Behind the Screen06/20/2004

Campaign Building 101: Getting Started
(Or, A Froggy Day in "Siv City")

Building a Campaign Story Arc, Part 2

Vince was right, Eddie thought. Creating a story arc around the Lost City of Batul Darab will require a lot of work. Where do I start? How much detail? How closely by-the-book? Should I start with the sivs -- the primary villains? Perhaps I need to nail down the setting first -- the jungle and the swamp where they live. Or maybe organize their servant creatures, or their rivals? I haven't even gotten to the point of figuring out how to get the party there. . . .


During this theme-building workshop series, the usual "Words to the Wise" sidebar will be replaced with examples from Eddie's hypothetical Lost City of Batul Darab campaign. Here is his almost-finalized "siv region."

Automatic Languages: Baraakk

Bonus Languages: Aquan, Common, Draconic, Giant, Goblin, Halfling, Infernal

Favored Deity: Wastri the Hopping Prophet

Preferred Classes: Cleric, monk (racial favored class), ranger, rogue

Regional Feats:You'll have to wait 'til next time!

Bonus Equipment: (A) Masterwork siangham, or (B) 2 tanglefoot bags, potions of cure light wounds, jump, mage armor, and pass without trace

Eddie has suddenly found himself confronted with the greatest challenge of making up something new: Organization! How much of this? How many of that? What sort of format? What do I do first? This column is the second in our Behind the Screen workshop on how to build themes into your campaign. The multi-part series will talk about design principles and considerations as we break down the creative process into manageable parts. We'll also demonstrate how to apply those general theories in a specific campaign through the example of Eddie developing the Lost City of Batul Darab, a lost jungle/swamp city of ancient frog-people called "sivs."

I need to start somewhere, so I guess I'll begin with the main bad guys. They're the focus, so if they don't work, the whole thing is going to be lame.

If you're developing an adventure arc around a theme, that theme has to be good. The details, the surroundings, all of that can fluctuate, but the core of what you're doing has to be solid. Don't get too intimidated by that idea, thinking it has to be perfect. It doesn't. But the stronger your foundation, the better your chance of producing a satisfying story that your players talk about for years afterward.

Identify the primary antagonist(s) your player characters will confront, and start there. In most cases, this means NPCs or creatures (as opposed to something like a battle against nature). In creating the main villains, you could just make up your own new monster type or race, but that can be a lot of work. Eddie has borrowed one that seemed to fit his theme, lifting it from Monsters of Faerûn (with a 3.5 update in the web enhancement to the Player's Guide to Faerûn). This is a classic DM move: Take good ideas where you find them! Still, even if you find a monster that seems about right, you need to add flourishes to make it your own:

"Hmmm . . . sivs live in cold marshes. Well, that's easy to switch for jungle. Maybe I'll swap in electricity for cold resistance. I need to look at magic, domains, gear-- something mysterious, or maybe just strange. What are their favorite weapons? Siangham? Nets. Monk hands! Do they need anything else?

This is a point where you have to structure your thoughts carefully, because there are different tactics you can use to tailor your theme. The standard approach in D&D is that the stuff remains the same; it's the monsters inside who are different. Everyone uses the same weapons, the same armor, the same magic items. What differentiates one warrior in full plate with longsword and shield from the next is that she's human while her opponent is a bugbear or half-troll gargoyle werecrocodile; the gear is all standard-issue.

You could go the other way and make your theme all about the stuff. Say it's a Bronze Age culture, and that's what clearly distinguishes it from regular D&D: the low-tech gear. The population has never seen iron weapons, let alone steel. They don't use swords at all, but quabones and tortoise-shell gougers. But the people under the armor are ultimately no different from the basic PC races. Only their stuff and their culture are unfamiliar -- the creatures themselves are recognizable.

Eddie would like to incorporate both approaches. Armor is not much of an issue; sivs are described as favoring the monk class, and since armor would hinder swimming, climbing trees, and jumping around like a good little frog-monster, Eddie can pretty easily justify skipping armor entirely for them. Shields? Yeah, but probably hide or wood rather than steel. Weapons? They already have a weird selection -- free siangham proficiency, a liking for nets, and monk unarmed attacks.

Arms and armor form the tip of the "stuff" iceberg, and later columns will deal more with magical items and gear tailored for the race. Mundane equipment could prove an area in which to really go crazy -- both in a good way (creatively) and a bad way (needless detail that will drive you nuts trying to track or even describe). You should probably focus only on special items that fit the theme. For example, Eddie's sivs like to use nets, so maybe they like to take prisoners; tanglefoot bags might be a good item for them.

