-orcs can move about as they wish, with no judgmental glares or fear-fueled threats. Beasts of the wild do not care about your skin unless they are hungry. Then you have other problems. Some half-orcs develop such a rapport with nature that they commune with it. They see the symbiotic relationship they share with their surroundings, and with enough discipline and understanding, they can become truly powerful, and terrifying, druids.

But it is when a half-orc seems to go against their nature that people really start paying attention. Believed to be chaotic creatures by nature thanks to their orcish heritage, it takes many by surprise when a half-orc shows real discipline and adheres to a more lawful existence with a stringent code of honor and behavior. Half-orc monks personify the ability to quell the orcish savagery that screams in their blood, or even bend it to their will to deliver punishing blows while hardening their body.

But when it comes to a real head scratcher, the half-orc paladin is the embodiment of everything everyone perceives a half-orc not to be. They are the living proof that a half-orc can aspire to heights than even many civilized folks fall short of, and they must endure a hell of a lot more to get there. And in the end, when they receive that divine power, all the naysayers shut the hell up, because it is really hard to argue with the God that granted that power in the first place.
"Sometimes justice and honor is about 7-feet of ugly muscle."

So, if you want something that stinks of badass and don't mind being oppressed and hated by just about... well, everyone, then grab your spine belt, sharpen your axe, and roll up a half-orc. Don't believe me? Give it a shot. It might be the most fun you have at a gaming table.

Have you played a half-orc? What kind? Was it a melee monster or something else? Let me know in the comments.

Roll well, me friends,
+Ed The Bard 

And thanks to my Epic-Adventurer Level Patrons
Levi Davis

Would you like to support the bard in another way, and still get some pretty cool stuff out of it? Kick in the door to the Open Gaming Store. They have a mountain of affordable aids to help you be all the player or Game Master you can be. Just tell them Ed The Bard sent you.

Looking for an article? Just want to browse the archives? Wander over to my Master List, a directory of every article I've ever written, right here.

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Friday, June 24, 2016

Campaign Creation - Part 1: What Kind Of Campaign?

Last week I wrote an article asking you to send me an idea that I could build a campaign off of. After sorting through all the submission (of which there were many), I am happy to say I found one that definitely jumped out at me.

The winning idea for the brand new campaign we are creating is...

+Luis burset! Luis wrote: "I've been struggling with this one for a while, mostly cause I can't seem to lock the idea down. I want to start with a prophecy foretelling the rise of the PCs and the fall from grace/betrayal of one of them, and making that PC the BBEG"

The premise of this interested me. The idea of a player character foretold to fall or betray their companions is pretty . Most players would try their best to avoid such a fate, but what kind of pressure would that create? Would there be a snapping point? Right here, I think we have the heart of the campaign, the dark cloud that will hang over the heads of our players for a good chunk of the game's run.  

But how do we turn that into a campaign? How do we transform an idea into a multi-session story? That is what we're going to try and figure out today.

Step 1: What Kind Of Campaign?

The first thing you want to figure out what kind of campaign you have here. There are dozens of different kinds of campaigns, but in the end, they all boil down into two delicious flavors for your running pleasure:

  • Sandbox Campaigns: Sandbox-style campaigns focus on giving the player absolute freedom to go where they want and do what they want. A lot focus on exploration (wilderness, dungeon, urban, etc.), with a few story hooks thrown in here and there. This kind of campaign lends itself to more of an "Adventure of the week" style of gameplay, with a few larger storylines sprinkled in. This style is perfect for long games because it keeps things consistently fresh and new for the players. These are best prepped week-to-week (or however often you folks play) because the unlimited freedom you players have can lead them all over the place, making it difficult, if not impossible, to predict what they will do more than a session or two out.

  • Story-Driven Campaigns: These are more focused on a singular, overarching story that the Game Master is trying to tell. These campaigns have a definitive beginning, middle, and end, with plot points the players hit through the course of the game. Most Adventure Paths and multi-part adventures fall into this category, with Pathfinder's "Rise of the Rune Lords" and D&D's "Rise of Tiamat" being good examples (wow, lots of rising these days). These can also be long-running campaigns, but work best in shorter, more plotted out games. The major story points are best plotted out well in advance of actually playing so that you as the Game Master know what direction you want to head in. This isn't railroading, per say. The players still able to make their own decisions, but if gives you an idea of where to steer their ambitions towards. With major plot points set from beginning to end, it gives you the ability to see the bigger picture and lets you alter things to tailor the play style of your characters. 

What Kind Of Campaign Am I Creating?: The nature of the idea lends itself to be used in either a Sandbox or Story-Driven game. For the purposes of this series (in which I show you the step-by-steps of creating a campaign), it makes more sense to delve into more story-driven material. Sandbox is great, but that relies more on World Building rather than Campaign Building, and I have another series for building settings (which certainly needs an update).

Step 2: How Long Do You Want It?
"I like long running campaigns... I'm not compensating."

The next think you want to do is come up with a ballpark figure of how long you want the campaign to run. You should note that the actual length of the campaign will vary quite a bit between growing the campaign and actually running it. This number really is a reflection of how much material do you think you have, and how quickly you want to pace it.

Pacing is important when deciding the nature of your campaign. When I write games, I typically do so in the style of an American television season, and I find that is the best way to structure your campaigns. Observe:

  • Long Running Campaign: These bad boys are built to last. They can go forever. In fact, I was just recently listening to a podcast detailing one man's 34-year D&D campaign, which he ran two sessions a week. Without any breaks, that's 3,536 sessions. I suddenly feel very self-conscious.... but I digress. Television seasons! Good games, especially long running ones, work really well as television seasons. Here is how a season breaks down. The first couple episodes (or sessions for us Game Mastery folk) focus on the large story, introducing characters pertinent to that. Then you have a few fun stand alone episodes (side quests, one-off adventures and so on), while still leaving hints to the greater story to keep it fresh in the viewers' (players') minds. Then comes sweeps.

    Sweeps are when networks want to crank up advertising revenue by getting more people to watch. They typically do this three times a season (November, February, and May). During sweeps, they pull out all the stops. The large plot lines they have been teasing for a few episodes (sessions) develop and reveal something big (plot, BBEG, etc.) that they can't quite deal with right away. Then we return to a few more stand-alone episodes (side quests, one-off adventures and so on), usually while on the way to, or trying to figure out how to deal with the big problem. Then comes the next sweeps. The major plot resolves somewhat, but something bigger happens (The BBEG isn't the BBEG, it just works for him), propelling the plot forward toward an inevitable confrontation with the big problem. This typically happens around May, when the story is winding down (or ramping up, as the case often is), with a month of story-driven material that culminates in the season finale, where the current storyline is resolved, but another may open up (cliffhangers!). The best part is this can be implemented multiple times to create a long series of stories. After all, it is not uncommon for shows to run for multiple seasons, and the same goes for games.

"Special thanks to Joss Wheadon for... well, you know. Being God."

  • Short Campaign: Short campaigns are a little more concise. They focus on more story-driven elements because they lack the luxury of being able to spread things out, but are able to hit plot points more consistently keeping the overarching story fresh in the players' minds. The pacing is fast, the payoff is quick, and the events are easier to recall. To accomplish this, I usually prescribe to the same season-based formula as I would for a long running game, save for one thing. I removed the stand-alone sessions, keeping everything within the story arc wheelhouse. This creates more of a serialized progression, with each session tieing directly into the next. Some Game Masters write long running campaigns the same way, and while there is nothing wrong with doing it that way, I personally like a little more adaptability. 

How Does One Determine Length?: Length can really be a hard word to nail down. How does one determine it? The number of hours played? The number of weeks or months or years? I prefer easier units of measure, sessions or levels.

Length by level is a great way to determine a scaling challenge for your players. Right from day one you can determine the challenge rating of the final battle, and major challenges along the way to climactic confrontation. It allows you to see where our characters are, where they need to be, and how much XP it will take them to get there.

Length by session is a more story-intensive, focusing primarily on the plot than on how powerful the player characters become. The number of sessions determines how much story and plot development your are willing to indulge in. It is more of a way of deciding how much story you have, and crafting everything around that.

How Long Will My Campaign Be?: For the sake of the guide here, I intend to create a Short Campaign, limiting the campaign life to about 15 sessions. I am confident that with what I am plotting I can hit that 15 session benchmark with ease, but as I said before, the actual length is a ballpark estimate. The number of sessions I am planning is subject to change depending on how the story develops. I could end up with a few sessions less, or a few sessions more, but fifteen is the goal.

Step 3: How Do You Want XP To Work?

 Unless you're running a quick adventure or a convention game with no ties to organized play, XP is important. The PCs are going to gain levels and become more powerful. That's like... 60% of the game right there. How you distribute that XP, however, can determine how your campaign progresses quite a bit.

You can dole out XP like the good old fashioned way, after every encounter. This is a great way for you players to see that little gap between this level and the next shrink. There is nothing quite like the excitement of knowing that the upcoming level is only a thousand XP away. It creates a sense of anticipation. It gets your players vested in continuing on. I've had players beg for extra game time or extra sessions, just so they could level up sooner.

Another way of doing things is milestone-based. This kind of XP is awarded after a certain number of sessions, encounters, or at important milestones hit within the story. As such, it is often very story-oriented, allowing the characters to level up when the story deems it necessary to do so. Again, this isn't railroading, as these milestones often come sooner than the actually accumulated XP thresholds are met. It also makes the story more dynamic, raising the stakes (and challenges) as it unfolds.

What XP Method Will I Be Using?: Becuase this is looking to become a more story-centric campaign, I will most likely be implementing Milestone XP. It feels like a better fit than having my players keep a record of the XP they receive after every encounter. If this were a long-running campaign, I might feel differently, but considering this is nice and short, I think this is the best choice.

Now that we have the sort of campaign we want, we can move onto the juicy stuff. Next week we start building the skeleton of our story by finding the perfect place to set it.

 Just a heads up. This series has been underwritten by the fine folks over at Scabard. The campaign in all of its glory will find a home there. With the ability to add NPCs, session summaries, and the ability to house an UNLIMITED number of campaigns, the site has me a bit smitten. Not to mention the coolest feature, the campaign connections, wherein you can connect pages in your campaign with relationships like 'Father Of', 'Enemy Of', 'Birthplace Of' and assign categories like Race, Class, and Gender. Unlike wikis, which need links and back links, connections between pages on Scabard only need to be made once.
 The stuff you get for free is almost criminal, and the stuff you get for the paid subscription is beyond badass. And as far as a subscription goes, I've done the math, and it factors out to about $2.50 a month (that's rounding up, by the way). The best part is, only the GM needs to pay. The players you add have the full run of all the nifty paid features. Hell, if you are running a game for 6 people, you all only need to cough up $0.37 a month. What else can you get for $0.37?
Check them out, and tell them The Bard sent you.

Roll well, my friends,
+Ed The Bard 

And thanks to my Epic Adventurer-Level Patrons
Levi Davis

Be sure to check me out on Patreon!

Would you like to support the bard in another way, and still get some pretty cool stuff out of it? Kick in the door to the Open Gaming Store. They have a mountain of affordable aids to help you be all the player or Game Master you can be. Just tell them Ed The Bard sent you.

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Wednesday, June 22, 2016

My 6-Year-Old Designed A Dungeon, And It's Terrifying

Well met, adventurers! Today I am going to do something you have not seen me do before. Something bizarre and unexpected. I am going to gush about my kid. I had meant to write this prior to Father's Day weekend, but things here at BardCo have become somewhat hectic, what with school letting out for the summer, sports programs beginning, and new multimedia ventures coming to fruition. Suffice to say, this is a little late, but still retains much of its potency.

There are two things you should know about me. The first is that I am a fan of the old Gygaxian dungeon crawls of yore, with its pitfalls and terrors beyond reckoning. They were punishments disguised as fun, and damn it if he didn't accomplish both. Never have I had so much fun being rent asunder or crushed to death, or boiled alive, or having my soul torn out or... well, you get the picture.