"But what about the real question? How froggy should they be? What kind of frog are we talking about? Tree frog, so they can climb? Poison arrow frog, where their skin is venomous? Big-jumping hoppers? Loud-croaking bullfrogs? Forget their stuff -- what about the creatures themselves?"

Making creatures distinctive means more than just gearing them up and turning them loose. If a monster is central to your campaign, it needs depth and character. A thought-organizer, like a checklist or template, can help ensure you've hit the important points.

One such framework would involve establishing a list of standard choices for skills, feats, languages, and equipment. Instead of being generic monsters or typical NPCs from the Dungeon Master's Guide, the siv warriors of Batul Darab have these stats and items. You could broaden the idea by creating a "character region" as used in the Forgotten Realms, making a systematized guide for creatures from a certain culture that isn't tied directly to class. You set the parameters on what languages are commonly known, what classes are most commonly found, and what the typical religion(s) are like. You can assign or even create some regional feats that represent in game-mechanic terms some of the defining elements of a culture (e.g., trade-skill boosts for a mercantile culture, or proficiency in archetypal weapons or special riding expertise for a horse nomad culture). There are literally hundreds of feats out there in official D&D supplements alone, to say nothing of the gaggle of feats from other companies, private D&D player websites, and your own imagination.

Character regions might also serve as prerequisites for campaign-specific prestige classes. In Greyhawk, you could have trouble becoming a Knight Protector of the Great Kingdom if your home is a thousand leagues away in Ekbir! You might have to come from a particular region to be eligible. A persistent player could wheedle the DM into letting her character get adopted into the right culture as a passport to a desirable prestige class, or perhaps entry could be granted as a reward or favor for great service (or a suitable bribe).

Eddie decides to go with the region idea as a good format, and he starts with a detail that might not seem obviously important at first: language. Sivs are supposed to be "elitist bigots" who live in isolation. As far as Eddie is concerned, there is no reason why typical sivs would know any language but their own. If they are the master race, their language must be the master language, right? Only the adventurous or the scholarly would bother learning the tongues of lesser races. Eddie decides all sivs will speak Baraakk. Common becomes a bonus language choice for high-intelligence sivs, along with the languages of other jungle races. If the PCs want to converse with sivs, they will need to find a leader, scholar, or someone in contact with the world outside Batul Darab, or else they had better have a tongues spell handy. If the PCs choose to kill every froggy they see, because talking is too difficult, that can have its own consequences in the campaign (they will miss important information), but Eddie feels like it is important to maintain the alien flavor of the sivs.

Forgotten Realms regions assume each PC who takes a region gets a choice of bonus equipment worth about 300 gp, usually a favorite masterwork weapon or a collection of exceptional items or one-shot magic toys. Your typical NPC warrior or commoner would not have this equipment. It is for exceptional folks, people with one (or preferably more) PC class levels, over and above regular equipment or money.

Preferred classes are just one way of defining which classes have the most prominent role in a society -- it's not a proscriptive list, but it may indicate who holds the reins of power. You can also use it to represent who receives special advantages in society. In the 3.0 Forgotten RealmsCampaign Setting, PCs who began their careers in a preferred class received a bonus regional feat. PCs who began in other classes were assumed to have a tougher time going against the grain of their society and working in a career where they did not necessarily have a natural inclination; this extra effort ate up the time and training in their pre-adventuring career that might have otherwise gone into picking up that extra feat. The 3.5 Player's Guide to Faerûn erased this rule and also made most of the regional feats more powerful, but limited PCs to choosing only one regional feat (and many only at 1st level) and having to spend a feat slot on it. You could go either way with the region concept. Because regional feats are such a complicated subject, I am going to give them their own column (coming up next!).

For Eddie's sivs, monks and monk/clerics will head a theocratic society, with rogues and rangers patrolling the jungles and marshes nearby, hunting and guarding against intruders. They could also function as secret police, spying on their fellows, ensuring rigorous enforcement of priestly rule, and weeding out seditionists. Arcane magic in siv society is dominated by the priesthood, the center of power. And who is their divine patron? Eddie, nostalgic as he is, grabs another oldie from Greyhawk, Wastri the Hopping Prophet, the croaking demiurge of amphibian perfection! Check in next time to see how Eddie works through the kind of feats -- existing, adapted, and entirely new -- that will help the sivs live out their maniacal amphibiocentrism!

About the Author

Jason Nelson lives in Seattle with his wife (Judy), daughter (Meshia), son (Allen), and dog (Bear). He is a part-time homemaker, part-time medical transcriptionist, part-time Ph.D. candidate in social & cultural foundations of education, and is an active and committed born-again Christian. He began playing D&D in 1981 and currently runs one campaign while playing in two others.

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