The second thing your should know about me is that my young son has a strong desire to play D&D or Pathfinder. He can't decide which cover art is cooler. He likes to play with the minis I have on hand, set up my terrain, draw maps on my dry erase flip mat, and tell a story. Sometimes he even asks to use my dungeon master screen for reasons that are unknown but undoubtedly sinister.

If was a few months ago that he asked me if he could "Make a dungeon" for my weekly group.  I gave a wry chuckle and found myself filled with something I believe to be a mix of pride and amusement. I gave him the go-ahead, handed him a Monster Manual and a Bestiary, a couple magic markers, and a boat load of minis, and he went about his dark work. What he created still gives me pause. It would have been an act of pure cruelty and insidious design.

And it was good.

I've given the map he gave me the digital upgrade, as the only remaining picture I have of it (aside from the one seared into my mind's eye), is blurry as all-get-the-funk-out. I will detail each room of this two level horror show.

The Tomb Of Xandarr, The Cruel

 The first thing you may note about the "Tomb" is that it is a little oddly shaped. The triangles, rectangles, squares, and ovals (all shapes easily recognizable to a Kindergartener) that are connected together by a series of strangely-shaped hallways. But when you really take a look at it, a couple things become apparent. 

First, the rooms aren't the typical square rooms we're used to in dungeons, leading someone who has no idea the whole thing was designed by a 6-year-old to believe that the entire complex was created by a madman with some issues. The rooms are chaotic, adhering to no symmetry or even consistency. There is no sense of familiarity between rooms since they vary in size and shape with each new chamber. This puts characters on the defensive, never knowing what each room might hold. Granted, this should be the normal state of mind for every character going into a dungeon.

Secondly, those hallways. If you are playing with players who get paranoid easily, these halls are nightmares. Bizarre angles and narrow passages make for an almost claustrophobic setting. Without realizing it, my wee geekling is playing a psychological game with the players, putting them through their paces and tearing away any semblance of peace. 

Now, let's get into Level 1

Section 1 - Orc Encampment: "A crooked and jagged hallway of jutting stones zigs and zags its way toward a mostly rectangular chamber. Grunts from the eastern wall signal that the room is occupied. Half a dozen burly orcs rise from a sitting position gripping cruel axes."

The dungeon begins with a pretty straight forward fight between the characters and a band of orcs camping in the room. I say camping because that is what my son explicitly said they were doing. In my "Game Master must justify everything" brain, I reasoned the orcs were about to enter the dungeon and made camp in this empty and defensible first room to regain their strength for the path ahead.
For most characters who enter this room, this battle should be a breeze. Since I figure the average party should be about level 8 to take on the bulk of the dungeon, six orcs is a pittance. Still, with good tactics and focused fire, the orcs could still pose a problem, especially if the retreat down the hall in the north end of the room, which would bottleneck the players.

Section 2 - The Pit of Mummies: "This oval, domed, stone chamber is mostly empty. The walls are bare and there are not sconces for torches. The only thing of import seems to be a single, simple stone sarcophagus sitting in the center of the room. Small cracks run the length of the dust-covered floor like a spider web."

Most dungeons will place their boss at the end. My 6-year-old says "To hell with conformity" and sticks that sonnova bitch in room 2! But he was not content with a simple boss fight. No. He wanted a boss fight with a trap. He wanted a boss fight in a trap! The stone sarcophagus sits in the center of a fragile circle. If a character spends more than two rounds on the surface of the circle, if two stand on it at once, or if two characters pass over it one at a time, the floor will give way into a 40-foot free fall onto a spiked floor. That's a little rough, especially considering on top of the spikes you are also taking bludgeoning damage from the falling rocks. 
But wait! There's more!

Once the sarcophagus breaks after the fall, it reanimates the mummy lord within. This is Xandarr, and he doesn't take kindly to being woken up. When I asked my progeny what kind of magic spells he had, he simply said, "Ones that make characters fall down so when they fall down they fall on spikes."

That's actually kind of evil. So, here is the scenario. If the floor collapses (because the encounter is actually entirely avoidable), any poor bastards that find themselves on the floor need to make dexterity or reflex saving throws. Anyone that screws the pooch ends up at the bottom of a 40-foot deep pit of spikes fighting a mummy lord that can put them back on those spikes with a wave of his hand. 

 "Are you my mummy?"

Did I mention the second mummy down here? Oh yeah. Impaled on one of the spikes is yet another mummy. Granted, this is just your run of the mill mummy, but damn! That just ups the chances of the poor characters stuck in the pit to get a fun case of mummy rot (still sounds like an STD).

What's more, the rest of the characters would be stuck up above, trying to find something to attach  a rope to, of which there is nothing. Melee characters would either have to traverse the rope and hope the mummy lord isn't leveling spells at them or jump and deal with the spiky goodness. Those that choose the rope are looking at a 2-3 round commitment since the  average climb speed is 15-feet, and the pit is more than twice that. 

The walls of the pit are flat and smooth (not to mention round, so no corners to shimmy up), making climbing out without assistance a virtual nightmare as far as difficulty is concerned (and failure meaning another trip to spike town).

On the plus side, the mummy lord is carrying an amulet that can make your skin as tough as stone, so hooray for loot. On the downside, the mummy lord is wearing said amulet, and would be foolish not to use it. 

Evil, evil child.

 "There is nothing more precious than the laughter of a child."

Section 3 - Trapped Hallway: "The door opens to a 25-foot long hallway. The hallway stretches off into a straight line, but there seems to be a five-foot deep, 10-foot long recess on the eastern side. Seven stone tiles make up the floor, each emitting a clicking sound when stepped upon. A stone door stands at the far end of the hall."

My kid loves Minecraft. Moreover, he loves pressure plates and making them do things. This is a simple hallway, but a very complicated hallway at the same time. Immediately, a canny rogue is going to realize that every single inch of floor is a pressure plate. This makes the rogue's job so much more difficult. Not to mention that recess. What is that? What even is that? Is it a trap?

Oddly enough, no. It's just the shape of the hall. The mean part comes when an unfortunate character stands in front of the door leading out of the hall. Should they fail to disarm the trap, or if they step on the pressure plate before the door, that entire 10-foot section of wall on the eastern side of the door springs forward and crushes anyone standing there.

 "Holy broken bones, Batman!"

It's sort of a fake-out. A trap fake out. The recess screams "look at me!" when it's the stationary wall that is the killer aspect here. I am both proud and afraid on the kiddo.

Section 4 - Go Ahead. Touch It: "This triangular room is lit with a pair of torches on the northeastern and northwestern  walls. The torches burn with a sickly blue flame that casts the chamber in a ghostly light. A small pedestal stands at the apex of the triangle. Atop it rests a smooth violet jewel that size of a child's fist. There is a pair of stone doors on the eastern wall."

"What's in this room?" I asked my son as he drew the funny triangle. 

"A stone." he replied matter-of-factly, "It's purple. If you touch it it automatically steals your soul." he continued, drawing a tiny stone in the room.

That's right, the ultimate game of "I dare you to touch it." The danger in this room is easily bypassed. Just walk on out. But that gem. That gem is likely to get someone into trouble. Let'ss face it, we all know that one player that can't talk past a shiny red button without pressing it. Even if the button had a "Do not touch the red button" sign hanging over it, they would still have to push it, just to know what happens. Hell, more than one of us has been that character at one point or another.

"Touch not, lest ye be touched."

The punishment for greed or curiosity is the loss of your soul. No save. Yeah, I made sure to ask him about that, but he insisted that it was automatic. 

I asked, "Why?"
"Because they touched it."

Can't argue with that.

Section 5 - Dragonfire Pass: "This curved hallway has intricate carvings of dragons set into the stone walls. The doorways on the west and south are carved into the shape of dragon's jaws. A strange and pungent odor fills the air here, leaving a sort of haze. The ground is wet, with a shimmering purple film seeping in between tiles and cracks."

When I told my son about a dungeon I'd created where a bunch of kobolds lit everyone on fire with flammable liquid on the floor (such are out dinner conversations), his eyes grew wide and he couldn't help but tell his grandmother, and anyone else who would listen. It was, I think, cool to him.
So cool, in fact, that he wanted to do something like it in his dungeon. The hall, as he told me, had dragon heads near the doors. The center of the hall marks the trigger for a burning hands spell to erupt from the dragon heads on both ends, and set the oil-soaked floor ablaze. 

  "It's a disco inferno."

Sweet. Simple. Barbeque characters. Even if they didn't get a soul stolen, the hall can easily become a serious pain in the ass, especially for those bringing up the rear. What's worse is that the door at the end of the hall is locked. How good is your rogue? Picking a lock while burning to death good?

Section 6 - Treasure Room: "The door opens revealing a large rectangular room with heaps of gold coins and overflowing chests of treasure. The room is lit by torches in each corner. The flickering firelight dances upon each glinting bobble. An iron door stands against the south wall."

Treasure! Who doesn't love treasure? And there are piles of it here. Coins, gems, magic weapons, and armor. Everything an adventurer could want. But apparently, I have raised the kind of child that doesn't let anything come too easily. I blame years of telling him to clean his room.

Something lives in the piles of treasure. Well, lives may not be the word. A pair of dread wraiths haul ass out of the coins like a demonically possessed Scrooge McDuck. Dread Wraiths, as I am sure you know, are not kind creatures. My son equally so. With a plethora of enemies at his disposal, he hand picked the wraiths because, of course, they looked cool.

 "Rule of cool."

Section 7 - The False Exit: "The iron door opens to a long hallway with a simple wooden door at the end. Hanging over the door is a small sign that says 'EXIT'. The walls of this hall are bare."

The characters beat the bad guys, got the treasure, and managed to live. Now it is time to get out and  enjoy the spoils. Except, this isn't an actual entrance. That wooden door leads to nothing. The hall, on the other hand, does lead somewhere, and it's nowhere good.

The hall, according to my spawn, is like a seesaw. If more than one character heads to the door, the weight will tilt the entire floor, effectively turning the hall into a massive chute. A chute to where?

Well... Nightmareville, basically.

Room 8 - Arena With Two WHATS?!: "The chute leads to what looks like a large arena with a dirt floor. Empty seats encircle the arena, void of spectators. Two large creatures hover above the ground. They have massive, fanged mouths with a sickeningly huge, singular eye. A number of stocks jut from this monstrous floating head, each with an eye of its own."

 "Eye see what you did there."

 I had to ask him three times to be sure. He was sure. Not only had he taken the notion of escape from the players, he pitted them up against not one, but two beholders, or as he called it, "The monster on the front of the book."
"No. Just no."

The fight is pretty straightforward, or at least as straightforward as a fight with two beholders can be. All the characters need to do is defeat them and they can get out. According to my son, the door only opens when both are dead.

I don't think everyone will be getting out of this one alive.

"Kids these days."

There we are. Short, simple, brutal. I should be making some comment about child-like innocence, but honestly, after that... I think he might be pure evil.

The kid has a promising future as a Game Master.

Roll well, my friends,
+Ed The Bard 

And thanks to my Epic Adventurer-Level Patrons
Levi Davis

Be sure to check me out on Patreon!

Looking for an article? Just want to browse the archives? Wander over to my Master List, a directory of every article I've ever written, right here.

Would you like to support the bard in another way, and still get some pretty cool stuff out of it? Kick in the door to the Open Gaming Store. They have a mountain of affordable aids to help you be all the player or Game Master you can be. Just tell them Ed The Bard sent you.

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Monday, June 20, 2016

Player Advice: A Short Guide On How To Write A Good Backstory

Every player wants their character wants a cool backstory. This is a fact, backed up with science and other irrefutable things to place your faith in. And why wouldn't you? Your character is one of the main characters of the campaign. If this was the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you would have your own movie prior to the big team-up that is the game you are playing in. You want to be interesting, you want to know who your character is and where they came from. Mostly, though, you want them to be cool. Thus, a cool backstory.

Only, sometimes we players can fall a little flat on our backstories. It seems that these days everyone's parents were killed and they have all sworn revenge for one reason or another. Personally, I just think it's depressing how many orphans there are running around. Hell, at this point, with the number of adventurers orphanages turn out per capita these days, we should start calling them "Adventuring Schools".


...And just like that, a campaign idea is born.

"It hits you at the strangest times."

Anyhoo, back on topic. Backstories don't need to be all about dead parents and burning villages, they just need to be interesting. And interesting is what we do here at Ed The Bard. Today I am going to break backstory design into its base elements to help the o'le brain meats undulate and gyrate with new ideas. Ideally, by the time we are done, you will be able to comprise aa good backstory into a paragraph, or a short novella, depending on how much detail you like. Sure, you could do it the quick and dirty way, but this time, we're focusing on crafting from the heart.

What A Backstory Needs
For a backstory to function in the correct way, it requires a few key elements to make it sparkle. These elements will add depth to the story that can affect your character in a number of ways, both positive and negative, but always interesting.

  • Origin: Where is your come from? What race are they? Who was/is their family? Do they have a good relationship with them? What did or do they do for a living? These are all huge questions because it is in them that you see where your character is born. The influences from their childhood have major effects on their life later down the line. Your character's moral code and ethical decision making (or lack thereof) are built during this formidable time in their life. 

  • First Signs Of An Adventurer: At some point in your character's life, they show the first signs of what they were truly meant to do. Did they get into fights and find themselves very good at it or at least find themselves able to take a hit and keep going? Did they pilfer and steal or discover they can be very quiet and go unseen when they want to? Did they have a strong draw toward the natural world or did they find some semblance of peace in embracing a religion? Did they love to read, listen to music and stories, or find themselves able to do strange or destructive things with simply a thought? This is the first glimpse of what the character was meant to do, and what type of class they were meant to take, be it martial, skilled, or magic-oriented.
  •  Conflict: Something happened to disturb the characters life. An event that would shape them for years to come This is often what propels the character into a life of adventure. And since adventuring is 75% risking your life and 25% mad money, the turnover rate is usually pretty high. Yes, this could be the death of a parent or loved one, but conflict can take many forms, such as...
    Character vs. Nature: A natural disaster like an earthquake, storm, drought, or flood could fall into this category. Perhaps one of these tore through your character's community, leaving them and their family with nothing, thus prompting a fast payout if they are to survive. Maybe your character's actions during that event showcased a hero, or revealed to their community a special talent, knack, or hidden secret, be it for good or ill. But perhaps there is nothing left at all and your character is the sole survivor. With nothing left, what do they do?
    Character vs. Society: Perhaps your character doesn't conform to societal norms, or perhaps they are from a different culture altogether. Either way, the society they are currently surrounded are may not have a high opinion of your character. This could be in the form of prejudice against a particular race, religion, or affiliation with an organization like a cult or thieves' guild. This friction between your character and the rest of society might just be simple teasing or something altogether more violent. Does your character try to conform, or embrace their differences and turn their back on society? To what extent?
    Character vs. NPC: There is some tenseness between your character and someone else. Maybe they experienced the end of a relationship (romantic, friendship, professional or family), made an enemy, wronged someone or were wronged. What matters is there is another person or persons whom your character is in conflict with. Perhaps your rivals (romantic or otherwise). Perhaps they stole the last slice of pizza! How heated is this conflict? Is it simple fun and games, or are you two out to destroy one another?
    Character vs. Supernatural: Supernatural can mean a lot of things (especially if you're a Winchester)., but it basically boils down to dealing with otherworldly beings, like ghosts, witches, Gods, demons, devils, dragons, fey, wizards, warlocks, sorcerers, or just straight up magic in general. A lot of D&D and Pathfinder characters, especially those with a predisposition toward magic, tend to have a supernatural element to their backstory. The difference is when it is a conflict, it is not longer a fantastic tale of wonder. Now it is a pants-shitting cavalcade of nope and feeble attempts to grasp a a bigger picture. Supernatural conflicts tend to play on the mind as well as the body. I could do an entire blog on the subject (note to self: do that), but suffice to say, you have a lot of good source material to work with. If you want direct conflict with a supernatural being, flip through the Monster Manual or Bestiary until you find something that looks fun. If you want to go a less direct route, there is nothing wrong with pissing off a God. Well, I mean, the God might think so. How do you even protect yourself? What dealings have you had with these supernatural entities? Will you make it out with your soul/body intact?
    Character vs. Self: The band Lit once said "I am my own worst enemy", and that is what this conflict is all about. Sometimes no other person gets in your way more than you. Your character could have an addiction or a powerful character flaw like greed, cowardice, or a predisposition toward cruelty. Perhaps they even have a bout of amnesia, and cannot remember who they were or what they were. Whatever the case, this conflict of self hinders or endangers your character in some way. How severe is it? Can it be overcome?

  • Resolution: This is a bit of a gray area. Some backstories have resolutions that tie the whole thing up in a neat little bow. But that doesn't give the Game Master a lot to work with, and gives you less to work with. To make a great backstory, I tend to lean towards leaving everything a bit open-ended. I leave a few plot hooks dangling, a few issues left unresolved, and a few NPCs still walking about, up to... things.
    To me, a character's backstory is simply a starting point. The real resolution should happen after they grow and evolve as a character, not before. As far as I am concerned, level 1 is still part of a character's backstory, the point where they take their first steps into adventuring. The resolution, at least in its fullest sense, should happen sometime later. 

  • What Your Character Is Actually Doing: In the end, all of this comes down to two choices. Two simple choices; Is your character off to face something or are they running away from something. Taking what you have read so far, you should be able to place your characters in one of these two categories. Remember, these can change throughout the course of the game, but for the purposes of the backstory, we are only concerned with what your character is doing when you start playing the campaign. Fight or flight? 

This may not be the most glamorous of ways to create a character's backstory, but it lends itself to at least being a rough outline. A starting point. A guide to help you find your character's way. Sure, you can add as much drama or feel-good vibes as your want to the tale, just remember that all backstories need not be tragic. Some can be downright inspiring if you let them.

Do you folks have any character backstories you are damn proud of? Leave a blurb in the comments below here or on the page you found this article on. Let's hear some tales of heroism and heartbreak from the adventuring masses!

Roll well, my friends
+Ed The Bard 

And thanks to my Epic Adventurer-Level Patrons
Levi Davis

Be sure to check me out on Patreon!

Looking for an article? Just want to browse the archives? Wander over to my Master List, a directory of every article I've ever written, right here.

Would you like to support the bard in another way, and still get some pretty cool stuff out of it? Kick in the door to the Open Gaming Store. They have a mountain of affordable aids to help you be all the player or Game Master you can be. Just tell them Ed The Bard sent you.

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Friday, June 17, 2016

GM Advice: How To Design A City

 Cities have captivated the minds of role-players for decades. From the splendors of Waterdeep to the impossibly tall towers of Sharn, to the metropolis of Absalom, cities have always been rich with a constant plethora of happenings and events. Anything a PC could ever want can be found in a big enough city if they are willing to pay the price (which isn't always calculated with coins). It is little wonder why Game Masters enjoy building them.

To the new GM, the idea of building an entire city can be daunting. With populations reaching into the high tens of thousands into the hundreds of thousands, and a countless number of shops, sights, and locations, some might feel a bit overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of such an undertaking.

Fear not, though. Your beneficent bard is here to show you exactly what you need to build your very own sweeping cityscape, with every little who, what where, when, why, and how.


When plotting out your city, the first thing you want to look at is where it is. The location you decide to place it in can tell you a lot about the city, its people, and how it operates. For instance, if you have a city built into the side of a mountain, there is a good chance that the largest industry in that city is either mining or stonemasonry. There will probably be a considerable dwarf population, only because words like mountain and stone attract dwarves the same way 5 Guys and fried chicken attract me. As such, the makeup of the city will likely be stone-based. Big stone towers, sturdy stone walls, and stone incorporated into a large amount of the architecture. All because you decided to build into that mountain.

It is also important to consider what else is near the site of your city. If you decide to place it in the middle of a vast grassland you had better make peace with the idea that there is going to be a lot of livestock, grain, and farming, but little in the way of building materials unless there is a convenient rock quarry or forest nearby.

If you take a gander at most real world maps, you will start to notice a couple of things. The largest population centers are usually situated near bodies of water. It makes sense. A clean, fresh water source is essential for survival. Rivers make for good drinking water, fishing, and travel, with lakes providing the same things to a lesser extent. Coastal settlements have the advantage of fishing as well as being in a convenient location to trade routes. Cities with ports usually have merchant vessels arriving and departing on a regular basis, and if it happens to be near a large trade road said merchants may base their operations out of that city.

Convenience is really the key. What makes that geographic location convenient? Is it because it is rich in natural resources or does it provide some natural defenses, like mountain ranges and the like? Is it a holy site that is important to a particular religion? Is it built on the ruins of an even older city? Maybe it just happened to be near a heavily traveled road, and it just builds itself around it out of necessity, relying entirely on travelers for its continued survival. Hell, some cities spring up because larger cities become overpopulated and spill-off needs a place to call home. Once you know why the location you've chosen is convenient you can move on to the next step.

What the hell is your city even for, anyway? A lot of folks have a hard time answering this one. Cities serve a variety of purposes, from being a simple port of call to a well-defended fortress. Your city is no different. To really understand what its purpose is you need to know what goes on there. Is there a lot of trading done? Are things built there or just shipped through? Is there a great deal of culture from long forgotten societies, like ruins and landmarks that beg to be studied by scholars?

Bare in mind, your city does not need to serve a singular purpose. The more reasons for it to be there, the larger it becomes, turning into a necessity rather than a convenience. In those cases a metropolis is often born, a city with a massive population that dabbles in a bit of everything. This opens your city up for a cornucopia of colorful NPCs from various walks of life, as well as the criminal element that comes along with such copious amounts of wealth and plenty.

Towns For Days
A lot of folks build their cities like big towns. Stop that. Don't do that. I'm not saying it's wrong, I am just saying it's not right. Cities are a totally different animal. While they may look like towns on steroids, they don't act in the same way. They are more vibrant. Things are bigger. Stakes are bigger. The major players are bigger. It's all so big it is almost like...

...a region.

Yeah. That. That sounds about right. When designing your city, you need to think on a larger scale. It is not a big town, it's several towns. Each town, or section, is different than the next, offering different services and experiences to your players, and each section has something that it offers the city. There are sections of that deal only with government related issues, which is a town in itself. Another section could be filled with wall to wall merchants. This is another town.

Towns for days!

While all these towns operate within the laws and guidelines set for the city as a whole, each section could be run radically different than another, with varying figureheads calling the shots. Sure, they answer to the large governing body of the city, but when the boss is in bed for the night, who rules barter town?

"Is it Master Blaster? I wanna say Master Blaster."

 "Come for our ancient broken bridge. Stay for the God awful things that live in it."

These are those little towns I was talking about within the city. You can call them districts, boroughs,  precincts, wards, communities or whatever floats your boat. The important thing to take away here is that there is a definitive division between these sections. While everyone born in that city can call that city home, the district in which they are from could have major impacts in how they are treated and how they interact with other people from the city. Folks from Dockside might not like the moneyed merchants of The Rise. The nobles of Hilltop may think that everyone from Lowwall is a criminal, despite being of decent character.

Districts help shape the perceptions and attitudes of the population. They can instill a sense of pride, shame, disgust, and envy depending on where you're from, or where you're going. Every city has certain districts in it, from fantasy cities to their real world equivalents. These particular districts are essential to the makeup of the city, and the believability it brings to the table.

  • Merchant District: Economy is the lifeblood of any city, which would make the Merchant District a big o'le pounding heart. If deals are done and things are bought, it is done so in this district. Sure, every district has its own little shops and what not, but these cannot compare to the monument to commerce that is this district. It is often filled to capacity with merchants from various nations, races, and cultures peddling wares in open markets or bazaars (remember Aladdin?). Those who do well will often rent or buy themselves a fully functioning shop to sell from.

  • Government District: Stuff needs to get done, laws need to be written, judgment over prisoners needs to be passed, and the paperwork... so much paperwork. Thank the Gods there is a district that takes care of all that stuff. Welcome to the Government District, where everyone's favorite politicians do whatever it is politicians do. This is usually an architecturally appealing place, with large buildings dedicated to councils, kings, or whatever the ruling class consists of in your city. Palaces, courthouses, and offices are located here. The grander the city and the more dedicated it is to law and order, the more grandiose the government district becomes. Don't believe me? Just take a look at real life Washington D.C.

  • High-Class District: Rich people need to live somewhere, and odds are it is going to look really nice. But of one rich fella has a nice house/estate in a scenic section of the city, another equally rich person is going to want one too, and right near the first one. Thus, the rich neighborhood is born. This place is usually reserved for wealthy merchants, mid-ranking city officials, guild leaders, and lesser noble houses. As such, it is one of the safest and cleanest places in the city, with extra city resources like maintenance crews and members of the city watch being deployed regularly. Money can buy a lot in a city, up to and including piece of mind.

  • Noble District: But wait a minute. Didn't we just do the High-Class District? Yes, but nobles are not just high-class people. They are something more. Basically, lesser royalty, nobles tend to cluster together, avoiding the day-to-day rabble. They set themselves at a higher level than their high-class constituents, and because they wield considerably more power, this is almost never contested. While the Noble District may be guarded by the city watch, the actual houses are often kept safe by each house's personal guard; elite warriors of unquestioning loyalty. If anyone is foolish enough to trespass on a noble's land, the noble often has free reign to do what they like to the unfortunate intruder without worry of silly things like due process.

  • Middle-Class District: Folks that work hard need a nice place to call home, and that is just what the middle-class district is all about. This is where the mid-level merchants, shopkeepers, and middle-management of the city call home. These are the good, hard working folks that keep the city running. The homes might not be as fancy as those in the upper-crust districts, but they are at the very least comfortable and inviting. Depending on the amount of property of your city, this could be one of the most populated areas. In fact, it could encompass several districts.

  • Low-Class District/Slums: Every city has a bad side of town. Your's should be no different. This is where the poor, the desperate, and the unwanted reside. The dregs of society call this place home, but so do other nefarious elements. Crime is often rampant in these districts, mostly because it is the least policed of any of them. Many unsavory organizations base their operations out of these sections, what with the lack of authoritative presence. Any witnesses that have seen too much won't be missed by the larger portion of society when they "disappear". The slums are also where you will find races that most folks would write off in the first place, like tieflings and half-orcs.

  • Racial District: A city can be like a melting pot, but more often than not is a salad bowl. Races are not very likely to abandon their society and culture just to fit in with the larger social norms. Instead, they congregate in neighborhoods so that they can still engage in the ways of their people. These zones are districts divided up by race. The interesting things about these districts are that they can look and feel radically different from one another. A dwarven district will probably have a good number of smiths and stonemasons, with dwarven architecture and shops that appear to dwarf tastes. An elven district will probably have more vegetation that most other districts, with gardens and serene pools. They will no doubt focus more on art and philosophy, with some of the finest bowyers and fletchers around. These districts have distinct identities that are inspired by the people that live there. Not every race should have its own district, but the major ones in your world should be represented, especially if your players are particularly fond of a certain race.

  • National District: The National Districts are similar to Racial Districts, except instead of people from a particular race congregating in one place, it is a group of people from the same nation. The world is full of various nations, kingdoms, and continents. In large cities, it is not odd for these folks to seek each other out. Sort of a "safety in numbers" type of deal. After all, the city can be a scary place full of folks with strange accents and dialects you don't understand. It is comforting to know that at least a few folks from your homeland are right around the corner. Real life equivalents of this idea would be areas with a Little Italy or Chinatown.

 When plotting out your city, keep in mind what the major districts are, but do not feel compelled to plot out all of your districts at once. Create new districts as the need arises. If they want dwarves and all the glorious things dwarves make, add a dwarven district. If they come in contact with a noble, add a noble district. If they are tracking an assassin with a strange accent, they may want to check one of the national districts. Build it as you go, that way you don't spend excess time prepping things you don't need.


"It truly is a GUILDED age."

If there is a thing to get done in the city, you can bet there is a guild out there that can do it. Even seemingly mundane tasks can require a lot of manpower in a sizable city, and when it comes to wrangling that manpower, few organizations are as effective as a guild. Entry into one of the prestigious groups guarantees some level of job security and a small amount of clout in your chosen profession.

  • Merchant Guild: The movers and shakers. Merchant Guilds can take on many forms. They could govern particular industries such as lumber, textiles, or the import of various materials and goods. Larger guilds could encompass all of these, with smaller divisions governing each of these industries. Merchant Guilds have a lot of money, and therefore a lot of power. If they so chose, they could cease all imports and exports into a city and bleed it dry.

  • Artisan Guild: Things must be made, and the artisans are the ones to do it. Woodworkers, masons, smiths, carpenters, each has an invaluable service that any city requires to keep going. These are working-class guilds with working-class members. Like Merchant Guilds, they could be a series of individual guilds, or band together to comprise a larger blanket guild.

  • Service Guilds: These are more nuanced than the last two entries, but none the less important. These folks provide the city with a service, often one few others want to do. Examples would include a lamplighters' guild (cities have a lot of street lights), a grave diggers' guild (lots of people die), a sewer workers' guild (someone has to deal with the wererat population), and a maintenance guild (keeping that city pristine).

  • Thieves' Guild: The most official unofficial guild on our list. Thieves' Guilds are a staple in any city. Like other guilds, they cover a large amount of noble and time-honored industries, such as smuggling, burglary, pick-pocketing, protection, blackmail, racketeering, gambling, the sale of illicit goods including drugs, weapons, and people, and of course that old chestnut; murder (some thieves like to moonlight as assassins). With deep pockets and lawmakers that line those pockets, thieves' guilds often find themselves a permanent, if not shadow place in most cities.

Guilds serve a purpose for player characters too. They provide much-needed services, potential enemies or allies, and make for excellent patrons. With deep pockets, they are usually able and willing to pay well for errands they send the PCs on.

"Such powder. Much wigs."

 Ah, the upper crust. The folks that just aren't rich, they're powerful too. Nobles usually hail from old families with prominent names that carry a great deal of weight. They make political alliances with other families to secure more power and more money through arranged marriages and other less than savory methods. Nobility offers something to your players that is indispensable; a powerful ally. Nobles can open doors that are otherwise shut to other people, they have nearly endless resources, and they can be an excellent launching point for a story involving court intrigue. Always you have two or three noble houses attempting to sabotage or discredit one another, often through clandestine means.  However, when dealing with these near-royals, it is important to understand that there are two flavors.

  • Old Money Nobility:These guys are all about the name. They often hail from ancient bloodlines that they can trace back to someone noteworthy, They are usually very proper and well versed in the delicate and subtle game of court politics and intrigue. They know the etiquette to the point where it becomes second nature. These guys wield an absurd amount of power and are not prepared to give it up. They make great allies but terrifying enemies.

  • New Money Nobility: These folks are new to the nobility scene. They are perhaps recently raised to the rank of nobility by a powerful house or ruler or are direct relatives of someone who was at least a generation ago or at most two. They are not as well versed as the Old Money in the etiquette or plots of the great game, but  their fresh perspective makes them dangerous for no other reason than they are unpredictable.

"Where you can rest assured that nothing will be getting done."

Cities are big places. Not sure of I've mentioned that yet. They are massive. Absolutely huge, and it takes a lot to keep a place like that under control. That's where the government steps in. The governing body of a city can be as unique and diverse as the city itself. Some are ruled by a singular entity such as a Monarch or Lord, others are ruled by a collection of officials, be they elected or appointed, who see over the day to day running of the city. This would be more akin to a senate, council, or parliament.  Then you have governments run bu religious organizations like a church, by mages, or by a shadow council that uses figureheads as distractions while they pull the strings like invisible puppet masters. As you can see, it can get a little complicated.

The government you create should allow the players enough freedom to act, but still have enough restrictions to keep them from murder hoboing everyone in a 10-mile radius. You don't want to make a city where magic is forbidden when 3/4 of the party consists of spellcasters, though it might be fun to try a mage-run city whee those without magical talent are considered second-class citizens.

Politicians, judges, the city watch, the city guard, and all the prisons fall under the purview of the government.

 "The city health plan now includes arrow removal from knees."

  Religions are important in any campaign. In worlds where the Gods are tangible beings that are constantly meddling in the affairs of mortal races, it kind of has to be. In large cities, there are sure to be a number of different faiths, and so there will no doubt be a cavalcade of temples throughout the city.  But what religions do you allow in?

It stands to reason that any super evil religion based on death, destruction, or conquest is usually a bad idea if the overall alignment of the city is good (which it isn't always). The easy way to decide this is to make temples for each of the major religions that cover good and neutral deities. The bad guys will find ways to worship with secret temples and shrines hidden throughout the city, so don't worry about them. You should also pay close attention to the Gods your player characters follow, especially those of faith-oriented classes like paladins and clerics. Cater to them by making some of the larger temples dedicated to their deities. This will give your players a place to retreat to, get advice, and maybe find an adventure or two. Also, should they have an evil artifact, it is nice to have an in at the church.

Tourist Destinations
 "The smell of progress."

Big markets and seedy slums are fun and all, but there has to be more to a city than just hustle and bustle. There have to be interesting locations to draw in the tourism if the tourists were all adventuring parties and mercenary bands, and the interesting locations were dungeons.

Places to adventure can make or break a city in your world. It gives your players something to do while in or around the city, which in turn keeps them near the city. This is even more important if you are running an urban adventure. Dungeons in a city can take many shapes. They could be a labyrinth of rat-infested sewers, a secret temple to an evil God, a guild house, or even the manor house of a shady noble. Really any large structure can serve as a suitable dungeon.

But if you are looking for something with a more classic feel, you can always plop a dungeon somewhere just outside the city. The city of Waterdeep has Undermountain literally connected to it through a series of secret (and often monster-ridden) tunnels. Ancient tombs, old ruins, mysterious standing stones, anything of the like just adds more flavor to the city, especially if they haven't been plundered yet. Does anyone know they're there? If so, did they survive?

"Looks safe to me."

Enemies Of The City
  "Oh, hi there. We're gonna need you to vacate that city. Thank you kindly."

If you have a bunch of people in one place, you better believe that someone is going to take offense to that. Maybe they were wronged by the city, or maybe the society just won't except their love for eating babies and kicking puppies. Whatever the case may be. you can rest assured that every city has enemies.

These could be rival cities, deadly cults, conniving nobles, sinister criminal organizations, or just a crazy wizard. These guys would like nothing better than to subvert, sabotage, take over, or outright destroy the city and everyone living in it. A lot of times these dastardly plots are stopped in the nick of time by stalwart adventurers (hint, hint).

Enemies of the city can open up fun  and new antagonists for the PCs. These villains might not even have any personal beef with the characters, just a nasty grudge against the city or one of the important officials that help to run the thing. Your players might just find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, literally the only thing standing between the fiendish foe and their fully realized goal.

 How To Actually Use A City

 A city is a fantastic and sweeping location full of diversity and countless plots. It should serve as a major destination for the PCs to either complete a quest, find leads, seek passage to a different land, set up a base of operations, or find goods and services not available in smaller communities. There are literally hundreds of reasons to get your players into one of these massive population centers. So what are you waiting for?


Roll well, my friends
+Ed The Bard 

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